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SWISS TRADITIONS

REVEALED: Seven Swiss ‘living traditions’ that may surprise you

Switzerland is rich in regional folklore and traditions, but there are also some old customs that most people have probably never heard about. These are some of them.

REVEALED: Seven Swiss ‘living traditions’ that may surprise you
Alphorn playing is one of 199 living Swiss traditions. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The Federal Office of Culture (FOC) recently updated its 10-year-old “List of living traditions in Switzerland”, and asked the population to contribute to it.

‘Living traditions’ are those that have transcended centuries and are still practiced in various Swiss regions today.

“The list currently includes 199 important forms of intangible cultural heritage. The focus in this update will be on the contribution of living traditions to sustainable development”, FOC announced.

Among events already on the list are old and mostly familiar customs such as Alpine pasture season, cow fighting, yodelling, alphorn playing, and Basel Fasnacht, to name just a few.

But the list also contains more unusual entries that few people outside the regions where they are practiced know about.

These are some of them:

Limping messenger (Vaud)

Despite its curious title, these days this tradition has little to do with a limping delivery person, though this might have been the case in 1701, when Switzerland’s oldest almanac was created.

Then, as now, this annual handbook “continues to provide residents of French-speaking Switzerland with an unusual calendar combining horoscopes with key farming dates, regional fairs and markets”, the FOC said.

“It contains a wealth of information including lists of elected officials, postage charges and countries and territories of the world, as well as a varied mix of anecdotes and reports ranging from the serious to the light-hearted”.

Farming dates like harvest time are included in Vaud’s almanac. Image by Kim Loan Nguyen thi from Pixabay

Bikers’ meeting in Hauenstein (Solothurn)

It is not exactly an “ancient” tradition, as it began in 1968, but it is nevertheless on FOC’s list.

“Every Thursday from March to October, several hundred motorbike enthusiasts meet at the ‘Isebähnli’ restaurant in Trimbach near Olten. Over a bratwurst and a cola (beer is rarely ordered), the enthusiasts watch the bikers come and go, chat about bikes and generally have a good time”. 

FOC added that “an explosion in the popularity of biking attracted a wave of new visitors to the meeting, a trend which continues to this day”.

Yes, this really is a “living tradition” in Switzerland. Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP

READ MORE: Verdict: This ‘unwritten rule’ should become law in Switzerland

Number 11 (Solothurn)

The number 11 and its multiples hold a special meaning for residents of this northwestern city.

Why?

“There are numerous historical references to the number 11″, according to FOC.

“Between 1344 and 1532, the canton was divided into 11 protectorates. The city’s landmark building, the 18th-century St. Ursen cathedral, was equipped with 11 altars, a 66-metre high steeple and a stairway with 33 steps” — the latter two being multiples of 11.

Roof covering and repairs (Ticino)

Stone roofs in Lugano’s Sopraceneri region are a typical feature of local architecture.

“The heavy tiles, generally known as ‘piode’, differ in size and thickness. Craftsmen cover and repair these roofs by hand”.

There is a special technique involved in this highly skilled craft, FOC says: “The stone tiles are broken into shape with a hammer and laid on the sturdy roof beams without any fastening. Each one is different, so the roofer must always decide which steps must be taken and which kind of stone is most suitable”.

READ MORE: Ten brilliant Swiss traditions to experience this autumn

Secret (Jura)

An ancient practice that can be traced to Christian antiquity, the Secret is a gift of healing through prayer, used to cure or relief a wide range of ailments and injuries such as burns, ulcers, warts, angina and headaches, on humans and animals alike.

“It is special because it does not require any form of manipulation or any direct physical contact with the patient”.

This tradition, also practiced in Fribourg, Valais, Appenzell and in central Switzerland, is actually quite mainstream: according to FOC, “Swiss hospitals and care homes often have lists of phone numbers for practitioners, stating which complaints each one can treat “.

This person has got a Secret. Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels

Tale of a poacher (Nidwalden)

“In 1899, a poacher from Nidwalden shot dead two gamekeepers in a no-hunting zone. They had caught him red-handed with several poached chamois”. FOC relates.

The murderer fled abroad and disappeared, so he was never tried for his crime. However, “over time, facts, rumours and interpretations blended together to form an independent narrative that is passed on orally in many families to this day”. 

Techno scene (Zurich)

It is certainly not a part of ancient tradition, but this phenomenon is nevertheless on FOC’s list of living traditions.

It turns out that Zurich embraced techno music — a fusion of several styles of electronic dance music — early on. 

“In the 1990s, Zurich became a prime party destination in Europe. Techno parties started out as one-time events in cellar and warehouse squats, and over time, became an established club scene with a programme of regular techno events”.

Techno parties are a Zurich tradition. Photo: Pixabay

You can see more living traditions, including the lesser-known like the ones above, here.

If you would like FOC to consider one from your region, you can fill out this form (in German, French or Italian)

And you can learn more about various Swiss customs from the links below:

How to celebrate Christmas like the Swiss

Everything you need to know about Switzerland’s strangest sports

Here’s why people in Zurich burn a huge snowman every April

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SWISS TRADITIONS

Do Swiss cows really get airlifted down from the Alps after summer?

'Flying cows' is possibly one of the more curious myths people hear about Switzerland. But is there any truth to it?

Do Swiss cows really get airlifted down from the Alps after summer?

If you talk to foreigners and ask them a surprising thing about Switzerland, many will mention the “flying cows”, and pictures of the animals being taken by helicopter up and down the Swiss Alps are not difficult to find.

“The cows in Swiss are taken to the highlands by helicopters for grazing during summers and brought down back again by helicopters in the winters!” wrote one person in an English-speaking forum.

The pictures of airlifted cows can be found all over the Internet, adding fuel to the myth – but the images are not fake.

So, are cows airlifted in Switzerland once the summer is over?

Yes, cows really get a free helicopter ride up and down the Alps, but only when necessary.

Injured cows that cannot make the journey walking will not be left to die in the cold mountains during the winter season. Instead, they are taken down to the area where the rest of the herd will join them via helicopter ride.

Healthy cows going down the Alps are also a sight worth seeing. In the alpine regions, the yearly march of the cows from grazing in the Alps is called “Alpabzug” (something like “drive from the mountain pasture”).

In the French regions, the march is known as “Désalpes”.

Farmers and shepherds will wear traditional clothes and decorate their cows.

The event takes place in early autumn, usually late September or early October. It is determined by the lack of grass, or if any cold spells start, so it depends on the region and can vary year by year.

The Désalpes festival

The event becomes a party in Switzerland, and people meet up in their villages to see the cows on their journey from the Alps.

They share food (especially cheese) and wine, and there are musical presentations (such as an alpine choir), yodelling, and of course, the cow bells making it known that they are coming through.

The cows leading the procession are usually the best dairy cows and receive decorated headdresses. The event has become a significant tourist attraction in the Alpine regions.

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