In South Germany and Switzerland it was a tradition in many village and town schools to have a special outing once a year, a day off of school in Spring or early Summer. The schoolmaster(s) and pupils would go out and the pupils cut and collected a large supply of rods from willow, hazel and/or birch trees. These rods would be carried back to the school and the new supply would be used for school corporal punishment during the coming up school year. This tradition was called Rutenführen, Rutengang, Stabenführen or Virgatumgehen. (Rute means rod in German; Stab means "straight stick", and Virga means birch rod in Latin.)
|“|| Ihr Väter und ihr Mütterlein,
Nun sehend, wie wir gehn herein,
Mit Birkenholz beladen,
Welches uns wohl dienen kann
Zu Nutz und nit zu Schaden.
Euer Will und Gottes Gebot
Uns dazu getrieben hot,
Daß wir jetzt unsere Rute
Über unserm eignen Leib
Tragen mit leichtem Mute.
You fathers and you mothers dear,
See! How we're coming home,
Loaded with birch wood,
Which shall profitably serve
To our benefit and not our harm.
Your will and God's commandment
Made us carry our rods
On our own shoulders
With a merry heart.
|— Example of the children's song when bringing home the birch rods (translated)|
Interestingly, this rod-cutting event was a cheerful day: it was combined with a picnic, games were played, and there was song and dance. In the 17th and 18th century the festivities expanded; the whole town would be up to welcome the pupils on their return home with cheers and further celebrations. This tradition developed into town festivals that still bear the name "Rutenfest" (or similar) to the present day. The oldest mention of these rod-cutting school excursions is from 1615 but its origins could reach back as early as the 14th century.
The rod is also a symbol for the discipline of grammar, i.e. the mastery of Latin. In some regions, grammar school alumni would be handed a rod in the graduation ceremony.
Some modern historians question whether the Rutenfests really go back to the rod-cutting tradition. "Virgatumgehen" goes back to Latin virgatum ire which is usually translated as "to fetch rods", but could also be translated as "to go idle".
Today, school corporal punishment is but a distant memory in Germany, and the origins of the Rutenfests are nearly forgotten. Today's Rutenfests are big town festivals involving adults and children parading, dancing and acting in traditional costumes, carrying leafy branches, decorated sticks, wreaths and other items.
Examples of Rutenfests that are still celebrated in South Germany:
- Rutenfest Ravensburg (annually before the summer school holidays, lasts 5 days)
- Ruethenfest in Landsberg am Lech (every four years, lasts 9 days. 2007, 2011, 2015, 2018...)
- Rutenfest in Bopfingen (annually in June)
- Stabenfest in Nördlingen (annually in May, dating back to 1406)