Christmas in the Swiss Alps Glistens with Tradition

By Rick Steves
Gimmelwald, Switzerland
The Swiss village of Gimmelwald, under a blanket of snow, is a picturesque place for winter festivities. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
Traditionally decorated Christmas tree, Berner Oberland, Switzerland
In Switzerland, some families still use real candles to adorn their Christmas tree. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

High in Switzerland, the mighty Alps seem to shout the glory of God. Up here, the Christmas season fills a winter wonderland with good cheer. I'll never forget the holiday I spent in the village of Gimmelwald, above the Lauterbrunnen Valley in mountainous central Switzerland, where old traditions remain strong.

In Swiss villages like this, home windows serve as life-size Advent calendars — and like the paper calendar counterparts, one newly decorated Advent window is lit up every evening in a different house, building excitement as Christmas approaches.

The debut of an Advent window often comes with a party. Under a cold sky — brittle stars reflecting off the snow, the moon inside a halo — the village gathers. Hot mulled wine is ladled from a steaming cauldron over a fire — serving as a magnet for the gang. Keeping hands warm and conversation flowing, the Glühwein stokes the party. Local sausages are held like big cigars, or wrapped in fresh bread. Men take logs the size of a four-foot chunk of telephone pole, cut the end into a point, and plant them upright in the snow. Coated with tar, they're set ablaze, torches to light and warm the occasion. In the distance, under flickering torchlight, children ride old-time wooden sleds, going up and down, up and down.

This time of year, kids receive a visit from Samichlaus — that's Swiss German for St. Nicholas — and his black-clad henchman, Schmutzli. This traditionally happens on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, but the duo can arrive at any time, traveling through villages on a sure-footed donkey. When Samichlaus knocks on the door, frightened but excited kids answer. Samichlaus consults his big book of sins — co-authored by village parents — and does some light-hearted moralizing. Schmutzli stands by as a menacing enforcer, his sack handy so he can take away the naughty children and eat them later. Then Samichlaus asks the kids to earn a little forgiveness by reciting a poem. After the poems and assurances that the children will reform, Samichlaus allows them to reach deep into his bag for a smattering of tangerines, nuts, gingerbread, and other treats.

Another treat for children is the visit to the forest to find the perfect Christmas tree — traditionally cut and decorated on December 24. My friends Olle, Maria, and their children invite me to go along for the ride. We gather our gear and set out, riding the cable-car ski lift high above the village.

From the top of the lift we take off: the children shrieking with glee on their old-time wooden sleds, me shooshing on my snow bike — gingerly at first but gradually gaining in confidence — while Olle follows on the big sleigh. Arriving at a rustic one-room hut, we step into a time-warp 1950s world.

While some stay to prepare our meal, those of us on the tree expedition lash on snowshoes and set out dragging the empty sleigh. After a long walk, we begin the search. Olle gives the trunk a good shake. As the snow cascades off, the children debate the tree's merits.

Finally, all agree that we had found our tree. It's cut and lashed to the sleigh, and then we trudge triumphantly back to the cabin for our hot and tasty reward. The windows are sweating, the fondue is ready, and we gather around the table for a meal that exemplifies good living in the Alps.

For the Swiss, a communal pot of melted-cheese fondue is purely a winter specialty, served with a sprightly Swiss white wine called Fendant. With bellies full, we light our torches, and zip down the mountain with our tree back into Gimmelwald.

The tree is decorated with real candles, kept upright by dangling ornamental counterbalances, and lit with long tapers. Gimmelwald's pine houses, with open beams, seem ready to go up in flames, but locals are confident. While the candles burn, presents are opened. The tree stays up until after Christmas, as candles are lit all over again on New Year's Eve — for good luck.

A classic Christmas dinner comes with boiled ham, cheesy scalloped potatoes, walnut cake, and finely decorated gingerbread cookies. If the family is religious, they'll often read from a Bible that has been in the family for generations.

Tonight in Switzerland, the grandfather completes the celebration by reading the Gospel story: "And while they were there, she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn. And suddenly there was a multitude of angels proclaiming: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace and goodwill to all people.'" Hearing the timeless tale that has brought together so many cultures for so many centuries, I'm struck by the beauty of this remarkably Swiss celebration.

This article is used with the permission of Rick Steves' Europe ( Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours.