Travel: All you need to know about celebrating Christmas in Switzerland

Swissmas of magical memories and merry vibes

By Rashmi Gopal Rao

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Published: Thu 14 Dec 2023, 7:09 PM

Last updated: Sat 16 Dec 2023, 4:32 PM

Twinkling lights, soulful carols, the aroma of ginger biscuits and the heady whiff of mulled wine — Christmas is unarguably the best season of the year. It is that time of the year when Christmas cheer is all around and the spirit of the festival is in the air. One place to enjoy the essence of all the celebrations is the picturesque land of the Swiss. Located in central Europe, Switzerland is a landlocked country sharing its borders with Italy, Germany, France and Austria. Hence it is no surprise that Swiss culture is a diverse mix of customs and traditions.

Unique rituals, eclectic Christmas markets, resplendent light displays and local culinary delights are some of the things to look forward to during the festival in Switzerland. Given that the country has an utterly beautiful landscape with Alpine mountains, pristine lakes and gorgeous valleys, the Christmas roster of activities in Switzerland couldn’t get more exciting.

Advent: Countdown leading to Christmas

Like other Christian denominations, the period of Advent is observed with great fervour in Switzerland. For the uninitiated, Advent is a tradition that dates back to the 5th century. It is a period of spiritual reflection and renewal which starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas eve. It is a deeply revered tradition in Switzerland and it is not uncommon to find Advent wreaths (Adventkranz) and Advent calendars in supermarkets, shopping malls and florists from the beginning of November.

The Advent wreath made up of fir branches, twigs and pinecones is circular and is adorned with four candles, each lit on the four Sundays preceding Weihnachten, which is what Christmas is called in Switzerland. In many small villages and towns, people decorate their home windows in a holiday theme and these Adventsfenster (Advent windows) are used as life size Advent calendars to count down the days to the festival. One window is opened ceremoniously in each house every evening till Christmas eve amidst a small celebration where friends and neighbours’ bond over cookies and drinks.

The city of Zurich rings in Christmas early with lights coming on in the town centre exactly at 6pm on the Thursday before the 1st Advent. Shops on the famous Bahnhofstrasse are decorated with the colours and ornaments of the season and are open till 10pm for people to stroll and shop. The Swiss National Museum plays host to a spectacular light festival called the ‘Illuminarium’ which includes a music and light show projected on the walls of the museum. With awe-inspiring displays, the live show is indeed a noteworthy spectacle and coupled with the delectable fare at the food court, you are sure to soak in the spirit of the festive season. The music festival and light installations at the Magic Park in Zurich Airport is also worth a visit.

Unique traditions

Christmas is also a time to witness some truly traditional customs native to Switzerland. The ritual of candle making or Kerzenziehen that happens in Bürkliplatz in central Zurich is one of them. Also known as candle dipping this involves inserting a long thread or wick in hot beeswax repeatedly to create a candle. A meditative activity done with family and friends, Kerzenziehen is particularly enjoyed by children and is a great way to savour the essence of Yuletide.

Switzerland is full of fairy tale towns and many of them have exclusive celebrations associated with Christmas lighting. Baden in the canton of Aargau about 25km from Zurich has a very special light display created by famous artist Willi Walter. Thousands of LED fairy lights adorn the streets and alleys and specially created angel figurines are installed all over the town, creating an artwork of nearly two kilometres. Liechterwecke is a one of its kind celebration where the entire town congregates to witness the lights coming on. Bells are distributed to children who are invited to ‘wake up’ the Christmas lights. Around 5.30pm the parade of children and adults reaches the town centre and as the story of the Baden Christmas lights is narrated, the entire illumination comes to life.

Lichterschwimmen is yet another event deeply embedded in Swiss tradition since the 1960s wherein hundreds of tiny lanterns made by school children is floated on river Limmat from Stadthausquai. This breathtaking spectacle is organised by Zürich Tourism and is a way of thanking the people of the city for their hospitality.

Unlike other countries in the far West, Santa Claus or Samichlaus, as he is called in Switzerland, comes visiting early i.e. on December 6 or Saint Nicholas Day. Accompanied by his sidekick, Schmutzlim, he is known to visit with a bagful of goodies like nuts, mandarins, cookies, and chocolates. The Klausjagen Christmas procession in the village of Küssnacht near Lucerne is particularly famous for celebrating St Nicholas Day.

Compelling Christmas Markets

Weihnachtsmarkts as Christmas markets are called in Switzerland are a quintessential part of the holiday season with every city, town and village in the country having its own delightful market. Tiny wooden chalets decorated with glittering lights, carousels, ice rinks and a plethora of stalls selling all kinds of artefacts, gifts and food transport you into a world that is magically endearing. Zurich has multiple markets including one in the old town, a wonderful Christmas village at Bellevue and the Christkindlimarkt at Zurich Central Station among others. The latter is one of the largest indoor markets with over 150 stalls and a 50-foot, sparkling Christmas tree bejewelled with Swarovski crystals.

The Basel Christmas Market at Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz is often considered as one of the most beautiful markets in the country with its artisanal handcrafted goods. Montreux houses one of Switzerland’s largest Christmas markets with over 150 stalls along the picturesque promenade of Lake Geneva. The arrival of Santa flying on his reindeer drawn sleigh is an attraction you do not want to miss here! The holy town of Einsiedeln Christmas market is set against the fascinating backdrop of its famous Benedictine monastery while the market of St Gallen is under its hundreds of starry twinkling lights. The market in the capital city of Bern is a wonderful mix of culture, craft and fun while the one in Rue du Mont Blanc in Geneva is replete with tradition and entertainment galore.

Wherever you visit, these markets are wonderful avenues to pick up Christmas decorations, trinkets, candies and souvenirs of all kinds. And while here do not forget to savour some traditional delicacies like sugar coated almonds, piping hot fondue, raclette, potato rosti, crepes, pastries and loads of artisanal chocolate. Do not forget to wash this all down with a glass of glühwein which is Swiss German for freshly mulled wine.

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