Hunting Santa - Drunken Swiss only a sign of holidays

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

KUESSNACHT AM RIGI, Switzerland -- It's a cold winter's day in the normally staid Swiss Alpine town of Kuessnacht, and bands of wild-eyed young men are roaming the streets brandishing whips.

Only on closer inspection is it clear that it's not a riot -- just men looking for their next drink. Never mind Christmas or New Year; this is the eve of St. Nicholas' Day, and an opportunity for the men of Kuessnacht to parade in a spellbinding array of headgear or go chasing Santa Claus in a cacophonous din of giant cowbells and trumpets.

The tradition of Klausjagen, or hunting Santa, illustrates the durability of ancient traditions in European towns and villages that otherwise are thoroughly stitched into the modern world by cell phone, high-speed Internet and hundreds of TV channels.

"For me it is better than Christmas," said Urs Reichlin, 40, who has put down his 2 1/2-foot-high cowbell to enjoy a beer free from one of the local taverns before making his next charge around the town. "About 600 of us will continue until about 6 tomorrow morning."

The European feast of St. Nicholas falls 19 days before Christmas and is highlighted by presents for the children from a jolly man with a white beard and a red jacket looking suspiciously like Santa Claus. No surprise, of course. The name Santa Claus is a variation on Saint Nicholas.

The town of 10,000 people on Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland spends much of the year preparing for this single night.

What makes it special is the "iffelen," or headgear -- intricate miters like those worn by bishops but rising as high as 6 feet. Top-class iffelen can take 300 hours to make, and a group of them glowing in the dark looks a bit like the mother ship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

"People start making them in May," said Gerald Schmidig, swigging a bottle of beer. "You build and keep them forever."

Another tradition that won't change is keeping Switzerland tidy. By next morning, all the drinks stands have been cleared away and the streets are spotless.

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