Celebrating the first of August in Switzerland

Celebrating the first of August in Switzerland

by Leona Quigley

Updated March 20, 2023

August 1st has been the official national holiday of Switzerland for only about 30 years, but it has a very long history. In a country divided by mountains, valleys, cantons, cuisines and even languages, the first day of August marks a celebration of national togetherness. Whether they refer to it as the ​​“Schweizer Nationalfeiertag / Bundesfeiertag” (German), “Fête nationale Suisse” (French), “Festa nazionale della Svizzera” (Italian) or “Festa naziunala Svizra” (Romansch), Swiss people from all corners of the country celebrate the same heartwarming holiday.

Whether you’re living in Switzerland or just passing through, here is our handy guide to the history behind Switzerland’s national holiday and how it is celebrated today!

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A quick history of the Swiss National Day

The celebration of the first of August marks the founding of the Swiss Confederacy. Over 700 years ago, in the year 1291, the Swiss cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden swore an oath of confederation. This semi-mythological event is known as the Rütlischwur (Rütli Oath), as it was supposedly taken in the Rütli Meadow in Uri, now regarded as the birthplace of Switzerland.

The Switzerland we know today would only gradually come about through a centuries-long process of national consolidation, which finally arrived at its modern form in 1848 with the adoption of the Swiss Federal Constitution. Nevertheless, the Rütlischwur is accepted as the beginning of the unifying process. As the pact was made on an undefined date in late summer, the first of August has been widely celebrated since the start of the 20th century. But it was not until 1994 that it was officially made the national holiday of Switzerland.

How to celebrate the first of August

August 1st is celebrated in many different ways across Switzerland, with bonfires, parades, fireworks, flag-flying and festivities of all kinds. While even small towns and villages often host their own celebrations, there are some major events you may want to check out if you are visiting for August 1st. 

You can find fireworks displays all around the country to commemorate the Swiss National Day. But if you’re looking for a particularly impressive display, check out  the explosive celebration over the Rhine in the city of Basel on the night of July 31.

Looking for more unique things to do on the Swiss National Day? Head to the town of Schaffhausen, where all 25 meters of the Rhine Falls are lit up for the holiday. An impressive fireworks display also attracts large crowds of spectators for this special occasion.

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The Rütli Meadow near Lake Lucerne has also become an important site for celebrations. Here, historic reenactments of the original pledge of confederation take place annually. This fun glance into Switzerland’s distant past is a great way to commemorate the day for young and old alike.

Bonfires are often lit on hills to commemorate the expulsion of foreign bailiffs in the 14th century. Why bonfires? Because this  was how news was spread back in medieval times! Children carrying lighted lanterns hold processions in the streets at night. Public and private buildings are often decorated with national, cantonal and community flags, and bakers make special bread rolls with a small Swiss flag on top.

For most Swiss people, the first of August is a rather casual affair. Some eschew the celebrations entirely, taking the day as a chance to simply rest and put their feet up. Schools, offices and many shops will be closed for the day, giving families and friends time to come together to have a barbecue, enjoy some drinks and games, and perhaps shoot off some fireworks themselves.

One for all. All for one. (Unofficial motto of Switzerland)

If you have the good fortune to be in Switzerland on the first of August, be sure to find out what local events, parties and festivities will be going on in your area. Switzerland’s complex history and diverse national culture are reflected in how the holiday is celebrated across the country. This can be a great way to get to understand Swiss culture and make some new Swiss friends!

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Leona Quigley

Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

Leona Quigley

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