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Why Switzerland celebrates its national day on August 1st

Why Switzerland celebrates its national day on August 1st
The Rütli meadow above Lake Lucerne is considered the birth place of the Swiss nation. Photo: AFP
People across Switzerland get busy brunching, lunching and setting off fireworks when the country celebrates its national day. But why is it held on August 1st and what does it commemorate? Here’s what you need to know.

The August 1st date marks what is nowadays viewed as the very beginning of the Swiss confederation way back in 1291.

In early August of that year – the exact date is not known, and even the year is disputed by some – the people of what are now the Swiss cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden banded together to ensure their autonomy in the face of threats from foreign powers after the death of Emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg.

These three cantons signed up to the Federal Charter (or ‘Letter of Alliance’) which saw them promise to “assist each other by every means possible against one and all who may inflict on them violence or injustice within their valleys and without”.

Swiss National Day fireworks in Cully, on Lake Geneva, in 2018. Photo: AFP

Rejection of foreign influence

In the charter (here in English), the three communities joined to reject “foreign judges” and spelled out the rules for civil and criminal disputes.

Over the following centuries, these three original cantons were joined by others to eventually become the modern Swiss confederation of 26 cantons we know today.

But while the Federal Charter is now associated in the Swiss imagination with the birth of the nation, it is actually just one of a number of key alliance documents that helped forge the fluid world of the Old Swiss Confederacy – the forerunner of the modern Swiss state.

READ ALSO: Swiss National Day: 20 key dates in Swiss history

In fact, the 1291 charter, which was written in Latin, only took its place as the founding document of Switzerland at the end of the 1800s as part of a national building exercise.

A nation-building exercise

According to the Swiss government, the Federal Council at the time wanted to link the modern Swiss confederation, which was formed by the constitution of 1848, with the Old Swiss Confederacy.

This confederacy was seen to have its origins in the deep valleys of central Switzerland.

The charter has also become also closely linked to the legend of the so-called Rütli Oath in which the independent and “freedom-loving” communities of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden are said to have sworn allegiance to each other on the Rütli meadow above Lake Lucerne in 1307.

A detail of a painting of the Rütli Oath in the Stauffacherkapelle in Steinen, Schwyz. Photo: Andreas Faessler 

Official (but low-key) Swiss National Day celebrations are now held on the Rütli meadow every August 1st.

This use of history to help create the modern Swiss nation mirrored development across Europe as new nation states drew on deep national myths in a bid to gain legitimacy.

In 1891, celebrations were held in Switzerland to mark 600 years since the Federal Charter and in 1899, August 1st became the Swiss National Day – although it didn’t become an official national public holiday until 1994.

‘Far from revolutionary’

The Swiss government notes that the Federal Charter grew in importance in the 1930s as the country was faced with the Nazi threat in Germany.

But the government recognizes that the document was far from being a “revolutionary act of self-determination by the peasantry”. Instead, it was about protecting the status quo and the position of the local elites in the face of external pressure.

Regardless of its historical importance or its revolutionary nature, the charter and the Rütli Oath now have huge symbolic value in a country that is still fiercely independent.

READ ALSO: Swiss National Day – five traditions expats should try

So why was August 1 chosen?

It seems that declaring August 1st as the national day was not a natural choice and, according to some sources, not even historically accurate.

For instance, according to a document from the Middle Ages called “Chronicon Helveticum”, the Rütli oath was actually dated November 8th, 1307.

A report in Blick, which was based on historical research, mentions that Bern celebrated the 700th anniversary of its own municipality in 1889, so the Federal Council decided to “invent” a national holiday that would apply to all cities and all cantons.

Based on its understanding that “the Swiss Confederation was born with the perpetual pact established by the peoples of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden on August 1, 1291”, the government chose that date.

However, in doing so, “he Federal Council “ignored the fact that it was a simple treaty between three partners, and not a case of an eternal alliance”, Blick noted.

“Even the Rütli Oath was teleported from 1307 to 1291, without anyone batting an eyelid”.

So now you know.


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