We venture today to the center of Europe, the heart of the Alps in Switzerland.
Chocolate! Cuckoo clocks! Heidi! Yodeling! Swiss things have such a unique, cozy and sweet sense about them. However, Switzerland is more multicultural than you may expect, as it is the intersection of three very strong cultures- French, German and Italian. All three languages are official languages of the country. Because Switzerland is jammed in between world powers that have not always gotten along, it has remained staunchly neutral, almost isolated in a way, which means that it has developed its’ own unique traditions apart from neighboring countries. The holiday traditions have some relation to other European countries, but remain very Swiss.
I spend a few weeks each year in Switzerland, guiding tours and hiking while eating as much cheese as possible. I haven’t spent time there during Christmas, though, so I thought I’d enlist the help of a friend and fellow tour guide who is Swiss at heart, Reid Coen. I’ve known Reid for ages, he is one of the legendary Rick Steves guides, leading tours all over Europe for more than 20 years. He’s now expanding his guiding skills to exotic destinations all over the world with his company, Imprint Tours. If I needed a guide for a tour of Antarctica or the North Pole and needed it tomorrow, he’s the resourceful guy I’d call.
Christmas in Switzerland
Christmas traditions in Switzerland are generally similar to those in other Germanic countries. Like everything in Switzerland, specific traditions vary from valley to valley and region to region. But Christmas markets, carol singing, advent calendars, Christmas lights, processions, and special holiday foods are common throughout.
Seasonal culinary choices vary by region, but Glüwein (hot, spiced red wine) is popular everywhere. So too is Fondue, the Swiss national dish. Popular throughout the cold Alpine winters, many Christmas dinners begin with a pot of melted cheese and cubes of bread.
Ham is a popular main course and scalloped potatoes are common as well. Dessert is often walnut cake and Christmas cookies are as much a tradition as they are in the US. Generally, the Swiss have their celebratory meal early on Christmas Eve. Then the family gathers around the tree, songs are sung, gifts are exchanged, and sometimes passages from the Bible are read. In the Catholic Cantons, midnight mass is very popular. In other parts of the country gifts might be exchanged on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, or even January 6th (Epiphany).
Another shared tradition is putting up a Christmas tree. For many generations, the tree was put up and decorated as part of the Christmas Eve celebrations. Parents and older children do the decorating and small children were not allowed to see the tree until it was finished. But in recent years, the American model of decorating early in December has become popular as well. A Nativity Scene is often placed beneath the tree. Candles are still popular as decorations, lit on Christmas and New Year’s Eves.
One striking difference from American celebrations is the role of Santa Claus. In most of the country, that role is played by the Christkind or Le petit Jésus. Representing an angel or the Christ Child, he is a radiant being with wings, dressed in white, often wearing a crown and holding a magic wand. Children learn that he brings the tree and the gifts on Christmas Eve. That is why small children do not get to see the tree before the actual celebration.
Our Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicolas, an early Christian bishop who was a protector of children. He does not play a role in Swiss Christmas, but arrives on December 6, the Patron Saint’s Day. He is known as “Samichlaus” and visits homes and schools, giving away sweets and gifts to well-behaved children and advice to those who have been naughty. He is accompanied not by reindeer, but by a donkey and a dark-clad or black assistant.
Traditions of parades and singing are still strong in Switzerland. In the Bernese Oberland, they have a parade called the ‘Trychle‘. Processioners carry big Trychler (cow bells) or play drums and usually wear masks. In the Appenzell there is a procession called ‘Urnäsch Silvesterkläuse’. It takes place from December 31 into January. The “Kläuse” wear costumes, masks, and head dresses. They sing and make lots of noise to wish people a good new year. Across Switzerland ‘Star Singing’ is popular among children. Throughout the season, they go caroling while carrying a large star, representing the Wisemen of the Christmas story. The singing of Silent Night, an Austrian song, is almost universal.
-Our Advent assignments for the day: color in Switzerland red with a white cross in the middle. Then, celebrate in some Swiss way. I suggest eating fondue while decorating your tree, which is what I’ll be doing with my kids tonight.
Swiss fondue is dangerous. It is soooooo good. How can you say no to melted cheese? I’ve eaten it in Switzerland many times and have learned how to make it and, more importantly, how to eat it. Every person in Switzerland has their own mix of cheeses, so improvising a little is ok. It’s usually Emmentaler and Gruyere but often has some secret ingredient that you’ll never be told. Serve the pot with cubes of crusty bread (it must be a little tough) potatoes, cubes of ham, pearl onions and those funny little pickles. Yes, that is considered an actual dinner in Switzerland, along with a beer. No wonder the Swiss always look so happy. And no wonder that they seem to always be hiking off that cheese.
Swiss Fondue Recipe
1 clove garlic, halved
1 cup dry white wine
1 tsp lemon juice
8oz emmental cheese, grated
8oz gruyère cheese, grated
1 tsp cornstarch(Optional)
1 tbsp cherry kirsch (or other liquor)
Rub the fondue pot with garlic. Toss the cheeses with the cornstarch. Heat the wine and lemon juice in the pot, then add the cheese. Stir and cook until just melted. Add kirsch a dash of nutmeg if desired. Serve immediately! Dip bread chunks, potatoes, ham or pickles, stirring the fondue and scraping up the browned pits as you go.
If your food falls into the fondue, you must kiss or buy a beer for the person to the right of you. You’ve been warned!