Celebrating the Confederation, the End of Winter, and More
At a Glance:
- There are only four public holidays in Switzerland that are celebrated by all 26 cantons.
- The biggest carnival celebration takes place in Basel with around 15,000 masked participants.
- Zurich celebrates its traditions twice a year: at the Sechseläuten festival in spring and the Knabenschiessen festival in fall.
In Switzerland, the 26 cantons can set their public holidays themselves, with the exception of the National Day on 1 August. Further, Christmas Day (25 December), New Year’s Day (1 January), and Ascension are public holidays in every canton. Nonetheless, the total number of non-working days can vary greatly in the different cantons. A person from Chur in the canton of Grisons, for example, only has eight additional days off from work while a person from Schwyz enjoys an additional 17 days off of work.
Celebrating the Swiss Confederation: What the “Rütlischwur” Is All About
Since 1891, the Swiss celebrate their National Day on the first of August. On this day, Switzerland commemorates the signing of the Federal Charter by the three founder cantons Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. In the Federal Charter, they pledged each other mutual help against impending threats. It is said that at the beginning of August in 1291, the representatives of the three cantons met on the Rütli meadow, above Lake Lucerne, where they promised to free their land from the Habsburgs. This act is nowadays also known as the Rütlischwur (Rütli vow).
The official celebrations still take place on the Rütli meadow where the President of the Confederation gives a speech to the nation. And he is not the only one: politicians of all levels give speeches on this day at local celebrations. Throughout the day, people meet up for a barbecue where they traditionally grill Cervelats — the Swiss national sausage that can be eaten hot or cold. And as darkness sets in, bonfires and firecrackers are lit. In some towns there might also be a small parade where children walk through the streets with paper lanterns decorated with the Swiss cross. The bigger cities have fireworks and light displays, such as in Schaffhausen, where Europe’s biggest waterfalls are colorfully illuminated every year.
How the Swiss Celebrate Religious Holidays
Switzerland is a mainly Christian country with around two-thirds of the population being either Catholic or Protestant. And even though the number of people without any religious affiliations has been rapidly increasing over the years, most of Switzerland’s public holidays are of religious nature and some of them are still marked by traditions.
A Swiss Christmas
Christmas in Switzerland is not very different from the celebrations in other Western European countries. Christmas season starts with lighting the first candle on the first Advent — the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve. Most Swiss people have an Advent wreath at home, an evergreen wreath with four candles representing the four weeks of Advent. Further, there are many Christmas markets all over the country such as the popular Christmas market in Montreux, with its stunning views of the snow-covered Alps. The Swiss celebrate Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.
There is no particularly traditional Christmas dinner in Switzerland, and what is put on the table on Christmas Eve varies from region to region. Nonetheless, Fondue and Raclette, two of Switzerland’s national dishes, are very popular, as well as the meaty versions of Fondue: Fondue Bourguignonne or Fondue Chinoise, a hot oil or hot broth fondue respectively. And don’t forget the Christmas cookies: gingerbread, Brunsli (Swiss brownies, but not as gooey as the American variety), and Mailänderli (Swiss shortbread) are the most popular.
A King for a Day
Even though Epiphany is not a public holiday in every canton, you will still encounter the Dreikönigskuchen (“three king’s cake”) throughout the country. The yeast-based cake is usually served for breakfast in families or amongst co-workers. A plastic king is hidden inside the cake and the person who gets the piece with the figure in it is the king for the rest of the day. Some families still bake their own cake, but you can also buy it ready-made at the bakery. Every year, around 1.5 million cakes are sold — in a single day!
Of Rabbits and Eggs
Nowadays, Easter has become a highly commercialized holiday and chocolate rabbits and eggs can already be found in the stores shortly after Christmas. Nonetheless, there are still some traditions that have survived. One such example are the weeping women — les pleureuses — in Romont in the canton of Fribourg. Dressed all in black, they process around the church on Good Friday to commemorate the Crucifixion of Jesus.
On Easter Sunday, all the children go on a hunt for the colorfully decorated eggs that the “Easter rabbit” has hid in their gardens. Not only the colorful eggs are hidden, but also chocolate rabbits and sugar eggs. Another popular tradition is Eiertütschen (“egg smashing”), where you smash two of the hard-boiled eggs against each other. The one whose egg breaks first has to give theirs to the winner.
Other religious holidays that are celebrated by at least some of the cantons include St. Berchtold, St. Joseph’s Day, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, Assumption, and All Saints Day.
Switzerland’s Carnival Traditions
The Swiss Carnival is called Fasnacht, and as many things in Switzerland, it differs from region to region. In some cities like Basel and Lucerne, carnival is hugely celebrated while in others, it’s not even a thing. The biggest carnival celebrations are in Basel. The so-called Morgestraich, the beginning of the carnival, is on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. When the clock strikes four in the morning, the drummers and fifers march through the dark city center with head lamps on, playing carnival music. The Basel carnival lasts exactly 72 hours and this time is often referred to as die drey scheenste Dääg (“the three most beautiful days”).
Zurich and Its Traditional Festivals
The biggest city in Switzerland, Zurich, celebrates two traditional festivals: Sechseläuten in spring and Knabenschiessen in fall. The spring festival Sechseläuten is celebrated on the third Monday in April. A procession through the streets by Zurich’s guilds ends in setting fire to the so-called Böögg — a huge snowman figure symbolizing winter. The sooner the snowman’s head explodes, the warmer and sunnier the summer. A drawn-out burning predicts a cold and rainy summer. In 2016, it took 43 minutes and 34 seconds until the head exploded — the longest it had ever taken up until then. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a good summer.
Knabenschiessen is another of Zurich’s traditional festivals held on the second weekend of September each year. Dating back to the 17th century, it is one of the oldest festivals in Switzerland. Knabenschiessen is a traditional target shooting competition where boys from the canton of Zurich between the ages of 13 and 17 compete for the title of Schützenkönig. Since 1991, the competition is also open to girls. The festival takes place at Albisgütli in the southwest of the city from Saturday to Monday. Besides the target shooting competition, there is also a huge fair.
We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete