Christmas in Switzerland: A Guide to Swiss Holiday Traditions

#Travel guide Christmas in Switzerland: A Guide to Swiss Holiday Traditions

Switzerland may be small, but it’s Christmas celebrations shine as bright as the stars topping evergreen trees all across the Alpine country. With glittering lights strung over cobbled streets, aromas of cinnamon and roasted chestnuts in the air, families gathered around the dinner table, and snow-capped mountain peaks in sight, Christmas in Switzerland has an undeniable magic.

This comprehensive guide dives into Swiss Christmas customs, foods, decorations, and more. Learn all about beloved traditions like Christmas markets, advent calendars, Swiss baking recipes, and Saint Nicholas Day festivities. Discover the unique ways Switzerland rings in the most wonderful time of the year.

A Brief History of Christmas in Switzerland

Switzerland is at the heart of Europe, bordering Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Liechtenstein. This central location and cultural diversity have influenced Swiss Christmas traditions over the years. Customs have been adopted from German, French, and Italian neighbors. One long-standing tradition is celebrating Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th. Saint Nicholas was a Greek Christian bishop known for his generosity and gift giving. This set the foundation for many modern Santa Claus traditions. Swiss children leave their shoes out on the night of the 5th, which Saint Nicholas kindly fills with nuts, chocolate, fruit, and small presents.

In the 16th century, Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli forbid overly lavish Christmas celebrations. This lasted over 300 years until lifted in the 19th century. Since then, festivities have expanded across Switzerland. Each canton (state) puts their own spin on celebrations while upholding national customs.

A Brief History of Christmas in Switzerland with

When Does the Swiss Christmas Season Start?

While songs about red-nosed reindeer and jolly old Saint Nick start playing in shops from November onward in other countries, the Swiss adhere to a more patient holiday timeline: Advent Starts November 30th: The first Sunday of Advent marks the unofficial start of the Christmas season in Switzerland. Advent wreaths with four candles are displayed. Candles are lit on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th: Celebrating the original gift-bearer, Swiss children clean their shoes and set them outside to be filled with treats overnight.

Christmas Trees Go Up on December 24th: As not to rush the season, Swiss families typically wait until Christmas Eve to decorate evergreen trees with twinkling lights, ornaments, and topped with a star.

Christmas Day Family Gatherings on December 25th: Christmas is reserved for sacred traditions. Most Swiss attend church services on Christmas morning before gathering with family for a late afternoon feast.

New Year’s Eve on December 31st: The Swiss see out the old year and welcome the new one with champagne, firesworks, and reunions with friends.

Do They Celebrate Advent in Switzerland?

Yes, advent marks the start of the Christmas season in Switzerland. It begins four Sundays before December 25th. The key advent tradition is lighting advent wreath candles at ceremonial events and during Sunday worship services.

The circular evergreen wreaths are adorned with four candles, one for each week leading up to Christmas. The first candle symbolizing hope is lit on the first Sunday. The second candle representing faith is lit on the second Sunday, followed by the joy and peace candles in the subsequent weeks.

Swiss families may also have mini homemade advent wreaths to use at home. Children eagerly wait to light the candles as each week passes during the month of December. The soft glow builds the anticipation towards Christmas day.

Many Swiss towns have special advent concerts, plays, and gatherings to celebrate the season. It’s common for workplaces, churches, schools, and community groups to host seasonal social events in keeping with the advent spirit. Neighbors, colleagues, family, and friends come together to kindle connections and spread holiday cheer.

A sweet way Swiss families uphold advent tradition is through advent calendars stuffed with candy, fruit, nuts, and small toys. These creative countdowns are often handmade and full of delightful surprises behind each numbered flap or tiny drawer. Kids eagerly open the daily treat as a way to punctuate the wait until Christmas morning.

How Do the Swiss Celebrate Saint Nicholas Day?

While Americans associate December 6th with Saint Nick silently delivering gifts overnight, Swiss children partake in a more interactive celebration. Saint Nicholas Day traditions include cleaning shoes, singing songs, telling your wishlist to St. Nick, and receiving a basket of holiday treats.

How Do the Swiss Celebrate Saint Nicholas Day?

Shoe Setting Customs

On the evening of December 5th, excited children diligently clean and polish their shoes or boots. They place the pairs outside bedroom doors and windows overnight. This signals flying Saint Nicholas to land his donkey, fill shoes to the brim with candy and gifts, then whisk away to find more footwear to fill!

Some Swiss shoe-setting traditions say wishes must be written inside shoes for St. Nick to read. Others require carrot sticks be left beside shoes to feed hungry donkeys after their lunar voyage. Either way, children try their best to be on their best behavior leading up to Saint Nicholas Eve.

Parties and Costume Parades

The next morning on December 6th, Swiss kids joyfully run to inspect shoe surprises left by Saint Nicholas.Sunday school classes may host parties with Saint Nicholas making an appearance in bishop regalia. Children line up to whisper Christmas wish lists and receive traditional holiday foods.

Parades also wind through villages on the 6th with people dressed as Saint Nicholas. He tosses chocolate gold coins and tangerines to crowds of families who turn out to celebrate. Some parades even include others symbolic figures. Saint Nicholas walks alongside angels, sheep, donkeys, and his devilish companion Schmutzli!

What Foods Are Eaten at Christmas in Switzerland?

Swiss Christmas dinners are filled with mouthwatering dishes to satisfy hungry families after long days spent ice-skating, sledding, skiing, or wandering about Christmas markets. The feast is eaten in the late afternoon once presents have been opened.

Traditional Swiss Christmas foods include: Raclette: This popular dish involves heating Raclette cheese rounds under a tabletop grill, then scraping the melted cheese over potatoes. Fondue Chinoise: Cubes of meat are cooked tableside in bubbling hot broths then speared and dipped in sauces. Roasted Chestnuts: Chestnut vendors with steaming carts are a common sight during the holidays. Zimtsterne: Cinnamon star cookies, also called Spitzbuben, are a Swiss Christmas classic. Mailänderli: These chewy gingerbread cookies packed with nuts and spices pair perfectly with hot cider. Baked Goods: Expect to find stollen fruit cakes, nutty macaroons, spice bars like Basler Brunsli, and rich butter cookies. Chocolate Truffles: Switzerland’s world-famous chocolate seems to appear in most homes during Christmas. Glühwein: Adults warm up with this mulled wine infused with cinnamon sticks and citrus. Kids drink Ovomaltine, a malt-flavored hot chocolate.

What Kind of Christmas Decorations Are Found in Switzerland?

Walk the streets of any Swiss town during the holiday season and you’ll surely feel Christmas magic in the air! Twinkling lights and frosted greens fill pedestrian districts. Most Swiss save major decorating efforts for Christmas Eve though. Here are common decorations seen: Evergreen Wreaths on Doors: Circular evergreen wreaths studded with red berries and pinecones adorn front doors across Switzerland. Lit Village Streets: Lamp posts and street lights up and down thoroughfares glow with white string lights or color-changing bulbs. Garlands may link buildings overhead across narrow alleyways.

Outdoor Electric Candles: Flickering electric candles shine in many home windows. You may also spot illuminated stars symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem’s guiding light.

Public Christmas Trees: From small mountain hamlets to big cities like Zurich and Geneva, town squares showcase impressively decorated trees glowing with thousands of twinkling lights.

Handmade Pyramids: One unique tradition is making homemade Christmas pyramids. These are triangular wooden structures with a candle inside that power a rotating carousel of figurines at the base when lit.

Indoor Christmas Trees: These centerpieces of Swiss Christmas go up late on the 24th. Families decorate small potted firs that live on balconies the rest of the year with glass ornaments, wood decorations, tinsel garland, candles, and lights. Stars or angels are placed on top.

When Do They Decorate Christmas Trees in Switzerland?

Surprisingly, most Swiss adhere to old traditions of not putting up Christmas trees early in December. This custom likely began when Christmas trees were briefly banned for religious reasons. Plus, ceiling heights in historic buildings made fitting full-sized evergreens tricky.

Whatever the reasons, families uphold the tradition of decorating Swiss Christmas trees on the afternoon or evening of December 24th. Typically real firs or spruces that are only 3-5 feet tall are used since they fit in modern apartments and can be replanted after the holiday.

What Foods Are Eaten at Christmas in Switzerland?

This is a merry occasion accompanied by holiday music, mouthwatering smells of upcoming feasts, and excited gift exchanges. Children earnestly help parents unbox treasured ornaments saved from prior years. Tinsel garland, glass balls, painted wood decorations, tiny nutcrackers, and straw stars get carefully hung on branches. Candles or electric lights are also placed on trees, though real candles are lit once then swapped for electric mini-lights due to fire risk. Toppers range from glowing stars representing the Star of Bethlehem to tinseled angels.

Some families move Christmas trees to balconies or patios once the holiday ends where the evergreens remain until spring. The little trees soak up winter sunshine until the weather warms then get planted in gardens to continue growing.

Do They Exchange Gifts on Christmas Eve or Day in Switzerland?

Swiss families exchange gifts on Christmas Eve during intimate gatherings rather than Christmas Day. The evening unfolds following these cherished traditions: Christmas Eve Homecoming Those who moved away from family return to celebrate Heiliger Abend (Holy Evening) with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts/uncles, and cousins if possible. Families reconnect over fondue dinner then comes gift giving.

Ringing Silver Bells When presents are ready to open, parents ring small silver sleigh bells summoning children into the living room. Other families may ring angel chimes or have children hide while parents sneak gifts under the candlelit tree then call that Christkindli (Baby Jesus) brought presents!

Opening Gifts Children take turns opening gifts meticulously wrapped in brown paper and twine. Parents emphasize thoughtfulness over quantity or monetary value. Popular presents include wool mittens, chocolate, books, new pajamas, and holiday baked goods.

Christmas Day With gift excitement out of the way, December 25th is focused on togetherness, thankfulness, and worshipping. Most Swiss attend church services then enjoy holiday meals with more extended relatives if visiting.

Do People Ice Skate at Christmas Markets in Switzerland?

Switzerland's unparalleled winter wonderland settings make it a top Christmas destination. Holiday markets full of artisan gifts, sweet treats, and mugfuls of mulled wine bring in visitors from across the globe. Many markets do contain open-air ice skating rinks for added magic. Spiez Christmas Market - Yes Nestled beside glittering Lake Thun, Spiez Castle provides a fairy tale backdrop for an annual Christmas market. The historic castle courtyard converts into a hub with over 60 artisan stalls selling handmade crafts, ornaments, decor, and toys. To work off all the Raclette and pastry samples, visitors can lace up skates at the castle ice rink with Alpine peaks in sight!

Montreux Noël Christmas Market - No Extending along the shores of Lake Geneva at the foot of the Alps lies the picture-perfect town of Montreux. From late November into early January, Montreux Noël market brings twinkling lights, musicians, special events, choirs, decorations, shopping, and food to the stunning lakefront promenade. Bundled up visitors take in the sights, sounds, and aromas of the season rather than skating. The lake doesn't freeze enough for safe ice rinks.

Bern Christmas Market - No Switzerland's capital lies on a peninsula within the Aare River. The UNESCO Old Town section gets decorated for "Sternefieber" (Star Fever). Over 150 stalls fill Münsterplatz and Waisenhausplatz beside the Bern Münster Cathedral. Shop for handmade crafts or stop at food chalets for Swiss delights. No skating rinks accompany the market, but ice skating happens nearby on frozen ponds.

Zurich Christmas Market - Yes Multiple Christmas markets known as "Wienachtsdorf" illuminate Zurich in December. The largest at Werdmühle Square has over 200 wooden stalls crammed with art, ornaments, gifts, and global foods on offer. Sweet smells of waffles and mugs of hot mead linger in the air. An ice rink with a towering pine tree in the center makes this a beloved spot for both shopping and skating surrounded by chalet-style buildings glimmering with tiny white lights.

FAQ About Christmas in Switzerland

Planning travel to Switzerland over the holidays or curious to learn more? This FAQ covers additional common questions about Christmas celebrations Swiss-style: What date do the Swiss celebrate Christmas? Most Swiss families observe Christmas on December 25th. Celebrations kick off on the evening of December 24th though with gift exchanges, church services, Christmas trees being decorated, and a traditional dinner.

What holidays do the Swiss celebrate in winter? Key wintertime Swiss holidays include Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th), Christmas Eve (December 24th), Christmas Day (December 25th), Boxing Day (December 26th), New Year’s Eve (December 31st), New Year’s Day (January 1st), and Three King's Day (January 6th).

What do they call Santa in Switzerland? The Swiss have multiple names for Saint Nick derived from historic legends, religious stories, and neighboring countries’ terms: Samichlaus, Saint Nicholas, Christkindli, and Père Noël are most common.

Do people stay home for Christmas in Switzerland? Many Swiss who moved abroad or to distant cities return home to celebrate with immediate and extended families in their childhood towns or villages. Gatherings typically take place on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day for gift exchanges, worship services, and traditional holiday meals.

What date do the Swiss celebrate Christmas?

Is Christmas Eve or Day more important in Switzerland? Christmas Eve on December 24th is arguably more crucial to Swiss traditions. Family reunions, opening gifts, decorating trees, feasts, and church services all occur on Heiliger Abend (Holy Evening) leading up to midnight. Christmas Day is focused more on togetherness and gratitude.

What do Swiss children leave out for St Nicholas? On the night of December 5th, excited kids polish their shoes thoroughly then place them outside bedroom doors. This signals Saint Nicholas to come fill them with chocolate gold coins, nutcrackers, tangerines, nuts, and other small gifts while children sleep!

What gifts do Swiss exchange at Christmas? Rather than focusing on expensive technology gifts or elaborate wish lists, Swiss families emphasize sentimentality, thoughtfulness, and practicality when gift giving at Christmas. Handmade presents, woolen mittens, books, tree decorations, baked goods, and pajamas are popular presents.

Where are the best Christmas markets in Switzerland? Top choices for Swiss Christmas shopping and festivities include Montreux Noël with Lake Geneva views, Spiez Castle Market’s fairy tale setting, capital city vibes at Bern’s Sternefieber, and Zurich’s largest Wienachtsdorf market packed with over 200 artisan stalls and an ice skating rink.

What do the Swiss eat at Christmas dinner? The traditional Swiss Christmas dinner eaten mid-afternoon on December 25th includes mouthwatering main dishes like melted Raclette cheese, meat fondue, roasted chestnuts plus sweet treats like gingerbread men, nuts, chocolates, stollen fruit cake, cinnamon cookies, and hot drinks.

People Also Ask About Christmas in Switzerland

Whether you’re curious to learn more about Christmas in Switzerland or planning festive Alpine getaways, these quick answers to commonly asked questions tell you everything you need to know: What holidays do Swiss celebrate in December? The Swiss celebrate Saint Nicholas Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year's Eve/Day with family gatherings, church services, gifts, parades, feasts, and local traditions.

What religion mainly celebrates Christmas in Switzerland? Two-thirds of Swiss population identify as Christians who observe Christmas religiously. Other faiths also celebrate culturally, emphasize time off and family.

How do you wish someone Merry Christmas in Switzerland? "Joyeux Noël" in French, "Buon Natale" in Italian, or “Frohe Weihnachten” in Swiss German

How cold is a Swiss Christmas? Switzerland has colder, snowier Decembers than most destinations with average lows around 23°F (-5°C) and highs of 39°F (4°C). Dress warmly in layers!

What do Swiss call Santa Claus? Christkindli, Saint Nicholas, Samichlaus, Père Noël

Do Swiss bake gingerbread houses? Yes! Decorating Lebkuchen cookie houses with candy is common during the holiday season.

When does Christmas tree lighting happen? Tree lightings occur across Switzerland on the first Advent Sunday then trees stay lit through early January. Cities have towering town trees while families decorate small live firs.

How do Swiss count down NYE? Ringing in the new year happens with fondue feasts, champagne toasts, singing, dancing, and watching fireworks light up snowy peaks at midnight.

What decorations are on Swiss Christmas trees? Twinkling candle lights plus delicate painted wooden ornaments, straw stars, glass balls, tinsel garland, nutcrackers, and paper angels are hung on Swiss evergreen trees.

Where can you see best Swiss Christmas lights? Town streets glow from Zurich to Interlaken. Spiez Castle courtyard dazzles too. But most trees stay undecorated until Christmas Eve based on tradition!

What Religious Events Happen at Christmas in Switzerland? Roughly two-thirds of the Swiss population identify as Christians. Christmas Eve and Day church services are therefore important events even for less devout families. Those traveling to Switzerland over the holidays can experience beautiful ceremonies and sacred traditions.

Christmas Eve Vespers On December 24th as afternoon fades to evening twilight, vespers services are held at Catholic and Protestant churches. These ceremonies center around music and biblical readings about the nativity story. Candlelight fills chapels and cathedrals decorated with festive poinsettia plants, wreaths, and trees.

Midnight Mass Later at midnight when Christmas Day officially begins, many Swiss attend midnight Catholic mass called Missa in Nativitate Domini. Lutheran churches also hold Christmas Day services at daybreak or mid-morning full of organ music and hymns like “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World.”

Nativity Plays It’s also common for Swiss churches, schools, or theater groups to organize live nativity plays reenacting Jesus’ birth. These heartwarming performances happen in December leading up to Christmas. Kids love getting involved acting as Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men and animals in front of families.

What About Swiss Holiday Music, Movies or Books? While American tunes like “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” play in malls and markets across Switzerland each December, many cherished carols sung during the holidays originate from Swiss and neighboring regions. Favorite Swiss Christmas Songs “Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant” (French) “Transeamus” (Romansh) “Zu Bethlehem Geboren” (Swiss German) “Astro del ciel” (Italian) “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (German by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr)

Classic Swiss Christmas Movies

Television networks air classic films on repeat throughout December as families gather around flickering trees heavy with nostalgia. Favorites include: Three Nuts for Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel) A Christmas Tale (Ein Herz und eine Seele) The Night Before Christmas White Christmas (Weisse Weinachten)

Popular Swiss Christmas Books |

Curling up with beloved Swiss storybooks is a cherished yuletide tradition. Children receive many as gifts to enjoy beautiful illustrations and epic tales of magic, nature, friendship, and values. Popular authors and titles include: “The Story of the Christmas Spider: An Old Swiss Legend” by Katherine Holabird. This heartwarming folktale printed since 1987 explains the tradition of tinsel on trees. “Samichlaus Adventure” by Carine Binder and Regula Bührer Fecker. The St. Nicholas legend comes alive through a sister and brothermouse on whirlwind journey. “Lucy’s Secret” by Tatjana Hauptmann is a compilation of fifteen Swiss Christmas tales with fairies, goblins, and elves bringing lessons and luck to people.

How Long Do Swiss Christmas Markets Last? Sparkling Christmas markets pop up in the snowglobe-esque plazas of Swiss cities and villages from late November through December. Most Alpine markets run from the first Sunday of Advent until December 23rd at least. Larger events like Montreux Noël and Zurich’s main Wienachtsdorf market extend longer - from mid-November into early January when Three King's Day ends the holiday season.

Planning a Visit: No two Swiss Christmas markets are exactly alike thanks to diverse cultural influences blending German, French, and Italian flare across mini open-air "dorf" villages. Here is a breakdown of notable Swiss Christmas market start and end dates:

Luzern Christmas Market November 25 to December 24 At the Franziskanerplatz with stunning lake and mountain views

Interlaken Holiday Market November 25 - January 8 On Höhematte Square by the historic Höheweg district

Bern “Sternefieber” Market November 25 to December 31 Fills Münsterplatz below the 15th-century cathedral

Basel “Basler Wiehnachtsmärt” November 24 to December 23 At Barfüsserplatz showcases 180+ stalls of artisan goods

Zurich Main “Wienachtsdorf” Market November 24 to December 24 At Werdmühle Square adjacent to the glittering Bahnhofstrasse

Geneva “Marche de Noel” November 17 to December 31 Spread between Place de Fusterie and Place du Molard

Montreux “Noël au Pays du Chocolat” November 18 to January 8 On the scenic lake promenade with views of the Alps

What About Swiss New Year's Traditions? Swiss New Year's Eve traditions have evolved over the decades, yet food, friends, and fireworks remain at the heart of celebrations bidding bye to the old and ringing in anew.

New Year's Eve Family Meals Extended families gather for indulgent raclette or fondue feasts early evening on December 31st. Leftover Christmas desserts get devoured while parents and kids don fancy party hats leading up to midnight.

Fireworks Over Snow-Capped Peaks Bundled up together, Swiss revelers head to town squares or towering lookout points as midnight nears. Countdowns commence as fireworks explode in symphonies of thunderous booms, shimmers, and cascading sparks over snow-dusted Alps.

New Year's Day Rose Bowl Parade After bleary-eyed toasts and fond farewells to the previous year, January 1st starts off relaxed with family time. A beloved tradition is watching the colorful Rose Parade broadcast from sunny Pasadena, California and aired across Switzerland while snacking on Swiss chocolates!

What About Swiss Christmas Legends and Folklore? Switzerland's unique alpine culture forged from Celtic, Germanic, French, and Italian influences over centuries has birthed a treasure trove of Christmas legends, myths, and folklore traditions still honored today.

The Story of the Christmas Spider This heartwarming Swiss folktale published in American storybooks explains why tinsel decorates trees today. As the tale goes, a poor widow had no money to decorate a tree for her children one Christmas Eve. Spiders in the house took pity and spun silvery webs that magically turned into strands of shiny tinsel draped on branches by morning!

Samichlaus and Schmutzli The Swiss version of Saint Nicholas brings gifts on December 6th with his companion Schmutzli. Donning tall bishop hats and robes, Samichlaus kindly asks if children were naughty or nice. Schmutzli then dispenses gifts or punishment! Kids must prove goodness by singing songs or reciting rhymes to earn candy...not just coal!

Swiss Christmas Pyramids illuminated wooden pyramids spun with heat from one single candle have been handcrafted in Switzerland's Erzebirge region for over 200 years. Originally religious symbols, these iconic holiday decorations now feature rotating bands of dancing figurines at the base. St. Nick, nutcrackers, and angels slowly spin as candle flames create captivating moire light effects.

Frau Holle This mysterious, weather-controlling folklore figure is said to shake out her feather bed in winter creating drifting snowflakes. She then rests until spring allowing flowers to bloom. Swiss children still keep Frau Holle happy so snow keeps falling and Christmas feels properly magical!

Alpine Yuletide Witches Swiss lore warns that misbehaving children may get visited not by Saint Nicholas on December 6th but by a scary alpine witch named Trichterchänni who hides in the woods! Kids made sure shoes were clean and manners impeccable to avoid her wrath!

Do People Ski Over Christmas in Switzerland? With majestic Alpine peaks, pristine powder, and stunning ski resorts like Zermatt, St. Moritz, and Verbier, Switzerland earns its reputation as a leading winter sports destination. The holiday season from mid-December through New Year's brings ideal conditions for skiing and snowboarding.

Christmas Week Holidays Swiss schools and offices typically close for winter holidays the week before Christmas. Families take advantage hitting the slopes for a full week of ski trips before coming home for Christmas Eve. Resorts bustle with seasonal cheer as skiers glide down mountains then warm up with spiced wine at lodges.

Twinkling Tree Trails Resorts illuminate ski trails for "night skiing" until 9 or 10pm around Christmas. Glistening streams of lights outline winter wonderland runs. Kids and kids-at-heart feel like they're zooming under starry skies through magical tree groves!

Santa Ski Parades To spread holiday cheer, many Swiss ski resorts host "Santa Ski" events in December where adults and children following Saint Nick ski down lit courses together in late afternoons. Kids don Santa hats and parents wear elf ears to join the festivities.

New Year's Fireworks While fireworks boom over valley villages as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, Switzerland's towering ski resorts offer a front row view of the show from their perches in the peaks high above valley floors! Sitting slope-side sipping champagne as explosions of color crest over white-capped mountains is unforgettable.

Kuznetsov Dmitry
Marketing manager of
Travel lover & sports enthusiast.