Christmas in Switzerland is truly a magical time. With the snow-capped Swiss Alps serving as a magnificent backdrop for the splendor of the season, this beautiful country is an idyllic setting for celebrating the most wonderful time of the year. Village streets are filled with lights and decorations. The sweet, enticing aroma of Christmas treats baking and roasted chestnuts add certain warmth to the crisp, winter air. Memories made with family and friends while partaking in time-honored traditions. These are all the hallmarks of a Swiss Christmas that make it so special.
It’s Beginning to Look A Lot like Christmas
Some of the first signs of Christmas usually begin to appear around the end of November. Shop windows are decorated for the holidays and twinkling lights start to glow all around the town. Children delight as the ice skating rinks go up and there’s a little more hustle and bustle than any other time of year with people shopping the popular Christmas markets. Light displays along with the merry sounds of parades and carol-singing fill the air with the joy of the season.
Advent symbolizes the beginning of Christmas in Switzerland. A lovely tradition more common in the villages and smaller towns are Advent windows, called Adventsfenster. People of the community, such as families and businesses, decorate their windows in a Christmas theme. Then every night, from December 1st until the 24th, one window is revealed. Every window is concealed behind shutters until the night they are scheduled to be shown. One window is opened per night and people congregate to watch the unveiling. The reveal is usually followed by food and fellowship before the crowd returns home.
After the window is opened, it remains lit every night until Christmas Eve. In some villages, it is customary to go view the 23 previously opened windows on Christmas Eve prior to going to see the last one revealed.
Another all-important Advent tradition is the Adventskränz, or Advent wreath. They are either bought or can be hand-crafted as a family project and have four candles. Unlike Christmas calendars that count the days toward December 25th, Adventskränz counts the four weeks prior to Christmas Eve. On the fourth Sunday before December 24th, the first candle is lit. The following Sunday, the second candle is lit and it continues for the next two Sundays with the last candle being lit the Sunday before Christmas Eve. The candles symbolize four virtues: hope, love, joy, and peace. Many people also include a fifth candle, which is white. It is called the Christ candle and it is lit on Christmas Day as a reminder of the light of Jesus.
The Arrival of Samichlaus and Schmutzli
In Switzerland, the arrival of Samichlaus, the Swiss Santa Claus, on December 6th for Samichlaus Abend (Santa Night) heralds the arrival of the Christmas season. There are parades and special events to celebrate St. Nicholas Day that create a loud and celebratory atmosphere.
Dressed in a red hooded cape and long robe with a flowing white beard, Samichlaus doesn’t come by way of the North Pole nor does he travel on flying reindeer. He makes his way into town from a neighboring forest with a donkey and does not bear gifts. Instead, he brings the town’s children treats of chocolates, nuts, oranges, and lebkuchen (German gingerbread). He also brings a small, sweet bread shaped like a little man called grittibänz, which is as much a tradition as Samichlaus himself.
Samichlaus makes his way into town accompanied by his helper, Schmutzli, who wears a dark hooded cape that hides his face. Instead of sliding down chimneys to gain entrance into children’s homes, Samichlaus simply comes in through the front door. He talks to each child about their behavior throughout the previous year and sometimes points out things they can improve upon. Then the children can recite for him a Christmas poem to help earn them more treats. However, if the child receives a poor report and doesn’t have a poem to share, they could find themselves at risk of getting a smack from Schmutzli’s broom or being stuffed into Samichlaus’ bag to be toted off with him. If they pledge to behave the following year, they can be spared this “terrible” destiny. All of this, of course, is done in good fun.
While Samichlaus brings tasty delights, you could also receive some gifts from Father Christmas or Christchind (“Christ Child”) on December 24th. The Three Kings might also bring presents on Epiphany (January 6th) as could Befana if you live in Southern Switzerland.
Traditional Holiday Delicacies
Of course, cookies are a perennial favorite during the holiday season and the Swiss bake plenty of them. However, Switzerland has many traditional Christmas indulgences to be enjoyed. While not all of them are of Swiss origin, they are all delicious.
Originating in the 18th century, fondue was first developed as a way to make food supplies stretch during the lean winter months. Typically served with bread for dipping, fondue is a simple recipe tradionally made with melted cheese, wine, and garlic. Over the years, it has become a Swiss Christmas staple.
Baumstriezel or “chimney cake,” is made with rolled dough which has been wrapped around a stick. It’s then grilled and topped with a mix of walnuts and sugar. Pain d’epice is quite popular in the west of Switzerland. It’s a quick bread made with wheat or sometimes rye flour combined with honey and spices. Panettone is rich, sweet, cake-like bread made with eggs and a very generous amount of butter. It often has dried fruit embedded in it and is more popular with the French and Italian-speaking Swiss.
Mulled wine is a hot, alcoholic beverage that is a wonderful way to warm up after a cold evening out looking at Advent windows or caroling. It is made with red wine and mulling spices, which usually consist of cinnamon, allspice, star anise, and cloves.
In Switzerland, December 24th is called “Heiliger Abend,” which translates to Christmas Eve or Holy Night. It is customarily a night spent with family celebrating special traditions. A festive dinner followed by the reveal of the much-anticipated Christmas tree is the highlight of the evening. It is a widely-held tradition to keep the Christmas tree hidden until this night and then surprise the children with the tree and gifts. This is because little children are told that Christchind is the one who delivers the tree and the gifts on Christmas Eve. The older children play a part in keeping the secret as they help the parents decorate the tree.
The tree is adorned with candles, which in many families, are still lit on the tree, ornaments both handed down from generation to generation and received as Christmas gifts, and sweets such as chocolates and cookies. It is also traditional to place a crèche (Nativity scene) under the tree. It has figurines crafted of ceramic or wood and depicts a donkey, cow, sheep, shepherds, angels, and the Three Wise Men gazing upon the baby Jesus in a manger.
After the tree is brought out, the story of the Nativity is told and the family sings “Stille Nacht,” a Christmas carol that originated in Austria. Midnight Mass brings more singing and bell ringing and then it’s back home to open the gifts under the tree.
One of the more unique traditions of Heiliger Abend is to give farm animals and extra portion of grain or hay on this day. In some regions of Switzerland, it is believed that on the First Christmas, these animals were granted the ability to speak. It then became tradition that this phenomenal event occurs every Christmas Eve at midnight in gratitude of the service provided by the animals that surrounded the baby Jesus. The extra grain or hay is given so that no one will accidentally hear the animals speak, which would bring a year of bad luck.
Weihnachten – Christmas Day
Frohe Weihnachten! Joyeux Noël! Buon Natale! Bella Festas da Nadal! Which means Merry Christmas! One of the most interesting facts about Switzerland is that they have four official languages. Depending upon which region of the country you reside in, the people could be speaking German, French, Italian, or Romansh. The sentiment remains the same, however, and the wishes for a happy holiday are always warm.
Christmas Day in Switzerland is a spent savoring the yuletide joy with loved ones. Stores are closed and just about every restaurant is shuttered on December 25th and 26th, so it’s a perfect time for a classic holiday meal. A long-standing Swiss favorite is Filet im Teig, a pastry-wrapped pork filet with sausage. Fondue Chinoise, a meat fondue, is always popular as is nearly any fondue. Rollschinkli, a boiled ham, or Schüfeli, a pork shoulder, are easy to make in advance and serve with a potato gratin. A popular dish of days past that is making a comeback is Schinkli im Teig, which is a pastry-wrapped hot ham, served with potato salad. Baumnuss Guetzli, a type of walnut cookie, is enjoyed as an after-dinner treat.
Out with the Old, In with the New!
The Christmas holiday season in Switzerland runs until Epiphany, celebrating New Year’s along the way. The week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day is generally spent visiting with family and friends, particularly in the smaller villages. However, Christmas Day also kicks off the winter sports season. After indulging in all of that delicious holiday food, the Swiss enjoy getting out to the resorts and leaving their tracks in the fresh mountain snow. There are plenty of activities for everyone with skiing, bobsledding, tobogganing, and ice skating. Of course, there will be a piping hot pot of fondue waiting to warm them up after a day of taking in the glorious Alpine air.
On December 31st, there are always festivities to say goodbye to the Old Year. Be it an intimate assembly of friends and family, a neighborhood gathering, or an all-out party with music and dancing, the celebrations are jubilant and run well into the early hours of New Year’s Day. One way that some people ring in the New Year involves actually ringingit in. They walk through their villages shaking cowbells after midnight, heralding in the New Year as a community.
Like many Swiss cultures, New Year’s Day traditions differ according to region. While some people carry on visiting with loved ones, there are places where groups of villagers walk from house to house to bid everyone in the community a Happy New Year by shaking their hands. They sing songs and toast with shots of Röteli, a liqueur made in Graubünden of dried cherries and spices, and buttered pear bread before the group proceeds to the next home.
Epiphany/Three Kings’ Day
Celebrated 12 days after Christmas, January 6th marks Epiphany, the official end of the Christmas season. It is the day that the Three Wise Men (or Kings) visited baby Jesus and brought him gifts. It is also the day when Christmas trees all over Switzerland are lit for the last time prior to them coming down. The trees are then taken outdoors and perhaps mulched or chopped into firewood. However, some communities turn even the riddance of their trees into a festive occasion as they come together and burn the trees while they share a snack and a warm drink.
Three Kings’ Day has another tradition that is fun and scrumptious. With a literal translation of “Three Kings Cake,” Dreikönigskuchen isn’t actually a cake at all. It is a cluster of citrus-flavored, sweetened rolls formed to create a crown-like shape. They customarily have raisins in them and almond slivers sprinkled on the top. The person baking the “cake” puts a whole almond inside one of the rolls either before or after they are baked. The lucky person who finds the almond inside of their roll gets crowned king for the day, complete with a paper crown. The crown also comes with privileges such as not having housework or getting to choose what the family does together that day.