The Swiss National Day bonfires, ignited every 1 August night on mountain peaks encircling the Saanenland, are an amiable and soulful way of celebrating the foundation of the Swiss Confederacy and honoring the memory of the Federal Charter of 1291 of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden.
But the so-called Höhenfeuer has ancient and somewhat jingoistic beginnings that belie the bucolic harmony emanating from a crackling fire on a hot August night.
These toasty and agreeable mountaintop conflagrations, some of which are located upon top of 3,000+ meter prominences, have their hoary origins in warning beacons, signal fires located on well-known high places that alerted the local population to mobilize due to approaching enemy forces. There is good precedent. Beacon fires are recorded in 5th-century-BC Greece, as seen in Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon, and perhaps go as far back as the Mycenaean era or even earlier.1
In 14–15th century Switzerland, the Hochwachtensystem, or ‘high-watch system’ of fire beacons was incrementally developed in Luzern, Bern, Zurich and Freiburg, as well as other places.2 The beacons not only warned the Swiss communities against incursions from the foreign armies of the Franche-Comté or Savoy, but also against assaults from neighboring cantons, a danger that increased significantly after the Reformation.
The system consisted of Hochwacht (‘high watch’) posts on towers and mountains crewed by permanent sentries, who maintained the beacon pyres and kept constant watch. The typically pyramid-shaped beacons were constructed to burn for an hour. Confirmation of a beacon was done by a sighting reticle attached to a pole or turntable – after all, one fire looks much like another at night, and the sentries wouldn’t want to mobilize the army because someone’s barn was burning.
The Bernese system of beacons, called Chuzen in the local dialect, at its greatest extent had 156 beacons from the bailiwick of Aargau on the Rhine to the bailiwick of Vaud on Lac Leman.3 A warning message from Bern to Zurzach, relayed by eighteen Chuzen fires, took three hours; from Bern to Geneva, it took two and a half. During daylight hours, green fir boughs generated smoke. On foggy days, mortars were fired.
Why do the Swiss so venerate 1 August 1, 1291? Aegidius Tschudi, Swiss historian of the Old Confederacy, put the date of the Rütlischwur oath binding the three forest cantons as 8 November 1307. But in 1889, the modern Swiss capital of Bern was planning to celebrate the 700th anniversary of its 1191 foundation. The convenience of simultaneously marking the 600th anniversary of the Swiss Confederacy was too good to miss, and Bern promoted the 1 August 1291 charter, one of many from that period, as the foundational document.
All well and good, but what does the more recent version look like?
At some point before the mid-1960s, the traditional wood fuel of the Höhenfeuer was replaced with automobile tires – they were lighter to carry than logs and burned longer. A crew going up to, say, the top of the Wildhorn would carry a few tires and a couple of cans of fuel. And schnapps, of course. Since the route up from Lauenen might take north of seven hours, one needed some refreshment upon summiting.
Today, the un-ecological tire blazes have reverted to wood, with a modern twist. A reputable source on one peak has divulged that 300 to 500 kilograms of timber is transported by helicopter the day before, with the contemporary beacon tenders hiking up the day-of. No longer, perhaps, to warn us of coming trouble, but to herald the essential Swissness of the national day.