LITTLE MICHAEL, then 2 years of age and getting older by the minute, scrunched up his little Swiss face in the manner that can be achieved only by an otherwise courageous infant who suddenly confronts certain doom. He was being held up under his arms by his mother-Heidi-and asked to blow out the Christmas candles on the tree.
Michael, who, goven half a chance, would think nothing of jumping 10 feet or so from a window into the snow, was obviously terrified. Nevertheless, he accomplished his mission of great peril, his chubby little face puffing up in perfect comiv-strip fashion, his valiant "pffff, pffffs" causing the candle flames to bend, slightly, then flicker and go out.
Mommy had to help a little. But not much.
That was a year ago, high above the Rhone Valley in a small but prospering ski valley called Haute-Nendaz, in the French/German-speaking Swiss canton of Valais; the fourth year I spent Christmas in Switzerland. Micheal is still there, along with mother Heidi and father Roland, and by all accounts he is nearing the age of 3 and becoming a candle blower of some renown. Like thousands of other Swiss kids, he is learning traditions that have gone the way of the carrier pigeon in the United States. Lighting candles on the Christmas tree here is not yet a felonly, but it is, unofficially, a sin against humanity.
"Everybody does it in Switzerland, and we are still existing," said Agnes Meyerowitz in the cultural section of the Swiss embassy here. "Not only in Switzerland, but all over Europe. We're certainly not only in Switzerladn, but all over Europe. We're certainly not burning our houses down more than they do here."
Meyerowitz, who apparently does not listen to reports emanating from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has imported the Swiss custom to Washington, and along with the ambassador himself, and no doubt many of the attaches, lights real candles on her tree every year.
"A Christmas tree," Meyerowitz said, "wouldn't be a Christmas tree with artificial lights."
But then the Swiss defied the Hapsburgs and got away with it. Why should a mere U.S. government agency put the fear of God into them?
Christmas in Switzerland-and we will consider mostly the Swiss-German customs, since that portion includes about 70 percent of the country-begins officially on Dec. 6. Christmas in Switzerland does not, as rumor would have it, start the day after Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is not on the Swiss calendar.
On Dec. 6, a guy named "Samichlaus" makes his appearance. "Samichlaus" is a closer relative of Sankt Niklaus (St. Nicholas, of Asia Minor) than he is of Santa Claus (of Sears, Roebuck). The legend of "Samichlaus" has spread far and wide, so that many Americans to this day believe that his distant cousin, Santa Claus, goes around keeping track of who's been naughty and who's been nice.
On Dec. 6, "Samichlaus" goes on a binge, followed by his helpers (remember the good little goblins?) who, is the Swiss case, are little demons who help mete out punishment to bad girls and boys. The bad ones get the shaft (or a birch switch, depending on the canton). The good ones are rewarded for a year of following the virtuous path with an apple, tangerine, orange or nuts-depending on what's in stock.
They are urged to be good, or risk being whisked away in "Samichlaus'" bag.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country is being decked in swags of spsruce and lights of all shapes (especially along the rivers and in the alleyways of old town, which are all made for the purpose of being decorated and so conveniently located). Mostly, during this time, the Swiss are not all buying Christmas presents to the roof eaves. That, again, is an American misrepresentation. In four Christmases there, I have never seem a Swiss person, over the age of 5, receive more than two presents from any one person. Usually it is just one.
The big moment of the Yuletide season in Switzerland is Christmas Eve, and it centers around the tree. They do not believe in running downstairs in their pajamas to open presents on Christmas Day. First of all, they do not think running around in pajamas is appropriate. The Swiss preger training suits. Secondly, if you run down on Christmas Day the tree will not be lit.
Not only do the Swiss put candles on their tree (as do persons in Germany, A and Scandinavia), some of them put sparklers on it as well. Of course, as Meyerowitz cautions, you must have a tree that is not too full with branches; the candles must go in special holders; the flame cannot be directly under another branch; you do not leave the camdles lit very long; and you do not leave the kids alone with the tree when it is lit.
Hence, the lighting of the tree becomes a regular occasion, for which the parents prepare long and hard, putting up all sorts of handmade ornaments, tinsel, angel's hair and fruits. If the living room has doors, the tree is lit behind them. When it is ready, the other lights are turned down, the doors opened and the kids ushered in to behold it with awe.
The "Chirstkindi" (Christ Child) has come and gone, the parents tell them. He made the tree wonderful in a flash, then disappeared before anyone could see him.
Again, the Swiss do not believe in a Santa Clause who lands on the roof with reindeer and enters with presents through the chimney. Perhaps this is because many Swiss families burn with coal or oil and Santa, presumably, would quickly catch black lung and maybe not come around any more.
The magic of Christmas belongs to the "Christkindli."
The giving of presents, I found, can be rather awkward in Switzerland. Probably this is so because many German-Swiss (Schwiezer) follow the evangelism of Zwingli and Calvin and are very aware of their reputation for being tightwads. But also because spreading lots of money around there is embarrassing.
After the presents go round, the family gathers about the tree to sing carols. "Stille Nacht," (Silent Night) is sung just as it is here. In some families, they sing first and give after. But generally, the emphasis is on being together and singing the songs with verve in tune, rather than on checking the Christmas list again to see if you got everything you asked for.
Then the lights go down again, and while the city of Sion, 1,000 feet in the valley below, is shimmering and twinkling, and the moon is climbing over the mountains across the way, and the darkness outside surrounds you with mystery and memories of home, Heidi lights the sparklers and Micheal scrunches up his face again and everyone gets a big kick until the sparklers, one by one, fizzle and fade.