‘Schöne’ Silvesterkläuse, or New Year mummers, doing the rounds in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985.
‘Schöne’ Silvesterkläuse, or New Year mummers, doing the rounds in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985. ETH Library Zurich / Comet Photo AG

Silvesterkläuse both beautiful and ugly

Every 31 December and 13 January, bizarre and fantastical figures rove the hinterland of the Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden. Some wear ornate headdresses, others grotesque animal faces. These are the "Silvesterkläuse" that usher out the old year and ring in the new.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

Along with the Alpfahrt, the traditional processions herding cattle up to their summer pastures in the spring and back down in the autumn, the Silvesterklausen in Urnäsch and the surrounding area is an Appenzell custom that is famous throughout Switzerland. The custom derives its charm from the unique blending of contrasts such as nature and art, mystery and tradition, and harmony and anarchy. There are three types of Kläuse: the ‘beautiful’, the ‘ugly’, and the ‘pretty-ugly’. The Schöne (beautiful) , as their name suggests, are beautiful and richly ornamented. They wear velvety britches or skirts that are similar to traditional costumes. Over their faces, they wear plain masks with red cheeks. Perched on each Schöne head is a large, flat hat on which scenes from everyday life are depicted with carved figures. All of this is embellished with thousands of glass beads. The groups, known as Schuppel in the Appenzell dialect, sew and carve the decorative elements of the costumes themselves, often making a start on their preparations as early as spring. The appearance of the Wüeschte (ugly) is no less elaborate. They wear fearsome masks and outfits covered with hay, straw, fir twigs and other natural materials. The Schö-wüeschte (pretty-ugly) are a mixture of the other two types. They too are clad in natural materials, but their garb is arranged in elaborate patterns. As with the Schöne, they may also wear carved figures on their heads. Common to all the Kläuse are the bells in various shapes and sizes that they wear about their bodies.
‘Schöne’ Silvesterklaus in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985.
‘Schöne’ Silvesterklaus in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985. ETH Library Zurich / Comet Photo AG
‘Wüeschte’ Silvesterklaus in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985.
‘Wüeschte’ Silvesterklaus in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985. ETH Library Zurich / Comet Photo AG
The Silvesterklausen ritual begins early in the morning. In Urnäsch, the various Schuppel meet on the village square before each group goes its own way. When they arrive in front of a house, the Kläuse hop around and jump up and down to make their bells ring. Then they start singing a Zäuerli, a type of natural yodel. The family of the house, and the many tourists and onlookers, listen raptly. The Kläuse then wish the family of the house a happy new year, and are given a gift of cash and something to drink, which is served to them through their masks using a straw. Then, bells ringing and clanging, the Kläuse rapidly move on.
Refreshments after performing the Zäuerli, Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985.
Refreshments after performing the Zäuerli, Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985. ETH Library Zurich / Comet Photo AG
Image 01 of 05
Early morning preparations, Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985.
Early morning preparations, Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985. ETH Library Zurich / Comet Photo AG
Image 01 of 05
A Schuppel makes a stop in front of a farmhouse, 2020.
A Schuppel makes a stop in front of a farmhouse, 2020. Wikimedia / JCbgr007
Image 01 of 05
‘Schöne’ Silvesterkläuse, or New Year mummers, doing the rounds in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985.
‘Schöne’ Silvesterkläuse, or New Year mummers, doing the rounds in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985. ETH Library Zurich / Comet Photo AG
Image 01 of 05
‘Wüschte’ Silvesterkläuse doing the rounds in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985.
‘Wüschte’ Silvesterkläuse doing the rounds in Urnäsch, sometime between 1975-1985. ETH Library Zurich / Comet Photo AG
Image 01 of 05

From a Christmas to a New Year’s Eve custom

It used to be thought that the custom had pagan roots. Today, we’re a bit more circumspect in our assumptions. The origin of the custom in its current form is clearly Christian, as its name suggests. The ‘Klaus’ refers to Saint Nicholas. There are indications that the Klausen festivities originally took place not at the turn of the year, but over Christmas. The first written accounts of the custom in the Appenzell region appear in a moral mandate issued by the Reformed church, dating from 1663. The mandate forbids ‘St. Niclaussen’ at Christmas ‘with running about, thumping and bells’ at night. The Reformed Church thoroughly disapproved of the worshipping of a saint – and at Christmas too. The Church had replaced Saint Nicholas as a bringer of gifts with the Heilige Christ, the precursor of the Christkind. Over time it is likely this meant that, firstly, the Silvesterklausen custom didn’t take place until after Christmas and, secondly, the costumes became more ‘archaic’ and moved away from the image of Saint Nicholas. Today, all that remains of Saint Nick is the Swiss-German name ‘Chlaus’. By the end of the 19th century, the custom had finally shifted to New Year’s Eve once and for all. Silvesterklausen was thus no longer a problem for the Church, and it fitted into the array of other New Year’s Eve customs whose purpose was to ‘drive out’ the old year with bell-ringing, singing or making a noise, or in some other way.
Urnäsch Silversterklausen during the war years, 1942. Here, the costumes are much simpler and less ornate than they are today.
Urnäsch Silversterklausen during the war years, 1942. Here, the costumes are much simpler and less ornate than they are today. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Especially in times of poverty and hunger, which afflicted the Appenzell region frequently, Klausen was a way to earn a little extra money for the family. In the 1930s what were known as ‘Bettelchläuse’ (beggar Kläuse) began to appear. As a result of this influx of beggars in Klaus guise, heavy restrictions were put on Kläuse and during the 1950s the custom had nearly died out in some villages. It is only thanks to the initiative of individuals that the custom was revived in the 1970s, and enjoys enormous popularity today. The Silvesterklausen is part of Switzerland’s intangible cultural heritage.
Doing the rounds with the Silvesterkläuse, 2020. YouTube / Djemo Graphic

Why celebrate New Year’s Eve twice?

The Silvesterklausen takes place on 31 December and again on ‘Old New Year’s Eve, 13 January. Where do these two dates come from? In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII removed 10 days from the calendar. He decreed that the day after 4 October 1582 was to be 15 October. The background to this reform was the Easter celebration, which was based on the astronomical beginning of spring. The Julian calendar introduced in 46 BC didn’t accurately follow the course of the sun, adding an extra 11 minutes each year. By the 16th century, a backlog of 10 days had accumulated. That made the calculation of Easter very complicated –  a situation which the Pope found unacceptable. He therefore decreed, by the papal bull Inter gravissimas, that the calendar was to be revised. The decree came at a time when the disputes of the Reformation were at their peak and the confessionalisation of Europe was well advanced. For Reformed areas, any directives and alterations that came from the Pope were fundamentally suspect. This meant implementation of the calendar reform was extremely patchy, depending on area. The Appenzell region was still undivided at the time of the papal decree, and as a result of denominational tensions, in the Reformed areas which would later form the Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden the Julian calendar wasn’t abolished until 1798. The date of the Julian New Year’s Eve, known today as ‘Old New Year’s Eve’, has been retained up to the present day. For the people of Appenzell this has the advantage that they can celebrate New Year’s Eve, and thus the cherished custom of Silversterklausen, twice.
Portrait of Pope Gregory XIII, between 1586 and 1592.
Portrait of Pope Gregory XIII, between 1586 and 1592. Wikimedia

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).