06.12.2021 – People & Living

'I can only give such an interview anonymously'

Interview: Lothar Lechner Bazzanella Photos: Jasmin Frei Translated by Deepl

Zurich residents with special professions: In the run-up to Christmas, Samichlaus and Schmutzli parade through Zurich's parlours. How does one become a Samichlaus, what strict code do the members of the St. Nicholas Society have to adhere to and why was the age-old custom feared for a while?

You've been on the road as Father Samichlaus in the run-up to Christmas for almost 20 years. What is the custom like?

During this time, Samichlaus and his helper Schmutzli go from door to door and try to bring joy into the houses. The custom is reminiscent of St. Nicholas of Myra. This bishop went down in history as a benefactor who always had an open ear for his fellow human beings and gave clothes, places to sleep and food. On the day of his death - 6 December - we commemorate St. Nicholas.

'We just try to bring a little light into the homes.'

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What is Schmutzli's role?

During the year, Schmutzli watches what the children do and whether they are good. Everything is noted in his big book, from which he reads to Samichlaus. Samichlaus can then perhaps give a little warning. Finally, however, all the children, but also the adults, receive a few sweets, nuts, mandarins or gingerbread. We simply try to bring a little light into the houses.

And how does one become a Samichlaus?

Actually, anyone can become a Samichlaus who likes children, who enjoys contact with people and who wants to preserve this age-old custom. Then they can become a member of our St. Nicholas Society of the City of Zurich.

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And what do you mean by that?

As far as I know, we are the largest St. Nicholas Society in Switzerland. We often have up to ten people working in our offices who process the orders. Particularly important to us is our code, which stipulates, among other things, that we do not reveal our private identity, but always appear as Samichlaus. For this reason, I can only give such an interview anonymously.

'Keeping this tradition alive is incredibly gratifying.'

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When do you start organising your visits?

It usually starts at the end of October. Then a short but very intensive period begins for us. This year, more than 700 visits have been booked. From 1 to 12 December, we visit all kinds of private homes, day-care centres, kindergartens, schools and old people's homes. Keeping this tradition alive is incredibly gratifying.

So traditions are very important to you?

Definitely. I think it's great to take old values and customs with us into the future. Nevertheless, there has to be room for something new within these customs.

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'The tradition has adapted to the times, and that's a good thing.'

What do you mean by that?

For example, in the past, Samichlaus often came across as very authoritarian, almost mean. And he could also scare children. We don't want that any more. In this respect, the custom has adapted quite a bit, and that's a good thing.

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What do you enjoy most about your work as Samichlaus?

It's an incredible joy to step into a room and make children's eyes light up. Some of them might be a little scared at first, but by the end most of them almost don't want us to leave. That's the best thing about the job.

'The importance of the tradition seems to be unbroken.'

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Are there nevertheless things that bother you?

I've been doing this for almost 20 years now. And for a while we noticed that Samichlaus had lost its significance. You came into a house, the father sat in front of the TV, the phone rang and the magic was somehow lost. That was a great pity. Now, however, we are seeing a trend in the opposite direction again. The importance of the custom seems to be unbroken. And I am very happy about that.

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