Rick Steves’ European Christmas: Samichlaus, Schmutzli, and Fondue in Switzerland

High in Switzerland, the mighty Alps seem to shout the glory of God. Up here, where villages huddle under towering peaks, Christmas fills a wintry wonderland with good cheer. Traditions are strong and celebration comes with families, friends, and fun. It may be cold outside, but as the sun sets, it’s impossible not to linger in this cozy setting.

Through the seven countries where we filmed our Rick Steves’ European Christmas special, six were snowless. The Swiss Alps were our one last hope for a white Christmas — our worst-case weather scenario back-up. I simply had to get snow in the Alps…and just barely did.

I am well-connected in the fairy-tale village of Gimmelwald. (We’ve been taking our tour groups here for 30 years.) My key support person was Olle, the village schoolteacher. He had emailed me photos of his beautiful, snow-covered village a month before. But that December was unseasonably warm, and on the days leading up to our arrival, the town was bare and wet. Thankfully, a strong snowfall hit the day we came to town, giving us the white Christmas of our prayers. By the time we were leaving, it was all but melted.

Gimmelwald was a folk festival of Christmas traditions. Olle arranged everything. He planned a sledding expedition to cut down the tree, arranged a cozy fondue in a remote hut, and lit our torches as we skied and sledded back down the mountain into his village. Olle’s parents came by (Grandpa even grew an old-fashioned big white beard for the filming) as they pulled out all the stops to celebrate a traditional Swiss family Christmas Eve…on December 21.

The Alps would also be a great place to rendezvous with my family. (Other holiday shows I’d watched, where the host was without family, seemed almost mournful.) My family flew in for just three days and performed heroically (especially considering the jet lag).

After 15 years of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos in our TV shows, my son Andy got a serious part. This year he was Samichlaus — that’s Swiss German for “St. Nick.” Andy’s sidekick, the black-clad henchman Schmutzli, was Olle’s son, Sven. And the donkey played himself. We filmed Gimmelwald’s children enjoying the annual visit from this dynamic Christmas duo. This year, Schmutzli translated because Samichlaus spoke only English. Ignoring the language barrier, the cute little village children just promised they were nice and not naughty, sang their Swiss Santa a Christmas carol, and eagerly dug into his big burlap bag to get their goodies.

That night we filmed a hot-spiced wine party in the frigid open-air gathering around flaming tree trunks with villagers — one of the coldest evenings I’ve ever experienced. And it didn’t make the show. But it was a delight to play the piano as the family sang (they have the same kind of piano as me… a wonderful German make called Sauter, from the Black Forest). And I just love the shot of Grandpa’s weathered fingers on the dog-eared family Bible — beautiful as a Rembrandt painting, but real and now.

My favorite bit of the entire Christmas special was the joyful sleigh ride with the entire gang frolicking down the mountain with torches. Again, this was a nerve-wracking afternoon and evening, as we had lots of elements to film: tramping around in snowshoes, cutting the tree, having fondue in the mountain hut, and then — just as twilight was upon us — romping down the mountain. The crew ran ahead at intervals, catching us as we frolicked by. I got to ride the comedic wooden snow bicycle, and our laughs and giggles were honest joy. No acting there!

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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