Once the end of November comes around, Zürich starts to transform. Greenery and lights are put up on all the main streets. Large Christmas trees start appearing at plazas and train stations. All the stores get a makeover of Christmas colors: red, green, silver, white, and gold. Little stalls start popping up all over selling roasted chestnuts.
In short, Zürich becomes a Yuletide fairyland, and it is incredibly magical!
One of the first things that happens the last week of November is the lighting of the “Lucy Lights” on Bahnhofstrasse. These lights are strung up the entire length of Bahnhofstrasse, and they look like a field of stars when they are lit up! The night they do the official lighting, there’s a large street party with vendors selling wine, food, and holiday sweets. The wife and I went, and while it was really pretty, there were so many people that it was hard to get around!
The other major holiday tradition here are the Weihnachtsmarkts, or Christmas Markets, the biggest one being the market near the Zurich Opera House. There are vendors selling many different things from cheese to jewelry, but the best part is the street food! Massive sausages! Raclette! Doughnuts! Cookies! And, the big deal for many, Glühwein.
Oh, Glühwein. I’ll have to say that it wasn’t bad when it was hot, but once it cooled off, well, it wasn’t as good. It reminds me of mulled apple cider, but with wine instead (although, the spices are a little different than mulled cider). The alcohol does hit you like a ton of bricks later, so I was very glad at the time that I could take the tram! (If you’ve ever had hot sake, you have an idea about how Glühwein can hit you.)
The cutest thing I’ve seen here is the Märlitram. It’s a special tram for kids 4-10 that is painted to look like a Christmas cottage and driven by Santa Claus. The kids get on and the Christmas Angel tells them Christmas stories while they have hot chocolate and travel around the city. It is pure joy to watch the kids getting on and coming off the Märlitram! It’s also kind of fun playing “spot the Märlitram” on Instagram! (If you’re wondering, Märli means fairy tale, with the “li” ending denoting that it’s for kids.)
The most interesting thing about Christmas here is that it’s not really kitsch like it can be in the US. It’s very, well, Swiss. There’s a certain sacredness to the traditions here, even the ones that are silly and fun. But when my Landlady explained Swiss Christmas traditions to me when I visited her the other day, it made a lot of sense. She told me that traditionally, the Father of the family would take the kids out for a walk on Christmas Eve, and the Mother would put up the tree and put out the presents. When they all came back, the Mother would say “Oh! You just missed the Christmas Angel! She was just here!” Then there would be presents and dinner with the immediate family. At midnight, people would go to Midnight Mass. Christmas Day was for doing the big family dinner. Samichlaus (Santa Claus) came on Twelfth Night, January 6, and the legend has it that if you were a good kid, you get sweets, but if you were a bad kid, Samichlaus would put you in his red sack and spirit you away! My Landlady did say that these days, some American tradition has been adopted and some people do presents on Christmas Day, but mostly, Christmas traditions are kept really well be here Christmas is serious business.
I’ve been loving learning about all the traditions here, but most of all, this is the most Holiday Spirit I’ve felt in a long time. We even put up our own little Christmas tree! I feel a bit like when I was little where Christmas was a wondrous and joyful time full of beauty and mystery! It’s a bit bittersweet, too, because the last few years in the US I hadn’t really felt like celebrating. There was too much going on and hard things overwhelming everything else. I really wasn’t feeling the spirit then.
But right now I’m grateful to this city for helping me find Christmas wonder and joy again.