A Guide to a German/Swiss Christmas

How to make the most of a very un-Christmassy year

2020 has been a very, very long year for all of us. While some people are still stuck in home office and students are trying to stay awake during a full day of Zoom lectures, essential workers have to travel to their workplaces to keep our system and the economy running. From going into lockdown and easing restrictions to playing an endless political ping-pong match, 2020 really felt like the final season of an overly dramatic sitcom. While we lived through an actual pandemic, which will very likely be documented in our history books, we also got rid of an actual political progress blocker (we all know who I am talking about). We
witnessed abrupt political change and the election of the very first female and PoC vice president – there is hope. As we are now only one tiny step away from Christmas, it is time to focus and reflect on the positive aspects of 2020, which hopefully include having learned a new language. To expand your German vocabulary even further, the following guide presents some very German/Swiss Christmas traditions, which will hopefully get you in the mood of learning even more about the language and the culture in (a hopefully better) 2021.

Der Adventskalender (pl. die Adventskalender – Advent calendar)

One of the most important parts of a German/Swiss Christmas and especially the time leading up to Christmas is “der Adventskalender” (Advent calendar). This product of genius German engineering usually consists of 24 pieces or “Türchen” (das/die Türchen – small door), which represent the 24 days before Christmas. On every day in December, you get to open one small door and either shake a piece of chocolate or a small present (das Geschenk/die Geschenke) vigorously out of it (usually, this process requires very nifty fingers). However, this practice is not only restricted to children. I am very proud to announce that I am almost 25 years old and have never gone a year without an Adventskalender, as my German mum is on the mission of getting one for me every year. When I lived in London, she even shipped it to England.

Der Adventskranz (pl. die Adventskränze – Advent wreath)

After having ruined your fingers with your Adventskalendar, it is now time for even more decoration and symbols which lead the way to Christmas (das Weihnachten). Usually purchased at a Christmas market, the “Adventskranz” (pl. die Adventskränze – Advent wreath) is a very crucial part of a German/Swiss Christmas celebration. Positioned in center of the dining table, a candle (die Kerze/die Kerzen) is lit every Sunday before Christmas, announcing the first, second, third, and fourth advent. In the modern age, it is not Christmas until you see 45 posts of lit Adventskränze on Facebook or Instagram and this is completely fine. This has also been a tradition throughout my entire lifetime, with my mum sometimes panicking if she has not bought the Adventskalendar before the first advent. This year, this was due to the fact that “Weihnachtsmärkte” (der Weihnachtsmarkt/die Weihnachtsmärkte – Christmas market) have not been as prominent. Thanks, Covid-19 – brilliant job!

Der Weihnachtsmarkt (pl. die Weihnachtsmärkte – Christmas markets)

We now arrive at our final destination of a German/Swiss Christmas – der Weihnachtsmarkt (pl. die Weihnachtsmärkte). If you have not been to one, you really need to do it as soon as the pandemic decides to calm down. At a Weihnachtsmarkt, the whole village or city gets together to get into the Christmas mood. Usually, a lot of goods such as Raclette and Adventskränze are sold. However, Weihnachtsmärkte are probably the most famous for one thing, namely Glühwein (der Glühwein/die Glühweine – mulled wine). Believe me, if you have not blacked out from too much Glühwein, you are not yet fully integrated into German/Swiss culture. It also works really well as an afterwork activity to get to know who your coworkers exactly are.

On this note, I hope you have a lovely festive season and an amazing New Year! Let’s all pray for a better 2021 and even better language learning!
Frohe Weihnachten und ein Frohes neues Jahr!

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!