So what’s the difference? Quite a lot, especially if you believe in the magic of Santa Claus. He doesn’t come to Switzerland, you see. But let’s look at the entire festive season, starting with Advent. (We’ll ignore all the Christmas decs etc shops start putting up in October/November.)
The first Christmassy thing in most homes here in Switzerland is the Advent Crown, with one candle for each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Many families with (and without) children make a ritual of lighting the candles every evening during advent, and singing Christmas songs and carols, or having a little story round the crown. And of course we have advent calenders too, with pictures, chocolate, cheese, gin – you name it.
December 4th is St Barbara’s Day, when we cut some twigs from a plant such as forsythia, or an apple tree, and put them in water. By the time Christmas comes, they’ll be in flower. (St Barbara apparently moistened (with tears) a twig that had stuck to her clothes on the way to prison, and was consoled by the flowers that appeared shortly before her execution…)
Traditions like going to Christmas markets, drinking mulled wine, sending cards, putting up Christmas lights etc are popular here too. Then there’s the Samiclaus – but he’ll get a post of his own another time.
Christmas cakes are a little different. We have Stollen, fruit bread with lots of fruit, nuts and spices, often containing marzipan too, and dusted with icing sugar. Some people make their own, but I have to confess – I don’t. And I don’t make my own Christmas biscuits, either. No one has ever suggested I take part in The Great British Bake-off.
Christmas trees – this is often quite different, though some people do it the UK/US way and put the tree up sometime in December. Traditionally, Swiss trees don’t go up until the 24th – which is the big day here. Families gather together late afternoon, then some of the adults take all of the kids out somewhere, and the remaining adults ‘make dinner’. During this time, the Christ Child whizzes in and leaves a Christmas tree in the living room, complete with lots of presents underneath. The children return, asking, ‘Has he been? Has he been?’ – but first comes Christmas dinner, which can be meat or cheese fondue, or Raclette, cheese cooked under a table grill and eaten with boiled potatoes and pickles. Then the present-opening begins, and the evening often ends in the entire family going to church for the midnight service.
So there’s no visiting Santa in the shops in town, no Santa at Christmas parties, and no letter to Santa. You can write to the Christ Child outlining your wish list (and you get an answer, too, or at least you did when my kids were that age. Nowaday you probably get a message on Whatsapp…). The huge, enormous advantage of the Christ Child coming on the 24th is – nobody is up at 04.30 am on Christmas Day to see if Santa’s been, and as the Christ Child is even more elusive and mysterious than Santa, none of the magic is lost.
New Year here is pretty much like New Year in the UK, and then comes the final Swiss tradition of the season, on January 6th – the day the three kings are said to have arrived to see the baby Jesus in his stable. We bake (or buy) a ‘three kings cake’ – sweet bread with raisins inside, in the form of several buns all baked together. In one of the buns, a little plastic king is hidden – whoever finds the king wears the crown and is king for the day!