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!