Christmas begins early in Switzerland. Not just the commercial onslaught noticed in shops but the quieter celebration of Advent on the 4th Sunday before Christmas Eve, which this year fell on 30 November. Swiss children traditionally receive Advent calendars with 24 small flaps to open one each day until the 24th to reveal a Christmas scene. These days the “gift” behind the window is often chocolate, to the distress of many parents.
The season really begins for many on Advent with visits from St. Nicholas or Samichlaus. St. Nicholas, who is also the patron saint of Freiburg, predates Santa Claus by several centuries, may arrive anytime between now and the 24th to distribute tangerines, nuts or small gifts. In older villages, St. Nick is often accompanied by his henchman, Schmutzli or Père Fouettard in French, a dark nemesis who carries a broom of sticks to strike at naughty children.
Throughout the country, there are Christmas parades where revelers enjoy concerts and carol singing, accompanied by a warm glass of mulled wine. Switzerland has a particularly rich and diverse tradition of carol singing. Many rural families still enjoy hiking through the forest to find and cut the perfect Christmas tree, stopping by a mountain hut for fondue. For the Swiss, fondue is a winter specialty. Only tourists eat it in summer.
So where is Santa Claus in all this you might well ask? This figure did not appear until the late 19th Century in North America and the jolly icon beloved by children today around the world was fabricated, first in children’s tales and later in the iconic image used by Coca Cola in a famous 1930s advert. In Switzerland, however, as in much of Europe, the figure that brings gifts either on Advent or on the evening of the 24th is St. Nicholas, Samichlaus, PèreNoël or Babbo Natale. Moreover, he does not fly in a reindeer driven sleigh or slide down chimney pots. The Santa figure may also be represented by Le petit Jésus in Suisse romande or the Christkind in German-speaking regions, a beautiful, radiant, angel-like being with wings, dressed in white with a shining crown and a magic wand.
Children traditionally awake to find their presents already under a real tree – no plastic, unnatural looking ones here. While electric lights have become widely used, especially in urban areas, putting real candles on the tree is still practiced throughout the country. It is also the cause of many fires this time of year. Trees often stay up until 2 January and the candles are lit again on New Years Eve for good luck. Only in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino are trees not an integral part of Christmas.
The 24th is more important than the 25th in Switzerland and depending on the region, gifts are exchanged either then or on 1 January or 6 January (Epiphany) when the three Magi were said to have visited the Christ child. The Christmas feast takes place in the early evening of the 24th after which, the family may sing carols and exchange gifts.
Many recite chapters from the Bible related to the birth of Jesus and later go to church for a midnight service or mass, afterwards sharing hot chocolate and special Christmas treats.
Among practicing Christians in Switzerland, about half are Catholic and half are Protestant. Locals say you can tell the religion of a village by whether the church dominates (Catholic) or if the school dominates (Protestant). Protestant districts also keep their Christmas decor understated. After all, it is the land of Calvin, that most austere of reformers. The city of Geneva however, is making greater efforts every year to decorate the city center, with 14 kilometers of illuminated snowflakes in trees this year and garlands on bridges crossing the lake.
Pamela Taylor is a Geneva-based writer with a long career as a journalist for National Public Radio, Voice of America, AFP’s English Service, and others, in Central Europe, Bosnia and Kosovo
St. Nicholas or Samichlaus is often accompanied by his henchman, Schmutzli or Père Fouettard