Some Christmases are forgettable. Others burn bright in your memory. For me, the Swiss Christmas of my fondest dreams came down to those live candles on the Christmas tree.
Soon after they were married, my parents lived for a year and a half in Switzerland. The holidays they spent high in the Swiss Alps left an indelible mark on their notion of Christmas — and, because this is how these things work, also on their kids’.
When my sister and I were growing up, our Christmases took on a Swiss flavor. Our tree decorations included vintage straw ornaments from Swiss Christmas markets — including our tattered treetop angel, a hardy veteran of decades of holiday seasons. When we would indulge him, my father would read us the story of the Nativity in German. And our it-just isn’t-the holidays-without-it Christmas Eve tradition has always been a big, bubbling cauldron of cheese fondue.
Every December, at one point or another, my parents would get around to telling the story of one of their all-time favorite memories: attending a Christmas Eve service in a small mountain village church, high in the Swiss Alps. The Christmas tree by the altar had candles pinned precariously to its delicate evergreen boughs. At the start of the service, ushers with long poles carefully lit each candle. One usher remained stationed next to the tree, so that when a candle set the branch above it on fire — as it inevitably would — he could grab a stick with a wet sponge lashed to the end, swing it up, and smack the fire out with a wet thud. With each retelling of this tale, the details grew more and more theatrical: One year, the usher was dozing off in his chair, until the congregation started hissing “Feuer! Feuer!” He awoke with a start, leapt to his feet, whacked the offending branch with his sponge, then went back to his nap…as the stoic Swiss congregation acted as if nothing had happened.
Likely because of these very experiences, my family has always approached the holidays with a spirit of adventure (antique straw ornaments and cheese fondue notwithstanding). When I was three years old, for example, we spent our family Christmas in Mexico. Instead of shivering in moon boots and parkas in the Midwest snow, my sister and I wore flip-flops and T-shirts as we followed the posada procession door-to-door through a workaday Cuernavaca neighborhood. And when my sister was in grad school in New Orleans, we spent several Thanksgivings there — following our turkey with beignets.
But my favorite holiday travel memory of all came a few years ago, when my family spent Christmas in Switzerland. My parents — then newly retired and eager to relive one of their most formative holidays with their adult children — were determined to create some powerful new Swiss Christmas memories to file alongside their 40-year-old ones. The stakes were high, and trying to rekindle the magic of holidays past is courting disappointment. But we decided to give it a shot.
Settling in at Wilderswil
A few days before Christmas, we landed in Zürich and rode the train to the Berner Oberland — the traditional, dramatically scenic heartland of German-speaking Switzerland. We’d chosen to stay in the village of Wilderswil, which fills a sleepy valley at the doorstep of the Berner Oberland’s peaks.
Workaday Wilderswil has few claims to fame. (Not long before our visit, the town’s big play to put itself on the map — its “Mystery Park” amusement park — opened to much fanfare, then quickly closed in disgrace, going down in local lore as a regrettable boondoggle.) But Wilderswil’s nondescriptness suited us just fine. Sleepy and effortlessly charming, it’s a split-shingle community of bulky chalets that crowd along tight streets dating back to horse-and-buggy days. The village — just big enough to have a well-stocked Migros grocery store, but small enough to escape most tourists’ itineraries — turned out to be an ideal home base. From our rented cottage, a short walk brought us to the train station, from which we could travel in just five minutes in one direction to the bustling resort town of Interlaken, or 15 minutes in the other direction to Lauterbrunnen — the base station for several of Switzerland’s most rewarding high-mountain lifts.
Before arriving, we wondered if we were in for a white Christmas. (Having moved from Ohio to the Pacific Northwest — sacrificing snowy Christmases for soggy ones — this had become a priority.)The answer was, as the Swiss would say, Ja-ein…yes and no. Wilderswil fills a temperate valley, hemmed in by hills fuzzy with leafless trees and a few evergreens. We had occasional flurries, and a gentle morning frost fringed naked branches and brown grass with a layer of white peach fuzz, but nothing really stuck. However, a short lift ride could carry us, at a moment’s notice, to a winter wonderland of snowbanks and skiers. With snow close at hand, but never getting in the way of our travels, the weather conditions were ideal.
Exploring Switzerland and Its Christmas Markets
Determined to get the most out of the Swiss Travel Passes we’d invested in for the trip, in the days leading up to Christmas, we fanned out across the little country on scenic rail lines.
One day, we rode the breathtaking Golden Pass route south, through an idyllic landscape of snow-flocked trees, hibernating farms nestled in valleys, and cuckoo-clock villages perched on white hillsides. Chugging our way past glitzy ski resorts, we crossed the linguistic and cultural border from German to French Switzerland. The terrain softened and thawed, replacing evergreens with vineyards and rustic wooden chalets with handsome stone homes.
Emerging from a long tunnel, we popped out on the side of a bald mountain. As we curled between gnarled vines, we got our first view of Lake Geneva, shrouded in a dense fog. Twisting down closer and closer to the lake, then reaching the lake in Montreux, we chugged along the shoreline until we pulled into Lausanne.
The chic streets of this sophisticated yet manageable burg were the perfect spot for a bistro lunch and some last-minute Noël shopping. And then, as the sun dropped low in the sky, we bid Lausanne au revoir and hopped on the train back home to Wilderswil.
On other days, we took full advantage of the Christmas markets that were in full swing across the country. Bern — Switzerland’s mellow little capital, filling its river-wrapped promontory with storybook houses and warm arcades — was all decked out with garlands, giant illuminated stars, and cheery mood lighting.
Münsterplatz, the square surrounding the gigantic church tower that stretches up from town like an exclamation point, was lively with vendors. Bundled up against the chill, we sipped hot spiced Glühwein and munched on chestnuts roasted before our eyes by street vendors. (If you’ve been lucky enough to do this, you’re smelling those chestnuts right now. There’s a reason they sing Christmas carols about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.)
Basel — with its fire-truck-red city hall — sits at the nexus of Western Europe, at the point where Germany, France, and Switzerland touch. (Those many years ago, my mother worked at an office building in Switzerland that had its parking lot in France.) One of the town’s main landmarks is Jean Tinguely’s Carnival Fountain — a cyberpunk playground with “robots” that spray and splash water at each other. But on this day, each robot was a chunk of solid ice, draped in thick icicles. The many Christmas trees decorating Basel’s downtown core were (like all things Switzerland) elegant in their organic simplicity: towering trees with twinkle lights, a few unglitzy ornaments, and an ethos of tasteful restraint.
At Basel’s Christmas market, an old-fashioned, steam-powered locomotive — belching great billows — chugged along tram tracks through the main square, offering wide-eyed, cherry-cheeked little kids rides around town. Window displays were over-the-top explosions of red velvet, tinsel, and greenery. Carnival rides and live choral music contributed to the festive atmosphere. Inviting faux-log-cabin market stalls — draped in garlands and twinkle lights — offered fragrant wreaths and greenery, colorful wooden children’s toys, handwoven baskets, big wheels of rustic cheese, neatly stacked jars of preserves, handmade figures for your crèche, giant garlicky sausages, bouquets of dried flowers, and a rainbow of ornaments. We stocked up on some new straw ornaments to (finally!) retire our vintage ones.
Zürich — ever the Swiss trendsetter — trades the folksy kitsch for sleek sophistication. The grand main hall of its train station was filled with vendors, all tucked under the boughs of a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree that glittered with crystal ornaments. After hours, Zürich’s tidy, regimented shopping streets were strewn with twinkle lights that seemed to cascade from the sky, like snowflakes of light plotted on graph paper.
Seeking snow, we rode some lifts high into the mountains. From Wilderswil, it’s a quick hop by train to Zweilütschinen Station, where another train takes you up to Grindelwald — a heavily touristed gingerbread village popular with skiers and hikers, who appreciate its strategic position at the intersection of various lifts and rail lines. Grindelwald was where those intrepid 19th-century English mountain climbers based themselves when first conquering this region’s harrowing 13,000-foot summits.
To gain a little more altitude — without the sweat or the danger — we hopped on a gondola, hopped out again at the mid-station, and went for a walk in the snow. Even in late December, the mountain sun can be intense. We hiked past woody mountain lodges, their outdoor terraces jammed with sunbathing skiers — cheeks and noses rosy from frigid air, warm sun, and schnapps. Hot cocoa with marshmallows tastes even sweeter in the sun and snow at 5,200 feet.
In the evenings, as we plotted out the next day’s excursions, we cooked local meals. We discovered — tucked deep in a forgotten cupboard — a raclette iron, which, based on the day-glo flowers, probably dated from the 1970s. Raclette is fondue’s less famous, tragically underappreciated cousin, and a must for cheese lovers. Raclette cheese is formulated to melt just so — with a thick, stringy texture that you can wrap around anything edible. Traditionally, a wheel of raclette is sliced in half, and the flat part of the wheel is held facing an open flame. When it’s melted just right, you use a thick blade to shave off a glob of half-liquefied cheese — like slicing browned meat from a döner kebab spindle.
A more modern, more controlled version of raclette features a special appliance with a covered heating rack. You put slices of raclette in little trays, set them inside the raclette maker (facing the heating element), and melt it to perfection. And then — just as the slice of cheese is beginning to bubble and brown — you pull out the little tray and scrape the gooey goodness onto your plate. Melted raclette cheese goes perfectly with gherkins, little boiled potatoes, prosciutto and other air-cured meats, and (my favorite) those miniature pickled cocktail onions. The earthy, nutty cheese and the sharp, acidic kick of the vinegar and onion are an explosively flavorful combination.
Our raclette evening was the perfect way to wrap up our busy Swiss explorations, and to whet our appetites for the fondue that awaited us on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve in a Village Church: Live Candles on the Tree?
Finally, December 24th arrived. Now, just try to imagine the decades of pressure that were piled upon our Christmas Eve plans. How could it possibly live up to my parents’ gauzy memories of the village church and the live candles and the usher with a sponge on a stick?
After much research, speculation, and discussion about which village church would be graced with the honor of our visit, we shrugged and went with the easiest, most obvious choice: Kirche Gsteig, the historic yet humble church over a covered wooden footbridge from the Wilderswil train station, and just a few minutes’ walk from our house. Sure, it might not be the remote, rustic, live-candles-on-flaming-boughs church of our fondest Swiss Christmas fantasies. But we figured we’d make it easy on ourselves; after all, it’s really just about being there together. (That said, if there were candles…well, we wouldn’t exactly complain.)
We spent most of Christmas Eve side-tripping to Christmas markets. And as our train approached Wilderswil, after days of a brown landscape fringed with frost, it finally began to really snow for the first time. After the sun set (at 4 p.m.), as the town’s holiday lights twinkled on, we made our way through plump snowflakes and across the covered footbridge to the tiny community of Gsteig.
On our way through town, the church bells began to toll. And other villagers emerged from their homes and joined us in an impromptu, festive parade through town. Everyone was out — all the Whos down in Whoville were heading to church. Our hearts grew three sizes that day.
Plain and white on the outside, tidy and stony inside, the Gsteig church’s walls are decorated with a few faint frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries. On this evening, those simple halls were decked, and very tastefully. The arched alcoves lining the nave were filled with Advent wreaths on tall wooden stools. The congregation wore cheery red sweaters and green scarves. And there, by the altar, stood a sparse but elegant Christmas tree — with little candles pinned to its branches, ready to be lit.
As we settled into our pew, a hush settled over the crowd as ushers stood and began to light those little candles, one by one, with long poles — just like they had in all those years of stories. It was a beautiful moment of serene silence, as the entire congregation fully appreciated the arrival of this holy light into their world. Everything else was precisely as we’d always imagined. My parents’ eyes danced with the joy of treasured memories, old and brand-new, coming together.
The Swiss live their lives in dual linguistic worlds: In official contexts, at school and in the workplace, and in most radio and TV, they speak High German (or, as they call it, Schriftdeutsch — “written German”). But at home, at the pub, and among friends, they switch to their own language, Schwyzerdütsch. Germans and Austrians say “Fröhliche Weihnachten,” while the Swiss greet each other with “Guëti Wienachtä!” In big-city Swiss cathedrals tonight, the Fröhliche Weihnachten service would have been in High German. But here in the humble Gsteig village church, the sermon was proudly in Schwyzerdütsch. As the only out-of-towners in the congregation, we felt honored to be observers at this intimate Guëti Wienachtä service.
After church, we mingled with the ruddy-cheeked villagers of Gsteig and Wilderswil. Outside the church, at the fellowship hour, we made some new friends, nursed Styrofoam cups of Glühwein, and caught fat snowflakes on our tongues. Shimmering red lights drew us around the side of the church, to the graveyard. The villagers had lovingly decorated the graves of departed loved ones with tasteful garlands and red votive candles — inviting generations past to join in the celebration.
Then we headed back through the flurries — which were just beginning to stick on the wood-shingled rooftops — to our family Christmas tradition: fondue.
A Perfect Fondue
Swiss fondue is elegantly simple: cheese liquefied in wine. But making a perfect fondue is equal parts art and science, mastered over many years. You need the right kind of cheese, the right kind of wine, the right kind of bread, the right equipment, and the right technique. In my family, we are insufferable fondue snobs. And being in Switzerland on Christmas Eve, we were in our element.
Earlier in the day, we’d stopped by the Wilderswil Käserei (cheese shop). (Even tiny towns have a dedicated Käserei. After all, this is Switzerland.) When we make fondue back home, we have to improvise on the cheese, usually going with half Emmental and half Gruyere, all grated into one big fluffy pile. But a real Swiss Käserei sells a Fonduemischung engineered for a perfect fondue — usually about half Gruyere, and one-quarter each Appenzeller and Fribourger. Real Swiss cheeses are majestically funky — so pungent you can taste them with your nose. Appenzeller in particular smells like a festering toe fungus…and yet, somehow, once melted, it washes the taste buds with a nutty, tangy, rich flavor. There’s nothing else I can think of that smells so wretched, but tastes so delicious.
Cheese in hand, we stocked up on the other ingredients: a couple cloves of garlic; ground nutmeg; white wine; a pinch of cornstarch; and Kirschwasser — cherry schnapps. Our rental cottage, of course, came with a ceramic pot specifically designed for fondue — right down to the Swiss cross on the side — and a stand with a Sterno-can burner for keeping it warm at the table.
Oh, and you need the perfect loaf of fresh, rustic European bread — crusty on the outside, soft and spongy on the inside. We cut the bread into little chunks, about one-inch square. Each chunk — and this is very important — should have some crust, to pierce with the little fork. Without the crust, a chunk of bread instantly becomes unmoored from the wimpy bread flesh when it hits the cheese — lost forever in the bottom of the pot.
Ingredients assembled, we began by rubbing the inside of the pot with cross-sections of garlic cloves, then filling it with white wine. Then we heated it up on the stovetop. Not too hot, and not too fast — gradually raising the temperature, and occasionally stirring…never boiling, or even simmering.
Soon — after maybe 10 minutes or so — a hazy cloud begins to rise from the surface of the wine, like fog clinging to the surface of a glassy lake at dawn. And that’s when it’s time to start mixing in the cheese. But — as with everything fondue — this should not be done too quickly. Grab a scant handful of grated cheese and sprinkle it in. Stir until it’s dissolved into the wine. Then mix in another handful. Then another. Wait until the previous sprinkling of cheese has fully melted before adding more. This takes some time, but that’s perfectly fine…we’re in no hurry. The whole time you’re doing this, you never, ever stop stirring. Whirl the spoon in a smooth, continuous, mesmerizing figure-8 motion. Use a wooden spoon — ideally one with a hole in the middle.
If done correctly, the fondue will wind up as an opaque liquid, without individual strands of cheese visible. That’s when you mix in a glug of the Kirschwasser, premixed with a bit of cornstarch for thickening, and a smidge more wine. Add a pinch of ground nutmeg and some fresh-ground pepper. And keep stirring. Once the mixture begins to thicken up a bit, carefully transfer the pot to the tabletop burner.
At a certain point — seamlessly — you stop stirring with the wooden spoon, and start stirring with a long, skinny fork piercing a perfect chunk of bread. Take turns stirring and eating — someone should always have their fork swirling around in the pot. To really get the party going, the Swiss sometimes dip their bread in Kirschwasser before stirring it into the cheese. But we are not nearly that hardcore.
A good fondue is life-altering. What’s not to love? Fresh bread and cheese liquefied in wine. We always have our fondue with a side salad. It’s comforting to imagine the lettuce settling into the stomach, creating a much-needed digestive buffer of leaves between the layers of cheese.
The best part is the charred cheese that coats the bottom of the pot at the end. Usually, we let my wife and my sister debate which of them gets the intensely satisfying (and delicious) task of gently peeling off the skin of browned cheese with their little fork, then popping it in their mouth.
Settling into our Christmas Eve tradition, still buzzing from the impossible-to-plan-for serendipity of our day, we jabbed our forks into the bubbling cheese and planned our Christmas Day.
Christmas Morning High in the Alps
On Christmas morning, we awoke to glorious sunshine, with deep-blue skies over white-fringed frosted fields. We piled onto the train in Wilderswil and rode into Lauterbrunnen. As we made our way up the valley, the slight increase in elevation took us through higher and higher snowbanks. Snow clung to the evergreen boughs, tracing pretty piney patterns on either side of the train tracks. The fresh coating of white, as far as the eye could see, was lit up so bright by the midwinter sun that we had to squint. It felt like a vast blank canvas on which to create treasured new memories to build on last night’s perfect Christmas Eve.
In Lauterbrunnen, we transferred to a bus — even on Christmas Day, coordinated with flawless Swiss efficiency — to the far end of the valley, where we stepped onto the Schilthornbahn cable car. We rode it up, up, up, feeling our ears pop as we ascended through a landscape painted by winter.
Stepping out at 12,000 feet, we surveyed that classic lineup of cut-glass peaks on the far side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley: the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Aspirational yellow arrows pointed in every direction, suggesting hardy summertime hikes down into the valley far below. But not today. On this Christmas morning, giddy skiers were strapping on their skis for the long, blissful glide back to civilization.
Escaping the bitter chill into the warmth of the revolving restaurant — made famous by a dramatic ski-chase scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — we noticed they had a special “early bird” offer for brunch, and quickly changed our plans for a picnic. We settled into a table and watched the panoply of peaks slowly crawl past us for an hour as we dug into heaping plates of Rösti (Swiss hash browns) slathered in creamy mountain cheese, with chunks of potato and bits of bacon.
Having dispensed with the need to ever consume food again, we waddled back to the cable car and rode it down the mountain to Mürren — perched on a snowy lip over the valley — where we began a long, scenic stroll through the village.
In spite of the snow and the altitude, it was warm. Bright sunshine spotlit rustic wooden homes, revealing precisely stacked piles of firewood under rugged eaves, assembled with Swiss precision by farmers who were engineers at heart. Skiers — just completing their eye-popping journey down from the Schilthorn — shuffled past us on the snow-covered streets. Everyone was in a festive mood. Even the cable-car operators were uncharacteristically jolly.
Reaching the end of Mürren, we decided to extend our hike (and burn off more of that Rösti). Circling back through town, we continued 30 minutes gently downhill to the precious hamlet of Gimmelwald. Warmed by the sun (and the just-right exertion of plodding through a little snow), we peeled off our jackets and felt refreshed by the Swiss splendor.
The steeply switchbacked trails led down past frozen little waterfalls, soon depositing us at the upper flanks of Gimmelwald — marked by its much-loved landmark, Walter’s classic old hotel. From there, we continued past humble farmers’ houses buried in snow banks and frozen water troughs for stabled cows. Reaching the edge of the bluff that faces the Jungfrau — looming across the valley, so close, yet a deep chasm away — we walked out to a rustic barn clinging to the lip of the cliff.
Panning up once more to survey 360 degrees of Swiss peaks, we realized we were having a very merry Christmas, indeed. Trying to capture Christmas magic is a risky business. We got lucky. Or maybe it’s just that Switzerland makes it seem easy.