Tag Archives: Switzerland
For those of you in highly commercialized countries (I won’t name names, but the initials are USA, for one…), before Thanksgiving is past, Christmas decorations have hit the shop shelves. Before Christmas is really digested, Valentine’s ads appear. I hope that you’ll bear with me, as I contemplate a holiday between your Thanksgiving, and Christmas: Advent.
In today’s global village, people around the world are aware of holidays such as Christmas and Easter, though it might not be a part of their indigenous culture or religion; they may even celebrate them, though that be more of a marketing incentive rather than a religious one. I grew up in Kansas, and though we were aware of Advent as an event leading up to Christmas, we never celebrated it – we rarely, if ever, had an advent calendar, or advent wreath of candles. Here in Switzerland, Advent is like an extended Christmas; our personal advent calendar contains small gifts, and of course chocolate; this year, with a teenager in the house, I also included gag gifts. Our particular form is the Tischibo bags, hung from a rustic red metal heart frame with hooks.
What is the history behind Advent? What is its true meaning? Advent, which comes from the Latin Adventus (which is actually a translation from the Greek word parousia), had two meanings: In relation to Christmas, it is the inner preparation for remembering the first coming of Jesus as a babe into the world as a human, so that he could fulfil God’s plan for salvation for all. For Christians, the second meaning is a time to reflect on, and prepare for, the Second Coming of Christ, which will be the end of time for Earth (no one knows the day or hour, and so the Bible tells us to be prepared – like someone on call needs to be ready to go when the call comes). As an event, it begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas; this year that would be the 27th of November, as Christmas itself falls on a Sunday.
There are several expressions of celebrating Advent: The calendar, the wreath, and devotions.
The calendar was first used by German Lutherans in the 19th century, and usually begins on the 1st of December. They can take on any form imaginable, from a simple paper calendar, to gift boxes, or gift bags labelled 1 – 24. Consecutive numbers are opened one per day from the 1st to Christmas Eve. Sometimes the calendar includes a Bible verse and a prayer or Christian devotion for that day of the Advent. There are even some towns that become living Advent calendars; this tradition began in Stockholm, Sweden.
The wreath, usually a horizontal decoration placed on a table, is made of evergreen boughs (real or synthetic) with four or five candles, representing the four Sundays prior, and Christmas day. The four are usually red, with the white Christmas candle centred. One candle is lit on the first Advent Sunday, with an additional candle lit each week. The concept originated with German Lutherans in the 16th century, though the modern form didn’t catch on until the 19th century, likely in conjunction with the calendar. For a detailed history of the wreath, click here.
The devotions are readings from the Bible accompanied by a prayer, to prepare the heart and mind for the Reason for the Season – the coming of Jesus as a man to Earth.
If you’ve never made an Advent calendar or wreath before (there is still time to prepare one!), or you want to try something new, below are a few examples I’ve collected from Pinterest. Please share in the comments below what kind you use, or what your traditions around this time of the year are!
As a writer, I’m constantly absorbing information; I never know when something might come in handy! It may inform my scene with more realism, or infuse a character with a quirk or a background that gives them depth. History is full of oddities and amazing events that can spark our imaginations; the event below is one such event: If you ever need to write a scene about an explosion, or the effects of wrong decisions gone awry, look to history to teach you how it’s done (or in this case, how it should not be done). This story shows the importance of decisions, and begs the question, “What if?” What if one of those factors had changed? What if the captain of the SS Imo had given way to the captain of the SS Mont-Blanc? We’ll never know, but as writers, we can use our greatest tool: Imagination.
This day in history: The Halifax Explosion
6 December 1917 will live on in infamy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Canada, as one of the worst disasters in history. On that day, the largest man-made explosion prior to the Nuclear Age occurred, wiping out several communities and reshaping Halifax forever.
The events that led up to the explosion that killed thousands and maimed thousands more reads like a thriller: The delay of a shipment of coal; the climate of war that complicated the comings and goings from the harbour; an experienced captain now behind schedule who “bent the rules” for once; the captain whose impatience at previous delays pressed him to disregard the harbour speed limits and refuse to give way a third time; the third ship in his path who, because of their cargo (tons of explosives), could not make sudden manoeuvres and was relying on him to give way; a right decision made too late. Curious onlookers who gathered at their windows to watch the blazing ship in the harbour had little idea that it would be the last thing most of them would ever see; if they were not obliterated in the initial blast, the light from the flash or the window glass shattering [in virtually every window within a 2.6-kilometre (1.6 mile) radius] blinded them; some 5,900 eye injuries were treated, leaving over 40 survivors permanently blind.
Confusion after the initial blast was compounded when people began evacuating thinking that it was a German bomb attack; fires throughout the city (caused by tipped oil lamps and ovens in collapsed homes) added to the confusion and hindrance to rescue efforts, but within a few hours the true cause had become widely-enough known to calm initial fears. Rescue teams started arriving from as far away as 200 km (120 miles), their help hampered by damaged roads and fears of secondary explosions from a munitions magazine at the Wellington Barracks. To make matters worse, the next day blew in a blizzard which dumped 41 cm (16 inches) of heavy snow on the area; this blocked train transport with snowdrifts, and tore down hastily-erected telegraph lines. Halifax was isolated, though the snow did help to extinguish the fires throughout the city.
Here in Switzerland, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) reported on the 7th of December:
“Zerstörung der Stadt Halifax? New York, 6. Dez. (Havas.) Aus Halifax wird gemeldet: Die Hälfte der Stadt Halifax sei ein Trummerhaufen infolge einer Explosion. Die Verluste werden auf mehrere Millionen geschätzt. Der Nordteil der Stadt steht in Flammen. Es gibt hunderte von Toten und an die tausend Verwundete. ”
[“Destruction of the city of Halifax? New York, 6 December (Havas – a French media group based in Paris.) From Halifax was reported: Half of the city of Halifax lies in ruins as a result of an explosion. The loss has been estimated at several million (unclear whether it means Canadian dollars or Swiss Francs). The northern part of the city is in flames. There are hundreds of dead and thousands injured.”]
On the 8th of December, a similar footnote was reported, adding, “Kein Haus der Stadt ist unbeschädigt geblieben…” (“No house in the city has remained undamaged”)
That it even made it into a footnote of the international news section is actually remarkable, considering that Switzerland was surrounded by war at the time and had far more pressing matters on the home front and in neighbouring countries with which to keep abreast.
In the end, it is estimated that over 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured (of those injured, it is unclear how many died of the injuries, and how many were permanently disabled in some way). The blast was so hot that it evaporated water in the harbour, exposing the harbour’s floor momentarily; as water rushed back in to fill the void, the resulting tsunami erased a settlement of Mi’kmaq First Nations along the shores of Bedford Basin, on the Dartmouth side of the harbour; how many were killed is not known, though around 20 families lived there at the time.
To read the fascinating history of this event, please click here.
Sources: Wikipedia; NZZ digital archives
Here in Switzerland, today’s Google Doodle is in celebration of our Founding Day, 1291. It is actually the day on which the Federal Charter was written and signed by the three originally united cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, neighbouring cantons situated in the heart of modern-day Switzerland. As in America, the signing of the Declaration of Independence was not the actual day of peace and freedom; it had to be hard-won thereafter; but it’s the day recognized as the pivotal moment when going back was no longer an option, and going forward meant fighting for what we knew was right. So, 724 years on, I say “Happy Birthday, Switzerland!”
Just put your feet up on the edge of the glass balcony, lean back and enjoy the breathtaking view: straight ahead is San Salvatore – the signature mountain of Lugano, Switzerland (also known as the Rio De Janeiro of Europe) – rising out of Lake Lugano. A sunny day will see the vast body of water dotted and streaked with lazy boats, speed boats, water skiers, and the occasional swimmer who ventures far away from the shores to swim long distance. A sunny, windy day will see the lake bloom like a field of wildflowers with sails unfurled. If you look straight down from the balcony, you’ll see six stories of uninterrupted view and a private swimming pool shimmering Caribbean blue in the garden below – all yours whenever you feel the urge. Sitting there gently beckons you to breathe deep, slow down, forget time, and be as lazy as you want. Being is the thing here, not doing, unless that doing brings pleasure.
Overhead, hawks circle, coming so close to the balcony that you can watch them turn their heads to look you in the eye. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them swoop at the lake and come up with fish, but more commonly you’ll simply see the results dangling from their talons as they fly nestward. Birds of all shapes and sizes are there for the viewing: Ducks that fly past squawking as they flap furiously determined to reach their destination, always in a hurry; swans that pass each morning toward the town, and each evening toward their roost; silver-backed crows that fight for the highest treetop, chasing each other from tree to fence to roof to tree to lamppost to tree; sparrows that have learned the advantages of sharing their domain with humans; seagulls that pester hawks for their fish, pester each other for their prizes, and pester simply because they enjoy pestering.
To the right in the distance is the eponymous town, the shoreline rimmed by a walkway, boating and ferry docks, a giant fountain spraying five stories straight up – when the wind doesn’t use it to spray onlookers – and swans, coots and ducks competing with sparrows, pigeons and silver-backed crows for the breadcrumbs of passersby. Every little corner café and ristorante has a place in the sun, with tables and chairs moved out onto the sidewalk, the giant umbrellas providing welcomed shade. Gelaterie dot the shoreline, offering relief from the summer heat with generous portions of creamy Italian ice cream.
This first evening, let’s head down to Gandria: A small, steep town tucked around the lakeshore hidden from Lugano, it’s accessible only to those who can walk. There is one parking lot high above the town, but I prefer the walk high above the lakeshore. For the first few minutes, we walk past luxury mansions, usually veiled in the silence of loneliness as the occupants are rarely in residence. We pass a parking area and enter a narrow stone pathway that takes us past the back door of a few stucco homes, eventually giving way to steep cliffs to our left and a steep drop to the lake below on our right. The forest grows thick here despite the rocky cliff, but if we take this walk early enough in the evening, we’ll see countless lizards sunning themselves along the stone path or cliff face; we may even glimpse a sunning snake, though they are usually quick to disappear into the underbrush. We come at last to the village of Gandria, a labyrinth of stone houses and arched passageways, where swallows can be found nesting, and a postcard in the making at every turn with a picture perfect atmosphere. The restaurant we choose engulfs the stone path, with the building on one side and the covered terrace on the edge of the lake (or out over the lake) on the other. We order our meal (Italian, of course), complete with a bottle of local wine, and watch the shadows of the mountain grow steeper, swallowing the glittering lake as it climbs the forested Italian mountains across the invisible, watery border between the two countries.
Happily satisfied with a good meal and a good year, we begin the walk home. By now, the dense forest is darker still, and conceals a deep ravine in the rising cliffs; at dusk, out of that ravine dart tiny bats by the hundreds. Contrasted against the sky, we watch them deftly echolocate their meal of insects that have thrived on the lakeshore all day and have risen to soak up the last rays of the setting sun. If you hear well, you’ll be able to hear their small shrieks as they swoop past – unaware that humans are there except as obstacles to be avoided in their flight path.
At last, we return home. The view from the glass balcony has now changed: The lake is a blanket of darkness surrounded by the glittering lights of the towns splashed along the winding coast. Sometimes a bright light suddenly flashes across the lake, where a car has turned directly toward us briefly on the winding roads and streets, but it is only the size of a firefly at this distance. The peace that settles over the lake calms any thoughts of home, responsibilities, appointments, work and schedule. Sitting in the dark and watching the stars come out as dusk fades to a black curtain, we whisper as our tangled thoughts unravel, our minds drawn to the deeper things of life than mere living.
Another place I’d take you is to the top of our mountain, Monte Brè, to the village of Brè Paese. It seems to be a magnet for artistic abdicators of the outside world, with every corner, door, window frame, stair, archway, path, woodpile and every other possible canvas artistically arranged, painted, sculptured, framed and ready to grace a postcard. My favourite and eponymous restaurant has a garden that reflects the philosophy of the town, being a dessert for the eyes and soul. There is a large chess board in the garden with potted plants as the pieces; a wooden bench made of barked branches winds its way around one of the large shade trees, and a swinging bench ready to receive visitors at a moment’s notice sways in the warm breeze beneath another tree. Our table is shaded by a kiwi fruit vine laden with fruit, winding its way up the trellis and taking its sweet time to reach a nearby balcony. Sparrows flit between the terrace tables in search of morsels and are friendly and bold enough to even land on our table occasionally.
As night falls in Lugano, the city sparkles to rival the stars. On a clear moonless night, the mountains surrounding the lake are etched black against the sky, contrasted by the city lights reflecting along the shore. Some of the brighter stars even cast their reflections onto the water below. A swan drifts past, asleep with its beak nuzzled under a wing, not caring where the gentle currents carry it by morning.