The story.

Chalandamarz in detail

Every child in Switzerland knows the story of Schellenursli, the little boy from the Lower Engadin village of Guarda. It is linked to Chalandamarz. A custom as old as the settlement of the mountain valleys, a festival that is celebrated a little differently in every village. In the Lower Engadine and in Val Müstair, 1 March is one of the most exciting days of the year - characterised by traditions and supported by young people.

From Mirjam Fassold

The air is ice-cold and crystal clear, the sun can only be glimpsed behind the mountains in the east. Slowly, individual rays climb into the steel-blue sky on the eastern flank of Piz Pisoc. Behind the facades of the houses there is a hustle and bustle – it is March 1st, Chalandamarz. The cobblestones of the village street are padded with a layer of snow; no longer white as a sheet, but compact – trampled and bogged down by winter boots and car tyres. And ready to cushion the steps of the partying village youth later in the day. Then, when it gets loud, noisy and cheerful and the Chalandamarz procession passes through the village.

There they are, the first metallic sounds of a cowbell. It dangles from the arm of a pupil who hurriedly disappears in the direction of the school building. Two streets away, a whip cracks. More and more children in bright blue peasant outfits with neckerchiefs and red pointed caps stream out of the alleys. Happy laughter can be heard, excited voices, in between the cracking of whips, cowbells and rattles. On March 1st, everyone is up early – the children with cheeks flushed with excitement, the local adults reminiscing about their own childhood and earlier Chalandamarz processions. The guests are also awake, awakened by the crack of the whips and the jingling of the bells – welcome to the midst of living customs.

«Remnants» from Roman times

The Chalandamarz dates back to the time when the Romans occupied what was then Rhaetia. It is still celebrated today in the Engadin, Münstertal, Bergell, Puschlav, Misox, Albulatal and Oberhalbstein. In the Julian calendar, March was the first month of the year, and 1 March was therefore New Year's Day. On this day, the young men of the village submitted to the commander and his deputy, hung themselves with the largest and most magnificent cowbells and loudly welcomed the new year. At the same time, this pagan ritual drove away the evil winter spirits and prepared the people for spring.

Today, it is no longer the young men but the children who parade through the villages with bells ringing, whips cracking and singing to herald the arrival of spring. Chalandamarz owes its name to the day on which it is celebrated – «chalanda» stands for the first day of the month.

Children's choirs with young conductor

«Chalandamarz, chaland’avrigl, laschai las vachas our d’uigl. Las vachas van culs vdels, las nuorsas culs agnels, las chavras culs usöls, las giallinas fan ils övs. La naiv svanescha e l’erba crescha», it resounds in many voices from the throats of children. It is morning, the rays of the March sun are not yet able to melt the snow, it crunches under the thick soles, only the singing warms the hearts of the choir and the audience. The pupils stand by the well and sing about the departure of the cows and calves, the sheep and lambs, the goats and kids from the dark stables into the bright spring light.

Two more songs follow – also in Romansh and heralding the approach of spring. The songs are rehearsed in the schools; where school associations exist, the teachers organise choir rehearsals in the villages – each village is to pass on its own Chalandamarz songs to the next generation. The Chalandamarz choirs are conducted by the oldest pupils – adults, including teachers, are only welcome as audience.

Before the illustrious crowd moves on, girls in traditional Engadine costumes make the rounds with a cash box. A donation is part of the Chalandamarz tradition, it is money well spent, because the song quoted above ends with the words:

If you give us something, God bless you, and if you give us nothing, let the wolf devour you.

Alpine procession in March

Legend has it that at the beginning of March the youth have had enough of the eternal snow and want to put an end to winter. That's why the group of schoolchildren dressed up as an alpine procession goes from house to house, from place to place. The procession is led by older boys, the pipe-smoking alpine dairymen, and older girls in traditional Engadine costumes. The procession also includes bell-bearing «cows» (schoolchildren in blue alpine dairymen's outfits), the size of the bell determines the place in the procession - the one with the largest bells at the front, the one with the small goat bells at the back. The herd is decorated with silk flowers, just like in the real alpine procession. These «Rösas» are made in the weeks before by the schoolgirls under the guidance of the handicraft teachers or made by mothers..

Just like once «Tinkle-bell Ursli»

Although only celebrated in a few valleys in the Grisons, the Chalandamarz is known throughout Switzerland. Thanks to «Tinkle-bell Ursli». The children's book by Selina Chönz has helped the boy from Guarda to national fame. With the illustrations by Alois Carigiet, who used house no. 51 as a model for little Ursli's parents' house, Guarda itself also became a household name for many Swiss people.

As a reminder: Ursli only has a small bell for the Chalandamarz, which is why he is teased by the other boys and has to walk at the end of the procession at the Chalandamarz. He remembers the big cowbell hanging in the Maiensäss and takes on the adventurous journey through the deep snow. In the valley, his parents are worried, and when darkness falls, the whole village is looking for Ursli. When he shows up at home the next day with the big bell, the relief is great. And because he now brings the biggest bell, Ursli is allowed to lead the Chalandamarz procession.

When the «a bell for Ursli» book was published in 1945, practically every family was engaged in farming, at least as a sideline, and cowbells or goat bells could be found in every house. In the third millennium, however, the number of farmers is in sharp decline, even in rural areas. What remains for the Chalandamarz children is the question of how to get the largest possible bell or «plumpa» for the procession. You have to get in touch with a farmer in good time via your parents or godfather to borrow a bell. And then go and ask – organising the bell is a matter of honour for the boys and causes just as much heart palpitations as asking a girl to dance or to make the «Rösas» for you.

The children's festival – a step towards independence

The parade is only one part of the Chalandamarz festival, which lasts between one and three days, depending on the village. In addition to the parade, the «classic ingredients» of a Chalandamarz include a children's ball with music and dancing as well as performances by the individual school classes. The children are not only the centre of attention at the festival, they also organise it themselves. A lot of responsibility for the pupils, who are educated to act independently and responsibly at an early age and learn to fight for their place in the community or to submit to the circumstances – for example, if the desired role in the procession belongs to someone else because of their age.

Ftan: Chalandamarz or Carneval?

The arrangement of the Chalandamarz is as diverse as the region in which it is celebrated. Each village has cultivated its own peculiarities; it is subtleties in which the festivities differ in the individual villages. The only exception is Ftan. Its Chalandamarz is like a carnival procession and takes place on a Saturday. Schoolboys and male youths parade through the village in masks and beat girls and adults with skinny, inflated pig bladders. Originally, this is said to have been a fertility ritual.

«S-chüsa da capo» and «Mamma da Chalandamarz»

The Chalandamarz once had political significance as an election and installation day for municipal authorities, and this is still the case in Ardez today. The capo, as the mayor is called here, gives an oral account of the past year on March 1st. Shortly after noon, he reads out his «S-chüsa da capo» in the school building; the act is embedded in a programme of music, dance and performances by the school youth. In election years, the municipal authorities are also sworn in. «This has been the case since time immemorial,» says Capo Jon Peider Strimer. The same applies to the mulled wine aperitif offered by the municipality afterwards.

Another old custom is upheld in Lavin: the mother of the eldest schoolchild is given the honour of being the first to go to school «Mamma da Chalandamarz». According to a song, she is supposed to cook six lunches for the children. 

Today there is one lunch and five dinners

Linard Martinelli Municipal President

For: «The Chalandamarz marks the beginning of the school holidays, which are often used for skiing.» Only on the Sunday after Chalandamarz are all the pupils in the village at midday, because attending church together in the morning is part of the tradition.

Around 40 school children are to be fed. «Not at your own kitchen table, you can escape to the gym», Martinelli explains. And the Mamma da Chalandamarz is not alone at the cooker: «She same way that the students work together to organise the Chalandamarz, the parents also organise themselves.» The capo is optimistic that there will still be a «Mamma da Chalandamarz» even in future, even if newcomers from the Unterland have rebelled in the recent past. «Dhe young mothers are behind this custom», Martinelli knows.

Quo vadis Chalandamarz?

What is the future of the Chalandamarz? A legitimate question in view of the steady exodus from rural areas. Nevertheless, there is confidence; the locals seem to have a Chalandamarz gene, as the example of Guarda shows. In 2003, the village had to give up its school because the number of pupils was too small. «We have had no births for six consecutive years.», says Maria Morell, president of the municipality. When these cohorts became school-age, there was a lack of children for the Chalandamarz. «Our children refused support from other villages, wanted to do the Chalandamarz on their own», says Morell. There was vocal support for the singing, however, from the children of regular guests. Today, the community of 160 inhabitants again has 30 children of school age who will march and sing at the next Chalandamarz in Guarda in 2014.

Chalandamarz in Guarda

Chalandamarz 2024.

Programme overview

As a guest, you are cordially invited to accompany the various Chalandamarz events in the Engadin villages and thus get to know the Engadin custom better.