Mittelland : festivals
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The Mittelland is one of the more traditional areas of the country, and has hundreds of folk customs and festivals surviving in various forms, many of them dating back to the pre-Christian pagan religions of the Celts. “Chilbi” is the generic name given to the summer highland festivals of the Emmental, raucous events taking in folk singers and dancers, yodellers, flag-throwers, alphorn blowers and more. The Lüderenchilbi is one of the most famous, held on the Lüderenalp meadow every second Sunday in August and centred on a Schwingfest, a traditional Swiss wrestling contest held in a sawdust ring. The winner gets to take home a heifer decked out in garlands. The Schafsheid, or sheep-sorting, held in Riffenmatt, 20km south of Bern, on the first Thursday in September, is a colourful event, when the sheep, after spending the summer on the alp, are sorted out by owner, amidst market stalls and celebrations. The Sichlete is a communal autumn meal, where in years gone by everyone who’d worked to bring in the harvest would sit down to gorge on stew, sausages, hams and fresh garden produce, helped down by huge meringues and local apple Schnapps; these days, with increasing farm mechanization (and so fewer seasonal farmhands taken on), the Sichlete has become merely an excuse for two or three villages to get together for a feast and a knees-up. In Burgdorf, the last Monday in June sees the Solennität, a 250-year-old festival for children, featuring contests, games and traditional costumes.

Many pagan New Year’s Eve rituals survive in the villages of the Mittelland. Laupen’s Achetringele stems from a Celtic exorcising of evil spirits and demons on the winter solstice; now shifted to December 31, it involves all the boys in the village chasing away the old year either as one of the masked Bäsemänner (broom-sweepers) or as a noisy, cowbell-swinging Tringeler (bell-ringer). One of the most bizarre customs, however, survives in Schwarzenburg, 8km north of Rittenmatt, where the Altjahrsesel (Old-Year Donkey) – these days a man dressed in a donkey suit – is whipped and beaten before being led away by a grim figure representing death. As well as the group of exorcists, various other characters take part in the ritual, including a bride and groom, representing joy in the year to come, the devil, a priest, and, most chillingly of all, a two-faced woman, the Hinnefürfraueli, whose beautiful front face looks forward to the new year, while her hideous rear face despatches the old year to memory.

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