Get your Advent calendars ready! The countdown to Christmas in Switzerland is full of traditions and celebrations.
The end-of-year Christmas celebrations in Switzerland are something to get excited about – every day, if you follow the Swiss advent calendar.
Celebrating a Swiss Christmas
Advent is the period beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, historically seen as the preparation of the arrival of Christ.
During the 19th century in particular, this waiting period before Christmas was viewed as a way of teaching children patience before a reward – hence the development of the Advent calendar, a calendar with 24 little flaps opening onto windows with images within a Christmas scene.
Advent calendars are very much a part of the Swiss Christmas tradition, as is the Advent wreath, which has four candles, one for each of the Sundays in Advent (on the first Sunday, one candle is burnt, on the second, two are lit, and so on). Buildings are also often decorated as Advent calendars.
Christmas markets are held all over Switzerland during the Advent season.
This tradition, which translates to ‘chasing St Nicholas’, takes place on 5 December in Catholic areas of Switzerland, most notably in Küssnacht am Rigi in Canton Schwyz.
This is in fact not a chase, but a torchlit procession. It is led by up to 200 men wearing long white shirts and carrying on their heads huge ‘Infuln‘, or mitres, made of thick cardboard and colourful transparent paper and lit by candles from the inside. These figures dance through streets, turning and bowing.
St Nicholas himself appears after them, escorted by several Schmutzlis (his dark-robed assistants). They in turn are followed by several hundred men (the Klausjäger, or pursuers) in white farmers’ shirts and red neck ties. Some beat large cow bells rhythmically against their legs, others blow brass instruments or cowhorns. Yet more noise is created by the loud cracking of whips.
St Nicholas (Nicholas of Myra, Patron Saint of children) is popularly called Samichlaus in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. He appears not on Christmas Eve or Day, but on 6 December, when children awake to find the shoe or boot they put out the night before filled with mandarin oranges, nuts and cookies.
St Nicholas is accompanied by a character called Schmutzli on his visits to children, in particular in the central cantons. In contrast to the Patron Saint, Schmutzli usually is a rather dark and gloomy figure who carries a cane (‘Rute‘) as well as the jute sack filled with presents.
Female characters take on a similar role in other parts of the country, such as Befana in the Italian-speaking southern canton of Ticino and Chauche-vieille in French-speaking western Switzerland. In Ticino, children hang up stockings on night of 5–6 January (the word Befana is derived from Epiphany): ‘good’ children receive sweets, while tradition has it that ‘bad’ children find a lump of coal, or sugar lumps resembling coal, in their stockings.
Christmas in Switzerland
The evening of 24 December, is very much a family celebration in Switzerland. This is the evening when small children get to see the decorated and lit tree in all its splendour for the first time, complete with wrapped gifts underneath.
In Switzerland, it is not uncommon to have candles rather than electric lights on the tree. Unfortunately, there is the occasional accident involving burning trees. Electric lights decorating Swiss Christmas trees usually emit a warm yellowish light, rather than the blinking coloured lights often seen in the United States and Britain.
Traditionally, children in Catholic areas were told that the presents were brought by the Christkind (German), Le petit Jésus (French), or Gesu Bambino. But these days, children are just as familiar with the character almost universally recognised as Santa Claus.