Unspunnen celebrates 200 years of tradition

The first Unspunnen festival took place in 1805.

Alpine wrestlers, stone throwers, yodellers and Swiss in traditional costume will belatedly enjoy the Unspunnen Festival in the Bernese Oberland this weekend.

This content was published on September 1, 2006 - 07:50

The Swiss Traditional Costume and Alpine Herdsmen Festival should have celebrated its 200th jubilee last year but storms and flooding forced the organisers to postpone the event.

The three-day giant festival, which attracts participants from all over Switzerland, is a celebration of Swiss folklore offering everything that the Swiss cherish from the past and wish to preserve for future generations.

The event, which is held near the resort of Interlaken, first took place in 1805 and is being held only for the ninth time.

After festivals in 1805 and 1808, Unspunnen came to a halt because the aim of trying to reconcile town and country people was not achieved.

The festival was revived in 1905 but only really got off the ground after the Second World War.

Organisers are now hoping that after last year's disappointment, this year will prove a success.

"Now more than ever" is the motto of the organisers according to their president Ueli Bettler.

National customs

"For three days Interlaken will be the centre of Swiss tradition which over the past 200 years has maintained, renewed and continued our national customs."

It's thanks to this tradition that there is much enthusiasm for folkloric customs in Switzerland, he added.

Three or four aristocrats are believed to have organised the first Unspunnen festival in 1805.

According to a document from the time, "the only purpose is to revive the simple traditions and pleasures of our forefathers and retain these amongst us, creating new bonds of friendship between the different herdsmen of Helvetia, especially between countryside and city dwellers".

"It is also meant to regenerate reciprocal friendship and goodwill, as well as to create a feeling of harmonious unity, which our fatherland had prided itself upon in earlier days and which had given it power, happiness and dignity for many centuries."


The reality is that the first Unspunnen event was organised by the Bernese aristocrats to try to integrate the people from the Oberland better into the canton.

The country dwellers had rebelled because they felt underrepresented in the cantonal parliament. In 1803 people from the city of Bern held 125 of the 195 seats and only a few well-to-do people from the country could even take part in elections.

Organisers of the Unspunnen festival skilfully hid their political aims, and the event with its singing and alphorn blowing received much media coverage.

While the festival gave a huge boost to tourism in the Bernese Oberland, the political goal was not achieved, with many local inhabitants revolting against the government of Bern.

This led to parts of the Oberland being placed under the military control of the people of Grindelwald, who were loyal to Bern. The time was therefore not ripe for further Unspunnen events.

It was only 100 years later in 1905 that the third Unspunnen festival took place, with the rift between town and country more or less closed.

The real resurrection came in 1946 with the advent of the Swiss Traditional Costume and Alpine Herdsmen Festival. Since then, the Unspunnen festival has taken place about once every ten years.

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud

Key facts

Unspunnen festival 2006: September 1-3 in Interlaken
4,000 active participants
50,000 guests expected
1,500 helpers
Budget: SFr2 million ($1.62 million)

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The Unspunnen stone

Stone throwing is one of the great attractions and traditions of the festival and the stone itself has had a turbulent history.

People from Appenzell brought the first stone to the festival in 1805. It weighed 184 pounds but disappeared after the event and was never found again.

The second stone was made for the 1905 festival and weighed slightly less at 167 pounds.

In 1984 the stone was stolen from the tourism museum in Interlaken by Jura separatists who wanted a complete separation from canton Bern. As a result a duplicate was made.

In August 2001 the stolen Unspunnen stone was handed over to Shawne Fielding-Borer, wife of a Swiss diplomat. It was identified as genuine.

Jura separatists stole the stone again in August 2005 when it was on show at the Victoria Jungfrau hotel in Interlaken. The duplicate was therefore used at this year's event.

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