Here Come the Turnips

English: Turnips (Brassica rapa) Français : Na...

English: Turnips (Brassica rapa) Français : Navets Español: Nabos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An ancient tradition in the German-speaking villages of Switzerland is the Räbenliechtli procession: just after dark on a cold November evening, the kindergarten children gather to parade singing through the village. They carry long sticks from which dangle lanterns made from large turnips or swedes, hollowed out with patterns cut into the outer skin, and a tea-light inside. It’s a pretty sight, and in many places the streetlights are turned off to allow the lanterns to shine to full effect. The custom probably goes back to pagan times. The songs the children sing are the same ones sung by their parents, grandparents and probably great-grandparents, simple tunes and words which vary slightly from village to village depending on the local dialect.

My eldest granddaughter has just posted an account at chaperon tacheté of her son’s first experience of the Räbenliechtli, a great event in the life of a kindergartener. Learning the songs in the run-up to the big day builds up eager anticipation, and then, finally, the lantern has to be prepared. Hollowing out a large turnip or swede and carving patterns into its skin requires strength and skill beyond that of a four- or five-year-old, so this job normally falls to the parents. Most lanterns have simple geometric shapes like stars, but Severin wanted a tank – so Daddy obliged, and the result is impressive.

On the big day, excitement mounts as the day draws on, twilight and darkness can’t come soon enough. Then off they go, hand in hand, waving their lanterns and singing at the top of their voices, watched by all the villagers who remember doing exactly the same thing themselves years before. Severin’s group had an extra treat this year, as their procession was allowed to march into the woods where they were told a story.

Reading K’s post, my mind went back several years to the time when my youngest granddaughter was in kindergarten, and I was deputised to attend with her the day the lanterns were prepared. To my relief, I wasn’t the only non-Swiss adult there, as my daughter’s Canadian friend El (now blogging at Ellie’s tulips) was also present to make the lantern for her son. We both assumed that the turnips should be treated as we would have carved pumpkins, i.e. hollow out the middle and cut shapes right through the outer wall.

We had both managed, with a great deal of effort, to cut out a few triangles in our turnips when one of the other mothers informed us that we were supposed to carve the shape only into the thick outer skin leaving a layer of turnip flesh on the inside. Otherwise the wind would blow the candle out. This was so obvious to those who had years of experience of Räbenliechtli that nobody had bothered to tell El and me, so we had wasted two perfectly good turnips, shamed our children by being ignorant foreigners, and were way behind all the other mothers, experts in turnip-lantern carving.

As I recall, we did succeed in producing creditable lanterns in the end, so our ignominy wasn’t made public and our children were not disgraced when they turned up for the procession. However, I was never invited to carve any more turnip lanterns. I’m glad for my great-grandchildren that they have such experts to prepare theirs!

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4 thoughts on “Here Come the Turnips

  1. ‘….. the kindergarten children gather to parade singing through the village. They carry long sticks from which dangle lanterns made from large turnips or swedes, hollowed out with patterns cut into the outer skin, and a tea-light inside’
    I bet this must be a lovely sight and very exciting for the little ones. I hope this tradition is never going to stop. Thanks, Cat, for telling us all about it.

  2. What’s specially nice about this custom is that it happens in most villages, not just one, so I think there’s a good chance of it surviving since it’s fun for everybody. Good to have you back safely after all your adventures!

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