During the 20th century, “Senntumsschnitzerei” or traditional alpine woodcarving, originally called “Chüelischnitzerei”, developed into more than just a winter pastime for farmers who carved toy cows or scenes for the headdresses of the “Silvesterchläus”.
The traditional woodcarving in Appenzell and Toggenburg may have grown out of so-called “Beinkühe” or “Bechüe”. These are cow-like creatures carved out of a piece of wood, but with only two legs. Little side branches serve as the legs and horns. However, the term “Beinkühe” does not come from these cows made from twigs – even though “Bein” normally means “leg” – but from an earlier meaning, “bone”. Cows carved out of a cow’s ankle bone have been popular children’s toys for hundreds of years.
To this day, most of the woodcarvers come from a farming background. They know about farming life from their own experience, and you can see this in the figures they create. For decades, lime-tree wood was the material used, but today’s wood carvers prefer the oily, even softer Swiss pine wood. The basic shape of the figure is prepared with a saw. Then the details are carved with a wood-carving knife, penknife, carpet cutter or homemade knife.
At first, people mainly used to carve the cattle drive up to the alpine pastures. Over the years, they have added other subjects based on local customs and scenes from farming life. They may depict “Silvesterchläus”, “Bloch” processions, musicians and dancers, pedlars, alpine dairies, farmhouse living rooms or dowry processions.
Unlike traditional folk art painting, for many years alpine woodcarving was not widely known. Only in the 1980s did such carvings begin to attract attention across Switzerland and become popular collectors’ items.