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Winter tradition What Swiss Santas learn in class

Samichlaus and Schmutzli getting ready

Samichlaus and Schmutzli prepare for action

(Keystone/ennio Leanza)

Swiss-style Santas, known as "Samichlauses", go to refresher courses every year to stay at the top of their game. Here's what it's like to become one of them.

The Santa training courses are run by the St Nicholas Society of the City of Zurichexternal link, a 220 strong non-religious volunteer group. Forty teams from the society made up of Samichlauses, "Schmutzlis" and "Eselis" (donkeys) visit about 1,000 families, homes for children and old people, kindergartens, schools and hospitals over a period of 12 days during Advent. They read stories and sing Christmas songs. Schmutzli is the scary looking brown-robed alter ego of Samichlaus, and Eseli is the driver. In some places, Samichlaus still rides a donkey but for this organisation, the preferred means of transport is the car. 

Even bankers are Samichlauses

The volunteers come from the most diverse backgrounds. Banker Dario Bordin joined the group when he was 16. He's now in his thirties. He finds his work as Samichlaus "incredibly enriching". 

The Samichlaus tradition

Samichlaus is modelled on an ancient Greek bishop, St Nicholas, who performed miracles and helped the poor. The most important day in the calendar is December 6, the day the saint died. This is when most Samichlaus visits to schools and institutions take place. Protestant Samichlaus wears a red coat, while in Catholic areas he is clad in a bishop's robe. They distribute fruit and nuts, but, unlike the American Santa Claus, no other presents. 

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Ordering Samichlaus via WhatsApp

The St Nicholas Society of the City of Zurich is a modern organisation. The group's services are all listed on their website, and the public can request a visit through WhatsApp. There is a charge, but the money goes to help poor people in Zurich pay their bills or provide gifts for disadvantaged families and disabled children. The Samichlauses also have a hut in the forest that people can visit. 

Schmutzli cleans up his act

The Schmutzli figure derives from the "Perchtenlaufen" – festivals held in Alpine countries to drive out demons. Schmutzli usually carries a broom of twigs, formerly used to punish badly- behaved children. Modern-day Schmutzlis in Zurich use them to clean their shoes. Naughty kids were once caught in Schmutzli's sack. Now it's used for carrying the fruit and chocolates he distributes. Legend has it that most days, Schmutzli works hard making biscuits, gathering herbs and chopping firewood, while Samichlaus sits and reads a book. So in this dynamic duo, Samichlaus has it quite easy!

Not a punisher

There is still a little policing going on. The parents report back to Schmutzli on their children's behaviour during the year. Many parents still expect their visitors to scold their kids for misdeeds, but Karin Diefenbacher, President of the St Nicholas Society of the City of Zurich, points out that Samichlaus and Schmutzli are there to spread warmth and joy, not to punish the children.

Samichlaus and Schmutzli with boy

La visita en casa de San Nicolás y Mugrosito.

(St. Nikolausgesellschaft der Stadt Zürich)

Tradition survives

Apart from their home visits, the St Nicholas Society also organises an annual parade through the streets of Zurich on the Sunday before Advent. Children line the streets to receive one of the 15,000 "Lebkuchen" ginger cakes distributed by dozens of Samichlauses. 

It’s certainly one of the more joyful Swiss customs, but can it survive the test of time? Diefenbacher says that demand for role players is greater than supply, proof that the tradition is alive and well. "And more and more people come to our parade every year", she adds. There are many similar parades and St Nicholas activities around Switzerland at the start of Advent. In bilingual Fribourg, whose patron saint is St Nicholas, there is a special procession on December 7, expected to attract more than 25,000 people.

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