In pitch-dark we woke on the slopes of Mount Säntis, a blizzard raging outside our hotel.

As my mind reconstructed reality, I hazily remembered that my wife and I had driven the day before to Urnäsch, a quaint village in the mountainous Appenzell region of Switzerland. We had come to experience the annual visitation of the Silvesterchlausen, an event central to their new year tradition.

This highly colorful festival, whose ceremonial purpose is chasing away the bad spirits of the last year while inviting in the good spirits for the new year, attracts visitors from around the world.

We had come not only to see the festival with our own eyes but hopefully to capture images and sounds for our documentary series, In Search of the Great Song. The films explore an underlying, all-pervading creative pulse existing distinctly within all cultures of the world. Here, each year in Urnäsch, one of the more fascinating expressions of this phenomenon is brought to life.

Throughout the year, dedicated villagers spend hundreds of hours keeping this legacy alive, a tradition whose origins precede the 15th century. Crafting highly detailed and elaborate costumes, villagers formed teams of six, and twice a year- on New Year’s day in both the Gregorian and Julian calendars - they don their masks and freely roam the valleys, visiting spread-out homesteads and farms, singing a finely harmonized kind of yodel called Zauerli followed by shaking the bells attached to their costume.

In the pre-dawn hour, as we timidly drove the icy mountain road down from our hotel, we realized we had no clear plan of where to find the legendary Silvesterchlausen. A sense of mystery and wonder swept over us, not unlike the early morning mist shimmering on the snow.

As we stopped our car and got out, we glimpsed shadowy figures in the distance walking single-file across the snow-covered meadow. All was silent except for the jingling of bells in the fog. As if creatures from another world were visiting with a mission of cleansing the region from darkness and making it new, the Silvesterklausen approached a nearby farmhouse. Intermittently singing their haunting, tender song and shaking their bells, the sturdy, costumed men stood in a circle. At the end of the ritual, the farmer and his family thanked them for their blessing.

The Silvesterklausen continued their journey and we followed, caught in the spell of their ritual. We began tracking the bells and the movement of dancing and spinning figures, enthralled by the sounds, costumes, reverence and joy.

Each group had their own distinctive songs, trademark Zauerli unique to their ‘guild’, going back hundreds of years. And the costumes - so fantastic! Three different types of Silvesterchlausen can be distinguished:

  • The Beautiful wore very ornately embroidered headgear with scenes of peasant life, domestic customs and crafts, special buildings, sports, or family life, which take hundreds of hours of intensive work. Their dress resembles a local traditional costume.
  • The Pretty-Ugly wears a costume made of fir twigs, ivy, moss, and other natural materials, and a headgear similar in shape to those of the Beautiful, but also decorated with natural materials.
  • The Ugly wear a costume made from the same materials as the Pretty-Ugly, but coarser and more massive in appearance. On their head, they wear a hat or a helmet, artfully crafted but having a wild appearance.

At one house, an ‘Ugly’ gathering had just finished their song when we arrived. The resident couple brought out refreshments, which they fed to the celebrants through long straws entering through a hole in the masks. Spectators stood silently around, witnessing a centuries-old custom of a town tenderly and practically caring for each other.

By the end of the morning, the ceremony was complete. The Silvesterchlausen now mingled with the visitors, choosing their lunch places, removing their masks to do so. The singing continued throughout the meals.

My wife and I basked in a feeling of joyful exhaustion, grateful that we had participated, in our way, in such a profoundly human event, set far apart from the modern world. We were also glad to bring footage from the experience to enrich our film, providing viewers with at least a touch of the mystery and wonder which the Silvesterchlausen keep alive and deliver, year after year, to all who come to experience it.