Think of winter in Switzerland and most likely you’ll picture snow-covered mountains, fur-clad shoppers and well-dressed skiers. You might even imagine a warming fondue eaten beside an open log fire. While all of the above are all-too accurate images of wintry Switzerland, they are actually only half the picture. The other side of winter here is a long tradition of weird and wonderful festivals, totally distinct from the Christmas markets and often with pagan origins of warding off evil spirits or celebrating life. We’ve chosen the ten best winter festivals in Switzerland, so you can mix with the locals as they play with fire, have fun with onions or let their hair down at carnival. Wrap up warmly and enjoy the festival spirit, and maybe even have a glass of glühwein as well.
They are everywhere you look. Red, white and brown ones twisted into decorative plaits. Tiny ones dressed up as nurses, Santas or old women. Cooked ones inside creamy tarts and hot soup. Welcome to Bern’s Zibelemärit, or Onion Market! This is a harvest festival and Thanksgiving all rolled into one, and all that is left of a 14-day fair from medieval times. The focus is on onions – 100 tons of them are sold on the day – but the whole of Switzerland’s beautiful capital city is given over to a giant market selling handicrafts and other edibles. It starts at 5am but carries on all day, attracting thousands wanting to shop, eat and throw confetti at each other. Two things are sure: you’ll try a piece of onion tart and you’ll get covered in confetti, though hopefully not at the same time.
Lighting up the night
On the night before St Nicholas’s Day the little town of Küssnacht am Rigi hosts its Klausjagen, a very special tradition. The local men wear giant cardboard mitres, cut into intricate designs and lit from inside with a candle so that they resemble stained-glass windows. Almost 200 of these process through the town, accompanying St Nicholas and a host of bell ringers. It’s a magical sight.
Saving the City
Back in 1602 Geneva was an independent city-state under threat. On the night of 11-12 December the troops of neighbouring Savoy tried to conquer the city by scaling the ramparts. The alarm was raised by Mme Royaume, who poured a cauldron of hot soup over the soldiers. Today the Escalade, a victory for Geneva, is celebrated with chocolate cauldrons, costumed processions and lots of frivolity.
Double the fun
Some festivals are great enough to be celebrated twice. Silvesterchläuse in Appenzell marks the new year on 31 December and again on 13 January (following the Gregorian and Julian calendars respectively). Villagers, usually only men, don elaborate headdresses and masks before walking from house to house wishing people a happy new year.