Swiss burning fires, Scottish burning desires

It is interesting to observe the lengths to which the European Union has been going to ensure its membership stays intact. The strongest economies have been investing enormous amounts to shore up the members who are ailing. Such is the importance placed on political and economic unity of neighbour states on the world stage.

With that as a backdrop I have been reflecting on the status of the United Kingdom and a proportion of the Scottish people’s desire to have an independent country. As Scotland debates whether or not to stay in the United Kingdom I cannot help but also compare the “yes” to independence movement with the mood here, for in our adopted countries it has been a period of national festivals.

July 14th is France’s fête nationale, a day that I have never yet heard a French person call “Bastille Day”. It’s simply le quartorze juillet. During the day there is always a long parade down the Champs-Elysées in front of the French President and important dignitaries. First come the military parades, their bands, the marching armed forces, the air force fly by’s, the civilian uniformed services, the police, ambulance workers and so on. One year I watched it all the way through with our children and was amazed to see that everyone who is of service to the nation gets a shout, with the Parisian rubbish collectors bringing up the rear in their refuse lorries. Wonderful. On this day at least the nation looks and feels united.

Our commune, as every other in France, has its evening fête with its food, music and dance, finished off with a spectacular firework display. The previous evening, the 13th, the larger town centres host their 14th July celebrations, also culminating in breath taking fireworks.

The quartorze juillet is an important national event, steeped in its association with principles that are ingrained in French history, culture and psyche – the revolutionary motto inscribed on just about every French Mairie and Hotel de Ville -“Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité”.

This year we skipped our local festivities, feeling a little guilty, and joined the folk of Morzine in the nearby Alps as the UK band Simple Minds were performing a free concert in the town square, followed by the usual fireworks, set off on the now green ski slopes high above us. A fabulous evening.

Three weeks later the Swiss have their National Day on the 1st of August. This day is celebrated exclusively in small communities, the tradition being that the communes, after giving out free “soupe du premier août”, light their ‘fires of joy’ – their bonfires – and set off fireworks in succession so that, watching from any high point, the whole of Switzerland, not just the large towns, are alight with festive light shows. Beacons are also set alight in a chain across the mountains. The nation is unified and fused together visually and emotionally by fire.

Living so close to the border we have several Swiss villages nearby and this year we joined the inhabitants of Veyrier, a tiny commune of Geneva with many old buildings still intact giving it a quaint, medieval appearance. Several dozen wooden benches that had obviously seen long service were laid out in the main church square, under the imposing Mount Salève. Swiss and Geneva flags were strung across the square and streets and hung from windows. The Geneva flag is a divided image, with a black eagle on the left and a golden key on the right. The Swiss flag is a white cross on a red background. Do you know that the Swiss flag is one of only two flags in the world that are square? The other is the flag of Vatican City, which is, incidentally, historically guarded by the Swiss Guard in all their fine livery.

The Mayor of the commune’s Conseil Municipal, bedecked in his most formal attire including a colourful sash across his chest, gave a speech as did several other public figures. The tiny village was crowded, everyone listening avidly to the speeches, children waiting patiently to light their customary paper lanterns.


The Church square and speech makers, with the Geneva and Swiss flags on high.

The speech makers told the history of people coming together, despite their differences, to forge the country of Switzerland. They not only had different histories and conventions, these people, they had different languages for heaven’s sake. But they came together and made a country, a confederation of cantons. The Swiss Confederation originated in the beginning of August 1291 when the people of just three Cantons – those of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden – swore eternal allegiance and assistance to each other in the face of external threats from the Habsburg dynasty. From that first alliance Switzerland was born, other cantons and areas, even those which had been French, joining the coalition in the centuries to come. Geneva joined the Confederation is 1814, once freed from Napoleon’s yoke.

As the orators told the tales from the past the crowd cheered and applauded. The sense of patriotism and national pride was tangible … and moving, even for an outsider.

At the end of the speeches there was a shout by all of “Vive La Suisse. Vive Genève.” Then there was a cry of “La Matze!” and out came the dancers in traditional costume to perform this old folk dance in their circles, children jumping up and copying the dance movements.

Dancing La Matze

Dancing La Matze

When the dancing was over the people joined together to sing the National Anthem, a complex tune to master I thought with pious and patriotic rather than rousing wording.

Families with their paper lanterns.

Families with their paper lanterns.

Then it was the moment to light the children’s coloured lanterns and for all to follow the brass band in a “cortège” through the village streets to the bonfire, and afterwards to watch the fireworks. The festivities were set to go on late into the night, with long trestle tables set out in the centre of an enormous tent, and hot food and drinks on sale around the edge.

As we returned home we looked out over Switzerland and saw fireworks bursting into the sky for as far and wide as we could see. All the people of Switzerland celebrating their coming together in union.


And as I went to bed, pondering this ardent demonstration of a nation’s deliberate, chosen unification I thought of my own united kingdom. Will it still be united after the 18th of September?     I, for one, hope so.

When I wish for a “no” to independence vote I am not so much motivated by a desire for political or economic unity, but moved more by watching my adopted nations celebrate their union – my desire for people to come together not move further apart. I hope my home nation family stays intact.

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