Advent – St. Nicholas’ Day

“Sami, Nicki, Näcki; Hinterm Ofe steck i; Gimmer Nuss und Birre; Dänn chumi widr füre…”

That’s one of the most popular little verses that young Swiss-German children learn to recite to Santa Claus – St. Nicholas – when he comes knocking on the 6th December! It’s a tradition that a lot of families still keep up and it leaves a great impression on the kids when the big red-clad Santa and his assistant Schmutzli, in a plain dark brown hooded habit, come to the house and read of their misdemeanors from a big, heavy book… The reward is a bag of nuts and chocolates and mandarine oranges and although our Santas don’t say “HoHoHo”, they still have a deep and friendly chuckle :)

IMG_2172In Switzerland, some parts of Germany and Holland, a lot of boots and shoes will be left out in the hope of being filled with goodies, maybe the origin of the Christmas stocking, which we don’t have at Christmas itself.

We no longer have young children at home, but even our 18 year old seems to have been pleased to get a “Chlaussack” bag of nuts and sweets and my husband’s chocolate Santa disappeared rapidly, so I think it’s a tradition that we’ll be keeping up for a while, yet! IMG_2264Seasonal consumables is fine by me :) IMG_2263

Swiss Christmas

While the Americans are recovering from Thanksgiving and Hannukah (hope it was lovely!) and/or indulging in intense consumerism on Black Friday, here in Switzerland, we are heading into Advent, which begins on December 1st – today – this year. Advent

It’s meant as a time of preparation for the actual Christmas celebrations and whether you’re religious or not, I think that’s a good concept for a quiet run-up. Of course Switzerland is right up there in 2013 with the best of them, pushing the spend, spend, spend message and suggesting that we need all kinds of things that we really don’t…

So I’m glad that my experience of the season here over the last 30 years has not really been anything like we see in adverts, even here. None of the people I know or who I see interviewed in local papers or hear about through my children actually seem to even be trying to achieve what the glossies think we are (or try to get us to think we are!). On the contrary, it all seems pretty low key, fairly quiet and introspective and the worst thing I have come across is intense competition on the Christmas biscuit baking scene, where perfectionist housewives try to outdo each other with the number of different and exquisite creations they’ll be putting on the coffee table. It’s a deadly serious thing! chlaussaeckli_jute_dekor

But they will be putting them out along with traditional peanuts (in their shells), mandarine oranges and simple foil-wrapped chocolates, offering a spicy herbal fruit tea or a particularly high quality cup of coffee with it, and the decorations will probably just be simple greenery and pinecones. And really, a lot of women will just buy the beautifully presented biscuits from the supermarket! Mandarines will be handed out to adults and children alike when December 6th, St. Nicholas’ Day, comes round, and the children will get a bag of the afore-mentioned goodies – if they can recite a little poem to one of the many St. Nicks who will be patrolling the streets, along with their dirty assistant “Schmutzli” and his donkey. And the really naughty children might get a switch of twigs – though these days that will be decorated with chocs, so a win-win situation!

For children, the most excitement is the Advent calendar which, depending on the parents, could just be windows to open, candles to burn each evening with a bedtime story, a chocolate each day or even a small gift each day… some like to do the same thing every year and others do something different every year, but I think it’s the absolute highlight and the tradition is carried on in schools, too, where each child brings in a couple of tiny gifts (a glittery tealight or mini-soap, for instance) for other children so that nobody is forgotten and the countdown is taken very seriously indeed! teelicht

The four Sundays in Advent are popular with everyone for getting together either for a brunch or for coffee and cake – or rather tea and those biscuits! A Sunday afternoon walk is still a mainstay for a lot of families and you’ll often see three generations out for a healthy stroll, come rain or shine. Hardly any home would not have some kind of Advent decoration, wreath or otherwise, with a candle for each of the four Sundays and just by the existence of such a thing, a pause is automatically marked. Sunday shopping was only introduced quite recently and only on specifically advertised Sundays in Advent for a couple of hours (with special permission – and usually only one or two of those Sundays, too!). Unless there is really no time in your working week to shop or browse, it’s not really the “done” thing… though a browse through the Christkindl market followed by a Glühwein or a fancy cup of coffee at a pretty café can’t really be beaten for cheap entertainment :).

Christmas itself is a far quieter affair than what I know of English-speaking countries. For one thing, we celebrate on Christmas Eve. The shops are open until mid-afternoon for last-minute gift-buyers – often the men! But then everything shuts down, the roads empty quickly and families are busy putting up their Christmas tree as it begins to get dark. I’ve noticed the Swiss don’t go so much for the very full trees, but often prefer a sparse, airy tree upon which they’ll hang a few colour-coordinated baubles and clip real little candles, really quite minimalist. Families more orientated towards Germany might hang some “lametta”, silver stranded tinsel, over their tree, but more often than not, a few baubles or specially-designed hanging chocolates is all the tree gets. And it’s topped with a star, not a fairy! Lights as decorations (inside and out) are definitely on the increase but hardly ever blink and coloured lights are considered tacky – there didn’t used to be much in the way of lights, apart from candles, at all… and candles are certainly very popular indeed in all variations, even in wooden houses. Schweizer Christbaum

At the same time as the tree is going up on the 24th, a special meal will be prepared – most Swiss will look consternated if you ask what they typically eat for Christmas! Some have a cheese or meat fondue, others prefer fish or a ham, but often it’s simply a meal that involves a more expensive cut of meat (veal or filet, perhaps) and more courses, attractively presented, than the quite simple everyday meals common here.

If there are children, there will be recorder-playing and singing, though not so much ‘carols’ as simply traditional children’s Christmas folk songs. Then the children will be allowed to open their presents, again usually a pretty reserved occasion of careful unwrapping of a very few, if not always cheap, gifts. Adults often don’t bother with presents at all, bar a bottle of good wine or a foodie treat, and there aren’t a host of stocking-fillers or gimmicks, as a rule. It’s all about family, and usually exclusively so on Christmas Eve, though extended family might get together, and Midnight Mass is quite popular, too, often beginning around 10 pm – if you’re lucky, with some gently falling snow!

As rapidly as Christmas worked up to its peak, and although Christmas Day and Boxing Day are official holidays (known as the 1st and 2nd Days of Christmas), those appear to be days of rest. If you didn’t get together with family on Christmas Eve or want to get together with friends you’ll do so between Christmas Day and New Years’ Day and many homes lose the Christmas tree almost as soon as Christmas is over, rather than waiting for Epiphany on 6th January, the traditional time to take decorations down. That’s when special “Three Kings’ Bread” is bought or made, with a little plastic king hidden in it, to establish who will be King for the day and wear the gold paper crown…

And that is a Swiss Christmas over and done with! Now to get started :) IMG_2193

(It’s New Year’s Eve that is party time – it’s the time for fancy food, glittery clothing, fireworks and champagne. Or an early night! In most places, the 1st and 2nd January are holidays, so time to recover, take a bracing winter walk and make all those New Year’s resolution…)

Bridging the gap… and Advent 1

They say no news is good news and everything has been fine – just really busy and intense!

IMG_0796 So a long post is probably due…!

Following my last post, my friend and I did indeed visit the Birmingham Art Gallery. The fantastic Edwardian Tea Room impressed us before we even got to the Pre-Raphaelites!

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The Art Gallery was purpose-built (though this hall probably wasn’t originally intended to be a Tea Room!) and was definitely intended to impress and show off the collections in Birmingham, of which the Pre-Raphaelites are only one, and which we simply couldn’t take in all at once. It’s obviously a matter of taste, but I did enjoy looking at the varying styles within that category and finding little details that are simply pleasing…IMG_0731IMG_0732 Isn’t this cat gorgeous?!

Although we are close to Birmingham, I have never really known the city very well and even less so since it’s all been renewed, refurbished and in many cases, utterly changed (i.e. the “new” Bullring Centre!), so I was pleased and surprised to see how grubby old canal areas have been made trendy and lively with a huge amount going on from shops and restaurants to galleries and businesses. As there was a family connection, we also visited a small gallery called the Ikon, thinking we ought to be open to some more modern forms of art… I’m afraid that is all that can be said, as we thought the exhibits more than a little strange and an understanding of “art” that clearly supercedes anything we would consider in that category! But it was interesting to see something different, nevertheless, and we were extremely impressed at how beautifully the old school building had been restored and could appreciate the juxtaposition of the 19th century brick and stonework with the modern additions of glass and steel.  IMG_0734 IMG_0736IMG_0737IMG_0740

Not long after this nice little jaunt, it was time for me to head back to Switzerland, where my family had had to manage without me for a month – unheard of! Finding everything in good order and a warm welcome, I set about preparing for my next absence :o  IMG_0811

As I knew I would be away during Advent, a time of year we all enjoy so much, it seemed to me a logical conclusion to spend the rest of November in a state of pre-Advent, including all those restorative elements such as baking, candles, decorations, downtime with tea, reading, knitting… you name it! It’s the little things like mandarines (clementines/tangerines) being available and an abundance of greenery and plants like poinsettia that make the difference, I suppose. In any case, we managed to spend a lovely three weeks of home comforts and seasonal activities to rival any other perfect Advent: wandering the pretty boutiques and Christmas markets of mediaeval towns (Stein-am-Rhein and Colmar), a little bit of non-stressful Christmas shopping, plenty of tea, cappuccino and hot chocolate, the aforementioned fruits and biscuits and then also a big dinner event with a Christmas show and another evening comedy event with a Christmas theme, plus a couple of visits to the cinema (that would be the new Bond – ace! – and Kristin Scott-Thomas’ latest offering in French – “Dans la maison” – which she does so well). I had time to see my friends for birthdays and days or evenings out or just a cup of tea and a chat, and to spend time with each of my daughters and grandchildren. My youngest daughter and I found time for a baking session (cinnamon stars!) and a couple of shopping trips in preparation for Christmas but also to feed her newfound enthusiasm (via her vocational training) for sewing… All in all a very successful and intense period of time that I thoroughly enjoyed!!

IMG_0767 This young lady is now walking… and still can’t keep still for a photo!

IMG_0784 Gallivanting with Helen in Baden – The Brown house with its collection of Impressionist paintings, interesting family history and beautiful interior IMG_0780 I thought the gardens and topiary very pretty, along with the garden furniture :)

IMG_0788 Still in Baden, one for my husband! The cold, dark day merited plenty of woollies…

IMG_0819 PERFECT weather in Colmar (Alsace, France) – I could bore you stupid with beautiful photos of the mediaeval buildings in Colmar, but thought you may not know that Auguste Bartholdi designed the New York Statue of Liberty, a miniature of which is standing on the little plinth next to him in this monument! IMG_0826IMG_0821IMG_0831IMG_0848IMG_0843IMG_0869IMG_0838…with a pike that probably doesn’t quite rival my grandad’s stuffed one…! IMG_0851Wonderful food in Colmar, too – this was an Apple Strudel that was delicious as well as beautiful!

While on the subject of food, I hasten to recommend the restaurant “Au Rendez-Vous de Chasse” of the Grand Hotel Bristol, just across from the main railway station in Colmar… Both buildings are art nouveau and retain all their turn-of-the-century style. The hotel is very nice, not overdone, and our rooms were lovely, plus the brasserie and breakfasts were excellent. The restaurant, however, is a proper posh French restaurant and my birthday menu was out of this world… http://www.grand-hotel-bristol.com/restaurant-gastronomique-colmar takes you to the website with some beautiful images of the delicious food and how it’s presented!

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Making Lemonade

Once again, it’s been a while. How dare life get in the way of blogging?!

Well, it has its ups and downs and while there was plenty of anxiety upon hearing that my mom had to have major surgery, we were very relieved that she got through it successfully and is now making a good recovery. Family matters and is a priority for all of us, so that as my mom has been there for her mom in the UK in the last years, there is no question that I would step in to help out in the meantime – and we’re so pleased that our daughters feel the same way. In fact, without my middle daughter stepping up and taking over my granny’s care until I could get there, things could have got pretty hairy. In any case, it all means I am spending a good deal of the rest of the year in England, sharing the care – and we all actually seem to be enjoying the opportunity to spend time together, four generations in harmony, which really is quite something!

Just before I left, little Mireille had her 1st birthday! We had a little get-together to celebrate and I enjoyed using the theme of her main present – a collection of small classic animals – to decorate the table for our brunch.

I made some animal-shaped iced biscuits for the occasion, used owl serviettes and printed out place-mats (that I laminated) from Martha Stewart’s website (!) that have Steiff stuffed animals all around the edges. Mireille enjoyed looking at them!

 

Animals seem to be more interesting to Mireille than cars and she enjoyed playing with them 

There were other presents, too. A headscarf that is still a bit big (she needs to grow some hair LOL!) and a book… 

Mireille’s book this year is one I think is extremely cute and I’m happy to promote it here: 

 

Having been practising for a year, our little granddaughter is now also walking! But the thing she enjoyed most on this visit was a little wooden footstool made by my husband in his woodworking class as a teenager! It was good to push around, climb onto, ride on and excellent to stand on to reach higher up the bookcase… and for stacking cups :) 

 

A Grand Day Out

Autumn has definitely arrived, even the calendar says so. Now we really are into the last quarter of the year, and the weekend was quick to confirm it, with cold, grey rainy days that had us hunkering down with pumpkin and other soups and seasonal fare.

However, Friday dawned beautifully bright and sunny with a clear blue sky that stayed with us for the whole day and as one of my best friends was visiting, it was a great opportunity for a Grand Day Out!

We started off with a pretty quick drive to Lucerne for lunch, probably one of the last we’ll enjoy outdoors this year (and even now we were glad of the warm red blankets supplied by the restaurant!).  And that is just the coffee and dessert!!

We did find it necessary to have a stroll for the sake of our digestion and for some, a bit of a swim among the ducks and as far as we could get away from the swans…

Wool was bought, too – we’re going to make these: http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEdf12/PATTbff.php       :) :) :)

My husband had an appointment up a mountain, and while we waited for him, we were amused to witness the tail end of the local cattle market! This was very much a village affair  with not a tourist in sight, and is proof of a couple of things you might have heard about Swiss country life: the cows were wearing big bells and were herded off up the road, clanking their way out up the village high street, and we also saw a dog-cart pulled by Bernese Mountain dogs (wagging all the way and with happy laughing faces!) and led by a couple dressed in the local Sunday traditional costume. (I have video proof but can’t seem to embed those here, unfortunately!) There were also a couple of young women and girls in the workday costumes and most of the men and a lot of children were wearing the typical Edelweiss workshirts…




(The one we saw had two dogs pulling the decorative milk-cart filled with flowery churns!)

Another short drive took us to another lake, further east, to the southern end of Lake Zurich at Rapperswil. Others had taken advantage of the gloriously sunny afternoon for a trip on a big old boat    With weather like this, we had to climb up to the top of the little hill the old town is nestled into, up to the castle 

 

From up here, there is a wonderful panoramic view both up the lake to Zurich and down over the town to the mountains behind – Although Rapperswil is a town of roses, it was figs we found growing up the castle walls! After admiring the old town from above we finished the afternoon off in style with this Sour cherry, redcurrant and blueberry tarts… yum!

F O U R !!!!

My little grandson is 4 years old this month – where does the time go?!

Memories of my daughter’s childhood birthdays are something of a blur, to be honest, despite the fact that they are probably all captured on camera somewhere. I remember my eldest daughter’s (grandson’s mom) 5th and 7th, my middle daughter’s 2nd and 10th and my youngest daughter’s 6th, 10th and 11th most clearly and am quite proud of the fact that we’ve never resorted to a McDonald’s party (and I’m not sure if my daughters have ever even been to one?). We’ve made decorations and party favours, had pony rides home, dancing and a cinema to ourselves, outings with picnics (in November!) and dress-up, had pizza and cake and all the trimmings, teaparties, streamers, balloons and Mexican meals… with everything from only 2 or 3 friends to whole classes of 28 kids (who were good as gold!) – they say variety is the spice of life!

All my daughters’ birthdays are in the cooler seasons (January, March, November) and the only time we tried to have a party for my husband’s June birthday, it rained, so we were quite delighted that our grandson was born in July, so that he could have fun outdoor birthday parties – turns out a birthday in the summer holidays means he will never have his birthday in schooltime and so far, we’ve not managed to be in the country for it, either, as that’s when we’re usually at the seaside in France! Still, we’ve seen the evidence of barbecues, hot sunny weather so that the kids are naked and the icing on the cake melts, and of course they have stacks of fun with lots of children and adults milling around, sleepouts in the summer-house, water-sliding, trampolining and all the rest of it!

Now he’s 4, my grandson is very aware of gift-giving and spends much of the year perusing toy catalogues and muttering to himself which of the items could be a present from grandparents and godparents. He’s been into cars since he was a baby, that is, anything with wheels, so trains and so on, too. Considering what to get him for his birthday became a little difficult early on, as he soon accumulated various train sets and a multitude of cars and trucks and tractors and lorries of varying sizes… What DO you give a 4 year old these days without resorting to electronics and screens, battery-operated junk and so on? While he may not particularly thank his Nana, I have been determined to encourage his outdoor activities and his creativity, and don’t see the point in expensive things for children most of the time (if any are justified, you can usually borrow them). Plus we have a tradition that a book is always part of a present.

So…. this is the tissue box that is NOT a tissue box…! Inside, there are 6 different coloured silk scarves, about 90x90cm, that can be absolutely anything they want to be – grass, water, an Arab headdress, a prince’s cloak, a golden crown… popular in Waldorf kindergartens, they are intended to encourage creative play. I chose to package them like a magician’s string of knotted scarves, so that they can be pulled out of the box like magic! 

The second gift is a giant parachute, designed to be held by a number of children around the edges and moved up and down while one or more of the children run underneath or are bounced about – since any number of kids hang around my daughter’s house, there are bound to be enough at any given time for this social game! 

And the book this year is one of the Moomins books by Tove Jansson, written quite a long time ago, in 1945, originally in Finnish. I included the audiobook of some of the stories – ideally I should have recorded myself reading the book, but time constraints and weeks and weeks of having a sore throat put paid to that idea. Still, perhaps this energetic little boy will have some quiet downtime listening to the stories or having them read to him before bedtime….

(NB he may hate them, as my husband says he disliked the Moomins when he was a child, but you don’t know till you try, right?! I always thought they were very sweet.)

Anyway, Happy Birthday Sevi! Have a lovely year of being 4, starting kindergarten and generally growing up big and strong and active, even if you are bound to get a few bumps and bangs on the way – maybe we’ll manage to be here for your next birthday!!