Happy Birthday Switzerland!

The Why and How of Swiss National Day

The Schweizer Bundesfeiertag (Swiss National Day) is celebrated annually on August 1. It is actually the only secular federal holiday that is celebrated on the same day in the entire country; all other national holidays are of a religious nature. But what exactly is celebrated on this day? Let’s take a brief look at the history behind the Swiss National Day.

What Happened on August 1?

The short answer to this question is—probably nothing special. The origins of the Swiss National Day reach back to the end of the 13th century, when all of Switzerland was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Part of the Swiss territory belonged directly to the Emperor (particularly the mountain passes across the Alps), others belonged to various noble dynasties, such as the Habsburg dynasty that controlled large parts of German-speaking Switzerland and Austria, or to the Church. In addition, some city states were relatively independent. All in all, it was a rather unsettled situation, with various parties vying for control over various Swiss territories. This situation was further exacerbated with the death of Emperor Rudolf I (who belonged to the Habsburg dynasty) in 1291 and the uncertainty about his successor.

Federal Charter

In response, the people living in the Alpine valleys of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden drew up a written agreement to ensure the peace and to support each other in all respects, including defense against attacks from the outside—“the Eternal Alliance of the League of the Three Forest Cantons.” Similar agreements (most likely often verbal) are thought to have existed before, but this charter, which was signed “in the early days of August” 1291, is the oldest one that is clearly documented, and as such is now considered the founding document of what eventually was to become the Swiss Confederation. Today, the document, known as the Federal Charter, or Letter of Alliance, is exhibited at the archives of the Bundesbriefmuseum (Museum of Swiss Charters of Confederation) in Schwyz.

After 1291, similar charters were signed between other cantons, and over the centuries, additional cantons joined the pact between the original three, ultimately leading to today’s nation. Because the development of Switzerland into today’s nation was such a long process, it wasn’t until after the formation of the current federal state in 1848 that an official “founding date” was even considered. This eventually happened in 1891, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the signing of the original charter, and in that year, August 1 was first celebrated as a national holiday. At the time, however, it was not a regular annual holiday. Only from 1899 onwards was August 1 regularly considered the Swiss National Day—and it was still a regular working day, distinguished only by the ringing of church bells in the evening. It would take almost another 100 years until August 1 was declared a federal holiday to be observed nationwide. After an initiative was launched in 1991, 83.8% of voters approved the motion in a referendum on September 26, 1993. As a result, the Swiss federal constitution was amended to include a paragraph naming August 1 as “Bundesfeiertag,” and it was celebrated as such for the first time in 1994.

What Does the Rütli-Schwur Have to Do With Anything?

Jean Renggli, “Oath on the Rütli”

Again the answer to this question is—probably nothing. The Rütli-Schwur is a legendary oath undertaken, supposedly, by the leaders of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, on the Rütli meadow above the Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Lucerne) to form a union against the Habsburg rulers. However, whether such an oath was ever undertaken on this site and by these participants is entirely unclear, as is whether this has anything to do with the 1291 charter. The oath was first mentioned in a historical text from 1470/1474, but without a date. Subsequently, a Swiss historian in the middle of the 16th century dated the oath to November 8, 1307, and it was considered the birth hour of the Swiss confederation until the late 19th century, when the movement to recognize the charter from 1291 as the founding document gained momentum. The issue is muddled even further by the fact that the Rütli-Schwur features prominently in Friedrich Schiller’s play “William Tell,” where it is interwoven with the story of Tell—in all likelihood an entirely fictional figure—even though he is not among the three men taking the oath.

Despite the uncertainty regarding its historical veracity, the Rütli-Schwur is deeply embedded in Swiss folklore as a symbol of the founding of the confederation. Artistic representations of the three “Eidgenossen” (oath takers) abound throughout Switzerland, and in fact, in German the Swiss people as a whole are still often referred to as “Eidgenossen.” The Rütli meadow itself was bought by the Schweizerische Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft (Swiss Society for the Common Good) in 1859 to preserve it as a historical site and was later turned over to the government as an inalienable gift.

Celebrating Swiss National Day

Swiss National Day is typically celebrated at the community level, with local festivals, parades, music, speeches, bonfires, fireworks, singing of the national anthem, and the like. Private homes as well as public buildings are decorated with flags, and you will find many party supplies featuring the Swiss Cross in all stores weeks in advance.

© kanton basel-stadt

There is no official central event, although a ceremony commemorating the Rütli-Schwur and the inception of the confederation has been held at the Rütli meadow on August 1 since 1942, often with keynote speeches delivered by high-ranking public personalities. Also, throughout Switzerland church bells will be ringing at 20:00.

Many people also have their private barbecue parties and/or fireworks. For a couple of days before the holiday, anybody can and will buy their own private fireworks, which are set off throughout the evening, outside of the organized public fireworks. (Note, however, that with the current drought and high risk of wildfires, communities may ban all fireworks once again.) Check with your local Gemeinde (town offices) to find out what holiday-related events may be happening in your community.