If I had to sum up what a Swiss Christmas means to me, in a word it would be, Schmützli.
Our family lived in Europe for the past seven years. For five of those years, we were in Zurich, Switzerland. Not only do the Swiss know how to make watches, run trains, and produce remarkable cheese, they know how to do Christmas, too—old school, handmade and lovely. To stroll through an open-air Swiss Christmas market is an amazing, sensory experience. And the seasonal foods that are only ever found in the winter months, I quickly learned to treasure. The smell of roasting chestnuts wafting from virtually every streetcorner in the city, delicious cookies with funny names like, Mailänderli, Chräberli and Zimtsterne lined every bakery window in December, and stalls selling Raclette (my favorite), a huge wheel of very special cheese that is heated under a grill until gooey, then scraped overtop small boiled potatoes, gherkins and pickled onions—I never tired of this.
But, food aside, it was Schmützli (pronounced Sch-mootz-lee,) who won over my Christmas spirit completely. Schmützli is a small, robed man who accompanies Sami Klaus (the Germanic Santa Claus) everywhere he goes. He is ‘yin’ to Sami Klaus’ ‘yang’; a sort of creepy sidekick. Roughly translated, Schmützli means ‘dirty’. While Sami Klaus is benevolent, light and kind, Schmützli is menacing, dark and downright scary. Here’s why: Schmützli carries with him a burlap sack and a handful of long twigs with which, as the old story goes, he will beat bad children, stuff them into his bag and carry them off into the forest never to be seen again. Merry Christmas!
I found Schmützli to be such a bizarre holiday personality, that I couldn’t help but embrace him wholeheartedly. I mean, what proclaims ‘Happy Holidays’ more than intimidating unruly children with the threat of a good hiding, followed up by kidnapping?
Swiss kids are sincerely and rightfully afraid of Schmützli.
In some small villages, like ours, Sami Klaus and Schmützli would come to the house for a visit. On our first snowy, Swiss Christmas, as Sami Klaus read my children a story and handed out small gifts, Schmützli stood forebodingly in the corner; his coal-smudged face hidden by the brown hood of his robe. He said nothing, moved little, and my daughters were absolutely terrified of him. After that first visit, I spilled the beans, telling them that Sami Klaus was the real deal, but that Schmützli was a fictitious character made up simply to scare naughty kids.
So while the traditional Swiss Christmas is exquisite, filled with delicately spiced cookies, roasted nuts, wonderfully smelly cheese, and mugs of warm glüvine, it is the small, threatening, ‘dirty’ man that warms my heart and memory the most.
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