Cultural differences

Swiss have no culture

12:20 PM

Today, I’m blogging as part of a blog carnival idea initiated by my friend at American Punjaban PI. The theme is “The West has no culture” and each participating blogger adapt the title to reflect their own country or region. And prove that it is not true at all.
I have heard it way too many time…we people in the West have no culture…and I have heard it from Westerners no less. While some people in India tend to stereotype me as a Westerner (with ideas taken form bad TV and their perception of AMERICAN culture as a world wide standard applicable to the entire “West”). I am yet to hear any of my friends in India utter the phrase “The West has no culture”, they seem to be clear about the fact that the West has indeed a culture, much different from theirs, and no less interesting and vibrant. Many also asked me if Switzerland is having a different culture than the better known US culture that reach India via the media.
The big “bad” West is actually made of many cultureS (emphasis on the plural here), differing from regions to regions, and in tune with a country’s personal history, and so here are some interesting things about Switzerland, country I was born and grew up in.

- History lesson first, Switzerland started as an Alliance between 3 cantons to unite against Austrian’s tyranny in 1291. The legend said they met on the Grutli pasture in early August vowing to stand up for one another. They signed what is known as the “Federal Charter of 1291”. This pact isn’t marking the independence of Switzerland as a nation, they only got it in 1499 after the signature of the Basel treaty. The Observation of August 1st as a National day has been decided in 1891 when it was celebrated as such for the first time, there was no widespread national celebrations before that, since the 1291 Charter had no exact date of signature, just signed “early in August”. It became an official national public holiday in 1994, the initiative for it to become so started in 1991 on the 700th anniversary of the confederation, and as with every initiatives had to pass in votation before being implemented. The national day is celebrated and organized by counties within a canton, each have their own, and in true Swiss cultural way it’s communal, in open air on the public field, people get together, sing, dance, eat, drink and talk. At dusk kids take part in a paper lantern procession, and a giant bone fire called “Feu de joie” in French is lit while the Mayor of the county recite the 1291 Charter and conclude with all singing the National Anthem, the bone fire is the signal our ancestor decided upon to warn each other of trouble in their provinces after the pact was signed. Geneva joined the Swiss Confederation on December 31st 1815 only, before that it was an independent city State.
Archaeologists found ruins and vestiges of civilization in Geneva dating as far as 11000 BC.

- Switzerland has States that are predominantly Roman Catholic, and others that are Protestant Christian. Geneva became after the “reform” the Rome of the Protestants, with many Protestant Christians fleeing France which is still a Roman Catholic nation.
You’d think that festivals in Switzerland would be steeped into religion the country having started coming into existence in the middle age under Christian stronghold. But it has retained a lot of pagan and Roman (yes as in Roman Empire) traditions. Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine and Winemaking, patron of Vineyards owners is still associated today to the Grape harvest festivals taking place all over the Vineyard areas of the country in the Fall. Switzerland celebrates a massive “Fete des Vignerons” (Vineyard masters fest) every 20 years or so, the festival is steeped in Roman Mythology.

- We still have a few well preserved Roman ruins in the country, and probably inherited the concept of public bath or thermal springs from them, with a few cities still having the name “les bains” (baths) in the name and a Thermal pool complex associated to them. Now affiliated with hospitals as these hot water springs have health properties and are recommended in physiotherapy rehab treatments, as well as treatment of old age disorder such as arthritis, loss of mobility, and loss of coordination.

- Christmas is celebrated much differently than in the US which is the version most know. Those following my blog know about our cookies that are still very rustic looking and done without fancy Icing and all. But There are other thing about Christmas you should know. Santa is NOT part of the Swiss Christmas, no gifts and goodies in kid’s stockings or shoes to be found in the morning of the 25th. Saint Nicholas is the one that does that, on December 6th, and while being a “Saint” who should technically be only celebrated by Roman Catholic areas, it is celebrated as big in Protestant areas. The folklore is coming from the Germanic myth of Odin on Which Christianity grafted itself in Germany and immigrated into Swiss culture that way due to our being affiliated to the the German Empire until 1499.
We celebrate Christmas on December 24th at night, when family members all gather around the tree they light together (we used real candles until the 90’s on trees), kids normally should sing Christmas carols or poems learned in school, thought that tradition has been dying, then all exchange gifts, before heading to the dinning table for the Christmas eve meal. Turkey is not a Swiss traditional dish for the festivity, it is more common in France, and is done on occasion in French speaking areas, but we usually have something roast, pot roast, chicken roast, ham…served with mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables, the meal is actually not that fancy, the ingredients are simple, what makes it festive is the fact that the dinning table is always decorated for the occasion, with pine tree branches, candles, and other holiday trinkets. The dessert for that day is always a “Yule log” which is a tribute to the pagan solstice Yule tide log, that has prevailed through the ages, the original log was a real wood log thrown in the fire, we now eat it, and it is basically a Swiss roll cake covered in butter cream flavoured icing to look like a wood log. December 25th usually sees a Christmas lunch for some, exchange of gifts with family members you didn’t see on the 24th, but in no sense as magical and festive as the Christmas eve atmosphere. On January 6th we celebrate the “Epiphany” eating a “3 Kings crown bread” in which a ceramic or plastic token in the shape of a king is hidden, who finds the king in his bread bit is crowned king of the day, recent versions also include a Queen token and a queen is crowned as well (probably an effort to minimise dram in the typical 2 kids Swiss family), the tokens became more creative as the year passed, and some bakeries will hide gold plated ones in their bread. And ahem ahem…Disney Characters token.

- For some odd reason we only celebrate Mother’s Day but Not Father’s Day, kids do handmade gifts in school for their Mothers. Valentines Day is a an adult celebration, I heard from my American friends that kids exchange Valentines in the US…no such things in Switzerland, this is the worst time of the year to be single too as they make you feel like you are a disease of the society for thinking it is a good idea…I never liked that festival, single or not. We don’t do Halloween, it’s not part of the Swiss culture. It came as a US import in the 90’s with some throwing Halloween parties at home and going to Halloween pub nights, but there is no trick or treating of kids dressing up happening. I happened to know an American lady in an expat forum who thought it would be celebrated everywhere and felt the full blast of culture shock at that time. We don’t do teacher’s day or Friendship day either.

- Geneva has a special festival on December 12 called “Escalade” which means climb and refers to the attempt by the Duke of Savoie troops to invade the city in the night of December 11 to 12, by raising ladders against the moat and fortification walls in 1602. A insomniac Genevan walking by the walls noticed them, raised the alarm, the men of the city were mobilised, and took the Savoie troops by surprised foiling their invasion plan and winning the battle overnight. We celebrate it with kids dressing up in costumes to school, then going door to door in their neighbourhood singing the State’s anthem in exchange for candies and small monetary sums, a vegetable soup is usually cooked by the teachers in school and served to kids and parents on that day, and a chocolate hollow cauldron filled with marzipan shaped like vegetable is smashed by the oldest and youngest of a household or party while they scream “and so perish the enemy of the republic”. The cauldron is a tribute to a lady who during that battle panicked at seeing invaders trying to break into her house. She went to her stove, picked up the cauldron of slow cooking soup that usually stew overnight, and threw the pot and it’s scalding hot content out of the window on the men trying to break her door. We still have a historical parade with people in traditional costumes of the era on the weekend the closest to the actual date taking place too, a massive even that you can’t miss if you are a tourist in the area at that time.

- The Swiss culture is a highly community driven one (surprise my Indian friends who thought the West was not community oriented at all), after all the country started coming into existence and form itself as a confederation from the 1291 pact that was signed as an alliance of people against an oppressor. All Spring, Summer and Fall long you will find open air festivals in a county or another, to celebrate harvest, togetherness, a local association, club or very local event. A big tent is now usually pitched, but the tables under and around that tent still go by the old medieval design: big wooden table top set on V shaped supports, the whole thing is foldable long benches are placed all around the tables for people to sit, no chairs, benches, you sit with you neighbours in a communal way, each county is to have their stock of such table that get set for each festivals, including the National day. A wooden stage is erected under the tent where folks music will play, the local fire brigade volunteers are almost always in charge of the barbecue booth, there are drink stations, pastry booth, tombola booth, kids games booth…each booth held by a club or fundraising association, the benefit of the sales of everything goes to fund the county’s various activity clubs, the firemen association, and charities. Elementary school children celebrate the end of the school year in such a party, they parade with their entire school around the country, then get the Mayor speech about the importance of education, a commemorative item is given to each kids to symbolize their “graduation” from one standard to the next, the parents are of course part of the celebration…anybody in the area can sit and eat at that party, they are public, and encourage people to meet and socialize…the tradition is age old and was the Facebook of its time, and still prevail today. From May to October, it’s impossible to get bored in Switzerland, these county fairs are everywhere.

- Folks arts are still pretty much alive in the country, might not strike as obvious, but with the amount of village fair, county fair, harvest fair, we have to have enough entertainment for these. Folks music bands, marching bands are still going strong. And so are popular choir. Most of my American friends associate choir with church and religious music. We don’t really do these in Switzerland but we do have popular song and folks song choirs. A lot of schools have their own, and it’s compulsory to attend, my elementary school was one of these, we practiced whole year round, for the choir recital at the end of each year, and every now and then a State wide school choir convention. This grooms kids into being adult choir material…and yes I sang in a choir as a grown up for a couple of years myself. There is a national Choir festival every 3 years if I remember well, with Choirs from all over the country gathering in one host city for a couple of days of small competitions, free concerts, and yup you guessed it…county fair atmosphere with tends, food, and drinks shared in the community.

- Such festivals aren’t limited to Choir, there is a National Gymnastics Convention taking place the same way every 3 years, and yes like most Swiss kids I got enrolled in Gymnastics for a couple of years before my mom realised that the ground and I would never rally be best of friends. There is a National Shooting Festival taking place every 3 years too, and despite us Swiss not really being world champion at it, Shooting is apparently the National sport…no no it’s not Tennis, or Sailing (Two sports we are known to win into).

- We have one week of school holiday in October that is still known has the “potato holiday” even in cities…the reason? In rural area and in the past, kids were freed from school duties to help harvest potatoes in the field which was before the arrival of machine an intensive work.

- The Carnival and Mardi Gras is done in Catholic areas, but not in Protestant ones. In Basel the “guggenmusik” troops which are drumming and trumpet marching bands wear giant Papier Mache masks with silly and scary faces on. Guggenmusik is however a carnival thing in all carnival areas of Switzerland. Carnival is celebrated before the period of Lent. One Pagan tradition that grafted itself upon the very Christian festival is the “burning of the Winter man” since Mardi Gras usually occur around the end of Winter, people in these area in Switzerland usually burn a big paper figure of man symbolising Winter and the people of the land being fed up with it and wanting better warmer days to come. I even have a feeling that Lent made sense then as toward the end of the harsh Winter the stock of food in the pantry might have been quite low and people panicking at the idea of being without food before the good days would let them sow new food stuff and the necessity to go easy on the food.

- Swiss are outdoorsy, very outdoorsy, we don’t do indoor unless we have no choice. The Mountains being a hostile element, I suspect it was all in our interest to adapt to their fury and learn to live with them, their cycles, their seasons, their temper. The local folks literature is full of tales of mountains imposing their wills on locals. Mountain area are a challenging terrain: avalanche, landslides, floods, the risk of being cut out from the valley forced people to be self sufficient. People in the valley always live near to the mountains, in Geneva they were all around, they are imposing watching upon us. Not mastering our environment not being used to react to the nature around us is still pretty much ingrained in the communal consciousness as being stupid. Schools organize compulsory week long field trips to the mountains, in the Fall to hike and learn about the fauna and flora, in Winter to learn how to deal with the snow (skiing on it mostly). In cities office goers itch the whole week to escape the concrete and go back to connect with the green land, we hike a lot, cycle, ski, sail, if it’s not pouring down or snowing silly we are out there. We grill food on a bone fire, we pack our back packs with food for the hike, we all know our survival 101…How outdoorsy the Swiss are is something that puzzle DH still. I still pretty much go crazy being cooped up in a flat in India and even came up with the term urban claustrophobia on days it drives me insane enough. DH don’t see what’s so great about being even in a park just walking around.

- Swiss also tend to be non bragging, we don’t like display of power and wealth much, as I said previously it’s a communal culture, and people that place themselves on top destroy the community. Community was absolutely capital to our survival against the elements (remember it’s mostly a Mountain land with very little area that can be devoted to mass agriculture), the lack of space to grow grain, the constant threat of landslides, avalanche, and floods (yes floods…we have lots of lakes and rivers) mean that people need to unite. And not only that, also need to understand where personal space starts and not invade that. I’m not saying we don’t have super rich people, or celebrities, but if you are careful to notice they are usually very involved in the community life and usually humble. We as a people also have the tendency to want to avoid conflicts or play mediators in one…which is probably were our famous label of being a Neutral country comes from. And again the founding stone of our entire culture and country is the spirit of community (again can’t emphasise enough 1291 marked the time people stood up for one another against a common enemy and vowed to help each other).

I could go on and on about it, but that would make for a way too long blog post…this post serve to prove that not only is Swiss having a rich cultural heritage (which again regular readers of my blog should have noticed already), we also have a much different culture than the American culture that is perceived by too many as the ultimate Standard in Western Culture.


  1. Indians come in all shapes and sizes and heights. Westerns on the other all look the same, tall, blonde and pinkish. Within the English speaking countries it is very difficult to distinguish between a British and an American till you hear the accent carefully. British speak through their nose and the the Americans with their jaws dropping down. Australian and New Zealanders chew their words before spitting them out. I have found the European tourists more quiet and reserved than the Americans, who are more loud. Europeans do have prominent jaw lines and sharp noses. If you hear something speaking a foreign language in a sing song way, it may be french. If it is more forceful, it is most probably German. I am not a language expert, but certain languages in Europe may be more phonetic like Hindi. Other than these subtle differences in appearances and accent, it is very difficult to identify the nationalities. I am not an expert on Europe either. This creates an impression that the entire western world is inhabited by people of the same race and, therefore, have one culture.

  2. Great post!! It's always fascinating to hear about different cultures. A long time ago when I was learning more about the history of Christianity and first starting to question what I had always been taught, I learned about the "Geneva" bible. That was the bible the Christians first brought with them to the US. I actually purchased a reprint of one so I could see it. It was really fascinating to see the old language.

    It's also interesting in the US we have assimilated some Swiss culture in and for some reason now all I can think of is chocolates and Swiss Rolls. LOL. It's getting late, my mind must be shutting down. Off to find some chocolate. :P

  3. LOL. We hear a racist joke here often "they all look alike" and it's usually referring to either Mexicans or African Americans. In reality there are differences in bone structure, the way they carry themselves, the way they hold their heads up when they walk, etc. that all can help identify different nationalities that happen to have the same skin color.

  4. In 2009 my dad was on the US east coast with his boat, he went up from Florida all the way to NYC with his boat. He was amazed at how much Swiss and German culture there was in the South, even visited a city called Bern in North or South Carolina (I don't remember which one just brain is still too foggy at this early time of day) and learned that the city was affiliated to our own Swiss capital city.

  5. You know that westerners think "They all look the same" when it comes to Indians right? :-) I have many friends that only see one Indian culture, not several.
    Blonde westerners are actually not a majority at all, just portrayed as the ideal we should all aspire to in the media. The vast majority of caucasian actually have brown and light brown hair. But this is exactly the point of this whole blog post, to point out that every communty and ethnic group have their very own culture that might not seem so obvious to others...and are in fact not even very obvious to many people that actually linve INSIDE said culture because it is part of their routine and normal life and loose it's special-ness. Being plucked out of it is actually what makes one realise how deep culture run into each of us, and how it rules many of our actions. And this is the reason why no expatriate I know has been immune to culture shock. :-)


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