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How to celebrate Christmas like the Swiss

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How to celebrate Christmas like the Swiss
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11:31 CET+01:00
From the giving of presents to the food and drink consumed, every European country has its own customs surrounding Christmas. The Local unwraps the festive traditions in Switzerland so you can have yourself a merry Swiss Christmas.

Get baking!


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Once the Advent calendar has been hung up it’s time to don an apron and look out the star-shaped cookie cutters.

“Many families, especially those with children, make and decorate their own Christmas cookies. It is an important family event where kids and parents participate,” says Katalin Fekete, co-author of the Swiss Cookies recipe book.
 
Milanese (Mailänderli) lemon shortbreads, cinnamon stars (Zimtsterne) and little Swiss “brownies” (Brunsli) are traditional in the German-speaking part, but have now spread to other parts of Switzerland. There are also regional specialities, such as aniseed cookies (Anischräbeli) from the canton of Aargau, Läckerli spice biscuits from Basel and Tirggel honey biscuits from Zurich.
 
“Rum balls (Rumkugeln) and Swiss chocolate truffles (truffes) are popular nowadays too, especially to give away as a present,” says Fekete.
 
Another confection to try your hand at is the Grittibänz (bonhomme), a bread man with currant eyes that is associated with St Nicholas Day on December 6th, which is when children across Switzerland receive little treats such as mandarins, peanuts and sweets from St Nicholas (known as Samichlaus in German).

Make gifts


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The DIY-happy Swiss like nothing better than to make their own Christmas presents, or to help their children make them. A survey in the magazine of the supermarket chain Migros from 2014 found that for 73 percent of Swiss, present-making with the kids was a Christmas ritual.

Decorate the tree

Not content with just making gifts, many families also create 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 close 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.”

Alexa Tschan from Lugnorre near Murten 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


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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.

READ ALSO: Your guide to the best Swiss Christmas markets in 2018

A version of this article previously appeared in The Local in December 2016.

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