Last week, on December 6th, I discovered a Swiss tradition that might explain why the Swiss are such good citizens.
As I arrived at the school where I work, the secretary handed me a little bag full of chocolate and nuts. “Thanks!” I said, assuming they were giving me a long overdue and well-deserved reward for my great work. “Everyone gets one,” said the secretary, her expression meaning I shouldn’t feel special. “Even Andrew.” Then, seeing my confusion, she explained, “It’s for Samichlaus.” I was, as usual, five minutes late to my first lesson so I didn’t have time to ask her what that meant.
“Today’s topic is Samichlaus and Swiss traditions for Christmas!” I announced in an appropriately cheerful voice to my student, Klara, as though I had been preparing this lesson for weeks. “I just got chocolate because of Samichlaus. It must be a good thing!”
“Actually, the Samichlaus tradition is pretty horrifying,” Klara said. “The story is about Samichlaus, the good guy and Schmutzli, the mean guy. Schmutz means dirt in German. So Samichlaus is tall, handsome and kind while Schmutzli is small, creepy and mean. They live together in the woods and on December 6th, they come to people’s houses to give chocolate and nuts to children. People from the village dress up and go to all the houses. They take it in turns. It’s kind of a community thing, so they take it quite seriously. Sometimes, they even come with a donkey.”
“What? A real donkey?!” I asked, incredulous. “They put a lot of effort into this!”
“Yeah, kids really believe in it. Samichlaus carries a big book in which all bad and good deeds the children have done over the past year are written. He reads it aloud to the family. I remember, when I was a kid, I always wondered: ‘How does he know?!’ (Parents secretly give the info in advance of course.) Good children receive candy, nuts and oranges while naughty ones are told that Schmutzli is going to beat them with branches.”
“Pretty dreadful,” I said.
“Yeah and the worst thing is that Schmutzli has this huge sack in which he’s supposed to carry all the bad kids to the woods where he will turn them into slaves.”
She looked pretty sensitive about the subject: “Were you scared of Schmutzli when you were a child?” I asked, trying to remain serious.
“Oh yeah. I was actually traumatised when I was 6 years old! My uncle and his friend pretended to be Samichlaus and Schmutzli; they had a donkey, and it was utterly convincing. After telling me I had been a bad girl, Schmutzli suddenly put me into the sack and carried me outside on the donkey 50 metres away! I was crying, and shouting: I thought I was going to the woods and I was only wearing my pajamas! Just before they left me barefoot in the snow, Samichlaus told me to behave better next year, otherwise he would really bring me to the woods next time. My mom was so mad at them afterwards!”
I laughed but it wasn’t really funny. Why would you go so far to scare a 6 year old to death like that?
Later the same day, I asked another student about his experience with Samichlaus. He started laughing and said: “I really believed in it. One year, I had been quite naughty: I had no doubt that this time, Schmutzli would take me to the woods. Just before they came to my house, I packed a suitcase. When Samichlaus and Schmutzli arrived, I was ready to go!”
My student’s stories reminded me that when my little sister was 6, I told her regularly that the police would come to get her and put her in jail if she didn’t stop being annoying. One day, I pretended to call the police and she got so scared that she started crying and begging: “No please, don’t let them get me!” My brother would also pretend that “Super Nanny” from the TV show would come to our house to educate her because she was too naughty: “No! No! Not Super Nanny! Please!” She would beg. Every once in a while we would push the lie too far and realise that she was really anxious about it.
Children are gullible and we lie to them a lot. Partly because it’s funny to see their little faces react; mostly because they’re insufferable and we want them to behave better. Telling them that a creepy guy will beat them with branches and take them to the woods if they don’t listen must be a pretty efficient threat. Honestly, I have no idea of how I will raise my kids but I think I’ll try to avoid causing too much unnecessary anxiety. Samichlaus is a lovely tradition and it is great to see how the Swiss still have people in costumes coming to their houses and making a whole show for the kids. I am just not sure that the whole “Schmutzli might beat you and carry you to the woods” part is absolutely necessary.
Maybe the Samichlaus tradition explains the strong sense of social responsibility in Switzerland. In some countries, Father Christmas will bring presents to good kids while bad kids might get coal. In Switzerland, good kids get candy and nuts but bad kids are dragged away through the snow, by a donkey, while tied up in a sack. When they get to a nice dark part of the woods they’re beaten with sticks then enslaved. No wonder the Swiss respect the rules.
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