There's nothing more Christmassy than snowy mountains, frosted fir trees, and twinkling fairy lights, and in the Swiss Alps all of this comes with some very festive traditions. Some of these Christmas customs are similar to those enjoyed in the rest of Europe, while others are a little more unusual. We take a closer look at the culture of Christmas in the Swiss Alps.
In Switzerland, Santa is a little different to the Santa we all know and love. His name is Samichlaus and he visits everyone's home on the 6th December instead of Christmas eve. Everyone in Switzerland does still receive gifts on Christmas eve because Samichlaus doesn't arrive at your home with gifts, the Christkind Angel is the one who brings these on Christmas eve. Instead Samichlaus brings bags filled with chocolates, cookies, nuts, and oranges. But perhaps the most unusual thing about Samichlaus is his sidekick. Never heard of Santa having a sidekick? Well, in Switzerland Samichalus is accompanied by Schmutzli, Santa's helper. This guy appears like a vagrant of some kind, dressed in black with a dirty face and dirty hair and long dark beard. He carries a broom which he threatens the children who have been naughty all year with. He's a bit like Santas's alter ego. You'll see the two of them at Christmas markets right up to Samichlaus day.
Although you will find a lot of old favourites on offer in the Swiss Alps at Christmastime, and the scent of gingerbread baking is never far away, there are some more unexpected Christmas foods that are traditional in Switzerland. On Christmas eve most Swiss people eat Fondue Chinoise. This is a meat stew, the meat being dipped in various sauces before eating. It's a different take on the cheese fondue we all know so well, though cheese fondue is also hugely popular still during wintertime. Experience fondue at Christmas time on this railway journey through the Swiss Alps.
While gingerbread is baked in all kinds of shapes and sizes at this time of year, the scent of freshly baking bread also wafts around Alpine villages, and this is made into 'bread men' or women. The 'Grittibänz' is baked in preparation for Samichlaus day and this sweet bread is everywhere leading up to 6th December. All of these tasty treats are accompanied by mulled wine and hot chocolate, to warm everyone against the chill of winter.
Many Swiss towns and villages hold parades in the lead up to Christmas Eve, but even earlier than that, in November Räbechilbi takes place. School children carve out beetroot lanterns and decorate them in festive colours and painted shapes. Then they parade through town with the lit lanterns while singing as they go. In some parts of Switzerland drums are banged and cow bells shaken to ward away the dark days of winter and encourage everyone to get in the festive mood. Whether you manage to catch a parade or not, there's plenty of Christmas spirit in The Swiss Alps in December. On The Glacier Express tour every stop has a local Christmas story to tell.