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Swiss Samichlaus and Schmutzli

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Samichlaus and Schmutzli in traditional Swiss costume.

Samichlaus and Schmutzli in traditional Swiss costume.

With Christmas coming up, I thought I’d share a Christmas tradition from Switzerland:

Here in Switzerland, Santa has come and gone!  In Zürich alone, the Swiss Santas (“Samichlaus”, also known as “Sankt Nikolaus”) will make roughly 1,000 visits this year; within a few days around 6 December each year, just over 30 Santas, 50 Schmutzli and 50 drivers are underway from the Zurich Samichlaus organisation (not counting those organized between friends and family).  Now I’m fairly certain most of my readers are familiar with Santa; but here in Switzerland, his helper is called Schmutzli.  Parents throughout the land book Samichlaus and his assistants, and fill in a form for their children:  Names, ages, their favourite subject in school, and the most important questions:  What have the children improved in since the last visit by Samichlaus, and where do they need to improve?  Making their bed, cleaning their room, being nice to their siblings, or sharing more often?  The Samichlaus goes to the home at the appointed time with his assistants (often two Schmutzli, who are the

Thomas Fetz, a local Schmutzli.  Image Credit: Migrosmagazin

Thomas Fetz, a local Schmutzli. Image Credit: Migrosmagazin

“coal” bearers, often with coal-blackened faces, and who carry large baskets with some coal, a besom broom, and I’m sure a bit of room for gifts given back to them by grateful parents).  They sit down to speak with each child, reading from a great book they carry with them.  Each child is then given a “Samichlaus” bag, and perhaps a gift sponsored by the parents.  Now Swiss Samichlaus and Schmutzli are not the hygienically, politically correct version of countries like America; the large sack they carry was originally (and up into my husband’s generation) shown to bad children who might get kidnapped and taken off if they don’t learn to behave before their visit the following year (they still might threaten it here and there even today).  It might have something to do with Swiss children in general being so well-behaved…  Children are in general very respectful of Samichlaus and his two assistants, even though Mr. Fetz (pictured) looks more like a big teddy bear than someone who might threaten to kidnap naughty children!

Rather than reindeer, here in Switzerland Samichlaus and Schmutzli lead a donkey laden with gifts.  Now I have it on good authority (our local “Unterländer” newspaper) that there are precisely 8,356 donkeys registered in Switzerland to help on the day.  As Swiss are very nature-minded, there are strict regulations with how much a donkey is allowed to work or carry:  They are only allowed to carry up to 90 kilograms, and only 25 kilometers per day.  That means that these donkeys could carry a one-kilo gift to each of the 715,000 4-to-12 year olds in Switzerland!

One of the 8,356 donkeys, ready to go!

One of the 8,356 Swiss donkeys, ready to go!

Since 6 December is the official Samichlaus Day, it is customary on that day to give “Samichlaussäckli” (Santa Claus Bags) to friends, family, neighbours and coworkers.  They are great winter gifts to take when visiting friends; if you’d like to know how to make one, please click here.

Christmas Holiday Traditions

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I write 5 blogs, 4 of them on a weekly basis; I like to find interesting topics, though there are times in the year that can get a bit crowded with other activities.  Christmas has just passed, and at the moment we have a teenager living with us; the topic of family traditions came up a few times, and it’s a good reminder that within even the same culture there can be variations of traditions.

I was born and raised in America, emigrated to Scotland, and am now 100% Swiss; my husband is 100% Swiss, came to Scotland, met me, and inherited my mixture of cultures (which fits fine in our multi-culture family).  When I lived in America the Christmas tree went up shortly after Thanksgiving; in Scotland, if it went up, it was around the first of December; here in Switzerland the trees usually go up on the 24th of December, so in our household we’ve made a compromise and do it the Scottish way.  For over ten years we’ve had a silk tree rather than a real tree; we just could not support the ecological consequences of chopping down a tree that had grown for several years, just to spend a fortnight dying in our living room and then to be tossed out with the compost.  The silk tree looks real, doesn’t drop needles or need watering, and has served us well for quite some time.  When it comes time to replace it, the tree will be taken back to the shop and they will dispose of it ecologically (that has already been paid for in the price of the original tree).  Swiss are extremely ecologically-minded; there is a “joke” (though it’s not far from the truth!) that after drinking a tea the Swiss will put the tea bag contents into the compost, the bag into the old paper collection, the string into textiles recycling, the staple into the metal collection, and the cardboard tag into the cardboard collection!

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One of my handmade ornaments from a beer can!

Our Christmas decorations are otherwise modest, nothing too flashy, but we have taken the North American tradition of Christmas stockings to heart.  I am gradually replacing our store-bought decorations with handmade ones; I make them from recycled drink cans and a bit of embossing ingenuity (For that process, click here).

In Switzerland the traditional Christmas meal is Fondue Chinoise; we only really do that if we get together with the wider family as it is quite a lot of effort for just the two of us.  In Scotland, the favoured meal was Haggis with tatties and neeps.  I do miss the Christmas crackers on the table in Scotland – not the food-type crackers, but table favours with small firework-snaps in them:  Two people pull one apart, and as it snaps a surprise gift comes out.  There were also the table bombs, with exploding gifts (like a piñata in reverse…).  Here, the intimate family circle celebrates together on the 24th, and on the 25th is family day with in-laws and the wider family; the 26th (Boxing Day) is also a holiday, usually spent with the other side of the family, or spent travelling back from the 25th (which is how our Boxing Day is spent, as our family Christmas involves either everyone coming here, or – more often – us going to France).

Every family has their own traditions; when two people marry they bring with them all sorts of expectations, impressions, preferences, habits and memories that form who they are, why they act the way they do sometimes, and how things “should” or “should not” be done.  And as they make compromises, new traditions are born.  That’s what makes cultures and mentalities, and eventually national traditions evolve over time!  What are your family traditions?  How much of it is from your culture, and how much is from your family’s individual traditions?

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