Berchtold’s Day – Switzerland

January 2

Berne Coat of Arms

We made it to day 2 of the new year and the Swiss are already celebrating their second holiday.

Berchold’s Day, January 2, is named after Duke Berchtold V of Zahringen who founded the capital city of Switzerland in 1191.

Local legend goes that Bertchtold announced he’d name his future city after the first animal he slay on his hunting trip. He scored a bear, and thus the city is called Berne. (Good thing he didn’t kill a donkey.)

A duller theory is he named it “in memory of Dietrich of Berne (Verona), a favourite hero of Alamannic poetry.” (Names and Their Histories, Isaac Taylor, 1856″)

The Great Bear Hunt

St. Brechtold’s Day is celebrated mostly in the area around Berne. Though the confederacy of Switzerland is 700 years old, each region has maintained their own culture and identity. Switzerland’s central location in Western Europe makes it the “melting pot” of very white people: French, German, Italian, and Swiss. So I guess it’s more of an assorted cheese wheel of cultures, since it hasn’t really melted yet.

According to

…the second day of January is devoted to gay neighborhood parties in which nuts play an important part.

You know, I’m not even going to quote you the rest of that.

Okay, yes I am.

In early autumn children begin hoarding supplies of nuts for Berchtold’s Day, when they have “nut feasts.” Nut eating and nut games, followed by singing and folk dancing…One favorite stunt of the boys and girls is to make “hocks.”

Hocks are made up of five nuts—a pyramid with four nuts on the bottom and one on top—and apparently they’re harder to construct than you’d think. We don’t know why nuts are involved. theorizes that Berchtold really killed a squirrel.

Whatever the reason, there’s no better way to usher in the New Year than by breaking out some nuts, build those pyramidal hocks, and sing the national song of Switzerland:

O Great Berchtold
You killed a bear
You founded Berne
We stack nuts in your honor.

— Ancient Swiss Canto*

Photos of Berchtoldstag Parade

[*Ok, just to clarify, this is a made-up song, not the Swiss anthem. — Ed.]

The Truth about Santa – St Nick’s Eve

December 5

About this time of year parents deliberately wait in long lines in overcrowded shopping malls so their kids can sit on the lap of a fat red stranger.

Some cultures might call this odd. We call it Christmas.

Though the Christmas season begins commercially on Black Friday, and religiously on Advent, tonight kicks off the season for children in Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

Saint Nicholas, 1838 - by Robert Weir

It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve, and though the date and the figure go by many names, the themes remain the same: kids and candy.

The jolly bearded guy known as Santa Claus in the United States is actually is an amalgamation of numerous folk figures.

The United States imported “Santa Claus” mainly from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Long before that, the Dutch learned of the saint, Saint Nicholas, from Spanish sailors, who believed Saint Nicholas had the power to save sailors by stemming storms at sea. Even today Sinterklaas arrives in Holland on or around November 17 each year, not on a sleigh from the North Pole, but on a ship from Spain.

No one would be more surprised at the role Santa plays in modern society than Saint Nicholas himself, who was actually a bishop in the ancient town of Myra, Turkey (then Asia Minor) around 300 AD.

Saint Nick, old skool

Saint Nicholas was imprisoned for 5 years for refusing to recognize the Roman Emperor Diocletian as a god. He was released after the Christian Emperor Constantine took the throne and removed Christianity from the Roman “terrorist watchlist.”

Today Saint Nicholas is remembered less for his role in destroying pagan temples than for his acts of kindness toward children. Like secretly giving poor families of young girls money for a dowry, so they could marry rather than become prostitutes.

Legends of Saint Nicholas’s devotion to the poor spread throughout the centuries. As his posthumous fame grew, children would leave their boots outside on St. Nicholas Eve in the hopes that St. Nick would fill them with goodies.

In Protestant Germany, Martin Luther replaced the Catholic gift-giving Saint Nicholas with the Christkindl, or “Christ Child.” Over time Christkindl’s name morphed to Krist Kindel. You may know him however as Kris Kringle.

In North America Santa Claus travels by reindeer-guided sleigh, while in Europe the gift-giver is accompanied by figures such as Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) or Krampus (The Claw), the latter being a goat-headed demonish entity who whips bad children with a switch. The Bad Cop to Santa’s Good Cop.

Whether you call him Santa, Kris Kindl, or Father Christmas, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Christmas is still 20 days out and believe me, you don’t want to end up on Krampus’s naughty list!


There Really is a Santa Claus – William Federer

Sankt Nikolaus und der Weihnachtsmann

Saint Nicholas Customs Around the World


St. Nicholas Day in Germany

Swiss National Day

August 1

“In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

So goes Orson Welles’ famous line from The Third Man. But the Swiss will tell you Switzerland has produced much more than the cuckoo clock, the army knife, holey cheese, and those nifty bank accounts. Here, for the first time ever, ranked by the world’s most brainiest scientists, are the top 20 things to come out of Switzerland over the last 500 years:

20. internal combustion engine
19. e (as 2.71828 )
18. fondue
17. Amish people
16. Nescafe
15. velcro
14. absinthe
13. William Tell
12. i (square root of negative 1)
11. LSD
10. LCDs
9. Rorschach tests
8. Diesel
7. aluminum foil
6. cheese spread
5. the Red Cross
4. the World Wide Web
3. Toblerone
2. photosynthesis
1. Ursula Andress

Ah the Swiss...Ursula Andress in Dr. No

Despite these achievements, women in Switzerland didn’t get the right to vote until 1971. Since then, however, they’ve had two female Presidents.

Today’s National Day celebrates the Federal Charter of 1291, penned in August of that year. It states:

…know all men, that the people of the valley of Uri, the democracy of the valley of Schwyz, and the community of the Lower Valley of Unterwalden, seeing the malice of the age, in order that they may better defend themselves, and their own, and better preserve them in proper condition, have promised in good faith to assist each other with aid…against one and all, who may inflict upon any one of them any violence, molestation or injury, or may plot any evil against their persons or goods.

And they meant it. Mild-mannered as they seem today, the Swiss Confederation was the terror of Europe starting in the days of national hero William Tell in the 14th century until 1515 when French, German, and Venetian troops defeated 20,000 Swiss–the best trained army on the continent–in the Battle of Marignano. The battle also marked the end of the days of pikes and phalanxes and the beginning of the dominance of field artillery.

Switzerland joined the United Nations in 2002.