Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Brief History of the Swiss National Day


August 1 is a major holiday in Switzerland. Known as the Fête nationale Suisse in French, the Nationalfeiertag in German, the Festa nazionale Svizzera in Italian and the Fiasta naziunala Svizra in Romanish, August 1st is THE BIG DAY that that Swiss people set aside to celebrate their independence. It can be a very busy time in Switzerland but also a very beautiful one.

The actual history of the date, and of Switzerland’s birth, goes back to the Middle Ages. Struggling against oppression and tyranny, the representatives of the original cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden decided to band together. They came together on the shores of Lake Lucerne at a place called the Rütli meadow. There they swore an oath to help each other against anyone attempting to subject them. This act became known as the Rütli Oath and on August 1, 1291, the representatives recorded the oath in a Federal Charter and thereby confirmed their allegiance to one another. Many years later, the Swiss declared August 1 a national holiday in honor of their independence. It is interesting to note that the present name Switzerland comes from the word Schwyz, the name of one of the three original cantons that banded together.

Today, the cities, towns and villages of Switzerland celebrate their independence with yodeling, paper lantern parades, bonfires, fireworks, hanging strings of Swiss flags and more. At the historic location of Rütli Meadow above Lake Lucerne, a representational celebration takes place in the location where the legendary pledge of alliance, the Rütlischwur is believed to have taken place.

I’ve had the opportunity to celebrate this day of independence on August 1 and I can only say that it’s an amazing experience. Some of the mountain communities light bonfires atop the surrounding peaks, much like the bonfire scene in the Lord of the Rings III, the Return of the King. Off in the countryside, little fires twinkle like a hundred fireflies at twilight. The locals come out in traditional costume while cowbells and alphorns ring loudly in the distance. A lantern light parade commences and an enormous party ensues.

Today we offer warm birthday greetings to our alpine friend across the pond. Happy birthday Schwyz!