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How do the Swiss celebrate Ascension Day?

Ascension Day is on Thursday May 18th this year. Here’s how the Swiss celebrate it - and where.

Zermatt, in southern Switzerland’s Valais canton.
Zermatt, in southern Switzerland’s Valais canton. Many people get out and enjoy the nature on public holidays. Photo by Joao Branco on Unsplash

In Switzerland, May 18th marks Ascension Day, one of the few Swiss nationwide public holidays – alongside Christmas Day and New Year’s Day – to be celebrated in every canton with a day off work.

Ascension Day, which is synonymous with the German and Austrian holiday Christi Himmelfahrt, is in fact equated with Sunday, so shops in Switzerland are closed all day.

How Ascension Day celebrated in Switzerland?

While most people living in Switzerland look forward to kicking off the extended weekend with a relaxing getaway, some traditions to celebrate Ascension day are still observed in many cantons.

Once upon a time, ceremonial processions to mark Ascension day, which would see the Swiss walk through fields and meadows, were prevalent in most Catholic regions across Switzerland.

However, today, only a few rural communities in Lucerne carry out these traditional Ascension day processions, known as Auffahrstumritt, in their original religious form.

The oldest, largest and by far most popular Ascension day procession takes place every year in Beromünster when around 1,000 people travel some 18 kilometres to meditate, pray and walk among like-minded people, listen to sermons by the clergy and/or receive blessings.

Each year, the procession – which lasts around eight-and-a-half hours – takes residents and visitors along a centuries-old path through various towns and villages. Following that, more people – sometimes up to 5,000 – join in for a large celebration to mark the end of the procession and in turn, Ascencion day.

Swiss city of Lucerne

The Swiss city of Lucerne. Photo: Geertje Caliguire on Unsplash

READ ALSO: When are the Swiss public holidays in your canton in 2023?

The municipality of Sempach and the city of Lucerne also maintain similar traditions.

In Liestal, an industrial town based in the canton of Basel-Land, residents celebrate a so-called Banntag (community boundary day) on the Monday prior to Ascension day.

On Banntag, all male Liestal residents, men whose hometown is Liestal, as well as all their male guests and school-age children of both sexes stroll along the boundaries of their municipality.

On the day, residents are divided into four groups based on their family ties and neighbourhood with a leader, fife, drum band, and fancy flag to boot.

The Banntag traditionally starts at 6 am with a shooting demonstration by the marksmen in the Rathausstrasse, following which the town gate bell is rung to gather the townspeople. At 8 am the groups then begin the 26-kilometre march along communal boundaries, followed by a few rounds of bar hopping in Liestal’s taverns.

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For members


What shocks Americans most about Switzerland?

When they first arrive, many foreigners find Swiss ways difficult to get used to. But some first-time American visitors have their own very steep learning curve, writes Swiss-based American journalist Helena Bachmann.

What shocks Americans most about Switzerland?

People in America are accustomed to certain things that are rare, or inexistant, in Switzerland. That’s why some of their discoveries about the country are positive, while others less so.

It all depends on how “set” they are in their American ways, and how open (or not) they are to new and different experiences.

We are not referring to ‘usual’ peeves like high prices, early store closures, quiet Sundays, and recycling culture that many foreigners complain about. 

There are some other aspects of Swiss life that can sometimes shock and surprise first-time American visitors.

Here are some of the most common ones: 

Switzerland is not Sweden

Yes, it does sound a bit ‘old’ by now, but there are still some Americans who believe Switzerland and Sweden are one and the same.

They don’t necessarily prefer one over another; they just mix them up, with the only reason being the first two letters are the same and they both are in Europe.

It is useless to point out geographical and other differences right away. They will eventually have  a ‘Eureka’ moment on their own, when they realise that one is cheese and chocolate, and the other IKEA.

There is no ‘Swiss’ language

While most Americans know before they land here that Switzerland is a multi-lingual country (just as they know this is not Sweden), others are still mighty surprised that there is not one main language.

And a few even consider it an affront when someone will not speak English to them.

There is no Walmart

Maybe not specifically Walmart, but the lack of huge malls shocks some Americans.

That’s not only because they think this curtails the shopping opportunities, but mostly because in the US, malls also serve as social venues — places where people hang out, sit in a food court, and power-walk for exercise.

Food portions in restaurants are small

If you have ever eaten in a US restaurant, you know the portions are humongous.

This is what people expect also when they travel abroad; small, human-sized portions served in Switzerland mean they are not getting good value for their money and feel, in a sense, ‘cheated.’

Hey, where is the rest of it? This portion would not satisfy some Americans. Image by Snag Eun Park from Pixabay

By the same token — small portions in supermarkets

Many Americans are stunned that there are no huge, family-sized food and beverages sold in grocery stores — such as a gallon bottles of coke or 2-pound bags of potato chips.

Whether this is because families are larger in America or simply because people there are used to eating more — make of it what you will.

But that’s not all: size really does matter to Americans

Just as they are stunned by small portions in restaurants and supermarkets, they are also surprised by the size of appliances — and especially ovens — in Swiss homes.

As one American woman told her Swiss hostess, “This is just slightly bigger than my daughter’s toy oven. How do you bake a Thanksgiving turkey in it?”

No air-conditioning

Widespread in the United States but non-existent in Switzerland, this is one phenomenon that some Americans have a hard time accepting.

Not only that, but the rules here are blatantly anti-air condition and pro-sweat.

When you tell some Americans the government believes ACs are energy-guzzlers and bad for the environment in general, they will look at you like all Swiss are crazy (and will probably wish they were in Sweden instead).

No free refills

Ah yes. For some Americans accustomed to having bottomless cups of coffee or free soda refills, having to pay each time you order a drink is a shock.

Even more so, as coffee portions here are smaller than the ones from Starbucks, this again feeds into their belief that the people here are being starved and cheated.

No ice

Drinks are not routinely served with ice cubes, even on very hot days.

If you want ice in your coke or ice tea — as most Americans are bound to — you must ask for it. Three or four ice cubes will then be brought to you in a small glass, with a spoon for scooping.

Did anyone say ‘culture shock’?