Masked revellers take part in the traditional Tschaggata carnival in Kippel, Switzerland, in 2003. During this pagan celebration, larger-than-life figures wearing fantastically carved demonic masks and animal skins trudge
LOETSCHENTAL, Switzerland (AFP) - Demon masks intricately carved to frighten off evil spirits, village bonfires and figures dressed as horned animals are a common sight throughout the winter in Switzerland.
A visit to any of the hundreds of ancient carnival festivities that take place from Appenzell in the north, to Loetschental in the southern Alps and throughout central Switzerland makes this clear.
Larger-than-life figures wearing fantastically carved demonic masks and animal skins trudge through the snowy streets, making a terrible din ringing cow bells and banging on doors to ward off evil spirits.
"Some of our festivals go back to before Roman times, others to the Middle Ages," said Christophe Gros, of Geneva's Museum of Ethnology.
"Many were transformed during the 19th century when there was an effort by the (Roman Catholic) Church to stamp out pagan superstitions."
The dates of Swiss winter festivals are as varied as the celebrations themselves, reflecting the fluctuations of the old Julien calendar and the isolation of the villages, also perhaps a reason why the rituals have survived so long in Switzerland.
The first winter festival is the Feast of St Martin, or Rabeliechtli, held in early November in some Swiss German cantons.
It marks the end of the grape harvest with a custom of handing out gifts to children and wearing masks, a sort of blending of today's Christmas and Halloween customs.
Halloween has not caught on in Switzerland despite an effort a few years back to introduce commercial jack-o-lanterns and Trick-or-Treat ideas from the United States.
The Swiss prefer their own diverse ways of observing All Saint's Day and the Day of the Dead on November 1 and 2.
According to Irene Ritter, of the central city of Lucerne, who has written and lectured on the subject of winter festivities: "Efforts by the Catholic Church to abolish these pagan rites were in vain and they were ultimately incorporated into Christian rituals.
"Ultimately the Church in Switzerland was reasonable," she said, "allowing believers to have their fun and games just before Lent and Easter with the result that Fasnacht, a purely secular festival, is the favorite celebration in Lucerne."
As recently as the 1950s, with tourism on the increase, hoteliers in Loetschental tried to discourage the wild, masked Tschaggata festival as being too backward and pagan.
But instead there was a rush by tourists for the elaborately carved wooden masks.
Masked festivals like the Tschaggata, Lucerne's Fasnacht or the carnival in Kuessnacht in central Switzerland are replete with pre-Christian symbolism.
Many December fests feature huge bonfires, perhaps a Yule log and many variations on Father Christmas and the Three Wise Men.
The Feast of St Sylvester, named after a Byzantine pope, is commemorated on December 31 in many parts of the country.
Sometimes St Nicholas wears a long, hooded robe, perhaps black, more often white or red. He may be accompanied by a donkey laden with gifts or else by elves who distribute presents to the deserving.
Santa has many names and guises: Sylvesterklaus, Shone Klaus and even Naturklaus, a figure covered in pine branches, straw or wood shavings.
Marius Risi, a sociologist from Engleberg near Basel said: "Winter festivals underwent a transformation in the 19th century when the bourgeoisie began creating the elaborate costumed and colorful carnival processions seen today in the larger Swiss towns.
"They almost invented Swiss folklore as it is practiced today," he said, "transmitting it through children's books, songs and poems."
A favorite, sung by all Swiss children and adults around winter bonfires, is about Hom Strom (Strawman) who represents the Boogg (Bogeyman), the symbol of evil or the demon Satan, known by many names in Switzerland: Blatz, Poutratze, Chluri, Schnorri and Pagat, from the Latin word pagamus (pagan).
One of the oldest traditions in Europe, pre-dating the Middle Ages, takes place between January 13 and 27 in the northern city of Basel.
Figures parade through the town, one dressed as a lion, another as a mythological griffon.
They accompany the 'Wild Man', who is covered in fir branches and bearing an elaborate headdress.
Legend says that a young woman tall enough, and hence old enough, to pick an apple off the Wild Man's headdress will soon become pregnant, a reenactment of an ancient fertility rite.
"Switzerland has suffered no break with her past," said Ritter.
"Folk ways are still a part of life and belief in rural areas, especially for the mountain farmer. How each community deals with its evil and other spirits is the flash of color in the kaleidoscope of some five thousand rituals in the Swiss folklore calendar."