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CHRISTMAS

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange squad

The final instalment in our series on bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions, we go through Santa’s companions.

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange squad
Image: JOHN D MCHUGH / AFP

These days, Santa Claus has a relatively ubiquitous appearance all over the world in any place that celebrates Christmas (and a few that don’t). 

In Switzerland however, not only does Santa – known in Swiss German as Samichlaus – have a few important differences – but so does the crew he likes to run with.

From eschewing donkeys for reindeer to keeping company with a friend who in the coming years is likely to come under a little more scrutiny, Santa’s Swiss Squad in one of the most unique aspects of celebrating Christmas in Switzerland. 

How to celebrate Christmas like the Swiss

Donkeys, ponies, llamas – and occasionally motorbikes

Most of us from the Anglo world have grown up with a jolly fat man in a red suit who traverses the globe through the air thanks to a team of well-lit reindeer. 

Keeping things a little more simple and not wanting to play in any reindeer games, not only does Swiss Santa prefer to travel on the back of a less glamorous type of animal – but he’s got to keep his weight in check as well. 

Never one to let the occasion get to them, Swiss animal protection law is also in force at Christmas time – so much so that there’s a weight restriction on anyone wanting to ride a donkey.

If Santa’s down season has been a little too festive and he tips the scales at more than 90 kilos, Swiss law states he’s going to have to walk instead.

Given that most donkeys do not live at the North Pole but are instead rented out from hire companies for around 70 francs per hour, these rules are strictly enforced. 

In some parts of the country, Santa will enter on the back of a pony or a llama, although in both cases we assume an even tougher weight restriction 

Too fat to ride come December? Never fear – fortunately for the Santas of Basel, who ride into town on a Harley with a sack full of goodies, there are no such weight restrictions. 

Schmutzli

At this stage, we probably need to talk about Schmutzli, also known as Père Fouettard in the French-speaking areas. 

Schmutzli, Santa’s sidekick, is a feature across much of Switzerland – although his appearance differs significantly depending on where he appears. 

In his best incarnation, Schmutzli is a lovable grump with a disheveled and grubby appearance – his Swiss German name translates loosely to ‘dirty’ or ‘little dirty guy’ – who plays bad cop to Santa’s good cop, giving twigs to expectant kids and telling them to up their game.

Santa on the other hand gives out toys, fruits and snacks, leaving no doubt as to who the real hero is. 

Schmutzil also used to carry a whip and an empty sack to steal naughty children, taking them back to a forced labour camp in the Black Forest until they learned to behave. While that appears to have gone out of fashion recently, some put the law abiding nature of the Swiss down to an existential fear of Schmutzli-related consequences. 

In his worst incarnation in some of the more conservative and rural areas of the country, Schmutzli is not just grubby but may appear in pure blackface – something not too dissimilar from Holland’s Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). 

While the Swiss incarnation has generated less controversy perhaps because of his backstory. The Dutch version wears blackface, earrings and oversized red lips because he is a person of Spanish/North African origin whereas the Swiss version’s blackface is down to being ‘dirty’. 

In recent years however, Schmutzli has become less popular in larger towns and cities in the country, primarily because of the similar optics to blackface traditions in Holland and elsewhere. 

Whether Schmutzli will go the way of forced labour camps for naughty kids remains to be seen, but it’s doubtful that Swiss Santa will be swapping his donkeys for reindeer any time soon. 

Swiss Christmas Traditions

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange Swiss squad

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #2: The Harley riding Santas of Basel

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #3: Get drunk on cake, but don’t “make it vomit”

Bizarre Swiss Christmas Traditions #4: Lake Lucerne’s Santa Hunt

Bizarre Swiss Christmas Traditions #5: Edible gingerbread trees

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions: #6 Geneva's 'Coupe de Noël'

 

 

 

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CHRISTMAS

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

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