Naughty or nice? Switzerland has its’ own version of Saint Nicholas named Samichlaus. But he comes with a spooky sidekick: Schmutzli.
When I left Switzerland, I hoped to bring home more than just 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. For instance, I’m used to all the stores being closed on Sunday; I now plan my meals in advance and spend my Sunday resting the way the Swiss do.
The Swiss Santa
I came across another Swiss tradition that I will be sure to take home. The Swiss Santa Claus, Samichlaus, shows up almost three weeks earlier on 6 December. He 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. Is it really a goodie’ 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 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 candies if they’ve been very good.
6 December is also a lot of fun because, if your parents have an older male friend with a 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. He also lets them know that it annoys their parents when they have tantrums in the supermarket. The most interesting aspect of this holiday, however, is that Samichlaus doesn’t come alone.
Who’s with Santa?
Samichlaus is always accompanied by his creepy sidekick, Schmutzli. Schmutzli wears a long black robe that looks mildly intimidating. These days, he helps Samichlaus distribute treats. He once played a much more important role, however.
According to Wikipedia, Samichlaus rewarded the good kids and Schmutzli was the enforcer with punishments for the bad. He used to carry a whip; when the large sack of goodies was empty, Schmutzli used 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. 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 valiant 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 roughed up the naughty kids a little on 6 December, they’d behave 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 behavior.
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.