Celebrating Christmas in Switzerland

Dear Editor,

I am spending the holiday season travelling around in parts of Europe. People seem to be having a fantastic time enjoying the spirit of the season doing pretty much the same things as we do in Guyana or in the diaspora.

It is fair to conclude that as in the US, Guyana and throughout the Caribbean, Christmas is a big event in Europe with even non-Christians enjoying the year-end festive activities. Many non-Christians live in Europe especially in cosmopolitan UK, Switzerland, and other countries. And aside from the locals, people from all over the globe (particularly Chinese, Indians and Americans) come to frigid Europe to take in its Christmas beauty. And what a spectacle it is on the continent around this time of the year with decorated streets, malls, homes, and Christmas markets. Oh yes, unlike North America and the Caribbean, there are Christmas markets in almost  every town, village, and city, with hot apple cider, wine, roasted chestnuts, ornaments, wood products, etc. Also, snow is glistening on the mountain peaks. Switzerland has been white for several days. It is a Christmas postcard country with white trees everywhere when the temperature is freezing. The snow peaked Alps (Swiss, French, Italian, German, Austrian) are a spectacle to behold around this time of the year. The Swiss mountains do have a village named St Nick, after the old bearded man who gives out gifts for the season, with a towering Father Christmas welcoming visitors.

The Christmas season starts at a different time of the year in each European country as it does in the Caribbean with each country having its own cultural way of celebrating. I was in the UK in November where the Christmas season started early during the second weekend of the month, unlike say in the US where it began right after Thanksgiving Day (third Thursday of November). In Switzerland, the season started in the first week in December not dissimilar to what I experienced this year in my visits to Guyana and Trinidad. But while the timing of the start of the season may be different, there is one commonality in the Caribbean, North America and Europe ‒ the streets are full of Christmas lights and decorations. In Switzerland, windows of homes and businesses are amply decorated but not as extravagant as those seen in Guyana or Trinidad or among the diaspora in New York. The windows of a home will display a theme of the season. And the trees are well decorated with a lot of home-made paper products as well as crystal, plastic and metals, though not as lit up as ours in Guyana and the diaspora. As we do or did when we were/are kids at home or in school making Christmas decorations, the Swiss do much the same. They make different shapes (stars, animals, nativity scenes, angels, candles, etc). Commercial ornaments on the tree include apples, grapes and the others we use in Guyana or in the diaspora. There is a decorated circular wreath at the door of homes similar to what is found in Guyana or the diaspora. It is a tradition for a circular wreath to lie on the centre table of a home or hotel with four lit candles.

As in North America or Guyana, special songs and carolling are part of the celebration of the season. As in Guyana, children or even adults sing Christmas carols in churches or public places in English or their native language (Swiss speak French, German, Italian, English and Romansch in addition to various dialects). In the cities, groups of singers entertain the public and collect funds for deserving charities.

While there are many similarities in the celebration with Guyana or elsewhere, there is also a slight difference in Switzerland in the mythical tradition associated with Christmas. All over the globe, people look forward for the mythical Santa Claus. And the Swiss have their own mythical St Nick. Unlike in Guyana, UK, US or most places around the globe, Santa Claus does not visit Switzerland on December 24 when kids hang their stocking for gifts. Santa Claus visits Swiss homes on December 6, although December 24 and Christmas Day are also celebrated. On December 6, Santa brings a huge bag filled with chocolates, peanuts and mandarins for everyone to share; good kids are rewarded and bad kids punished similar to our tradition on Christmas Eve in Guyana or elsewhere. Every business or hotel visited, one sees (ground) peanuts not necessarily for eating but for decoration. And like elsewhere, Santa brings gifts on Dec 24. But the Swiss don’t seem to be as obsessed as celebrants elsewhere in preparing for the holiday season. However, unlike in Guyana and most other places, shops (including most restaurants except fast food outlets) and businesses are closed on Christmas Eve and the next day. The Swiss celebrate the holiday at home with family members (and entertaining guests) in much the same way we do in Guyana and the diaspora although their menu is not as elaborate and wide ranging as ours.

Also, baking is common to both our cultures during the season. For Guyanese, baking bread, pastries and cake is a must for the season. And while we have our black or sponge cake, Swiss bake several batches of Christmas cookies with icing toppings that will send your sugar blood level skywards. While Guyanese distribute cakes during the season to friends, neighbours and relatives, the Swiss give out cookies. Cookies are also sold in markets, although they are not as tasty as homemade ones. And every hotel gives out cookies or chocolates. And unlike Guyanese who consume cold ginger beer or mauby or sorrel, the Swiss consume hot local drinks (cider and hot chocolate) during the cold Christmas season.

So while there are minor differences in how the holiday is observed in Guyana and Switzerland, we have many commonalities, and the traditions and the meaning behind the festivities are pretty much the same.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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