On December 5, St. Nicholas day eve, Elizabeth and I went to the Swiss town of Küssnacht to attend a uniquely Swiss sort of Christmas celebration. Referred to as the Klausjagen, or Nicholas Chase, it is a parade involving 1000 noisy Swiss guys in the pitch dark. The lights go out, and the parade is led by a team of whip crackers. A bull whip makes a huge amount of noise, and 20 of them, cracking in near unison, are almost deafening. Whip cracking ceremonies, are a tradition in most of the alpine region (extra credit for anyone who can tell me the Tyrolean word for this–I think it starts with a ‘schn’.), probably dating back to various versions of the Wild Hunt folk myth.
After the whips, the parade quiets down a bit as a hundreds of men slowly swirl around wearing huge illuminated hats, called Iffelen. Shaped like bishops’ mitres, they are gorgeously decorated with colored paper or plastic, and are lit from the inside by candles. Many of the Iffelen have a design on the front that looks like stained glass, while the back may portray a cathedral. A few youngsters had sort of training Iffelen that were only a bit more than a foot tall, maybe not quite as big as a real mitre. Most of the hats were very large, 4-5 feet high, and needed to be carefully supported both on top of the head, and with outstretched arms. A few very large and beautiful hats brought applause from the crowd.
After the parade, we stopped to examine some of the Iffelen while the wearers rested up for the second running of the Klaus. The very largest of the hats were illuminated by 9 candles. I chatted up one of the participants, who all design and make their own hats, and ask him how long it took him. 500 hours. Wow.
It takes quite a while for all of the Iffelen to swing past. They are followed by Sammichlaus, who looks a lot like a bishop himself. Sammi is attended by 4 men in black robes and black face who are referred to as Schmutzlis (Krampus in Austria). Another folk tradition that has some relationship to the Wild Hunt, 2 Schmutzlis are pictured here a day later, in front of our Luzern hotel, where the lights were much better. You can just barely see the bundle of sticks that one of them is carrying.
This is followed by a band playing the traditional Klaus song, a cloyingly simple 1-bar melody that only consists of three notes. It kind of sticks in your brain, after you’ve heard a couple hundred untuned stanzas.
The next part of the parade consists of groups of men slowly walking in unison, ringing large steel bells called trycheln that are hammered out of steel, making for a relatively light bell (given that it is the size of a bowling ball bag), with a somewhat unpleasant sounding clang. You know how some harsh instruments are smoothed out when a lot of them play together, like bagpipes or violins? Well, in this case, the opposite happens.
Pictured here while walking to the parade, before the lights were extinguished, trycheln ringers have to affect a very stilted, Frankenstinian sort of walk in order to strike in unison. It makes for a very eery effect. As shown here, many of these guys were smoking some sort of long skinny things.
The Klausjagen finally ends with a procession of men blowing a simple 3-note pattern on cow horns (a ‘U’ in morse code, dot dot daaaaash). Most of the cow horns seemed to have some sort of double reed inside them, so they sounded more like huge party favors, and not so much like hunting horns.
Many of the participants refresh themselves between the two runnings of Chlaus, and after the second and final run, the party moves to the local gues houses.
The guys below had nothing to do with the parade, but were also part of the Christmas experience in Luzern, playing at the Christchindlimarkt in front of our hotel. Teutonic Christmas markets are a great tradition, with lots of handmade gifts, and lots of gluhwein, raclette, and heissi marroni.