Christmas in Basel
If this is your first Christmas in Basel, you’re in for a treat. This part of Europe goes all out for Christmas preparations and celebration, and Basel is no exception. There are lots of fun things to do, great shopping and the air in town smells like pine boughs and roasting chestnuts. The weather is generally crisp enough that it feels like Christmas, but not cold enough to make going out unpleasant. I wanted to write this post to provide information about the winter holiday season in Basel and how to make the most of it.
Samichlaus and Schmutzli
In November, the shops already begin setting up their Christmas displays, but the excitement of Christmas really starts to gain momentum at the beginning of December. On St. Niklaus day, December 6th, school children can expect a visit from Samichlaus (the Swiss Santa). While the official date is December 6th, the actual date of Samichlaus’ visit is variable, just before or after that date. He brings treats for children who have been good all year. Generally, these are not toys, but sweet mandarin oranges, peanuts in the shell, chocolates and other tasty treats.
Interestingly, Samichlaus doesn’t come alone. He brings along a man in black called ‘Schmutzli’. If Samichlaus is a carrot for children to behave well, Schmutzli is the whip for the naughty ones. His sack would be empty, and his job was to take away the bad children for …(gulp)… punishment. These days, he’s relegated to wearing black robes and looking surly in the background, but if you’re kids respond better to fear than bribery, I’m sure you can stoke the fires of their imagination here!
Now I’m sure you’re wondering, if Samichlaus comes on Dec 6th, who puts the toys under the tree? Swiss children learn that the presents are brought by the ‘Christkind’ (baby Jesus) on Christmas eve. If this doesn’t fit with your religious beliefs, or what you’ve already told your children be sure to have a good answer ready for when your kids come home asking about this!
One thing to keep an eye out for in Basel is the Harley Niggi Näggi event, when a local motorcycle club, HOG Northwest Chapter CH, decorates their Harleys, dress up as Samichlaus or other Christmas characters and cruise around the city. They look fantastic and also hand out treats to the kids. If you want to see them, try Messeplatz around 16:30 or Marktplatz around 17.00 on December 3, 2016!
Christmas Trees in Basel
Around the first week of December is also the time that many people buy and set up their christmas trees. Generally these are not sold too early, as they tend to dry out so much that they pose a fire hazard. Some traditionalists use real flame candles in their trees, resulting in uncontrolled fire risks. I strongly recommend not bringing open flames near your tree. You can find Christmas trees at various places in Basel. There are lots of temporary outdoor street vendors who sell them (usually starting the first week of December) near Claraplatz, Aeschenplatz, Messeplatz and all over the city. You can also go to OBI at the Mparc, or to a Jumbo.
Once you’re done with your yuletide celebrations, you need to dispose of christmas trees the correct way. Old christmas trees are organic waste. You’ll need to take off the decorations and cut the tree into 2 meter sections (most trees are not bigger than this anyways), and tie it up with recycling string. Put your tree outside before 07:00 at the day of organic waste disposal and it will be picked up for free.
If you’re feeling a little less traditional and want an artificial tree, you can try the local department stores, Manor or Pfauen. They sell artificial trees (and tree stands), you can also order an artificial tree online. Tree decorations are widely available all over the city, but its a good idea to get your early as the good stuff can sell out quickly!
Christmas Shopping in Basel
There are shopping streets in Basel, as well as malls you can shop at. The main shopping street for gift is Freiestrasse, which starts at Bankverein and runs parallel to Barfusserplatz and Marktplatz. You should be able to find most of your christmas gift list there. Lots of fashion retail stores, jewelry and sporting goods stores. If you’ve got a big budget, you’ll find lots of high end stores; if you’ve got less to spend you’ll also find great bargains (but keep in mind it’s Switzerland, so great bargains is a relative term)! In addition to the numerous shops and cafes, there are often street performers, street vendors and beautiful decorations, especially if you go after dark. There are also loads of shops located on Steinenvorstadt.
There are also malls in Basel. The major malls are located on the outskirts of the city, and are usually open till 8pm on weekdays. Stores close earlier on Saturdays, and are generally closed on Sundays. Most of the larger chain stores accept credit and debit cards, and cash. Personal checks are generally not accepted. St. Jakob-Park and Stücki are the main large shopping centers in Basel. If you’re looking for the Toys R Us in Basel, you’ll find it at the Stücki!!
Looking for electronics? Try MediaMarkt either online or at the Basel SBB, or Interdiscount at Marktplatz. There are also lots of other locations for these stores.
At Christmas time, there are some specific days for late night and sunday shopping. Late-night Christmas shopping can be done on Thursday, November 24, 2016 until 10 pm and the stores are open on Sunday December 11 and 18, 2016 from 1 to 6 pm.
If you still don’t have all the gifts you need, you’ll want to try the Basel christmas markets. Even if you do have everything, you really should check out the Christmas markets in Basel. They really are fantastic! In 2016, the christmas market opens on November 24th and runs till December 23.
There are two Christmas markets in Basel, one at Barfüsserplatz, one at Münsterplatz. The Christmas markets are beautifully decorated, and have stalls that sell delicious food and great gift ideas. There are almost 200 stalls selling a diverse variety of products from wooden cabins. If you’re hungry, stop for a slice of flammkuchen (traditional Alsace pizza), some roasted chestnuts or a flame-grilled sausage. Thirsty? How about a gluhwein (spiced hot wine) or a hot chocolate. You’ll also find beautiful christmas decorations and you can make your own candles if you are so inclined. Check the city website for the details, or just head into town and join the fun!
New Year’s Eve in Basel
New year’s eve is known as Silvester (named after the death of Pope Silvester) in Switzerland. Other than that small difference, it’s celebrated much the way it is in the rest of the world. Bars are open late, everyone is in a festive mood and there are people and dancing everywhere, so wear comfortable shoes. Also, I would suggest that you try not to drive a bicycle or car that evening, if at all possible! Also, be extra careful crossing streets as far too many people still drink and drive.
There are lots of open parties at bars throughout the city, that you can go to to join in the revelries. Other bars and restaurants sell tickets and have a set menu dinner, and a buffet with a party. Depending on where you want to go, you should check what their New Year’s Eve plan is well before hand, especially if you need to book tickets in advance.
There is a large fireworks display launched from barges on the Rhine in Basel, which starts around 23:30, half an hour or so before the year ticks over. If you don’ t mind the cold, its a great way to ring in the new year!
Wherever you go, I hope you have a great holiday season and a very happy new year.