In our Swiss (father) and American (mother) family living in Switzerland, Christmas celebrations began on Sunday, November 30th. My son, Mark, insisted I either buy or make an 'Advent's Kranz' -- a wreath of pine fronds with four candles, pine cones and ribbons which we place in the center of the dining room table. We light the first candle on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The following Sunday, we light two candles, the next, three, and the Sunday before Christmas, four. All the stores around here close on Saturday at 4p.m. and stay closed until Monday morning (except at the main train station in Bern). Saturday at 3.30 p.m. -- it was drizzly, gray, and freezing outside, and growing dark -- the prospect of freezing my fingers cutting branches in the forest (which I believe is illegal anyway) didn't thrill me, so I hurried to the village grocery store and bought one.
December 1st, I climbed up the bunk beds in the bomb shelter (that's another Swiss story), and handed Christmas boxes, particularly the banana box with decorations for December 1st, down to my waiting husband. On December 2nd, I unpacked and decorated... one day late for the advent calendars, of which we have many.
December 6th, Sami Claus comes to town. They don't have Santa Claus, here. Sami Claus is dressed in red robes like a bishop with a pointed golden cap. He carries a tall stalk. Accompanying him is 'Schmützli,' which translates, 'Dirty,' dressed in a monk's robes with a hood pulled over his head. Schmützli carries a large sack and leads a donkey.
When Mark was four, we were able to engage a Sami Claus to come to our house. Mothers -- those traitors -- give Sami Claus a list of good and bad things her children have done during the year. Our Sami Claus held Mark by the wrist and grilled him about the bad things he had done. Terrified, Mark tried to pull away, but Sami Claus wouldn't let go. After that, I never made Mark go to school on December 6th. To put this in perspective, Schmützli puts bad little boys and girls into his sack and carries them off and they never get to see their Mommy or Daddy again. None of this North American 'Mr. Nice Guy' stuff for the folks over here, na?
After that, things proceed quietly until December 24th. We don't have all those colored lights like you do in North America. People put strings of small white lights on one pine tree in their front yard. It is very subdued; very understated. In the beginning, I missed all the gory color, but now I have learned to love this sweet visual spirit of a Swiss Christmas.
On December 24th, the Swiss put up their tree. Traditionally, the children are ushered out of the room and the 'Christ Kind' (translated 'Christ child') arrives to decorate the tree. Children never see the Christ Kind, of course. Our family decorates our tree together while listening to cassettes of Christmas music my mother gave me. I sneak outside (still) and leave a present for each child on our doorstep, ring the doorbell, and run away. I reenter the house from the back. When the children open the front door, they exclaim, "The Christ Kind! The Christ Kind! He must have been here. Where has he gone?" They look around and Micha says, cooperatively, "I don't see him."
The Swiss open all their presents on Christmas Eve. Oh, yes, and they put real candles on the tree and light them, then sit around singing Christmas carols. This is why the tree must be absolutely fresh. Also, we have a fire extinguisher nearby. Each Christmas, I announce, "They would never let you do this in America. Lawsuits, you know." Singing the carols is a bit awkward. Growing up here, my children never learned the English carols and I don't know the German ones. Nobody loves to sing except me, so usually they allow me to sing about five by myself. Together, we sing the few I also know in German, and then the kids are ready to switch on the lights. We blow out the candles and open our presents.
Combining American and Swiss Christmas traditions, I used to only allow them to open their Swiss-relative presents on Christmas Eve and then, like we did in Whittier, California in the fifties, we open the American-relative presents Christmas morning. I read once that it takes ten years of marriage for a husband and wife to successfully blend the different Christmas traditions they bring from their respective families. And that's when you come from one culture!
Grossmami, Hubert's mother, arrives in time for Christmas Eve and departs just before New Year's Eve, here called 'Sylvester.' She insists that we go to church. I used to be unwilling to leave our American Christmas celebration on Christmas morning, so we would attend midnight mass. Now that the children are grown, they no longer jump eagerly out of bed first thing; they would rather sleep. So last year, for the first time, I gave in to the Swiss custom and let everybody open all the presents Christmas Eve. Hubert, his mom and I went to church in the morning.
Christmas day is kind of boring. After the morning, it loses the flavor of Christmas, and then that's it for another year. Oh, I forgot one thing: Christmas cookies; homemade. They are a must. I learned to make five Swiss recipes and I will be making them in the weeks before Christmas, but not too early, or, as Hubert says, "They will all be gone before Christmas."