Let me tell you about my Christmas’ before I moved to Switzerland and my first Swiss Christmas.
Christmas time is a wonderful, magical, family time. Lights sparkle outside while cooking smells from inside the house multiply. It’s when you hope that those special gifts you made will produce happiness, loving smiles and hugs. Christmas in America and Switzerland are completely different, yet in some respects very much the same.
Our American Christmas Tree
Our trees were always live or cut trees, never plastic. It was a full, dense tree like a Noble Fir or Douglas Fir and you could never see through it. It was a beautiful dark green and smelt like Christmas. We put it up about two weeks before Christmas.
We decorated it with different colored electric lights, ornaments, tinsel and an angel on the top. Although the lights were different colors they were never blinking. The ornaments were beautiful and about 50% homemade. Sometimes we even strung popcorn to put on the tree. That was always fun; one popcorn on the string, the next one in your mouth. After Christmas we would put it out on outside trees for the birds to enjoy.
The first time we would turn the lights on the tree would be Christmas Eve.
Our Family Tradition
As with all the people I knew while growing up, Christmas was celebrated on Christmas morning. Of course it really started on Christmas Eve. We usually went to an evening church service. When we got home we would put the little baby Jesus in his crib in the nativity scene. Then we would place the presents we had made for each other under the tree. When that was done we were sent to bed. Of course with all that excitement who could sleep?
To the dismay of our parents, at the crack of dawn, sometimes before, we would wake them. We had been downstairs and saw even more presents than what we had placed under the tree. We would tell Mom and Dad that Santa had come and it was time for them to get up! Sometimes they would get up, but more often than not they would send us back to bed. Occasionally Santa would knowingly set out some presents unwrapped to keep us busy until the sleepyheads would finally get up.
A little later after everyone had gotten up, dad would sit next to the tree and give us our presents. Each child would get a present at the same time so no one had to wait. After we had opened all our gifts we had the rest of the day to play with them.
Soon after that Mom and Dad started cooking the traditional Christmas turkey dinner and everything that goes with it. It was a fantastic meal that looked a lot like Thanksgiving. The house would fill up with Christmassy smells and dinner would be the end to our perfect day.
My First Swiss Christmas
My first Christmas in Switzerland was celebrated on the evening of Christmas day. But not because they always did it that way, Christmas Eve was always the time that they celebrated. That year, right before Christmas Ben and his brother-in-law flew over to the States and did a little Christmas shopping. They swung by my college, picked me up and then we all flew back to Switzerland. We arrived on Christmas day around 3pm. So the family delayed their Christmas celebrations one day. It was easy because the kids on Ben’s side of the family were so young. They were dependant on their parents to know when Christmas was. For them it was all about how many more times they had to sleep before Christmas. So, what was one more day?
At any rate, when we got to Switzerland everything was decorated and all the preparations had already been made. To say it was different than all the Christmas’ I knew would be an understatement.
Christmas Eve on Christmas Day
To start off, it was Christmas Eve, well not really, but it was supposed to be. Ben’s family was living in different apartments within the same apartment building. The festivities were divided into the meal in one apartment and the tree in another.
The family dinner started around 4pm.The whole family was at the table: Ben’s parents, his brother and sister with their families. The traditional dinner began with smoked salmon and Züpfe as a starter. That can be tough if you aren’t really a fish-person which I wasn’t at the time. Thank goodness Ben likes it so much and was sitting right next to me.
The main course was rolled ham and potato salad along with a green salad. Potato salad??!! Yes, and two different kinds; one with and one without onions. Really, potato salad? The only time we ever had potato salad was in the summer on picnics. I must admit, though that the combination was fantastic and although seemingly effortless it was very festive.
Dessert was pretty unremarkable, actually, I don’t really remember. It was probably fruit salad.
Here’s what I learned about the Christmas menu years later. The salmon was added to the meal when the family was doing well enough financially. It was a treat to be able to splurge on something as exotic and expensive as salmon. The meal, in all its simplicity can be made almost completely the day before. In fact potato salad should be made a day before so the potatoes can soak up the sauce. That leaves the day to be enjoyed by all.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
It’s just been in recent years that Santa Clause has had to add Europe to his Christmas Eve route. I attribute that to social media and commerce. During my first Christmas in Switzerland Santa was only seen on some old wrapping paper. This was special paper that Ben’s grandparents brought back from the States in the 1930s.
Here’s what happened after dinner. After we had finished eating, Ben’s father left the apartment to get a cigar. Shortly after he came back to the table to smoke it someone said “Did you hear that?”.
“What?” I asked.
“I thought I heard a tiny bell.”
Then someone else said they heard it too. The kids were getting excited while I was still straining to hear that bell they all heard.
Then Ben let me in on the secret. It was the Christ Child who had flown into the apartment downstairs (where the tree was) and lit the tree. The Christ Child had the courtesy to ring a bell when he was finished. That way everyone would know that the tree was ready to be seen. It was strange envisioning the Christ Child flying around, visiting each house and apartment and turning Christmas trees on. But hey, if reindeer can fly, why not the Christ Child?
The Christmas Tree
We all went downstairs to see the tree at Ben’s parents apartment and quite honestly, I was blown away. All the lights in the room were turned off. The room was solely illuminated by the light of the tree sitting in the corner of the room. The tree had been decorated with candles which were all burning. Real candles! It gave the room a glow and warmth that only candles can. I was completely mesmerized by what I saw. It was probably due to a combination of jet lag, a full stomach and some alcohol. Whatever the reason, me and all the kids were standing in the doorway with our mouths open in awe. It was so beautiful and we weren’t able to look anywhere but at the tree with its flickering candles. Someone walked over and closed the window.
We all found a place to sit in the room around the tree. Then, one by one each child got up and recited some verse that they had learned. It was pure excitement for the children and their presentations yielded praise and congratulations from the adults. I understood absolutely nothing of what they said, but it was still sweet.
To round out the festivities we then sang some Christmas Carols, in German. Luckily I sort of knew “Oh Tannenbaum”. Ben’s brother-in-law accompanied us while improvising on the recorder. I had never seen a recorder before which is a simple wooden flute-like wind instrument held vertically.
Then it was time for presents. The youngest opened all of her presents one by one while everyone watched. When she was finished the next youngest got her presents and everyone watched while they were opened. And so it continued while the candles were still burning on the tree, until the oldest person in the room opened their presents. There is a good deal of logic to this method because the youngest have the most difficult time waiting. Also, once they have their presents open and are busy playing with their new toys the adults can enjoy their time together.
At some point the candles burnt down and then out. Which was good, because with all those people in that relatively small space, it was warm in there. Once the candles were out we turned on the lights. We continued drinking our wine, looking at everyone’s presents and enjoying the moment.
Of course, the end of the day and bedtime came really quickly for the kiddies. It seemed like they barely had time to play with all their new toys. And, with all that excitement, who can sleep?
Here’s wishing everyone a wonderful and heartwarming Christmas.