Enchanting tales of far-off places are a staple of Christmas stories. But often, magical stories exist right under our very noses, as I discovered when I came across a wonderful Christmas story set in a Swiss Alpine village.
To my surprise, its author was not a native Swiss but a 53-year-old Canadian, Nancy Walker-Guye, who moved to Switzerland over 30 years ago.
“It was Christmas Eve. Large snowflakes fell and the roofs of the houses in the mountain village were covered with a thick blanket of snow. Niculin sat next to his parents on the pew and was gratified at the thought that thanks to his winter coat and boots, he would no longer have cold feet. He spun the wheels of his toy locomotive, which he had secretly brought with him to Mass. Niculin’s father was a train driver and did not have to work today because of the heavy snowfall. Far away from the village, a train was stuck in the snow and no one would be able to get through until the following morning…”
In the story, Silent Night, Niculin invites into his house a couple lost in the snow. The wife is heavily pregnant and gives birth during the night.
The tale is set in the Engadine, quite a distance indeed from Sarnia, on Lake Huron in Ontario where Walker-Guye grew up. I visited her at her home near Yverdon on Lake Neuchâtel. She welcomed me with tea and a plate of biscuits.
I discovered her work by chance, after inquiring at a Zurich bookstore for a children’s Christmas story that takes place in Switzerland. The saleswoman’s initial reaction was disbelief.
“Does it really have to be in Switzerland? We have Charles Dickens, stories from Hans Christian Andersen, but something that takes place here…”
After gamely searching the bookshelves high and low, she was on the verge of giving up. But after taking a moment to mull over my unusual request, she opened a drawer and pulled out a book, Silent Night. Having trudged through various Zurich bookstores in vain, it was the only book I had been able to find set in Switzerland.
The story is set in the real village of Sent in the Lower Engadine. Niculin, the main character, is the only person in the church who sees the light of the comet. "If we want to attribute symbolic significance to this scene, we can say the light represents life," says illustrator Alessandra Micheletti (Alessandra Micheletti, Aracari)
Walker-Guye adores Christmas. She wistfully remembers Christmas dinners in Canada, where her large family would sit down together at an extravagantly decorated table for a traditional turkey dinner.
She is the only one of six siblings who emigrated. A widow, she now lives in a wooden house with a Bernese mountain dog and her son, who is training to be a forester. Her daughter, who has already moved out, is studying to be a translator.
Like most writers of children’s books, Walker-Guye does not live from her book earnings alone. She also works as an x-ray technician, a profession she trained for in Canada as a means to an end of financing her other passion: travel.
“When I got a job offer in Switzerland in 1980, I didn’t think twice before accepting. I knew I would be living in the middle of Europe and that I could easily travel and see other countries,” she explained.
She kept returning to Switzerland and what she had initially expected to be a time-limited experience turned into her whole life. She met her husband, they bought a house and had two children.
Walker-Guye began writing children’s stories by chance. Like so many mothers, she loved telling her children bedtime stories. And she discovered she also loved making up stories for them. One day her three-year old daughter complained because her mother was unable to repeat the stories she liked best.
“My daughter told me unequivocally to write those stories down,“ she recalls.
"I painted this scene as I tried to imagine the child's emotional state. I included elements that might comfort him. Niculin is worried because he has let the couple sleep in his room and he doesn't know how his parents will react," explains Micheletti (Alessandra Micheletti, Aracari)
Learning to write
Probably everyone has experienced how difficult it can be to sit before a blank sheet of paper, so I asked Walker-Guye how she started writing.
“It seemed as if it would be an easy thing to do, but children notice very quickly if a story lacks structure or logic. I had to learn the mechanics of writing,” she said.
So she enrolled in a distance course for novices at an institute in Canada, did the coursework from beginning to end, then rolled up her sleeves and began putting her ideas on paper. Since then, nothing has really changed: “The more I write, the easier the stories come together.”
She celebrated her first success in 1998, when one of her stories was selected for a children’s publication in the United States. Today she has more than 60 publications and eight children’s books to her credit and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Her first book, Merry Christmas, Matty Mouse was published in Switzerland in 2003. “It’s a story that leaves you feeling warm from head to toe,” wrote a fan on the website of a large internet bookstore. Walker-Guye followed up with three more Christmas-themed books, which were also published in Switzerland: Snowbunny’s Star, Snowbunny’s Christmas Surprise, and Silent Night. Despite publishing in various languages, her working language remains English. “I think and feel in English,” she said.
Silent Night came about as a result of a personal request from her Zurich publisher. At a meeting with the publisher, employees and other children’s book authors in a small village in the Engadine, he brought up what would become her next project.
“He asked me to write a story that took place in Switzerland. I agreed, and two weeks later the book was done. The publisher loved it,” she remembers. The graphic artist Alessandra Micheletti was commissioned to do the illustrations, which faithfully depict typical Engadine homes. These are painted yellow and often decorated with frescos depicting religious motifs.
"All the characters in Nancy's story appear in this picture. The parallels to the visitors to the stable in Bethlehem are clear. But the values in this book are universal and don't need to be strengthened with images everyone already knows," says Micheletti. (Alessandra Micheletti, Aracari)
The candle is burning and Walker-Guye serves more tea. Her dog sits at her feet. Because her children are young adults, she has not had to regale them with bedtime stories for many years.
She has recently embarked in a new direction, writing her first book for adults. Entitled Choices: A Story of Self-Empowerment, it is an autobiographical book that explores her life experiences since widowhood.
I think about the four Christmas stories I had read before we met, and remark that the most important messages in the books - solidarity, friendship and sharing with others – seem to reflect the author’s innate optimism. Perhaps this is one of the characteristics of children’s book authors? That’s why I feel compelled to ask her something I’ve never understood: why do all children’s books have a happy end?
My own daughter had already given me her answer - “because that’s how it has to be!”
Walker-Guye laughed at this, but answered thoughtfully. “Children still have so much ahead of them and there are so many life experiences in store, that they have the right to believe in happy endings.”
In Silent Night, Nicolin experiences the dream of Christmas through the birth of a child. This is the joyful end of a special night that is celebrated on December 25 in many places all over the world.