Christmas in Switzerland: How to celebrate a typical Swiss Christmas

Christmas in Switzerland: How to celebrate a typical Swiss Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Christmas time is upon us! Celebrating the holidays in Switzerland is an exercise in lights, decoration and, of course, lots of presents. To help guide expats through the season, check out our handbook on everything you need to know about a traditional Swiss Christmas.

How does Switzerland celebrate Christmas?

As elsewhere in the world, celebrating Christmas in Switzerland is a family affair, with many treating it as a chance to down tools and take time off work to celebrate. While most of the festivities take place in December, celebrations can start as early as November!

In the cities, the start of the season also signals the return of some magical Christmas markets, with many, like the Basel Christmas market, being famous the world over. The dazzling lights and delightful stores are an ideal addition to the festive atmosphere and are usually the first sign that Christmas is near - beyond hearing the first Mariah Carey song, of course.

Christmas customs in Switzerland

Along with the universal customs of trees, presents and carolling, there are also a great number of Christmas traditions in Switzerland. From baking Swiss cookies like Zimtsterne and Chräbbeli to making a traditional advent wreath (Adventskranz), there are plenty of ways to feel like a local during the winter holidays.

One of the most notable customs is when towns in Switzerland convert whole neighbourhoods into an advent calendar. Advent windows, or Adventsfenster, are assigned to different houses every day from December 1 to 24. Residents are encouraged to decorate a window of their house with ornaments, which will only be revealed on their assigned day. On December 24, the last advent window is typically a church, where a small service is performed in the evening.

Christmas wreath

Swiss Christmas decorations

While Swiss Christmas trees are pretty similar to the rest of the world in how they look, there are a number of cute decorations that are unique to the alpine nation. Along with the traditional lights and baubles, people in Switzerland also put a number of handcrafted ornaments on Christmas trees like wood carvings of mountain scenes, chocolate and other personal items. 

Traditionally, Christmas trees are also decorated with lit candles on Christmas Eve, along with smaller presents and treats. In addition, many people in Switzerland choose to have some light decorations on their houses, although they won't be as impressive as the massive lighting rigs common in America - a lit-up deer or star will often suffice in the alpine nation.

Christmas tree Switzerland

The important days in a Swiss Christmas

The traditional Swiss Christmas officially starts on St. Nicholas Day on December 6, but bear in mind that many Christmas markets have already been up and running since November, so it really is up to you when to start! Once you do get started, there are many important dates to know. 

When are you supposed to get your Christmas tree?

A common question asked by expats is when to put up and take down your Christmas tree. Christmas trees will start to adorn houses in Switzerland from late November, although bear in mind that the longer you keep your tree, the harder it will be to keep it alive until Christmas Day - the underfloor heating common in Swiss housing really is a killer of trees. 

However, in more traditional parts of the country, the Christmas tree is actually hidden away until December 24, when it is dramatically revealed during or after dinner. 

While putting up the tree can take place at any time, when you take your tree down is highly important. Christmas trees in Switzerland are taken down on Twelfth Night (January 5). Christmas trees are usually collected by the local council (Gemeinde) around this time, either through the green bin system or by a dedicated tree removal service employed by local authorities.

While you are allowed to keep your tree up beyond this date, you may receive some tuts and odd looks from older members of the community, as technically speaking, having a Christmas tree up past this date is bad luck.

December 6: St. Nicholas Day

Interestingly, Santa isn’t known to visit people in Switzerland on December 24 or 25, but on December 6 - known as St. Nicholas Day or Samichlaus Abend. Of course, it is easy for the red-caped wonder to make the journey into town for the event, as according to folklore, he actually lives in the forests of Switzerland, rather than at the North Pole.

During the event, Santa and his sidekick Schmutzli - meaning “little dirty one” - arrive with a donkey in tow. The arrival itself is accompanied by bright colours, music, cowbells and candles, traditionally seen as a way to scare away the evil spirits that take hold in the depths of winter.

Children quickly gather around Samichlaus and Schmutzli and ask for treats. If they were good this year and promise to be good next year, then Santa gives the child a gift - usually chocolate, fruit or pastries. 

If they are found to be bad then traditionally Schmutzli is supposed to whip the offending children, although the chances of this happening in the 21st century are extremely low.

Christmas Eve in Switzerland

In Switzerland, most of the important Christmas events happen on December 24. Christmas Eve (Heiliger Abend) is celebrated according to the traditions of each town, city and canton, and is usually dictated by the most common denomination of Christianity in the area.

After the traditional religious celebrations, people in Switzerland exchange most of their gifts on Christmas Eve rather than on December 25, which are said to be delivered not by Santa but by the Christkind or Christ-child. In some households, the gifts are hidden around the house for the children to find, similar to an Easter egg hunt. This is followed by a festive meal that is usually eaten in the evening.

What does Christmas dinner look like in Switzerland?

Unlike the rest of the world, there isn’t a traditional Christmas meal in Switzerland like turkey. However, some of the most popular options are Filet am Teig (pork fillet wrapped in pastry), Fondue Chinoise (meat fondue) and Schinkli im Teig (gammon wrapped in pastry). Fish is also a popular option.

Christmas dinner in Switzerland

Things to do on Christmas Day

With most of the traditional Christmas festivities out of the way, there really is no set routine to Christmas Day itself, beyond the typical church service. Many use the day to see family and friends, while others take it as an opportunity to go out skiing and snowboarding in the Swiss mountains.

In terms of food, Christmas Day is often seen as the ideal time to indulge in a cheese fondue or raclette - an ideal tonic after a day out in the cold Swiss weather.

Christmas Day traditions Switzerland

Are Christmas Eve and Day working holidays in Switzerland?

Christmas Eve is sadly not a public holiday in most parts of Switzerland (although it is in some communities in Canton Glarus). Christmas Day, on the other hand, is a working holiday, but bear in mind that if December 25 falls on a weekend, the day off won’t be carried over to the next Monday.

Boxing Day traditions

Boxing Day, known in Switzerland as St. Stephen's Day, is another great opportunity to spend time with family and friends, doing activities and celebrating the season. It also benefits from being a working holiday in all but three Swiss cantons - Geneva, Jura and Vaud

Much like the rest of the world, Boxing Day is also an ideal time to get in some post-Christmas shopping, with shops often offering discounts. After this, the alpine nation moves from celebrating Christmas to welcoming in the new year.

Christmas in Switzerland: Sorted

Well there you have it, all you need to know about Christmas in Switzerland. Whether you are planning to visit the alpine nation during the season, or are a new arrival looking to embrace the holiday traditions, we wish you Schöni Wiehnachte, Joyeux Noël, Buon Natale and Bellas festas da Nadal!

Thumb image credit: ecstk22 /

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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