Santa Claus: Travel in Switzerland

This is the legend of Saint Nicolas (or Santa Claus) as it is told in Switzerland. The legend probably dates from the 11th century, sometime after the worship of Saint Nicolas was introduced into the Holy Roman Empire by Empress Theophanu. She had brought the saint's story and his worship with her from her native Constantinople.





A long time ago, a holy old man lived in Southern Italy called Nicolas Bishop of Myra. On a white horse he used to ride through the town and make presents of oranges and toys to the children living there. He looked after the sick, helped the poor, and took time for the lonely. Soon, people were calling him a saint. He loved travelling and stories from travellers enchanted him.


One traveller told him about a land on the other side of the Alps. Saint Nicolas was entranced by the description of happy people, healthy children, high mountains, and small lakes. He decided that he wanted to see this country. He called his dark skinned servant and they loaded an ass with oranges, tangerines, sweetmeats, nuts, and toys. They crossed the high, cold mountain passes over the Alps to come down out of eternal snow into the land of the Switzers or Swiss.


From near and from far, people gathered to see the traveler and to admire his outlandish finery. They prepared a feast for him and his companion to welcome him to their homes. There was much food, drink, music, singing and dancing. Nicolas asked parents about their children. If the parents told him that they were good children, he would hand them fruits and nuts, but when parents told him that they were disobedient, they received a slap on their wrists from his companion.


After the feast and during that night, Saint Nicolas went from house to house. He was filling the shoes of children with presents and left gold coins in the dwellings of the poor. But at one hut he couldn’t leave his presents. The people were so poor, their little house had no windows, and the door was locked to keep their single goat safely in. Nicolas decided to throw gold coins through the chimney. They landed in socks hanging by the fireside for drying.


The next morning, the family found the gold and thought that they had received a gift from God. But their neighbours told them about the holy man from Italy who had distributed gifts to everybody during the night. They hurried to the farm where saint Nicolas had stabled his ass, but they found the stable empty and the travellers gone.


The day Saint Nicolas had arrived in Switzerland had been the 6th of December. People named him Samichlaus (Santa Claus) and the story goes that he returns every year on that day together with his companion and an ass laden with gifts. It is one of the most important days of the year for Swiss children.


Further reading