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Swiss Christmas

CW Hurni is an established sculptor, with a BA from CSUS. Studied puppetry with Prof. Bay and established Puppets and Motion with her original plays.

Editor's note: Claire writes about her Christmastime growing up in Switzerland.

At five-years old, Christmas was magical. As I got older it lost some of its luster because customs became simplified as our town world modernized. Yet to this day, the Hurni siblings still bake and serve, Züpfe, the braided butter loaves, and the cookies to honor Mama while re-creating some of the other traditions she began.

Mama had more money during the month of December because she was a member of a local grocery cooperative, the COOP. During the month of November the company redeemed a percentage of her grocery spending in Coop-minted money. Since Mama shopped exclusively at those stores, it was a win-win situation for all and she lavished the funds on extras and practical gifts for her children.

Our Christmas began on December 5th eve when spotless boots were lined up next to the entrance waiting for Samichlauses', St. Nick's visit. He arrived while we were sleeping to fill the shoe's of the children that had been good with treats. Thank goodness all the kids in the household were good enough, and on Saint Nicholas Day morning (Chlausertag), our boots were overflowing with peanuts, tangerines, some chocolates, and freshly baked raisin-eyed doughboys called Grittibenz.

Brother Erwin showed off right away, he'd bite off the head of his baked treat to devour it all instantly. I felt sorry for the doughboy being eaten in such a brutal manner, as I took dainty bites of its chubby legs.

Later during the month, Papa harnessed his cutting tools, donned his warm coat, hat, and big snow boots to head up to the woodlands where we burgher families had plenty of forested land for him to choose the perfect tree for the family celebration. Back home, he'd nail a stand to the bottom of the tree trunk and stored it on the frosty upstairs landing, ready for Mama to decorate on the 24th.

A few days before the holiday, the big sandstone oven was fired up with bundles of wood, the Wedele for baking the Züpfe. The dough was ready, mixed and kneaded until it was silky to the touch like Mama's earlobes, then left covered to rise in the wooden trough on the warm sandstone oven in Uncle Fritz's room.

When doubled in bulk, Mama punched the dough, and section-by-section she'd form long ropes on the floured table to braid them skillfully into many loaves, let them rise once again, and brushed them with egg wash. While the braids rose, she'd carefully clear the oven from embers.

Using the long handled wooden paddle, she carefully shoved them into the hot stove to bake into fragrant, golden, crusty breads. Using the paddle once again, Mama retrieved the sweet-smelling goods to line them up on the counter for cooling. Often Mama saved dough to shape it into doves with flared tails and little twigs for eyes as a surprise for us kids.

The kitchen was busy; tins were filled with Mailanderli, the butter cookies, flavored with lemon zest. These were baked in the electric oven in shapes of hearts, spades, Swiss crosses, and stars. Bushel baskets overflowed with sugar dusted Schlüferli, the rich fried little twisted pastries. And then there were the Brezeli, the delicate crunchy waffles. Mama had a heated hinged iron contraption into which she had to place small balls of dough, and then squish it closed to bake the cookies that we so enjoyed.

Late afternoon on Christmas Eve, Mama secluded herself in the living room to decorate the tree and get the treats and presents for the grownups ready.

With anticipation we waited by the closed door with uncles, aunts and cousins who lived nearby. As the door opened, in awe we entered the transformed room now glowing from the candle-lit tree that glistened with ornaments, tinsel and foil-wrapped chocolates.

We feasted with sliced ham, salami, cornichons, Züpfe, and cookies. We drank carbonated apple cider and the grownups enjoyed a glass of wine.

Magical bells, thumping footsteps followed by a loud knock on the door abruptly stopped all activities. Santa arrived dressed in his huge black coat, warm boots, with his long, white rope-beard. He carried a large burlap bag plumped hopefully with presents and not some bad neighbor children. His substantial whip, thank goodness, was safely strapped on his belt.

One by one, the children were required to get up, stand in front of the Christmas tree, profess their saintliness and either recite a poem or sing a special song learned just for this occasion.

Had we really been good? Some scolding and a little showing of the whip accompanied by trivial threats, and then Santa reached in his bag to retrieve and distribute the gifts. His job done, he left as he reminded us, to be good, work hard, and to listen to our parents.

We finished the evening with Christmas songs, more cookies, tea, and a lot of good feelings.There was something very familiar about Santa and I told Mama that Santa had the same smile, "Just like Uncle Jacob's." So, alas, no more Santa visits from then on. The presents were waiting for us under the Christmas tree as we sang our songs and recited our poetry to the family.

Christmas Day felt like any festive Sunday with one of Mama's wonderful noon dinners of mashed potatoes, beef stew and pickled beets. In the afternoon, we played games and were allowed to ransack the tree to eat some of the chocolate ornaments. In the evening, we lit up all the candles once again and ate more cookies and drank tea while Christmas songs echoed through the house.

A special feeling of goodwill remained throughout the following week. I hold memories of a new unexplainable crispness in the air, with sharing, caring, and good feelings all around.

For New Year's Eve, I recall a time when Cousin Jacques, who was nine years my senior was in charge of us kids. He never was short of ideas to entertain us. This year, he created some magic using my brother. All had to leave the room except brother Erwin. A blanket was covering Erwin's prone body and Papa's old hat crowned what we thought was his head.

Jacques asked all kinds of solemn questions to the hat that vigorously shook yes, no, or I don't know.

At a given point a key question was asked and my brother jumped up from under the blanket, his body opposite of where we had expected it. The surprise was victorious and we squealed with delight.

As midnight approached, we put on our coats, hats and mittens to venture outside to hear the church bells of the neighboring towers ring in the New Year.

With lovely snow blanketing the land and glistening in the moonlight, we could not help ourselves and we started the New Year with a snowball fight.

~ Claire Weissman Hurni




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