Christmas Traditions from Around the Globe

In Switzerland, Christmas is without a doubt the most important holiday of the year, no matter whether your family also goes to church or if you celebrate it as a non-religious holiday.  It’s the time to come together with all your family members you generally try to avoid or stand outside in the cold sipping Glühwein (mulled wine) at the Christmas market. It’s also a time of high expectations that are rarely met of course – the presents are never as personalized and intricate as you planned them to be (another mug for aunt Vera) – and the conversations around the dinner table turn into heated political discussions fueled by too much wine.

Another integral part of Christmas is of course Christmas movies. In Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia, the most traditional film is without a doubt Drei Nüsse für Aschenbrödel / Tři oříšky pro Popelku, a re-telling of the Cinderella fairy tale. If you are still fairly new to living in Switzerland and you haven’t watched it yet – what are you waiting for? It runs on every TV channel all throughout the holidays and can also be found in the Netflix catalogue. The music that will be stuck in your head afterwards, the intricate costumes with ridiculous hats and the fact that the prince is a 31-year-old man-child who spends the film running away from his teacher are all reasons to lean back, drink some Glühwein und enjoy the film.

Other Swiss holiday traditions that I like telling my students about are of course the Adventskranz (wreath) and elaborate Adventskalender who count down the days (or at least the Sundays) until Christmas. The 24th that is. In Switzerland, der Heiligabend (Holy Evening) is the day when the presents magically appear underneath the Christmas tree. It’s the Christkind who puts them there, a small invisible angel whose name derives from baby Jesus.  But the Swiss have their own version of Santa Claus too. He is slimmer and appears on the 6th of December alongside his slightly scarier friend Schmutzli. They are accompanied not by reindeer, but by a donkey and they hand out some nuts and chocolate in return for a poem.

I like to tell my students about these traditions, not only to prepare them for the holiday period in Switzerland, but I also want them to tell me about some of their own traditions back home.

Here I have a few Christmas traditions from around the world that my student have mentioned to me:

In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, December 13th is Luciadagen when schools and communities organize processions celebrating the return of light into the dark nights. Children walk around singing traditional songs, with candles in their hands and even on their heads. On Christmas Eve itself, Swedes sit down to watch the Donald Duck (or Kalle Anka as he is called there) special Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (“Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas”) that has been broadcast every year since 1959.

Like Switzerland, Poland celebrates St. Nikolaus on the 6h of December. Children hope that they will get a little present from St Nicholas (Święty Mikołaj) who leaves them often in a shoe or near a fireplace. Christmas Eve is usually a day of abstinence and, as in other countries, no meat is consumed on that day. In Poland, the festive meal consists traditionally of 12 dishes, meant to bring luck for the next 12 months to come.

In Great Britain, carol singers are very important during Christmas time and there exist many old and regional carols. In Wales, for example, there is a special type of carol singing called Plygain singing that happens in Welsh chapels around Christmas time. British children enjoy watching the popular cartoon “The Snowman” about a snowman come to life and many adults hope to catch a Christmas episode of one of their favorite TV shows. Australia has many Christmas traditions in common with the UK like Christmas stockings, Christmas crackers and carol evenings, but celebrations take place during Australia’s hot summer. It is not uncommon to listen to Christmas carols describing snow whilst enjoying a barbie (barbecue) on a hot day.

In France, children are visited by Père Noël who is accompanied in some parts by Le Père Fouettard – similar to our Swiss Samichlaus and Schmutzli duo. In Hungary, they also celebrate Christmas Eve – Heiligabend – called Szent-este. Like in Poland, fish, not meat, is traditionally eaten by Hungarians on that evening. In Hungary, Poland, Switzerland and many more countries,  midnight mass is celebrated in churches when Christmas eve turns into Christmas day. In Spain, midnight mass is also called La Misa Del Gallo (The Mass of the Rooster). December 28th is Día de los santos inocentes or ‘Day of the Innocent Saints’ and is very like April Fool’s Day in the UK and USA. People try to trick each other into believing silly stories and jokes. Newspapers and TV stations also run silly stories. As a child, I always felt bad for the Spanish children because they receive most presents only on Epiphany, the 6th of January, which are brought by the three kings.

In Switzerland, on the 6th of January no gifts are distributed but we eat a brioche-style sweet bread that contains a little plastic king and the person who finds the king in their piece becomes the king or queen for the day.

And with that we have reached the end of the Swiss Christmas period and the end of my knowledge of foreign Christmas traditions. Leave a comment below to tell us how you celebrate!

For now, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Frohe Weihnachten und einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!

Speaking in Tongues

“Was ist deine Muttersprache?” is one of the first sentences my German A1 students learn in class. After all, a person’s mother tongue is a central part of their personality. For me as a teacher, it is especially interesting to know, since their initial strengths and weaknesses in learning German heavily depend on their mother tongue. When a feature doesn’t exist in your own language, it is no surprise that it will be challenging to grasp that concept in a foreign one.

But a person’s mother tongue is not everything. While (Swiss) German is my mother tongue, my students are not the only ones learning from our B2, A2, or even A1 level textbooks. Despite my status as a native speaker, I don’t know everything there is to know about the German language and I can always learn something new. And that’s okay. Nobody is perfect and people always make mistakes when speaking, regardless of whether they are communicating in a foreign language or their native tongue. Outside of scripted movies and TV shows, nobody talks without correcting themselves. Mistakes are part of human nature and—so I tell my students—perfection is never the goal. In language learning, the goal is communication, not perfection.

And the concept of a mother tongue might also not be as simple as one initially assumes: What counts as a mother tongue and what doesn’t? My father grew up exclusively speaking English at home. My grandfather had migrated from the US and he never started speaking German (if he was still alive today, he’d be a perfect candidate for a course at VOX 😉 ). Even with his Swiss mother and brother, my father communicated only in English until the age of 20. He started learning German when he was enrolled into Kindergarten, where, on his first day, he mostly cried because he could not understand anything that was being said around him. So, it would seem natural to say that English is my dad’s mother tongue. And yet, he would disagree. Now, in his fifties, he never considers anything other than (Swiss) German his mother tongue and he doesn’t use English in his daily life. To his children, he speaks German. To his wife, his friends, his colleagues, he speaks German.

When I was born, he had long since decided that speaking English to his children would simply feel ‘wrong’, since it didn’t ‘feel’ like his mother tongue anymore. Only 10 years after stopping to speak English on a day-to- day basis, it had been replaced. A person’s mother tongue, then, might not be such a rigid concept after all.

And no teacher at VOX would deny that it is possible to learn a language to a degree where you sound and maybe feel just like a native speaker—even later in life.

Famed Polish author Joseph Conrad only started learning English in his 20s. Despite this, he has become one of the seminal authors of English literature. The same holds true for Vladimir Nabokov. His first writings were in his mother tongue Russian, but he achieved his greatest fame with novels he wrote in English.

More recently, authors like Yann Martel and Khaled Houssini achieved international success with books they had written in English and not their respective mother tongues. And even English authors such as Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett wrote successful plays in French  (yes, En attendant Godot is originally French, remember that for trivia night).

These authors and countless of our students who leave our school speaking German as well as or even better than the average Swiss person are proof that language learning is possible at any age and there is no set ceiling where non-native speakers have to get ‘stuck’. Of course, there is no denying that is it not a simple process; but remember, it took you years to learn your mother tongue as well. It’s never too late to start learning a new language and to start writing an award-winning novel in a foreign language.

And if you do, I wouldn’t say no to being mentioned in your Man Booker Price acceptance speech.