Switzerland is a country of several languages so it is not surprising there are several different St. Nicholas traditions. In German-speaking areas Saint Nicholas is known as Samichlaus. On December 5th, the eve of St. Nicolas Day, villages around Lake Lucerne glow with the light of hundreds of enormous, heavy paper-cut bishops’ miter/hats, iffele, paraded through the streets by men and boys in white robes. The headpieces are artistically designed, intricately cut out of cardboard, and lit by a candle within. The iffelen, from three to six feet tall, have been made for over 100 years. Each is a unique piece of art with a figure of St. Nicholas on the front and a cross and the insignia IHS for Jesus Christ on the back. When the candle is lit they are transformed into “stained glass” because there are many colors of transparent paper applied inside.
Each town has its own way to celebrate. The well-known parade in Küssnacht am Rigi begins when a cannon shot signals the start. First come men skillfully cracking long sheep whips. Next are the lighted iffelen, 180 young men dancing and swaying as they pass in their lighted headdresses. Surrounded by torchbearers, the bishop St. Nicholas himself comes with his two Schmutzlis. Trumpeters, playing a three tone melody, are followed by 700 Klausjäger, men in white farmer’s shirts swinging huge cow bells from heavy straps. The 700 bells ring as one. The procession ends with 200 men blowing cow horns in a repeated rhythm of two short blows and one long one. The streets resound with all these sounds of horns blowing, brass bands playing, whips cracking, and bells clanging. The parade is repeated in the early hours of morning, finishing up by 7 am. This solemn procession with whips, bells, and horns is rooted in pre-Christian times when noise was used to banish darkness and evil. Today’s whip-cracking heralds the arrival of St. Nicholas.
Children wear their own iffelen in an afternoon children’s parade with St. Nicholas. The Schmutzlis have small gifts for all the children. Afterward at home, the customary meal of the day is sausage and sauerkraut.
All of the 1700 men in the main parade belong to the St. Niklausengesellschaft, which is responsible for the parade. This group also makes Christmas baskets for children and older folks who are lonely or in need, thus carrying out the true spirit of St. Nicholas.
There are also other St. Nicholas customs in German-speaking Switzerland. In Unteraegeri children make Chlausesel, carrying them through the village asking for small treats. In the evening the adults and teenagers keep the old customs alive while collecting donations for charity (more about Unteraegeri). All through the month of December, St. Nicholas rides on the “fairy tale tram” that takes children up and down the Bahnhofstrasse during the month-long Christkindli Markt in Zurich. On December 6th, the feast of Sankt Nikolaus, school children in Glarnerland parade through villages ringing and jingling bells to tell neighbors that a gift of something good to eat or drink is expected.
When St. Nikolaus visits German-speaking homes, he may be accompanied by three Schmutzlis. He goes over a list of the good and bad things the children have done (provided in advance by parents). Good children receive candies, nuts and oranges. The Schmutzlis are said to beat bad children with branches; however, that is theoretical as all children are good.
In the French-speaking area of Bulle, Saint Nicolas arrives at the beginning of December. He comes with a great colorful parade of cherubs and Père Fouettards. After St. Nicolas greets the people, honey cookies are given to everyone. At nightfall St. Nicholas leads a torch-lit procession in a grand horse-drawn carriage, or sleigh. As it has been done for centuries, brass bands, the donkey carrying children’s gifts, and the sound of Père Fouettard’s chains accompany the saint. All during the week the good Saint visits children in their homes, encouraging them as he listens to recitations of religious poetry and little songs. St. Nicolas also visits hospitals, schools, and destitute families. When he is finished, he goes back up to Heaven. Both young and old alike await the saint’s next arrival again the next year.
On December 6th, Samichlaus and Schmutzli, and maybe even a donkey, visit children’s homes, giving the children tangerines, peanuts and cookies. Many towns have a roster for Samichlaus, so all the children are visited by a Samichlaus, but he isn’t ever their own father.
The entire canton of Fribourg celebrates the Feast of Saint-Nicolas. As patron saint of Fribourg, at the end of the day, St. Nicholas rides a donkey to the Cathedral of Saint-Nicolas, greeting people as he goes through the streets. He distributes special cookies, biscômes, and peanuts. At the cathedral he gives a speech, moralizing about events of the previous year.
The Christmas season ends in Basel with the Coursing of St Nicholas on December 30. The streets are filled with children, who are given peanuts, tangerines and small lumps of coal. A fully-dressed Bishop St. Nicholas, with miter and crozier, races through the streets, chased by forty-four men. These men wear boughs of holly and sprigs of mistletoe to represent the new year. Children throw their lumps of coal at Nicholas, trying to knock off his miter. If it is knocked off he has to stand still and is beaten with the holly boughs. Poor St. Nicholas usually gets lacerated before he reaches the Rhine where he blesses the crowds and boards a boat to Spain. Men do compete to be Nicholas, who then receives a year and a day’s supply of Basel biscuits and wine.
Lifting the veil on Schmutzli from swissinfo.ch, 4 minutes:
Klausjagen Photos from Küssnacht am Rigi
St. Nicholas and the Chlauseslä in Unterägeri
St. Nicholas in Egerkingen
St. Nicholas Iffelen in Egerkingen
Cracking the Whip for St. Nicholas—in Lenzburg
Swiss Folklore: Saint Nicolas
St. Nicholas customs shown on set of chocolate stamps from 1955