Expat Life, Parenting, SwissNic, Travel

A Canadian-Danish Christmas in Switzerland

There’s no snow this year. In fact, it’s expected to be 10 degrees and sunny this afternoon. The great thing about Switzerland though, is that looking out my window I see the Alps across the lake and their peaks are snow-covered – it’s magical and very Christmassy despite the warm weather down here.

I have, as usual, woken up earlier than everyone else, and am sitting at my kitchen table with only one small light on, the sky is still dark outside. I love the morning silence. Jesse is out with friends, he didn’t come home last night.  I just sent him a message asking where he is, but the odds are low that he’ll reply this early in the morning. I sent my message anyway – it’s a bit like fishing, I’ve got my line out there and he’ll bite at some point. The key is patience.

Daniel is at his dad’s, in Canada. They have snow there, and will have a turkey or two over the next few days as they visit all the family members. I won’t make a turkey here, I am becoming more “Swissified” all the time, and we opted for a meat fondue cooked in wine as our traditional Christmas meal. I did make turkey for thanksgiving, and let me tell you something – the Swiss have something going here with the meat fondue idea. It is SO easy. Practically no preparation – you can buy the meat already cut up, the dipping sauces premade. Just heat up the broth and place the whole thing on the table for everyone to cook their own meat in the simmering fondue pot. Cleaning up involves one pot, which just had liquid – now is that easy or what? And to top it off, it’s delicious.

We’re also going to make a traditional Danish meal. Duck, hasselback potatoes and a salad of sliced oranges, almonds and cinnamon.

Since we worked every day for the last week, do you think we had time to do any grocery shopping? Uh, no. So today, in a few moments, I will have to head out into the madness to buy all the things we need for these meals. And maybe pick up a few last minute stocking stuffers too.

I love the combination of traditions, and there is no time when the differences are more evident than at Christmas. For our family, it’s a matter of blending three cultures into one event. In Danish tradition, Santa Claus (Julemand) shows up at the door at some point during the evening of the 24th. The kids all run around like crazy, the smaller ones terrified of course, the older ones muttering, “Hey wait a minute that looks like uncle…” while the parents hush them and take them aside for a “talk”. Julemand lives at the North Pole, which of course is in Denmark (Greenland, to be precise). He has a bag with a few small gifts, one for each child. The parents invite him in for a drink of Christmas beer and sometimes he actually does come in, because he apparently has lots of time.

In Switzerland, Santa Claus comes on December 6th. Yes, you read me right. Saint Nicholas day is the traditional day when the Père Noël, in French, or Samichlaus, in Swiss German, shows up. He lives at the North Pole, which of course is in Finland. Often there is a village festival on December 6th, and at some point Samichlaus will come to your door and leave small gifts, oranges and chocolate in your shoe. It’s important to have big shoes in Switzerland. By the way, there’s a bad guy who hangs around with Santa called le Père Fouettard, or Schmutzli in Swiss German, who has a dirt smudged face and brown robes, and also carries a bag. He’s there to either whip or just simply kidnap the bad kids. Bizarrely, the police seem ok with all this. Often, Schmutzli has a donkey that carries the bag. I guess those big footed kids get heavy.


In Europe, or Western Europe at least, if you ask someone when Christmas is, they will say the 24th of December. In North America it’s the 25th. It’s all very confusing. I have to admit, while we north Americans are being forced out of our bed in the wee morning hours of the 25th by kids who want to open their presents, the Swiss are sleeping soundly- their kids all opened their presents the night before, and were allowed to stay up as late as they wanted. This is Swiss cleverness at its best. Seriously, what are we thinking in America? We desperately try to get the kids to fall asleep on the 24th even though they are way too full of excitement and candy, then we typically stay up late having some drinks until we are ready for bed, which is roughly when we realize we haven’t wrapped all the gifts from Santa yet, then we spend the next hour exhaustingly wrapping things, sometimes running out of scotch tape (bandaids work in a pinch by the way). We crawl exhausted into bed at 1am and open our eyes at 6am (if we’re lucky) to see a small face and big eyes staring right up close to our face, and a small voice whispers “she’s awake!”

We roll out of bed, grab the camera, and growl grumpily, “No one do anything till I get a coffee!” The kids hop around excitedly grabbing and shaking packages and once we are settled on the couch the mad tearing open of wrapping paper can begin. To be fair, there is something magical about that moment. The combination of fatigue and coffee induced edginess heightens your senses and everything seems more exciting.

Then there’s the inevitable post-gift madness trauma. You know, that point where you realize you don’t have batteries, you don’t have the tiny screw driver required to open the battery compartment, you don’t have the special pen that is not included in the magic toy, or your 5 year old excitedly holds up the huge box of playmobil and asks you to “help” put it together.

All of this happens before 8am generally.

The Swiss are still sleeping.

You are on your 7th coffee.

You decide it’s time for breakfast and head to the kitchen to whip up the easy morning breakfast casserole you found in a magazine. This takes you two hours instead of twenty minutes, for reasons that are still being studied by the scientific community. Perhaps you are just moving slowly, like a movie being played in slow motion.

By the time breakfast is ready your children have eaten twenty four pieces of chocolate, seventeen candy canes and five cookies. You serve your wonderful casserole which is slightly burnt but bizarrely undercooked in the center, and the kids have one bite each then say they are full. Your husband dutifully eats his entire portion with a big smile plastered in his face, and you realize it’s moments like these, when he’s willing to pretend your food is amazing, that you know why you love him.

By 11 am the Swiss are getting up and quickly making an espresso in their tiny tiny cups, which they drink in under two seconds. Their kids may have been up for a while, but, and here’s the cleverest part, they kept themselves busy playing with the new toys they got last night.

Ah but all of that is still ahead of me, as I write this on the morning of the 24th. We’re going to try a combination of traditions this time: the kids will open most presents tonight, and Santa Claus will leave a few smaller gifts which can be opened tomorrow morning.  I am not, I repeat, not, making a breakfast casserole. I will not be swayed by anything I read in a magazine today.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

3 thoughts on “A Canadian-Danish Christmas in Switzerland”

  1. Love it! We also are a mix of Swiss / German / UK living in Hong Kong and also ‘discuss’ 24 vs 25. I think I will try the Swiss way next year!

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