In Switzerland, traditions are cherished. Traditional fairs, festivals, and games are held throughout the year to celebrate numerous Swiss customs, offering the perfect opportunity for expats to feel a bit more local.
Switzerland is far richer in culture and traditions than the typical chocolate, cheese and luxury watches that tourists love. To truly feel at home in a country, expats often try to immerse themselves in the culture of their new country – and there is no better way than getting to know Swiss tradition… and participating!
Learn the significance of bears in Bern
Most tourists know to check out the bear park in the eastern part of Bern, but not many know why or how the bear came to be a symbol of the city. Swiss legend says that Berchtold V, duke of Zahringen, named the city of Bern after the first animal he successfully hunted in the forest in the 12th century; the first bear pit was constructed in the 15th century. Now, the Swiss celebrate the revered bear with carnivals, festivals and bear motifs throughout the city. To fully appreciate the bears of Bern—and to make sure you don’t miss out on learning the legends—take a tour of the city led by a local.
L’Escalade festival in Geneva
Each year, the citizens of Geneva celebrate their victory against an attack by the Duke of Savoy and his soldiers on a cold, dark night in 1602 with a rousing festival filled with food, drink and period costume that takes place the weekend on or before 11 December. Swiss children dress up and go door to door singing the Escalade song—now an anthem of Geneva—and smash chocolate pots filled with sweets, a nod to the legendary Dame Royaume, who is said to have tipped a pot of hot vegetable soup on one of the attackers.
Betruf prayer calls in central Switzerland
When in the mountains of central Switzerland, listen carefully: you may just hear a song. A traditional prayer, the Betruf is recited at sunset during the summertime by shepherds and herders. After climbing to a high elevation, they either cup their hands around their mouth or use a milk funnel and recite the prayer, which asks for protection from storms, predators, thieves and even malevolent spirits for all living creatures on the Swiss pastures.
Zibelemärit, the onion market in Bern
Markets are popular everywhere in Europe, but there is none other like the Onion Market in Bern, where the highlighted product of the day is, of course, the onion. Held on the fourth Monday of every November, Zibelemärit opens early—at 5 a.m.—with stalls filled with braided onions, tarts and soup, as well as other onion-themed wares.
The sport of Hornussen
Play a game of Hornussen to feel like a true resident of Switzerland. The game, often described as a combination of golf and baseball and said to have originated with Swiss farmers, comprises two teams and a disk called the Nouss, which is launched into the opposing team’s end of the field; the opponents must catch or at least hit the Nouss.
Schwingen, the sport of Swiss wrestling
Along with Hornussen, Schwingen is one of the national sports of Switzerland. Schwingen—which means “to swing” in German—most likely originated in medieval Switzerland, and has become one of the most treasured Swiss customs. Two men (or, increasingly, women) wearing traditional belted leather shorts enter a sawdust-covered ring and wrestle until one has pinned the other to the ground. One of the most famous Schwingen festival is the Eidgenössisches Schwing- und Älplerfest, held just every three years.
Jass, a card game throughout Switzerland
You won’t go far in Switzerland without seeing someone whip out a deck of cards and start playing Jass. A card game that most likely originated in the 18th century, Jass has become the go-to card game at pubs and friendly gatherings; for a more professional environment, there are dozens of leagues and championships to join.
Älplerchilbi and Sennenchilbi, fairs in central Switzerland
The end of the summer season and the harvest is celebrated with alpine fairs, mainly held in the cantons of Obwalden and Nidwalden. Besides produce and other prepared foods, the festival features live sketches performed in the centre of town. These festivals evolved into the “herdsmen’s fairs”, or Sennenchilbi, which put more of an emphasis on the traditional way of alpine life.
Sechseläuten spring festival in Zurich
Zurich’s annual spring festival always goes off with a bang—literally. One of the highlights of this festival, usually held the third Monday in April, is the Böögg, a large snowman figure packed with explosives that is ceremoniously lit on fire. Like many Swiss traditions, this festival dates back to medieval times when work was prohibited after 6 p.m. (hence the name of the festival, which roughly translates to “the six o’clock ringing of the bells”), but it now marks the beginning of spring.
Alpine processions in Appenzell and Toggenburg
Perhaps the most Swiss sight of them all, the Alpine processions in Appenzell and Toggenburg epitomise tradition in Switzerland. From May, a very precise procession begins in the early morning hours to lead the cattle to the alpine pastures. Appenzeller goats lead the way, minded by children in traditional dress. Milk cows, heifers, calves and a steer follow—along with the all-important trio of cows wearing bells, providing background music for yodelling herdsmen—followed by a horse-drawn wagon. The cattle owner, joined by his trusty Appenzeller mountain dog, is last.