Customs and Traditions

Discover living traditions

The Swiss have always maintained and nurtured their own local customs, and because of this, Switzerland is a country with an enormous wealth of cultural activity and living tradition.

«La suisse n'existe pas» (Switzerland does not exist) – in this one key sentence Switzerland introduced itself at the World Exposition in Seville in 1992. This was because it is not uniformity, but variety in a small space that defines Switzerland. This can be explained culturally and geographically: In little Switzerland, four national languages are spoken in addition to numerous dialects. There is also a distinction between the culture in the mountains and the culture on the central plateau, while life in a mountain valley is different from that in the big city. So, although there are numerous regional traditions there are relatively few national customs. However, over time and with the increase in tourism, there are some local customs that have achieved national fame.

Music

No matter whether there is dancing taking place or not, Swiss folk music is mainly dance music.

The most commonly heard musical instruments include the "Schwyzerörgeli" (accordion), the violin, bass violin, clarinet and, in certain regions, the dulcimer or Trümpi (Jew's harp). Alpine folk music developed with the unwritten transfer of skills and compositions over generations, decades and even centuries. The oldest known Kuhreihen (rounds) are from Appenzell and were recorded in 1545. The Alphorn, so typically Swiss, was originally a musical and signaling instrument used by the herdsmen and the many yodeling choirs that have been formed since the 19th century. In general, Switzerland has an extensive amateur music scene, and in virtually every village there is at least a choir or a brass band

Alphorn – the sound of natural tones.

The alphorn is regarded as a typically Swiss instrument. The warm sounds of this original instrument are far-reaching - which is probably the reason it was once used by shepherds to communicate.

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Yodeling – it’s all in the voice.

If you tend to forget the words when you are singing, you should try natural yodeling as this original form of yodeling is done without words. It was only in the 19th century that yodel choirs were formed that sang the yodeling songs with lyrics.

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Folk music in Switzerland

There are a number of local groups devoted to Ländler music, one of the most well-known types of Swiss folk music. Most of the players are amateurs whose reputations are mainly limited to their own region.

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On the Alp

Alpine farming has a long history. It is believed that the pastures above the tree line were being farmed as far back as 4,000 BC.

The production of cheese in the summer enabled people to preserve milk and stockpile it for the long winter months. The practice of Alpine farming gave birth to various customs such as the festive processions up into the Alps and down from the mountains, the call to prayer, the Älplerchilbi carnival and the Chästteilet cheese sharing - traditions that have been carefully maintained to this day. From a distance, Alpine life looks romantic: cow bells, a blade of grass in the mouth, unlimited nature, sunsets over the mountain tops and candles on a wooden table. In addition, this lifestyle involves hard physical work and simplicity of life – which, in recent times, has attracted especially urban dwellers from both home and abroad.

Alpine life - where mountains are moved

From the end of May the herdsmen and their cattle move up into the mountains with a great deal of fanfare. There they spent the next 80-120 days milking, making cheese and butter, fencing off pastures, looking for strayed animals and much more besides.

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Alp cheese – treats from the Alps.

From a culinary point of view, Alpine farming produces a variety of the finest Alp cheeses - a protected and cherished rarity. It is still produced in smoky mountain huts and made by hand from fresh milk.

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Heidi - a story goes around the world.

The novel Heidi by Johanna Spyri is one of the world’s best-selling books and is one of the most successful children's stories ever. To date, the book has been translated into over 50 languages.

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Customs and sports

For a long time, Swiss sports customs were eclipsed by international types of sport - but recently, they have come back into their own.

While regional and local sporting traditions have often been neglected, there are some sports that have enjoyed increasing popularity. Major events such as the Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Festival ESAF are increasing in popularity; in 2010, the festival reached a new record with 250,000 visitors and became the largest Schwingen festival ever held. It is worth noting that no additional police were needed for the maintenance of order, and the authority of the public address announcer was sufficient. At these multi-day festive occasions, athletic wrestlers, sturdy boulder throwers and strong Hornussen players gave of their best - all to the accompaniment of yodel choirs and accordion orchestras.

Flag throwing – under the spell of the banner.

In earlier times, a trial of strength between the herdsmen and farmers at Alpine festivals, flag waving is now a professional sport with strict rules and with champions who are renowned throughout the land.

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Hornussen - Where the Nouss flies from the ramp and into the playing field.

Especially at home in the regions of Emmental, Bern, Solothurn and Aargau, Hornussen, along with Schwingen and stone throwing, is regarded a typical Swiss national sport.

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Swiss wrestling (Schwingen) - From herdsman's pastime to elite sport.

In earlier times the Alpine herdsmen and farmers would show off their strength in bouts of wrestling at festivals. Now the sport has become professional with fixed rules and with a national competition where the country’s wrestling king is crowned.

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Folk traditions throughout the year

Switzerland has many customs that are tied to the calendar - most are of pagan origin or have a religious connection.

The festivals celebrated in Switzerland differ considerably depending on the season and the region. Some are based on ancient traditions while others have emerged only recently. Many of them reflect the course of the agricultural year, such as the ringing in of the vineyard workers in spring, the Alpine ascent and descent during the summer months, and the wine festivals, the Chästeilet cheese sharing and the Älplerchilbi carnivals in autumn. Because there was less for farmers to do in winter than in other seasons, there were more celebrations and customs during this time. Even today, the expulsion of winter and of evil spirits and demons forms part of the tradition - a tradition that is linked to the numerous carnival and year-end ceremonies. Other celebrations recall historical events such as important victories in historical battles.

Winter and spring customs - the high seasons for festivals.

The traditions of wintertime could not be more diverse, with Christmas as a time of quiet contemplation contrasting starkly with boisterous processions to drive out demons and the cold winter weather.

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Summer and autumn customs.

There are not festivals in every season all over Switzerland - but there are festivals in every season somewhere in Switzerland. Anyone wishing to experience the full calendar of customs can look forward to an exciting Tour de Suisse.

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Arts and crafts

For half a millennium the Swiss watch industry has enjoyed a good reputation. There were difficult moments - but time has never stood still

Today, 95% of Swiss watches are destined for export and the watch industry is a key export industry. The textile crafts industry also has an eventful past. A few areas, thanks to advanced technology, have enjoyed worldwide attention in haute couture, and the once popular textile handicrafts have found a niche for themselves. Many sectors of the crafts industry, such as wood sculpture, furniture painting and farmers’ ceramics are closely connected with the history of Swiss Tourism. As ambassadors, they influenced the image that countless tourists to the Alps had of Switzerland in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Watchmaking – on the cutting edge of time.

As early as 1785 there were about 20,000 people employed in the watchmaking industry, which was producing around 85,000 watches a year. They also prodiced music boxes and highly specialised mechanical toys.

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Textile crafts

Whilst Switzerland may have enjoyed better times as a textile country, a third of the haute couture shown on the world's catwalks is still made from Swiss fabrics.

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Traditional crafts – By artists and experts.

©Fabrice Wagner

Many aspects of Swiss arts and crafts bear witness to rural traditions and have been virtually forgotten over the course of time.

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Typical food and wine

The food in Switzerland is a potpourri of influences from various countries. It combines the cuisines of its neighbours and creates from them a local cuisine with local ingredients.

There are a few dishes and specialities, such as fondue, Älplermagronen and chocolate, that are typical of Switzerland, but there is no real Swiss cuisine to speak of. There is a cuisine with Bernese Platter and Bernese Rösti. A cuisine with Vaud sausage and leeks. A cuisine with St Gallen Ribelmais and whitefish from Lake Constance. The Valais is famous for its raclette, Graubünden for its capuns, Zurich for its Geschnetzeltes, Lucerne for its Chügelipastete and Ticino for its Mortadella und Luganighe. You will find sausage everywhere – Switzerland is home to almost 350 different varieties. And that is - in terms of land area - clearly a world record. And incidentally, while not quite the world leader, the Swiss wines are well on the way there. Besides the well-known classics, Switzerland provides for unique tasting pleasure with its new types of wine and development of indigenous varieties.

Typical food

Culinary Switzerland is a gourmet’s paradise to be explored afresh wherever you go as the menu in addition to a modest number of national dishes mainly features regional specialities.

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Typical wine

©Fabrice Wagner

Culinary Switzerland is a gourmet’s paradise to be explored afresh wherever you go as the menu in addition to a modest number of national dishes mainly features regional specialities.

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