Imagine a white robed angel whose face is delicately hidden by a veil held in place by a jeweled crown walking into your family Christmas gift exchange. The glow of the candles on the tree enshroud his form with a beautiful orange glow, as he enters and hands out presents from the basket held by his child helpers. A bit different from traditional American Santa stories, this Swiss traditional story of the Christkindli is a well-known tradition in Switzerland. Most Swiss children eagerly await the arrival of the Christ Child in his reindeer drawn sleigh to come bearing gifts for everyone.
For the week preceding Christmas, kids in Switzerland dress up and visit others bearing small gifts. Bell ringing competitions between villages to call people to midnight mass have become common traditions, as have the gatherings after the service for families to share giant homemade donuts (ringli) and hot chocolate.
Because Switzerland’s traditions stem mainly from four different cultures, Switzerland offers a wide variety o f traditions and celebrations at Christmas time. Aside from native Swiss influences, Swiss Christmas times are also influenced by German, Italian, and French customs and traditions. Gifts are given by some on Christmas Eve, and by others on New Year’s Day. Though many celebrate gifts brought by Christkindli, others believe the generous spirits of St. Nicholas or Father Christmas and his wife Lucy to be responsible for the gifts. The manger scene still holds significant symbolism and importance in heralding the arrival of Christ, but the Christmas tree is also an icon. Carols are sung by Sternsingers dressed as the three kings in four languages. It seems that Switzerland has remained neutral even in holiday spirit.
Other holiday celebrations to note in Switzerland include the Chlausjagen Festival or the Feast of St. Nicholas that is celebrated on December 6. A procession of lifeltrager parade down the street wearing huge illuminated lanterns shaped like Bishop’s mitres on their heads.
Regardless of which tradition(s) a Swiss family follows, it would seem that Switzerland has the Christmas spirit. I imagine Christmas in Switzerland must be quite romantic and fairy tale-like. As the German speaking Swiss say, “Fröhliche Weihnachten”, or Merry Christmas. Our family will watch for the Christkindli this year. I hope your family can enjoy learning about another culture’s Christmas traditions as well.