Engadin Scuol

Chasing away the winter by singing, ringing bells and cracking whips


The air is freezing cold and crystal clear. The sun is hidden somewhere behind the mountain peaks. It is 1 March, so it’s time for Chalandamarz. The first metallic jangling of a cow bell can already be heard. The bell swings from the hand of a schoolchild hurrying towards the school building. Two streets away, a whip cracks against the ground. More and more children dressed in vibrant blue farmers smocks, neckerchiefs and red pointed hats come pouring out of the laneways. They laugh and chatter excitedly among themselves against a cacophony of cow bells and cracking whips. The louder, the better. After all, the aim is to ring in the coming of the spring.

Chalandamarz – in detail

Chalandamartz – il firà d'uffants

Every child in Switzerland knows the story of Schellenursli, the little boy from the Lower Engadine village of Guarda. It ties in with the Chalandamarz. A custom as old as the settlement of the mountain valleys, a festival that is celebrated a little differently in each village. March 1st is one of the most exciting days of the year in the Lower Engadine as well as in the Val Müstair - marked by tradition and carried by youth.

From Mirjam Fassold

The air is ice-cold and crystal-clear, the sun can only be guessed at behind the mountains in the east. Slowly, single rays climb the eastern flank of the Piz Pisoc into the steel blue sky. Behind house facades there is a hustle and bustle – it is March 1st, Chalandamarz. The cobblestones of the village street are padded with a layer of snow; no longer blossom-white, but compact – trampled and stuck by winter boots and car tyres. And ready to cushion the steps of the celebrating village youth later in the day. Then, when it's loud, noisy and cheerful and the Chalandamarz procession moves through the village.

There they are, the first metallic sounds of a cowbell. It dangles from the arm of a pupil who is taking a hurried step towards the school building. Two streets away, a whip cracks. More and more children in bright blue peasant's robes with scarves and red pointed caps are streaming out of the alleys. Happy laughter can be heard, excited voices, in between whip cracking, cow bells and riddles. On March 1st, everyone is up early – the children with their cheeks flushed with excitement, the local adults reminiscing about their own childhood and earlier Chalandamarz processions. The guests are also awake, awakened by the crack of the whips and the ringing of the bells – welcome to the midst of living customs.

Remains from Roman times

Chalandamarz dates from the time when the Romans occupied what was then Rhaetia. It is still cultivated today in the Engadin, Münster Valley, Bergell, Puschlav, Misox, Albula Valley and Oberhalbstein. In the Julian calendar, March was the first month of the year, March 1 being New Year's Day. On this day the young men of the village submitted to the commander and his deputy, hung the biggest and most splendid cowbells and loudly greeted the New Year. At the same time, this pagan ritual was used to drive away the evil winter spirits and prepare the people for spring.

Today it is no longer the youngsters but the children who, with the ringing of bells, the crack of whips and singing, roam the villages and announce the spring. The Chalandamarz owes its name to the day on which it is celebrated – «chalanda» stands for the first day of the month.

Children choirs with young conductor

«Chalandamarz, chaland'avrigl, laschai las vachas our d'uigl. Las vachas van culs vdels, las nuorsas culs agnels, las chavras culs usöls, las giallinas fan ils övs. La naiv svanescha e l'erba crescha,» it echoes many-voiced from children's throats. It is morning, the rays of the March sun are not yet able to melt the snow, it crunches under the thick soles, only the singing warms the hearts of choir and audience. The students stand by the fountain and sing the procession of cows and calves, sheep and lambs, goats and kids from dark barns into the bright spring light.

Two more songs follow – this one in Romansh as well and heralding the approaching spring. The songs are rehearsed in the schools; where school associations exist, the teachers organise choir rehearsals in the villages - each village should pass on its own Chalandamarz songs to the next generation. The Chalandamarz choirs are conducted by the oldest students – adults, including teachers, are only welcome as audiences.

Before the illustrious crowd moves on, girls in traditional Engadine costume make the rounds with a small cheese. A donation belongs to the Chalandamarz tradition, it is money well spent, because the song quoted above ends with the words: «If you give us something, God bless you, and if you give us nothing, the wolf will eat you bald.»

Alps lift in March

Legend has it that at the beginning of March, young people have had enough of the eternal snow and want to put an end to winter. That's why the schoolchildren go from house to house, from square to square, disguised as an alpine lift. The procession is led by older boys, the pipe-smoking Alpine dairymen, and older girls in traditional Engadine costume. The procession also includes «cows» carrying bells (pupils in blue alpine dairymen's robes), the size of the bells determines the place in the procession – the ones with the biggest tickles at the front, the ones with the small goat bells at the back. The herd is decorated with silk flowers, just like in a real alpine procession. These «Rösas» are made in the weeks before by the pupils under the guidance of the needlework teachers or mothers.

Just like the Schellen-Ursli

Although it is only celebrated in a few valleys of the Grisons, Chalandamarz is known throughout Switzerland. Thanks to Schellen-Ursli. Selina Chönz's children's book has helped the Guarda boy to national fame. With the illustrations by Alois Carigiet, who had used house no. 51 as a model for the parental home of little Ursli, Guarda himself also became known to many Swiss people.

As a reminder: Ursli has only a small bell for the Chalandamarz, so he is teased by the other boys and is supposed to leave at the end of the procession at the Chalandamarz. He remembers the big cowbell hanging in the Maiensäss and takes on the adventurous walk through the deep snow. In the valley his parents are worried, when it gets dark the whole village is looking for Ursli. When Ursli shows up at home the next day with the big bell, the relief is great. And because he now brings the biggest bell, Ursli is allowed to lead the Chalandamarz procession.

When the Schellen-Ursli book was published in 1945, practically every family was engaged in agriculture, at least as a sideline, and cow or goat bells were found in all the houses. In the third millennium, however, the number of farmers, even in rural areas, declined sharply. What remains for the Chalandamarz children is the question of how to get the largest possible bell or «plumpa» for the move. In this case, they need to contact a farmer via their parents or godfather in time to borrow a bell. And then just go and ask – organising the bell is a matter of honour for the boys and causes just as much palpitations as asking a girl to dance or to make the «Rösas» for someone.

The festival of children – a step towards independence

The procession is only one part of the Chalandamarz festival, which lasts between one and three days depending on the village. Among the classic ingredients of a Chalandamarz parade is a children's ball with music and dance as well as performances by the individual school classes. At the children's festival, the children are not only the centre of attention, they also organise it themselves. A lot of responsibility for the pupils, who are brought up to act independently and responsibly at an early age, and along the way learn to fight for their place in the community or to adapt to the circumstances – for example, if the desired role in the parade is due to another person's age.

Ftan: Chalandamarz or Fasnacht?

The variety of the Chalandamarz is as diverse as the region in which it is celebrated.Each village has cultivated its own peculiarities, there are subtleties in which the festivities in each village differ. The only exception is Ftan. Its Chalandamarz is similar to a carnival procession and takes place on a Saturday. Schoolboys and male youths parade through the village in masks and beat girls and adults with skinny, bloated pig bladders. Originally this is supposed to have been a fertility ritual.

«S-chüsa da capo» and «Mama da Chalandamarz»

Once, the Chalandamarz had political significance as an election and appointment day for local authorities, in Ardez this is still the case today. The Capo, as the mayor is called here, gives an oral account of the past year on March 1st. Shortly after noon, he reads out his S-chüsa da capo in the school building; the act is embedded in a programme of music, dance and performances by the school youth. In election years, the local authorities are also sworn in. «It's been like this since time immemorial», says Capo Jon Peider Strimer. The same applies to the mulled wine aperitif offered by the community afterwards.

In Lavin, another old custom is kept: the mother of the oldest schoolchild is given the honour of being part of «Mamma da Chalandamarz». According to a song she is supposed to cook six lunches for the children. «Today it's one lunch and five dinners,» says the mayor, Linard Martinelli. Because: «With Chalandamarz the school holidays begin, which are often used for skiing.» Only on the Sunday after the Chalandamarz all pupils are in the village at noon, because it is a tradition to go to church together in the morning.

About 40 school children have to be fed. «Not at your own kitchen table, you can move to the gym,» Martinelli explains. And Mamma da Chalandamarz is not alone at the stove: «Just as the students get together to organize Chalandamarz, so do the parents. The Capo is optimistic that there will be a «Mamma da Chalandamarz» in Lavin for a long time to come, even if newcomers from the lowlands have been decorating in the recent past. «The young mothers stand behind this custom,» Martinelli knows.

Quo vadis Chalandamarz?

What's next for Chalandamarz? This is a legitimate question in view of the constant migration from rural areas. Nevertheless, there is confidence, the locals seem to possess a chalandamarz gene, as the example of Guarda shows. In 2003, the village had to give up school due to too few pupils. «For six consecutive years, we have not had any births,» says the mayor, Maria Morell. When these years became compulsory schooling, the children for Chalandamarz were missing. «Our children refused support from other villages, wanted to do the Chalandamarz on their own», says Morell. Vocal support for singing was there after all, but through children of regular guests. Today, the community of 160 inhabitants again has 30 school-age children who will march and sing at the next Chalandamarz in Guarda in 2014.


“High up in the mountains, far from here, there lives a little boy just like you. In this tiny village, poor and small, his home all alone below.” Welcome to the home of Schellen-Ursli! Head for the hills and follow in the footsteps of this adventurous boy with the messy black hair, too-short trousers, pointy hat and beaming smile.

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