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Churches still pull in the Christmas crowds

Worshippers celebrate midnight Mass in the catholic Trinity church in Bern Keystone

Christmas still has a strong religious dimension for many Swiss with over one in three planning to attend a Christian worship service this year, a survey has revealed.

At the same time growing numbers of people are choosing not to belong to any official religion at all – around one in four people. carried out its own mini straw poll to find out more.

According to a national survey by the LINK Institute on behalf of the Swiss Evangelical Alliance, nine out of ten people – 87.8 per cent – said they would be celebrating Christmas with their families.

And among the 1,003 people who took part in the poll, 36.4 per cent – mostly women – said they planned to attend a Christmas church service or other religious ceremony during the holiday period.

In other findings 53 per cent thought Jesus Christ existed but “the Christmas story did not happen in the way it was told in the Bible”. Over one in five people – 22.1 per cent – totally believe in the version of Christmas as recounted in the Bible, while 13.3 per cent totally denied the existence of Jesus.

Some 80 per cent of those who answered the poll were generally happy with the history and culture of Christmas being taught in Swiss schools, with 30.2 per cent totally in agreement.

Straw poll

On the snowy winter streets of Geneva and Lausanne, the majority of the dozen people questioned by said they would be attending a religious service.

“I’m a Christian and I always go to church at Christmas. If I’m not doing the night shift I’ll go to an evening service,” Angela Aebi, who works as a nurse at Geneva’s University Hospital, told

“Christmas is a period of great love as it’s the birth of Jesus Christ and our family is spread out between Switzerland and France so it’s a chance to bring everyone together.”

But not everyone was in perfect unison.

“Why does Christmas have to have a religious connotation? It’s a big dinner and get-together,” pondered Youssef Tanane. “Frankly I’ve never understood religions. All this love that Jesus and Mohammed preached but nothing was achieved on Earth; it just led to wars. I think we need a total change of direction.”

Valuable support

However, several people felt religion offered valuable support especially in the current times.

“People see the world changing. They see the economic crisis and the value of money; young people are starting to think about other values, maybe more spiritual ones,” said Cristina from Fribourg.

“I think we need to believe in something and have someone to give us faith and help us advance,” said Elena Guglielmone. “But today is very different to the times of our grandparents where everyone went to Mass. The mentality has changed, which is a shame.”

Cristina Brava from Lausanne said she would be going to a Christmas service with her family in Spain this year but felt the celebrations had “slightly lost their religious sense”.

Biel resident Michel Christian said he was undecided about his Christmas plans, but also felt the festival had become “increasingly commercial” and had “lost certain values”.

Several others said they were not at all religious and so would definitely not be attending any service but were not against the teaching of the Christmas story at school.

Keep its distance

A publicly funded study published in March this year found that the Swiss population has distanced itself from organised Christianity as well as traditional spirituality in recent decades.

Currently, Protestants account for 32 per cent of the population, closely followed by Catholics at 31 per cent. Some 12 per cent are members of non-Christian religions. The remaining 25 per cent do not belong to any religion at all. These figures vary slightly from the most recent national census statistics in 2000 (see freeform.)
Forty years ago, only one per cent of the Swiss population had no religious affiliation. By 2000 it was about 11 per cent.
A separate survey in June by the research institute gfs-zürich for the Reformed Press weekly Protestant church newspaper found that one in five younger members, aged 18 to 39, of Catholic and Protestant churches was considering leaving.

In all, 62 per cent of those asked said they belonged to their church out of habit and had no special reason. The older the person, the higher the percentage.

Swiss author Klara Obermüller, who also works as a theology professor at Zurich University, says many people no longer view the church as a place where they can find answers to their pressing concerns.

At the same time midnight Masses and other traditional Christmas services are important communal experiences, she added.

“Many churches underestimate the value of these symbols, which have a very strong emotional impact. Traditions create continuity and hold society together,” she told the Sonntag newspaper.

“At Christmas time we are particularly susceptible to these kind of experiences.”

2000 census:

Roman Catholic – 41.8%

State-recognised Protestant – 33.0%

Free (mainly evangelical) Protestant – 2.2%

Old Catholic – 0.2%

Orthodox – 1.8%

Other Christians – 0.2%

Jewish community – 0.2%

Muslim – 4.3%

Buddhist – 0.3%

Hindu – 0.4%

Other – 0.1%

No religion – 11.1%

The consulting firm Deloitte found in a survey that on average each Swiss expected to shell out SFr612 ($661) for Christmas gifts. While that is down SFr6 on the previous year, the total each household plans to spend on Christmas (shopping, special food, social events) has gone up by SFr3 to SFr1,038.
The high cost of goods in Switzerland is reflected in the fact that the amount is more than SFr300 higher than the European average. Deloitte said that Europeans will spend the same on activities and food but a few euros less on gifts this year.
Favourite Swiss presents are books and cash, the agency said. Due to the strong franc, 56 per cent of those surveyed said they would do their Christmas shopping in eurozone countries, compared with 48 per cent in 2010.

Gift-buying online has also become more popular. Nearly half said they are buying their presents online.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR