While the last hurrahs of Halloween echo through the weekend, my family and I will be participating in a much older autumnal tradition, one more akin to the harvest festivals of millennia ago than the community-wide, candy-fueled masquerade we indulge in today. Tomorrow evening, all the school children will gather at the top of the town (like so much of Switzerland, we’re built on a hill). The lights will turn off, and the windows will fill with the Swiss-German equivalent of jack-o-lanterns: Räbeliechtli (ra-ba-leekt-li). In English, this roughly translates little turnip light. The school children have built parade floats covered in the things, and each has also carved one to carry, suspended from a string or mounted on a stick, like a torch. They parade through the town (Räbeliechtliumzug), more children and adults joining in along the way, until we all descend en masse upon the main town square, where there is an award for the best float and free sausages for all the kids. It’s really hard to explain the experience, but take my word for it, it is absolutely magical, perhaps particularly because no one ever catches on fire or burns down the town. The atmosphere is perfectly fairytale. The videos embedded in this post, though they are not from my town’s celebration, were chosen because they begin to capture the experience (for images from the biggest Räbeliechtliumzug in Switzerland, check out these from Richterswil’s Räbeliechtlichilbi). Enjoy them! Hopefully, the clips work in all countries.
Does this have anything to do with Miss Austen? Admittedly, I’m reaching more than a bit, but I look to the good people at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath for precedence. A few years ago, they published a fun article with instruction for carving your own “Jane-o-lantern,” including some history of Halloween. After providing the common origin story of the holiday, derived from the Celtic harvest festival Samhain, the author explains how these traditions were celebrated in Austen’s time:
During the night of spooks and ghosts, homes would be lit by rustic lanterns carved from turnips (known early on as neeps) beets and rutabagas. Pumpkins would be used later, as they were brought to Europe from the New World in the 17th century. These flickering lights were set out in hopes of welcoming home friendly souls and chasing away the evil spirits who wandered that night.
Jane Austen would have been aware of these celebrations and divination rites; however, as the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, it is doubtful that she would have partaken in such goings on…. She mentions neither these holidays or her feelings towards them.
There, at least, is the turnip connection. Often the last vegetable of the harvest, turnip lanterns were a natural choice for carving but more labor intensive than pumpkins (trust me on this: they are much less forgiving, you need a lot more of them, and they rot faster). The internet is alive with images of creepy turnips, carved by people harkening back to the past, often in the style of jack-o-lanterns. This is not what the Swiss do. They carve beautiful turnips, often decorated with Christmas images. The Christmas season has already begun here, though it needs a few more weeks to get into full gear (Samichlaus, the Swiss equivalent to Santa, has his big day December 6th, while the Christkind visits on the 24th).
This year I carved my own Räbeliechtli, instead of just helping my kids with theirs (and yeah, even the 22 month old has one), inspired by the Jane-o-lantern concept. Not sure what to call it (Janeliechtli doesn’t really work), but of the thousands of turnips decorated in my town this week, I feel pretty confidant that I’m the only one who opted for an Austen motif. I’m quite pleased with the result, though it would have been way easier with a pumpkin. If you’ve never carved a giant turnip before, the inside is solid and takes a bit of work to hollow. The smell is somewhat similar to horseradish, though not as intense. I imagine that if I had been doing this all my life, it would reek of childhood nostalgia. As it is, I need a pumpkin to conjure such sensations. There’s something about the texture of the pulpy seeds slipping between my fingers and that sweet, fresh scent. It’s hard for a humble turnip to compete. Happy harvest everybody, however you celebrate it!