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Christmas in Switzerland is not much differently celebrated than in our neighbouring countries. But we wouldn't be Swiss if we didn't develop our own Christmas traditions too, and of course, they also differ a little depending in which linguistic region we live.
Christmas is pretty much celebrated within family and friends and therefore, the streets are empty during these days, stores are closed and even most Restaurants don't open on December 25 to 26.
I like the time leading up to Christmas. Woolen sweaters and winter jackets come out of hiding and keep us warm while taking a stroll on a chilly winter day under a powdery blue skies or flurries of snow. Christmas lights twinkle here and there. Night falls early in December and allows us to snuggle up with an interesting book, catch up with friends or prepare things for Christmas.
Advent is a magical time. We celebrate quite a few traditions that shorten the time until Christmas Eve. I guess it should teach the children to be patient. I remember the activities leading up to Christmas made us kids almost burst with anticipation.
The first sign that Christmas is at our door step is the Christmas wreath. We gather fir and winter foliage such as ivy and box to cover a wreath ring made of straw and decorate it either simply with four candles or add bows and decorative objects to give it even a more festive touch.
The first candle is lit on the 1. Advent, the Sunday four weeks prior to Christmas, followed by the second candle on the second Sunday and so on. Our wreath is placed on the kitchen table, and the candles are lit each morning during breakfast until the last candle is lit on the Sunday before Christmas.
Advent calendars as we know them today popped up around 1920. Every day a new door or window is opened between December 1 and 24. Some are simple wall calendars; others are square or round, placed on a table and illuminated with a candle from the inside so that each opened door reveals the scene with a glow to the viewer.
Some Calendars are more elaborate. Small knitted socks, packages wrapped like little Christmas gifts, coloured matchboxes or small bags made of fabric, filled with goodies for each day and dangling from a line pinned from wall to wall or onto a door.
Here and there, windows are dressed up as advent calendars. Twinkly lights appear on garden fences, on houses and once in a while a glittering Christmas tree twinkles in the front yard or a candle lit crib in the house entrance exudes a magical light.
Christmas lighting appears end of November. Huge Christmas trees go up in cities and shop windows are dressed to sell. Ice ranks get set up, the smell of roasted chestnuts fills the air and the Christmas hoopla begins. In general, our Christmas displays might be a tad less showy and dramatic, and especially visitors from North America might find it a bit understated albeit charming.
And of course, it's not only time for buying presents, it's especially the time for crafting them. Making candles, designing cards, carving wood, knitting stuff or using things from the pantry for edible presents - there's no limit to the imagination and I think all of us cherish them.
Home baked tempting treats are still very much a tradition. It was also fun for us kids because it was the only time during the year we were allowed to eat cookie tough until our stomachs hurt. Later, the kitchen was filled with grandchildren, all covered in flour and eager to produce the best cookies. And the next generation is already lining up to learn from Great-grandma.
Samichlaus is the name for Sankt Nikolaus in the German speaking part of Switzerland, Père Noël or Saint Nicolas in French speaking cantons, San Nicola in the Italian speaking regions and Son Niclau in Rumantsch. He visits the children in private homes on December 6 but is also often part of the Christmas Markets between December 4th and December 6th.
In catholic regions, he's clad in elaborate read traditional cloths and Bishop's mitre, and accompanied by helpers. In preponderantly protestant areas, the Samichlaus is dressed in simple black or red garments. But all share a huge white beard flowing down their chest. Some are accompanied by a helper called "Schmutzli" and a donkey, carrying the big jute bag.
We always anticipated his arrival with excitement but also with a bit of a heavy heart. Would he know that we had behaved badly during the year? Of course, we knew our noughties, but did he? He didn't just bring a jute bag full of oranges, apples, nuts in shells, cholate and gingerbread Santas, he also carried a "Pfitze" made of soft fir twigs and bound like a witches' broom. Lucky us, our Santa never used it. We just got lovingly scolded for our misbehaviors. With a twinkle in his eyes he made us promise to behave next year. We then had to hold his hand and recite our Samichlaus verse or sing a song to him before we finally got regaled with the goodies.
Christmas markets spring up anywhere between mid-November and Christmas Eve. In larger cities, they stay open every day during that time. Smaller towns and villages often celebrate them on one long weekend or a Saturday leading up to Christmas.
My favourite Christmas markets are no doubt the ones in Bremgarten, Wiehnacht-Tobel and Huttwil. I also enjoyed tremendously the Santa Chase (Klausjagen) in "Küssnacht am Rigi", the St. Nicholas parade in Rorschach and the Saint Nicolas parade in Fribourg. The "Zauberwald" (Magic Forest) in Lenzerheide truly deserves its name. It's a charming place to spend an evening with family and friends. Here's a list of great Christmas markets.
To top the Advent anticipation, the Christmas tree is not put up before Christmas Eve, though that changes too, especially when garlands of led lights replace the traditional candles. However, using real candles is still commonplace. Therefore the tree has to be as fresh as possible to eliminate the danger of the smoldering beauties metamorphose the tree into a hazardous torchlight.
A day or two before December 24, my father went with us in search of the ideal tree. Often, the snow cover had to be brushed off to see if it was suitable. Since we still burn real candles, the tree can't be bushy and the branches have to be far apart to avoid fire danger. We are lucky to have our own small forest - however, nowadays one even needs a permit to cut a tree in our own forest.
Christmas trees are sold from mid- to December 24th in special markets, in stores and garden centers. In smaller villages the tree can often be ordered through the school and the children bring it to the door for a small fee that tops up their school funds.
Our Mother embellished the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, when we children were out the door and at school rehearsing the Christmas chorales for church. It was as much a surprise for us as the presents piled under the tree. We still adhere to that family tradition.
The tree is decorated with red candles, ornaments handed down or given as Christmas presents as well as edible decorations, such as small chocolate Santas and mice filled with sugary goodness and cones and bells made of a thin chocolate shell - all wrapped in shiny colourful foil.
The tree is kept in the living room until January 6 when it's lit for the last time. It then is either shredded into small pieces for outdoor use or - in our case - we make fire starters out of the thinner branches and cut the stem into larger pieces to feed our wood-stove.
Our Christmas gifts are brought by the Christchind or Christchindli in German, literally translated "Christ Child", meaning little Jesus. In French it is Le petit Jésus, in Italian Gesu Bambino and in Rumantsch Il Bambin. The Christchind brings the presents on December 24 and places them under the tree.
Advent is also the time when children write their wish list of gifts they hope to receive. We always did our best to adorn the letter with drawings or collages to please the Christchind. We had to place the list outside on the window ledge, and we were not supposed to peek or else the Christchind might not appear. Of course, we never could resist and so it happened that our list was still there the next morning.
There's nothing quite as magical as snow on Christmas, so all - children and grownups alike - have a wish in common - please regale us with that fluffy white stuff. As one of my nieces ones stated with a longing sigh:"Ah, it just doesn't feel like Christmas without snow." It's the one time we don't mind to battle drifts of snow but lately, Frau Holle did not often fulfill our wish in a timely manner.
Christmas Eve is celebrated on December 24. That's when the "Christchind" brings the presents and places them under the tree. They are opened after we return from church.
Protestants attend church service at 8pm and the celebration is pretty much a family affair. The candles of a huge tree are lit, spiritual music fills the church, children choirs sing Christmas chorales and may present scenes of the nativity, and the pastor tells the biblical Christmas story.
Catholics celebrate the midnight mass, but quite often they now start earlier too. The service is more formal than in protestant churches and is often accompanied by orchestra and choir.
We do not have a single dish associated with Christmas as - for example - it is the case in North America, the United Kingdom and even in our neighboring countries - except for Christmas cookies which, I guess, do not count as a dish - albeit my father claimed that "Christmas is not Christmas without Christmas cookies".
On Swiss dinner plates appears whatever is fancied by each family and that also varies from region to region. And since most of us work on December 24 until around 4pm, Christmas dinner is often a quick affair, at least in our house. We serve cold cuts and cheese with crispy bread and a variety of salads, followed by a sumptuous dessert as well as Christmas cookies and tea. And the chocolate tree decoration disappears slowly.
Favourites throughout Switzerland are cheese fondue, raclette and fondue chinois - thinly sliced meet dipped into hot bouillon and eaten with a variety of sauces. Or maybe something that can be prepared ahead of time, for example a "Rollschinkli", boiled ham or "Schüfeli" (shoulder of pork) served with potato gratin; "Pastetli", puff pastry shells stuffed with veal, mushrooms and a creamy sauce. The French speaking population favours chicken dishes, kardy and backed endives (chicorée Neuchâteloise). Southern Switzerland prefers pasta dishes and Christmas is not complete without panettone - a rich, sweet bread made with eggs, dried fruits and a lot of butter.
As far as I am aware, there's only one dish that comes closest to a traditional Christmas dish: Geneva's "Gratin de Cardons". It's made of a winter vegetable that is only grown in Geneva and quite often served on Christmas. Lovingly called "Kardy", the tough artichoke type vegetable is time consuming to prepare but the result is delicious. It's first boiled in water, then backed in the oven with a béchamel sauce and topped with Gruyère cheese and then served with goose or turkey.
Both days are a wonderful to spend with family and friends. Growing up, one set of grandparents was living and celebrating with us, and on 25 December we visited the other grandparents. As children we loved it because it meant that we were to met all our cousins in the large house of our grandparents. It offered ample space to toll around and just have a great time.
December 26 is spent either on the slopes, in ice rinks or on sleds - generally we go outside and fill our lungs with crisp air and enjoy the beauty of winter. We are lucky enough to live in a village that has one of Switzerland's longest toboggan runs. Although as kids we didn't care much to go outside. We wanted to stay in and enjoy our Christmas gifts.
We bid farewell to the Old Year on 31 December, generally with a great party into the wee hours of the New Year. Families and friends meet either privately, get together with neighbours or celebrate at a venue with music, dance and some kind of entertainment.
The New Year traditions vary from region to region. In our neck of the woods we visit our godparents, have to recite a verse or sing a song to them before we receive their presents because they are not given to us by the Christchind. It is a tradition that slowly dies. It was easier in earlier decades because quite often, the godparents lived close by. These days, we alternate between the god-parents or the presents are sent by mail and placed under the tree.
In some villages, the youths is walking from house to house, singing songs and wishing everybody Happy New Year by shaking hands. Then we say cheers with shot-glasses full of "Röteli" (a liqueur made in Graubünden) and bites of pear bread with butter are served before the group moves on to the next house or square.
Sometimes, the New Year is greeted with shaking mighty cowbells while walking through the village or people are gathering at the main square after midnight and welcoming the New Year as a community.
A very special Old Year celebration takes place in the Canton Appenzell, the Silvesterchlausen. The "Beautiful" and the "Ugly" figures walk through the villages and to the surrounding farms on both, the traditional Old Year on December 31 and the pagan New Year on January 12/13.
That's the day were we get to be king or queen for the day - that is, if we are lucky. A sweet cake strewn with almonds is served for breakfast. The cake is decorated with a golden crown and baked in a way that the portions are easy to break off. A plastic king hides in one of the pieces and the one who finds it will get to wear the crown for a day - and most importantly - is freed from any household duties.
That's also the day we burn the candles on the Christmas tree for a last time before it is taken down.
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