Each winter, the people of the Lötschental valley high in the Swiss Alps gather for a carnival that terrifies and mystifies in equal measure; we grit our teeth, gird our loins, and dare to join them
Words AMANDA CANNING
Photographs JONATHAN GREGSON
It’s not safe to walk the Lötschental after dark. When the sun sets behind the mountains that rise over the valley, turning their jagged peaks pink in a last burst of defiance against the night, it’s best to scurry inside, lock the front door and hide beneath the bedcovers. The Tschäggä are coming.
The sound of bells announces them: a steady dong-dong-dong that drifts and builds down narrow streets, agitating the cows and sheep kept safe in village barns over winter.
If you hear the ringing, it’s already too late. The Tschäggä are upon you – 10 feet tall, with hideously disfigured faces, they push you to the ground, shove rough hands into your mouth and rub ice in your face. And then they are gone, and you are alone once more in the dark. You pick yourself up, slap the snow from your clothes and breathe a sigh of relief. But there it is again – the clang of approaching bells, and there’s nowhere yet to hide.
It seems unlikely that a festival with the principal aim of terrifying casual wanderers should sprout in the Lötschental. The four villages strung out along the valley, way up in the Swiss Alps, seem plucked from a particularly sentimental Christmas card. From November to May, their tightly-packed wooden houses squat under several metres of snow, icicles the length of swords dripping from their roofs, gingham curtains hanging in the windows. The buildings bear cheery statements (‘God is always with you if you take care of your home’) carved long ago by house-proud owners into wood tanned the colour of beef gravy by the sun.
Yet here, a few hundred years ago, the tradition of Tschäggättä, and its Tschäggä monsters, was born, and continues to be celebrated with a zeal that borders on obsession. Every night between Candlemas and Shrove Tuesday, shadowy figures dressed in wooden masks and animal hides take to the streets, ready to wreak havoc.
“No one really knows when it started or why,” says Agnes Rieder, showing me round the museum devoted to Tschäggättä she runs with her family. “One story is that on the other side of the valley, it is shadowy and nothing grows, so people would come over here to the sunny side in disguise and steal the food.”
As the cold winter air creeps through the stone walls of the building, she leads me through rooms devoted to the different parts of the Tschäggä’s costume: shoulder braces once used to carry wood that give the beasts their height; shawls made from the hides of goat, sheep, cow, even St Bernard; embroidered leather belts with heavy iron cowbells hanging off them; long trousers made from sackcloth. And then, there are the masks, 400 of them, piled in corners, looming out of walls, staring up from work benches, each bearing the idiosyncratic marks of their creator, all equally and uniquely unsettling. The oldest the Rieders have in their collection dates from 1892, though the tradition is believed to have started long before then. “Nothing older is left,” says Ruth. “People were poor here, and it was cold, so they burned them afterwards.”
The Rieder family has been more responsible than most for keeping Tschäggättä alive in the valley. Her mother-in-law, Agnes, was the first female mask-carver in the Lötschental, and her husband Heinrich is now the most celebrated, famed for his fantastical and macabre creations. He has already finished his mask, made for a participant in the climax of this year’s festival in a few days’ time – the daytime parade of monsters, in which prizes are awarded for the best. She gives nothing away about their plans. “No one should know who the Tschäggä is,” she says as we leave the museum. “Only the families will know what the costumes are and who’s wearing them. You will only know that, if you see one, you will be afraid.”
A fat slug of cloud sits over the village of Kippel. A postwoman makes her deliveries on foot, navigating a path hacked through the snow. She stops to chat to a dog-walker carrying a basket of logs, the Jack Russell at his feet impatient to get moving. I enter a rambling cluster of outhouses and barns, the air sweet with the smell of manure. Joining the burbling of chickens and bleating of sheep is another sound: the tapping of chisel on wood.
Albert Ebener is busy in his workshop. Leaning over a lump of local Arvenholz (Swiss pine) held firm in a vice, he deftly cuts away at a row of teeth emerging from a mask, wood chips flying into the air around him. With his gnarled face, he looks carved from a piece of wood himself.
Albert has been working with wood for most of his 70 years. “My grandpa carved masks,” he says, puffing on a pipe that rarely leaves his mouth. “In this valley, if the grandfather carves, the father carves, and the son will also carve.”
Among boxes of screws and deer antlers, and racks of drills and planers, are masks made by his father, uncle and grandfather – hideous things with mouths filled with wonky cows’ teeth, permanently howling beneath moustaches of rabbit fur. I try one on and am surprised by how heavy it is, my head pushed into my neck under its weight. My field of vision shrinks to the two tiny spots of the eyeholes. The masks are made smaller and lighter now, and are influenced as much by Hollywood horrors as Swiss folklore and the individual imagination. “They are still horrible though,” says Albert with a laugh.
He reckons to have made 6,000 masks for Tschäggättä, and to have joined countless parades – though those days are now behind him. With the costumes weighing 7kg, this is a young person’s game. Traditionally, the monsters were unmarried men, allowed out only in the daytime and never on Sundays, but Albert was part of a movement to change that. In the 1970s, he and other men set out after dark to protest the strict rules of the commune. The ban on married men and women and on night-time prowlings was overturned (though Sundays remain out of bounds, in deference to the church). The victory is marked every year on the final Thursday of the festival, with a nightly procession from the last village in the valley to the first. “It was special to be part of it,” he says, wiping sawdust from the unfinished mask. “But not much changes with the tradition really. We still do it because we love this valley and are proud of it.”
Travel in winter to Lötschental valley. To know more about the carnival that is both terrifying and mysterious, check out LPMI’s September 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.