In Switzerland holidays really are still holy-days

May 14, 2010, 2 Comments

Yesterday was Auffahrt. At least it was in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland; elsewhere it was Ascension or Ascensione. Whatever you call it, it was a public holiday to celebrate Jesus going home. Before I came to Switzerland, I was a bit hazy about the exact timing and meaning of Ascension Day, mainly because it isn’t a holiday in Britain. We have the much catchier name of Early May Bank Holiday, which does exactly what it says on the packet. But in Switzerland, most public holidays are still linked to religious festivals, so I discovered that Ascension Day falls 40 days after Easter, and is the moment when Jesus ascended heavenwards – which in German has the unfortunate name of Auffahrt. It can’t have been much fun up there for Mr Christ. Given that Heaven as we know it is essentially a Christian concept, it would have been empty back in 33AD as there were as yet no dead Christians. And not even St Peter to welcome you through the Pearly Gates, as he was still down on earth fretting about having betrayed Jesus three times in one evening.

In Switzerland, public holidays count as Sundays, at least in terms of what’s allowed and what’s not. So that means no shopping, no DIY, no recycling and no mowing the lawns. And since public holidays are classed as Sundays, it follows that the day before them are Saturdays (even if they are not), when shops have to close earlier than normal. For example, Wednesday this week was actually a Saturday in shopping terms because the next day was Ascension Day, which is a holiday, ie a Sunday. So this week is rather odd: essentially it’s Monday, Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And because Ascension Day is always a Thursday, many people make a bridge by taking a day off for a four-day weekend. The shops are open, but many offices aren’t.

But when the day before a holiday is actually a Sunday, then it clearly can’t be a Saturday, since Sundays take precedence. This only happens for the date-related holidays, such as Christmas, New Year and Swiss National Day (1 August), which wander through the week. Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and 31 July are thus logically always Saturdays, except when they fall on Sundays, when they stay as Sundays. Got that? The thing is that even if you live here, you tend to forget that the day before a holiday is a Saturday, meaning that the shops shut early. Just ask my friends in my book group who ended up at the convenience shops in the petrol station and train station at 6.30pm on Wednesday evening, looking for food to bring along to the meeting.

At least Ascension Day is recognised by all the cantons. There’s nothing worse than planning a day-trip somewhere, only to get there and find that that canton has a holiday the next day, so everything shuts early. Sorry, there is something worse: to get there and discover everything is shut because it’s a holiday. It happens. All the time, because this is Switzerland, where cantons decide their own holidays, so some have more than others. Let’s look at the two half-cantons of Appenzell, which, having voted on the matter first, split over the Reformation back in 1597. Live in Ausserrhoden, the Protestant half, and you get four fewer public holidays than your Catholic cousins over the border. As a hard-working Protestant you only get eight days and miss out on celebrating the Immaculate Conception, Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Assumption, and All Saints’ Day. It’s a wonder the Aussers put up with it. Can you imagine folks in Norfolk agreeing to work four days more than those in Suffolk? I don’t think so.

But the best canton to live in is Ticino, the Italian-speaking one south of the Alps, and not just for the food. The rest of Switzerland may cast aspersions on the Ticinese work ethic, or lack thereof, but it’s surely no coincidence that this is the canton with more public holidays than any other. In addition to the seven recognised nationally, the Ticinese get another eight to enjoy. That’s fifteen in total. They have the same four extra days as those fellow good Catholics in Appenzell Innerrhoden, but also need to celebrate Epiphany, St Joseph’s Day, Labour Day and the day of Sts Peter and Paul, the canton’s patron saints. I wonder how much flats are in Lugano; maybe I should move there and get almost two more weeks off work?

2 Comments on "In Switzerland holidays really are still holy-days"

  1. expatraveler Monday June 21st, 2010 at 01:34 AM · Reply

    The thing I hated most about the day before the holiday is that everyone acts like they will starve to death if they don’t shop at the market that day. The markets experience over crowding, lack of stock of anything on the shelves and many very pissed of people!

  2. Naresh Friday September 30th, 2011 at 09:27 AM · Reply

    Good thoughts about holidays in Switzerland. Thanks for sharing.

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