03 August 2009
The Fun of Watching Fireworks
On Saturday, 01 August, Switzerland celebrated it's 718th birthday. Yes, that means that in 1291 the country of Switzerland was created, though independence from Austria didn't happen until 1648. Take that, New World.
From the website Swissworld.org:
The day was chosen because August 1st 1291 was the date on which three Alpine cantons swore the oath of confederation, an act which later came to be regarded as the foundation of Switzerland. The representatives of Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Uri met on the Rütli field, high above Lake Lucerne, to swear a bond of brotherhood, and agree to act jointly if their freedoms were threatened by outside aggressors.
Although the holiday is a national one, the day is celebrated almost exclusively through the municipalities (villages). The one true nationalized event is the reenactment of the Rütli oath above Lucerne. The lack of pomp and circumstance makes for a local, hometown, country fair kind of celebration; a day to reflect and feel good about the immediate environment more, and less about the larger metaphors of national borders. This is important in Switzerland, a country that lists German, French, Italian, and Romansh all as national languages.
In a country run by four political parties called the Swiss Federal Council and whose President--who has no powers higher than any other Council member--is elected by the Federal Assembly, this lack of direct authority and cultural cohesion may seem haphazard and fragmented. Not true. No, Switzerland is not the ideological backwater of three or four larger countries. Switzerland could never be mistaken for the geeky, better organized, and obsessive compulsive little brother of Germany, France, and Italy.
On second thought, maybe it could.
Alpine backwater notwithstanding, at the end of the day there is only one Switzerland. And Switzerland, Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera, Svizra, or whatever else it wants to call itself seems to believe that a country's sense of itself is cultivated from the farm up. Swiss citizens bestow their loyalty to their village or municipality first, canton or state second, and to the federal level or country as a whole third--exactly opposite to the model of allegiance pledged by those of us from the United States. National traditions, then, are developed, implemented, and maintained at a local level, which allows for smaller variations to take precedent and identifies each community as separate and unique.
Again, in the US, I think the opposite generally is true: our communities are different but we often feel compelled, we often strive, to be more American, more united. Thus, through efforts to be something bigger, more meaningful, more cohesive, we endanger that which has set us apart in the first place: local customs and traditions. Geeky little brother or not, Switzerland has nourished its traditions to full maturity.
And so it was that we celebrated our first Swiss National Day by heading into our little village of Crans. We missed the National Day speech by the municipal mayor but we made it just in time for the march through the village. Even though Crans only has four main streets (Rue des Artisans, Rue Antoine Saladin, Rue des Belles Filles, Route du Grand Pré), the march consisted of a full brass band and all the villagers who wished to follow. We jumped right in as proud Cransinians.
It's important to note that the flag bearer at the head of the procession carries not the Swiss flag or the canton of Vaud flag but that which represents the commune of Crans.
The parade grew as it passed through the streets, all four of them, and by the end it seemed as though the entire village of Crans was following the band. And they probably were.
Another aspect of the parade is that children are supposed to carry lampions or candle lanterns as they march around the village streets. This not only signifies that all generations are represented in the National Day celebration but that parents have the duty to pass down, to bear the traditions to their own children, customs that they probably participated in when they were young.
The timing was perfect (of course) and the parade concluded just at dusk. The band returned to the site of the party and the traditional bonfire was lit.
Again, from Swissworld.org:
Long before the government decided in 1891 to declare the day Switzerland's national day, people had celebrated summer by lighting bonfires. Indeed, the custom of lighting a fire on June 24th, St John's Day, is known all over Europe. But for the Swiss, bonfires had an extra significance. For centuries they had built beacons on mountain tops which they lit when danger approached. One legend told of both Lake Geneva and Lake Biel relates how hordes of invading barbarians intent on conquering the ancient Swiss tribes turned back when they saw the lights reflected in the lake waters, thinking they had come to the edge of the earth and were about to ride off into the sky.
Then the party! It was small but loud. There were mountains of grilled sausages, cheese, and bread. Red, white, and rosé wine was offered by the local vintner, Château de Crans. There was a DJ who took turns as the bandleader and sole accordionist.
There was no organized firework display. Everyone brought their own. Besides the constant bonfire there were small firework shows happening all night at random times and places. It was a bit chaotic and surprisingly unorganized. Adults drank and talked and danced under the tent while teenagers and kids ran amok in the park and pastures. Hank would disappear into the night only to reappear with a sparkler or a newfound friend. Music would fade in and out as it alternated with the clamor and calm of conversation. Fireworks big and small would brighten the sky or only the faces of the group that surrounded them. We talked with strangers. Hank's new friend flirted with me while Hank took pictures. It was all a smokey blur. It was a blast.
And then it happened. The accordionist/bandleader switched roles and started spinning discs. Most of it was the usual wedding party-brand of disco and cheesy pop à la Bee Gees and J. Geils Band. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the Four Seasons, and the deal was sealed. Block party. South Iris street. The Fourth of July, 1976. The 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. My sister's Plymouth Barracuda. German exchange students. The Outlaw Josey Wales at the Drive-In theater. Running across cool suburban lawns with sparklers in both hands.
Through it all I was reminded of my youth, in the same way that Michael Jackson's death reminded me of my youth: as something that I had temporarily misplaced somewhere in the back of my rapidly aging mind, but which has quite clearly impacted the way I view and experience and understand the world around me. The feeling was the same; I was a part of something small that represented something more.
The scene in our village of Crans repeated itself in the village of Céligny, three kilometers down the road. In the commune of Eysins, a kilometer or so toward the Jura mountains, you could also find a similar set of events. And on the French border in Crassier, seven kilometers away, a similar party was in progress. In fact, a satellite photo of Switzerland from the night of 01 August would seem as if the entire country was on fire. However, the conflagration would not be borne from a solitary flame, a single source of light, but from an infinite number of small bonfires that would evoke the limitless potential of the night sky.
It doesn't take much. You don't need a filled stadium with the Beach Boys and a million dollar light show. You don't need a National Mall with a giant monument that celebrates itself. You need hard work. You need the inclination of a bunch of neighbors to barricade their street (illegally) from traffic so that their children can run free with sparklers in their hands and their parents can haul kegs of beer and barbecue grills into the roadway. You need a small brass band that keeps their uniforms pressed and clean and ready for the five or six times a year when they're pulled out and paraded around the four village streets. You need sausages and cold, locally made rosé. And you need to know which flag to fly and when to take it back down.
Traditions don't come cheap and relationships don't come without work. I hope to know more villagers when we attend next year. And Hank will carry a lampion.