Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Schöni Wienachte und ä Guäts Neus Jaar: Swiss Holiday Season

Schweizer Weihnachten 
The winter holiday season in Switzerland is in my memory as one of the most picturesque holiday seasons I have ever experienced.  
Christmas store in Basel, Switzlerland
It’s as if every childhood fantasy of Christmas lights, chocolate candy, ornaments and snow all came together in the most perfect dazzling, snowy, chocolaty way. You’ll find a huge, decorated Christmas tree in the middle of almost every (often medieval) town center, shop windows filled with everything sparkling and glittering, and best of all, the Christmas market. 

Christmas Market in Montreux, Switzerland
There you can not only find unique gifts, but also delicious hot food, special holiday sweets, and other yummy things like jam and honey. The holiday season in Switzerland feels, in a word, magical. 

Candle holders for sale at a  Christmas Market
This video gives you an idea of some of the things that you can find at the Christmas Market in Basel Switzerland:

Now I would like to put a disclaimer here that this is a clear case in which I may unabashedly romanticize travel. Of course it’s not all roses, especially as the holidays are the time when a person studying abroad is most prone to homesickness, and winter can be a long hard season filled with days of cold weather and little sunlight. But now that you are warned that this post may contain shameless romanticizing, I will proceed to my second disclaimer. This post focuses more or less on the holidays as they come from a Christian tradition. This is not to promote any particular religion-it’s just what I happened to experience in that country and also happens to be the majority holiday celebration there at this time. However, as with Christmas in many places around the world, there are plenty who celebrate but claim no affiliation to Christianity.With that out of the way, back to the snow covered, light festooned Christmas trees! 

Christmas market in Biel, Switzerland

If you find yourself in Switzerland around the holidays, you'll notice that there are glittering Advent calendars for sale in many of the stores. The four weeks leading up to Christmas are known as "die Adventszeit" (advent time), and the Swiss enjoy counting down the days.

Massive Advent Calendar on a building in Lucerne
 In the past, according to, die Adventszeit was used by parents as an opportunity to teach children the virtue of patience. Each calendar has twenty four windows and only one can be opened each day. Many of them have little spaces behind the windows that are filled with chocolate or trinkets.

Kids Advent calender with Kinder chocolate behind every window
December 6th
While St. Nicholas Day on the 6th of December is known in the United States, in my experience it is not widely celebrated. Imagine my happiness, then, during my year in Switzerland when on December 6th St. Nicholas came knocking on the door complete with a red suit and big belly. American children go to find Santa (at the mall), not the other way around! It was actually my neighbor masquerading as Nicholas for the sake of my eight year old host brother, but he brought a big bag full of chocolates, oranges, peanuts and Lebkuchen (gingerbread), which were delicious to say the least.

Tasty Lebkuchen with the words "Greetings from Bern"

 In German speaking areas of Switzerland, the holidays are not complete without a visit from St. Niklaus, or Samichlaus as he can also be known. This visit does not necessarily have to occur on the 6th, but can happen anytime between the 6th and the 25th. Samichlaus is usually accompanied by Schmutzli, sometimes described as his evil twin or alter ego, and a donkey.

Nicklaus and Schmutzli with reindeer instead of a donkey

 For Swiss children from a Catholic background, the Christkind is the gift bringer, instead of St. Nicholas. The Christkind is an ambiguous angelic figure who may or may not be a representation of the baby Jesus, but whom is often portrayed as a woman with curly golden hair. 

Christkind at the Christmas Market
Because Switzerland has such an interesting mix of cultures and religions**, traditions can vary greatly between locations and even between families. My host family experience was interesting in this respect. They live in a bilingual (French and German) city called Biel/Bienne and my host mother comes from a Catholic background. If I remember right, the way that particular cultural mix worked out was that Nicholas visited on the 6th of December with small treat items, but the Christkind brought gifts on the evening of the 24th of December. 

Christmas Dinner
On Christmas Eve, the Swiss family sits down to a family meal. There are a variety of dishes that may be eaten at this time including Fondue or a melted cheese dish with potatoes. 

Complete Swiss Fondue
On the Christmas Eve that I spent in Switzerland, we enjoyed Fondue Chinoise. This literally means "Chinese Fondue" although I cannot say for sure whether there is any basis for this name in Chinese cuisine. This is a delicious meal that consists of cooking meat and other items such as veggies in a shared pot of very hot broth. 

Fondue Chinoise

Whatever the meal happens to be on Christmas Eve, you can be sure that the table will be decked out. The Swiss take great care in decorating the dinner table for special occasions and often the whole family helps with that task. 

Ooh la la

On Christmas Eve, families will often go to church and sing Christmas songs at home. Many of the songs that they sing would be recognizable to you as well, such as Stille Nacht (Silent Night),  and O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas tree). The next day, the 25th of December, family gifts are exchanged. 

Grittibaenzen, also known as "hanselmanne" and "bonhomme" are, in my opinion, the absolute best part of the Swiss holiday experience. 

Cheerful Grittibaenzen, about to be devoured!

Simply put, these are tasty, tasty breadmen that can be bought in Swiss bakeries or made at home. Sometimes they are said to represent St. Nicholas, but they don't necessarily have to. They are eaten on St. Nicholas Day but are purchased and  made throughout the holiday season. Usually they are formed out of a sweet yeast dough and decorated with raisins and candies. They can also be made to be savory, which is equally delicious.

Grittibaenzen having a dance

Here's a delightful video of how to make Grittibaenzen, complete with a Grittibaenzen theme song sung in Swiss German.

There are many fantastic aspects of the Swiss holiday season that I have not touched on. But here is another video in which you can see a Swiss Fondue, the popular winter pastime of bobsledding (which I found terrifying), an Advent Calendar created on actual windows as well as a depiction of Samichlaus and his sidekick Schmuetzli.

 Well, that's all for now! As they say in Swiss German "Jetz isch faertig lustig." Loosely translated this means "now that's enough fun!"

** The holiday traditions in Switzerland have many things in common with those found in neighboring countries such as Germany and Austria. Switzerland is unique, however, in that it has such a mix of cultures. There are four official languages of Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Additionally, there are relatively distinct areas of the country that speak each one, and cultural practices will vary between these. There is no state religion of Switzerland, but the majority (about 70%-80% depending on the source) of the country is either Christian, or not affiliated (estimated at 10-20%). The largest minority religion is Islam, at about 4.5% of the population. In terms of Christianity, as it pertains to Christmas celebrations, about half of the population is Catholic and the other half Protestant. There are slightly varying traditions between the two, and probably even more variations within the Italian speaking Swiss, Orthodox Christians (about 2% of Swiss Christians) and other groups. 

Everybody wish Hannah a Happy Birthday! 11/27

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