Tis the season for Christmas and Sylvester in Basel, Switzerland. The city’s holiday trimmings are understated, classy and a marker of a season that the people of Basel cherish dearly. One of my favorite scenes is the gently moving reflection of lights strung along the bridges over the Rhine. The city’s river-propelled ferries get into the spirit of Christmas, too, each one adding a personal touch for the season. Some offer coffee and hot chocolate, as well, making the short trip across the river a holiday treat.
Within 24 hours of holiday markets closing, all evidence of holiday bustle vanishes from the market venues. How Swiss! As people gathered for the Christnacht service at the Münster, the only decorations remaining on Cathedral Hill were snow globes and a big fir tree decorated in silver and gold. Quite a contrast to the lively holiday markets at Münsterplatz and Barfüsserplatz!
For many, the highlight of Christmas Eve is Christnacht service at the Münster, and a stirring performance by the Knabenkantorei Basel (KKB), the city’s highly regarded boys choir (here’s a sampler, from a performance by the choir at the European Festival of Youth Choirs (2:08)). For this year’s Christmas program, it was the first part of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio that echoed so beautifully through the Münster.
For this Christmas Day, the balmy weather has left us, trailing leaden skies and a drizzle in its wake. Most tourists are gone, too, and Christmas celebrations have moved indoors. Candles twinkle, package wrappings crinkle, and wonderful aromas waft from our kitchen as well as our upstairs neighbors’. We have opened our gifts, toasted the season, and are mid-way through several days of holiday meals.
Until the Christmas season closes with Three Kings Day on 6 January, Tom and I are happy to enjoy the lingering glow of a Basel Christmas.
From Christmas to Sylvester
The launch of a new year is called Sylvester in this part of Switzerland. Making the round to pick up goodies for a Sylvester (New Year’s Eve) apéro, merchants cheerily wish customers a “Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr”, or a good slide, into the New Year.
My favorite local Sylvester custom, though, happens at midnight in the square fronting Basel’s Münster, the former cathedral. Folks gather at the Münsterplatz for a musical treat: a brass ensemble playing (centuries) old tunes from the cathedral’s balcony. The mini-concert ends just before the big church bell gongs midnight; and when it does, families and friends lift flutes of champagne to herald in the New Year.
As soon as the bell quiets, it’s time for fireworks over the Rhine. Revelers on the Münster’s riverside terrace have a view of the official flares, as well as the smaller-scale, random pops set off by celebrants on the cobble-stone terrace itself. By “midnight-thirty” the crowd begins to disperse. Some years, fog softens the sound of the fireworks, and bathe the scene in a soft glow.
Basel’s Sylvester ritual is the perfect coda to a quiet evening in the company of good friends. Rutsch accomplished, it is time to head home for the new year’s first snooze.