While Christmas may be considered an over-commercialized affair, the Swiss hold true to their roots.
Traditional Swiss Christmas typically lasts from the beginning of Advent (30 November 2014) to the end of Epiphany (6 January 2015). While each Swiss home may give the tradition a slight twist, some customs have remained intact: the excitement of 1 December, for example, when children open the first window of their Advent calendars to discover a tasty treat; lighting one candle on the Advent wreath each week until the great day eventually arrives; or uncovering the candle-lit Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, a German tradition that dates back to the 1500s.
Advent is now in full swing and Christmas is right around the corner, so whether it’s holiday shopping, cookie baking or wreath making, now is the time to slip into a festive mood and greet the holiday season the good old-fashioned Swiss way.
If you’ve lived in Switzerland long enough, you know first-hand that the Swiss bring their own rituals to the dinner table. There is no particularly “traditional” Christmas dinner because it varies from region to region. In Geneva, for instance, it’s not uncommon to feast on chestnut-stuffed turkey with gratin de cardons made with thistle artichokes. In Vaud, the emphasis is often on splashing out and reducing the amount of time anyone has to spend in the kitchen – foie gras, oysters, smoked salmon, fondue Chinoise … Those with a sweet tooth are in luck, as the Swiss are known for the most delicious Christmas biscuits: think pain d’épices – aka gingerbread – cookies spiced with cinnamon, anise and hazelnuts, brunsli (the Swiss take on brownies, but not as gooey as the American ones), and jam-filled biscuits in all manner of shapes. And not a Christmas pudding or mince pie in sight – a boon for those who detest dried fruit.
Feel like sneaking out of your cinnamon-infused home to take a break from baking? Head to one of the many outdoor Christmas markets scattered throughout the Lake Geneva region – it seems as if every self-respecting town and village has one, usually involving vin chaud and delicious food either to eat on the spot or to buy as gifts. Simply Google your desired destination + marché de Noël and you will be spoiled for choice, ranging from full-on markets open every day until Christmas to smaller, sometimes themed, events lasting just a weekend.
Nestled in Place de la Fusterie, in the city center, Geneva’s Christmas market offers arts and crafts, handmade winter garments and specialty foods with an “international” twist. You’re bound to find knick-knacks from different parts of the globe at one of the quaint little wooden chalets dotted around the square. Go with a budget and expect to stay within it: inexpensive but beautiful crafts make great gifts to place under the tree. Open from 9 December, every day until 19h00. There are also many neighbourhood markets around the city – keep your eyes open for posters and/or look them up on the internet: www.marches-noel.org/marche-de-noel-a-geneve.
One of the best-known Christmas markets is in Montreux, with its magnificent views of the snow-capped Alps and its exceptional décor – especially at night, when glowing snowflakes hang from the leafless tree branches. More than half a million visitors flock there each year, for its wide variety of Christmas souvenirs and delicacies, from artisan crafts to Christmas sweets to heaping cups of hot speculoos drinks and vin chaud. Just what you need for a Christmas spirit boost! Bring your children, too, for a visit to the Christmas village in Caux with Santa’s post office and a giant nativity scene, then head to the Rochers-de-Naye to Santa’s house (see website for ticket prices). Look out for Santa’s sleigh in the skies between 17h00 and 19h00 along the lakeshore. Open daily from 6 to 21 December, with special events on the weekends such as the Medieval Market at the Château de Chillon, open from 10h – 17h00.
Lausanne’s Christmas market is in several locations – Place St François with its 50 wooden chalets, Place Pépinet featuring crafts by artisans and the Flon with its ice rink among other attractions. You can also enjoy the light sculptures dotted about the city as you make your way from one place to another. Open every day from 11h30 to 21h30 (early closing on Sunday at 18h30).
It is also worth mentioning the market in the Morges (10 to 14 December), the largest indoor Christmas market in Suisse romande, held in the wooden halls near the railway station. For a full listing in Vaud, see www.marches-noel.org/marches-de-noel-canton-vaud.
In neighbouring France, there are several markets, for example the one in Annecy (until 2 January), with its sound and light show on the façade of the town hall from 17h00 till midnight and the Father Christmas parade on 21 December at 17h00 in Place St Maurice. In Annemasse old town, Bonjour l’hiver is a street arts festival and Christmas market and village (12 to 24 December). And in Evian, the “Flottins”, fabulous giant driftwood figures, take to the streets from 15h00 till 19h00, with storytellers, comedians and circus performers (until 4 January).
And when you’ve shopped till you’ve dropped, take time to reflect and unwind at one of the carol concerts offered at local churches throughout the season (see individual websites for details). One of the most popular dates is 14 December, when you can attend carols by candlelight at All Saints Church in Vevey, at 17h30; an ecumenical carol service organized by the English-speaking churches in Lausanne at St François, at 17h00; and “The Peace of Christmas” annual concert by the Geneva International Christian Choir and Orchestra at the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices in Geneva, at 17h00 (tickets CHF 25 to CHF 55).
Merry Christmas and happy holidays.