Samichlaus and Schmutzli: Meet the Swiss Santa Claus and his helper
With his red cloak, white fur lining and bushy beard, Santa Claus (Samichlaus) has and always will be a sign that Christmas has arrived in Switzerland. Samichlaus and his sidekick Schmutzli are common sights across the alpine nation during the winter season, from Christmas markets to St. Nicholas Day. Here’s what you need to know:
Santa in Switzerland
Santa Claus, called Samichlaus or St. Nicholas (or Saint-Nicholas in French), is one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas, both around the world and in Switzerland. Santa in Switzerland is based on the historical St. Nicholas, who was a Greek bishop and gift-giver in fourth-century Anatolia.
In recent centuries, St. Nicholas has become known for his kindness to children and for giving gifts. The practice of giving presents at Christmas time - first on St. Nicholas Day and now on Christmas Eve - is said to have been spread to Swiss cities and cantons by the Italians in the 11th century.
All you need to know about Samichlaus in Switzerland
Unlike the Americanised version - where Santa is a large, jolly man that lives in the North Pole, rides a sleigh pulled by a certain red-nosed reindeer and is somehow sponsored by Coca-Cola - Samichlaus in Switzerland is a bit more understated.
What does a Swiss Santa wear?
While his looks do vary, traditionally, St. Nick is meant to be dressed as a bishop with a red robe, mitre and staff. Instead of a red-nosed reindeer, Santa is known to travel on foot or with a donkey. In fact, the only similarity you’ll find between American Santa and Swiss Santa is that they wear red and they both have large white beards.
Where does Samichlaus come from?
Instead of living at the North Pole, Samichlaus actually lives in Switzerland. Depending on the canton, the red-robed wonder is said to either live in the forests of the alpine nation, or in a charming cottage in the Swiss mountains. This can be handy, as this way he doesn’t have to use reindeer to get to towns and cities.
Does Santa deliver presents in Switzerland?
Interestingly, although Santa is known to deliver presents on December 24 and 25, especially to expat children, he is not the main giver of presents in Switzerland. That honour - at least in protestant areas of the country - goes to the Christkind or Christ-child.
The Christkind is a traditional gift-giver during the holidays, which usually takes the form of a small child with blonde hair and angelic wings. On the night before or during Christmas Eve, the figure travels to each house to deliver presents, but be sure not to try and spot the Christkind as it won't give any presents if it is discovered!
Who is Schmutzli?
Samichlaus' sidekick, Schmutzli, known as Père Fouettard in French-speaking areas, is part of the Santa tradition in Switzerland. The fairly creepy-looking helper is seen to be the bad cop to Santa's good cop and is meant to scold children if they have been naughty.
Schmutzli is quite a familiar sight across Europe, with different countries all having their own version. Those who have seen Knecht Ruprecht in Germany or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands will have some idea of the purpose of Schmutzli in the Christmas tradition.
What does Schmutzli mean?
Schmutzli is a Swiss German word meaning "dirty" or "little dirty one". This is clear by how he is dressed: in a black robe or sack with a dark beard and a face covered in coal dust. He is also known to carry a broom and a bunch of branches, which he uses to whip naughty children - although this doesn’t happen nowadays.
What happens on St. Nicholas Day?
Instead of coming on Christmas Eve and Day, Santa’s appearance in Switzerland occurs on the night of December 5 - the night before St. Nicholas Day. In the evening, so-called chasing parades or Klausjagen signal the arrival of Santa and Schmutzli, with children cheering and raising all manner of noise to welcome the two new arrivals. Some communities also signal their arrival with music, candles and parties.
Once Samichlaus and Schmutzli arrive, children are expected to come to them and recite a poem (known as a spruchli). These small poems are typically taught in Swiss schools, but many children choose to write their own.
Santa then asks the child whether they have been good in the last year and whether they promise to be good in the year ahead. In return for the poem and the promise, Samichlaus then gives the child a treat - usually a Christmas cookie, chocolate, peanuts or a mandarin. This giftgiving continues through to St. Nicholas Day, after which both characters are said to return home to prepare for their journey to other parts of the world.
Swiss Santa: explained
The arrival of Santa in Swiss towns and cities is a truly authentic tradition that lasts to this day. Once the festivities are over, people in Switzerland move on to preparing for Christmas Eve and Day, which you can read about in our guide to Christmas in Switzerland.
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