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The Onion Market in Berne celebrates the citizens’ gratitude to Freiburg

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History on Friday, 28 June 2013

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This edited article about Swiss customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Berne, picture, image, illustration

Berne and the Bernese Alps, from the Enge

On the 14th May, 1405, a fire broke out in a small, wooden building in the centre of Berne, Switzerland. Fanned by a strong breeze, the flames spread rapidly through the densely packed wooden and stone buildings. Within a few hours some 550 dwellings had been destroyed and many more seriously damaged.

This was the greatest disaster Berne had suffered since its foundation in 1191. With despair in their hearts, the Bernese people started to clear away the rubble and charred wood, but they soon realised that this work, together with the task of rebuilding the town, would be more than they could cope with alone.

So when the people of the neighbouring canton of Freiburg offered to help the citizens of Berne, their assistance was gratefully accepted.

In the months that followed the fire, several hundred sturdy men from Freiburg worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Berne in the reconstruction of the town. One benefit which arose from the fire was that the City Council took the opportunity to replan the town to provide better dwellings and more open space for roads, recreation and ventilation.

All the workers from Freiburg gave their services voluntarily and without payment. They also gave their word of honour to return all objects of value which they found to their rightful owners.

The people of Berne were so grateful for all this wonderful help that they granted their friends the right for all time to hold a market in Berne one day a year. The day chosen was the fourth Monday in November. This market has been held ever since the 15th century and, as onions seemed to be the chief commodity offered for sale, the title ‘Onion Market’ was soon adopted.

In olden days there used to be what was known as the annual ‘March on Berne’ as peasants from the western part of the canton of Freiburg brought their products to Berne on heavily-laden, horse-drawn carts. During the Sunday immediately preceding the Market, the vegetables were piled up in the market square and covered with cloths and sacks.

Today there are about 350 stalls in the Onion Market. They are spread over three Squares and all along the tree-lined Bundesgasse.

In boxes and baskets and from the rails of the stalls, hundreds of tons of glistening, golden onions are offered for sale. Although times have changed, the Market remains very popular with Bernese housewives, and there are not many homes in the city without their traditional string of onions, some bundles of shallots and garlic and several pounds of nuts.

Over the years, the ‘Onion Market’ has grown into a popular festival. Towards evening, the young people of Berne gather near the Market. Streamers and confetti are thrown, and very soon everyone is wading ankle-deep in a sea of gaily coloured paper.

This custom, too, has an historical background, for until November, 1647, the market was declared open by a city official who rode from fountain to fountain and threw handfuls of walnuts into the crowds to attract their attention to his announcements. Nowadays, the newspaper has taken the place of the old-time official, but the custom of throwing something has remained.

In the evening, friends meet each other in one or other of the city’s many attractive restaurants where, naturally enough, onions, sausages and onion cakes are the most important items on the menus.

Groups of students, dressed as onions, go in procession with drummers and other musicians from restaurant to restaurant, reviving in song and verse local events of the past year.

Weeks in advance of the festival miniature onion markets can be seen in all the sweet shops of Berne. There are strings of marzipan onions and baskets full of marzipan vegetables for sale. These are not only popular with tourists. The Bernese people like to send them to their friends all over the world.

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