Saint Berchtold's Day 2018 and 2019
Saint Berchtold’s Day is a public holiday, not in all of Switzerland’s cantons, but in 14 of them, including Zurich and Bern. It falls on January 2nd, and in some but not all cantons where it is observed, banks, schools, and certain businesses close down for the day.
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Saint Berchtold’s Day is a tradition dating at least to the 14th Century A.D. and is attested not only in parts of Switzerland but also in Liechtenstein and Alsace. The connection is that these are, primarily, areas once inhabited by the Alemanni, a Germanic tribe. The descendants of the Alemanni still live in many of these regions.
Despite the “Saint” in the name of the holiday, history does not inform us of any Saint Berchtold. The word may have been added simply out of habit, seeing as so many other holidays are dedicated to the remembrance of some saint or other and because the meaning of “berchtold” became obscure.
There are many theories about how Saint Berchtold’s Day got started. Some say “berchtold” is an old Alemmanic word meaning “to walk about begging for food,” implying that the drear, hungry winter months inspired the name. Others say the day commemorates the founding of Bern by Duke Berchtold V in the 12th Century. It is said that Bern is named after the bear he killed on a hunting trip, for “bern” in German means “bear.” And yet others tell us that the name comes from “Perchta,” a feminine, half human half beast creature that folklore declares “the guardian of the animals.”
However, the truth seems likely to be those who say that “berchtold” is an old High-German equivalent of “Epiphany.” The day was likely the local name for the Roman Catholic feast of Epiphany, which occurred on “the 12th Day of Christmas” to commemorate when the Three Magi were thought to have visited the baby Jesus. This theory accounts for why the celebration of Saint Berchtold’s Day waned following the Swiss Reformation, for Protestants disfavoured celebrating Epiphany. And the tweaking of the date to January 2nd seems to have been a way of compensating for the loss of a holiday and giving a day during which to relax and recover from the celebrations on New Year’s Day.
Should you visit those parts of Switzerland that observe Saint Berchtold’s Day during festivities on January 2nd, three activities to take part in are:
- Eat a feast of nuts. Yes, it is traditional on this day to eat an abundance of nuts, which used to be hoarded up during the fall and kept for special occasions in times of old. A challenge to stack a single nut on top of four nuts placed together, called “making hocks,” is also traditional and not nearly as easy as it sounds. After eating nuts and making hocks, Swiss at Saint Berchtold’s Day celebrations will also get up to perform folk music and dances.
- Visit Zurich and other German-language cantons that keep Saint Berchtold’s Day. Here, celebrating means a family meal at a pub or restaurant. Some such meals are put on by special societies as well. Here, you can dine on a full Swiss meal and not just nuts.
- Go to the village of Hallwil for the Saint Berchtold’s Day parade known as “the Barzeli.” You will see numerous masked individuals pass by, representing such diverse concepts as wisdom, fertility, and ugliness.
While Saint Berchtold’s Day in Switzerland is not observed by everyone, there are still some special events to take part in in geographic areas where its traditions live on.