As expats living in Geneva, we are really interested in learning the history and discovering the traditions and the folklore of our new homeland. Probably the most celebrated event in Geneva is “La Fête de l’Escalade”, i.e. the celebrations of the climb of Geneva. We warmly recommend experiencing Geneva during this festive time of year, where the locals are actively engaged in making this event a great success! In addition to taking part into the celebrations of the Escalade, Geneva is a city that has plenty to offer to visitors: Shopping in luxury boutiques all beautifully embellished with Christmas decorations or simply discover its wilder and natural side by having a walk along the Arve river. Nearby, Yvoire and Nyon and the Montreux Christmas market are definitely worth a visit.
Let’s speak about the Escalade now! Each year, at the beginning of December, people gather together in the old centre of Geneva to commemorate a historical event that happened during the night of 11th and 12th December 1602. At the time, Geneva was a tiny and independent protestant republic; it merged with the Helvetic Confederation (now Switzerland) only two centuries later, in 1815. Since the 16th century, Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy, its belligerent neighbour, had been launching attacks to conquer the small republic.
During the night of the Escalade, the Duke of Savoy and his troops launched an attack against the city. Apparently, the Duke was expecting to “celebrate Christmas in the city”. That night of December was cold; soldiers walked along the Arve river to hush the sound of their steps. Geneva was a fortified city, but outside it was freezing, and there was nobody in the streets. The soldiers from Savoy approached the walls of the city easily: The Duke was about to celebrate a great and easy victory. Yet the Duke of Savoy and his troops did not count on the presence of two guards who managed to alert the city. The local militia and all the inhabitants of the city, even women, took up arms to preserve the independence of their small republic. Only a few soldiers were able to climb over the wall (the French word escalade means a climb), but they were killed right after entering the city of Geneva. During the following battle, the Savoy troops were destroyed.
To commemorate such a great victory, during the celebrations of the Escalade, people dress up in their historical costumes, and parade through the old city streets and musicians play folk tunes. The great parade is not the only tradition of the Escalade: People share the chocolate cauldron (in French marmite), full of small vegetables made of marzipan and candies wrapped in gold and red papers, the colours of the city. This tradition originates in a legend claiming that during the battle, a local woman, a mother of 14 children, poured a cauldron filled with boiling vegetable soup onto the soldiers. Today, young and old hold their hands together to smash the chocolate cauldron while reciting Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République, i.e. this is how perished the enemies of the Republic. Not surprisingly, eating a vegetable soup is part of the tradition!
Another tradition regarding children especially: They knock on neighbours’ doors to sing traditional songs to them and collect money. Teenagers instead throw eggs and flour at each other to celebrate. Since 1978, a very popular running race goes through the old city of Geneva, it has been added to the Escalade celebrations.
The Escalade is a celebration that warms up the entire city. Most of the city gather in the streets, making this event really enjoyable and unique!