Thursday, August 18, 2011

The 671st Schueberfouer (A Bit of History)

You’ve seen the posters up all over town; you’ve read articles in the news and on blogs in recent weeks, the program schedule has been released and finally: the Schueberfouer is here. It officially opens tomorrow (Aug. 18) at 5pm, though restaurants open at noon and rides are available from 2pm onward. This is the Luxembourg version of the summer state fairs you’ll find in the United States, but without the farm animals and without the deep fried pickles, Coca-Cola, Snickers and Twinkies. (Yes, world…Americans really have deep-fried everything.)

The Schueberfouer is a big deal. It attracts more than two million people annually, has been the subject of documentaries and a number of books, and is one of Luxembourg’s oldest traditions.

But like most things in Luxembourg, there’s more to the Schueberfour than meets the eye.

How it Started
Way, way back in the year 1298, Henri VII was count of Luxembourg and took the initiative of establishing a six-week long summer market in Luxembourg. The market fell apart over the years, after Henry VII was elected in 1308 to become a Holy Roman Emperor. As you can imagine, this bigger duty distracted him from building the economy of Luxembourg.

Fast forward to 1340 and Henri VII’s son, John (known as John the Blind, Jean l’Aveugle, and Jang de Blannen), is at the helm as count of Luxembourg and king of Bohemia. Following in his father’s footsteps, he, too, decides to create a grand market in Luxembourg that will draw merchants of all kinds from surrounding areas to sell their wares. He proclaimed the market would last eight days and would coincide with the eve of Saint Bartholomew’s feast day, opening the 23 of August and closing on the 31st at noon.

It was a huge hit. Merchants paid a fixed fee to participate, but that was all. No additional customs duties and no taxes on sales. What’s more, John the Blind guaranteed their protection – and presumably, protection of their goods – while they participated in the market. Over the years, the merchants valued the event so much that they eventually pooled their money to erect a statue of Jean the Blind, which sits in a park near the Glacis to this day.

To wit: you can visit John the Blind to pay your own respects, if you’d like. His remains rest in Luxembourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral, in a large and decorated tomb on your left as you reach the bottom of the stairs to the crypt.

The Hämmelsmarsch
On the first day of Schueberfouer, a herd of sheep are the first to “officially” enter the fair after the opening ceremony ribbon has been cut. (Really!) A tune titled the “Hämmelsmarsch” is played by musicians accompanying the sheep to the fair. The tradition seems to remain somewhat of a mystery, though historians believe it began taking place prior to the early 1400s.

Opening ceremonies start tomorrow night at 5pm, and I hope you’ll join me there to watch the Hämmelsmarsch! It should be a good time. In fact, in an article in today’s Luxemburger Wort, Mayor Paul Helminger mentioned that part of his mayoral duties on opening night of the Schueberfouer require him to “avoid stepping into whatever is left on the pavement by the preceding herd of sheep.” (So, watch where you walk…)

Funfair Evolution
Until the early 1600s, the Schueberfouer was held in town on the Plateau du Saint-Esprit, where today you’ll find judiciary buildings and the elevator down to the Grund. It grew too large and was moved to Limpertsberg in 1610, to an area that had recently been cleared to provide more security for the fortress city; enemies would no longer be able to hide quietly in the vegetation as they approached the fortress walls. We know this spot today as the Glacis. (In French “glacis” means “ice”. Get it? The land was flat – like ice – and a slippery spot for an enemy to be caught.)

Over the years, the market evolved from a trading post to a carnival that mixed the young and old, city folk and country folk. In the 18th century fairgoers were entertained by jeu de quilles (bowling), music, dancing, singing and gambling and, as the industrial age grew into the early 19th century, mechanical rides and automatic game machines could be found on the scene. At this time, more variety shows began to take hold, including one performed in the late 1800s by the famous Luxembourger John Grün, the self-proclaimed “strongest man in the world”. The first roller coaster was found at the fair in 1910 (the “Figur 8 Bahn”) and not far behind, the Carrousel Galopant (galloping carousel) and the Grand-Roue (Grand Wheel, or Ferris wheel).

Schueberfouer in…America?
A large number of Luxembourgers emigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s, during the golden days of the American rail system. New frontiers had been opened and cheap farmland was up for grabs. The Midwestern U.S. was the most popular with Luxembourgers, large populations of which still remain today in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Interestingly, one book that we own claims that “it is now believed that there are more people of Luxembourgish descent in Chicago than there are in Luxembourg City and more American-Luxembourgers than inhabitants in the Grand Duchy”. (Fascinating, eh?)

In any case, the Schueberfouer was so ingrained in Luxembourgish culture as an anticipated annual event – and one of the year’s last tastes of summertime – that Luxembourgers abroad decided to recreate the tradition in their new communities. The first documentation of this dates back to a September 20, 1917 newspaper article in the US-based Luxemburger Gazette, which told the history of the “Lëtzebörger Gard”, a military unit established in 1871 and based in Brooklyn, New York, that included 80 Luxembourgers. They decided to organize an annual event to remember the Schueberfouer in their homeland; they called it “Schueberméindeg” – Schueber Monday – held the first Monday in September.
The tradition took hold and spread to other Luxembourg communities, with the Luxembourg Brotherhood of America starting their own Schueberfouer-style event entitled the “Schobermesse” in 1904. Click here to view an old Schobermesse program from 1907, or here to view programs from 1907-2009 (in English from 1940 onward).

And: yes, you can still find Schuberfouer events taking place in the United States today. Contacting one of these organizations will point you in the right direction of finding an event near you.

The Funfair Today
This year at Schueberfouer, you’ll find all of the typical fair food fixings, plenty of carnival games and the usual assortment of large, fast and loud rides. And, randomly, you’ll also find a beer pong tent. (Really. There's actually even a beer pong club in Luxembourg.) Also this year, Bernard-Massard has partnered with Luxembourg Ville to offer a limited “Schueberfouer 2011” edition blend of crémant, wrapped with labels displaying this year’s funfair poster design. (Find them at the fair or at stores in town.)

While today’s Schueberfouer is a far cry from what it was 671 years ago, some traditions remain. The fair still begins in mid-August, as it always has, and the beat of the Hämmelsmarsch continues to lead the sheep toward the festivities. And it’s still a family affair: many of the rides and food stands have been Schueberfouer staples for decades, many of them having been run for generations within the same family. Grab a waffle from Jean le Gaufre and you’ll be supporting a family business that’s been serving up treats at Schueberfouer since 1960. Or hop on the century-old wooden horse carousel and you’ll be riding the oldest ride at the fair.

But whatever you do, don’t forget that when you attend the Schueberfouer, you’re part of more than just a fun fair; you’re part of a multi-continental cultural tradition dating back 671 years.

Additional Reading:


  1. Each church is consecrated to one of the saints.
    The Hämmelsmarsch is a song which is traditionnally played in every town when they celebrate this consecration.
    So over the year, you can hear this tone every weekend in an different town. The bigger towns even have their own litte Schoueberfouer, with food and some rides for the kids.
    The dates of the Kiermes can be found in the calendar distributed at the end of the year by the postman.

  2. Thanks so much for clarifying and adding this information!

  3. Sounds like a fun event! Hope you got a bottle of Schueberfouer 2011 for your collection.