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Keeping alive the legend of St Nicholas

Samichlaus hands out small gifts to children in Zurich

(Keystone)

One of the most important events on Switzerland's Christmas calendar is St Nicholas Day on December 6.

The fourth-century saint was a saviour of the poor and, by all accounts, an accomplished satirist.

St Nicholas is the patron saint of the city of Fribourg and every year, a figure representing him rides a donkey through the streets of the old town at nightfall, and addresses the crowd from a platform set up in front of the cathedral. He often makes satirical remarks about events that have taken place over the past year in the city.

According to legend, St Nicholas saved three poor girls from prostitution by giving them marriage dowries of gold. He is also reputed to have brought three children back to life who had been chopped up by a butcher. This latter story is depicted on the cathedral portico in Fribourg.

Across many parts of German-speaking Switzerland, St Nicholas has become "Samichlaus" (Switzerland's version of Santa Claus). He tends to be on the thin rather than fat side, and lives in the forest as opposed to the North Pole. And he limits his gift giving to ginger bread, fruit and nuts.

Like St Nicholas, he has a donkey, but a sidekick as well. The black-faced Schmutzli (schmutz = dirt) carries a rod to punish naughty children.

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