The high point of a bizarre ritual in the small village of Küssnacht on Lake Lucerne begins precisely at 8:15 pm on December 5 when the streetlights are extinguished.This content was published on November 28, 2000 - 08:42
Hundreds of men appear in procession, each carrying a heavy bell that is rung once with every step. They are followed silently by dozens of others wearing giant headdresses, resembling bishop hats.
Candlelight shines through intricate patterns carved out of the cardboard headdresses, which bear a striking resemblance to stained glass windows found in Gothic churches.
Some are two metres high, weigh up to 20 kilogrammes, and are the result of as much as 700 hours of work.
The event is called "Klausjagen" (pursuit of St Nicholas) and is one of the most popular pre-Christmas traditions in Switzerland, drawing thousands of curious spectators to the normally sleepy village.
The procession of light and bells then follows St Nicholas and three black faced companions known as "Schmutzli" (schmutz = dirt) through the streets of Küssnacht. As is the tradition elsewhere in Switzerland, they carry rods in case they need to dish out punishment to naughty children, but are usually more compassionate, handing out fruit and nuts.
St Nicholas and the Schmutzli, though, are not the event's main attraction. All attention remains focussed on the candlelit headdresses and the eerie melody produced by the slow clanging bells and accompanying cow horns.
"Klausjagen" has its roots in pagan traditions, and was originally meant to scare away evil spirits.
It continues through the night, ending with a final procession through the streets at 6 am.
A number of excellent examples of the headdresses (Infuln) are on permanent display in the "Heimat" (heritage) museum in Küssnacht.
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