By Susan Misicka
Every year, a village on Lake Lucerne hosts one of Switzerland’s most spectacular holiday traditions: the Klausjagen.
Loosely translated as “chasing Santa”, Klausjagenexternal link is a procession featuring hundreds of men and boys cracking whips, blowing horns, ringing giant cowbells, and carrying enormous handmade lanterns on their heads.
The candle-lit lanterns – called Iffelen – are shaped like bishop’s hats and made with tissue paper to create the look of stained-glass windows. They take hundreds of hours to make, but they last for years – as long as they don’t get wet. These Iffelen are the main attraction of the Klausjagen, though their purpose is to herald the arrival of Saint Nicholas (Niklaus) and his sinister sidekick, Schmutzli.
The tradition has its roots in ancient fertility and harvest rituals, where men would raise a ruckus to scare off evil spirits and improve the next year’s crops. But over the centuries, it degenerated into random outbursts of noise – disturbing many residents of quiet Küssnacht at the base of Mount Rigi. Efforts to tame the capers by integrating the Christian figure of St Nick were only somewhat successful.
So on December 5, 1928 – the eve of St Nicholas Day – a few locals initiated a fun-yet-dignified parade. It caught on, and today the St Nicholas Societyexternal link has nearly 2,000 members – all male. (Women can join a similar club in nearby Immensee.) A children’s version of the Klausjagen parade takes place earlier in the day.
In addition to staging the annual procession, the Klausjagen society does charitable work to benefit the needy, especially children and elderly people.