Posts Tagged ‘Swiss turnip festival’

A local procession and “pumpkin wagon” prepare to leave

Carved pumpkin and turnip (with its feathery top)

Turnip lanterns

What do you get if you combine turnips, Jack-O’-Lanterns, and outdoor carol singing in the frosty night air? The Swiss Räbechilbi, or Turnip Festival, also called Räbeliechtli-Fest (Eine Räbe is a Turnip).

This is a lovely special tradition in the autumn, which has its roots both as a harvest festival, and as lanterns that represent the warmth of home during the cold winter months. It seems an unusual vegetable to honor, but actually, why not, when one considers that it’s one of the oldest and most nutritious root vegetables.

The biggest Räbechilbi is in the town of Richterswil, south of Zurich on the west side of the lake, to celebrate the end of the harvest. The main event is a big parade through town with marching bands and floats decorated with turnip lanterns. The parade is usually the second Saturday in November, with the parade starting at 6:30pm.

Nowadays, they harvest 25-26 tons of turnips and other root vegetables that are carved into lanterns to use for the festival. There are so many turnips that a special machine has been developed to help hollow them out. Once the turnips are hollow, people carve beautiful designs into them but without cutting through the skin as one does with pumpkins, and for a few days before the festival, the whole town is busy making these lanterns.

The tradition of carving out the lanterns came from a legend dating back to the mid-19th century, in which the farmers’ wives living in the hills around the town would make lanterns out of turnips, to light the way home from church at night in the middle of winter. The first known parade dates back to 1884 and regular parades began in 1905. Nowadays church-going women dressed in dark colors lead the parade, but the parade is mainly for the children to walk and carry their twinkling turnip lanterns.

Not only is this the biggest turnip parade in Europe, it is probably also the most spectacular with the carved turnips illuminated by twinkling candles. People estimate that there are over 10,000 carved turnips and 50,000 candles. Besides the floats in the parade, which can be anything from elephants and roses to temples made of turnips, the hanging lanterns cover houses, shops, the local church and even a funicular tramcar. The people in Richterswil also make large group sculptures by placing many lanterns in a pattern. All this effort was rewarded in 1998 when the festival made it into the Guinness Book of Records.

The parade route and food stands get very busy, but the side streets are quieter and lovely with all the flickering candlelight, so many people simply wander through the town.

The best way to get to Richterswil is on the train (S2 or S8), which runs about every 15 mins from the main train station, and takes about 30 mins. (The train will likely be really crowded). As you enter the town, you’ll have to buy a ticket for the festival (about 5CHF/adult, kids free) from one of the many staff wandering the train station—as in Switzerland parades are apparently not free!

Eva with her carved turnip

This turnip festival has spread to other parts of Switzerland, especially in the Zurich area, and most communities and neighborhoods host their own little Räbeliechtli in the week prior to the main one in Richterswil. We were lucky enough to take part in one of these, connected to our grand-daughter’s pre-school in a suburb of Zurich, and we were told this was very typical.

Families made lanterns carved from huge hollowed-out turnips, some of the designs simple, some very elaborate. They placed a small tea candle inside each and replaced the turnip top, often with the greenery still on. The kids carried their turnip suspended from a special short pole, or sometimes in their hands. They gathered at 6pm and formed an informal procession that wound its way through the small local streets, stopping at various points to sing.

At the front of the procession were the parents and teachers who played the guitars and led the singing. The kids, parents (many also pushing baby strollers), and lanterns straggled along behind. There was no hurry, as it was all leisurely fun. But the kids were all very excited. At the back of the procession was a “pumpkin wagon”, pulled by one of the parents or teachers. The wagon carried many carved turnips and pumpkins, and paper lanterns, all lit up with their smiley faces. The 3 songs our procession sang were (in Swiss German): Myni Laterne; Raabeliechtli “wo gosch hy?”; and Kommt wir woll’n Laterne laufen. The theme is lanterns and lighting the way, and my son told me that the words are transcribed very phonetically so the meaning is difficult to actually understand.

Our group singing

We felt very fortunate to be part of this unique experience. We were interested to see how big the turnips can get, and also to make the comparison to Christmas carol singing, where groups go from house to house, and to Halloween. However, here the kids don’t receive anything (candy, treats etc) except for the fun and pleasure of taking part.

…and that’s not the biggest we saw!

So many turnips, we wondered what the people do with the turnip pulp. Apparently, turnips are used in many ways, the most popular being as part of a hearty soup. What about a delicious, Italian-style soup with chicken stock, rice, parsley and parmesan cheese?

http://www.zuerichsee.ch/en/page.cfm/topeventsstartrz/topeventsrz/1009 (2 pics below)

A structure made from lit lanterns

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