The unmissable St Nicholas’ festival in Fribourg, Switzerland
For the past 100 years, Fribourg has honoured St Nicholas with a festive, welcoming and lively celebration held on the first Saturday in December. The tradition dates back to the early 20th century and has become a celebration not to be missed, drawing in crowds of between 20,000 and 25,000 every year. The event is hugely popular and eagerly anticipated by residents and friends of Fribourg.
A tribute to artisans and children
On the Saturday, Fribourg’s city services and the staff of St Michael’s College make an early start, setting up around 100 stalls in St Nicholas’ Cathedral square and another 60 or so in the college grounds. From daybreak, artisans, traders and the college students take over the town for a day of festivities, with stalls selling regional crafts, food and drink across both markets. But above all it is the children’s games and activities that draw visitors in with donkey rides, lantern making and face-painting workshops. St Nicholas, Fribourg’s patron saint, is known as the protector of children. But who was he?
A very mysterious character
We know very little about this saint, celebrated in Fribourg with great enthusiasm and ceremony. St Nicholas, a 4th century bishop from Myra in present-day Turkey, was known for his charity and kindness, particularly towards children, whom he staunchly defended. One of the more plausible stories tells us that in the 10th century, the canons from the church of the Great St Bernard spread the worship of St Nicholas to a number of priories located in what was to become the canton of Fribourg. The story may be pure conjecture, but the fact remains that over the centuries the cathedral that bears St Nicholas’ name has been adorned with many representations of the saint; stalls and baptismal fonts are engraved with his image, his name is inscribed on a 16th century clock and the tympanum has a statue depicting him.
Who plays St Nicholas?
Traditionally, a St Michael’s College student plays the role of St Nicholas at the Fribourg celebrations. Why? In 1906, a group of students from the college paraded an image of the bishop across the town as a joke or student prank. To their surprise, the procession was a roaring success, so much so that the school’s officials encouraged it and designated the responsibility for organising the annual festival to the college students in their final year. And the saint himself? The saint is chosen by his peers – year-10-students – at a ceremony held in mid-September in which each candidate sets out their reasons for playing the great saint on the day. The atmosphere may be festive, but playing a character who addresses a crowd of over 20,000 demands training, credibility and a degree of self-confidence.
Crossing town on a donkey
The excitement of this warm and welcoming folk tradition intensifies at nightfall when a huge and joyful crowd amasses at St Michael’s College to watch the start of the procession. At 5pm, the procession, led by St Nicholas in white robes with some 200 followers, leaves the college and heads for the cathedral, where the saint is met at the porch by Bishop Morerod of Geneva, Lausanne and Fribourg. Escorted by the dark and fearsome ‘pères fouettards’ (whipping fathers), illuminated by torches and accompanied by the sound of fifes and drums, the protagonist rides through town on a donkey throwing thousands of gingerbread ‘biscômes’ to the crowds lining the route. Babalou, the donkey, is also a draw for adults and children alike. The procession ends at 6pm when St Nicholas addresses the crowd from the cathedral balcony, delivering a highly entertaining speech imbued with humour and satire that recounts the main events of the year.
Over the years, the growing popularity of Fribourg’s St Nicholas festival has given rise to a few traditions. For the past six years, Fribourg’s artists have produced artwork depicting the great saint. The following year, the work is then reproduced on the gingerbread wrappers. A St Nicholas card has also been made every year since 1916. For 40 years, Eugène Reichlen, a visual arts teacher, designed the card; the work is now done by a year-10-student. Each year, 13,000 copies of the card are printed and sold, and the proceeds are donated to local children’s charities.
More information: Fribourg Tourisme et Région