Celebrating Chalandamarz Ancient Graubünden Custom to Chase away Winter
Don't be surprised if you are abruptly torn from sleep in the early morning hours on March 1st. This is the day when children in the Engadin, the Albula-, Begaglia-, and Posciavo-Valleys, and the Oberhalbstein celebrate Chalandamarz - an ancient custom to chase away winter with much noise: shaking cowbells, chanting, rattling and whip cracking.
Boys in Ardez cause brouhaha with their bells
Chalandamarz is totally in the hands of school children - grown-ups are, at the most, allowed to help with preparations. The anticipation starts at the beginning of February, when the children begin to rehearse the ancient songs, practice their skills in whip cracking, organize their bells, prepare for the parties, and make the "Rösas" - fragile roses made of tissue paper to adorn the hats.
A group of children singing traditional Chalandamarz songs
Chalandamarz is Rumantsch - the local language - meaning "the first day in the month of March". The custom differs from village to village.
Boys wear blue peasant blouses with pointed caps or hats adorned with "Rösas" (roses) and red scarves around their necks, held together by an empty matchbox.
Girls wear their beautiful Endgadin costumes and participate often as spectators only. The boys shake the bells, crack their whips and make their way around fountains, through the village lanes and wander from house to house.
Together, they sing typical Chalandamarz songs, conducted by an older child. The custom though that only boys are allowed in the parade, dissolves slowly and in more and more villages, girls join the boys in ringing the bells.
Girls wear their beautiful traditional Engadin costume.
In Ftan, a small village in the lower Engadin, Chalandamarz resembles more a carnival, with masked boys chasing girls with dried pig bladders that look like small balloons.
The carnival group with their pig bladders posing in front of a breathtaking landscape in Ftan
Also, the songs are often different from village to village. The one song that everybody sings is called "Chalandamarz, chaland'avrigl laschai las vachas our d'uigl", composed for the Calvenspiel¹ by Otto Barblan and ends with the words: "If you give us something, God will bless you. And if you give us nothing, the wolf will eat you!"
That could almost be perceived as a warning. Throughout the day, children collect food and money from the spectators. The food is consumed at the subsequent party, and the money is spent on school trips. So, if one gives nothing the song predicts a bad end.
Girls and boys in their beautiful traditional costumes
Attempts have been made to connect the origins of Chalandamarz to the Romans. A correlation between the term "Chalanda" and "calendae" is presumed (the Roman term for the first day in the month). March was the first month of the ancient Roman year until approximately 153 BC. Written sources though trace Chalandamarz as a continuing festival only back to the early 19th century.
Whatever the case, Chalandamarz has been celebrated since then to expel the evil spirits of winter. At some point, the village council was sworn in on that day too, which is still observed in Ardez and Sent.
Vigorously shaking of the bells in Zuoz
Thanks to the book "Schellenursli" (A Bell for Ursli), Chalandamarz is known far beyond the national border. In the story - written by Selina Chönz and illustrated by Alois Carigiet - the small boy Ursli is teased by his classmates, because he only wears a small bell. He goes on a search for a large cow bell, and when he does not return by nightfall, parents and the residents of Guarda look in vain for him. He returns in the morning with the biggest bell of them all and now he is allowed to lead the parade.
Chalandamarz impressions in Samedan
Two villages, two different ways of celebrating. Even though segments of Chalandamarz are the same throughout the valleys, the festival is celebrated quite differently in each village.
Children getting a ride on horse carriages at the Chalandamaz celebration in Zuoz
¹ Calvenspiel: The Battle of Calven on March 4th, 1499, was fought below Müstair and was commemorated 1899 with a festival in in Chur - the Calvenspiel
When and Where
Each year between End of February and March 2nd. Do re-check exact dates with the local tourism offices.
A lonely "Schellenursli" in the snow flurries"
Guarda: The original "Schellenursli village" celebrates on two days (last day in February and March 1st). Only boys can participate in the bell-shaking parade from fountain to fountain throughout the village. On March 1st, boys and girls visit the houses of Guarda and surrounding hamlets;
Zuoz and Madulain: In addition to the bell-shaking, boys also crack their whip. The event starts two days before March 1st. Older boys start wandering from house to house at 4am and call the younger boys (wearing smaller bells) to join the parade. The large parade starts at 7am March 1st and the event ends at the village square with whip cracking;
Zernez: March 1st. Traditional parade and evening party at the schoolhouse.
Scuol: Parade starts on the last day in February. In addition to the traditional parade, duels between whip cracking boys take place - a contest where jurors determine a winner. Evening party "Bal da Chalandamarz";
Tarasp: The parade leads from house to house in all adjoining hamlets on the last day in February. In addition to the songs, the children recite poems;
Ftan: Chalandamarz is a carnival-like parade with scary masks on the last day in February. Boys are costumed and beat the girls with dried pig's bladder in balloon shape. Party in the evening;
Sent: Last day in February. Standing next to a snowman on a pedestal, the outgoing Mayor holds his "s-chüsa" - a speech where he apologises for his follies, and the new mayor holds his opening speech, whereupon the children behead the snowman. The parade leads through all neighbouring hamlets. The girls are fully integrated in the whole occasion. The students' choir is conducted alternatively by the oldest girl and the oldest boy. The youngest children are dressed as gnomes;
Lavin: "Mamma da Chalandamarz", the mother of the oldest participating child, is responsible to feed the children on six nights before March 1st - the actual date of the event (with the help of the community, of course. It also can be a father who has the official role).
Ardez: March 1st. "S-chüsa da Capo" (see Sent above) and when there's an election year, swearing in of the municipal council;
Samedan: Chalandamarz is depicted as an alpine descent. The dairyman wears a traditional Appenzell costume, with yellow leather pants and a red west - the cashier is dressed in tails and top hat;
Pontresina: A traditional boy's parade with bells and whip cracking on March 1. The boys also collect the gifts. Evening ball at the Rondo;
Brail: Traditional parade on the last day in February;
Lü-Fuldera-Tschierv: March2nd. Morning parade in Lü and Fuldrea; afternoon in Tschierv;
Sta. Maria and Valchava: March 2nd. Morning St. Maria and afternoon in Valchava;
Castasegna (Val Bregaglia): The two oldest boys lead the parade with flags. Noise instruments include also goat horn and drum. The Shepherd and a young calf follow behind a cart with the butter churn. Girls are fully integrated into the parade. Lunch with chestnut and whipped cream. Theater in the evening;
Poschiavo (Val Poschiavo): Traditional parade through the village and over the fields "to call the grass" (chiamano l'erba) and wake up nature. Burning of a snowman made of wood and straw, as a symbol for "burning winter away." Takes place on the first school day in March so more children can attend;
Val Müstair (Val Müstair): March 2nd. "S-chellar ora" (farewell to winter by ringing bells) in all three valley regions. Officially, the children should be home by 11pm, though it's custom that they play pranks throughout the night. Parades in all villages on March 1st. All children meet in Müstair for the evening ball ("Ballin da Chalandamarz". The Ballin in the village Tschierv takes place on Marz 2nd;
Bergün (Albula Valley): Traditional parade on March 1st;
Savognin and Bivio (Oberhalbstein/Surses): Traditional parade.
Photos:Scuol Tourism, Engadin Tourism, Gemeinde Ftan, Gemeinde Zuoz, and Rosa Giger
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This boy wears a hat lovingly decorated with delicate "Rösas, roses made of paper"