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Swiss in the 209 keep traditions alive
The Ott Family children, pictured here at the Stanislaus County Swiss Club, performed earlier this year at Ripons Swiss Echoes event.

RIPON – It’s an ornate culture full of festive attire and traditions dating back to the 13th century.

And for the 500 members of the Ripon Swiss Club – an organization that served European immigrants and their families by providing a slice of home in the New World – it’s a chance to remember their roots and their ancestors amidst a changing American landscape.

For the last eight years, Don Widmer has served as the President of the organization. His job is to preserve the integrity of the annual events that he himself recalls attending with his parents, and make sure that current and future generations will get the same opportunity to understand where it is that they come from.

It might be the same organization that he remembers, but it’s far from being obsolete.

“When we were kids we went to the Swiss Hall because that was the focal point of the community. Most of the members of the local Swiss community were farmers, and they didn’t have a lot of other places to turn. A lot of people would go there and that’s where they would meet their spouse,” Widmer said. “Swiss married Swiss. That’s not necessarily the case today. It’s not like it was in the old days, but that’s something that you’re seeing in a lot of the clubs.

“But it’s about keeping those traditions alive.”

While Ripon might be known more as a town founded by Dutch immigrants, it’s the San Joaquin Valley Swiss Club – with a handful of annual events that draw people from throughout the region – that provides the cultural offerings that paint the picture of some of the area’s earliest settlers.

Twice annually, the group stages Schwingfest – a Swiss wrestling exhibition – and holds an Oktoberfest celebration event to coincide with the country’s proximity to Austria and the Bavarian Alps.

Traditional music is the focal point of the “Swiss Echoes” series, while dinners for a multitude of reasons help round out the regular schedule of events.

And despite a shared heritage among the members, Widmer said that not everybody always saw eye-to-eye – with tensions from the Old Country at times bubbling to the surface and creating periodic rifts that were often resolved over a handshake and a beer.

“You’re talking about people with different opinions that came from different areas, and they might not have gotten along before they came to America so they weren’t immediately going to become best friends,” he said. “Still – you sat down and had a few beers and reached an agreement. That’s the way that thing worked.”

It’s been more than 30 years since Widmer returned to Switzerland – making trips in 1972 and in 1980. He vividly recalls not being able to order a cold beer on his first foray into the country and marveling at how much things changed in just the eight years before his return.

He could only imagine how much more different things are today.

“I always wanted to take my family, but with sports and all of the obligations that never really worked out,” he said. “It was an amazing experience, and I’d love to be able to go back.

“You hear so much about it, and you learn so much about it. But being there is just so different.”

There aren’t any chiefly  Swiss traditions, Widmer said, that he incorporates into the way that he does things during the Christmas holiday with his family.

The country itself, because of its location, includes German, French and Italian customs that are brought into the fold and each are drawn from in their own unique and separate way. The Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated every year on Dec. 6, and a heavier emphasis is placed on the religious portions of the holiday – the Christ child, or Christkindli, brings the gifts in place of the traditional Western Santa Claus.

But it’s the emphasis on family that Widmer appreciates most.

“Who doesn’t like spending this time of year with their family and friends?” he asked. “That’s something that’s the same regardless of where you are.”

209 staff reporter