Switzerland has four national languages: French, spoken in the West; German, spoken in the largest part of the country; Italian, spoken in the South; and Romansh, which is not an official language as the other three are, but which is spoken in some places in the East of the country. There is no language called “Swiss,” but there are Swiss German, Swiss French, and Swiss Italian.
As you might expect, there are differences in the holiday customs as well, with Swiss German regions following the customs of Germany, French speaking Swiss following the customs of France, and the Italian cantons (states) following the customs of Italy.
Still, there are some Christmas customs that are special to Switzerland.
The Christmas season in Switzerland begins on December 6 with Klausjagen, or parades. People carry enormous cardboard iffeln (or infuln), shapes like traditional bishops’ hats decorated with a picture of St. Nicholas. The designs have cutouts with colored paper applied inside and they’re lit from within for a dramatic show. At El Blog de Lusika you can see an excellent collection of photos of iffeln and of the procession.
Trumpets, horns, and cow bells follow the iffeln, and children have their own parade with smaller iffeln of their own. St. Nicholas is in the parade, but he isn’t the main gift bringer at Christmas. The Christkindli, Jesu Bambino, or Le petit Jésus brings presents to children at Christmas, depending on the language spoken in the canton (state) where they live.
Different towns have different specific customs for the St. Nicholas parade. One of the most famous takes place on December 30 in Basel, where St. Nicholas is chased through the streets of the town till he gets to the Rhine.
Let students make their own iffeln. Follow our instructions below to create a stained glass effect with paper (see a photo of the real thing being made at a German website). Our examples are much simpler than the real ones, but this could be a very special art project for older students. One iffele can take up to 500 hours to create.
Just cut the basic shape from black or white paper, cut out a design, and back the holes with translucent paper. We used glassine paper, but you could also use tissue paper. Make two and attach them together on the sides. Light them with glowsticks between the layers and have your own parade.
One of the things we like to do for a Christmas Around the World study is to have a classroom Christmas tree, and to decorate it with a paper art project from each country we study. If you like to do this, too, then have each student make a small model of an iffele.
Star singers are another Swiss custom for the Christmas season, which stretches from December 6 to January 6, Epiphany or the Feast of the Three Kings. Children dress up as the three kings from the Christmas story, carry a big paper star, and go door to door singing or reciting poetry. In exchange, they are given money for charity.
While this custom is most common at Epiphany, star singers can be found at other times of the season, so you could add some star singers to your procession.
Bells are an important part of Christmas observances in Switzerland. The Klausjagen can include hundreds of bells, some two or three feet tall. Church bells ring on Christmas Day all over the country. Bring bells into your classroom and practice rhythmic ringing. Use the bells in your class procession. You can also use a PDF on bell science to bring some physical science into the study.
The Advent season is important in Switzerland. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (in 2018, it’s December 2) and continues till Christmas Eve. One popular method of counting the time is the Advent calendar, a picture with windows for the first 24 days of December. Each window opens to show a tiny picture, often of a toy. The picture below shows a typical purchased Advent Calendar.
Another Advent custom is the Advent wreath, a wreath with four candle holders. Three purple candles and one pink one are placed in the holders. On the first Sunday of Advent, one candle is lighted. On the second Sunday, two are lighted, and so on.
Both these ideas are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, and many of your students may use Advent calendars or wreaths at home.
Advent is a religious observance, but the concept of a countdown is completely approporiate for public schools. Borrow the Advent calendar to count down the days till the winter break. Both are easy to make. For an Advent calendar, have kids draw a picture and cut as many windows as there are schooldays remaining before break. Put a second piece of paper behind the first, open the windows, and draw a picture inside each window. Remove the top paper, finish the secret drawings, and use a glue stick to glue the two papers together, gluing between the windows. When the glue dries, have students close the windows and trade with another student.
The Toymaker has a print and cut Advent calendar among her Christmas toys if you want to make a traditional Advent calendar going from December 1 to December 24. This lends itself to calendar work.
Make it even simpler by creating a paper chain. Cut strips of paper about 2″ x 4″ and write the dates of each school day in December, one date on each ring. Have students put the dates in order and loop them together, gluing the strips into interlocking circles to create a chain. Snip off one link each day.
As in all countries that observe Christmas, food is a special part of the holiday in Switzerland. Special foods include sausages, fondue and raclette (melted cheese with bread and potatoes respectively), cookies, and chocolate.
Swiss Christmas celebrations include many cookies of different kinds. Have younger students imagine the most delicious cookies, draw and cut them out, and use them for math manipulatives. Shapes and counting can readily be practiced with paper “cookies.” Older students can research Swiss cookies online, identifying different types of traditional Swiss cookies. Use the recipes for math practice, or solicit volunteers to have a bake off with careful graphing of the results of a class taste test.
See more Christmas Around the World lesson plans.