This week we got our first snowfall of the season in Central Switzerland, synced perfectly in time with the official start of the Christmas season. When we say that things run efficiently in here we’re not kidding. A winter paradise, naturally Switzerland knows how to do Christmas right! But there are lots of other traditions beyond beautiful snowy mountain landscapes that contribute to the country’s festive season. Here are a few that my family has enjoyed discovering while living in the central, German-speaking part of the country:
The advent season and advent wreaths are common among certain religions in the United States, but the celebration of advent is much more prevalent in Switzerland. In the way that grocery stores start to carry Christmas trees seemingly earlier and earlier each year, Switzerland starts with advent wreaths. You can buy a real or artificial one, and deck it out with all sorts of accessories found at DIY stores. On each of the four Sundays before Christmas, you light a candle as a countdown to the big day. Of course, those chocolate and toy calendars with doors that you get to open every day are very prevalent here as well, and likely the much more popular version among a certain younger demographic. . .
When advent time starts, you’ll also start to see Grittibänz pop up at every bakery. Grittibänz are little men made out of brioche-type bread, decorated with raisin eyes and sugar or sometimes chocolate. Baking these at home, along with cookies, of course, is a common tradition during the season. You can find a simple recipe here if you want to try it out yourself!
The Samichlaus is the Swiss adaptation of St. Nicholas. Like St. Nicholas, the Samichlaus comes on December 6 bearing gifts for well-behaved children. Unlike with other St. Nicholas celebrations, however, the Samichlaus doesn’t passively leave gifts in shoes overnight, oh no. Swiss kids have to work for it a bit. Traditionally families will “hire” a Samichlaus to come to visit their home where he’ll give a bit of an annual report on the child’s behavior. If there are some areas for improvement (obviously), the kids will recite a poem or sing a song to get into his good graces. In exchange, they’ll receive a sack of treats typically including peanuts, mandarins, chocolate coins, and gingerbread. Starting in November you’ll see stations at the grocery stores with all of the items you’ll need for these traditional gifts.
For the truly naughty, the Samichlaus has a helper named Schmutzli who keeps kids in line with threats of throwing them into a sack and dragging them off to the forest. This role has softened a bit over time, with Schmutzli now acting as more of a sidekick than the North Pole’s tough bouncer. Luckily the tradition of this character appearing in blackface has also almost died out, though reportedly in some places it can still be seen. The idea is that it’s “schmutz“ on his face, or more specifically soot, but still, it is unacceptable, so if you are living in Switzerland (or anywhere, for that matter!) and still see this happening, you should say something.
In many places, you can do a little hike to see the Samichlaus and Schmutzli at a house in the forest, sort of like the Swiss version of a mall Santa. Sometimes these are combined with another Swiss tradition, the Laternenweg . . .
Laternenwege (or Laternliwege or Weihnachtswege) are ideally snow-covered hiking paths illuminated by lanterns during the winter. The idea is to do the hike in the dark with the lanterns lighting the way, typically leading to a nativity scene or if you’re really lucky, a fondue chalet. Being in nature, no matter the season is intrinsic to Swiss culture, and this is a lovely and unique way to enjoy it despite the chill.
Christmas markets are extremely popular throughout Europe and increasingly the rest of the world, with Germany being home to the most famous, but Swiss Christmas markets are definitely charming in their own right. Unfortunately at the timing of this article many markets, specifically in Bavaria and throughout Austria, will remain closed this year due to covid. We’re lucky that the Swiss markets are able to reopen, with most of the larger ones requiring a covid certificate to enter.
Every major city in Switzerland has its own market, and most smaller ones do as well, at least for a weekend. No matter the size, you’ll find tantalizing combinations of local gift items, holiday decorations, sometimes small rides or other activities for kids, and of course delicious things in which to stuff your face. You’ll find no shortage of Swiss staples like raclette, fondue, varieties of sausages, and gingerbread, plus so much more that you’ll wish you could rent out a second stomach.
Stroll through the gingerbread-house-looking market stalls while staying warm with a cup or two of mulled wine (glühwein in German-speaking Switzerland) and you’ve got a perfectly Christmas-y festive night out.
Try it at Home
Want to bring a little Swiss Christmas charm to your home? Try your hand at a batch of a favorite Swiss Christmas cookie (guetzli in Swiss German): the Spitzbuben! These pretty little jam-filled cookies are a delicious showstopper. Find a great recipe here.
Of course, these are best enjoyed with a warm mug of glühwein. Find a delicious recipe (with a non-alcoholic option, too) here.
Schöni Wiehnachte from Switzerland!