Hiking, witch hunts, and Halloween

Today, we hiked a steep wooded path to reach Cholisgrind, a round hill overlooking Saanen. Choli is Schwiezerd├╝tsch for the sir name 'Kohli',  and Grind means 'face'. We planned to eat sandwiches on the top--by the edge of the cliff that strangely resembles a face--the site of century-old witch burnings and prisoner hangings.

My friend and local historian Beat tells me that Kohli might have been the name of a Saanen man, who--having been sentenced to death, (yes, the death penalty existed in Switzerland)--might have had his head chopped off on this hill. Our local historian explained that another form of death penalty was putting the prisoner in a barrel and pushing it over the cliff.

Predicting that the children might complain about the steepness of the climb, I tried to pique their interest by telling them about witches and how they were hunted and persecuted in Europe.

"Were there really witches, mommy?" asked my six-year old son.

"No, not really," I replied. "Not real witches. People were very religious back then. They had no internet, no iPhones, no TV's. They didn't even have newspapers. The only thing they had was the church. They went there all the time. It was the only place that men, women, and children gathered to find out what was going on. So, you can imagine that this might have made people rather one-sided."

I was on a roll. So I continued.

"Let's say there was a woman, who lived alone in the village, and who didn't like going to church. And let's say, she liked to collect wild mountain plants and herbs and mushrooms, cook them in a cauldron, and make soups to cure her aches and colds. Some people might have thought she was strange. Oh, and let's say she could read, which most women couldn't do back then, because women were meant to only cook, clean, and have children. All it took was for a bunch of people to think this woman was strange. And, let's say, something bad happened in the village, like someone had an accident, then, people blamed the woman and called her a witch. Remember kids, when uneducated people get scared and get together in large groups, sometimes they do mean things. Which is why it is so important for you all to go to school and get educated. So, this poor lonely woman was probably called 'strange', and then the people called her a witch. Then, they took her up this very path, which we are walking on, and burned her to her death."

"Those people were dumb," said my 10-year-old daughter. "You can believe in God and not do such stupid things."

It worked. The children were no longer focused on how tired they were but on the conversation. The topic of witches got us onto Halloween.

"Mommy, why is October such a scary month?"

"Because of Halloween, which takes place on the last day of October," I replied.

"But why is Halloween in October?"

"Because the word Halloween comes comes from 'All Hallows Eve' or the evening before All Saints Day. All Saints Day or Allerheiligen is on November 1. It's a holiday in the Catholic Church."

"Not in this part of Switzerland," added Beat.

"It's a day to honor and remember those who have died, especially those who have sacrificed their lives for others," I continued. I went on about the ancient Celts and how they believed that spirits were more likely to visit them on All Saints Day than on any other day of the year. They believed that if you dressed up with a mask that you could invite the nice spirits and ward off the evil ones.

"Why do they use pumpkins for Halloween?" asked my daughter.

"Well, think about it. What's still growing in our vegetable garden?" I asked her.


"That's right! They are in-season. It was only later in America that pumpkins became part of Halloween."

Our conversation turned to turnips and why they made better lanterns for carrying around than pumpkins, when we reached the top of the Grind, and the children joined Beat, who had turned into an archeologist, and forgot to eat their sandwiches.

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