On December 5th, the eve of Samichlaus (Swiss Santa, or St. Nicholas) (December 6th) something truly wonderful happens in the quaint little town of Küssnacht, neatly nestled between two pristine lakes at the foot of Mt. Rigi.
Ok, back up…
So one December 5th, a few good years ago, I actually had no idea that something wonderful was about to happen in Küssnacht.
A friend of mine called that morning and said that although she knew it was last minute, she was wondering if I’d be interested in joining her for a parade that evening. She had heard about it, and wanted to see it, but since her boyfriend (a native of Küssnacht) was part of the parade, she was looking for a partner in crime to accompany her. I was intrigued. A boyfriend-parade in the middle of winter? Swiss nightlife in a little far away town? I must go!
An hour-long train ride later (which, for a very small country, is a very long train ride) we arrived in Küssnacht – a town whose name I always admired, for Küsse is German for kisses and nacht is German for night. Kissnight! A boyfriend-parade in Kissnight! And not long thereafter it dawned on me, that for such a small town and such a seemingly random winter parade, quite the crowd had gathered!
Like all good Swiss residents, we were early.
So we stood around and killed some time over a hot mulled wine, admiring the medieval town’s delightful character, the traditional Christmas decorations and the twinkling lights.
(I still had no idea what the parade was really for – by the way)
Speaking of lights…
All of a sudden, they went out. ALL of them. The street lights, the houses, the candles, the restaurants, the mulled-wine-selling-stand. All of the lights went out. And for a little town at the foot of a big Swiss mountain, far removed from any form of light pollution, well… it got dark. Really, really dark.
And then, a loud boom.
“Don’t worry” said my friend “this is how the parade starts”.
To my admiration, the crowd (perhaps 20,000 people, which for a small town in a small country is actually more of a multitude rather than a crowd) was completely silent – not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!
I sensed an eerie yet welcoming form of anticipation.
Then, loud cracking noises, which turned out to be long-handed whips… Not necessarily something you want to be standing near in the roaring darkness of the night. I wasn’t sure if my anticipation was slowly waning into fear or just further intrigue…
Then, I relaxed a little as I noticed colorful lights bouncing around in the distance.
Coming closer, I realized the lights were shining out of huge, ornate lanterns that looked like a cross between a Bishop’s hat and a stained glass church window. As they passed, I realized these elaborate and stunning lanterns were being carried on the shoulders of hundreds of men, and some of these lanterns could easily have been 6 feet tall. Such a spectacular sight, for such an utterly dark town.
Somewhere in the crowd of colored lights, Samichlaus passed by with his accomplice, Schmutzli – Swiss Santa! and I managed to get a video:
Next came the noise – a brass band followed by hundreds of marching men in peculiar hooded white robes with red silk scarves carrying gigantic cowbells across the front of their waist, followed by hundreds more men all blowing cow horns. Two short, and one long blow. In unison. Like clockwork.
You cannot help but feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed in a really good way. Electrified perhaps. A complete awestruck sensation. And gratefulness for being able to witness such a spectacular tradition.
I later did my research. (Something I have come to learn is a valuable source of information before arriving somewhere). And I found out that this spectacular tradition is known as Klausjagen – the Nicholas Chase.
And in case you’re curious, my friend’s now-husband was one of the hooded white robed men, carrying a huge heavy manly Swiss cowbell. I am happy to say that they recently welcomed their first child into the world too; a son. I hope he carries on this wonderful tradition!