Winter festivals and customs

Switzerland has a host of traditional winter festivals. One of the reasons why more festivals are held at this time of year is because winter tends to be a relatively quiet time for the farming community.

People wearing masks at the Basel Fasnacht procession
Parade during the carnival in Basel © FDFA, Presence Switzerland

St Nicholas

On 6 December many cantons celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas (or “Sammichlaus”, as he is known in German-speaking Switzerland), the patron saint of children. He rewards well-behaved children with biscuits, nuts, chocolates and clementines, while the badly behaved have to contend with his black-clad, whip-brandishing companion, “Schmutzli”.

Escalade

Each year, the canton of Geneva commemorates its victory over the soldiers of the Catholic Duke of Savoy in 1602. Held on the weekend closest to the 12 December, the “Escalade” includes costumed parades, official speeches and various processions.

Advent and Christmas

Advent is the period beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve. Traditionally, children open a window on their Advent calendar every day to reveal a picture, a little chocolate or some other sweet treat. Another important Christmas tradition in Switzerland is the Advent crown, which has four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent.

People flock to the impressive array of festivals and traditional celebrations – concerts, carol singing, Christmas markets and church services. Generally, children open their Christmas presents on the evening of Christmas Eve (24 December) or on the morning of 25 December.

Carnival

Carnival heralds the end of winter and is celebrated almost everywhere in Switzerland, though the date varies from region to region. The largest and best-known carnivals are in Basel and Lucerne. Revellers relive pagan and Christian myths, wearing demonic-looking masks to chase away evil spirits, as they parade through the streets, often accompanied by live music.

Other festivals

Many other winter festivals are held up and down the country. For example, the village of Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland is the setting for the “Trychle”. Between 26 December and 31 December, local men with large cowbells strapped to their chest (“Trychler”) roam around the village in a rambunctious procession. Between 3 February and Ash Wednesday, the men of the Lötschental in the canton of Valais are transformed into “Tschäggättä”, scary-looking carnival figures, with frightening wooden masks and animals pelts, who roam through the villages of the Lötschen valley.

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