Naughty or nice? American expat Alane Kataria-Rennie writes about Samichlaus (the Swiss version of St Nicolas) and his spooky sidekick Schmutzli.
When I left Switzerland, I hoped to bring home more than just bars of Lindt chocolate and a multipurpose pocket knife. I’m talking about non-material souvenirs like Swiss habits, traditions and ways of life that I’d embraced and adopted as my own. For instance, I’ve gotten used to all the stores being closed on Sunday and now plan my meals in advance and actually spend my sabbath as a day of rest the way the Swiss do.
The Swiss Santa
Last week I came across another Swiss tradition, this time annual as opposed to weekly, that I will be sure to ‘take home’. The Swiss Santa Claus, Samichlaus, shows up almost three weeks earlier than our jolly old St Nick on 6 December and brings a bag of edible treats for children who’ve been good all year. It’s the Christkind, or baby Jesus, who brings toys in secret and leaves them under the Tannenbaum on Christmas eve.
Although there’s one aspect of this 6 December ritual that I will probably leave here in Switzerland; the sack of goodies that Samichlaus brings aren’t all really good.
He always brings the following items even if you behaved yourself incredibly well for an entire year:
- Mandarin oranges – these are incredibly sweet and abundant this time of year, but is it really a ‘goody’ if mums encourage kids to eat these anyway?
- Lebkuchen – like a gingerbread cookie but cakier and somehow not as tasty.
- Chocolates – no problems there.
- Unshelled peanuts – these are great for ball games and the circus, but in the heat of cookie season they’re totally forgettable. I think my host family has in fact forgotten about the mountain of unshelled peanuts on the dining table because no one has touched them for a week.
Anyway, when I have kids I’ll arrange for Samichlaus to bring them sacks full of sour gummy worms, blow pops and other candies loaded with processed sugar and artificial flavors and colours if they’ve been very good, that is.
Aside from the somewhat lame contents of the goody bags, 6 December is a lot of fun because, if your parents are creative and have an older male friend with a white beard, you get to hang out with the man in the red suit for the evening.
Before handing over the treats, he tells kids that he’s proud of them for behaving, but also lets them know that it annoys their parents when they have tantrums in the supermarket. The most interesting aspect of this holiday, however – the reason I am bringing this tradition home and hopefully spreading it – is that Samichlaus doesn’t come alone.
Who’s that with Santa?
Samichlaus is always accompanied by his creepy sidekick, Schmutzli. Schmutzli wears a long black robe that, when done wrong, makes him look scary, but when done right merely looks intimidating. These days he just helps Samichlaus distribute the treats and doesn’t say much, but he used to play a much more important role.
According to Wikipedia, Samichlaus was all about rewarding the good kids and Schmutzli was the enforcer who punished the bad. He used to carry a whip and when the large sack of goodies was empty, Schmutzli could use it to stuff naughty children into and then kidnap them.
Elena received a book one year explaining the legend of Schmutzli and how he became Samichlause’s most unlikely helper. We’ve ‘read’ it several times even though it’s in Swiss German, but I gather that he was once a poor woodcutter who saved Christmas one year by picking up all the treats that fell out of Samichlause’s own ripped sack.
Samichlaus was grateful for the woodcutter’s help and let him accompany him to children’s homes every subsequent year. This tale might explain why Schmutzli wears dark clothing (he’s a poor woodcutter), but it doesn’t give any hint as to why he plays the bad cop and sometimes covers his face in soot and lard. I have a feeling that this delightful children’s story was a lot more Hans Christian Andersen-esque before it was Disneyfied.
Schmutzli in the US?
Anyway, I think we need to resurrect this valliant tradition of scaring the pants off kids and introduce it to every home where good intentioned parents spoil their greedy little offspring. The only remnant of Schmutzli in our culture is a harmless little lump of coal in the stocking and that is simply not good enough to deter bad behavior.
Who knows? Maybe if Schmutzli came and roughed up the naughty kids a little on 6 December, they’d be behaving by 25 December. And if that is successful, maybe the parents of the world can arrange for Schmutzli to show up in July or at other points of the year to regulate behaviour.
Yes, you won’t find a cuckoo clock among my treasures from Switzerland, but you might find a holiday tradition with a little law and order.
Published 2011; updated 2016. / Thumbnail credit: Aurélien Selle via Wikimedia Commons.