Ding Dong Merrily on Heidi

Deep, crisp, even: Christmas in the Alps Keystone

As an eventful year comes to a close, swissinfo revisits Johanna Spyri’s children’s classic. The figures have been seasonally and socially adjusted (see notes).

This content was published on December 21, 2011 - 08:41

Poking a log fire was more enjoyable than almost anything else in the world, Grandfather remembered his own grandfather telling him as a boy. Watching the pine embers crackle and dance in the fireplace, he decided he preferred crunching through fresh snow, but his hips were grateful for the warmth.

He sat down, lit the candle on the table and looked out of the window of his log cabin. Were it not for some of the biggest snowflakes he had ever seen, the valley would be glistening with village lights like a starry ocean. 

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of bells. He put on his reading glasses and leant over the table. 

“Don’t w8 up – 2 much snow 4 bus. 1ndrfl! Will walk home with L. CU 2moro. H.” 

Grandfather shook his head. What had the world come to? His granddaughter could study politics at Zurich University but appeared unable to string a word together let alone a sentence.   

He leant back and caught sight of the calendar. 2011 – what a year! Strong francs, weak politicians, he muttered to himself.


The next morning Grandfather tiptoed into Heidi’s bedroom and drew back the curtains. “Wake up, little one! The early bird gets the worm!” 

“The early worm gets eaten...” Heidi mumbled from under the duvet. “And I’m 19 – stop embarrassing me in front of Liesl.” 

It was only then that Grandfather noticed a third foot sticking out. Liesl was Heidi’s flatmate in Zurich. He didn’t know much about her other than she came from a large Austrian family and was currently having problems with her boyfriend. 

“Are you two flibbertigibbets hungry? I can reheat some of last night’s cheese fondue…” 

The duvet groaned. 

Half an hour later the two girls surfaced and slumped at the kitchen table. The nightlife in Maienfeld, the nearest town, obviously didn’t compare with that in Switzerland’s biggest city – “What happens in Zurich stays in Zurich – otherwise we’ll sue you back to the Stone Age” – but the Christmas market had looked fun. 

“My head,” moaned Heidi. “How many Glühweins did we have last night?” 

“Sixteen going on 17,” said Liesl, before falling asleep again. 

That seemed unlikely, thought Heidi, but going to a bar afterwards certainly hadn’t helped. That said, she had enjoyed deflecting the advances of local farmers and Liesl had forgotten about her relationship problems for a couple of hours, monopolising the karaoke machine. 


Heidi was about to go hunting for food when Grandfather entered the kitchen, followed by Peter, her childhood friend who lived just around the corner and was an apprentice mechanic. 

“And that’s why I voted not to ban army guns from homes,” Grandfather told Peter. Uncharacteristically, Heidi didn’t have the energy for an argument. 

Grandfather saw the two lifeless guests sitting at the table. “Right, what can we get you? There’s some parsnip rösti somewhere. Can you get Zopf loaves in Zurich? You know how they get that yellow colour? Before baking, an egg yolk is brushed over the dough…” 

“… a deer, a female deer!” shouted Liesl, suddenly coming to life. She looked around and then went back to sleep. 

Grandfather looked nonplussed at Liesl, then Heidi. Before he could give his usual drugs lecture Heidi jumped in and asked whether he had any fruit. 

“Fruit, fruit – I think I’ve got a melon somewhere…” 

“No, I used it,” said Peter. 

“What do you mean you used it?” 

“For my snowwoman. Up by the barn.” 

Grandfather shook his head – something he did a lot. “Not again. You know what the police told you after that Sennentuntschi incident,” he said, referring to a rather unsavoury alpine myth involving a homemade doll. “Go and destroy it immediately.” 

He turned to Heidi and Liesl. “Chilled melon, anyone?” 


The sky was bluer than robins’ eggs and Heidi and Peter moved to the terrace for a cigarette. 

“So how was summer?” Heidi asked. “Don’t you get a bit bored up here?” 

“Military service,” Peter answered. “I spent July fiddling with trucks in a barracks in Bern.” 

Grandfather appeared, waving a postcard. “I almost forgot,” he said. “This came from Klara a couple of weeks ago.” 

Klara was a German friend of the family and had been Heidi’s best friend since they were about 11. She had needed leg braces as a child but physiotherapy had sorted that out and she was now spending a year as an exchange student in the United States. 

“Hi H, Wish U were here in New York. Been getting out loads – went for a jog in Central Park last week. When I got to the edge of the park, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I figured since I’d run this far I’d just run across the state. Anyway, I saw the Occupy Wall Street protests and thought of you. CU soon, K.” 

Heidi wanted to travel. She had met loads of interesting people recently while “camping against capitalism” in Zurich’s Paradeplatz. She smiled when she thought of one of the songs they used to chant: 

While bankers watched their stocks by night,
All seated on fine leather,
The chairman of the board came down
And called them all together.

“Fear not,” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled thoughts.
“Fat bonuses for all I bring
With six or seven noughts.”

“The situation with the euro is a disgrace,” Peter declared. “Shocking leadership. So much misery. And all because of the damned Welsh!” 

Heidi looked at him. “You mean the Greeks?” 

“I mean the Welsh – losing 2-0 in Cardiff knocked us out of Euro 2012. They must be about a hundred places below us in the rankings…” 

Heidi had always liked Peter, but he’d never been the sharpest prong on the fork. 


They returned to the kitchen. Liesl was still slumped at the table and in danger of drowning in a bowl of muesli. 

Heidi and Grandfather were on different political wavelengths, but she was interested to hear his thoughts on the Swiss foreign minister, who was retiring at the end of the year. 

“Grandfather. If I were to say to you Micheline Calmy-Rey…” 

“…a drop of golden sun!” shouted Liesl, stirring for a few seconds. 

“She’s drunk, isn’t she?” said Grandfather. 

“There’s an app for that,” said Peter, who lifted Liesl’s head and tried to get her to blow onto his iPhone. 

“Lovesick,” said Heidi, unconvincingly. 


Later that day Grandfather cast his line into the lake. It was his sanctuary from all the curtain-twitchers and gossips in the village, but he had gone 84 days now without taking a fish. He shook his head. 

Switzerland’s five nuclear power stations were all in the north of the country and nowhere near Maienfeld, but he was convinced they were affecting his fishing. He welcomed the government’s decision to phase out nuclear power over the next 20 years. He had his doubts about how the country would keep the lights on, but he figured he’d be long gone by then anyway.

Back at the chalet, Heidi was having power problems of her own. She was wandering around the terrace holding her laptop above her head trying to get an internet connection. 

In addition to filing an overdue essay, she wanted to update her blog about life as a single girl in Zurich. “Wuthering Heidi” was basically Sex and the City without shoes, but she preferred to see her posts as anthropological documents. 

“Did you know that almost half of Swiss marriages involve a foreign partner?” she asked Liesl, who was watching a documentary about bird flu. 

“My heart wants to beat like the wings of a bird,” she sighed. 

“Of course it does, honey,” Heidi replied. “But look, I’m just going to nip up the hill to try to get a signal. Won’t be long.” 


The sun was falling behind the mountains and the sky was beginning to bruise, but Heidi could still make out the track which led to an open area where she hoped to make contact with the outside world. 

Ten minutes later, she reached the gate of a little chapel. Christmas was a time for miracles, she told herself – surely Jesus could turn water into Wi-Fi... 

She was about to boot up when she suddenly got the feeling she wasn’t alone. She turned round and spotted two orange eyes through the mist. 

“What the Federer?! Vicar – is that you?” 

A piercing howl echoed around the valley. Heidi screamed and ran into the cemetery – she had read about so-called problem wolves killing farmers’ sheep but had always assumed they avoided humans. Where was Peter when you needed him? 

The wolf crept closer. Heidi ran up the church path and started banging on the thick wooden doors. This was not how she had planned spending Christmas. 

She could hear breathing and was shocked to find the wolf staring at her less than two metres away. Neither of them moved – blinked – for what felt like minutes. 

This was the first time Heidi had ever seen a wolf, but she realised she wasn’t frightened. Maybe they just have a bad press, she thought – after all, they have to eat too. 

But she wasn’t taking any chances. A bird flew out of a tree and distracted the wolf. Heidi gripped her laptop and brought it down as hard as she could on its head. The wolf yelped and darted back into the woods. Heidi sprinted home faster than a Cern neutrino. 


“Where on earth have you been?” Grandfather asked, as Heidi stumbled into the kitchen and breathlessly tried to explain the past half hour. 

“And that’s another reason why I voted to keep my gun at home!” he said. 

A couple of seconds later Peter walked in. 

“Where on earth have you been?” Grandfather asked, pointing to a cut above his eye. 

“Car door,” he said, adding something random about keeping an eye on idiots who wander around alone at night. 

Grandfather had decided decades ago that life was too short to believe young people, but everyone was there now and dinner was ready. He gestured proudly at the fine trout on the table which he had bought with his own bare hands. They took their seats. 

“Right, before we start, we’re going to do what my grandfather used to make us do before Christmas dinner. We’re going to take it in turns to explain what this time of year means to us. Say whatever you feel and talk for as long as you want. Peter – you can go first. What does Christmas mean to you?” 


“OK,” said Grandfather after a brief pause. “I was hoping for a bit more, but that’s a start. Liesl, how about you?” 

“Feeling homesick – even when you’re at home.” 

“Yes, you’re slightly missing the point of this – it’s meant to be heart-warming, uplifting, fun. Heidi?”

“Roses are reddish, violets are bluish, if it weren’t for Christmas, we’d all be Jewish.” 

“I give up,” said Grandfather, who was beyond shaking his head. “In the old days Christmas used to mean something. If Tiny Tim could get into the spirit, I don’t see why you can’t.” 


Heidi was pushing a potato around her plate when all of a sudden a little tweet came from the windowsill. Grandfather looked round hoping it might be the robin he had befriended the previous winter. 

“Twitter!” Heidi exclaimed. “My mobile! I’ve got reception!” 

Peter’s iPhone also started pinging; Liesl’s BlackBerry burst into life. The room was filled with a choir of celestial ringtones, singing in exultation. 

Heidi rushed to her laptop and logged on to Facebook. “Klara’s poking me!” she said. “She’s wishing me season’s greetings. So’s Pippi … and Annie …. It’s a Christmas miracle!” 

Grandfather sat there holding the fish knife. He looked at the others’ faces: there was no denying they were very happy. Could they have a point after all? Did traditions need to evolve somehow to survive? That didn’t sound right, he thought. And was it not possible to enjoy what you had without comparing it with others? 

He wasn’t sure. But suddenly he had a vision of Heidi one day telling her grandchildren that, once upon a time, poking a friend was more enjoyable than almost anything else in the world.


This story features pop references from the obvious (Stephenie Meyer, The Sound of Music, Forrest Gump) to the more subtle (Ernest Hemingway) among others. It also alludes to various events that happened in Switzerland during 2011, including:

Strong franc – On September 6, the Swiss National Bank set a minimum exchange rate target of SFr1.20 to the euro in an attempt to halt the “massive overvaluation” of the franc, which had been hurting exports and the tourism industry.

Gun ban – On February 13, 56% of voters rejected an initiative seeking to ban army-issue guns from the home. Once again, several shootings were carried out with army rifles.

Military service – On October 3, a government advisory committee said Swiss men should be given the choice between military and civilian service. At present, all able-bodied Swiss men are called up to do military service from the age of 19.

Paradeplatz protests – On October 15, around 1,000 anti-capitalism protestors gathered at Zurich’s Paradeplatz, the symbolic heart of the Swiss banking industry. There were also demonstrations that day in Geneva, Basel and the capital Bern. On November 15, police cleared demonstrators from the Lindenhof area in Zurich’s old town who had been there for almost a month.

Bank bonuses – On October 25, despite a SFr2.1bn loss by a rogue trader in London the previous month and despite a third-quarter pre-tax loss of SFr2.4bn, UBS said it would not dramatically rein in bonuses, setting aside nearly 90 per cent of its investment banking revenues for staff pay.

Euro 2012 – On October 7, Wales (then ranked 90 in the world) beat Switzerland (then ranked 18) 2-0 in a qualifying match for the Euro 2012 football championships. This meant the Swiss could no longer qualify.

Micheline Calmy-Rey – The 66-year-old Social Democrat was set to retire from the cabinet at the end of the year having been foreign minister since January 2003. She will be replaced by Alain Berset.

Nuclear pull-out – On May 25, the Swiss cabinet said it wanted to gradually decommission by 2034 Switzerland’s five nuclear power plants, which currently supply some 40 per cent of the country’s energy needs. This would be replaced, the government hoped, by hydroelectric power, renewable energy and combined gas plants among other methods. 

Foreign partners – On November 12, The Economist reported that nearly half the marriages in Switzerland were international, up from a third in 1990. This mostly involves German-speakers marrying people from Germany and French-speakers people from France.

Problem wolves – On November 16, the cabinet said it planned to recommend the Bern Convention, a binding international legal instrument on wildlife and nature conservation, be modified to allow for wolves to be hunted. It followed parliament’s adoption in 2010 of a motion for the section of the treaty addressing the wolf’s protection to be watered down, due to the large number of sheep killed by wolves.  

Cern – On September 22, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) outside Geneva said they had recorded neutrino particles travelling faster than the speed of light. If confirmed, this would challenge one of the fundamental rules of physics and a key part of Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. 

Facebook – On November 16, government employees were granted access again to the social networking website. Access was barred in 2009 when a survey found Facebook was the second most visited website by federal employees. “Poking” is a means of attracting the attention of another user.

End of insertion
In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Join the conversation!

Contributions must adhere to our guidelines.
Sort by

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Almost finished... We need to confirm your email address. To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

Discover our weekly must-reads for free!

Sign up to get our top stories straight into your mailbox.

The SBC Privacy Policy provides additional information on how your data is processed.