At first glance, winter holidays in the Alps are just what you’d imagine: blankets of snow are piled high atop timber-framed roofs, smoke curls from the chimneys; inviting windows are lit with lanterns carved to reveal twinkling evergreens; neighbors inside sip Glühwein and bake small mountains of cookies like Zimtsterne and Brunsli to exchange with friends and family.
Some traditions are a bit like things you’d find in the states, just…well, better. Like advent calendars. The ones I remember are a small cardboard affair, with little perforated “windows” torn open each day of December to uncover a low-quality chocolatey treat, relished entirely because it meant candy for breakfast. Sound familiar?
In the Alps, the days of December are often counted by Adventsfenster. Twenty-four families in the village decorate windows of their homes with lights and colorful scenes, which are kept under shutter until the time is right. Each evening, neighbors gather at a new house to sing, enjoy baked goods, and marvel as the next window is revealed, marking one more day in the countdown to Christmas. The whole village becomes a living advent calendar!
Jolly old St. Nicholas is a little different in the Alps, too. “Samichlaus” does not bring presents on the 24th of December, but on the 6th. Nor does he arrive down the chimney chauffeured by reindeer. He simply knocks on the door and is invited in. The children are very much awake for this visit as he gathers them close to extoll their good behavior and shower them with goodies from his long bag filled with mandarins, nuts, and cookies. Here, badly-behaved little ones are given the chance to repent and change Samichlaus’ mind on the spot, bribing him with comical, usually well-wishing, but sometimes sarcastic songs and poems. If they fail to sway his opinion, however, their fate is left to his trusty sidekick (and it ain’t Rudolph). With a black robe and dirty, sooty face, the frightening Schmutzli stuffs unrepentant bad children in his sack and kidnaps them away to the forest for punishment!
Harking back to a time when life was more difficult and uncertain, a whole gamut of ghoulish characters join Schmutzli in Swiss Alpine traditions. Many of the isolated valleys have their own celebrations throughout the winter with more pagan influences around fire and light, or the driving out of evil winter spirits.
The Harder Potschete is one, celebrated during New Year’s in Interlaken. Above town lies the Harder Kulm mountain, the side of which looks like a man’s face staring out of the cliffside. Each winter the “Hardermannli” descends on Interlaken with his wife and followers — the “Potschen”– spreading mischief and mayhem in the streets. Locals disguised in large, wild, hand-carved masks, sheep skins, goat hair, and steinbock horns parade at random through the streets ringing bells, shouting, and dragging unsuspecting bystanders and children along with them. Among the procession following the Potschete are at least one group of Trychlen ringing, in unison, the largest cowbells you’ve ever seen. The louder the bells, the faster these evil winter spirits of the past year are driven back to the mountain.
Whether it’s good old-fashioned holiday cheer, or more ancient mischief and magic you’re after, chances are the Alps hold a special way for you to celebrate the winter season. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do!