Switzerland’s Dirty Secret

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.”

The Schmutzlis are here to eat your SOUL

“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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13 thoughts on “Switzerland’s Dirty Secret

  1. Pingback: I Already Miss Switzerland « Trying to be Conscious

  2. Andrew probably won’t correct it as he likes the fact that you ave such a loovely French accent and does not want to spoil it ne?

  3. Hi Cécile, Very good blog but you need to tell Andrew off if he helped you to write it – the children are insufferable and not unsufferable! He is a silly billy!
    Otherwise great writing – I enjoy reading your stuff ALMOST as much as I enjoy reading his. XX

    • Thanks Angela! It’s strange that Andrew has never corrected this mistake because I use this word all the time in his company! To his face, by emails, or on chats when he is being insupportable (yes, insupportable IS also an English word, I just checked it). Or to describe his outrageous attitude, hum behaviour I mean.

  4. Hy Cécile
    I’m Michael, Andrew’s student…
    I was verry amused about your stories of Samichlaus and Schmutzli. But it’s not a story to scare children; each child is at the end a good child.
    The children are just a scared about Schmutzli because they know exactly what they’ve done wrong…
    We learn some lovely rhyme sayings to declaim them in front of the familie, Samichlaus and Schmutzli. It’s a verry nice tradition.
    In Möhlin, near Basel, you can “book” Samichlaus in mitten of the forest. So you go in the forest with the hole familie and eat some grilled saucises. The night comes and and if you hear the toll of a bell and see the small shinie lamp you will know that Samichlaus and his escort team is coming.
    My opinien is, that its a good reasen to tell the children bad things. We earn also compliments from Samichlaus, and I think that all children are verry fascinated about this two person.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for your comment and stories. I believe you and I also think that Samichlaus is mostly a lovely family tradition. As you said, in the end, every child ends up being a good one and receives candy and nuts from Samichlaus. But I can also imagine that some children are very scared of it, as Klara, my student. I think that if I have kids in Switzerland, I will also celebrate Samichlaus and play the game but I would try not to scare the children too much with Schmutzli.

      • You wrote this story so lovely, I loughed nearly the hole story. I’m sure that you’ll celebrate this tradition with your children.
        For sure it’s not a tradition to scare the children too far. It’s parents considering how Samichlaus considers it. If you book an Samichlaus from the official agency, they would never take a child with…
        Thanks for writing; your text is fantastic.

  5. hahaha love your last comment or how to deny all responsibility for the reactions on your blog!!! hahaha
    let’s put together 2 sentences you wrote: “I am just not sure that the whole “Schmutzli might beat you and carry you to the woods” part is absolutely necessary” and “No wonder the Swiss respect the rules”. Even though I think that conversations and explainations are way healthier, it’s not always enough for some children. So if (as we can understand your post) scaring children can bring to a coherent and responsible society, I don’t really see why it shouldn’t be used when you tried everything else before….
    One other problem when you scare your child with someone/something from outside is that it reduces your own authority on the child. Not sure it’s also the best way to be respect …

    • I think scaring your child with a person from the woods is quite a good plan because kids can’t try emotional blackmail on you then. They can’t say: “if you don’t give me that/ let me do this it means you don’t love me. You can say: “it’s not me, it’s Schmutzli and i can’t do anything about it. I’m just telling you to stop being naughty because I love you and I don’t want you to be taken to the woods away from me forever!”

      • blackmail only works on those who want to be compliant with the child. As parent you can always say no to you child without having to comply with his demands. If you can’t tell your child you’re the one with the authority here and neither you nor anybody else and that he’d better listen to you, good luck once they’re teenagers and won’t be scared by anyone…. If you can’t have authority on your child when he’s young, I think you lost the ability to diserve respect from his part later on….
        but I’m not saying that we shouldn’t scare them at all, I just believe it should be one of the last solutions :)

        • Yes, scaring kids should be the last solution, I agree with you. Also, if parents try to scare their children all the time it probably won’t work anymore after a point.

  6. I know that Saint Nicholas is not strictly a Swiss tradition; people also celebrate it in Germany, Austria and the North East of France. But as I understood it from my students, only in Switzerland people actually dress up and come to visit the children to their houses which makes it infinitely more convincing to the kids. When I say “Switzerland’s dirty secret”, I am not reffering to Saint Nicholas but to Schmutzli and his sack.

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