14 December 2012

Swiss Christmas

My sister in South Carolina has asked me what Christmas is like in Switzerland. She knows full well that I am both a devout atheist and an enthusiastic devoté to the enchantment of Christmas, so she is not expecting a report from the front pew during Christmas services -- though I'm tempted because I can go to our town's 1000-year-old church with its statues of reverential knights and beatific ladies, and its magnificent pipe organ.

Instead, like most of the world, at Christmas time, I worship at that altar that resembles a cash register. But here's the wonderful difference about a Swiss Christmas: Here we have a rather magical alternative to mall shopping. It's called (translated) the Christmas market, where cash registers with digital readouts are replaced by simple cash boxes not unlike those you would have seen in medieval times.

These outdoor wooden kiosks, built entirely by elves, spring up suddenly in cities and towns around the country beginning a few weeks before Christmas. Strolling the narrow walkways between them is like strolling Santa's village. You find tree ornaments, handmade crafts, candles, aromatic soups and oils, puzzles, games, gloves, sweaters, knit caps, scarves, fur-lined slippers, cheeses, salted meats, candies, caramels, pastries, glass figurines, jewelry ... it goes on and on. You can buy hot mulled wine and traditional herb cheese breads straight from the mobile brick and iron ovens. Standing in the snow with the steam rising from your hot nourishment -- hallelujah.

But it's not all about commerce at these markets. Maïf and I went to the famous market in Basel. Here, among the tiny cabins selling wares, we found children baking bread on sticks over a fire.

And a storyteller.

To me, this is Christmas -- family and friends snuggled up together, sharing the magic of our stories. Merry Christmas, everybody!

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