Hom Strom: Switzerland's 'Wicker Man' on Ice

(CNN)Scuol is one of those perfectly preserved semi-isolated communities in the Lower Engadine valley of Switzerland, separated from Italy by a series of Dolomite peaks.

Until the advent of the 19-kilometer Vereina Tunnel in 1999, the longest meter-gauge tunnel in the world, the passes to these villages were frequently unreachable in the winter.
It comes as no surprise that these isolated communities -- Europe's version of Central Asia's tribal areas -- have also kept customs that reach deep into their pagan past.
    One of the most remarkable festivals in Europe takes place here on the first Saturday in February.
      It's the burning of Hom Strom, Man of Straw in the local dialect, echoing pagan sacrificial traditions that sit uncomfortably with us today.
      There are echoes of "The Wicker Man," the cult 1973 British horror film in which a cop searching for a missing girl stumbles into a pagan ritual that involves a giant burning wooden statue.
      Only this time it's on ice.
      Of course, unlike the film, no sacrifice will take place tonight.
      Even the hymn sung during the ritual had to mollify the Catholic Church: "The flames that rise high/ bring praise to Our Lord" states the fourth stanza explicitly, just in case anyone was thinking of placating an old pagan snow god.
      "But why February?" I ask my friend Niculin Meyer, born and bred in Scuol, as we walk around the village. It's -12 Celsius (10 Fahrenheit) at noon under a wintry, unwarming sun. "The snow won't melt for weeks."

      Lost in the icy mists of time

      The village of Scuol barely sees any sunshine in winter.