Christmas in the Sunniest Corner of Switzerland

By Curt Winston
Photos courtesy of Ticino Tourism

Time-honored traditions come alive in Ticino, Switzerland, in particular during the season of Advent, when they make for a spectacular run-up to Christmas. Locarno’s Piazza Grande is transformed into an ice rink, while sparkling wine and Ticino specialties, such as panettone, can be enjoyed at the stalls populating the region’s Christmas markets with their imaginatively and festively decorated trees. In keeping with tradition, many villages set out open-air cribs and stage their own highly individual versions of the Christmas story.

Sipping aperitifs with friends, skating on the exquisitely decorated rink and savoring specialties at the chalet-style stalls dotted around the square, while enjoying free live music – that’s Locarno on Ice in picturesque Piazza Grande in the heart of town. The event’s welcoming and festive atmosphere during the Advent season has proved a popular and enduring attraction for locals and visitors alike. The family-friendly ice rink is open from 10 in the morning to after midnight, so skaters have plenty of time to practice their pirouettes, camels and axels. The rink launched last month with a Grand Opening Show. The Locarno on Ice program is packed with a further 60-plus events, activities and entertainments until it closes on January 6, including a special festive offering on New Year’s Eve.

Advent in Ascona
Magical and mesmerizing, two words to describe the Piazza in Ascona when, from December 5, the town’s lakeside shoreline features 15 festively decorated Christmas trees, each trying to outdo the next in splendor. Businesses and organizations based in this popular holiday destination find novel and imaginative ways of decorating the trees, which are on show until January 6. The high point of the period between Christmas and New Year has to be the Tavolata on December 27, (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), which is when Ascona lays a 150-metre long table on the lakeside promenade. On the table for guests are cheese raclette (as much as you can eat), plus a culinary market featuring Ticino specialties and a bar serving local wines.

Christmas Shopping in Lugano
Natale in Piazza is the name of the event that inaugurates Lugano’s Christmas festivities. From December 1, when the tall Christmas tree is lit on the Piazza della Riforma, to January 6, there are jazz and gospel concerts, the traditional Christmas market, an ice rink and numerous shopping opportunities in the alleys of the Old Town. After spending a day strolling through the town, the best way to enjoy the evening is to sample the timber chalets in the Christmas Village on the Piazza Riforma for a relaxed aperitif or tasty Ticino treat, complete with entertainment.

Atmospheric Christmas
What would Christmas be without a gospel concert that puts people in the right frame of mind for this time of year? The atmospheric Gospels & Spirituals concert series, which takes place throughout December at a variety of locations in Ticino, ranks amongst the high point of the festive period. The first of the six concerts is on Sunday, December 6 and features the group “The Mahogany Experience” in the church of San Lorenzo in Losone; followed by appearances by Markey Montague & The Fellowship on December 13 in the church of San Giovanni, and by The Mount Unity Choir on December 19 in the Teatro Sociale, Bellinzona. The Nyac Gospel Ensemble appears in the Teatro di Locarno on December 20, while the Serenity Singers perform at the Chiesa San Martino, Olivone on December 27.

The final concert in the series showcases Cedric Shannon & Brothers in Gospel and takes place in the Rotonda Church, San Bernardino on December 30. The Gospels & Spirituals concerts are not the only aural treat in store for visitors. The border town of Chiasso is also hosting a concert on December 17 and finds the talented singers of the Harlem (NY) Gospel Choir performing a program of contemporary gospel with a hint of jazz and blues at the Cinema Teatro.

Artistic Crib Tradition
At Christmas many villages in Ticino display cribs and stage their own versions of the Christmas story. Presepi a Vira takes the form of a highly original group exhibition, a custom that the residents of Vira Gambarogno have observed for almost a quarter of a century. From December 13 to Epiphany more than thirty cribs fill the alleys and squares of Vira, creating a unique Christmas ambience on Lake Maggiore. The cribs themselves are created by artists as well as private individuals, who vie with each other in displaying their artistic skills. An open-air display that harks back to another time, invites visitors to reflect on the message of Christmas.

There will be ample opportunity to sample the cheeses the Swiss are so rightly famous for. In some taverns, next to a roaring fireplace, great hunks of cheese will be placed on a vertical spit next to the fire. A plate underneath catches the cheese as it melts while guests line up to take a portion back to their tables.

Throughout the winter season mountain lodges offer a respite from the cold with a hot brandy. Many skiers, hikers and visitors will sit outdoors on a deck, sipping the warming drink and taking in the majestic Swiss mountain scenery while watching skiers fly down the slopes.

In some areas there is an extra treat. A handful of daredevils will ascend the slopes with a backpack. But this is no ordinary backpack. It holds a parachute and sled. The skiers will pick up speed coming down the mountain, sit back on the sled and deploy the parachute. They’ll then let the natural wind currents drop them low and then rise upwards once again, floating across ski trails and roads in an aerial ballet, until they return to terra firma and head back up for another ride.