Onions, Chocolate and a Visit from the Bishop: Fragments of a Swiss Christmas.

The Christmas season in Switzerland begins, at least in my imagination, with the ‘Ziebelemaerit’ in Bern, which dates to the 15th century and falls on the 4th Monday in November. It is a unique market, dedicated entirely to onions. The narrow streets and the Old Town square are crowded with stalls from which hang braids of shallot, garlic and onion, woven through with dried purple flowers. From before dawn and into the night, an intoxicating smell hangs above the city – a combination of onion soup, garlic bread, caramelised nuts and mulled wine.

On the first Sunday of Advent the traditional evening meal is thick slices of gingerbread dipped in hot milk. This is followed by ‘Chlauser’, the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th when bakery windows are lined with small armies of ‘Grittibaenz’ – sweet, bread figures with currant eyes and pearl sugar sprinkles. The streets are busy with Father Christmases ringing hand bells, leading donkeys and handing out chocolate and tangerines. Our daughters once asked me why there were so many. I told a lie and explained that only one was the real Father Christmas. The others were his attendants.

St. Nicholas was a 4th century bishop, born in Patara, Turkey, who secretly left food, small gifts and clothing on the doorsteps of the poor. Tangerines recall the purses of gold coins he anonymously gifted to destitute families and candy canes echo the crosier he carried.

In mid December, the girls and I would take the train to Bern for the unveiling of the Globus Christmas window. Founded in 1907, Globus was the grande dame of department stores, the Swiss equivalent of Harrods or Bloomingdales. Every year, the sheets of brown paper, which covered the storefront windows, were ceremoniously taken down to reveal exquisitely detailed storybook scenes: families of bears in hand-tailored outfits, toymakers in leather aprons and a tiny steam train that travelled through a snowy landscape. On our way home, we would buy a paper cone of hot chestnuts from the street vendor by the clock tower. In 2001 Globus was sold to a discount chain and, within a few years, the magical window displays were replaced by in-store merchandise.

When our daughters were still in Kindergarten, we came across a small ad in the local paper, offering home visits from Father Christmas. I called the number and was asked to send over some details about the girls, including what they wanted for Christmas. That year it was a bunk bed, and their dad was up until 2am the night before, assembling it for ‘Samichlaus’ to unveil on Christmas Eve. In Switzerland, Father Christmas comes not from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, but out of the forest, with a sledge, pulled by a donkey. He doesn’t come alone either but with a sinister companion known as ‘Schmutzli’ (‘Sooty’). Soon after nightfall we heard the ringing of a small bell and opened the door to a magnificent figure in a red velvet cape and a bishop’s mitre, emblazoned with a white cross. Beside him stood Schmutzli, dressed in a long, black, hooded robe. Only his eyes were visible beneath his black beard. In one hand he held an empty burlap sack and in the other, a birch broom. In the lowlands, Schmutzli has become a more benign figure but in the mountains of Switzerland he remains a menacing presence, one who threatens to beat and bundle naughty children into his sack as punishment for their bad behaviour during the year. The one standing in our living room was a doppelganger for the Grim Reaper. Years later, Polly recalled that it was his penetrating silence that she had found so frightening. Father Christmas opened his big leather bible and began to ask the girls questions, to which he seemingly already knew the answers. He was kindly but firm and warned them to stop biting their nails/sucking their thumbs and to always be gentle with each other. He asked them what they wanted for Christmas and listened earnestly to their almost inaudible replies. Finally, he led them along the corridor, opened the door to their new bedroom and there … tied up with a red ribbon, was a bunk bed.

I invited Father Christmas back the following year, but he had a medical condition, he told me and was hanging up his robe and mitre.