Last Thursday, I went on a field trip with the rest of the exchange students at my school. We went to Kussnacht, a city near Luzern, to see the annual festival Klausjagen. It always takes place on the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, is attended each year by around 20,000 people, and consists mainly of a parade of about 1,500 participants.
The festival is believed to have pre-Christian, pagan origins, to do with the winter solstice. The earliest kind of the Klausjagen was very noisy and unruly, and was frowned upon by the authorities. In 1732 it was officially banned, but could not be successfully suppressed. In the late 19th century, the Klausjagen [ literally ‘Nicholas chase’] was ‘Christianized’, with bishop’s mitres [those hats] appearing in the parade, along with Christian designs and symbols. The Church then sanctioned the tradition as being in honor of Saint Nicholas, and it continues to today. The only other major historical change was in the 1920’s, when the still rather rowdy parade was bought under control by a committee of villagers, who set the guidelines for today’s rather more organized, modern event.
We left after lunch, in a hired minibus. There were eight of us, plus two teachers and two drivers [i think]. It was about an hour to our first stop- the Hohle Gasse, or Narrow Street. It’s most famous for being the place where, in the old legend, Wilhelm Tell shot the Austrian bailiff Gessler. Wilhelm Tell is an old Swiss legend, and we read a text about it in German class once. There was a little pavilion set up that told the story. I won’t go into it in depth, but he’s known as a revolutionary Swiss hero who was very skilled with a crossbow. We walked a little way further to an old church, and then up to the top of a hill where we drank hot tea that one of the teachers had bought, and ate traditional Sami Klaus food- peanuts, mandarins, little biscuits, and of course, swiss chocolate.
Then we walked down to the town, where people were bustling around setting up food stalls, and practicing cracking bullwhips for part of the parade [I’ll get to that later].
We ate dinner in a nice restaurant, which was half paid for by the school, and then wandered out to get a good spot. There were groups of around five men at a time in the main square, cracking bullwhips in perfect unison. Somehow they managed to make perfect rhythms out of the cracks. This went on until eight o clock, when a cannon sounded and all the lights in the city went out. Then the parade started.
First came the men with whips, all down the main street and around the square, maybe hundreds, and all cracking them in a rhythm. After maybe ten minutes of this came men wearing Iffelen, which are enormous, ornate paper lantern hats which resemble a cross between stained glass windows and bishop’s mitres. Some were as high as seven feet, and all lit from inside by candles. There were hundreds of men wearing these- the parade seemed endless! The hats were so beautiful and ornate, all handmade as well! So many colors and symbols as well.
Behind them walked Saint Nicholas himself, with four figures in black robes and hoods, known as the Schmutzlis. They are the people that kidnap naughty children in a sack around Christmas time. I found them terrifying, personally.
Then there came a brass band, playing the traditional four note Klaus song, followed by hundreds and hundreds of men in white shirts and hoods wearing those giant cow bells around their necks, and clanging them in rhythm. It really was an eerie experience, to be sitting in a pitch black crowd, just feeling this deep clanging all through your bones, and hearing it merge into a single buzz of sound.
Lastly, the whole procession is followed by men playing cow horns. Celebrations generally carry on all through the night, when onlookers generally head to taverns. But we headed home.
The festival was absolutely amazing- would definitely recommend it to any visitors around Christmas time. Such a wonderful field trip, even if we did get home around eleven thirty! Oh well…