Christmas Traditions in Switzerland
When a country’s citizens exert their influence from all sides, it’s not uncommon for the people to ultimately take sides. But when that country is Switzerland, it’s an entirely different matter. With Germany poised to the north, Italy to the south, Austria to the east and France to the west, Switzerland has steadfastly maintained its loyalty to tradition to all sides, honoring Christmas customs from each region.
It’s one reason why Switzerland has been touted as “the melting pot that has never boiled.”
Nestled high amid the Alps and Jura Mountains, this county of 7.4 million people is likewise almost equally divided between Roman Catholic and Protestants, who remain true to their native languages: Swiss German, Italian, French and Romansh, an ancient language similar to Latin. For them, “Christmas” becomes a true melting pot of friendly greetings: “Weihnachten,” “Natale” and “Noel.”
While the people of each region revel in their individuality – especially with regard to cuisine – they also have made some Christmas customs that are uniquely Swiss. St. Nicholas, or Samichlaus, as he is called, is a good example. His fatherly presence, originally predominant in German-speaking areas of the country, has spread, thanks largely to the stunning visual display of parades that mark St. Nicholas Day on December 6.
Hundreds of men and boys, dressed in white robes, don elaborate headpieces called miters, or iffele. Intricately cut out of cardboard and then delicately covered with transparent colored paper, these pieces of art take on the distinct look of stained glass when a candle is lit inside. Featuring a figure of St. Nicholas on the front and the insignia “IHS” for Jesus Christ on the back, a constellation of hundreds of iffele form a brilliant scene as the males carefully balance the 3-to 6-foot-tall headpieces while parading through village streets to honor St. Nicholas.
Villages throughout Switzerland have developed their own way to celebrate St. Nicholas. The most well-known parade takes place in Küssnacht am Rigi and is rooted in the pre-Christian belief that noise could banish darkness and evil. Today, the parades often begin with a canon shot, followed by men who crack sheep whips. The lighted iffelen follow, accompanied by St. Nicholas. He is followed by trumpeters and 700 men who ring huge cow bells in unison. The parade ends with the sound of cow horns and a brass band.
Noise has a way of attracting children, so if ever there was a celebration that children would enjoy, this is it. Later in the day, children get in on the act by wearing their own, shorter iffelen as they parade through town with St. Nicholas. He often rewards them by reaching into his burlap bag of goodies for candy or nuts. Later at home, it is customary for families to enjoy a hearty meal of sausage and sauerkraut.
The French and Italian regions of Switzerland are especially likely to honor St. Lucia on her namesake day on December 13. Parades are held in many villages, with girls wearing white gowns and glowing, evergreen headpieces to honor the girl who smuggled food to the Christians in Rome during the fourth century.
The “festival of light” often coincides with the presence of Star Singers, or Sternsingers, who dress as the three kings and parade through cities and towns singing Christmas songs as well as Christkindlmarkts, which sell a wide array of baked goods, ornaments and home-made gifts.
Families throughout Switzerland will put up and decorate their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve before attending midnight Mass. Afterwards, they may enjoy hot chocolate and ringli, or homemade donuts. Before the night gets away, they may ring bells to announce the imminent arrival of Christ Kindli (also known as Christkind or Le Petit Jesus), an angel who is the bearer of gifts.
Adults may open their gifts on Christmas Day before enjoying a Christmas feast that is almost certainly determined by locale. Potato and cabbage dishes are more common in French and German areas, though the French also have a great fondness for papet a la vaud, a dish made with three kinds of sausage, potatoes and onions and cooked in wine. Pizza, pasta, risotto and polenta are regional favorites in Italian regions, while hard sausages, potato dumplings and barley soup are a few Romansh favorites.
But menus can also transcend nationality and become unmistakably Swiss. This is especially apparent in the rich cheeses and sauces that hail from the region of Switzerland that borders France. Swiss cheese may be recognized worldwide, but Switzerland is especially proud of its Gruyere (pronounced groo-YAIR). Melted with Emmentaler, it forms the fondue that graces many Swiss Christmas tables. It’s a rare Swiss family that doesn’t own a fondue pot, allowing a large group to gather in a circle and dip chunks of bread and meat into the warm cheese to savor a hearty appetizer.
Another prime dipper might be the popular Swiss mushroom, for they grow heartily in this heavily wooded country – and not just in the mountains that cover 70 percent of the terrain but the other 30 percent, which is called the Mittelland, or the Swiss Plateau. Many families enjoy mushroom-picking excursions so that they can make mushroom quiche as well as zürigschnätzlets, a mushroom dish made with thin strips of veal and a cream sauce and often served with rosti, or fried potatoes.
After dinner, it’s usually time to clean the fondue pot but not put it away – not until families enjoy the rich Christmas tradition of chocolate fondue – a natural for a country whose people consume more chocolate every year than those anywhere else in the world. Credit a Swiss inventor by the name of Rudolphe Lindt, who found a way to remove the “gritty” texture of previous concoctions into a smooth blend in 1879. This was a very lucky year for chocolate lovers because Daniel Peter created the first milk chocolate bar by combining chocolate with powdered milk, which had been invented by a Swiss man named Henri Nestle.
Thanks to the ingenuity of these chocolate-loving inventors, the people of Switzerland often dip mailanderli, or crisp golden cookies, into their chocolate fondue for a fitting culmination to their Christmas celebration.
Hospitable by nature, the Swiss have been known to share this dessert with the young carolers who often serenade them on Christmas night. The carolers could be singing in German, Italian or French, but to the Swiss, it makes no difference; people of all ethnicities are welcomed indoors to share the last, festive moments of the season they love and the commonalities they share. Like the chocolate fondue they have elevated to an art form, the Swiss demonstrate why this melting pot country has never boiled.