Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true
So wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in one verse of his 1850 poem Ring Out, Wild Bells.
Saanenland is no exception in making bells a central element of New Year’s Eve celebrations. But here in Switzerland the bells in question are, of course, cow bells. While some campaign to have bells removed from cows’ necks, claiming the constant clanging makes the animals unhappy, it’s not only cows that lug these huge lumps of clanging metal through the streets.
If you’re in Gstaad on New Year’s Eve you would need to be very unlucky or hiding under a log to miss the traditional cow bell parade through the village. The procession of the local Treichlerclub starts at 9pm at the Molkerei then heads along the Promenade through the centre of town. On the parade’s return trip it winds its way through various restaurants, delighting diners and hard-working hospitality staff alike. Guide timings for the parade are: Hotel Park Gstaad at 11pm, Restaurant-Bar Rialto at 11.30pm and Gstaad Palace at midnight with many other venues included in-between.
I have been lucky enough to witness this parade many times and each year the rhythmic clanging of the approaching bells sends shivers down my spine. All conversation ceases and people crane their necks in the direction of the noise, eager to catch their first glimpse. The bell ringers (both men and women) march in formation, a dozen or so in a kind of pack. They each grasp a bell in their hands and move in a half-swaying motion as they wend their way down the street, into restaurants and between tables and chairs.
The bells come in all shapes and sizes from big to large to impossibly large. It must be a very effective workout. The bell ringers wear bright, embroidered smocks that don’t seem best suited to the harshness of deep winter, yet despite the total absence of coats, scarves and gloves the ringers seem unaffected by the frosty weather. I can only assume (and hope!) they receive sufficient celebratory sustenance to keep them warm as they go about their night’s work.
Many believe that ringing bells at New Year drives out evil spirits and brings good luck.
At some point since moving to Switzerland we translated this into creating a new family tradition of our own: whenever we’re invited to a wedding we give a cow bell to the happy couple.
We organise this at the veritable treasure trove that is the Quincaillerie Daenzer shop in Moulins. There we buy a shiny new cow bell and leather strap. We get a brass plaque engraved with the newlyweds’ names and their wedding date and have this affixed to the leather strap. Love it or hate it you’ve got to agree it’s an original present.
It usually goes down well, especially when we tell the happy couple it brings good luck. At worst we get bemused looks, but most of the time it is taken in the spirit as intended. There is also a definite upside to giving a cow bell as a gift. Everyone’s heard tales of couples receiving three toasters or two coffee machines, despite the most organised of wedding present lists. We are always more than certain our present will not be duplicated.
And now, I suppose, we can be certain to receive no further wedding invitations following this admission of the gift we bear. Still I like to think Lord Alfred Tennyson would approve.
Let the bells ring out good luck for 2019 wherever you may be. Happy New Year!