Photo : Vishnu Bishram
I am spending the holiday season traveling around in Europe. On the continent, during this yearend season, people seem to be caught up in similar activities (like shopping, holidaying, entertaining, dining, etc.) as we do in Guyana or Trinidad or among the communities of the large diaspora in North America and UK. People seem to be having a fantastic time enjoying the spirit of the season doing pretty much the same things (entertaining guests, gifting, lit trees, decorations, colorful lights, baking, cooking, partying, eating a lot, and generally having a wonderful time) as we do in Guyana or in the diaspora during this time of the year.
It is fair to conclude that as in the US and throughout the Caribbean, yearend is a big occasion in Europe with even non-Christians enjoying the year end festive activities in much the same as in New York or the Caribbean. Many non-Christians live in Europe especially in cosmopolitan UK, Switzerland, Vienna, and other countries. And asides from the locals, people from all over the globe (particularly Chinese, Indians and Americans) come to frigid Europe to take in its Christmas beauty. And what a spectacle it is on the continent with decorated streets, malls, homes, and Christmas markets. Oh yes, unlike North America and the Caribbean, there are Christmas markets in almost in every town, village, and city in Europe – with its hot apple cider, wine, roasted chestnuts, ornaments, wood products, etc. Also, snow is glistening on mountain peaks. Switzerland has been white for several days. It is a Christmas post card country with white trees everywhere when the temperature is freezing. The snow peaked Alps (Swiss, French, Italian, German, Austrian) is a spectacle to behold around this time of the year – it is an experience of a lifetime to travel around the mountains (thousands of feet above sea level) of Switzerland. The Swiss mountain does have a village named St. Nick, after the old bearded man who gives out gifts for the season, with a towering Christmas father welcoming visitors; it is frigid cold here.
The Christmas season starts at a different time of the year in each European country as it does in the Caribbean with each country having somewhat its own cultural way of celebrating. I was in the UK in November where the Christmas season started early during the second weekend of the month unlike say in the US where it began right after Thanksgiving Day (third Thursday of November). In Switzerland and Austria, the season started the first week in December not dissimilar to what I experienced this year in my visits to Guyana and Trinidad. But while the timing of the start of the season may be different, there is one commonality in the Caribbean, North America and Europe -- the streets are full of Christmas lights and decorations with the exception of Christmas markets which are a must in Europe. In Switzerland, windows of homes and businesses are amply decorated but not as extravagant as those seen in Guyana or Trinidad or among the diaspora in New York. The windows of a home display a theme of the season. And the trees are well decorated with a lot of homemade paper products as well as crystals, plastic and metals though not as lit up as ours in Guyana and the diaspora. As we do or did when we were/are kids at home or in schools making Christmas decorations, Swiss do much the same. They make different shapes (stars, animals, nativity scenes, angels, candles, etc.). Commercial ornaments on the tree include apples, grapes, and the others we use in Guyana or in the diaspora. There is a decorated circular wreath at the door of homes similar to what is found in Guyana or the diaspora. It is a tradition for a circular wreath to lie on a center table of a home or hotel with four lit candles. Caribbean homes and streets and diaspora communities are far more decorated than European homes.
As in North America or Guyana, special songs and caroling are part of the celebration of the season. As in Guyana, children or even adults sing Christmas carols in churches or public places in English or in their natives language (Swiss speak French, German, Italian, English and Romansch in addition to varied dialects and their own colloquial tongue). In the cities, groups of singers entertain the public and collect funds for deserving charities.
While there are many similarities in the celebration with Guyana or Trinidad or the diaspora, there is also a slight difference in Switzerland in the mythical tradition associated with Christmas. All over the globe, people look forward for the mythical Santa Claus. And the Swiss have their own mythical St. Nick and the time when he visits homes. Unlike in the Caribbean, UK, US or most places around the globe, Santa Claus does not visit Switzerland on December 24 when kids hang their stocking for gifts. Santa Claus visits Swiss homes on 6 December although Dec 24 and Christmas Day are also celebrated. On Dec 6, Santa brings a huge bag filled with chocolates, peanuts and mandarins for everyone to share; good kids are rewarded and bad kids punished similar to our tradition on Christmas Eve in Guyana or elsewhere. Every business or hotel visited, one sees (ground) peanuts not necessarily for eating but for decoration. And like elsewhere, Santa bring gifts on Dec 24. But Swiss don't seem to be as obsessed as celebrants elsewhere in preparing for the holiday season. However, unlike in Guyana and most other places, shops (including most restaurants except fast foods) and businesses are closed from Christmas Eve and the next day. Swiss celebrate the holiday at home with family members (and entertaining guests) in much the same way we do in the Caribbean and the diaspora although their menu is not as elaborate and wide ranging as ours in Guyana and the diaspora.
Also, baking is common to both our cultures during the season. For Guyanese, baking bread, pastries and cake is a must for the season. And while we have our black or sponge cake, Swiss bake several batches of Christmas cookies with sugar topping that will send your sugar blood level skywards. While Guyanese or Trinis distribute cakes during the season to friends, neighbors and relatives, Swiss give out cookies. Cookies are also sold in markets though not as tasty as homemade ones or the Caribbean products. And almost every hotel gives out cookies or chocolates. And unlike Guyanese who consume cold ginger beer or mauby or sorrel, the Swiss consume hot local drinks (cider and hot chocolate) during the cold Christmas season.
So while there are minor differences in how the holiday is observed in the Caribbean and Switzerland, we have many commonalities, and the traditions and the meaning behind the festivities are pretty much the same.