"Silvesterchlausen"

The “Silvesterchlausen” is a very special custom that takes place in the Ausserrhoden Hinterland, and particularly in the village of Urnäsch. Every year on both the Gregorian and the Julian New Year’s Eve, i.e. on 31 December and 13 January, people meet for the “Chlausenschüppel”. The reason why the New Year’s Eve “Silvesterchläus” go out twice is because of the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII modified the Julian Calendar so that the spring equinox fell on 21 March. The Protestant population of Ausserrhoden did not recognise this papal decree. It was not until 1798, under pressure from Napoleon’s occupying troops, that Ausserrhoden definitively adopted the new calendar.

The earliest written mention of “Silvesterchläus” is in the “moral mandates” of 1663, which sought to ban “Silvesterchläus” as a “superstitious misdemeanour”. There are various explanations for how the custom originated. Many people believe it grew out of the “Nikolaus” (St Nicholas) tradition. Some associate it with an ancient fertility cult, while others are of the opinion that it is a custom connected with Carnival or the devil. It is also possible that the tradition arose among beggars.

The beautiful, the ugly and the beautifully ugly: there are three types of “Silvesterchläus” known as: “Schöne” (the “beautiful”), “Wüeschte” (the “ugly”) and “Schö-Wüeschte” (the “beautifully ugly”). The latter two can also be called “forest” or “natural” “Silvesterchläus” because of their costumes. They all wear masks. The “ugly” wear terrifying masks decorated with cow-horns and animal teeth.

The “beautifully ugly” only appeared for the first time in the early 1960s. They are a newly invented kind of forest “Silvesterchläus”, whose cloaks are decorated with wood carvings and with materials they have gathered such as pine and fir cones, bark, moss, old man’s beard lichen and snail shells.

The “beautiful” “Silvesterchläus” began to appear at the start of the 20th century. Nowadays, their huge hats and bonnets are extravagantly decorated with scenes from everyday life or depicting local traditions. They include hundreds of artificial pearls. The women often lend a helping hand with attaching the pearls, but nonetheless, “Chlausen” is an exclusively male tradition. Not just because “that’s the custom”, but also because of the physical effort involved. The bells, “Groscht” (cloak), hats and bonnets are very heavy.

Rolli and Schelli – bells galore: each type of “Silvesterchläus” forms its own group, called a “Schüppel”. A “Schuppel” consists of two “Rolli” and several “Schelli”. The “Schelli” carry one or two big cow bells round their necks, and their hats depict men’s everyday lives. The “Rolli”, also known as “Rolliwiiber”, wear leather straps like braces with eight or thirteen spherical bells attached to them.

The groups of “Chlausenschüppel” spend the whole of New Year’s Day from very early in the morning going from house to house. Each group has their “Strech”, their chosen route. The first character is the “Vorrolli”, then come the “Schelli” and finally the “Noerolli”. They stand in a circle outside the house they have chosen and start to ring and swing their bells rhythmically, singing three or four “Zäuerli” (wordless yodelling songs). At the end, they wish the occupants a happy new year. In return, the “Silvesterchläus” are offered wine, mulled wine or apple juice and some money.

In the evening, the “Silvesterchläus” move from one inn to another, delighting visitors from far and wide with their bell-ringing and yodelling.

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