Bringing an ancient Swiss tradition home to Wisconsin
Greg Long’s passion for preserving world cultures and music leads him to bring the ancient Swiss tradition of Silvesterchlausen to New Glarus, Wisconsin.
While traveling in Switzerland in 2014, Greg Long’09 made a discovery. In Appenzell Ausserrhoden, he spotted a museum display featuring an ancient Swiss New Year’s tradition called Silvesterchlausen. The regionally celebrated event, still observed in Appenzell, features costumed celebrants called Chlaüse, who stroll in a group called a Schuppel from house to house, wearing large bells, and singing a slow yodel to bring in the new year. People give them mulled wine as they go.
“It was weird, but old and traditional,” Long says. “There was a strange pagan vibe, and I loved everything about it, how unusual it was.”
Long liked the tradition so much that he researched it, built support, and brought Silvesterchlausen home to New Glarus, Wisconsin, now the only place in the world, outside of a handful of small villages in Appenzell, where the regional tradition is found.
For Long, Silvesterchlausen is a way “to celebrate Swiss culture and explore it in a different way, to present it in a new way, beyond cows and chalets and fondue dinners. It’s something new (but old) and weird and strange.” He notes that there’s much to learn and discover in exploring these folk traditions.
Andy Schulz, director of the Männerchor and Jodlerklub (Swiss choirs) and a member of the Zuckerli Schuppel in New Glarus, agrees. “It’s a unique thing and, quite frankly, amazing. While many cultures have a tradition of dressing up to ward off winter or spirits, I think what makes Silvesterchlausen unique is how localized it is to the Appenzell region.”
And now to New Glarus.
New Glarus, situated between Beloit and Madison amid rolling hills and small farms, is the perfect American home for the tradition. Established in 1845 by Swiss immigrants, it has embraced and retained its Swiss heritage over the years. In 2008, the village — known for chalets and shops with half-timbered facades, flower boxes of red geraniums, Old World meat markets and restaurants, a folk museum, and annual festivals — was chosen as the home of the Swiss Center of North America, a cultural center that includes a research library and historical archive dedicated to celebrating and preserving Swiss culture.
Elaborate costumes are key to Silvesterchlausen, and Long taught himself leathercraft and sewing so he could create them using available materials, including old Christmas trees. Most of the work involves making the masks, which takes roughly six hours, but the real work to put on the festival came beforehand: writing grants to pay for and source the materials, and learning costume-making skills.
The large cowbells and belts are from Switzerland, while Amish craftsmen here in the states create the harnesses with sleighbell-style bells worn over the costumes. The inaugural Silvesterchlausen in New Glarus in 2022 featured four costumed performers, and this year there were five.
Long spends the weeks leading up to Silvesterchlausen in New Glarus worrying about the weather and adding finishing touches to costumes. He sends out a press release and talks to media outlets. The day of the festival, group members meet at the Swiss Center for a light lunch. They do some vocal warm-ups, prepare their costumes, and help each other suit up. They share a toast of Appenzeller schnapps, then start their stroll throughout the village as people join them and follow along. They stop at local businesses and cultural sites where they may get a little refreshment through a straw, but the masks and heavy costumes stay on. They’re mostly moving and singing nonstop for two hours. Once they reach the final stop, which last year was Tofflers Pub and Grill, the masks come off and drinks are poured. Someone will pull out an accordion and choir members will sing into the night.
“It’s an amazing evening of camaraderie and celebration in the dark depths of winter,” Long says.
Bringing the fun
Long traces his interest in world cultures and music to his childhood in Beloit, and family outings in the region. “My interest in anthropology started as a kid,” he recalls, “when I went to the Milwaukee Public Museum for the first time. I remember being fascinated by the cultural displays from all over the world and craving to learn more.”
That fascination and desire to learn led Long to the school in his hometown, Beloit College, where he majored in anthropology. “Shannon Fie was a great influence on me and developed my appreciation for the field,” he recalls. “I still like to pop into her office when I’m in town.”
On a recent visit to campus, Fie gave him a tour of the new anthropology lab and archive in the basement of Godfrey. Fie recalls that Long, who regularly came to class in a kilt, always brought a lot of fun. One of her favorite memories of him is when he led Convocation playing his bagpipes.
After college, Long moved to Madison, where he met his wife, Cassie. When they were looking for a place to settle, New Glarus was at the top of his list.
“As a small town close to Madison with a sense of community and heritage, it appealed to me,” he says. Though he admits that he does not have Swiss ancestry, now that he’s lived in New Glarus for seven years and has thoroughly embraced Swiss culture, Long considers himself an honorary Swiss.
A sense of community
“The decision to move to New Glarus was both pragmatic and emotional. When I was growing up in Beloit, my family would visit New Glarus often for festivals or family suppers. I always loved the feel of the village and had good memories of it. Homes in New Glarus were in our price range and the village had the strong sense of community we were looking for,” Long says.
Long says that though his degree in anthropology has little to do with his work as a project manager at TDS Telecom, it is a huge part of his identity and passions.
He joined the Swiss Center board in 2022, is active in the New Glarus Alphorns, Jodlerklub and Männerchor, and is the founder of the Glarner Jassverein (card-playing club).
The Swiss Center’s president Beth Zurbuchen gives Long credit for making the festival happen. “We have Silvesterchlausen in New Glarus because of Greg,” she says. She received a grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin to help fund the first one, which received a great response in New Glarus and press from around the state, the country, and even back in Switzerland. New Glarus is a tourist town and winter is traditionally a down time. “The festival is positive, engaging, different, and it brings people to town,” Zurbuchen says. “It fills the streets and the shops. It’s an economic boost for the village and the community.”
When Silvesterchlausen returns to New Glarus on Jan. 13, Greg Long will be there with his family. After establishing this ancient tradition here and introducing it to a new audience, he’ll celebrate Swiss heritage in one of the very places that helped spark his interest in such traditions — a place that he now calls home.