This week it’s my turn to be introduced to a new holiday tradition: the Dec. 6 feast of St. Nicholas, here in Bern, and the rest of German-speaking Switzerland, known as Samichlaus.
It’s a fun celebration for kids similar to the lead-up to Christmas in the States, but a separate party all together. On Dec. 6, St. Nicholas’ Day, children are visited by Samichlaus and his dark side kick, Schmutzli, and sometimes their donkey.
Samichlaus is dressed in a red and white fur coat with a long white beard, not unlike Santa Claus. (Just saw them walking down my street but I was too slow with the camera)
Also like Ol’ St. Nick back home, Samichlaus knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.
For the good kids, (aren’t they all?) it’s a bag of treats: candies, mandarins and nuts. If they’ve been bad, they could be swatted with a bundle of tree branch switches or, some say, dragged off to who-knows-where by Schmutzli.
Parents can sign up to have Samichlaus visit their house so they offer up a list of the child’s good and bad deeds.
Samichlaus then has a little chat with the children about their behavior. The kids often recite poems or perform songs to the man in red and the treats are bestowed upon the littles.
A cute little side note: Dominique used to volunteer to play Samichlaus. One year, a father told of his son’s new love for swear words. When Samichlaus asked the child about his antics, Samichlaus discovered the boy had heard these naughty words from, of course, his dad. Samichlaus then had to have a few words with his father. A little fun for the boy (and Samichlaus) and a little red face for the dad.
If Samichlaus doesn’t speak to the kids directly, they may just wake up in the morning to find treats in their shoes. This tradition can also be found in the states, commonly in the Midwest whose families trace back to German heritage. (Hey Ma! Who dropped the ball on this one?)
Back to Samichlaus, another fine tradition of the day is the baking of bread. The loaves are shaped like a man, sometimes he’s smoking a chocolate pipe.
It’s called Griitibanz and it’s delicious. I’ve read that it’s supposed to be Samichlaus. My mother in law, who brought us this fresh loaf this morning, said she didn’t know who it was, just some man.
Whatever the case, it’s darn good.
This is where Samichlaus leaves us for the year. He, unlike Santa, plays no part in the Christmas celebrations surrounding Dec. 25. For this, we look to a new figure, Christkindli, or little Christ child. Some also say it’s the angel who shone the way to where Jesus was born.