When New Year Falls on January 13th

In parts of Eastern Switzerland, the New Year is still celebrated on the 13th of January. New Year’s Eve, i.e. the 12th, is a festival day for everybody and schools and shops are closed. On this day, the Claus is on the loose going from house to house to bring good luck.

In the region of Appenzell in Switzerland, the old New Year is still celebrated. As part of this region was strictly Reformed Church, it did not follow the new calendar of Pope Gregory that we use today because it was a Catholic thing. Instead, they kept the Julian calendar into the late 18th century when Napoleon annexed Switzerland and made them agree to the new calendar by force. 

On New Year’s Eve, the Claus takes to the streets. The day starts early with breakfast at the house of one of the group. Dressing up and putting on the masks may take several hours. The performers come in groups of six consisting of six young men performing the roles of the female ‘roller’ for rolling metal balls in round bells and the male ‘ringer’ for ringing over-sized cow bells. Traditionally, one roller leads the group from house to house where they roll and ring and then sing a traditional air for good luck in the New Year. The head of the visited house afterwards makes a gift to them, usually in the form of money. 

After they received their gift, the group is lead by the leading roller to the next house, being followed by the four ringers and at the rear the second roller. The groups come in three kinds and are never mixed. The beautiful Claus wears a kind of Sunday garb with handcrafted hats and headdresses. These show scenes from rural life, either farming themes or arts and crafts. The bells they carry may weigh up to 20 kg, and hats or headdresses again as much. 

The ugly Claus is dressed completely in natural materials: Twigs, straw, horns, antlers, or pigs’ teeth might be used to complete his rig. Everything is done to make figure and mask as hideous as possible. The third group is the beautifully ugly Claus. Again, all materials are derived from nature, but handcrafted to make ornate headdresses or hats. 

By tradition, a Claus is always impersonated by young men, never women. But in the children’s groups, boys and girls take part. Their costumes are just as elaborate as their elder’s and weeks of sewing and preparing are spent before the great day comes. The rollers need hours of training to get the metal balls rolling in their round bells by only moving their body. The ringers take hours of training, too, to get equal ringtones from their back and front bells. 

This might look like one more heathen tradition transported into modern times, but it isn't. It started in the 16th century when young unmarried men thought this up. The day of St Nicholas on the 6th of December is an important day for children in Switzerland, as they will receive a small present on that day. Being too old for presents but unmarried, young men started the dressing up to visit the houses of their friends and wishing them a happy feast day. 

The Church was not impressed with this carnival like way of preparing for Christmas and intervened. As everybody liked the idea anyhow, it was moved by mutual consent to New Year’s Eve at the beginning of the 17th century and has been kept alive since then.