If you visit Switzerland during the Christmas season, you are likely to encounter a special cast of characters that very well may surprise you. With a history like Switzerland’s – where Catholic and Protestant beliefs have merged with German, French and Italian customs – today’s Swiss Christmas traditions are a rather unique mix. During your wintry visit to this European nation, keep your eyes peeled for these Swiss Christmas characters.
A Swiss Christmas Scavenger Hunt
Can you find all of these Christmas characters over the holiday season?
In Switzerland, a jolly man in red does appear during the Christmas season, but he’s not from the North Pole. Saint Nicholas, the beloved saint from the Catholic cannon, is the Man of the Month, and he’s affectionately known as Samichlaus in Swiss German. December 6 is The Feast of St. Nicholas, and all Samichlaus activities revolve around this date.
Samichlaus is now a blend of the beloved Catholic saint and the commercialized Santa Claus, as explained in this article by Newly Swissed. For example, in Zurich, children can hop on the Märlitram for a special ride around town with Sami and his angels.
A black-bearded man dressed in a brown robe is almost always at Samichlaus’ side. The Swiss call him Schmutzli. (In Germany, St. Nicholas also has a right hand named Knecht Ruprecht.) Although Schmutzli’s origin story is as murky as his drab garb, he serves as the counterpart to the goodness of St. Nicholas.
Today, Schmutzli is by and large thought of as a woodsman who helps Samichlaus with his duties – such as helping kids recognize their mistakes and deliver goodies for promises of being better in the future. Yet, not too long ago did parents warn their kiddos that Schmutzli would snatch misbehaving children in his sack and leave them in the forest. I think some still threaten Schmutzli’s wrath in the form of switches and coal…
3. ORANGE PEELS… HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE
Samichlaus and Schmutzli leave some edible gifts – like cookies, nuts, and Mandarin oranges – in children’s shoes placed at the doorstep on the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas. The odd couple also doll out these tasty treats (with tidbits of wisdom) when they make appearances in parades, Christmas markets, and other holiday events. Inevitably, orange peels end up all over the place… just another sign of the Christmas season in Switzerland.
When Martin Luther led the Reformation in the 16th Century, he introduced a “new” Christmas character to deflect attention from the Catholic figures like St. Nicholas: Christkind. The Christ Child (or Le Petite Jésus in French and Gesu Bambino in Italian) is depicted more like a little cupid or angel than an actual baby. Luther intended for the Infant Jesus to be the center of the holiday season, and he moved the gift-giving festivities back to Christmas Eve & Christmas Day to correspond with the celebration of Jesus’ birth. I suppose he needed to add some fantastical elements to keep the magic of the season alive. Eventually, Catholic regions in Germany and Switzerland accepted the Christkind into their Christmas cast.
5. THE THREE KINGS… CAKE
On January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, the Three Kings from the story of Jesus’ birth deliver gifts to children in some countries like Spain. Switzerland, however, seems to be all about the cake. Called Dreikönigskuchen in German and Gâteau/Galette des Rois in French, King Cake has become a staple figure in the Swiss holiday tradition… but only since the mid-20th century. If you find the figurine inside one of these bready cakes, you’ll be king or queen for the day.
An army of “Bread Men” form ranks in bakeries across the German-speaking countries of Europe this time of year. Called grittibänz in Swiss German, the Christmas Bread Men are a sweet snack available only during the holiday season. These merry doughboys come in various shapes and sizes, and they are a popular Christmas treat. Just don’t get between them and the butter or else…
7. ADVENT CALENDARS
I don’t know why, but I’ve noticed that the Swiss are crazy about Advent Calendars. Starting in November, they appear in supermarkets and specialty shops. Some are petite and hold little treasures; others are enormous and house a generous supply of chocolate for each day. Once you see the Advent calendars appearing, you know the Christmas season is near.
8. CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Perhaps the most exciting players (at least, for adults!) in the Christmas cast are the incredible markets that pop up in towns and cities throughout the season. With an assortment of hand-crafted goods, hot food and drinks, and holiday commodities, Christmas markets are definite crowd pleasers. Check out my post Christmas in Zurich to learn about the ones in my Swiss city!
The next time you’re in Switzerland during the ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ I hope you have some holiday fun with this Christmas scavenger hunt. Also, I’d love to hear how you’ve experienced the holiday season in Switzerland! So, please drop a line in the Comment Section below. Good luck and frohe Weihnachten!
Happy Holidays, everyone! What did you think about this list? Did any surprise you? Are there any more Swiss Christmas characters that I should mention? Should I have included roasted chestnuts on this list? Or a raclette stand? What do you think about Schmutzli? What body part of a grittibänz would you eat first?