The history of St. Nicholas parade


Küssnacht lies at the foot of the world famous Rigi and every year, on the 5th of December, thousands of people come to see an old tradition known as "Klausjagen". This custom goes back to the middle ages when bad spirits were driven away by noise made from cowbells and cows' horns. This practise became somewhat, out of hand and was forbidden by the government in 1732. At the end of the 19th century things began to improve when the first mitres appeared. This very contrast between heathen behaviour and Christian element defines a uniqueness at the time of Advent.

The holiday is Klausjagen, and it means literally "chasing the klaus," a reference to St. Nicholas whom we know as Santa Claus. Now, December 5th is St. Nicholas's Day, but Klausjagen is blending of the Catholic holiday with what may be a much older celebration. The whip cracking may be a remnant of an ancient celebration, which tended to get pretty rowdy. The imposition of St. Nicholas's day at the same time of year led to the unofficial custom of some local youths chasing the figure representing St. Nicholas.

In the 1920's a group of villagers in Küssnacht decided to bring some order to the chaos, and created a modem, tamer version of Klausjagen.

There's a lot of documentation of the Catholic Church or other authorities trying to eradicate unruly behavior. And ing about at night with these whips or with cowbells which is another component of this festivity, making noise for three to four days before St. Nicholas Day was considered unruly behavior. Since 1928 the St.Niklaus society is responsible for the continuation of this ancient tradition and has 1700 members, 1000 attend the general annual meeting.

On the evening of December 5th, the lights of Küssnacht go out and a procession of sound and light fills the streets, in celebration of St. Nicholas's Day. The procession begins at 20.15 and is most impressive and well wonth a visit. The sounds are made by groups of people ringing bells, blowing homs and cracking whips, and the lights come from folks wearing huge paper bishops hats, some as large as 6 feet high, lit from within by candles.

The lights are called iffele. They are made out of double-sided paper. It's made like a papercut very fancy, ornate designs, and the whole thing is shaped like a cathedral window, so the whole effect of it, once it is finished and has candles on the inside, is the effect of a lit cathedral window. The procession begins with the rhythmic cracking of whips, which herald the arrival of St. Nicholas.

Then come the lit figures, so you have to switch from this sort of sound power, to hardly any sound, and you see these lit cathedral windows kind of swimming past you almost. After the iffele, St. Nicholas himself is walking with his four black man. A brass bands plays always the same simple sound. And then come the men with the bells. And that is, in tenns of sound, overwhelming. The bells, if you have something like 700 men carrying bells, walking past you in rows of 5, and swinging these bells in unison, it's enormously loud. And after this enormous noise, come 180 hornblowers.