Trying to figure out the subtleties of Christmas traditions in a foreign country can be tricky – while you can see all the food and other things that are on display in the shops, knowing what people actually do at home is not always easy to figure out. Here’s our Swiss Christmas manual!
One. Adventskranz (Advent wreath). An Advent wreath or any other form of four candles are a must. You can buy beautiful Advent wreaths at the farmers markets or in flower shops, or some more basic and cheaper ones in the supermarkets. Or you can make your own, you can get all the required crafty materials from the Coop Bau und Hobby, Migros Do it Yourself or Jumbo and the twigs and other natural elements from your garden or the forest. With my two left hands I’m not very good at Advent wreath making but we always crafted one with my mum when we were children. One day in November she used to get out all the crafty materials and things from the garden and we spent an afternoon putting together our own little Advent candle piece. Such a lovely way to start the festive season. Whatever you decide on for your Advent object, it needs to be ready for the first Advent Sunday when you can light the first candle. After that, every Sunday you light one more candle and count down to Christmas (the start of Advent varies from year to year, you can Google for the right date each year).
Two. Advent calendar. Whether you have children or not, Advent calendars make big and small people happy. Find 24 little things or vouchers for activities and pack them into little bags or boxes and fill the Advent days to Christmas with little excitements.
Three. The Samichlaus. Unlike in many other countries, Samichlaus (Santa Claus) comes to visit Switzerland not on Christmas day but on the 6th of December, which marks the day of death of the real Saint Nicholas (he lived from 15 March 270 – 6 December 343). When the Swiss children wake up in the morning of December 6th, they’re greeted with a Samichlaussack (Santa sag) containing peanuts, satsumas, chocolates, sweets and Lebkuchen, and often a Gritibänz (Advent bread man) too. On December 6th you’ll see many Samichläuse around town giving out satsumas and other treats, and some families invite a Samichlaus to their own home too. Living in the year 2017, of course you can book your Samichlaus online, check the Swiss Samichlaus online portal Chlaus.ch or Google for your local Samichlaus website. Another note: the Swiss Samichlaus is usually accompanied by his rather sinister assistant called Schmutzli, a person in a long brown frock. When I was a child, Schmutzli was a scary companion of Samichlaus everyone was terrified of as it was said he would pack the naughty children into his big brown bag and take them away, but these days the scary bit is removed from the tradition. Also, instead of a reindeer, the Swiss Santa and Schmutzli are accompanied by a donkey.
Four. The Gritibänz. The Gritibänz (Advent bread man) is another Swiss must for the weeks before Christmas. You can buy a plethora of Gritibänzen of all sizes and shapes in the bakeries and supermarkets or you can make your own which is a lot of fun and a firm tradition in my family. Read our recipe here.
Five. Lebkuchen. When I was a child, my pre-Christmas birthday parties consisted of Lebkuchen baking and decorating in our kitchen – and my mum spending the following day scrubbing all the icing from the walls and furniture. Needless to say, my birthday party was always enormously popular and my friends still talk about it today, thirty years on. You can make your own Lebkuchen dough or easier, buy the pre-made dough from Migros or Coop, you can find it along the other cookie doughs in the chilled section from the end of November to Christmas. Recipe for both homemade and shop-bought coming soon.
Six. Guezle. Guezle, which describes the activity of making Wiehnachtsguezli (Christmas cookies), usually starts in Advent or sometime in late November. Guezle is a big thing in Switzerland, in Advent you’ll hear people discussing how many different kinds of cookies they’ve made already and all sorts of cookies talk. Here’s our guide to Swiss Christmas cookies and here’s our review of the most popular Swiss (Christmas) cookies cookbook.
Seven. The Christmas dinner. The Swiss eat their big Christmas meal in the evening, not for lunch. Most families eat a Christmas evening feast both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, usually in two different houses (for example own family one day and grandparents the other day, or own parents one day and in-laws next day). The most popular choices for Christmas dinner are Filet im Teig (pastry wrapped pork fillet with sausage meat), Fondue Chinoise (meat fondue) or Schinkli im Teig (pastry wrapped hot ham) with potato salad.
Eight. The Christmas tree. The Swiss usually buy a real tree, either a Weisstanne, Rottanne or Nordmanntanne. The benefits of the Weiss- and Rottannen are that they’re cheaper than the Nordmanntannen and they are native trees, so they provide living space for animals while being grown. On the other hand, the exotic Nordmanntannen keep their needles longer and the trees look fuller than the previously mentioned. But – they’re more expensive and are native to the Caucasus and hence won’t be occupied as living quarters from Swiss animals as much. By the way, according to studies, a plastic Christmas tree needs to be used for 17 years to beat the life cycle assessment of real trees (here). Typical for Swiss Christmas trees is also that we use real candles, even inside of the house, which can feel a bit strange for people who haven’t grown up here. Of course the odd house fire does happen, but they’re rare and we know the rules about how to prevent Christmas tree fires (always place the candles away from overhead branches / be on alert while the candles are burning with all your senses / always have a bucket of water and/or fire blanket next to the tree in case it does start to burn / never light real candles on an old and dry Christmas tree).
Nine. The Christmas days. Of course every family has their own traditions, but this schedule for the Christmas days is a very common one. The daytime of Christmas Eve is being spent with putting up and decorating the Christmas tree, preparing the Christmas Eve meal and getting out the presents. In some families with small children, an angel brings the presents and they magically appear under the Christmas tree sometime in the late afternoon. Other families just place them under the tree in the afternoon. At around 6pm the Christmas meal is being served and after that, the family gathers around the Christmas tree in the living room, lights the candles, listens to Christmas carols, eats Christmas cookies and opens the presents. Attending midnight mass (which begins around 11pm) at church is still a popular activity, even though the Swiss aren’t very religious anymore these days. Personally I love the Catholic midnight mass with its magical atmosphere with candlelight and Christmas carols. Christmas Day is usually spent with a lazy morning, and then preparing the next Christmas meal or visiting relatives, going for a walk and eating dinner together, and then Christmas tree and carols and presents – you get it.