The New Year's Eve Philosophy of a small Swiss Town
(Urnäsch, Appenzell)

A Photo Report

by Nold Egenter



Urnäsch is not really a town in the urban sense. It is a village which has recently developed a central part of higher density with some central functions for the region which is traditionally characterised by a dispersed and very specific small scale farming industry. This is valid for the whole 'canton' (county) of Appenzell in the eastern  part of Switzerland. It is a very specific region situated between St. Gallen, a fairly large city with a fairly ancient catholic tradition centered around large cathedral and one of the most ancient monasteries in the larger region. In the north the fairly mountainous region is delimited by the southern bank of the lake of Constance, in the east by the large valley of the upper Rhine and its mouth delta. In the southern direction it extends towards a fairly high mountain ridge at the north of a very narrow strip of lake (Walensee). Not only the disperse settlements are characteristic, the houses too are a very special local tradition quite different from other farm house types of eastern Switzerland. The population too shows a specific character in regard to social life (each house is also some sort of a restaurant to receive guests), men are dressed with very colourful clothes at festivals. Since olden times they have their own types of  dogs. In law and politics Appenzell is famous for its evidently ancient democracy. Voting procedures are performed on a public place by raising one's hand for consent (Landsgemeinde of Herisau,  at uneven years).

The New Year's Eve is feasted in very particular ways in Urnäsch. The custom is verbally related to Saint Nicolas traditions of December, but this is a merely verbal way to integrate it into common traditions of christianised Europe. In fact it has nothing to do with the Nicolaus figure in December.  A group of rather wild and anthropomorphised types of figures called 'the ugly ones'. Evidently the behaviour shows pre-christian traits related to the demarcation of agrarian settlements. Their toposemantic functions dissolved, these demarcations  temporarily break into the human domain. Second components of the festival show a formally refined form, 'the beautiful ones' (die Schöne), contrasting with the primary ugly ones. There is also a third type, called 'the beautiful ugly ones'(Schön-Wüeschte'). It is probably a primary aesthetic variation of the wild ugly ones.

In contrast to the modern architect's narrow minded relation to architecture (see former article on 'architectural proselytism' in Appenzell)   the present report records a very vast horizon of architecture which reaches into philosophy and worldview of a given settlement. This connection is justified since the figures we deal with had their origins - without doubt - in the tradition of terriorial demarcation of the fibroconstructive  type or, what we call  'semantic architecture'. In this sense the custom is closely related to the houses of the community and the families who live there as part of this community. The usual way how such traditions are interpreted corresponds to a clerical survival of the Middle Ages. Traditions of this type are considered part of primitive beliefs. But this is a pure scholastic prejudice. We are trying to interprete them in new and more opbjective ways using the framework of environmental behaviour, or more precisely, anthropology of habitat and architecture.

In a wider sense, and particularly focussed on ethnology, folklore and social anthropology, it is an attempt to question conventional images of traditional settlements, as apriori 'primitive', 'third world' etc.. Such traditions are usually depicted in very distorted ways in the sense of what we called the 'rural - urban dichotomy'. It is evident that the village tradition we are describing below offers extremely high sociopsychological values in view of identification of the inhabitants with their own community.

Urnaesch and its Landscape

'Urnäsch by night'! Houses have clustered together  along the main road opposite the church. Some offer rooms for tourists who come to the region. There are some restaurants and shops. House style however has remained traditional like the dispersed farm houses of the region. Construction is mainly in wood, the groundfloor usually in brick or concrete today. Typical are the serial arrangements of windows in every floor.

The valleys are fairly smooth with many hills. Some of them end in high mountain ranges.

Typical Appenzell landscape. Houses are disperse. Typical are also the borderlines between different properties. Fences  are combined with trees often along a small stream of water.

The ugly ones

Imagine such a macho-figure entering a bank in the city. Alert, sirens, police etc.. In Urnaesch they are part of the local philosophy: to make you think. Where do such figures come from? Why are they kept alive from such olden times? Are the peoples with whom I share my daily life gone crazy? Or, are they usually crazy and do not show it? Thus, are they real now? Are these the real peoples I live with daily together? Do they want to tell me the truth in a coded language? What is their relation to history? If my neighbour moves through the village like this, is there something in his brain which stores vital parts of this monster? Could this be valid for many formal aspects of our daily culture? Is my daily culture which I think is absolutely normal, in fact, as absurd as this monster? Etc.

Evidently it is a very ancient topic, the intrusion of the wild into the human domain. Here this happens quite simply in the framework of a traditional custom. These figures remind us of the men of the woods motive, the Tarzan image, the wild monsters among humans. Bells packed on the back of the running 'ghosts' create the exited dynamism for the event.

This is what you can meet on this day in the village: suddenly a monster frightens you with its horns, with its strange face. But it also may be friendly and shake hands with bypassers.   Very likely the tradition goes back to very ancient neolithic times where fibroconstructive demarcations as huts or other forms played an important role as village protectors. Not so much against spirits and ghosts as proselytizing missionaries thought. The fibrous demarcations in the settlement's nuclei were a legal protection against intrudors,  a kind of concrete constitution renewed annually. Very likely it was  this function and the polar structure they expressed as models which led to their high ontological or quasi religious value.

It is not carneval which comes up here. With carneval the irrational has become quite rational. But here a very mysterious type of behaviour comes up, suddenly appears among peoples who know each other fairly well. Why is this done and why does it take this form? Every year again along each one's lifeline. The materials are more or less at will, grasses, leves, twigs, green or dry, what is most important, they provide a non structured surface that implies naturalness. Similarly non-structured the face. It is deformed into the grotesque, protruding elements appear eather in the face (teeth) or on the head (horns).

It is not the Hollywood illusion industry which is active here, it is a very ancient tradition. Evidently neither surrealism nor horror figures had to be invented in this place. It was always there since times immemorial. And as thus it had influenced many who grew up in this village, whether as actors or spectators. However, what is very different here from going to the cinema: the 'other world' of historical depth appears in the usual everyday environment of everybody who lives here.

One of the standard patterns consists in the group's waiting in front of the door moving hectically up and down, back and forth to make the bells sound loudly. Usually the family   comes out and brings something to drink and to eat, plus some tributes. While eating and dringking some chatting is done. Finally the pattern changes into singing a characteristic type of chant (säuerlen) which resembles the  gregorian choirs. This is very likely an element accumulated from the monastery in St. Gallen.

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