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Christmas celebrations in Switzerland do not differ very much from those in other western European nations. However, the customs in Switzerland's four different linguistic regions (German, French, and Italian) tend to resemble those of their immediate neighbors.
There is an interesting difference: Santa Claus plays a much smaller part at Christmas. In the German and French-speaking parts of the country, his role is taken over by the "Christkind" or "Le petit Jésus," the Christ child, a beautiful, radiant, angel-like being with wings, dressed in white with a shining crown and a magic wand. According to popular belief, it represents little Jesus. Though sometimes, it is connected with an angel bearing a light or star who heralded the birth of Christ at Bethlehem. The Christ child also has the attributes of a fairy (wand and wings). Little children are told that this person -and not Santa Claus- brings the tree and the gifts on Christmas Eve. That is why small children do not get to see the tree before the actual celebration. Bigger children, however, help the parents decorate the tree. At the foot of the decorated tree, a creche is often placed with wooden or ceramic figures representing the adoration of Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem, with shepherds, angels, sheep, a cow and a donkey and the three Magi.
Usually parents decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. But more and more, especially young families are adopting the American way of having a decorated tree and electric lights all through December. (December is also "Advent" or "waiting" period: four candles on a green spruce wreath are the outward sign of this period, when a new candle is lit every Sunday until Christmas Eve. Advent is usually a hectic time with buying gifts, decorating tree and other ornaments, learning poems and songs, all contributing to the festivities of Christmas.
After an early dinner, the whole family, ideally several generations, gathers around the tree. Songs and sometimes hymns are sung. Some read the birth passage from the bible. Gifts are exchanged. Those who are not too tired go to midnight mass which is always particularly festive. The most popular song heard during that time is "Silent Night, Holy Night," written and composed in Austria. The tree is always there on Christmas Eve. But depending on the region, Christmas gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day, January 1 or January 6 (Epiphany, when the three Magi were said to have visited the Christ child).
The name Santa Claus comes from Sankt Nikolaus or Saint Nicolas (an early Christian bishop from Myra in present-day Turkey, the protector of children). This friendly figure does not play a role at Christmas, but appears on December 6, the Patron Saint's Day. In the Swiss German part, he is known as "Samichlaus" and he visits homes and schools, distributing sweets, fruits and nuts to well-behaved children and giving good advice to the less well-behaved. In Switzerland, he is not accompanied by a reindeer, but very often by a donkey and a dark-clad assistant. The children assume that they come from the snowy mountains.
Of course, calendars can also be hand-made. We used to open fresh walnuts carefully into halves, eat the nuts and paint the shell golden, then hide little treasures inside before glueing them onto a wide velvety ribbon for the children to break off, one a day. Sometimes in rural areas, windows are charmingly decorated as advent calendars and in the city, entire house fronts become calendar.
Cookies are very popular to buy and make. Each family has their own recipes and favorites.
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