Variety in Christmas Traditions in Switzerland: Tirgell, Evergreen, and More

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St. Gall, Tirggel, and More

Christianity arrived in Switzerland with the preaching of St. Gall, the country’s patron saint, in the early seventh century, A.D. That said, the Swiss religious, linguistic and cultural diversity found in this tiny country give rise to so many customs that there is no commonly held tradition- except that they all celebrate Christmas. There are four languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansh - a romance language unique to Switzerland. Depending on where you find yourself from December 5th or 6th, on Saint Samichlaus' day – St. Nicholas Day – you might say Joyeux Noël, Schöne Weihnachten, Buon Natale or Bellas Festas.

The Protestant cantons, as the “states” are called, are far more reserved with regard to the Christmas festivities. During the Protestant reformation, the severe reformers, such as Calvin and Zwingli, objected to the use of icons and symbols common to the worship and festive practices of the Roman church. They also considered many of the traditional practices pagan.

The Catholic cantons, on the other hand, continued their more jubilant ways of celebrating the birth of Christ. One pagan custom, common in many countries (and not just in Europe) is the use of evergreen decoration during the dark and snowy season associated with the winter solstice. Evergreens symbolize immortality in various ways –either as a reminder of the resurrection (for Christians), or of the eternal cycles of life, birth and death (that is, of reincarnation, for pre- and now for non-Christians). Gift giving was also practiced during this time of year even in pre-Christian times.

The Swiss have Christmas trees, but not like the ones in the USA – they use real candles. The also hang garlands and put nuts, cookies and other treats on the tree, wrapped in colorful foil. Instead of a star, some Swiss place an angel on the top of the tree. For most people in the USA, the choice is aesthetic, but for the Swiss who place an angel on the tree, it represents Christkindli, a guardian angel of the family.

Food is also an important part of celebrations. Among the French-Swiss, fondue, or melted cheeses are especially popular – and many other Swiss enjoy their cheeses in fondue fashion, too.

One interesting custom is the baking of Tirggel. They are cookies and are meant to be eaten but really they are edible art. Flavored with anise seeds, the dough is pressed in detailed molds with landscape scenes or edelweiss and other flowers common in the Alps. Tirggel are thought to be a carry over from pre-Christian times when honey cakes were offered to their gods as sacrifices.

Christmas in Switzerland offers many dazzling and, to outsiders, odd scenes and customs. But cookies, chocolates and other treats make it universally appealing, and of course, by whatever name he is called, children expect a visit from Santa, whether he is called Samichlaus, (recognize St. Nicholas?) Père Noël or San Nicolao.