On the last day of the year, the town of Wald near Zürich is being visited by some rather unusual fellows: a king with a donkey that has an attitude.
In the early morning hours of New Year's Eve, at 6:30 AM, these odd pairs fan out across the countryside and neighborhoods of Wald. Traveling by foot, nine pairs will visit farms and houses as part of a local New Year's tradition.
Along the way, the Schnappesel donkeys are known to scare pedestrians or run after children (and young women.) We have experienced the thrill of being briefly chased by this donkey with his unpredictable temper... Those sudden movements, wooden snapping noises, and chattering teeth are truly a bit freakish!
Silvesterchläuse und Schnappesel on New Year's Eve
The wandering pairs with their loud bells can be heard from a distance, many families would eagerly await their arrival. Visits would typically begin with some smalltalk before the duo slips into character.
A mesmerizing performance follows where the Silversterchlaus king would ring the six bells attached to his belt. His chant goes something like "hop hop hooo!"
Meanwhile, the long-necked Schnappesel donkey would perform a type of New Year's dance, always staying aware of the bystanders. Each dance act lasts just a couple of minutes, concluding with the king's wishes of good fortune. Word on the street is that these unusual duos are frequently rewarded with a bite to eat - or a shot to drink...
A centuries-old New Year's tradition in Switzerland
Interestingly, this particular New Year's Eve tradition only occurs in the town of Wald in canton Zürich. It has been performed since the mid-19th century in its current form, but is believed to be of pagan origin.
We were happy to see many young locals dedicated to keep this custom alive. It really is a family affair as props are handed down from generation to generation. The pairs have their work cut out for them. The six bells strapped to the king's waist weigh no less than 40 kg. And the donkey character needs to be athletic as he twists and bends, always concealed by a white linen.
We get the meaning of the king: he greets the residents, attracts good fortune by ringing his bells and chanting, and he wishes everyone good luck. But what could possibly be the role of the snapping donkey? We learn that the Schnappesel is supposed to clear the way for the New Year by driving away the evil spirits of the past.
How to see the tradition of Silvesterchläuse und Schnappesel in Wald
By about 1 PM, the nine pairs would arrive from the surrounding hamlets and make their rounds in the neighborhoods of Wald. We went to see them in an elderly home from where the pair continued into a neighborhood. By 6:30 PM, the residents and main acts would gather at the Wald train station. From there, they would jointly parade to the last performance of the day at Schwertplatz.