A Countdown Queen + Her Calendars

Blame Christmas. I am a Countdown Queen.

Growing up, we didn’t have much money, which meant we didn’t have many toys, at least not compared to the other kids on the street, but what my brothers and I lacked in material possessions, we made up for with a hyperactive state of anticipation ratcheted up by our countdown vigilance toward Christmas day – our once-a-year toy haul. This may have been responsible for my mother hanging the phone receiver upside down for months at a time. No one knows for sure why she did this, but I think she was experimenting with it before twisting it around our necks.

As soon as Christmas rolled over we sprinted the countdown to New Years dinner at Grandma’s house, an unembarrassed snatch for hot homemade apple pies and tourtieres.

Then the marathon countdown to Easter was on, when we counted 100 days and more to the morning we would each get one chocolate rabbit. One. That was okay, because as soon as Easter was finished, the count was on to summer holidays. Lent? We didn’t need Lent. Deprivation was our natural state.

I was a somewhat above-average distance runner in my youth and here too, counting was the thing. Bouncing on my toes at the start line, I counted the racers who historically had been faster than me, counted those slower, counted down to the starting gun shot, counted the number of runners ahead of me, the number I passed, the number who passed me, the number of meters/yards we had raced, the number yet to come, and the magical final 300 metres/yards, my favorite part of the race when I passed as many on the track as I could (I have no ‘sprint’ in me so I had to drive hard over a longer distance at the end to come in the top three). Naturally, I counted down as I went. Racing was simply a living mathematical equation. It was lovely.

Catch me at any moment and I am counting down to something. I counted down the days to get to Switzerland, and as soon as I arrived, I started counting down the days to my return to Canada. This is only a microcosm of an entire life dedicated to countdowns.

Oprah counselled people to “live in the moment,” but what is the point of that? It can only be lived in once, and then it is done, but the moments ahead that can be looked forward to for ages, those moments are the ones stretched out. Why deprive myself of this joy?

And now, I’m at it again, counting down the days to our return to Canada, the land that I love, where I have half a clue what is being said to me, where I can afford to buy whole straps of beef tenderloin, where there is the best ice cream on earth, endless prairies, boundless skies, unfettered rivers and creeks, untamed ocean shorelines, lakes barely touched, and people who say sorry when they accidentally bump into you. I might just count them all.

This is not to say there is anything wrong with Switzerland, despite the fact it is a tad overpriced. It is a lovely country with wonderful, kind people, eye-busting vistas, and possibly the most punctual train service in the world, best expressed by the horror the Swiss display when a train is two minutes late. Two minutes. Maybe that’s why I like these people so much. They like to count, too.

Christmas without the clutter

The Christmas Eve congregation at Biel/Bienne's Alstadt Reformed Church, Dec. 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, we walked up narrow cobblestone alleys to a church dating to the early Middle Ages, our minds anchored to the remembrance of all the generations that made this same trip on this same night through centuries past.

The church is set in the uneven footings of the Jura Mountains, an impressive Gothic building with high ornamented vaults, a massive pipe organ, polished stone floors and faded murals high on its clerestory walls.

It tests the nerves to sit through a service in a language we have yet to grasp, with customs to which we are clueless. Would the congregation do cartwheels? Sing a Las Vegas show-tune? Expect us to stand up and explain ourselves? Test our mettle by demanding we sing Handel’s Hallejulah chorus? Make a public confession of some sort?

The people were quiet – in a building fashioned from stone and stained glass, one expects to hear echo, but it was hard to pick up even a scratch. The service started precisely at 11 p.m. – we are, after all, in Switzerland, the land that guards time. The only decoration was an evergreen tree, adorned only with electric candles, a small wreathe on a flat-cut stone altar and a single burning candle.

A white-haired man in a black suit stepped slowly from the front of the church, not in an air of pomp or down the centre aisle, but in a subdued manner, off to the side, unfurling a beckoning solo from a woodwind instrument. The pipe organ chimed in and this went on until a small man in a black clerical robe with a white bow took the podium.

Mural on the clerestory walls at Biel/Bienne's Alstadt Reformed Church

He started reading, and although it was in German we recognized it as the Gospel narrative. He read of Mary’s visitation from the angel, Bethlehem with its paucity of hotels, Jesus’s birth in the grit of a Middle-Eastern stall. The reader paused  now and again, at which the pipe organ filled the church with sounds very much like a steady wind moving through a forest.

And so the service went, woven between a single human voice,  answered by the pipe organ’s choral timbres.

In the silent moments, there was not a sound to be heard, making us wonder about the difference between North American and Swiss Christians. North American churches are alive with noise, shuffle, chatter, even the more stoic ones. This is the first time I’ve sat in a church where there was literally not a sound, a cough, a swish of fabric or the scrape of shoe against the floor. It was as silent as though we were not there.

We sang four songs from the hymn book, beginning with A Mighty Fortress is Our God. As midnight approached, the minister came into the congregation with a candle with which he lit the candles that we had been given at the door. There was no music or reading, just the sound of people tilting their candles one to the other, so that the drops of light slowly spread back into the dark.

When all were lit, the churches lights were turned off altogether and we sang Silent Night.

The pipe organ sang one more piece and then without benediction or comment, the congregation rose and drifted outside, some still carrying their candles into the tranquil night, painting amber pools against the grey cobblestone.


Where are we?

We may be entering an electronic cone-of-silence over the next few days as we travel east by train to check out Viennese pastries and Bratislava’s …. well, whatever it is that makes Bratislava what it is. Auf wiedersehen.

Bratislava Old Town

Vienna: Because we haven't seen enough cathedrals, castles and cobblestone ....

Naughty or Nice on Zurich’s Streets

Watch out, little girl, you might get a SMACK!

It’s not everyday that an old guy spanks me with a broom and walks away without a bruised solar plexus.

But we’re in Switzerland, and when in Switzerland, do as the Swiss do, which is to tolerate stranger-on-stranger slaps. The stranger in question was Schmutzli, a dark-natured counterpart to a Santa Claus-like figure whom the Swiss assure me is not at all a Santa Claus, but a Swiss Father Christmas. Santa Claus, it is said, is a North American creation. I’m sure someone will argue with that, but that is how the Swiss see this.

Wherever Father Christmas strolls the streets in his characteristic red costume, Schmutzli is not far away in a hooded brown monkish robe, brandishing a twig whisk with which he punishes bad children, or if there are no children around, a middle-aged woman who mistakenly comes within reach.

The Swiss are a fun, friendly people, even when they roam the streets beating people with sticks.

Schmutzli later informed me that he was paid by the municipality to play his role, and that Zürich has plenty of Father Christmas and Schmutzli pairs roaming the streets. Nice work, if you can get it.

Smacking strangers in a tourist-district, however, calls for a certain amount of diplomacy. First, Schmutzli is in costume, which makes him appear less threatening. Second, as he delivers the spank, he smiles benignly and applies only a light, judicious touch, cause who knows, maybe someone has grabbed him by the neck and pushed him into the ground before, such as a woman fresh off the plane from New York or perhaps he has met my Aunty Rosie.

And finally, Schmutzli carries a large sack full of goodies, which he offers after the ceremonial “beating” of the bad child.

Santa has an evil twin!

While our own brush with Schmutzli and his twig-broom was uneventful, the tradition does have its nasty side. It is reported that a boy in Lucerne was chased and beaten by a band of teenage self-appointed Schmutzli. Yikes.

In some traditions, Schmutzli abducts children, which explains why this tradition fails to gain traction in North America. The season would be thick with lawsuits. That would certainly make a Merry Christmas for lawyers.

You can learn more about Schmutzli by clicking here. 

Tidbit: I once interviewed a priest named Father Christmas. I got his name through the New York Dioceses who assured me there were several real Father Christmases in Canada and the U.S. He was very jolly. 

Christmas markets here and there

Zürich Christmas Market - like any other market, but with boughs and lights.

Do one million Swiss Francs of crystals a Christmas tree make?

That is the question posed by the Swarovski tree, a crystal-encrusted tree in Zürich (with similar trees posted across the world).*

It stands in Zürich’s train station, towering over rows of huddled tiny evergreen-topped sheds that altogether make up Zürich’s famed Christmas Market.

Swarovski-jewelled Christmas tree. Who is the star in this display?

At 95 buckeroos per ornament, that is some tree. Bloggers and Youtube-posters report the twinkle costs one million Swiss Francs (the amount cannot be found on the Swarovski website).

It begs the questions about whether this is Christmas. My knee-jerk reaction is that it is not.

It is far removed from the first Christmas when a teenage gal inhaled the aroma of manure as she gave birth to her illegitimate son, after suffering the sting of rejection from the town’s innkeepers (who probably would have found a room for her had she been a centurion’s wife). If you’ve ever been turfed out of an emergency room while in massive pain, you might have an idea of how rough a night it was for Mary and Joseph.

But that illegitimate baby’s message, as anyone who has read the Gospels will know, is that neither poverty, stink, politics, or oppression matter so much. While his followers hoped for an overthrow of Roman rule, Jesus discarded the topic, pointing out that his kingdom was not mired in such earthly trivialities.

His point, if I read it right, is that these outward things need not affect one’s inner life or value. It is the heart that matters, not the hearth. As far we know, he never waged a petition campaign to force innkeepers to take in labouring mothers, although through the centuries that came after, his followers built hospitals in the spirit of his message. Doubt me? From where do you think the word “Saint” in front of so many hospitals came from?

But this is not to diss Swarovski who to their credit subscribe to a historically correct moniker for their display. They call the tree what it is: A Christmas tree. Not a holiday homage, festive festooning or anything silly like that.

As a writer steeped in the conviction that everything means something, I could say the shine of the crystals points to heaven, a place not yet found on any map, but which another writer called “the enduring myth.” How can you explain it when so many people sense its presence?

The crystals are one thing, but it is the tree that catches my eye, a creation harvested not from a factory, but a forest. It points to another creator, who is the subject of great debate, especially at this time of year. From whatever side you argue this, the tree is brilliant workmanship.

So here’s to Swarovski for the shiny bits, and here’s to God for the tree, Christmas and all that it means.

*Click on this link to see tree locations across the globe.

The Third Space

We call "dibs" on this tree in our town square. It's our biggest yet!

We don’t have a Christmas tree this year, unless we count the 50-foot one in our third space.

Never heard of a third space? It is a jargon-piece belonging to architects and city planners. The first two spaces are the private and public rooms inside the home.

The third space is the exterior public space, such as restaurants, town squares, parks, bus stops. Okay, I added bus stops on my own, but they seem like third-spaces to me.*

"Our" Christmas decorations this year are bigger than basketballs!

Here’s why. The third space is a sort of living room for the population. Anybody can be there. Third-spaces are everywhere in Europe, especially in densely populated areas where private living spaces are too small to adequately serve the social and emotional needs of their occupants. And so, the occupants head out elsewhere, as a preventive measure against roommate or family homicide. In North America, Starbucks fills this role nicely.  Playgrounds are another example of third-spaces. But I ramble …

Stand still for longer than two seconds and you run the risk of being grabbed and festooned. This is actually a mild form of dog-decorating. We used to outfit our yellow lab in a complete harness of bells, antlers, etc.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to look upon the magnificent Christmas tree in our town square as my own. It’s the only tree I will have this year, which is going to be something of an experience.

Even our neighbour's dogs are not safe from my decorating mania. Deck the dogs in wraps of woolens, fa la la la la, la la la la.

Why? Because, I am a Christmas-decorating nut. Every year, my house turns into a red, tinsel and bauble warehouse with trees of all sizes appearing in every corner and on every countertop.  It is out-of-control. It takes weeks to pull together and weeks to take apart.

I don’t see anything wrong with this.

This year, however, I am restricted to two little white-poinsettia plants on our dining room table on the strength of the reasoning that there is no point in buying decorations I cannot bring home.

How sad, but not too sad because the time I used to devote to decking the halls is now spent in endless browsing through Christmas decorations in local stores, a pastime that is feeding my imagination for when I decorate next year (my husband will not be happy to read this).

For those wondering: The current craze in Swiss Christmas decorations leans towards a style that would fit in nicely with Canadian cottages. They are very earthy, roughshod and fuzzily charming.

Lights of Life Christmas display at Marietta, Georgia, Chiropractic College

In the meantime, there’s all these third-space decorations to enjoy.

*As explained to me by a Montreal architect whose name I forget, calling into question whether I remember his “third-space” monologue well enough. Would it not be interesting if I was fascinated enough in my topic to actually fact-check it?