Luzern’s Christmas Pageantry

December 18, 2016.  After a whirlwind day in Zürich, we caught an early morning train to Luzern (Lucerne, if you’re more comfy with the French version of the name).  Not only were we looking for more Christmas markets and holiday spirit, but we also planned to use the town as our home base for a brief excursion into the Alps.  And we had high hopes that the place would prove to be a bit more cooperative in the meteorological department by blessing us with at least a dusting of the white stuff.

Please excuse the bad photo out a train window, but I wanted to give you a good idea of the small Swiss towns we saw along the way.  (Click for a bigger view.)

The 50-minute train trip took us through dense fog that lifted only occasionally, allowing snow-covered Alpine peaks to play peek-a-boo with us along the way.  Here and there, we got glimpses of small towns, enough for me to pick out a pattern:  Swiss civilization clustered around glacial lakes like herds of buffalo to a watering hole.  Housing stock — a mixture of adorable ancient chalets interspersed with stacks of super chic, modern apartment complexes that stair-step up the surrounding slopes — made the most of the hilly spots.

Looks a bit like a trailer park, right? The Swiss, like Norwegians, enjoy their rustic summer “hyttes” (huts).  But they’re clearly more sociable, preferring to snuggle right up next to their neighbors rather than retreating to absolute isolation.

But a few kilometers away from the shoreline, most of the flatland seemed to be reserved for farming.  Herds of cows and flocks of sheep munched placidly on green grass (no snow on the lowlands yet.)  And in several spots, odd little shanty towns made up of one-roomed shacks lined up in neat regiments along pasture borders.  Gypsy camps, we wondered?  No, it turns out that these are the mountain cabins, each with its own garden plot, that all citified Swiss escape to in summertime.

Check out my pricey-but-tasty train fare, costing the equivalent of about $9. (Switzerland ain’t cheap, folks, so save your pennies for the trip.)

But, I digress.  I can’t help it — I’ve always been fascinated with how values and environment influence the way people live and define “home.”  Which brings me to another experiment.  I frequently buy food on the train when traveling in a new country, because it’s interesting to see what folks enjoy eating “on the run” and how food is served.  In this case, a spiffily uniformed steward brought a posh cart full of snacks to our seat.  Our water came with a cute little bottle of real lemon juice (not constituted, a point the label made clear), and from the lineup of treats, I selected a more low-brow option of Paprika chips since they sounded particularly Swiss.  (They’re now my new favorite processed food — deeelish!)  Travel is just so broadening, in more ways than one, as my thighs are telling me after this crunchy addition to my steady diet of Swiss cheese and glühwein.

Lake Luzern Shoreline
Across from the train station, fancy banks, hotels, and casinos spread out along Lake Luzern while the twin steeples of St. Leodegar preside piously over the scene.

Anyway, upon our arrival in Luzern, we wandered out into the fog and caught our first glimpse of the city.  Grey mist cloaked the mountains and solidified as frost on the trees.  Here and there, pointy church steeples poked up through the woolly blanket.  And all along the shore of Lake Luzern, enormously grand Victorian-era hotels, casinos, and banks testified to the town’s heyday as the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland.”  (The place was once a must-see stop for all well-heeled 19th-century travelers taking their Grand Tour of Europe.)

Chapel Bridge
Part of the original Medieval defense system for Luzern, Chapel Bridge has an odd, zigzagging angle to it because it was designed to connect two fortresses that sat kitty-corner from one another on opposite banks of the Reuss River.

After admiring the view, we started our stroll towards our hotel, only to be visually waylaid by Kapellbrücke (“Chapel Bridge”), the first of Luzern’s two incredible Medieval bridges.  Built in 1333, it’s the oldest covered bridge in Europe — although its center section had to be entirely reconstructed after a 1993 fire.  Walking along the thing is like taking a trip through a time tunnel, as the bridge’s triangular trusses hold 17th-century paintings illustrating the town’s history.  Rather appropriate, since Kapellbrücke connects the Altstadt (“Old Town”) to the Neustadt (“New Town”).


Spreuerbrücke Interior
Check out the goosebump vibe of the Spreuerbrücke’s interior. Looks like there’s lots of shadowy spots where evil might lurk.

While I loved the first bridge, the second — Spreuerbrücke (“Chaff Bridge”) — really got my imagination going.  Maybe it was its ancient creaky timbers and the creepy little shrine that sits midway along its length.  Or maybe it was all the 17th-century Black Plague-era paintings, tucked up in between the trusses, each featuring a dancing, skeletal Death.  But all I could think of was Edgar Allen Poe’s Never Bet the Devil Your Head.  The bridge is the perfect spot to shoot a film adaptation of the tale.

Mill Bridge, Luzern
Rather than worrying about Death hovering in the shadows of the bridge, we should’ve been more concerned about those pigeons pooping on our heads.

Never heard of it?  In brief, it’s the story of Toby Dammit, a young man who’s fond of the blasphemous expression, “I’ll bet the Devil my head.”  One day, he uses the phrase when claiming that he can jump over the turnstile of a gloomy covered bridge.  An old man (the Devil in disguise) suddenly appears and asks him to prove it.  Toby’s body makes the jump successfully … but his head stays behind, having been lopped off in mid leap by the bridge’s iron tie-rod, invisible in the dim overhang of the roof.  The devil snatches the rolling noggin and scuttles off with his prize tucked in a sack.  Cue eerie music.


Row of Tafeens, Luzern
Pictured is a row of tafeens — ornate signs that depict an establishment’s specialty via pictures rather than words.  The name “tafeen” comes from the Swiss word for tavern. Hey, even 17th-century illiterates had to know where to get their drink on.

How’s that for a cheery holiday tale?  Think of it as your spooky story for the season, a bit like Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” (which he subtitled “… a Ghost Story of Christmas,” by the way).  And that brings us to signs of the season around Luzern.  Honestly, it was kinda difficult to sort out the Yuletide decorations from the usual everyday décor.  Ornately timbered homes with a Bavarian flair gave the place a gingerbread-village feel.  Stately buildings bedecked with festive frescoes lined most every plaza.  And gilded signs with festoons of greenery ornamented shops and restaurants alike.  It looked as if the city might always be wearing its finest attire in a perpetual state of party.  Click through the gallery of local beauties below, and you’ll see what I mean.


Silver-plated Condiment Tray
When you find yourself buying a $54 silver-plated holder for your Heinz ketchup, you’ve definitely gone from redneck to nouveau riche.

Strolling around town, we admired the holiday windows full of gorgeous glass ornaments and silver-plated presents.  All with price tags that explain why so many folks keep the bulk of their money in Swiss bank accounts — you need a fortune to shop here.  (Oslo looks affordable by comparison.)

Luckily, most of the recommended sightseeing spots came free or at a reasonable rate.  We took in the weeping Lion of Luzern, the ancient rampart walls, a requisite meal of Swiss fondue, and an incredible view out over the city from the rooftop deck of a department store.  All dutifully documented for posterity’s sake below:


Luzern Christmas Lights & Reuss River
Not much more is needed than a simple string of sparklers and a bit of moonlight to make Luzern magical at night.

While the town is gorgeous during the day, at night with all the holiday lights, it’s everyone’s dream of Christmas.  But it’s tasteful, not tacky, like some of the displays back home in Chicago.  White strands and simple greenery are the norm, just like in Oslo, although the décor is more lavishly applied than what you’ll find on the homes of minimalist Norwegians.  And every last garland and twinkle highlights the spectacular architecture.  Take a look for yourself….


Yep. You guessed it. More glühwein. It helped us wash down the unusual musical medley.

During our various wanderings, we came upon several Christmas markets.  One focused on handmade jewelry, knitwear, and pottery and offered some truly unique pieces at totally doable prices.  Another had an international flair, with booths serving up Mexican tacos, Indian samosas, and fried Chinese rice while a Scottish bagpipe band performed on a nearby stage.  However, we experienced our oddest musical mashup at the market on Franziskanerplatz, when the strains of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World were followed by Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and the theme song from Sesame Street.  Not the usual Christmas soundtrack, but hey, I’m open to new ideas.


Child Rides on Fire Department Hoist
The local fire department helped raise money for the Leder Rappen Zählt (“Every Cent Counts”) campaign by taking kids and parents up in the fire truck’s high hoist.

The Culture and Conference Center along the shoreline of Lake Luzern hosted the biggest shindig.  In addition to a skating rink and mobile glühwein vendors, folks could take a ride on a fireman’s hoist and have a moment in the spotlight with music, television, and radio personalities — many of whom were living inside a glass box for a week to raise money for charity.  (I have no idea how the bathroom situation worked on this one.)  As part of their annual “Every Cent Counts” campaign, National Swiss Radio and TV donated this year’s proceeds to “Children Alone on the Run,” which provides assistance to both foreign refugees and homeless local kids.  Pretty admirable stuff.


Nativity Procession Luzern
Scan to the far right, and you’ll see me, grinning from ear to ear and thrilled to death that we stumbled upon the Holy Family Procession. (Click for a bigger view.)

On the way to one of the markets, we heard the faint sound of Christmas carols wafting down an alley.  We followed the tune and came upon a choir, robed in black cassocks and carrying lanterns in a solemn processional.  At the head of the line, a choirmaster held an advent wreath aloft.  And trailing closely behind was an angel bearing a huge glowing star.  The Holy Family followed, with Joseph looking thunderously protective as he escorted a nervous Mary and baby Jesus through the crowded streets.

Shepherds in Luzern Nativity Procession
Look closely at the lead shepherd in the group, and you’ll see that on his wooden backboard, he’s toting a special gift — a giant wheel of Swiss cheese — that he’ll later give to baby Jesus.

Next in line came the shepherds herding a flock of five live sheep, their bells clinking tinnily from around their necks.  The youngest herdsman was clearly loving his job, although he appeared to be water skiing behind his headstrong ram, which refused to be led on the leash.  Then came the Magi, each with his own grand entourage.  I tried not to wince as Gaspar, represented by a white guy in blackface, and Melchoir, portrayed with a Fu-manchu mustache and exaggeratedly Asian eyes, challenged my American notions of politically correct.

Gaspar and his posse approach with his gift of frankincense for the baby Jesus.

Despite the huge crowd, the procession continued in near silence, except for the bleating of the sheep and the choir’s soft singing.  We followed the group for a half hour until we came to the courtyard next to the Franciscan Church.  The Holy Family climbed the platform, followed by the angel and her two tiny helpers, one of whom began yawning and swinging her legs as soon as she sat down on the edge of the stage.

Holy Family Pageant
The crowd gathers ’round and joins the Magi in paying respects to the Holy Family.

The choir continued serenading the group as first the shepherds, then each wiseman, took their turn bowing before the Holy Family and presenting them with gifts.  Soon the carol changed to Silent Night, sung in German, and the entire crowd joined in.  Matthew and I sang along in English, but I don’t think anyone cared.  It felt amazingly like we were one big human family, joined by a simple familiar ritual, despite the different languages.  What more could you ask for at Christmas?

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