It’s February in Switzerland’s Lötschental, a long valley deep in the hinterlands of the Bernese Alps. Mountains are blanketed with white powder, and the ski slopes are busy. Behind the scenes, in the four villages of the valley–Wiler, Ferden, Kippel and at the furthermost end, Blatten–preparations are underway for Carnival, or Fasnacht as it is known hereabouts.
Carnival here begins the day after Candlemas (2 February) and ends on the night before Ash Wednesday. It is here, in this remote place, that we meet the Tschäggätta (plural Tschäggättä), at the center at one of the most unusual Carnival spectacles Tom and I have experienced.
The remoteness of the Lötschental was always a source for myths and legends, and the ferocious Tschäggättä figures are said to originate with these wild forms. According to legend, men called the Schurten thieves used to live in the woods on the shady side of the valley. These small, stocky men went out at night to rob passersby, dressed in a costume much like that associated with the Tschäggättä, complete with wooden masks and skins.
The Tschäggättä generally do not form into organized groups. Instead, these frightening figures wearing furs and carved wooden masks walk the streets, tossing soot at unsuspecting victims. The custom developed during the valley’s long history of relative isolation, though its exact origins are a matter of debate. Old as the custom may be, the first official mention of the Tschäggätta is in a church chronicle from the second half of the 19th century.
The Tschäggättä wear old clothes, with the lining turned outward. Sheep or goat skins hang front and back and cover the shoulders. Trousers are made of burlap potato sacks, held together with a large belt from which a cowbell may dangle. Tschäggättä wear mittens as well, knitted from leftover weaving yarns, and jute wrapped around legs and shoes. The aim is to present a wild and imposing impression–and to remain anonymous.
The key feature of a Tschäggätta however, is a an enormous wooden mask–oversized, grotesque and sometimes brightly painted– with fur on the back side. Local carvers make the masks from Arvenholz–similar to pine and easy to work with. Adornments can include cow teeth, horns, and wacky goat-hair hairdos. Tschäggättä carry a wooden staff called a Schtäkkun, which they flail madly for added effect.
Behind the masks
In the past, only young men and bachelors dressed as Tschäggättä, although nowadays, girls and women can also take part. During the Carnival season, every evening except Sundays, these wild figures run through the valley, chasing anyone out on the streets. They also dance in a mischief-making parade from Blatten to Ferden, and join the large Lötschentaler Fasnachts parade in the village of Wiler. If you’re in the Lötschental, beware the masked bogeymen: the Tschäggättä have been known to come out by day, and have even been spotted on skis!
If you go
Curious? Then experience the living tradition first hand on 12 February 2015 at the traditional Tschäggättä parade or on 14 February 2014 at Lötschentaler Fasnachtsumzug:
- Here is the 2015 Carnival program.
- The Lötschentaler Museum in Kippel has a fine collection of Tschäggättä masks. Other places to see Lötschental maskas include the Museum der Kulturen in Basel and the Museum Rietberg in Zurich.
- When you’re ready to look beyond Carnival, this valley has much to offer outdoor enthusiasts. In winter, the Lauchernalp resort area has a sunny 55 km of alpine pistes, for skiers at all levels. Come summer, the Lötschental is a paradise for hiking enthusiasts, with 200 km of marked hiking trails.
- The Lötschental is accessible by public transport,about a 3-hour train+PostBus ride from Basel, Zürich or Geneva.
What a fascinating festival and good to see tradition is still alive and being celebrated. Interestingly the masks look almost like some we have seen in Indonesia, makes you wonder if there is some abstract link somewhere.
Yes, the masks are quite something, aren’t they? Definitely more like Indonesia or the South Pacific than what one might expect in the middle of Switzerland!
I love this, especially in its somewhat scattered, spontaneous manifestation–wild and anonymous. We have happened into Carnival weekend here in Malta. So I’ll be comparing notes. Thanks.
It would be interesting to know how Malta celebrates Carnival! The mountain versions of it here in Switzerland are nothing like the more citified–and definitely not spontaneous–Carnival events in Basel etc.
This looks amazing. I have never heard of this festival/carnival. I would definitely try to get there if I was anywhere close by.
Definitely worth a look-see, although the role of spectator-with-camera can be fraught…one of the chaps in costume and mask dancing in the street knocked me for a loop (and broke my glasses). Not his fault, as the figures have no peripheral vision behind those masks…but it was a little frightening!
I know they’re just people dressed up in costumes, but these Tschäggättä seem nightmare worthy. However, the beautiful scenery might cancel out their fearsomeness. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s not one most of us know about.
Suzanne, thankfully, this event takes place in a stunning place. Beautiful, narrow valley with runs for alpine skiers and winter walkers, and great trails for summer hiking. Worth visiting any time of year!
I love these old customs but some of these characters look decidedly scary!
They are definitely scary, and not at all the happy-dancing Carnival types I’ve seen elsewhere. There is something quite pagan about all this!
Definitely one of the most unusual carnivals!
Carnival in Lötschental is something I’ll probably never get to experience in person, so I did enjoy seeing it through your eyes. What fun!
My husband and I were in Switzerland in June and tried to locate a place to view and purchase the Tschaggatta masks, and have continued to try since we have been home. No luck, mostly due to translation of websites not showing all the masks available for purchase, payment type not accepted, and/or shipping costs coming up to far exceed the price of the mask. Can you help?
The Tschaggatta tradition is a very local one, and generally, the masks are not for sale. Exceptionally, I’ve read that a few of the handful of families who produce the masks in the Lötschental Valley do make masks to order. I do not know who they are, but perhaps the folks at the Lötschentaler Museum can help. Here’s the contact info (in French): http://bit.ly/1KWlS3I . I can imagine that a long-distance purchase would not be an inexpensive proposition–as you’ve mentioned already. Sorry I cannot help more with this, but wish you good luck in your quest!