Friday, December 19, 2014

How the Swiss send a letter to Father Christmas

Whoever writes a letter to the Christ Child (who - in the German part of Switzerland - brings the presents at Christmas) will get an answer. The same applies to St. Nicholas and Babbo Natale. A special team at the Swiss Post answers every request on their behalf.

In Switzerland each year approximately 16,000 letters are addressed to Santa. Addresses range from the local woods to the North Pole. And the post office delivers them all. Not to the forest, not into heaven, not to the North Pole either, but to Chiasso, where a special team answers the letters on behalf of the addressee.

The only prerequisite is that the sender is identifiable. And even if the sender only marks "Sébastien, 5" or "Anna Lena, Trueb," the post will move heaven and earth to determine the complete address. For example, by checking the postmark. Thus, only four hundred letters remain unanswered.

Three quarters of the letters are from the French part of Switzerland and Ticino - an interesting cultural detail. To the Christ Child, the St. Nicholas and Babbo Natale, origins don't matter, they reply eloquent in all four national languages as well as in English.

And what does Santa's team deliver? It could be a Christmas story, a flip book or a box of crayons. Something that will make the children's faces light up and is sure to make them smile.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Scrumptious Christmas mince pies recipe

These mince pies are a guaranteed success. I might celebrate Christmas Italian style with my in-laws every year but I will never give up my English Christmas tradition of mince pies. Here is a recipe that will blow your tastebuds and those of your family. Italian or not!

For the pastry:
240 grams plain flour
60 grams vegetable shortening
60 grams cold butter
juice of 1 orange
1 pinch of salt
approx. 350 grams mincemeat
icing sugar (for dusting)

For the cranberry studded mincemeat: (makes about 600ml)
60 ml ruby port
75 grams soft dark brown sugar
300 grams cranberries
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
75 grams currants
75 grams raisins
30 grams dried cranberries
finely grated zest and juice of 1 clementine
25 ml brandy
3 drops almond extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons honey

1.) Make the mincemeat in advance.
2.) In a large pan, dissolve the sugar in the ruby port over a gentle heat.
3.) Add the cranberries and stir.
4.) Add the cinnamon, ginger and cloves, currants, raisins, dried cranberries and the zest and juice of the clementine.
5.) Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 20 minutes, or until the fruit has broken down and has absorbed most of the liquid in the pan. (You may need to squish the cranberries a little with the back of a wooden spoon to incorporate them fully.)
6.) Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.
7.) Add the brandy, almond extract, vanilla extract and honey and stir well with a wooden spoon to mash the mixture down into a paste.
8.) Spoon the mincemeat into sterilised jars and, once cool, store in the fridge for up to two weeks.
9.) Then once you are ready to make your mince pies, get out a tray of miniature tart tins, each indent 4.5cm in diameter, along with a 5.5cm fluted, round biscuit cutter and a 4cm star cutter.
10.) Measure the flour into a shallow bowl or dish and, with a teaspoon, dollop little mounds of vegetable shortening into the bowl, add the butter, diced small, shake to cover it, then put in the freezer for 20 minutes. This is what will make the pastry so tender and flaky later.
11.) Mix together the orange juice and salt in a separate, small bowl, cover and leave in the fridge to chill.
12.) After the 20 minutes, empty the flour and fat into the bowl of your food processor and blitz until you’ve got a pale pile of porridge-like crumbs.
13.) Pour the salted juice down the funnel, pulsing until it looks as if the dough is about to cohere; you want to stop just before it does (even if some orange juice is left). If all your juice is used up and you need more liquid, add some iced water.

If you prefer to use a freestanding mixer to make the pastry, cut the fats into the flour with the flat paddle, leaving the bowl in the fridge to chill down for the 20-minute flour-and-fat-freezer session.

14.) Add liquid as above. I often find the pastry uses more liquid in the mixer than the processor.
15.) Turn the mixture out of the processor or mixing bowl onto a pastry board or work surface and, using your hands, combine to a dough. Then form into 3 discs (you’ll need to make these in 3 batches, unless you’ve got enough tart tins to make all 36 pies at once).
16.) Wrap each disc in cling film and put in the fridge to rest for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 220°C.
17.) Roll out the discs, one at a time, as thinly as you can without exaggerating; in other words, you want a light pastry case, but one sturdy enough to support the dense mincemeat. This is easy-going dough, so you don’t have to pander to it: just get rolling and patch up as you need.
18.) Out of each rolled-out disc cut out circles a little wider than the indentations in the tart tins; I use a fluted cookie cutter for this.  Press these circles gently into the moulds and dollop in a scant teaspoon of mincemeat.
19.) Then cut out your stars with your little star cutter – re-rolling the pastry as necessary – and place the tops lightly on the mincemeat.
20.) Put in the oven and bake for 10–15 minutes: keep an eye on them as they really don’t take long and ovens do vary.
21.) Remove from the oven, prising out the little pies straight away and letting the empty tin cool down before you start putting in the pastry for the next batch.  Carry on until they’re all done.
22.) Dust over some icing sugar et voilà!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Switzerland's second Christmas

Switzerland's "Second Christmas" tradition? A friend once told me that between Christmas and New Years you can bring gifts to the post office and they mail it free of charge to needy people somewhere in the world.

During the 17th edition of the "2 x Christmas" campaign over 73,000 parcels were collected. It is a charitable campaign supported jointly by the Swiss Red Cross (SRC), Swiss TV and Swiss Post. The goods donated are distributed to needy people in Switzerland via the cantonal associations of the Swiss Red Cross. In collaboration with the national Red Cross associations, some are also distributed to families and social institutions in Moldavia, Bulgaria, Belarus and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Over the Christmas period, people donate food and day-to-day necessities. Swiss Post transports these free of charge to the SRC logistics centre in Wabern (Berne), where they are sorted and forwarded to those in need by Swiss Post employees and SRC volunteers.

The 18th campaign will take place between 24 December 2014 and 10 January 2015.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lugano's Book Nook is bidding farewell

It is sad news but inevitable. The Book Nook, Lugano's English Library is closing it doors after 17 years! Ticino's lending library and used bookseller in Viganello is in the process of liquidating their vast collection.

Heavy-heartedly I will say that it is an opportunity for you to pick up some books, DVDs or audio books for everyone in your family - at only CHF. 1.- a piece! Plan to stop by Tuesday December 18th from 14:00-16:00, Wednesday, December 19th from 14:00-16:00, Thursday, December 20th from 14:00-16:00 or Tuesday, December 23th from 14:00-16:00.

A special find of mine was "Enchanting Ticino"by Hanna & Juliusz Komarnicki. This unique book captures the nature, events and culture that surrounds us. It is a photographic journey of discovery illustrating the beauty of Ticino. The limited text is in English, and therefore makes a fabulous gift.

A big, big thank you to all the volunteers, helpers and sponsors over the years that made this lovely spot a little haven away from home for many of us English speakers in search for English books for our kids to read. The Book Nook was especially appreciated by its supporters before the arrival of Amazon & Co. when it was still a challenge to find a different Good Night story every week to read to our kids.

You will be dearly missed by your followers.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pro Infirmis asks who's perfect?

Who is perfect, anyway? Pro Infirmis, a Swiss organization for people with disabilities, asked that question in a compelling installation and video. Founded in 1920 in Zurich, Pro Infirmis plays an important role in advocating for and supporting people with disabilities through a wide range of programs, including political advocacy and legal assistance.

This project was created last year to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which occurs each year on December 3rd. Although the entire four-minute video created by writer and director Alain Gsponer is captivating, the models' reactions to the project and the responses from passers-by are deeply touching.

Disabled mannequins received eliciting astonished looks from passers-by on Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse. Between the perfect mannequins, there were figures with scoliosis or brittle bone disease modelling the latest fashions. One had shortened limbs; the other a malformed spine.

See for yourself:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

7 interesting facts about Santa's reindeer

Eight little reindeer beside Santa's sleigh, 

Getting hitched up - to be on their way.
The first one said, "We can't be late,"

The second one said, "Christmas won't wait."

The third one said, 'The sleigh's full of toys....."

The fourth one said, "For all the girls and boys."

The fifth one said, '"I'm ready to fly...."
The sixth one said, "Across the evening sky."
The seventh one said, "Look, it's starting to snow."
The eighth one said, "I think it's time to go."
Ready?" asked Santa. "It's almost Christmas Day."
And off they all flew - - up, up, and away!

One of my most popular posts around Christmas is: How many reindeer does Santa have? I therefore decided to come up with some more fun facts on reindeer.

1.) The names of Santa's reindeer are from the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas", more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823.

2.) Most of Santa’s reindeer have male-sounding names, such as Blitzer, Comet, and Cupid. However, male reindeers shed their antlers around Christmas, so the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh are likely not male, but female or castrati.

3.) Rudolph's story was originally written in verse by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores in 1939, and published as a book to be given to children in the store at Christmas time. According to this story, Rudolph's glowing red nose made him a social outcast among the other reindeer. However, one Christmas Eve Santa Claus was having a lot of difficulty making his flight around the world because it was too foggy. When Santa went to Rudolph's house to deliver his presents he noticed the glowing red nose in the darkened bedroom and decided it could be a makeshift lamp to guide his sleigh. He asked Rudolph to lead the sleigh for the rest of the night, Rudolph accepted and returned home a hero for having helped Santa Claus.

4.) Norwegian scientists have hypothesized that Rudolph’s red nose is probably the result of a parasitic infection of his respiratory system.

5.) Reindeer have large hooves that spread apart as they walk on the snow. They act like snowshoes and prevent the reindeer from sinking in the snow! Have you ever tried walking with snowshoes?  These special hooves also help them look for food beneath the snow.  The tendons in their hooves create a clicking sound when they walk.

6.) Reindeer have an excellent sense of smell. Because food is scarce in the Arctic, reindeer use their great sense of smell to detect food buried deep beneath the snow.

7.) Reindeer are excellent swimmers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Do you know the names of Santa's reindeer?

How many reindeer are pulling Santa's sleigh? Do you know the names of all Santa's reindeer?

Originally, Santa had eight reindeer. And then Rudolph came along. So now he has nine. These are their names:

1. Dasher
2. Dancer
3. Prancer
4. Vixen
5. Comet
6. Cupid
7. Donner (or Donder)
8. Blitzen
9. Rudolph

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

English Movie Matinee in Lugano

It's a movie matinée and it will be shown in English. An event not to be missed. The kids will love it.

You know the penguins of Madagascar BUT what you don't know, is they've been leading a double life: as secret agents!

Join the IWCL (Int'l. Women's Club of Lugano) with your friends and family for a viewing of Dreamwork's Madagascar 2. It is fun for adults and for kids. Just whizz off an e-mail to to reserve your seat and make sure you don't oversleep.

Venue: Madagascar 2 Matinée
Where: Cinestar Lugano, Via Ciani 100, 6900 Lugano
Date: Saturday, December 13th, 2014
Time: 10:00 am

Friday, December 5, 2014

Samichlaus tradition in Switzerland (San Nicolao)

In Switzerland, the tradition of St. Nicolas is somewhat different from the norm. Switzerland is a country of several languages so it is not surprising there are several different St. Nicholas traditions. In German-speaking areas Saint Nicholas is known as Samichlaus. Though he looks the same as Father Christmas, the Samichlaus (originally Sankt Nikolaus) does not bring the presents at Christmas. Rather, he appears on the 6th of December. Children visit the Samichlaus (usually at school or with their parents) to be judged and recite poems that they've learned. The other option - when I was little - was leaving your boots in front of the door the night of December 5th to find them filled with goddies the next morning.

Samichlaus is usually accompanied by a helper called Schmutzli (from "schmutzig" - dirty). He is dressed in a black or brown cape with a large hood. He wears a black beard and is smeared with dirt. While the Samichlaus praises the kids who have been good, Schmutzli takes the naughty kids, puts them into his bag and carries them away. This makes for a practical way for parents to make their kids behave well: "Be good or Schmutzli will carry you off in his bag!"

Fear not for the Swiss children. Described above is the original form. Nowadays Schmutzli is purely ornamental or even left out completely.

My kids used to visit San Nicola in he woods with their school class. Trust me, they never slept very well the night before.

Should you need a Samichlaus for your family you can check out the Chlaus directory here:

The evening meal on December 6th traditionally consists of a man-shaped bread (called Grittibänz, recipe here), mandarines, walnuts, peanuts (with the shells), Lebkuchen and chocolates.

So, make sure you put your boots outside the door tonight and IF you have been good you'll awake tomorrow morning to find them filled with mandarines, nuts and chocolates.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Natale a Breganzona

"At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows."
William Shakespeare

There will indeed not be any roses but rather poinsettias and as for the snow, it is too early to say, but even the snow will be welcomed to render the atmosphere even more magical.

Christmas in Breganzona is ready to welcome you with its charming Christmas spirit. You'll find over 50 exhibitors selling their arts and crafts as well as gastronomic delicacies. This is a celebration for those of you who love Christmas genuine, generous and festive.

Venue: Natale a Breganzona
Where: Campetto Rosso, Scuole Elementari, 6932 Breganzona
When: Saturday, Dec 6th from 15:00 and Sunday, Dec 7th, 2014 from 10:00

Don't miss it!

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