By Rick Steves and Valerie Griffith
While other countries may have the rich history, magnificent manger scenes, and grand churches, the spirit of Christmas can be experienced everywhere in Europe. High in Switzerland where the churches are small and villages huddle below towering peaks, the mighty Alps seem to shout the glory of God. Up here Christmas fills a wintry wonderland with very good cheer.
A peek at village life shows that high in the Swiss Alps traditions can be strong...and warmth is a priority. Ovens are small so wood is too. There's a whole lotta choppin' goin' on. Many kids still wear woolen stockings — hand knit by village grannies — like Hanni Feuz, who lives in Gimmelwald's oldest house.
For many families, a hike through the forest on a quest to find and cut the perfect Christmas tree is a holiday season tradition. Joining them, we stopped by a mountain hut for fondue. For the Swiss, fondue is purely a winter specialty. Only tourists eat fondue in the summer. My friend explained, "When we Swiss plan a cozy party we add 'FIGUGEGL' to the invitation." (It's pronounced like a word: fee-goo-geck-ul.) "This stands for Fondu isch guet und git e gueti Lune (fondue is good and gives a good mood). Read this and you know a good time is planned. Drop your bread into the pot...and you must kiss the person to your left. FIGUGEGL." Fondue is served with a wonderful Swiss white wine. Production is so small that very little is exported.
Among practicing Christians in Switzerland, about half are Catholic and half are Protestant. Locals say you can tell the religion of a village by the size of the church and school. If the church dominates, the village is Catholic. If the school dominates, it's Protestant. Being the land of Calvin — the most austere of reformers — Protestant districts keep the Christmas decor understated. Wandering past the only house with an abundance of colored lights, our friends explained, "This is our Las Vegas."
In small villages Christmas decoration is humble yet charming. Each home decorates a window for Advent. While I grew up opening windows on Advent calendars, enjoying the excitement build as day by day Christmas approached, the Swiss village tradition is similar...but the windows are real. And the debut of a new Advent window often comes with an actual party. In a kind of roving open house, neighbors get out, meet friends, and enjoy grilled sausages, hot mulled wine, and accordion folk music.
Standing outside under a cold sky — stars reflecting off the snow, the moon comes with a halo, most of the village gathers. Lately the ski season arrives late — rather than early December, it generally doesn't really kick in until January. Today all are happy that it seems winter is here. The hot mulled wine is ladelled from a steaming cauldron over a fire — it serves as a magnet for the gang. Keeping hands warm and conversation flowing, the Glühwein (mulled wine) stokes the party under the brittle stars. Local sausage are held like big cigars or wrapped in fresh bread. The accordion player plays only in short sets as his fingers need to be periodically thawed out. Logs the size of a four-foot chunk of telephone pole are 90 percent cut with an X the long way, and planted upright in the snow. A tar helps the fires take, and they serve to light and warm the cozy yet frigid occasion. In the distance, with flaming torches planted in the snow, children riding old-time wooden sleds go up and down and up and down.
Advent is all about anticipation. And for the kids, much of that anticipation is about presents — rewards for being not naughty...but nice. As we've seen, throughout Europe every culture seems to have its own version of Santa Claus — who serves parents by providing children incentives for good behavior. Here in the Alps, it's Samichlaus
Each Christmas Swiss children receive a visit from Samichlaus — that's Swiss German for "St. Nick" — and his black-clad henchman, Schmutzli. Visits are traditionally on St. Niklaus day, December 6, but Switzerland's dynamic Christmas duo can arrive at any time. Samichlaus knocks on the door, and frightened but excited kids answer. Samichlaus consults his big book of sins — co-authored by village parents — and does some light-hearted moralizing. Then he asks the kids to earn a little forgiveness by reciting a poem. After this and some assurances that they will reform, Samichlaus allows the children to reach deep into his bag for a smattering of tangerines, nuts, gingerbread, and other treats.
Swiss Tree and Christmas Eve
Traditionally the tree is cut and decorated on 24th. Pine houses — the open beams glowing with all the candles — feel ready to go up in flames but locals are bold with their candles. A classic Christmas dinner comes with scalloped potatoes with melted cheese and milk baked into it, boiled ham, walnut cake, and finely-decorated gingerbread cookies. If the family is religious, they may have a Bible that's been in the family for generations. The Swiss and German equivalent of the St. James edition is their Martin Luther edition. The grandfather will read the gospel story.
The trees — good quality means well-spaced branches for candle placement — are decorated by the family. Candles, kept upright by dangling ornamental counter-balances, are then lit by the children. Presents are generally opened while the candles are lit. Trees stay up until January 2 as the candles are lit again on New Year's Eve for good luck.
Garlic clove rubbed in pan
Minimum two cheeses with similar melting points, Gruyère and Appenzeller (more Gruyère; Tilsiter also works, and Emmentaler creates stringiness — too much is a problem). Grate cheese and mix together.
Add into pan with dry white wine. (Ideally Swiss, Fendant). FIGUGEGL!
200 grams (about 7 oz, or 2 cups) strong Gruyère
200 grams (about 7 oz, or 2 cups) strong Emmentaler
200 grams (about 7 oz, or 2 cups) Appenzeller
200 grams (about 7 oz, or 2 cups) Vacherin
3.5 deciliter (about 1½ cups) white wine
1 garlic clove
3 teaspoons of flour
1 shot of cherry brandy
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Pepper and nutmeg to taste
Rustic white bread cut into one inch cubes.
Preparation: Grate cheese, mix in white wine and soak for 2 hours. Mix flour and brandy together. Toss everything together. Heat with low flame until bubbling. Keep stirring or it burns and hardens. Don't heat until ready to consume. Plan to consume immediately. Fork bread cubes, dip, and spin in bubbling cheese. Sit to the right of someone you don't mind kissing. Accompany with white wine or black tea.
1 liter (one bottle) good red wine
Quarter liter (one cup) water
Lemon juice to taste
Oranges (ideally organic)
Preparation: Mix red wine and water and lemon juice and spices in pot. Heat until near boiling. Give mulled wine in pre-warmed glasses. Enjoy.
Consume with view of mountains.
Valerie Griffith is the co-author of Rick Steves' Christmas.