Small Christmas Miracles

James has been having a bit of a difficult Christmas. He’s admitted to being pretty homesick, and I think that the holidays coming on were making him think more of home. More than that, though, James became convinced this year that Santa wasn’t real. And this wasn’t just a fleeting thought. He would argue about it. He would yell at his sister about it. He would get upset when anyone suggested otherwise.

So Sarah and I talked to him. We pulled him aside and said we thought it was fine if he didn’t want to believe in Santa Claus. He told us that he thought we were the ones who brought presents on Christmas. We told him that was true. But we also told him that it was important to his younger brother and older sister that Santa really existed. So we said that, for now, we would not discuss whether Santa existed in front of Emily and Henry, unless they wanted to talk about it too. He was OK with that.

Then we went on our Christmas Vacation in the Alps and a few small things happened. First, while enjoying our presents on Christmas Eve, a small bell rang from the next room, when the kids went in they found a few more presents and evidence that the Christkind had been there.

Santa's note on our tree
Santa's note on our tree

That night, at dinner, the Weihnachtsmann visited. The kids were suspicious of this man, but he pulled me aside, and asked me if I knew an Emily and James. I told him I did. He handed me two packages and told me that they contained a very special Swiss treat only for boys and girls who were ready to accept them. The Weihnachtsmann had singled out Emily and James.

Finally, when we arrived home in Münsingen, we found our fireplace open. There were bootprints and ashes around our tree. James detected hoof prints in the backyard. Most importantly, there were presents under our well-cared for and watered Christmas tree. There was also a note on the tree that read:

Dear Emily, James, and Henry,

I hope you had a great Christmas in the mountains. I told my friend Christkind to visit you there. But I couldn’t leave out any of my American children around the world, so I brought a few things to your home in Switzerland.

See you next year back in Milwaukee!


P.S. I hope you don’t mind – the reindeer were very thirsty from the long trip, so they took a drink from your pond.

The Kids can't believe that Santa came!
The Kids can't believe that Santa came!

James, Emily, and Henry all jumped around the room yelling that they couldn’t believe it! Santa had come to visit them in Switzerland. James told Sarah and I that he couldn’t believe that he was wrong about Santa. Then he told us he couldn’t believe that we were wrong about Santa, too.

We agree. How amazing it can be to believe again.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Winter Wonderland

Our real Alpine vacation started after all the Christmas festivities were over. We had spent most of the weekend celebrating indoors, so when we awoke on Monday to a beautiful blue sky day, we had to take advantage of it. There are a lot of winter sports in this area, including downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating, and sledding. We decided to start slow, so we bundled everyone up, rented an additional sled and headed to the nearby gondola.

A the top of the mountain, we had to hike over to the top of the sled run, darting across ski slopes with downhill skiers rushing past. When we came to a section with a downward slope, we crammed 5 people onto 2 sleds and rode down to the chalet by the Öschinensee, a beautiful alpine lake nestled among the mountains at 5177 feet. It was at this point that we realized we still had a long ways to go to the bottom of the mountain, and that sledding in the Alps is not really a slower choice after all.

The next section of the sled run is incredibly steep and follows a ravine which is not blocked by any kind of fencing. We flew down, jamming our heels into the snow as hard as we could, which only slowed us down to 50 mph from 60 mph. Joe and Emily, who had a significant lead, tanked first. And just as they were brushing themselves off and getting back on the sled, I flew by with the boys screaming at the top of their lungs. Seconds later, we also wiped out, mostly becuase it was the only way I could find to stop the sled before crashing into a tree or going over the edge. Just ahead of us was a 120 degree turn onto a narrow bridge over a mountain stream. But, after a few more harrowing turns, the trail calmed down a bit, so that we could at least look up occasionally and enjoy the scenery as we were whizzing past it.

We decided it wouldn’t be prudent to bring Henry on that run again, but the other kids were willing to give it another go. So, we took turns doing it again, with a little more success on the second round.

That night, we slowed way down, and walked over to the lighted toboggan run (Schlittenbahn) in town, which is a fairly straight and well groomed run with lights strung above it. We went down it a couple of times, and then walked back to the hotel under the stars for a dinner of traditional Fondue and Raclette.

Tuesday morning started our skiing adventure. Joe took the older kids up the mountain for their first ski lesson while Henry and I stayed back and hiked and sledded in the valley. Emily and James struggled quite a bit to keep their skis from crossing, they fell down a lot, they worked hard getting across flat areas, and they came back sweaty and exhausted. When I asked them how it was they said, “Great!”

With their first lesson under their belts, we figured we could take them out the next morning on our own. So we got up early and took the whole family up to a quieter, easier mountain on the other side of town. It turns out, this was not a good idea. Although the scenery was beautiful and we snapped a couple of cute pictures, do not be decieved. It was an unmitigated disaster. I could write a whole post about the next three hours of skiing (if you can call it that), but I don’t really want to remember it. Let’s just say that skiing with young beginners is extremely hard work. There was a lot of yelling and whining, though no crying, which puts us ahead of most of the other beginner families we saw. But, technically, we can all say that we have skied in the Swiss Alps.

Posted from Kandersteg, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Christmas Day: Pain and the Pelzmartiga

Christmas can be a real pain in the neck. Kids can be a real pain in the neck. Traveling during the holidays can be a real pain in the neck. Buying over-the-counter medications in Europe can be a real pain in the neck. Which is why, on Christmas Day, in Kandersteg Switzerland, I found myself in a doctors office explaining that I needed some anti-inflammatory medication because I had a real bad pain in my neck.

I’m not trying to complain here, but Christmas morning I woke up and was virtually unable to turn my head. I could look down okay, but looking up or to the sides was impossible. I knew what was going on, and I knew I just needed some Aleve to help it… but we didn’t have any. So I had to walk a couple blocks on Christmas morning to the local doctor so he could examine me and recommend some anti-inflammatory medication.

“You live in Switzerland?” he asked when I showed my Swiss health insurance card. “Yes. I live near Bern.” “Where do you work?” he asked me. “At the Inselspital,” I answered. “You’re a doctor?” he asked chuckling slightly. “Yep.” “What kind?” “Orthopaedics.” He now moved to a full on laugh. “I know,” I said, “this is all very silly.”

But I was thankful to have him there, and have learned more about the Swiss Health Care System in the meantime. Either way, by the end of the night I was beginning to feel better, and by the day after Christmas I could almost move normally again.

It turns out that Christmas in Switzerland has a contingency plan for this sort of thing. The Swiss have a tradition called the Pelzmartiga that is intended to ward off poor health, poverty, war, and danger. And they do this by trying to scare them away. So as we sat at Christmas dinner, an elegant 5-course meal with our children, we suddenly heard banging as though someone was dropping lots of pots and pans in the kitchen.

Instead, it turned out to be a group of citizens from the village, dressed up in traditional Pelzmartiga costumes, banging cowbells with old iron hooks. The walked into the hotel restaurant, mingled among the patrons alternatively scaring and consoling the children, and created the greatest ruckus I have ever heard at a Christmas dinner. To quote Henry: “They are very, very, loud.” Within ten minutes they were gone, and the children were beginning to calm down. But the impression will last a lifetime. Nothing caps off Christmas like a good scare!

Reading more about it, and speaking to locals, the Pelzmartiga are made up of the following characters:

  • The Chindlifrässer (Child Eater) wears a mask with a gaping mouth and menacing teeth. He carries a backpack with legs dangling out of it. The legs belong to a child that has fallen victim to him. The Chindlfrässer scares away famine and disease which, until the last century, caused the deaths of many young children.
  • The Chriismarti is dressed in evergreen branches and symbolizes the many dangers presented to men by winter in the woods.
  • The Blätzlibueb wears a gown of sheer fabric scraps to scare away poverty.
  • The Huttefroueli looks like an old woman carrying a war-torn soldier in a basket on her back. She scares away the threat of war.
  • The Spielkartenmann, covered all over with playing cards scares away desires to gamble and imprudent spending.
  • The Burli, a simple villager with pipe and nightcap. That’s all I could find out about that guy.
  • The Lyrimaa plays a hurdy-gurdy. You can throw money into its money slot to buy your freedom from evil powers.
  • The Heri, a gentleman in a tuxedo, hat, and white gloves holds a whip which he uses to keep the wild gang together and disciplines them if they become to violent.

Posted from Kandersteg, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Christmas in the Alps

Spending Christmas away from family is a difficult thing. Every present we opened that had been shipped across the ocean was simultaneously exciting and depressing. We Skyped with many of our family members, which is bitter sweet. It was wonderful to see everyone and share holiday greetings, but hanging up (sometimes with tears) brought us back to our quiet hotel room again. But, since we are staying in a lovely hotel in Kandersteg, Switzerland in the heart of the Berner Oberland surrounded by the Alps, there are many beautiful things and new experiences to keep our minds from dwelling on home, and make this a Christmas to remember.

On Christmas Eve, the hotel had a torchlight walk through the woods. So, as the sunlight was fading away behind the mountains, we gathered with an international group of fellow guests, plopped Henry on his sled (his primary mode of transportation for the week), and received our flaming torches. Even Emily and James were given torches, along with a short lecture about fire safety. There was a light snow falling as we paraded toward the woods and away from the lights of the town, until we found ourselves among snow covered evergreen trees, with only torches to light our way. After a short walk, we stopped in a clearing and enjoyed some glühwein for the adults and hot apple cider for the children, before returning to the hotel.

We had a lovely, 4-course Christmas Eve dinner in the hotel dining room, including cream of walnut soup, duck breast, and gingerbread ice cream. After dinner the Weihnachtsmann (German for Santa) came to visit all the children in the lobby and handed them each a small stocking filled with Swiss chocolate. This was something the hotel arranged for its primarily British clientele.

The Christmas tradition in Germany and Switzerland is for the Christkind, or Christ Child, to bring presents on Christmas Eve. Often represented by an angel, the Christkind comes when no children are in the room, and rings a bell to call them back, though the children never actually see him. So, back in our hotel room, the kids were playing with some of the toys they had received earlier that day when a bell rang in their bedroom. They looked at each other quizzically and then jumped up to see what it could be. They opened the door and there was a rush of cold air from an open window, which they looked out to catch a glimpse of a present-bearer, but there was no one there. Then they noticed some gifts left in the room, which they immediately got to open. It was our first visit from the Christkind.

We struggled to get the kids into their pajamas and said a prayer for our families so far away. We fell asleep to the ringing of church bells at the small alpine church next door calling worshipers to midnight mass.

Posted from Kandersteg, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

White Christmas

Snow has finally arrived! It started over the weekend, and has been falling on and off for about four days. As I write this, I am looking through our wall of windows at fluffy snowflakes falling into our backyard, covering trees and bushes with a picturesque white lining. It is truly a Winter Wonderland.

Remarkably, although it’s been snowing for several days, the accumulation is only a few inches. But that’s all it takes. Somehow a layer of snow makes our kids, who refused to go outside when it was a few degrees warmer, want to bundle up and build snowmen, throw snowballs, and just stick their tongues out and look skyward. (Or, if that doesn’t yield enough satisfaction, pick up a handful of snow and just eat it.) When they finally come in with rosy cheeks, we snuggle around our fireplace drinking hot cocoa.

The Swiss people love the snow and have been waiting for it longer than usual this year. They have a huge winter tourism season here as people come from all over the world to go skiing and experience a Swiss winter. And now we are starting to see why. I still have presents to wrap and packing to do, so for the moment I am content to enjoy the snow through my windows. I plan to light another fire, put on some Christmas music and sing “Let it Snow, let it snow, let it snow!”

Besides, this is good preparation for our Christmas in the Alps, where they have had snow for several weeks already. One of our favorite travel guides, Rick Steves, spent Christmas in the Alps a number of years ago. He stayed in Gimmelwald with Olle and Maria, just like we did back in October. Gimmelwald is a smaller town and more secluded setting than where we will be, but his video captures many Swiss things we have experienced, like sledding on traditional wooden toboggan sleds, eating fondue, reckless use of fire, and some Christmas traditions including Samichlaus and Schmutzli (not “Smoochli” as Rick Steves mistakenly pronounces it).

So, from snowy Switzerland, “Frohe Weihnachten!”

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Korean Diplomacy

Kim Jong Un
Wie gehts, euch?

While this seems to be quite unrelated to the normally festive holiday season here, news of Kim Jong Il’s death, and the succession of his son to the leader of North Korea has been cause for a lot of news coverage here in Switzerland. Obviously, it’s been a huge news story everywhere, but what you might not know is that Kim Jong Un, the new leader of North Korea, lived and studied here in Bern. Actually, to be specific, he lived on the outskirts of Bern and went to school at the International School just two towns over from where we live.

Kim Jong Un in Gumligen
Kim Jong Un in a class photo in Gumligen

So the new leader of North Korea speaks Schweizer Deutsch. Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il-Sung, who ruled North Korea from 1948 to 1994 was known as the Respected Leader. Kim Jong Il was known as the Dear Leader. I suppose Kim Jong Un will be known, simply, as lederhosen.

Posted from Berne, Bern, Switzerland.

Holidays with a Swiss twist

It’s hard to believe that Christmas Eve is just one week away! During this past week, we experienced even more Swiss holiday traditions.

Emily had two notable field trips. The first was to the Bern Puppentheater where her class watched the Christmas story – the one with baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph – enacted with puppets. Puppet theaters are very European, as is bringing public school children to a religious show (on a train!). This morning, Emily’s class went ice skating at an indoor rink in the next town where they were given ice skating lessons. They will go ice skating twice more this winter to improve their skills.

On Thursday night, Emily’s school had Wintersauber, which is a social gathering where families come to see the crafts the children have made and hear them sing holiday songs. The singing took place outside where it was cold, dark, and crowded. To warm everyone up, there was mulled cider being served out of a cauldron over an open fire. It was BYOM – Bring Your Own Mug.

James is our little chef; he loves to help out in the kitchen. In his kindergarten, they do a surprising amount of baking. He has made traditional breads, snacks, and cookies. I, on the other hand, am not much of a baker, though I do have some favorite Christmas cookies we make back home. However, it has proven impossible to make the same cookies here as the ingredients aren’t available. So, today the kids and I attempted to make a couple of traditional Swiss Christmas cookies. Cookies are very different here than what we are used to. There are no chocolate chips to be found, no gingerbread, no sugar cookies. Swiss cookies are made with a lot of ground nuts (almonds and hazelnuts) and anise, their favorite flavoring (they even put it in toothpaste!). The most common holiday cookies are cinnamon stars or Zimtsterne. We also made Chräberli. Both recipes require a significant amount of setting time, so we won’t know how they turned out for a couple of days. If you want to give them a try, the recipes are here.

Tomorrow, Joe is giving me a “Mommy’s Day Off,” and I am planning to go to the Weihnachtsmarkt in Bern and see a holiday choral concert at the Cathedral. What a great early Christmas present!

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Demystifying Swiss Christmas

Sarah recently wrote about our town and the approaching holidays, including an interaction between our children and Switzerland’s beloved Samichlaus. If you are anything like me, though, you may have eyed the darkly-clad mysterious figure next to Samichlaus and thought to yourself, “Who in the name of Yukon Cornelius is this baffling Christmas character?” It turns out that while America has imported and adapted the figure of Santa Claus for our Christmas season, we have largely abandoned the concept of his “Companions” that is so prevalent throughout Europe.


The mysterious dark figure that accompanies Samichlaus is none other than Schmutzli (or Père Fouettard in the French speaking regions), and he is Father Christmas’ answer to Corporal Punishment. Or at least, he used to be. While it was Samichlaus who loved children and brought them gifts of candy, nuts, and mandarins, Schmutzli was known to punish the naughty children by whipping them with a switch from his broom. His relationship to Samichlaus is not really well understood, but now he has become a more benevolent helper, passing out candy, nuts, and mandarins to children who recite poems or sing songs.

While Santa Claus lives in the North Pole, Samichlaus and Schmutzli live together in a hut (with a presumably Platonic relationship) in Germany’s Black Forest. One story I have heard is that Schmutzli was a poor woodcutter who “saved Christmas” one year. Samichlaus’ bag of treats had ripped open, and Schmutzli walked around with his own sack gathering up the fallen treats. Samichlaus was so grateful when Schmutzli brought him back all of the treats that he invited Schmutzli to accompany him on his journey to children’s houses. How, or when, it was decided that Schmutzli would get to beat the bad children (or stuff them in his sack), is less clear.

While the name Schmutzli uniquely belongs to Switzerland, European versions of St. Nick have traveled with other, similar Companions for centuries. He goes by many names and faces: Knecht Ruprecht (Rupert the Farmhand), Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), Krampus, BelsnickelBellzebub, and more. They all seem to have the same philosophy in common: they bring fear and retribution along with the kindness of St. Nick. They are the negative reinforcement to Santa’s positive reinforcement. (NPR recently did a story about the Krampus from the European Alpine folklore, if you are interested.)

SBB (The Swiss Rail System) use Samichlaus and Schmutzli to show you how to use paper and e-tickets.

Samichlaus and Schmutzli have their big night on December 6th, when they make the rounds visiting houses and leaving treats. On December 25th, however, presents are left for children by the Christkind or Christ child. Similar to our Santa Claus, the Christkind won’t leave presents while children are still awake (or at least not while they are in the room). Kids are sent to bed, or to hide in the basement while the Christkind leaves presents, and then the children are summoned back to the main room in hopes that they will get a glimpse of the Christkind before he flies out the door. Alas, he is still rarely seen.

David Sedaris summed up his reaction to the Dutch Christmas story, and how it contrasted with our American story, nicely (for full text, read the entire piece in Esquire here, or hear David Sedaris read it here – it is well worth the 15 minutes):

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you’re bad, he leaves you coal. If you’re good and live in America, he’ll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”

Posted from Berne, Bern, Switzerland.

Christmas is in the Air

My gift packages have been sent, our Christmas picture has been taken, and we’ve watched several Christmas specials on TV. Our decorations are up, minimal though they may be. But, this year we are adding some new experiences to our Christmas season.

First, I have seen my first real holly tree. They are very common here for landscaping. I even snipped a few sprigs for my advent wreath and decorations. Did you know that holly leaves are extremely sharp? The prickers on each point of the leaves are like needles. Ouch! You can see a whole holly tree in our Christmas season photo gallery.

On Sunday, our town of Münsingen had a Weihnachtsmarkt or Christmas market. The streets were filled with with stands selling homemade trinkets, baked goods, and other seasonal items. I finally had my first glass of glühwein. Samichlaus (the Swiss Santa Claus) and his sidekick Schmutzli were walking the streets handing out the traditional gifts of nuts, clementines, and chocolates to any children who do a little song or poem for him. Unaware of this requirement, Emily and James approached him in hopes of free loot, but found themselves singing “Jingle Bells” in front of a crowd of onlookers.

Yesterday, December 6th, was St. Nicholas Day, which is an important part of the Christmas season in Switzerland. As usual, we did it wrong. I grew up with St. Nicholas coming on the night of December 5th and filling our stockings. We don’t have stockings, so the kids left out their shoes (actually they left their rain boots, reasoning that they are bigger and would fit more stuff!). They woke up on the morning of the 6th to find them filled with little treats. But, in Switzerland, St. Nick doesn’t come until the evening of the 6th. Oops. During the day, he visited the schools where both Emily and James received a bag of nuts, chocolates, and clementines. Then, he visits family celebrations in the evening.

I went to choir practice that night, and we sang a beautiful arrangement of “Stille Nacht” as well as other pieces we are preparing for the Christmas service. I was surprised to see tables of – that’s right – clementines, nuts and chocolates, as well as tea, wine, and home made treats. We ended our practice a little early and sat down to share some holiday gemütlichkeit.

The Christmas spirit is definitely in the unseasonably warm air. Now, if only the rain outside would turn to snow…

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

It’s the Little Things – Calendars and Garbage

Today was just another normal day for us in Switzerland. In many ways, our life here is similar to what it was in America – kids go to school, Joe goes to work, there is housework, playdates, homework, shopping. And yet, there are so many little ways in which it is different. And when all the little differences are added up, it gives a picture of what it means to live in another culture and country. So, this is the first of an occasional series I call “It’s the Little Things” that will highlight some of the ways things are different here.

Advent Calendars – I’ve seen Advent calendars in America. In fact, we have one that has 24 felt characters that go onto a manger scene. But, here, Advent calendars are everywhere. Counting down from December 1st to the 24th is an important part of the Christmas season. The Brumanns, our friends from Basel, sent each of our kids an Advent calendar with paper doors that open to reveal pictures. They said their children used to have them every year and always looked forward to opening the doors. I didn’t think opening little one-inch square doors to see a picture would be that exciting, but my kids love them! They can hardly wait to open the next door. James also made another one at school with his own pictures behind each of the doors. Since today was December 1st, the kids finally got to open the first doors, and for the next 23 days, they will giddily open four doors on our Advent calendars, just like Swiss children have done for generations.

At school, the kids also have a form of an Advent calendar. There are small gifts for every school day between now and Christmas, and every day they pick the name of a student out of a bag. The lucky child gets to select a gift to open and keep.

Garbage – I know, I know… who wants to read about garbage?! But, I actually think the handling of garbage is a window into cultural values.

There are 7 categories of garbage here: plastic recyclables, paper recyclables, other recyclables, yard waste, compostable garbage, bread, and everything else. Regular garbage goes into specific mandatory municipal garbage bags that are available at the store, and are priced not just for the bags themselves, but for the volume of garbage they hold. Since garbage collection is not paid for entirely by taxes here, this is one of the ways they cover the costs while encouraging people to limit their waste.

Limiting waste is important here, and there are many ways people do this, but my favorite involves old bread. We’ve mentioned before that nearly all the bread is fresh bakery bread that only lasts for about 36 hours, which not only means that we have to buy bread just about every day, but it also means there can be a lot of rock hard bread crusts and end pieces left over. Interestingly, the bread does not mold, it just gets hard. Our landlady gave us specific instructions about what to do with all of our bread scraps: “feed them to the ducks.” So, about once a week, we go on an expedition looking for ducks on one of the creeks near our house. And today we hit the jackpot! While Emily was at school in the afternoon, James and Henry and I found about 40 ducks eager to eat our bread crumbs. So eager they were even jumping up on the steps where we were sitting. A couple times, they snatched pieces right out of James’s hands. It was the highlight of our afternoon. (Meanwhile, I gave Emily 4 Swiss Francs, and on her way home from school, she stopped in the local family-run butcher shop/market and bought a loaf of bread to bring home. I love that my 7-year-old can do that!)

There are no garbage disposals here, but throwing biodegradable food waste in the garbage is not ideal. Many people, including us, put food waste into a compost bin. Ours is outside next to our garden. Any outdoor waste that is too big for the compost bin goes in the green plastic garbage container for industrial compost that gets picked up occasionally, though I haven’t figured out exactly when. My goal has always been to fill the green container every time, as there is a lot of pruning and weeding that goes on to maintain the extensive gardens here.

In order to recycle things like glass, metal, batteries, etc. we have to haul it (by bike, of course) to a recycling station about 4 blocks from our house and sort it into the appropriate materials and colors. Plastic bottles go to a different recycling station by the grocery store. Paper must be tied up with string or put in paper bags and put out at the curb every other Monday.

Joe tells me that the the Inselspital where he works burns all of its garbage in a special
incinerator that generates power back to the hospital. No waste there!

The fact that these systems work so well here, especially the recycling and required garbage bags, is a testament to Swiss reliability, morality, and environmental consciousness. When they are told to do something, they do it. And for now, so do we.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.