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How to celebrate Christmas like the Swiss

From the giving of presents to the food and drink consumed, every European country has its own customs surrounding Christmas - and Switzerland has some of the best and most unique.

How to celebrate Christmas like the Swiss
Christmas Cup participants on Lake Geneva. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The Local unwraps the festive traditions in Switzerland so you can have yourself a merry Swiss Christmas. From epic baking sessions to DIY gifts: here's how to do Christmas the Swiss way.

Get baking!

Photo: ismask/Depositphotos

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).
Have a swim in a freezing lake
Held every December on the last weekend before Christmas, the Coupe de Noël – or Christmas Cup – is an open water swimming race on Lake Geneva. 
The race has taken place since 1934, the 2019 edition will be the 81st running – or should we say 'swimming'? – of the event. The water temperature is on average around 5 degrees – and the participants must swim without fins, gloves or wetsuits. 
In groups of 20, the participants cover a 125-metre distance. Far from competitive, the real competition is to choose the weirdest and wackiest outfits – with some groups swimming the distance with a fondue pot. 
In the original edition – created by biscuit maker Rene Doria – nine swimmers took part. The 2019 race expects 2,500 hardy participants from across the globe. 

Make gifts

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

Photo: ezoom100/Depositphotos

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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For members


Is Switzerland likely to bring back Covid restrictions this Christmas?

With the holidays only a few weeks away and the epidemiological situation in the country deteriorating, will the Swiss government introduce new measures in time for Christmas?

Swiss government is still debating whether to implement new rules for Christmas
Decisions about any new restrictions over the Christmas season have not yet been announced. Photo by Fabio Porta on Unsplash

In fall of 2020, as the number of coronavirus infections had soared after a relatively calm summer, the Federal Council implemented several new restrictions and recommendations for Christmas.

Among them was the one limiting get-togethers to 10 people, preferably consisting of two households or two families, as well as the number of shoppers per square metre in stores.

An 11 pm curfew was also in place for bars and restaurants, although it was lifted exceptionally for New Year’s Eve.

These were the restrictions enforced for the Christmas – New Year’s period in 2020.

What about this year’s holiday season?

The epidemiological pattern is similar to last year’s, evoking an eerie sense of déja-vu: low numbers during the warm-weather months, gradually increasing as cold weather sets in, driving people indoors and allowing the virus to spread more easily

The difference between now and then are vaccinations. While they don’t seem to have much effect on the overall number of cases, — nearly 4,000 new daily infections reported on Friday, they are less spread out than at same time last year.

READ MORE: Why Switzerland’s Covid cases are skyrocketing despite vaccinations

At the end of 2020, both eastern and western Switzerland experienced outbreaks of infections, while this autumn, the increase is detected mainly in cantons of central and eastern Switzerland, such as Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Nidwalden, Schwyz, Uri and St.Gallen, where the rate of vaccinations lags behind the national average.

“It’s a bit like raining all over Switzerland. Some cantons have umbrellas, others don’t, so some regions are wet, and others not”, virologist Didier Trono explained in an interview with Swiss news outlet RTS.

One positive development this year versus 2020 is that less people are hospitalised with Covid.

What, if any measures, is Switzerland likely to implement for Christmas?

As countries across Europe, including neighbour Austria, are imposing measures to slow down the spread of coronavirus, Switzerland has not yet announced what, if any, new rules it will introduce in the near future.

Authorities have waited to see whether the Vaccination Week campaign that took place between November 8th and 14th, was successful in inoculating large numbers of holdouts.

Early numbers suggest a slight rise in the number of vaccinations, but not a significant increase that the authorities were hoping for.

“There comes a time when we have to admit that we can no longer convince many people to be vaccinated”, president Guy Parmelin conceded in an interview with NZZ am Sonntag.

Latest figures from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) indicate that 64.7 of adults in Switzerland are fully vaccinated. This number goes up to 73.62 percent when people 12 years and older are included in the statistics. However, FOPH points out that a large number of residents remains not immunised and susceptible to get infected.

For this reason, new restrictions are not out of the question, with Parmelin saying that since the rate of vaccinations has not accelerated as hoped, Switzerland must “limit the damage and promote other measures”.

He did not specify what exactly these restrictions might look like, except stating that “We want at all costs to avoid a new confinement”.

The Federal Council does not want to enact stricter rules unless they are absolutely necessary, he said.

They could be limited to the 2G rule, which limits access to restaurants, bars, and all other indoor venues to people who are fully vaccinated or recovered from a Covid infection, excluding those who have a negative test result.

Whatever rules might be implemented ahead of the Christmas holidays, they will aim to prevent Swiss hospitals from being saturated, which is a major concern when the number of infections soars.

“We cannot rule out an overload of the health system”, Parmelin said.

This was confirmed by Tanja Stadler, head of the Covid-19 Task Force, who warned that hospitals might have to admit 30,000 coronavirus patients this winter.

There is no timeline for the decisions, as the Federal Council is likely waiting to see the outcome of the Covid-19 referendum on November 28th, which will decide the fate of Switzerland’s Covid ceritificate, even though the results would not be binding immediately.

READ MORE: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid referendum on November 28th?

This is what we do know so far.

Skiing over the Christmas holidays will be allowed, and many Christmas markets will be open, though some will require Covid certificates to enter.

You can find out more about it here:

EXPLAINED: Everything tourists should know about skiing in Switzerland

Eat, drink and be merry: Switzerland’s best Christmas markets in 2021