Christmas celebrations in Switzerland do not differ very much from those in other western European nations and the United States. However, the customs in Switzerland's four different linguistic regions (German, French, and Italian) tend to resemble those of their immediate neighbors, Germany and Austria for the German-speaking part, France for the French-speaking cantons (states) and Italy for the canton of Ticino and southern valleys of the Grisons.
There is an interesting difference in comparison with American customs: Santa Claus plays a much smaller part at Christmas. In the German and French-speaking parts of the country, his role is taken over by the "Christkind" or "Le petit Jésus," the Christ child, a beautiful, radiant, angel-like being with wings, dressed in white with a shining crown and a magic wand. According to popular belief, it represents little Jesus. Though sometimes, it is connected with an angel bearing a light or star who heralded the birth of Christ at Bethlehem. The Christ child also has the attributes of a fairy (wand and wings). Little children are told that this person -and not Santa Claus- brings the tree and the gifts on Christmas Eve. That is why small children do not get to see the tree before the actual celebration. Bigger children, however, help the parents decorate the tree. At the foot of the decorated tree, a creche is often placed with wooden or ceramic figures representing the adoration of Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem, with shepherds, angels, sheep, a cow and a donkey and the three Magi.
Usually parents decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. But more and more, especially young families are adopting the American way of having a decorated tree and electric lights all through December. (December is also "Advent" or "waiting" period: four candles on a green spruce wreath are the outward sign of this period, when a new candle is lit every Sunday until Christmas Eve. Advent is usually a hectic time with buying gifts, decorating tree and other ornaments, learning poems and songs, all contributing to the festivities of Christmas. After an early dinner, the whole family, ideally several generations, gathers around the tree. Songs and sometimes hymns are sung. Some read the birth passage from the bible. Gifts are exchanged. Those who are not too tired go to midnight mass which is always particularly festive. The most popular song heard during that time is "Silent Night, Holy Night," written and composed in Austria. The tree is always there on Christmas Eve. But depending on the region, Christmas gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day, January 1 or January 6 (Epiphany, when the three Magi were said to have visited the Christ child).
The name Santa Claus comes from Sankt Nikolaus or Saint Nicolas (an early Christian bishop from Myra in present-day Turkey, the protector of children). This friendly figure does not play a role at Christmas, but appears on December 6, the Patron Saint's Day. In the Swiss German part, he is known as "Samichlaus" and he visits homes and schools, distributing sweets, fruits and nuts to well-behaved children and giving good advice to the less well-behaved. In Switzerland, he is not accompanied by a reindeer, but very often by a donkey and a dark-clad assistant. The children assume that they come from the snowy mountains.
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Mailaenderli (pronounce: my-lend'rrlee)
Xmas Butter Cookies
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
grated rind of 1 lemon
juice of one small lemon or
1 tablespoon Kirsch
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk, beaten
2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
Cream the butter. Gradually beat in the sugar, beating well after each addition. Beat in the grated lemon rind, the lemon juice and the 2 whole eggs. Blend thoroughly. Stir in the flour, beginning with 2 1/2 cups. Knead the dough with the hands until it is smooth and clears the fingers. If it is too sticky, add the remaining flour. Wrap the dough in waxed paper and chill for 4 hours or overnight. Roll out the dough between two sheets of waxed paper to the thickness of 1/4 inch. Cut the dough with small fancy cookie cutters in shapes such as stars, hearts and crescents. Place them on a buttered and floured cookie sheet 1 inch apart. Brush with the beaten egg yolk. Bake in a preheated moderate oven (350) for about 15 min. or until golden.
Tips: Keep in a tightly closed container. Cookies taste best after 2 days.
Zimsterne (pronounce: tzeemt-shtern')
3 egg whites
3 cups confectioners' sugar
3 cups unblanched grated almonds
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon mace sugar
Beat the egg whites until stiff. Beat in the confectioners' sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time. The mixture should be stiff and glossy. Reserve 1 cup of the mixture. Beat the almonds, lemon juice, cinnamon and mace into the remaining egg-white mixture. Let it stand for 30 minutes to 1 hour; it should dry out and be firm. Sprinkle a cutting board with sugar. Carefully roll out the dough to the thickness of 1/2 to 3/4 inch. If the dough sticks, sprinkle more sugar on the cutting board. Cut out the dough with star-shaped cookie cutters. Paint each cookie carefully and neatly with the remaining egg white mixture. Place the cookies on a buttered and floured cookie sheet. Bake in a preheated slow oven (275) for about 15 minutes or until set.
Tip: The icing must remain white.
Spitzbuben (pronounce: shpeetz-booben)
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups butter
2 1/4 cups ground blanched almonds
2 teaspoons vanilla flavoring
3 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
apricot or strawberry jam
Beat the sugar and the butter together until light and fluffy. Beat in the almonds and the vanilla flavoring. Add the flour. Knead until smooth. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured cutting board to the thickness of 1/8 to 1/4 inch; the thinner, the better the cookie. Cut with small round, star or diamond-shaped cookie cutters. Place the cookies on lightly buttered and floured cookie sheets. Bake in a preheated slow oven (325) for about 15 minutes, or until golden. Remove cookies from the baking sheet. Spread half the cookies with apricot jam. Top with the remaining cookies, dip the edges into confectioners' sugar.