The Story of Fafleralp

Autor: Walter Henzen, Blatten, 2013

The famous Lötschental masks called Tschäggättä (Tschäggätta in the singular), are to be seen between the 2nd February (Catholic festival of Candlemas) and Ash Wednesday. For those who respect the old tradition, they should not be seen before midday (12 noon) nor after nightfall (19h).

Until the 2nd World War only young men and bachelors had the right to wear the Tschäggättä costumes, nowadays however young boys and married men are also allowed to wear them. Customs have also changed in so far as the Tschäggättä are almost only to be seen on Saturday afternoons during the period from «Feisten Frontag» until Ash Wednesday. This is because the young men don’t have the same freedom today, the majority having professional obligations. Furthermore the Tschäggättä are forbidden to appear on Sundays.

In general the Tschäggättä do not parade in a procession nor do they form organised groups. Each individual does as he pleases in so far as he respects the allotted times. They can be seen alone or in groups, most frequently with cow bells that they ring noisily or else they spring unexpectedly from unlikely places. They are supposed to demand respect from young children and girls – nowadays from tourists as well – and also to cause a certain amount of fear. They wear old clothes with fur on the outside. Two sheep or goat skins are worn, one on the back the other on the chest. These are secured by a leather belt from which a cowbell is hung. Their feet are often covered by sacks which also form leggings, thus reinforcing their wild appearance but also so that their shoes and the prints they leave in the snow cannot be recognised. The Tschäggättä also wear gloves which used to be made from the thread left behind in carding combs. These are sometimes dipped in soot to «blacken» their victims. An enormous mask, sculptured in Arolla pine, sheep’s or goats’ wool, and a stick complete the costume. Today some Tschäggättä wear costumes that are not as traditional as custom dictates.

Where does the name «Roitschäggätta» come from?

Today the locals use the abbreviation Tschäggätta (plural Tschäggättä) more often. The word «Roitschäggätta» has much older origins. They are called Tschäggättä because of their clothes made from black and white sheepskin and «Roitschäggättä» on account of an old childhood belief that they came down the chimney (Roich = smoke). Rauch).

The first documents to mention the ancestral Tchäggättä custom can be found in the archives of the parish of Kippel. They date from the time of Prieur Gibsten, (from 1864 to 1876). He countered these customs which he considered undignified for Christians by taxing troublemakers fifty centimes. However researchers are convinced that these customs are much more ancient.

Significance of the masks

We will probably never have a single justifiable answer to the question of the origin of the Tschäggättä. Here are the three main versions:

1. In 1550 there was a popular uprising in Valais, the so-called «Trinkelstierkrieg». At the time the rebels disguised themselves like the present-day Tschäggättä so that they would not be recognised. 

2. The Tschäggättä – like many other spring customs – were created to chase away winter and evil spirits.

3. A gang of thieves could also be responsible for this tradition. They apparently operated from the dawn of time or, according to another version, in the C15th in a clearing on the southern side of the valley. Camouflaged behind their masks, like highwaymen, they attacked the villages. 

Members were only admitted to the gang after having proved they were capable of striding across the Lonza carrying a heavy burden at a narrow passage situated to the West of Blatten.

Manna from Ferden

The story goes that following the death of a cowherd who had become rich through illegal means a ghost came to haunt the alpine pastures of Faldum, Resti and Kummen. This evil spirit chased the cattle from their stalls and let them escape into the mountains and valleys. The cows came back three days later. Their hooves were full of seeds and blood flowed from their udders. The people responsible for the alpine pastures therefore decided to offer the result of two days milking to the poor people in the valley every year. This was how the curse came to be lifted. 

The first document telling this story is dated 1872. It is a translation of a Latin version which has been lost. The names mentioned give rise to the belief that the original document could date back to the year 1380. More than 200 years later it was stipulated in a letter dated 1596 that the name «Spendmatte» had been given to a meadow where the symbolic distribution took place. In 1914 statutes and rules were laid down concerning the way the offering should be divided and they are still in practice today. 

Preparation of the manna

On 22nd July the cows are placed in predefined, well-marked out pastures. The milk collected in the evening of 22nd July, all day on the 23rd and on the morning of the 24th is processed into a full fat cheese. Already on the 24th July this cheese is stored in the communal cellar in Ferden where the people who have been honoured with this responsibility receive it with their assistants. The curds are pressed and poured into containers made from pine bark. In the 

following months those responsible devote their attention to the processing – on a daily basis to begin with – notably by piercing holes in the pine bark in order to allow the whey to escape. The cheese is left to mature until Easter Monday. At dawn on that day the cheese is cut into small cubes which are deducted and ready for distribution. 

Easter Monday distribution

Immediately after Mass the bell chimes to announce the distribution. All the children, from the cradle to the final school year, receive a large portion of cheese and an eighth of a loaf of rye bread. Following the distribution the burghers are invited to a primary assembly. 

The president begins the ceremony with a prayer and reads the statutes of the donation, following which they go on to the nomination of the organs of donation. No other affairs are dealt with during this assembly. Once the cheese and bread have been eaten the president closes the ceremony with a prayer because it is already afternoon and guests from outside are waiting. To announce that the moment has arrived, the master of ceremonies opens the door of the village hall.

Women, men and children take their places and receive the cheese and white bread wrapped in a white cloth. They are also served wine in a prescribed quantity. Once all the outside guests have been served there is a vast general distribution which includes the local women and children. 

During this time, in a separate room, there is another distribution in favour of the donors and suppliers of milk for the fabrication of the cheese who are not burghers of Ferden as well as single-parent families. Once the «grand distribution» has been completed at the end of the afternoon, the village hall is put at the disposal of the burghers so that they can enjoy a good wine in convivial company. According to tradition the burghers take their places at table and at 10pm the master of ceremonies closes the doors of the hall.