Visitors to the cow shows currently being held in Appenzell in eastern Switzerland will be amazed not only by the ornately decorated bovine headdresses, but by young children legally lighting up cigarettes, cigars and pipes.
“On Funkensonntag [Spark Sunday, see box] and at the cantonal cattle shows in Appenzell, children are allowed to smoke,” said Rosalia Keller, spokeswoman for Appenzell tourism in Appenzell Inner Rhodes.
Where the tradition comes from, Keller doesn’t know – she says it’s always been like that – but she admits that it’s “certainly a paradox that while smoking is being banned in more and more places, in Appenzell even children can do it”.
Puffing youngsters are also found in the neighbouring half-canton Appenzell Ausser Rhodes, according to farmer Max Fürer, 61. He also smoked at cattle shows as a child but is now a non-smoker.
“The kids don’t do it right,” he said. “They puff it out rather than inhale.”
Fellow farmer Albert Fässler, who also grew up with the tradition, says tourists are always surprised, “but for us it’s normal”. He says even six-year-olds can be seen puffing away.
“In those days I used to smoke Stümpen [a sort of homemade cigarillo] but they always made me feel unwell,” he said.
Despite the role of tradition in the region – Appenzell Inner Rhodes didn’t grant women the vote until 1991, when it was forced to by Switzerland’s Federal Court – the cantonal health office unsurprisingly advises against allowing children to smoke, even as a one-off.
“There might be broad acceptance in society [for letting children smoke on these occasions], but we strongly advise against it,” said the department’s secretary Mathias Cajochen.
The Swiss Lung League is equally unimpressed. “Smoking damages your health – especially concerning children. Their bodies are still growing. The risk is that young people’s lungs do not reach their full size and capacity,” said spokeswoman Barbara Weber.
“A third of people who try cigarettes become addicted. The earlier someone starts smoking, the harder it is to give up later.”
In Switzerland around 9,000 people die a year from the consequences of tobacco consumption, according to the Federal Health Office. In addition, smoking is responsible for 80% of respiratory diseases in Switzerland.
Nevertheless, readers of an article on this issue in the German edition of Swiss newspaper 20 Minuten were surprisingly tolerant of the smoking tradition.
“Farm children in Appenzell live 100 times more healthily than city kids who hardly have any fresh air and spend most of their time sitting in front of a computer. I’m sure that the harm caused by smoking a cigarette once a year is within acceptable limits,” wrote commenter Kevin.
R.S. agreed, pointing to the levels of exhaust fumes and fine particles in cities.
Sandy said a similar tradition existed in her village, not in Appenzell. “When you speak to adults who grew up with this custom, you often hear that this is why they never became smokers – because doing so made them nauseous. What was forbidden thus lost its appeal,” she wrote.
One 75-year-old reader from Weinfelden in neighbouring canton Thurgau remembers taking part as a youngster in a “lit turnip procession”. “Escorted through the dark streets by our teacher, boys and girls aged around seven held in one hand a cane with a hollowed-out turnip lit up by a candle and in the other a smouldering cigarette. It was hard and uncomfortable – we often burnt our fingers – but we were proud!”
Towards the end of winter, fires brighten up the night sky in Appenzell Inner Rhodes to bid farewell to the cold on “Bonfire Sunday” or “Spark Sunday”.
As the last chords and drum rolls performed by the carnival marching band fade into the background, schoolchildren from Appenzell and surrounding communities eagerly start collecting branches and shrubs.
On the fourth Sunday of Lent, adults help the children pile up the collected material to create gigantic, elaborate bonfires on clearly visible bonfire sites around Appenzell.
The “Funkebaabe”, a witch doll that is filled with fireworks, is placed on the very top of the bonfire and is seen as a personification of the winter that the fire is symbolically putting to an end.
(Source: Appenzell.info)end of infobox