Everything you need to know about Ascension Day (Auffahrt) in Switzerland
With Easter now a distant memory, people across Switzerland look forward to the day of Ascension, one of the few public holidays that is celebrated throughout the country. For those unsure how to celebrate this religious occasion, here’s everything you need to know about Ascension traditions, when the holiday is and whether Swiss workers get a day off.
An introductory guide to Ascension Day (Auffahrt) in Switzerland
Ascension Day, more formally known as the Feast or Solemnity of the Ascension (Christi Himmelfahrt in Germany and Auffahrt in Switzerland), is a holiday celebrated by most sects of Christianity. The day itself is chosen to commemorate the ascension of Jesus into heaven.
Ascension has been observed as a feast day since the fourth century AD and continues to be a popular celebration today - being a holiday across most of Europe from Spain and France to Germany and the Netherlands. The celebration in Switzerland can be traced back to when the first Helvetian tribes converted to Christianity between the fourth and seventh centuries.
When is Ascension Day in 2023?
Ascension Day itself always take place on a Thursday, 39 days after Easter Sunday - although some denominations have moved the celebration to Sunday.
In 2023, Ascension Day in Switzerland is on May 18 - the date that all cantons recognise as a holiday. However, those who follow the Greek or Russian Orthodox faith will celebrate Ascension on May 25.
Is Ascension Day a public holiday in Switzerland?
Alongside National Day, New Year’s Day and Christmas Day, Ascension Day is one of the few dates which is marked as a public holiday in all 26 cantons. This means that workers across the country will be given the day off - or given generous compensation for working during a holiday.
Are the shops open on Ascension in Switzerland?
Much like other nationally recognised holidays, Ascension is classed as a “Feiertag” across the country. This means that on the day, public transport services will revert to Sunday timetables and supermarkets and stores outside of train stations and airports will shut up shop.
What is eaten on Ascension?
While more of an archaic tradition today, churches across Switzerland used to assign Ascension Day as a time for the eating of “flying meat”, to signify the ascension of Jesus into the sky. Some families and individuals continue this tradition by serving chicken, pheasant, quail and - in very traditional cases - pigeon.
Swiss traditions on Ascension Day
While people across Swiss cities usually take the day as an opportunity to go on excursions, visit family or take an extra day of paid leave to create a long weekend to go abroad, some communities across the country still observe Ascension Day traditions - especially in Catholic-majority parts of the country. Here are some of the most notable events:
Auffahrtsumritt in Switzerland
The most common Ascension Day events in Switzerland are the traditional processions. Called Auffahrtsumritt (roughly translated as "boundary walks"), the events mark the holiday with hundreds of people marching across Swiss fields and meadows, tracing the border of each village that participates.
The processions are typically colourful affairs with people dressing up in traditional Swiss clothes and playing alpine marching songs. Being a religious event, the majority of the walks are taken as a time to reflect, pray, talk with fellow walkers and listen to services by priests. While small towns across the country may have their own versions of the event, the largest processions can be found in central Switzerland like in Sempach and Lucerne.
Auffahrtsumritt in Beromünster
The largest Auffahrtsumritt in Switzerland is held in the town of Beromünster, Canton Lucerne. Starting at 5.30am, 1.000 people dressed in traditional costumes walk or ride horses 18 kilometres around the fields, buildings and meadows of the town - taking paths that have been trodden for hundreds if not thousands of years. The participants are joined on the walk by a number of drum and fife bands.
After several stops, speeches and sermons, the procession makes its way up the main street. At 3pm, up to 4.000 more well-wishers arrive in the village for a party to mark the end of the celebrations.
Video: Ludwig Villiger / YouTube
Banntag in Liestal, Basel-Land
On the Monday before Ascension, in Liestal near Basel, the locals of the town celebrate community boundary day or Banntag. At 6am, a shooting competition is done in the centre of town, before the church bell is rung so that all residents can gather for the official start of the event at 8am.
As part of the proceedings, all the men who were born in Liestal, along with male guests and children of both sexes, wander the boundaries of their little industrial town. The walk is 26 kilometres long in total.
Participants are divided into four separate walking groups, each with a band leader, fife, drum band and standard bearer. Once they have completed the hike, most participants retire to bars and restaurants to celebrate the end of the festival.
Video: regioTVplus / YouTube
See the traditional costumes of Appenzell on Ascension
Finally, in the towns of Appenzell, Gonten, Schwende, Brülisau and Haslen, in Canton Appenzell Innerrhoden, locals typically dress up in fine vintage clothing and traditional dresses on Ascension. While there isn’t a specific event on as such - maybe an Auffahrtsumritt in some villages - many tourists gather in each town to see the costumes in order to get an idea of what daily life in the mountains would have looked like 200 years ago.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com / IGOR ROGOZHNIKOV
Enjoy your day off this Ascension weekend!
So there you have it, all the events and things to know about Ascension Day in Switzerland. Got any special plans for the day? Let us know in the comments below!