Chronicles of a writer abroad

May your Christmas be nice and large


I had big plans for this evening: I was going to walk around and capture Zürich’s Christmas splendour on film. I planned to take pictures of the snow, the lights strung up around the old town, making it sparkle; the people drinking Glühwein, the magic in the air…but then it rained all day, washing the snow away and making everything look dreary and dim. I think that if you live in Canada, you’ve already seen plenty of rainy winter scenes this year, no? So, I still hope to bring you some pictorial European Christmas magic next week — hopefully it will snow again before they take the lights down.

We’re off to Davos on Saturday, but before I go I wanted to wish you all happy holidays, and also leave you with a brief reflection on Swiss versus North American Christmas dining preferences.

Last week, the Coopzeitung that I recently admitted to devouring weekly did a feature article on the North American Christmas meal — the obligatory turkey, or Truthahn, as it is known in German.

According to my hairdresser (one of the few Swiss people whom I interact with on a friendly conversational basis), a traditional Swiss Christmas meal typically consists of raclette served over potatoes and gherkins or fondue chinoise (thin strips of meat immersed in boiling bouillon), so the concept of a large bird as a centrepiece is a foreign one. Indeed, most standard Swiss-sized freezers and ovens cannot comfortably (or at all) accommodate turkeys of the size we’re accustomed to eating, as a friend attempting to make an American-style Thanksgiving dinner in Zürich recently discovered and chronicled on her blog.

It was fun to see the reader responses to the turkey piece come pouring in this week. They ranged from praise: “so schön!” (so nice!) to tones of dismay: “aber das ist ein riesiger Vogel!” (but that is a huge bird!) to, finally, a note of scorn as it was observed that this style of dinner is “nicht klein, aber fein.”

You see, “klein, aber fein” is a commonly-employed and much-loved German expression. I easily located an instance of its use in another part of this week’s newspaper:

It means that something is “small but nice,” and this seems to be a guiding principle of life in Switzerland (milk, for example: highly delicious, but available only in the 1-litre format. Appliances, even apartments: well-constructed, but usually not so large).

So when the North American Christmas meal is deemed “nicht klein, aber fein,” this means that from a Swiss perspective, is “not small, but nice.” And thus a little off, according to their ethos. Perhaps it strikes them as too indulgent. But as someone who has come to appreciate aspects of “klein, aber fein” principle, I have to say that I don’t consider Christmas to be the time or place for it. Maybe North American Christmas traditions are so deeply ingrained in me that I cannot see the folly in them, but I believe Christmas should be a time to splash out. To gather as many loved ones around us as we can. To eat a little irresponsibly for one day; to test the capacity of our ovens. And, finally, to enjoy that “huge bird” for days afterwards (perhaps the Swiss wouldn’t be so horrified if they understood the aim is to have leftovers, and not to consume it all in one meal?).

Anyway, I’d like to wish you — and encourage you, exhort you — to have a Christmas (or other festive winter occasion) that is nice and large — large in love, in laughter, in spirit…and in bird. And I’ll be back from the mountains next week to tell you about our experience having Christmas — er, sorry, Weihnacht — the “klein, aber fein” way.



10 thoughts on “May your Christmas be nice and large

  1. Thanks for writing, Kristen, as always. I found your photos of the German newspaper/magazine interesting. I hope you have a wonderful time in Davos – I assume it is high enough in altitude to probably have Christmas-y snow?
    Merry Christmas!

  2. May your klein, aber fein Christmas be full of good times, adventures of the memorable kind and of course, full of Swiss beauty! I look forward to hearing about Davos and the foods you choose to make Christmas a Euro-Weihnacht. Merry Christmas!

  3. I’d planned to enjoy the Christmas sights of Zürich yesterday too, specifically the Lichterschwimmen, where schoolkids release tons of candles into the Limmat. But the idea of standing in the rain for an hour, and the unlikely prospect that any candles would stay illuminated in the rain, sent me home.
    Klein aber fein is one of my favorite Swiss phrases, because, as you said, it so perfectly describes the Swiss attitude toward (or against) excess.

    • Hi Kelly — I think you were the one who first explained the saying to me. And I now love it too (and realize how it is used in so many contexts!) Lichterschwimmen sounds interesting…too bad yesterday’s weather was so crummy.

  4. Cultures cloak themselves in subleties. I can just hear the slight denegration in the Klein aber fein phrase. Enjoy the not so fein mountains near Davos!! As to Kelly’s Lichterschwimmen – another example of a language showing its undergarments – that sounds lovely! Too bad there was altogether too much schwimmen and likely very little licht!

  5. Thanks for your fulsome Christmas wishes, Kristen. We will be here and having turkey, even if it is in bits i.e. turkey breast for me and a thigh for Boppy, so we are already in the Swiss tradition of ‘not too much’!
    Have a wonderful time in Davos and enjoy your Christmas dinner. It will be interesting to hear what you ate, including a decadent dessert I imagine.
    Love from Boppy and me.

  6. Pingback: Davos-Christmas recap | Milchtoast

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