On “Bloch” day, a large tree trunk called a “Bloch” is pulled around the local area in a procession. In the past, such processions used to take place in several different parts of Europe. In Switzerland, the custom is now only kept alive in the Hinterland part of Appenzell. The earliest references to “Bloch” processions in this region date back to the 19th century.
From our perspective now, it seems that the focal point of the event was for a fir tree to be given by the owner of a forest to his workers, as a sign of his gratitude. However, the whole procession, with its fire, noise, singing, set speeches and specific characters – such as the “Bajassen” who go round collecting money – may well have its roots in the (pre-Lent) Carnival customs of Alemannic alpine culture. Until well into the 20th century this could be seen from the costumes, which were still mainly reminiscent of Carnival costumes. Nowadays, the clothes reflect certain types of jobs in the forest, and alpine dairy traditions.
The Urnäsch “Bloch” in days gone by: one of the earliest written descriptions of “Bloch” processions in the Hinterland part of Appenzell dates from 1810. There is evidence of such processions taking place in Urnäsch and Herisau later in the 19th century. The first images of the Urnäsch “Bloch” are from 1889. At that time, the procession would take place at irregular intervals on “Bloch Monday”, the Monday after Ash Wednesday. The tree trunk was pulled from the Rossfall waterfalls along the Furt to the Zürchersmühle and then back to the village square to be auctioned.
It is not known for how long the “Bloch” has taken place on a two-yearly cycle, or when it was moved to Carnival Monday before Ash Wednesday. The change of date may have occurred between 1897 and 1914.
No processions took place during either of the World Wars. When, following the First World War, the villagers of Herisau no longer held their procession, the people of Urnäsch started pulling their tree trunk to Herisau to auction it there.
The Urnäsch “Bloch” today: the Urnäsch “Bloch” Society organises the procession every two years, on Carnival Monday. The tradition is for a five- or six-metre-long fir tree trunk, called the “Bloch”, to be pulled on an elaborately decorated wagon from Urnäsch through Hundwil, Stein and Waldstatt and back to Urnäsch.
Men dressed as clowns called “Kässelibuben” run ahead of the procession, rattling their collection tins. Riding horseback at the front are heralds in historic costumes. The “Bloch” is pulled by men walking in pairs. Their outfits represent jobs relating to woodworking and the forest, such as woodcutters and carpenters, as well as farmers. A hunter leads a bear on a chain, which plays tricks on the spectators.
On the front of the “Bloch” stands a carter with a long whip. In the middle sit musicians, playing improvised tunes. At the back, behind a stove fastened to the tree trunk, a blacksmith sits astride it. He bangs an anvil with his hammer and keeps the stove smoking. From time to time he throws a crackling firecracker into the air.
Alongside the wagon walks the driver, who is responsible for braking and safety. At the very end of the procession rides the forester with his calliper round his neck, the tool used for measuring tree trunks.
Early in the afternoon, a reception committee with a horse and carriage comes out to meet the procession and accompanies it to the village square. There the “Bloch” is sold by auction. Afterwards, everyone enjoys a merry evening of Carnival fun in the bars and inns of Urnäsch.
“Goofe Bloch Urnäsch”: in 2022, a children’s version of the procession, the “Goofe Bloch Urnäsch”, was set up. This now takes place every year on the Saturday before Carnival Monday. About 70 boys and girls take part in it. It is different from the other “Bloch” processions in that girls can also join in with the Goofe Bloch.
Other processions of forestry workers in the Appenzeller Hinterland: in addition to Urnäsch, a “Bloch” procession currently takes place at four other places in the Hinterland part of Appenzell but, unlike in Urnäsch, it is held on “Bloch Monday”, i.e. the day after Bonfire Sunday and the Monday after Ash Wednesday.
There is written evidence from the early 20th century of a “Bubenbloch”, boys’ “Bloch” procession, in Hundwil and another in Stein. In 1961 the boys’ “Bloch” procession in Schwellbrunn was revived and in 2012 the adults’ procession in Herisau.