How to Celebrate Christmas in Switzerland

From Santa Clauses and Advent Windows to Christmas Markets and Glühwein

Switzerland has many traditions of its own during Christmas season. A visit to Switzerland when all the cities are full of Christmas lights and when the Advent windows open, is always an excellent experience.

This blog post presents you the most famous Swiss Christmas traditions. Of course, there are many traditions you may know from all around the world, but you will see there are several suprising elements of celebrating Christmas in Switzerland. You will also learn a bit Swiss-German while reading this post;-).

The Advent and Christmas Season in Switzerland

Advent Calendar and Advent Windows

Advent Calendar
Example of an Advent calendar

Christmas season in Switzerland starts normally at the 1st December. At that day, all children are happy to open the 1st door of their Advent calendar. A traditional Advent calendar has 24 doors. The Advent calendars are like a picture where you can open a door every day from 1st to 24th December. Behind the 24 doors there are traditionally hidden small pictures. However, nowadays there are many different forms of Advent calendars. Normally, the calendars that you can buy in the stores have these 24 small pictures or are filled with little chocolates. But if you want to do it properly Swiss, you have to create a calendar yourself. There are many creative ways in creating such a calendar and here are some suggestions:

  • First: write 24 coupons for little things such as an invitation to a dinner. Second: label them with numbers 1-24 and roll them up. Third: tie them on a string and your personal Advent calendar is ready.
  • Buy some sweets or little chocolates and wrap them up in little presents. Label the presents with numbers 1-24 and tie them on a laundry line.
  • Buy 24 matchboxes, decorate them or wrap them up in little presents. Fill the matchboxes with little goodies such as chocolates, sweets or coupons. Label the matchboxes with numbers 1-24.

In addition to creating Advent calendars, there is also a tradition of Advent windows in Switzerland. Advent windows are quite similiar to Advent calendars. How it works: In villages or neighbourhoods, 24 people decorate one or more windows in a holiday theme. Of course, all the windows also have numbers from 1-24. Until the day or number assigned to the window, the window remains closed and the decoration is hidden. People from the village are invited to gather in front of the involved houses and watch how the shutters are opened and the picture is revealed.

This year, you can watch Advent windows, for example in Seebach (Zurich) or at the St.Leodgar Church in Lucerne.


Samichlaus (Santa Claus) and Schmutzli

Traditionally, the visit of the Samichlaus (Santa Claus) and his companion (Schmutzli) takes place on 6th December. Yes I know, this year you missed this tradition, however you can remember it if you visit Switzerland again during the Christmas season;-).

At the 6th December, the Samichlaus and his companion Schmutzli visit the children at their homes. The Samichlaus takes a big bag filled with delicious snacks such as cookies, mandarines or nuts. Schmutzli, the counterpart of the Samichlaus normally appears in a black dress with a blackened face. Once the Samichlaus is inside the house he asks Schmutzli to put down the big bag filled with the snacks.

Samichlaus
Samichlaus (Santa Claus) and Schmutzli

The Samichaus then calls every child forward one by one and gives them a report how they behaved during the last year. The children listen attentively to the Samichlaus. After receiving the report, every child can try to improve their standing with Santa by reciting a Christmas or Santa-related poem (Samichlaus Sprüchli). A good behavior and a good poem promise the child a big handful of the snacks from Santa’s big bag. A bad report and no poem endanger the kids of receiving blows from Schmutzli or being stuck into Santa’s bag and carried off with him. If a child has no good report and no poem, promises to behave better next year can save the child from this fate.

Example of a Samichlaus Sprüchli (Poems for Santa)

Samichlaus du guete Maa (Santa Claus you’re a good man)
Gäll ich mues kei Ruete haa?
(I don’t deserve the rod, right?)
Gib sie lieber em Papi 
(Instead use it on Daddy)
de isch de grösser Lappi. 
(he is the bigger dupe.)


Christmas Markets and Glühwein

Famous Christmas Markets in Switzerland

Christmas market stall
Christmas market stalls

The Christmas markets in Switzerland emit a magical Christmas flair every year. There are several smaller and bigger markets spread throughout Switzerland, almost every town and village has one. The market stalls are always beautifully decorated with many lights. Usually, you can buy mulled wine and delicious food at the markets. One of the best Christmas markets are the following markets. They impress through their varied offer and their charming atmosphere.

 

  • Christmas market Basel: 23 November – 23 December, Barfüsserplatz & Münsterplatz, over 190 traders and artisans, culinary delights and various events, more information
  • Christmas in Montreux: 23 November – 24 December, at the lakeshore, over 150 decorated and illuminated chalets, regional culinary specialties, gift ideas and musical entertainment, more information
  • Christmas markets in Berne: 2 December – 24 December, Waisenhausplatz & Münsterplatz, everyday goods, stands with snacks and meals, more information
  • Christchindli Christmas market Bremgarten: Always on the 2nd Advent weekend, old town, over 320 stands, colorful events and a diverse cultural program, more information

You can find a complete list with all Christmas markets here.

Glühwein

Glühwein (hot spiced wine)
Glühwein (hot spiced wine)

While strolling through the Christmas markets, I would suggest to take a glass of hot Glühwein to keep the chill away. A small sip will warm you up and make you forget the cold. Glühwein is the traditional drink during this time of the year. It usually consists of red wine, oranges, cinnamon, cloves and star anise.

Want to make Glühwein by yourself? Take a look at this recipe and try it!

 


Other Christmas Traditions: Cookie Baking, Candle Dipping and Christmas Lights on the Houses

Of course, there are even more Swiss Christmas traditions than the ones I have described in more details. Almost every Swiss family bakes cookies during the Christmas season. Some traditional Swiss cookies include Brunsli, Zimtstern or Chräbbeli. If you have enough time and like to bake, you should try baking your own Christmas cookies! You can find the recipes of Brunsli, Zimtstern and Chräbbeli here.

Another tradition often carried out and loved by children is candle dipping. Every year, tenants and small houses are set up for candle dipping. It is a tradition of dipping a wick into tubs of hot, molton wax. For candle dipping, all you need is a bit of patience, as the wax needs to cool before you dip it again. You will have at least 2 hours to make your own candle. You can do this activity for example in Zurich on Bürkliplatz or in Luzern on Sempacherplatz (Vögeligärtli).

Christmas lights in Lyss (canton Berne)
Christmas lights in Lyss (canton Berne)

The last tradition, that I would like to describe briefly, is the illumination of the houses in a Christmas stile. One village that is very famous for its Christmas lights is Lyss in the canton Berne. The village is know for its competition for the most beautiful Christmas lights. Hundreds of people go to the Stegmattweg in Lyss every evening to enjoy the Christmas lights. If you are nearby, you should also take a look at the Christmas lights in Lyss – it is very spectacular and of course a little bit kitschy;-).


Christmas Eve and Christmas

It’s Family Time!

For Swiss people, the Christmas Eve (Heiligabend) is the most important day of Christmas. Most of the Swiss people are spending the evening at home with the extended family. Christmas means family time in Switzerland. The Christmas tree is decorated, presents are placed underneath the tree and shared.

Decorated Christmas tree
Decorated Christmas tree

In some families, Christmas carols are sung and the children play instruments. In most regions of Switzerland, the Christkindli (Christ child) is responsible for delivering presents to the children.  Usually, a bell is secretly rung by a family member and that is the sign that the children have to go away so the Christkindli can deliver the presents. When the children are called back to the room, the presents sitting under the tree, but sadly by that time the Christkindli had already flown off out the window. After exchanging the presents, it’s time for the Christmas meal.

Is There a Traditional Swiss Christmas Meal?

In Switzerland, we don’t have a “traditional” Christmas meal as it is in other countries. The Christmas meal varies from region to region. Almost each region has its own variety of Christmas dishes. In some parts, fondue chinoise is a popular Christmas meal. It consists of thin slices of meat that are dipped into a pot of steaming broth. As a side dish there are mostly vegetables and pickled specialties.

In the French-Speaking part of Switzerland, a roast is often served and the Italian-speaking people of Switzerland often eat tortellini, ravioli or Kapphahn, a castrated and fattened cock at the age of about twelve weeks.

Want to make a Swiss Christmas meal yourself? Here are some of the most popular meals with links to the recipes.

 


Swiss-German Christmas Dictionary

  • Advent = Advent
  • Adventsfenster = Advent window
  • Adventskranz = Advent wreath (a circular wreath with four large candles)
  • Brunsli = Chocolate cookie
  • Chräbbeli = Hard aniseed cookies
  • Christ Chindli = Christ child
  • Fondue chinoise = thinly sliced meat cooked in bouillon
  • Glühwein = Hot spiced wine
  • Gschänkli = Gifts
  • Guetzli = Cookies
  • Heiligobig = Christmas Eve
  • Pastetli mit Fleischkügeli = Meat pie with tiny meat balls
  • Samichlaus = Santa Claus
  • Schinkli = Smoked ham eaten warm
  • Schmutzli = Santa’s helper
  • Wiehnachte = Christmas
  • Wiehnachtsbaum / Tannebaum = Christmas tree
  • Wiehnachtslieder = Christmas carols
  • Wiehnachtsmärt = Christmas market
  • Zimtstern = cinnamon cookie

 

 

 

 

 


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