Find out more about Samichlaus and Schmutzli in Switzerland, and learn how to make your own Samichlaus Bag at home.
This post has been prepared in collaboration with Lindt & Sprüngli Switzerland, but the content and opinions are my own.
Christmas in Switzerland
Samichlaus and Schmutzli
Most people know of Santa Claus’ place of domicile as being in the North Pole, a faraway yet magical locale where he lives with his army of hard-working elves and reindeer.
By contrast, Samichlaus lives in more modest circumstances in a wooden hut in the middle of the forest.
Every year, in various parts of Switzerland (though don’t tell the children this), families will hike through the chilly air and thick forests to visit Samichlaus and Schmutzli in their hut.
Queues will form for miles while children and families wait anxiously to catch a glimpse of the big guy in the red suit.
But unlike the generous Santa Claus who fulfils the impossible feat of delivering the precisely requested gifts to children all over the world during one single night on Christmas Eve, Samichlaus is a bit cash-strapped and instead prefers to give the gift of a gentle lecture to children about kindness and manners, rewarding well-behaved children with a Samichlaussäckli filled with nuts and fruit.
By contrast, Schmutzli is the scary guy who wears a dark cloak and, once upon a time, carried an old broomstick to punish the children who had displayed less than exemplary behaviour throughout the year.
Thankfully, these days, Schmutzli has retired from corporal punishment and prefers to spend his time silently assisting Samichlaus in distributing gifts to the children.
Although Schmutzli is no longer a character to be feared by children, he remains mysterious and brings a touch of trepidation whenever he is seen alongside Samichlaus.
Samichlaus Parade & Märlitram
Every year, parades are organised throughout Switzerland where families can line the streets to shake hands with Samichlaus as he passes by, handing out gingerbread to those who have braved the cold to see him.
The parade is often a lively event with marching bands, children dressed in traditional costumes, musicians dressed as Samichlaus or Schmutzli, and even cute donkeys and ponies.
There is even a specially-made tram, called the Märlitram, which is chauffered by Samichlaus on a small loop around the Zurich city whilst angels read Christmas stories to the children in the carriage. The tram is only for children between the ages of 4 and 10, and the trip duration is about 20 minutes, or long enough for the parents to enjoy a quick Glühwein from the Christmas markets nearby.
How to Make a Samichlaus Bag
St. Nicholas Day falls on the 6th December each year and this is the day when Samichlaus visits the children to have a chat about kindness and manners. The good children are rewarded with a bag of fruit and nuts, and maybe also some sweet treats if they are lucky.
In the lead up to St. Nicholas Day on 6th December every year, many shops and supermarkets will start selling pre-filled Samichlaus bags (called Samichlaussäckli in Swiss German). Some contain the traditional contents listed below, whilst others can be a bit more upmarket and luxurious.
- The traditional Samichlaus bag is made of hessian or burlap with a drawstring.
- Fill about half of the bag with walnuts and peanuts still in their shells.
- Add 1-2 small apples or clementines.
- Add some wrapped gingerbread cookies. Lebkuchen (German-style gingerbread cookies which are thick and chewy) is what you will find in most traditional Samichlaus bags.
- Fill the rest of the bag with some candy and wrapped chocolate, such as Lindt Lindor Chocolate Truffles.
For a delicious homemade twist, I recommend baking a batch of Gingerbread Men Cookies. In our home, baking gingerbread men is a way for me to introduce a touch of the Australian Christmas into the Swiss tradition. They are fun to eat and are often more child-friendly than the traditional Lebkuchen.
You can decorate the gingerbread men as they are, or use them to create a beautiful (and edible!) Christmas garland to decorate around the home. These gingerbread men cookies will certainly bring a smile to any child who receives them.
When to Give a Samichlaus Bag
St. Nicholas Day falls on 6th December each year.
In some Swiss homes, it might be the case that Samichlaus is unable to visit the children personally; he has a lot of children to visit in one day, you see 😉
So the evening before St. Nicholas Day (i.e. on the 5th December), the children are reminded to clean and polish their shoes, and to place them by the front door.
If the children have been well-behaved, they will wake up to find a Samichlaus bag placed on their shoes in the morning. If they have been naughty, they will instead find a lump of coal delivered by Schmutzli!
Alternatively, if your children are lucky enough to have Samichlaus visit them personally (cue fancy dress time for one lucky adult), the bags can be given in person.