Old New Year’s Eve In Appenzellerland

Agree with him or not there is a great deal to be said about Freud’s theories. When it comes to childhood trauma, I’m on Freud’s side. From an early childhood experience I now feel like Nathanael in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman. The source of my trauma is an old Appenzeller tradition — Alter Silvester (old New Year).

I was 4 years old and visiting my aunt and uncle in Waldstatt, AR. It was the morning of January 13th and the sky was brilliant blue and the hills were covered in snow when the ringing of cowbells pierced the the cold winter air. Even at four years of age I knew it could not have been cows, as they only wore bells in the summer when they were outside in the field and up on the alp. As the sound came nearer my aunt pointed in the direction it was coming from. At first sight there was just a snowy hill crest and then something came over the hill — the Chläuse.

There are three kinds of Chläuse: die Wüeschten (the ugly), die Schönen (the beautiful) and die Schön-Wüeschten (the beautiful-ugly).

The Wüeschten are covered in pine branches, cedar branches, or straw and wear large cowbells. Their masks are ugly and typically characterized by googly eyes, ferocious looking teeth and sometimes horns. Though they look evil they are not meant to be regarded as such.

The beautiful wear brightly-coloured traditional dress (Tracht) and have masks that look like the faces in traditional Appenzeller

painting. They also wear giant head pieces that tell a story or show scenes from everyday life in the alps. These head pieces can weigh up to 8 kilograms and are hand made new every year. The head piece of the “women” Chläusen can easily have a height of over 50 cm.

The pretty-ugly are a mixture of the ugly and the beautiful. Their dress is made of forest elements like that of the ugly. But their masks are more human in appearance and they also have head pieces made of leaves, and nuts and straw and may also depict alpine scenes including barns.

Other than all of the Chläuse wearing masks the other thing they all have in common are that they are all men. Even the “women” Chläuse, known as Rollewiiber or simply Rolli, are men. In general a costume can weigh anywhere between 20 and 30 kg. All of them wear large cowbells and sing in front of the homes they visit. The singing is called Zäuerli, which are songs without lyrics. (Video).

I still remember the Schönen (beautiful) coming and singing, and I ran. I ran as fast as I could into my aunts house and hid under a bed. It must have been their daunting size, the singing and bells and the masks. Even today I still have a great dislike of masks of any kind.

Traditionally the Chläuse appear in groups called Schuppel at around 5 am on New Year’s Eveand again for the old New Year’s Eve on January 13th. If it is snowing the Schönen will not be out, as their costume is too delicate. Where the tradition comes from is not quite clear. If you were to ask someone in Urnäsch, they would probably tell you that it has been done since time immortal. Some studies suggest that it may be from as recent as the 15th Century, where St. Nikolaus festivities at the monasteries became continually more and more wild and reminiscent of Carnival (Fasnacht). Others suggest that it was an old tradition of scaring off the bad spirits of the old year. The idea of it being a pagan tradition was also cemented in popular belief by priests up to the 20th century calling the practice the remains of a barbaric era.

Like so much in Appenzell this is a tradition that does not seem to be going away, which is a good thing for the local tourism economy, which now sees an influx of tourists coming to watch this timeless tradition.

If you are interested in seeing this for yourself, it can be seen in the following towns on January 13th: Urnäsch, Herisau, Hundwil, Stein, Waldstatt, Schwellbrunn and Schönengrund. Here is a link to the event in Urnäsch.

Written by Christian Langenegger, co-founder of Marathon Sprachen

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