Swiss Tradition: Räbelichtli

What is the Swiss tradition Räbelichtli?

The Swiss tradition of turning carved turnips into lanterns and parading them through darkened village streets (or as the locals call it “Räbelichtli”) doesn’t seem to have a long history with a cute story of why it came to be. But you will find these parades occurring in many villages around Switzerland in mid-November.  The parade signals the start of the festive season for many families. 

But what is a Räbelichtli?

Räbelichtlis are lanterns made out of turnips, räbe (or rüben in high-german) meaning turnip and lichtli meaning small light. Children, often with help of their parents or older school children, carve the outer skins of turnips before scooping out all but a small wall of the turnip flesh. Add in a real candle or an LED candle, tie some string and you have yourself a latern ready for the parade. Carving a turnip is a bit similar to carving a halloween jack-o-lantern but a lot easier.  You don’t have to carve the designs all the way through, just gently carve the outer turnip skin. The turnip is translucent, and the light from within gives off a wonderful warming glow and shows off the designs you’ve done on the outside.

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When is the Räbelichtli parade?

Depending on the village, the räbelichtli umzug (or parade) will fall close to St. Martin’s day on November 10th, but any evening around mid-November will do. Our local parade is always the third Thursday in November. The most famous parade and definitely worthy of a visit is the Räbelichtli parade in Richterswil. 

What happens in a Räbelichtli parade?

In villages across the German-speaking part of Switzerland, the street lights are turned off, the roads blocked off and excited groups of children illuminate the dark streets with their turnip laterns.   There are lots of variations depending upon the village, with some parades starting with bells and whips, others have drums, others have kids singing “räbelichtli” songs. But almost all finish with some sort of snack and warm drink.

THE Räbelichtli parade in the region

The parade in the town of Richterswil, this year on the 10th of November,  has become much larger than what you will find in the average village. Since 1908 the local transport association has been creating floats made out of turnips, mainly pushed by adults, while the children carrying their own. It's a huge festival already beginning at 3pm with the parade starting at 6.30pm. The 6th graders from Richterswil even sell ready-carved turnips, if you haven’t brought your own. 

Our experience 

We stick to our own village’s small parade, where the local playgroup, kindergarten, 1st and 2nd graders parade with their lanterns. This will be our 11th Räbelichtli parade with little Z walking with her playgroup. I must admit, I have equal part feelings of relief and sadness that this will be the last year I will have to personally carve a turnip with her - carving a turnip isn’t a skill I have yet mastered!

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I’m coming a little better prepared this year and have done some research on Pinterest (check out my Räbelichtli board here) and Youtube and hope our last turnip latern is instagram worthy!

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