The closer they get, the more details emerge through the golden glow of the flickering flames: children carrying turnip lanterns, converging from different directions on the town‘s market square. Groups of spectators are already waiting to welcome the children, and now you can distinguish the sound, first the melody and then the words, of age-old songs drifting through the darkness: „Freut euch des Lebens, weil noch das Lämpchen glüht...” (Rejoice in life, the lantern is still glowing…).
This ancient pre-Christmas custom is called the Bochselnacht. The term can be loosely translated as the night of the strange noises; however, its origins are buried in time. In some wine-making regions, the custom is celebrated as a thanksgiving festival; other sources tell us that it harks back to those dark days when the Black Death stalked the land. Earliest writings refer to the Bochselnacht as an ancient custom with Celtic roots, an attempt to banish the demons of darkness with clamour and light, with frightening faces carved into turnip lanterns.
This combination of noise and light and painstakingly carved lanterns is the centrepiece of the children‘s pageant. Bochseln describes the act of creating a great deal of noise – clattering and banging – and generally getting up to a bit of mischief. Already in the Middle Ages, the authorities in a number of Swiss towns attempted to ban such goings-on, albeit with little or no success.
The lantern-bearing youngsters walk through the streets whilst the adults look on from the sidelines. They have their own entertainment – chatting, singing and enjoying culinary specialities by candlelight. One of the traditional delicacies is the so-called Böllenweggen, a bacon and onion filling in yeast pastry customarily accompanied by a glass or two of cider.
This is a tradition that has, to this day, remained exceedingly popular. And even though nobody is quite sure how and why it started, the songs have remained the same.
So if you are ever fortunate enough to see during the advent season what you assume to be a distant swarm of glow worms, think again – it might just be the Bochselnacht pageant in full swing!
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