Three Swiss Christmas traditions you should know about

Christmas customs and celebrations in Switzerland might be a bit more subdued and less flashy than in some other countries, but they are rich in traditions.

The Christmas season in Switzerland began on December 1st, which marks the first day of Advent.

Two customs are associated with this time of the year in many Swiss households.

One is the Christian Advent candle, a four-candle wreath placed on the table. Each Sunday during December, one candle is lit, until all four are burning on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, these wreaths are made from evergreen twigs and pine cones, but these days all kinds of decorative materials are used.

For believers the wreaths symbolise the eternity of God and immortality of the soul. The four candles represent hope, faith, joy, and peace.

Another custom, especially practiced in small towns and villages, are the so-called Advent windows. Twenty-four residents are selected to decorate one of their windows in a Christmas theme. 

Every evening between December 1st and 24th, one window is ‘unveiled’ at a set time; the others stay shut until their turn comes. Townsfolk or villagers gather around to watch how the shutters of the house are opened and the window is revealed. 

Once opened, the windows stay lit until Christmas Eve.

Photo: Deposit Photos

St. Nicholas Day: On December 6th, St. Nicholas (so named after Nicholas of Myra, Patron Saint of children) comes to visit the children of Switzerland. This Swiss version of Santa Claus is called Samichlaus in the German-speaking part, and Saint-Nicolas in the French. He is typically dressed in bishop’s robes, wears a mitre on his head, and carries a staff.

He is accompanied by a donkey (which totes a sack filled with chocolates, peanuts, and mandarines on his back), and his helper, “Schmutzli”. Called “Père Fouettard” in French, this evil sidekick  carries a bunch of twigs for punishing naughty children.

In order to get a treat from Samichlaus / Saint-Nicolas, children are encouraged to recite a poem or sing a song.

Just for the record, Schmutzli never actually whips the children — that would of course be illegal. But his menacing presence is supposed to be a deterrent to bad behaviour.

One typical snack for the St. Nicholas Day, which is being sold in nearly all Swiss bakeries is the ‘Grittibänz’, a pastry shaped like a man, made from leavened dough. Its eyes are raisins, and he pipe in his mouth is made from paper.

Christmas Eve: Many Swiss families celebrate Christmas on December 24th. That’s when the tree is lit. Many people still prefer real candles over the electric lights, regardless of fire risks they pose.

After the evening meal — traditionally ham and scalloped potatoes, but more and more frequently a fondue is served — the gifts are opened.

After the celebrations, families often head to the midnight church services.

by Helena Bachmann

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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