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.
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!
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!
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.
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…
(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…)