Who are these scary men walking from door to door in funky costumes? They dance, yodel and shake hands with almost everyone in the village. Welcome to Appenzell! This is how they celebrate the New Year.
Around the world there exist hundreds or even thousands of different traditions to greet the New Year. Over time, I have experienced a few but this year, I was really keen on travelling to Urnaesch, a village in the canton of Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, to witness the famous “Silvesterchlausen”. I had seen a documentary on TV about it a few years ago and was so intrigued by this traditional event that I had this visit on my list for a long time.
Urnaesch and many other communities in that area commemorate the New Year actually twice, once according to the Gregorian calendar on 31 December and again according to the Julian calendar on 13 January. When the 31st falls on a Sunday, it will be celebrated the day before – like this year. For visitors it is actually very good, because you get two chances to go!
So what is this “Silvesterchlausen”?
It is not really clear where this tradition comes from, but it dates back to 1663 when church authorities officially tried to object this inappropriate and noisy event. But hey, this is Appenzell, and the Appenzell people are known to be strong-minded and hard-headed. Luckily, the traditional event continued and today, it is one of the main events on the annual agenda.
A Chlaus is a phantasy character
Men from the village dress up as a specific “Chlaus”. There are three types of “Chlaus” costumes – the Beautiful, the Ugly and the Pretty Ugly. In small groups they walk from farm to farm, from door to door to perform their dance, a yodel and to wish their village neighbors a happy New Year. In return, they receive a hot drink or wine. Every group plans its tour carefully in advance. These characters look quite scary, but it is a very friendly event. They do not want to scare people.
A “Chlaus” is a phantasy character. These are men are dressed up in certain, hand-made costumes. There are characters that are either nature-inspired or others are impressively colorful and elaborate. They are very original and quite sophisticated. All of them are hand-made by the person who is wearing it. A “Chlaus” is always a man. Women are not allowed to participate with one exception, which are the children groups.
Now let’s take a look at the different Chlaus costumes:
Der Schoene (The Beautiful), der Schoe-Wueschte (The Pretty-Ugly) and der Wueschte (The Ugly).
The “Beautiful Chlaus” wears a large head-piece showing typical scenes of the village life, customs or local crafts and trades. It takes hundreds of hours to make these head-pieces. They are simply stunning. Their dress is usually colorful – mostly red or blue – and is often a woman‘s dress.
The “Pretty Ugly Chlaus” is inspired by nature. Appenzell has large forests and wood is an important resource for the local industry. Their costume is made of fir branches, fir cones, ivy, moss, animal fur and other materials that can be found mainly in the forest. Compared to the Ugly Chlaus, the Pretty Ugly costume is very elaborate. It is not as wild. It is a real costume.
The “Ugly Chlaus” also uses the same natural materials as the Pretty Ugly Chlaus, but it is not as nicely arranged. They rather look like walking bushes and often it is hard to say what is front and what is back. They look wild and their dance is also more expressive than those of the other groups.
All characters hide their faces behind a mask, which is either colorful and doll-like (The Beautiful), nicely arranged natural materials (The Pretty-Ugly), or scary and wild (Ugly).
When to arrive in Urnaesch?
The various Chlaus groups start very early in the morning (around 5 am) with their tour. During the course of the morning you will see them coming into the village. I recommend to be there between 9 and 10 am. There is enough daylight and not too many people. During the course of the morning/day more and more groups will arrive and walk from door to door. It is spectacular. I cannot get enough of it. Later in the day, they all gather at restaurants in the village to celebrate. However, this is not open to tourists.
What else to do?
Urnaesch is a village with roughly 2.500 inhabitants. In other words: you will have seen it all in less than 30 minutes. However, in the main square you will find a museum, which is really worth exploring. It is actually much larger than you might think. It spans three houses on all floors. The museum explains the traditions of Appenzell (incl. Silvesterchlausen), special crafts, music and trades of the region. I was positively surprised how well it is done.
If you care for cheese, you should pay a visit to the local cheese shop, which is located towards the end of the village. They produce their cheese right there and offer a large variety of Appenzell cheeses. Looks like they have won several international competitions with their exquisite products.
The local bakery sells typical Appenzell sweets and bread. The so-called “Biberfladen” is a kind of gingerbread, similar to Lebkuchen but finer and softer, often filled with marzipan.
Two short videos to show you the Chlaus performances: