Today is Berchtoldstag (also Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, in Liechtenstein Bechtelstag, Bechtle) in parts of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. It is near New Year’s Day, during the latter part of the 12 days of Christmas, in Switzerland nearly always on 2 January (in Frauenfeld on the third Monday in January), with the status of a public holiday in a number of cantons. It is spoken of as an Alemannic holiday, meaning that it occurs in regions where Alemannic German dialects remain spoken, which include German Swabia and Baden, French Alsace, German-speaking Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austrian Vorarlberg. Its observation is attested since the 14th century, although celebrations were limited after the Protestant Reformation.
Throughout pre-industrial Europe, agricultural laborers had a great deal of work to do before the midwinter break at Christmastide, so their annual round was quite different from the contemporary materialist mayhem that cranks up months before Christmas, resulting in a huge sigh of relief when Christmas can be left behind. Rather, pre-industrial laborers ground out tough, short, cold, days leading up to Christmas, and welcomed the relief that almost a fortnight of holiday afforded before getting back to ploughing and lambing in January. Consequently, they found excuses to extend the Christmas merriment as much as possible in different ways. Berchtoldstag is one such custom.
Various speculations exist concerning the holiday’s name. Blessed Berchtold of Engelberg abbey died circa 2nd November 1197, and the abbey could have been important enough to translate his feast out of advent. According to others, the name celebrates a hunting trip circa 1191 by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen, who decided to name his new city after the first animal he killed on that trip, hence Bern, Switzerland. Another speculation associates the name with the verb “berchten,” which means “to walk around, asking for food.” The most likely explanation is offered by the Schweizerisches Idiotikon that considers it derived from Middle High German berhttac or berhteltac, which translated the Greek epiphanias. (Epiphany). Berchtoldstag especially occurs in Protestant regions where Epiphany has been abolished and replaced by a second day-off after New Year’s Day.
In the German-speaking cantons of Zurich, Thurgovia and some parts of Central Switzerland, families celebrate the holiday with meals at taverns or offered by traditional societies. The Argovian village of Hallwil holds a masked parade with entries symbolizing fertility, age, ugliness, wisdom, vice, etc. In the French-speaking Vaud, children celebrate Berchtoldstag with neighborhood parties which include traditional dancing and singing.
Nuts are associated with this holiday. They are both eaten in a “nut feast” and used for games. Children build “hocks” of four nuts close together on the ground with a fifth nut balanced on top. Here is Swiss nusstorte (nut tart) in keeping with the holiday.
⅓ cup plus 1 tbsp whipping cream
¼ cup honey
1 tbsp unsalted butter
⅔ cup sugar
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
Stir 1/3 cup cream, honey and butter in small saucepan over medium heat until the butter melts. Set aside. Stir sugar, water and lemon juice in a heavy medium saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring until syrup turns golden, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with wet pastry brush, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat. Add warm cream mixture (mixture will bubble up). Stir over very low heat until smooth. Add vanilla. Chill uncovered until cold, about 1 hour. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; keep chilled.)
Roll out 1 pastry sheet on floured surface to 11-inch square. Using 10-inch-diameter cake pan bottom as guide, trim to 10-inch round. Transfer to ungreased baking sheet. Roll out second pastry sheet to 11-inch square. Using 11-inch-diameter tart pan bottom as guide, trim to 11-inch round. Using fork, score design on 11-inch round; cut out small hole from center.
Mix nuts into cold caramel. Brush beaten egg in 1-inch border on pastry on baking sheet. Spread filling over pastry, mounding in center and leaving 1-inch border. Cover with 11-inch round. Press to seal. Fold edge of bottom pastry over top pastry. Seal edge tightly. Mix 1 tablespoon cream and yolk into remaining beaten egg. Brush top of tart with egg mixture. Chill tart on baking sheet 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Bake tart until golden, about 25 minutes. Cool. (Can be made 8 hours ahead.)