Once the Advent calendar has been hung up it’s time to don an apron and look out the star-shaped cookie cutters.
December 6th is when it all gets going. St Nicholas himself (known as Samichlaus in German) processes through towns in Catholic Switzerland after leaving treats for the children overnight in shoes left outside the door.
Although he is dressed in red like the Santa Claus many of us are familiar with, the Swiss Santa is less of a grandfatherly figure. He is usually accompanied by a dark-robed helper (Père fouettard or Schmutzli) carrying a whip or broom of twigs as a warning to ‘naughty’ children. And instead of reindeer, Samichlaus often has a donkey in tow.
“St Nicholas comes to the central square of our village where all the children are gathered. He tells a story and all the children receive a sack with sweets after they have recited a poem,” says Alexa Tschan from Lugnorre near Murten.
“When I was a child he would visit the house, carrying a big book with everything we’d done wrong written in it. We’d get told off. And I was really frightened of having to recite a poem,” she tells The Local.
The DIY-happy Swiss like nothing better than to make their own Christmas presents, or to help their children make them. A Migros magazine survey from 2014 found that for 73 percent of Swiss present-making with the kids was a Christmas ritual.
“I always make presents with the children that they can give to their grandparents, to us and to their godparents,” says Tschan, who is the mother of teenage boys. “This year we are making lipsalves, body lotion and soap.”
Decorate the tree
Not content with just making gifts, many families also make their own tree decorations, according to the survey. If you don’t want to make your own, traditional straw stars and figures for the tree can be bought at Christmas markets around the country and also make great gifts.
The fir tree – in most cases real – is usually decorated on the 24th but the children are only allowed in to see it in the evening, according to cultural traditions expert Dr Konrad Kuhn. The tree stays up until Epiphany (Three Kings’ Day) on January 6th.
“Tree candles are very popular and widespread in Switzerland – despite the risk of fire and to the incomprehension of many expats,” Kuhn tells The Local.
In fact, every year there are reports of the fire brigade being called out to extinguish Christmas tree fires. “Electric lights, especially blinking strings of lights, don’t impress the Swiss at all, “ says the cultural scholar.
Spend Christmas Eve with family
For the majority of Swiss the evening of the 24th is spent with the extended family. The tree is decorated and the candles lit, presents are shared, carols are sung, music is played and a meal is shared.
Who brings the children’s gifts depends on where you live and your religion. “In German-speaking Switzerland – mainly Protestant areas – it is the Christkind (Christ child), which is a relatively new phenomenon,” says Kuhn. “In western Switzerland, and increasingly in Catholic regions, it is Père Noël or the Weihnachtsmann, a close relation of Santa Claus.”
Tschan describes the Christkind as “a baby Jesus with wings”. Recalling her childhood, she says “We had to stay in our rooms until the Christkind rang a bell, which was the sign that we could enter the living room. But sadly by that time the Christkind had already flown off out the window!”
After the presents are opened it’s time for the Christmas meal, followed – for traditionalists – by a visit to a midnight church service.
Have a fondue
While there’s no ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner in Switzerland, a classic choice for the sociable Swiss is fondue chinoise. Instead of cheese, thin slices of meat are dipped into a shared pot of steaming broth and eaten with vegetables and other accompaniments.
“The reason is the relative simplicity of the preparation – everyone cooks their own meat and can choose their sauce, accompaniments etc.,” according to Kuhn, who sees this as a sign of our individualized society. “At the same time, fondue is the epitome of a pleasant meal among friends and family,” he says.
In French-speaking Switzerland a roast is often served, and in the Italian-speaking south a dish is eaten that isn’t known elsewhere in the country – trotters with lentils. If that’s not to your taste, pasta is also eaten at this time of year.
When it comes to the dessert, a Christmas log (bûche de noel) is a popular choice. And if you must have a cake, think light and airy rather than dense and fruity. “Panettone used to be the typical Christmas cake in the Italian-speaking part but it is now sold all year round in Switzerland,” says Fekete.