Swiss Christmas in Zürich

December 17, 2016.  When Matthew and I made plans to move overseas, we promised each other that we’d take the opportunity to experience Christmas in as many countries as possible.  Why such a weird goal?  It’s probably due to one too many viewings of Rick Steves’ European Christmas (we even have the music on CD.)  Not to mention that I spent several years working with cultural groups to create the Christmas Around the World exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.  And all that surrogate spectating had us hankering to see the real thing for ourselves.

Swiss Christmas Tree
I’m guessing we all know by now that decorating evergreen trees during the winter solstice is a pagan custom, converted to Christianity by Germany’s Martin Luther, and popularized by England’s Queen Victoria.

Since Christmas as we know it — with ornamented trees, Advent wreaths, mistletoe, and Silent Night — is mostly a Germanic invention, we’ve so far focused our seasonal sightseeing on the mother countries of our holiday traditions, including Germany and Austria.  Continuing along that trend, this year we selected Switzerland — specifically, Zürich and Luzern, plus a day-trip to the Alps — in the hopes of catching some snow.  (It looks like Oslo will dodge a white Christmas yet again this year.)

With only three days to “see it all,” we hit just the holiday highlights at each location.  So keep that in mind as I bombard you with photos and give you my take on can’t-miss Christmas moments in Zürich.

Swarovski Tree in Zurich's Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station)
Swarovski annually decorates a 50-foot-tall fir tree in Zurich’s main train station with more than 7,000 crystals that glitter and flash as the lighting changes color. Conveniently, a nearby Swarovski booth offers ornaments for sale 😉

Zürich’s Christmas Markets
From the minute we stepped off the train, we knew we’d come to the right place to wallow in Christmas.  The Great Hall in Zürich’s Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) is home to a huge Christkindli Markt (Christ-child market), complete with a Swarovski-bedazzled tree, little huts featuring hand-made crafts, and the cinnamon scent of mulled wine wafting through the air.  (Glühwein is a requisite fixture at any proper Christmas market, because, hey — it just ain’t X-mas if you don’t wake up with a wine headache every Sunday during Advent.)

img_7939 Hammerschlagen
The Stump Game — nothin’ says Merry Christmas quite like the thrilling combo of doing shots while tossing around heavy blunt objects.

Speaking of glühwein, the nearby Neiderdorf Christmas market introduced us to a new drinking game, called Hammerschlagen (translated as “hammer hitting,” A.K.A. the “stump game” for the more literal-minded.)  It’s played like this:  contestants gather around a tree stump with nails tacked into it.  Each competitor takes a turn trying to hammer in their nail up to the head.  Miss, and you take a drink.  The last person to sink his/her nail pays for another round of drinks.  And as we learned from observation, it’s a game best attempted early in the evening — before lots of liquor has impaired your aim — or you risk losing some digits … and possibly some friends.

A plate of raclette
Matthew inexplicably looks a bit queasy as he contemplates his first of many raclette plates and cups of glühwein.

Should you need something to soak up all that alcohol, be sure to stop by one of the many raclette huts.  We’re talking Swiss cheese here, and lots of it, piled atop your choice of potatoes or bread, and garnished with paprika, pepper, gherkins, and pickled onions.  Think of raclette as a poor man’s potato gratin, or a rich man’s grilled-cheese sammie (it’s fancy Swiss cheese, after all.)  A yummy, gooey heart attack on a plate that’s guaranteed to help you keep warm in the brisk Swiss air.

When a Norwegian friend recommended the Singing Christmas Tree, I expected something animatronic, not a pyramid of red-capped elves serenading the crowds.

By the way, Zürich hosts several Weinachtsmarkts (Christmas markets), all staged in different parts of the city.  I think our favorite was the Neiderdorf in the Old Town — it gives you a chance to  explore winding medieval streets while drinking and shopping (always a nice combo).  But we also found ourselves repeatedly stopping by the Werdmühleplatz market, which boasts the “Singing Christmas Tree” — the spot to catch local choirs belting out Christmas carols from atop a greenery-bedecked stage.  (Click through the gallery below for more fun facts and holiday market photos.)

Many of Zürich's buildings have that heavy-timbered German look, with wooden beams that are used to cantilever rooms or entire wings out over the street or water.
Many of Zürich’s oldest buildings have that heavy-timbered German look, with wooden beams that support rooms or entire wings cantilevered out over the street or water.

Zürich’s Street Scene
Although it’s Switzerland’s biggest, busiest city, Zürich has a historic core studded with many Bavarian-esque buildings that take the edges off its urban hardscape.  Practically every other townhouse sports timbered walls, wooden shutters, and little eyebrow dormer windows that peep out of cedar-shingled roofs.  Sprinkled in between these Medieval maidens are grand Neo-Renaissance dames rubbing shoulders with Beaux-Arts beauties — enough styles to feed every architectural addiction.

Lake Zürich emptying into the Limmat River
Zürich straddles the Limmat river, which empties the sliver-like Lake Zürich that measures 25 miles (40 km) long and 2 miles (3 km) wide.

Matthew and I followed Rick Steves’ walking tour while ping-ponging back and forth across the languid Limmat River, which ends at Lake Zürich itself.  Along the way, we checked off all the recommended sights and sensory experiences:  the mammoth Medieval clock face that towers above St. Peter’s Church; the commanding city view that can be had from the Lindenhof neighborhood’s square; and the smell of dried herbs, spices, and fruits that draws a serious crowd at Schwarzenbach grocers….

Check out these adorable Santa heads made of pretzel bread.
Check out these adorable Santa heads made of pretzel bread.

But what we loved best was cataloging how Christmas had spilled out over the city.  A clump of mistletoe dangled over every doorway.  Red-coated brass bands stood on most street corners.  Bakeries boasted breads shaped like Santa.  The little Swiss figures on the Kurz Glockenspiel danced to Christmas carols.  And the adorable holiday Fondue Train clacked merrily along the tracks behind silent electric trams ferrying shoppers to and fro.

I had to include this photo of the guy wearing a traditional Swiss costume while paying his respects to Grossmünster's nativity scene.
I had to include this photo of a guy wearing a traditional Swiss costume while paying his respects to Grossmünster’s nativity scene.

Zürich’s Churches
While we’re on the topic of Christmas, I can’t neglect the obvious places to find symbols of the season — Zürich’s Medieval churches.  You’d expect glorious Gothic details both without and within, but homeboy zealot Huldrych Zwingli scrubbed out all signs of ornate catholicism during the Protestant Reformation.  What’s left behind are spare, sober interiors unexpectedly illuminated by some of the most imaginative, modernist stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen.

Inside Grossmünster church, you can gawk at the work of Augusto Giacometti, whose three choir windows illustrate the birth of baby Jesus and the visit of the Magi in blazingly bright and blocky glory.  But the windows of Sigmar Polke, scattered throughout the sanctuary, almost steal the show with their surrealist silhouettes, geodes, and Neo-Medieval imagery.

Other scene stealers at Grossmünster include a brooding Romanesque statue of Charlemagne, who squats in his creepy crypt looking like Neptune in his grotto.  And don’t miss the 12th-century cloister ringed with wildly inappropriate carvings that, as near as I can tell, depict punishments or acts of the damned.  (I’d put a PG warning on this, as some of the visuals might require a bit of ‘splainin’ for the kiddies.)

After viewing a retrospective of Chagall's work in Zürich's art museum, the Fraumünster's pastor invited the 80-year-old artist to design the church's windows, which took him three years to complete.
After viewing a retrospective of Chagall’s work in Zürich’s art museum, the Fraumünster’s pastor invited the 80-year-old artist to design the church’s windows, which took three years to complete.

Visiting the nearby Fraumünster church will grant you a closeup view of artist Marc Chagall’s most unexpected works:  a collection of stained glass windows that he created when he was 80 years old.  They display his characteristic dreamy, angelic abstraction in fiery colors that somehow still feel serene, despite their vibrancy.  Sadly, no photos are allowed, so the one I’ve included here was taken from the church brochure.

Zürich’s Chocolate
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t confess that chocolate was a prime motivator for our trip.  But not for the obvious reasons.  Many Christmases ago, while on a business trip to Switzerland, my father sent me a huge box filled with the most beautifully wrapped chocolates I’d ever seen.  Regal purple ribbons tied little silvered paper boxes full of truffles to a huge wreath made of braided tinsel.  Also included in the package were five fist-sized angels that clutched tin harps, trumpets, and violins in heavenly tribute, all while smuggling bonbons beneath their purple-tissue robes.

That box of foreign beauties fueled my visions of Switzerland and a European Christmas for more than 30 years.  And although I ate the chocolates, I kept the wreath and angels for a decade, displaying them at Christmastime … until the year my cat decided they made great chew toys.  Since then, I’ve been determined that one day I’ll find the shop that handcrafted such great memories for me.

Max Chocolatier had the right color scheme and gorgeous gold-dusted chocolates, but they didn't have the wrappings I remembered.
Max Chocolatier had the right color scheme and gorgeous gold-dusted chocolates, but they didn’t have the wrappings I remembered.

Sadly, as the years passed, I no longer recalled the name of the maker.  This meant that, during our visit to Zürich, we had to stop by every chocolatier in the city to sample their wares — not really a hardship, right?  Confiserie Sprüngli, the city’s oldest and most beloved confectioner, proved delicious but didn’t have quite the right wrappings.  Max Chocolatier also offered decadent treats, all incredible works of art in their own right, but they still didn’t match my memory.

Aren't these the cutest chocolate boxes you've ever seen? And the chocolate itself is tasty, too!
Aren’t these the cutest chocolate boxes you’ve ever seen? And the chocolate itself is tasty, too!

Finally we stumbled into Teuscher … and I heard the angels sing.  Here were the Christmas fantasies that I’d found when I opened that big box thirty years ago.  No kid could have been happier than I was, bouncing around that shop picking out gifts for everyone I know.  (Gotta pay the magic forward.)  Maybe, if I’m lucky, someone will be as inspired as I was by such artful treats, and perhaps they’ll make their own holiday pilgrimage to Teuscher someday.


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