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TRADITIONS

Everything you need to know about Switzerland’s strangest sports

As a quarter of a million people prepare to visit the Fédérale, or Eidgenössische this weekend, The Local takes a closer look at the unique Swiss sports that are the highlight of the festival.

Everything you need to know about Switzerland’s strangest sports
Swiss wrestling is the main event at the Eidgenössische. Photo: Ulrich Ackermann/Swiss Tourism

Billed as Switzerland’s largest sporting event, the Eidgenössische is held once every three years as a national celebration of rural traditions and alpine sports.

This year’s festival, held in Estavayer-le-Lac, in the canton of Fribourg, will welcome 50,000 spectators a day to its arena from Friday to Sunday, and many more to its grounds, to watch competitors battle it out in the country’s much-loved sporting traditions.

Here’s our guide to the fantastic folk traditions visitors will see in action.

Swiss wrestling


Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Dating back to the 13th century, schwingen or lutte suisse remains an integral part of festivals all over Switzerland today. Wrestlers face off against each other in a circle of sawdust and use particular set throws and grips to chuck each other on the ground. Each wears wrestling shorts over a pair of trousers that form a handle for his opponent to grip.

The winner is the wrestler who succeeds in throwing his opponent flat on his back on the ground. Being a highly respectful contest, he must then wipe the sawdust from the shoulders of the loser. At the Eidgenössische, the overall winner will then be presented with his prize – a 900kg bull named Mazot de Cremo.

Hornussen


Photo:ET Studhalter/Swiss Image

Thought to have originated in the Emmental region in the 17th century, this traditional Swiss sport is seen as a cross between cricket and golf. Like cricket, players are split into two teams, with one team batting and one fielding.

However the batsman hits the puck – called a nouss – with a sort of elastic golf club, propelling it down the field, which is around 180m long and 8-14m wide.

The defending team must then attempt to intercept the nouss with giant paddles called ‘schindel’ by holding them up high or throwing them into the air at the nouss.

Points are given for how far the batsman hits the nouss down the field, and taken away from fielders if they fail to intercept it. The team that has the most points after each has batted and fielded, wins.  

Hornussen is traditionally played in Bern, Solothurn and Aargau, and there are around 200 clubs in the country.

See how it's played here:

Stone throwing

Another Swiss alpine tradition that’s been around for centuries, stone-throwing is like shot put but uses real stones of various weights. The sport is central to the much-loved Unspunnen folk festival held in Interlaken every 12 years or so.

Such is its symbolic significance that in 1984 a Jura separatist group, making a protest, stole a famous 83.5kg stone used in the festival as far back as 1905. The stone reappeared in 2001 and then was stolen again by an unknown perpetrator in 2005 and hasn’t been seen since.

A stone of equivalent weight to the original Unspunnen will be part of the competition at Eidgenössische, while competitors in other categories will throw less weighty stones of 20kg and 40kg, with or without run up.


Photo: Andy Mettler/Swiss Image

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CHRISTMAS

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange squad

The final instalment in our series on bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions, we go through Santa’s companions.

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange squad
Image: JOHN D MCHUGH / AFP

These days, Santa Claus has a relatively ubiquitous appearance all over the world in any place that celebrates Christmas (and a few that don’t). 

In Switzerland however, not only does Santa – known in Swiss German as Samichlaus – have a few important differences – but so does the crew he likes to run with.

From eschewing donkeys for reindeer to keeping company with a friend who in the coming years is likely to come under a little more scrutiny, Santa’s Swiss Squad in one of the most unique aspects of celebrating Christmas in Switzerland. 

How to celebrate Christmas like the Swiss

Donkeys, ponies, llamas – and occasionally motorbikes

Most of us from the Anglo world have grown up with a jolly fat man in a red suit who traverses the globe through the air thanks to a team of well-lit reindeer. 

Keeping things a little more simple and not wanting to play in any reindeer games, not only does Swiss Santa prefer to travel on the back of a less glamorous type of animal – but he’s got to keep his weight in check as well. 

Never one to let the occasion get to them, Swiss animal protection law is also in force at Christmas time – so much so that there’s a weight restriction on anyone wanting to ride a donkey.

If Santa’s down season has been a little too festive and he tips the scales at more than 90 kilos, Swiss law states he’s going to have to walk instead.

Given that most donkeys do not live at the North Pole but are instead rented out from hire companies for around 70 francs per hour, these rules are strictly enforced. 

In some parts of the country, Santa will enter on the back of a pony or a llama, although in both cases we assume an even tougher weight restriction 

Too fat to ride come December? Never fear – fortunately for the Santas of Basel, who ride into town on a Harley with a sack full of goodies, there are no such weight restrictions. 

Schmutzli

At this stage, we probably need to talk about Schmutzli, also known as Père Fouettard in the French-speaking areas. 

Schmutzli, Santa’s sidekick, is a feature across much of Switzerland – although his appearance differs significantly depending on where he appears. 

In his best incarnation, Schmutzli is a lovable grump with a disheveled and grubby appearance – his Swiss German name translates loosely to ‘dirty’ or ‘little dirty guy’ – who plays bad cop to Santa’s good cop, giving twigs to expectant kids and telling them to up their game.

Santa on the other hand gives out toys, fruits and snacks, leaving no doubt as to who the real hero is. 

Schmutzil also used to carry a whip and an empty sack to steal naughty children, taking them back to a forced labour camp in the Black Forest until they learned to behave. While that appears to have gone out of fashion recently, some put the law abiding nature of the Swiss down to an existential fear of Schmutzli-related consequences. 

In his worst incarnation in some of the more conservative and rural areas of the country, Schmutzli is not just grubby but may appear in pure blackface – something not too dissimilar from Holland’s Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). 

While the Swiss incarnation has generated less controversy perhaps because of his backstory. The Dutch version wears blackface, earrings and oversized red lips because he is a person of Spanish/North African origin whereas the Swiss version’s blackface is down to being ‘dirty’. 

In recent years however, Schmutzli has become less popular in larger towns and cities in the country, primarily because of the similar optics to blackface traditions in Holland and elsewhere. 

Whether Schmutzli will go the way of forced labour camps for naughty kids remains to be seen, but it’s doubtful that Swiss Santa will be swapping his donkeys for reindeer any time soon. 

Swiss Christmas Traditions

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange Swiss squad

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #2: The Harley riding Santas of Basel

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #3: Get drunk on cake, but don’t “make it vomit”

Bizarre Swiss Christmas Traditions #4: Lake Lucerne’s Santa Hunt

Bizarre Swiss Christmas Traditions #5: Edible gingerbread trees

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions: #6 Geneva's 'Coupe de Noël'

 

 

 

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