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SWISS TRADITIONS

Swiss National Day: Five things you should know about Switzerland’s ‘birthday’

August 1st is a memorable day for Switzerland, as it celebrates the agreement which made the country as we know it possible. Here is what you need to know about the historical day and the celebrations.

Swiss National Day: Five things you should know about Switzerland's 'birthday'
Men dressed in traditional costumes throwing Swiss flag at the Rütli (Grütli in French) meadow overlooking Lake Lucerne as part of the celebration of Swiss National Day. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

There are few truly national events in Switzerland, a country marked by its strong federalism, with cantons with specific traditions, cultures, and languages. However, on August 1st, the whole country gets together (but separately) to celebrate Swiss National Day.

So, what is this celebration, and how do the Swiss mark it?

The Federal Charter of 1291

The date was chosen because the Federal Charter of 1291 was signed in “early August” when three cantons (Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwald) signed an oath to form an alliance – the document is now seen as central to the foundation of Switzerland and the reason why many call the Swiss National Day Switzerland’s “birthday”.

One holiday…four names

This being Switzerland, of course, the holiday has a name for each of the country’s official languages. So here is what the celebration is called depending on which canton you live in. German: Schweizer Bundesfeiertag; French: Fête nationale suisse; Italian: Festa nazionale svizzera; Romansh: Festa naziunala svizra.

READ ALSO: Where are fireworks banned on Swiss National Day and where are they permitted?

Different traditions for different regions

As we’ve said, the whole country gets together (but separately) to celebrate Swiss National Day. This means that, not unlike other celebrations and holidays, each canton, city and village will have their own traditions, sometimes quite different from one another.

Some are very famous, like the fireworks at the Rhine set off on the evening of July 31st in Basel. Or the celebration that takes place in Rütli meadow, the historic location just above Lake Lucerne, where the pledge of the alliance was signed.

READ ALSO: Ten brilliant ways to celebrate Swiss National Day

According to Switzerland Tourism: “A special kind of celebration takes place at the Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the waterfall has been illuminated on special occasions.”

“Since 1920, it has been illuminated regularly on August 1st, and since 1966 exclusively so. On the same day, a magnificent fireworks display also attracts throngs of spectators to this special site.”

READ ALSO: Why Switzerland celebrates its National Day with bonfires and brunch

The firework displays are also very famous in many cantons, though this year many were cancelled as the weather is dry and the risk of wildfires is high.

And although there could be fondue involved, the most typical is for the Swiss to enjoy a nice brunch or a barbecue with their friends and family.

It doesn’t stop people from making jokes, though.

The date has not been a holiday for long

Although the event that led to the celebrations happened hundreds of years ago, it took a long time for the Swiss to decide to celebrate it as a national holiday. At first, the Swiss Confederacy’s founding was celebrated in 1891; only eight years later did it start being celebrated yearly.

And only in 1994 did it become a national non-working holiday after Swiss voters massively approved a popular initiative for a “non-working federal holiday” on the date.

This year the celebrations were a bit different

Due to high temperatures and persisting drought, several cantons and municipalities have banned traditional fireworks on their territory, extending the ban to open fires.

Certain Zurich municipalities have also prohibited this practice, while further cantons indicated they might also ban fireworks should they be unsafe.

As such, private fireworks displays have been ruled out in many parts of the country and public celebrations are also affected.

Of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, some have issued total bans on open-air fires, some have issued bans covering parts of the canton, and some are only permitting fires at Feuerstelle (campfire-style open-air fire pits), and some have only banned fires in forest areas.

Still, the parties have been ongoing, with loads of different celebrations, music, parades, and many events for Switzerland’s birthday.

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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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