• Deborah Kade

Unspunnen Day 1

What began in 1805 as a festival to unify city dwellers and country folk is today believed to be the world’s largest traditional gathering: Swiss wrestlers, alpine herdsmen and members of traditional costume groups.

Unspunnenfest is a festival held in the town of Interlaken near the old ruin of Unspunnen Castle, in the Bernese Alps, approximately once every twelve years, most recently in 2006. The festival highlights traditional Swiss culture and features competitions of Steinstosseb (stone throwing), Schwingen (wrestling) and yodeling. The stone throwing competition uses an 83.5 kg (184.1 lb) stone known as the Unspunnenstein ("Unspunnen Stone"), made of Aare granite from the Hasli Valley.

The history of the festival dates back to the 13th century, in the meadows of Unspunnen Castle, when local Lord Burkard von Unspunnen and the founder of the city of Bern, Berchtold V. von Zähringen were able to reconcile their differences.

The first official festival was held on August 17, 1805, in a similar effort: Napoleon had just invaded Switzerland, and the event was seen as a way of unifying the nation. Furthermore, the people of the Bernese Oberland had formed a separate canton in the Helvetic Republic, leading the Mayor of Bern, Niklaus Friedrich von Mülinen and Interlaken's chief magistrate, Franz Ludwig Thormann (and others) to organize this festival in an effort to bring both sides together. It was, unfortunately, not very successful in that regard, and conflicts continue to exist between rural and urban dwellers today.

Culturally and financially, however, the first two festivals were a great success. The Swiss Heritage Society and the Swiss Traditional Costume Association owe their origins to the Unspunnen Festival.

A second competition was held in 1808, but the original 184 lb (83 kg) stone was lost in the intervening years, and the 1808 festival used a 167 lb (76 kg) stone.

The third festival was not organized until the centenary in 1905, using the 1808 stone, now with the dates 1805 and 1905 carved into it. However, it wasn't until 1946 that the festival, then known as the Swiss Traditional Costume and Cowherd's Festival, was held at regular intervals. After 1946, the Unspunnenfest was staged at regular intervals: 1955, 1968, 1981 and 1993.

Modern times

In 1984, the 1808 stone was stolen by members of the Belier Group (Jura separatists) from Unterseen museum on Sunday June 3, 1984, and held as a "political hostage". A new stone was found, this one weighing 83.5 kg, similar to the 1808 stone, and has been used in all competitions since. This stone can currently be found in the counter hall of Interlaken UBS Bank.

In 1999, a photographer was led to a private residence in Brussels, where he was shown what was claimed to be the 1808 Unspunnenstein. He took photographs as evidence, which members of the Interlaken Gymnastic Club, who had commissioned the 1984 replacement stone, identified as authentic. The stone was delivered mysteriously to Shawne Fielding-Borer (American-born wife of the then Swiss ambassador to Berlin), packaged as confectionery, at a festival held in the village of Saignelégier, in the canton of Jura in August 2000. However, the stone had been damaged. Unhappy with the result of the Swiss national referendum in 1992, in which the Swiss population decided against participation to the European Economic Area (EEA), the Belier Group had engraved twelve stars in the stone, symbolizing the European Union, as well as the date of the referendum, December 6, 1992, and their own emblem. As a result, the stone lost 2.3 kg (5.1 lb) in weight, and could no longer be used for competitions.

The 1808 stone was once again stolen on August 20, 2005 from a hotel in Interlaken. A small stone was left behind by the thieves bearing the emblem of Jura. The French-speaking separatists did not claim responsibility this time, but did issue a statement in support of the theft. Its whereabouts remain unknown.

Excessive flooding caused the next installment of Unspunnenfest to be postponed by a full year; it was finally held in September 2006. The winner of the stone throwing competition threw the Unspunnenstein a distance of 3.89 m (12 ft 9 in).

The festival events for today center around events for children and an opening ceremony.

It is wonderful to see children carrying on Swiss traditions. Women, men and children are in the dress from their region of the country.

Even I am beginning to recognize different regions.

I can see the influence of flowers with many of the costumes. When you look at my pictures, check the women's aprons and the flowers above the corsets. The tie of the apron is on the right side in some of the regions where in other regions it ties in the back or the left side.

I was fascinated by all the different types of hats the woman wear.

The man's coat in this canton of Bern has the national flower, the edelweiss.

Music is especially important to the people. I would say The Arts are as important as sport. Your mind and body need to be challenged.

The children's events were held in the Casino. Today, I watched children singing, dancing, yodeling and playing music. They also had games set up around the casino. Children just played!!!! One of the games involved a balance beam. Two people, each holding a bag filled with cloth tried to knock the other person off the balance beam. I could not ever see this allowed in the states. What if one of the children fell off and got hurt? We would want to sue. Here they take personal responsibility for their actions.

I can not imagine the hours of preparation but everything went off like "Swiss Clockwork". Precise and on time!!!

I especially enjoyed the children singing. I will include pictures in the Travel Showcase section but I will not include any videos until Michael arrives two weeks from today. This is a new web page program I am learning and it is very complicated.

The opening ceremony took place in the Edelweiss Tent. Bell ringers marched into the tent to announce the beginning of the ceremony. There were probably as many tables for dignitaries as there were for everyone else.

Local, canton and federal politicians gave short speeches. Children sang, threw flags, danced and played music.

I sat with a couple from Argau and another from Bern. They started talking in Swiss German and I said I only speak English but I do understand some words and phrases if they are spoken slowly.

After the opening ceremony, everyone went out the tent to watch the release of balloons and the raising of the Canton of Bern flag, the Swiss flag and the Unspunnen flag. They had a marching band play music.

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