Back in pagan times, the onerous task of driving away the icy season on 1 March fell to the youths of the village. Today the custom of “Chalandamarz” is the heart of one of the most exuberant days in the Engadin, featuring exclusively children – and run by them, too.
Early in the morning on 1 March, when the night’s frost still holds the valley in its grip and the sun has yet to appear, light footsteps echo through the alleys of the Engadin’s villages. Here and there, a cowbell rings; was that the crack of a whip? It surely was, because today the whole village celebrates “Chalandamarz”!
The name itself points to the historical roots of this Engadin tradition. When the Romans governed the province of Raetia in the 1st Century AD, the first day (“kalendae”) of March (“martius”) marked the start of the new year: young men would drive out the old year with a suitable racket and welcome the new with a wild celebration. Today it is the children and teenagers of each village who confidently drive away winter and welcome spring with a ceremony that echoes the ascent of the livestock to the alpine pastures.
Wherever “Chalandamarz” is celebrated in the Engadin, certain elements – songs, ringing cowbells and a joyful children’s ball with dance and music – always play a central role. But that is about all that the different manifestations of this colourful custom have in common (aside from the cheerful mood of all the participants). One Chalandamarz may feature only boys; another, girls as well. It may be traditional, as in the much-loved children’s story “Schellen-Ursli” (“A bell for Ursli”) by Selina Chönz, with iconic illustrations by Alois Carigiet; or it may be a Carnival procession complete with satirical undertones… The variety of the Chalandamarz traditions of the different villages reflects the diversity of the Engadin as a whole.
As befits the ascent to the alpine pastures, the young “herders” (often complete with cape and stick) drive the “cows” (the “herd” of children carrying bells, wearing blue farmers’ smocks and pointy red caps, and sporting handmade flowers of paper or silk), while the “cowherd” (the oldest schoolboy of the village) oversees and leads the group. When he stops and gathers the others around, the cowherd becomes conductor of the assembled choir. First of all, the children sing the most famous of all Chalandamarz songs, by Otto Barblan, about the cows, sheep and goats swapping their dark stables for the bright spring sunshine; the young voices then intone other songs from the Romansh Chalandamarz tradition. In some villages, the older girls wear splendid traditional Engadin costume, dressing as “ladies” to collect small donations from spectators.
“First of March, first of April, let the cows out of the shed. The cows go with the calves, the ewes with the lambs, the goats with the kids, the hens lay eggs. The snow disappears and the grass grows. Give us something, and may God bless you; and if you don’t give us anything, may the wolf eat, too!” (Chalandamarz song. Composer: Otto Barblan)
The youngsters may take centre stage on 1 March, but they also play the leading roles during the preparation period beforehand: the main organisation of this important day is entirely down to them. Who plays which role? Where can I get a bell? Anyone who hopes to carry the biggest cowbell (thanks to “Schellen-Ursli”, everyone knows this is the ambition of every “cow”!) needs to come up with a good plan. The paper flowers (“rösas”) also have to be made – by the children themselves.
Adults may be given administrative tasks or the job of providing the hungry crowd of children with plenty to eat and drink. During “Chalandamarz” itself, they are proud and happy spectators as the bells ring through the alleys of their village, whips crack, the old songs come to life – and spring finally arrives.