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Christmas and New Year, Swiss style

Evil spirits head for the Swiss hills between Christmas and New Year. Laupen Association

Age-old Christmas and New Year's customs are alive in well in many towns and villages across Switzerland.

This content was published on December 19, 2001 - 12:30

People in the village of Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland take to the streets on December 25 dressed in costumes meant to frighten away evil spirits.

The characters are part of a pagan ritual - repeated on January 1 - called "Pelzmartiga".

Child eater

Some of the figures wear fur (pelz = fur) and frightening masks, and wander through Kandersteg rattling chains and ringing bells. There are wild beasts, "rag men" and even a "child eater".

They are reminders of the natural dangers, disease and poverty which once plagued the village.

There are similar events, called "Tricheln", held between Christmas and New Year in the towns and villages at the eastern end of Lake Brienz. Town folk use bells and drums to scare away the forces of darkness.

The events culminate on December 28 in the "Uebersitz" when people from the whole region bring their noisemakers to Meiringen and march through the streets to chase away any demons still lurking about.

And in the western Bernese town of Laupen, the tradition is known as "Achetringele", or bell-ringers. A group of schoolboys descend on the old town from the castle swinging and rattling large bells.

Onlookers beaten

Other boys carrying homemade brooms and pigs' bladders accompany them. After farewell speeches are made to see out the old year, they beat onlookers until their brooms and bladders are in tatters.

Things don't quite get so out of hand in Wil in the eastern canton of St Gallen. Many people in the town hang oil or candlelit lanterns outside their homes on New Year's Eve.

Shortly after dusk, hundreds of children proceed through the town carrying their own handmade lanterns, singing hymns. The tradition was originally known as the "inspection of the lanterns", when a committee went door to door to ensure compliance with a regulation on emergency lighting.

In Scuol in the Lower Engadine, villagers take part in the custom known as "Glümeras". They put homemade candles in pieces of bark or walnut shells, and let them float in the village fountains.

The origin of the tradition has long been forgotten, but it's believed to be closely tied to pagan rituals marking the winter solstice.

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