Each year at the start of December, Christmas markets around Europe may begin to pop up offering patrons the opportunity to purchase trinket gifts, drink mulled wine and get into the spirit of the season. The city streets of the United Kingdom and Europe begin to gleam and glitter as the light displays are switched on for the month of December. At the same time in a small town in Switzerland, the festive season kicks off in a more unusual fashion.
In the town of Küssnacht near the picturesque Lake Lucerne, villagers annually participate in a festive occasion known as Klausjagen, or ‘Chasing the Claus’. This unique Swiss festival is based on an ancient pagan tradition, where villagers use booming instruments such as cowbells to alert any spirits. Overtime, the festival became associated with Christian beliefs and evolved into possibly one of the most unique Christmas traditions, which may be still practiced today.
On the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, spectators gather in the town centre of Küssnacht to watch the Klausjagen procession begin. Whip crackers and horn blowers take to the streets to noisily announce the arrival of the procession and cowbells begin to ring. A glowing parade of around 200 transparent bishops’ mitres follows, all hand-made and lit by candles. The lights are called iffele and the mitre seems intricately designed to look like a cathedral window. As the star of the show, Santa Claus makes his appearance behind the procession and is followed by a brass band.
In Switzerland, many of the winter customs revolve around spirits and are usually connected to ancient religious traditions. Whip cracking is used in Switzerland for more than the Klausjagen celebration, as the Swiss regularly hold competitions specifically for whip cracking enthusiasts in the town of Schwyz. Noise making processions may be found in other parts of Switzerland, such as the blowing of the alphorn during the Swiss Yodeling Festival. In Zurich, the winter ends with the ringing of the six o’clock bells during the traditional ‘Sechselauten’ which usually falls on the third Sunday or Monday in April. Like the Klausjagen, this involves a nighttime procession of ringing bells and the sounds of horns blowing.
During winter season, Switzerland may offer the ideal conditions as a winter tourism destination due to its snowy landscape and authentic Swiss lodge style resorts. Many resorts offer the chance to go skiing or snowboarding, as well as hiking and cycling activities. For those who might like to go off the beaten track, tourists may choose to stay overnight in an ancient Swiss monastery or a Mongol yurt deep in the mountains. Switzerland plays host to a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which may be of interest to those who enjoy the outdoors or take pleasure in learning about history. These include the Castles of Bellinzona and the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch.
At this time of year in Switzerland visitors may expect many Christmas related events, such as the Musical Advent Calendar in the Zurich Opera House. This event occurs everyday throughout the Advent period for all to enjoy for free. For 15 minutes every day, musicians from the Philharmonia Zurich fill the opera house with the sounds of well-known musical pieces. Other activities in Switzerland during this time include gift-hunting activities for children and the opportunity to visit Santa Claus on the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Besides the booming Klausjagen celebrations, Switzerland has a variety of traditions to keep all entertained. From loud processions and strolling brass bands to winter markets and musical delights, there may be something for all tourists to enjoy over the winter season.
Where else in the world may participate in unique Christmas traditions?