Swiss traditions For Members

What you should know about Switzerland's 'Thanksgiving' day on Sunday

Sandra Sparrowhawk
Sandra Sparrowhawk - [email protected]
What you should know about Switzerland's 'Thanksgiving' day on Sunday
Swiss Thanksgiving is a religious event. Photo by Robert Stokoe.

The Swiss Federal Day of Thanksgiving, Repentance and Prayer is on Sunday, September 17th. Here’s how the Swiss celebrate the public holiday - and where.


Every year, the third Sunday in September marks Switzerland’s Federal Day of Thanksgiving, Repentance and Prayer, locally known as Eidgenössischer Dank-, Buss- und Bettag (German), Jeûne federal (French), Digiuno federale (Italian) and Rogaziun federala (Romansh).

The Swiss Federal Day of Thanksgiving, Repentance and Prayer is celebrated as a day of solidarity and fraternity, bringing people together and showing worshippers that they have a shared responsibility for each other and the world.

What is the Swiss Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving services and penance celebrations have been celebrated for centuries across the globe and go as far back as the Old Testament.

In Switzerland, the first nationwide day of Federal Day of Thanksgiving, Repentance and Prayer took place on September 8th,1796.

However, it was not until 1832 that the Swiss decided to hold the celebration on every third Sunday in September going forward.

The day would gain even more significance with the founding of the federal state in 1848 – and this was no easy feat.

The then young state was fragile in its structure and religious peace between the Catholic and Protestants was still on shaky ground.

It was then pointed out that the Federal Day of Thanksgiving, Repentance and Prayer was deeply rooted in Christianity and therefore presented an ideal opportunity for shared reflection between Switzerland’s two core religious denominations.

The celebration was meant to unite all the Swiss people and promote mutual respect despite different beliefs.

The cantonal governments then issued prayer calls – at the time called prayer mandates – which addressed spiritual and moral issues of the day, but also political, economic, and social concerns from a religious perspective.

At the time, many of the concerns were related poverty, hunger and a lack of job prospects that "drove many Swiss people to seek their fortunes elsewhere, particularly in North and South America," according to historical accounts.

"At home, industrial towns and cities saw an influx of rural and, increasingly, foreign migrants. Living conditions for many members of this new urban working class were often precarious."

Over time, Switzerland’s political authorities, which were heavily involved in the prayer mandates in the early days, slowly withdrew their responsibility and left the churches in sole charge of the mandates and its content.


How is it celebrated?

Today, Switzerland’s Thanksgiving celebration is mostly a religious one and unlike the US version, is not largely celebrated in one’s home. Instead, the Swiss head to their local church on the day to observe the prayer calls.

In Switzerland, the day is still celebrated as an ecumenical – or non-denominational - feast day spanning different religions and belief systems.

In many cantons – such as Zurich, Bern, and Lucerne — Thanksgiving is classified as a significant holiday (corresponding to Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Whitsunday and Christmas Day), which results in more comprehensive protective measures to observe the holiday rest.

Until 2000, shooting exercises, sports and dance events of any kind were prohibited in the canton of Zurich, while exhibitions, museums and cinemas remained closed.

Today, indoor events are permitted, and non-commercial exhibitions and museums are open — but target practice and public gatherings of a non-religious nature are still not permitted in Zurich.

Other cantons like Basel-City and Solothurn, on the other hand, have recently downgraded it to a normal day of rest corresponding to Sunday.


Does every canton mark Thanksgiving on the same day?


All cantons but Geneva celebrate Swiss Thanksgiving on the third Sunday in September.

The canton of Geneva celebrates Thanksgiving on the Thursday after the first Sunday (September 7th, 2023) in September each year. Geneva residents are not required to work on the public holiday.

In the cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel, as well as in part of the Bernese Jura, the Monday following Thanksgiving is also a non-working day.

However, it is only legally recognised as an official day off in the canton of Vaud.


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