Christmas in a different light

Growing up in Singapore where it is sunny and humid 365 days a year (with the occasional torrential rain), there is something special about having a wintry cold and somewhat subdued Christmas celebration in Europe.

I love walking through the crowded Christmas markets, drinking hot schoggis and gluhwein (hot, spiced mulled wine), the dimly lit and humbly decorated trees, wearing thick layers of warm clothes and eating roasted chestnuts from a brown paper bag on the streets.

I wanted to find out how the Swiss celebrate Christmas and discovered a few interesting traditions they follow leading up to Christmas Day. Advent is the period beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, historically seen as the preparation of the arrival of Christ. During the 19th century in particular, this waiting period before Christmas was viewed as a way of teaching children patience before a reward – hence the development of the Advent Calendar, a calendar with 24 little flaps opening onto windows with images within a Christmas scene. Nowadays, Advent calendars have ‘windows’ or ‘pockets’ that parents would fill with a little toy or sweet for the children. The Swiss also prepares an Advent wreath which has four candles, one for each of the Sundays in Advent. On the first Sunday, one candle is burnt, on the second, two are lit, and so on.

On 6 December, Swiss children receive a visit from Samichlaus — that’s Swiss German for St. Nicklaus, patron saint of children, and his black-clad henchman, Schmutzli. 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 be good, Samichlaus allows the children to reach deep into his bag for tangerines, nuts, gingerbread, and other treats.

Last thursday at my son’s weekly forest walk, Samiclaus and his cute grey donkey paid the children a surprise visit in the woods and gave each of them a big loaf of gingerbread shaped like a boy (more like a pale looking voodoo doll to me), some chocolates and a walnut.

I am pretty fascinated by the dark, scary character – Schmutzli, Samiclaus’ sidekick, tasked to frighten kids who have not been good throughout the year. No one really knows the source of his origin but it makes me think about the many fairytales that we grew up with – The Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, and Alice in Wonderland. Despite having ‘happily ever after’ endings, these stories all have a little sinister element in them.

I took pictures of a few familiar things we associate Christmas with and saw a tinge of ‘Schmutzli’ in them.

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monster shadows creeping up to santa's washing line
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friend or foe?
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giant pine cone or alien xmas tree bauble?
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hanging ice streamers
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the walnut man pretends to sleep...
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