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Christmas dinners from Geneva to St Gallen

Glühwein, flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, is a favourite Christmas beverage in Switzerland.

(Keystone / AP Photo / Christian Lutz)

In most European countries, the traditional Christmas dinner is an almost sacred occasion. But the Swiss prefer to ignore anything as limiting as a shared Christmas tradition.

Unlike the British, who always eat turkey, the Swedes who opt for ham, and the Germans who insist on carp, the Swiss have never settled on a single Christmas dinner meal.

Most people work until mid-afternoon on December 24, even though their biggest Christmas celebration takes place that evening. In most households, the tree - secretly decorated by adults - is unveiled to the children, gifts are opened and many families attend a late-night church service.

With so much scheduled for Christmas Eve, there is little time to prepare an elaborate meal. Instead, families tend to make do with "Schüfeli" (literally "small shovel") or "Rollschinkli" a large chunk of boiled ham that can be easily cooked.

"Rollschinkli is still popular from Appenzell to Fribourg, along with "Fondue Chinoise" - paper-thin slices of meat cooked at the table in boiling broth and dipped into exotic sauces.

Some families opt for more child-pleasing fare. "Our Christmas favourite - and there were 10 of us - was always Älplermakkaroni [a mixture of potatoes, cheese, onions and noodles]," recalls one woman from Obwalden.

"We always had a Bratwurst wreath," says a man from St Gallen.

"Hot dogs and potato salad were typical in our house," says a native of Bern.

"Fried Fleischkäse [meat and cheese]," says a Zurcher.

In many parts of French-speaking Switzerland, Turkey stuffed with chestnuts appears for Christmas dinner. In Neuchatel it may be served with endives baked in cream (chicorée Neuchateloise), while in Geneva it usually comes with "gratin de cardons", made from a standard Christmas vegetable - cardoons, which are a type of artichoke.

Another popular dinner, at least in German-speaking Lucerne, is an enormous Pastete (a "vol au vent" pastry shell) bought at a bakery and then filled at the table with a rich mixture of veal and mushrooms in cream sauce.

Some Swiss fondly remember stewed rabbit, tongue in caper sauce, leg of lamb, platters of home-cured cold meats and sausages, raclette cheese and even fondue. "Canned asparagus was a Christmas treat," recalls a woman from canton Valais, "and white rolls instead of dark bread."

A man from Geneva shakes his head over the "Bûche de Noël", an elaborate French Christmas cake that his mother bought every year even though no one in the family liked it. "What I loved were my grandmother's "bracelets", thin crispy waffle-cookies that she made to go with coffee."

Only when it comes to homemade cookies do the Swiss agree: Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without them.

But the list is long and varied: rock-hard "Aniskräbbeli"; "Basler Brunsli", dark with cocoa; jam-filled "Spitzbueben"; bas-relief dough sculptures called "Züri Tirrgel", spicy "Lebkuchen"; and the strangely named "Totenbeinli" (or "little corpse legs"), decorated with whole hazelnuts.

Two more beloved Swiss Christmas foods are chocolate and oranges. Colourful, foil-wrapped chocolates are hung on the Christmas tree so that they can be removed and eaten with abandon from December 24 onwards.

Mandarin oranges, which used to be exotic, still retain some of their former mystery. "No mandarins come into my house until St Nicholas Day (December 6)," said one mother. "That way, they're a treat for my kids just as they were for me."

by Kim Hays

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