Silvesterchlausen – Ringing in the New Year in Appenzell

My son stood at the window of our hotel room that morning yelling, “Mom, they’re coming!” I ran to catch a quick glimpse before they disappeared out of sight — six hulking figures covered in mysterious tree-branch costumes making their way down the snowy hillside. This was my family’s introduction to the fascinating New Year’s tradition in Appenzell Ausserrhoden known as Silvesterchlausen.

The “beautifully ugly” Chläuse at Silvesterchlausen in Herisau, Switzerland.

To celebrate the New Year, groups of men in outlandish costumes have for centuries visited local farms and businesses, serenading their hosts with a captivating wordless yodel called Zäuerli. Several towns and villages host Silvesterchlausen festivities on December 31 (Gregorian calendar) and again on January 13 (Julian calendar). When these dates fall on a Sunday, the Silvesterchlausen is celebrated on the preceding Saturday. I witnessed this longstanding practice with my family this year for the first time in Herisau, Switzerland, on the last day of 2018.

Celebrating Silvesterchlausen on the streets of Herisau, Switzerland.

In Herisau, we found groups that represented all three types of the Chläuse:

  • the beautiful (Schöne) – dressed in traditional clothes and with elaborate handmade headdresses depicting rural scenes;
  • the beautifully ugly (schö-Wüeschte) – with smaller, less ornate headdresses and clothed in natural materials, like fir branches, moss, lichen and pine cones; and
  • the ugly (Wüeschte) – wearing rugged all-natural costumes with creepy masks and animal furs, for example.

All members of these groups wear massive bells that shake violently as they jump and trot along their route. Only men participate in this tradition, with the exception of children’s groups, which can include girls. As my family and I wandered through town, we listened for the ringing of these bells to see where to go next to find the traveling yodelers.

For lunch, the Gemeinde Herisau (town government) was outside selling Raclette cheese with boiled potatoes, as well as grilled Cervelat and St. Galler Bratwurst. I left the stand with a bratwurst in a small paper bag and a thick slice of bread. No mustard for your bratwurst in these parts of Switzerland. According to Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse, the Appenzeller Siedwurst — a white sausage made of beef and pork —  is also popular during New Year’s celebrations in this region.

St. Galler Bratwurst on the grill in Herisau during Silvesterchlausen 2018.

Unfortunately, we had rain during our visit to Herisau, so nearly all of the Chläuse protected their colorful headdresses with a clear, plastic cover.

A “beautiful” Chläuse with a plastic-covered headdress to protect it from the rain.

After they finished their yodel and bell-ringing performance at a particular stop, these groups of Schuppeln may receive a sip of mulled wine through a straw, so as not to disturb their costumes. Then, one by one, they take their leave and the procession moves on to the next destination, delighting the crowds and potentially scaring small children. You will not hear applause for their solemn, magical performances — only beaming smiles and quiet appreciation from the spectators.

A shopkeeper serving mulled wine to a Chläuse through a straw.

Silvesterchlausen, a festive Swiss custom that has existed for centuries, remains a truly unique living tradition in Appenzell Ausserrhoden that you really must experience for yourself.

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