It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

December 22, 2009, No comments

Snow is falling all around me, chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, the Salvation Army is playing O Come All Ye Faithful, and the tills are ringing like jingle bells. It must be nearly Christmas. Except that this is Switzerland, so it’s not quite Christmas as I know it. On the surface, it might look the same, but the Swiss celebrate in a totally different way from the British. Welcome to a Swiss Christmas!

For one thing, it’s a lot less hectic. The shops are busy, but with nothing like the madness to be found on Oxford Street, and  TV is not full of endless adverts exhorting you to spend more. It all feels a lot less commercialised, not least because the shops aren’t open all day every day. Last Sunday was one of only two in the whole year when shops could open, and even then not everywhere in the country: for many Swiss, God is still more important than Mammon.  

Then there’s the Christmas dinner, or lack of it. A recent survey showed that only 8% of Swiss eat turkey (or goose) for the Christmas meal, which is normally eaten on Christmas Eve evening rather than on the Day itself. A fifth of Swiss prefer to have fondue chinoise, where thin slices of beef are cooked in a communal pot of hot broth, then eaten with various sauces. But well over half just eat whatever takes their fancy, with no traditional meal year after year. As for mince pies and Christmas pudding, they are rarely seen in Swiss shops. Instead there’s panettone and stollen, mixing Italian and German traditions, rather like Switzerland itself.

As for crackers, most Swiss have never pulled one. My friends and in-laws rather liked having them from England, for the novelty value if nothing else, but that was a few years ago when such innocent pleasure was allowed. Then the Swiss government reclassified crackers as dangerous weapons (those bangs really are lethal, it seems) meaning that importing or selling them became much more difficult. And this in a country where supermarkets sell giant, life-threatening fireworks and small children let off firecrackers in the street on National Day. It truly is crackers!

Perhaps the biggest difference is that there’s no ten-day holiday. The 25th and 26th are public holidays, but if they fall over a weekend, there are no lieu days to replace them. So this week Boxing Day (or St Stephen’s Day as it’s called here) is on Saturday, which means that in Britain next Monday (28th) is a holiday. In Switzerland it’s just another Monday. Next year is even worse, with the two holidays landing on Saturday-Sunday so it’s like any other weekend. Oh those hard-working Swiss.

As if to make up for all that, a Swiss Christmas has three very special advantages. Firstly, and rather astonishingly for me, is that you are allowed to have real candles on your Christmas tree. Crackers may be dangerous, but candles are apparently not. Health & Safety would never allow that in Britain, but in Switzerland you get to turn off the lights and sit beside a tree lit by dozens of tiny flickering flames. Second, few shops play endlessly repeating Christmas music. That might make it feel a little less festive, but at least you don’t have to listen to Stop the Cavalry or Mistletoe and Wine a hundred times a day. Bliss. Lastly, the most amazing thing is that the trains don’t stop, the trams don’t sit in their sheds, and the buses don’t lie idle. They all run every day of the festive period, precisely because that’s when lots of people want to use them. For someone brought up on British Rail and privatisation, that’s as miraculous as the story of Christmas itself.

So a happy Christmas to you, wherever you are.

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