It’s a crisp evening six days into December. A man with a greying beard, wearing big boots and a long robe with a hood is trudging up a driveway in Stettfurt*. He carries a shepherd’s stick in one hand and is flanked by two figures , dressed head to toe in black, each holding a lantern and leading a donkey. The bearded man raises a pristine white gloved hand and knocks loudly on the front door… Finally, the moment every kid has been waiting all year for!
The bearded man is St Niklaus (or Samichlaus in Swiss German). And this Samichlaus is Werner Staubli, Client Relationship Manager at Pictet Asset Services. Every year, on the evening of 6 December, ‘Samichlaus’ and his sidekick ‘Schmutzli’ go from house to house telling fairy tales to children, recognising good behaviour and offering words of encouragement to the more rebellious. While the exact scenario may vary, it is widely known that Samichlaus is exceptionally well-informed and keeps meticulous notes on every kid in the village.
Speaking of his very first time as St Niklaus, Werner concedes it was not very encouraging. “The front door opened and a two-year old burst into tears at the sight of me. He ran away, hid under a table and didn’t come out until after I’d left!” Undeterred by this rocky start, Werner has donned the costume every December for the last 28 years, throughout his studies, into his career and even now despite having young children of his own.
Five years ago he set up an association in his village to cater for the increasing demand for St Niklaus in the region. “This year we visited 42 families, 95 kids over four days. We spend our lives on screens, interacting with each other virtually. I think there is a real desire to get back to our communities, in-person with friends and neighbours. Return to a simpler time maybe.”
Except the logistics for Werner and his 2 fellow St Niklaus, and 8 Schmutzlis are anything but simple, involving far more than just a costume and a couple of goodie bags. Werner starts in September retrieving the Samichlaus costumes from his neighbour’s garage and having them dry-cleaned together with the 3 beards made of buffalo hair and 9 Schmutzli beards. At the beginning of November the
registration opens on the association’s website. Parents send in their requests providing intricate details on their kids (names, favourite cuddly toy, particular accomplishments and areas for improvement) that help St Niklaus to be so enlightened. The start of December sees Werner and his friends in a small wooden hut buried in the vineyards on the road out of town, filling over 100 jute bags with mandarins, nuts, and gingerbread and fastening bundles of twigs.
“Yes, it takes a lot of time but I love doing it. It’s about creating a dreamworld and keeping the magic of childhood alive. The magic is in the detail.” Each of his fellow St Niklaus is carefully trained so that year after year each visit follows a similar script to ensure maximum credibility. “We don’t wear anything that could identify us, no watches or bracelets. I wear the same government issued boots that every man gets during his army service.”
When it comes to his own two daughters aged 7 Werner prefers to enlist one of his friends from the association to dress up. “This way they won’t think I’m him, because I’m always at home when Samichlaus visits us. All my equipment is kept out of the house just in case. They still believe in it. Although my eldest questioned the number of books about St Niklaus we have at home recently!”
Not everything always goes according to plan though. A few years ago Werner thought it would be cute to include a donkey to his performance but he could only find a pair and they came with clear instructions not to separate them - ever!. ‘Even better’ thought Werner. On a particularly sombre evening during his rounds, “one donkey couldn’t see the other in the dark and bolted, trailing a shrieking Schmutzli after him. I had no idea what to do! I just told my friend with the other donkey, ‘go, go, run after them’!” The donkeys joined them again this year and behaved very well.
Werner doesn’t expect much to change in the future. “Maybe one day, my daughters will help me with preparing the bags or even become a Schmutzli.” Now if youwant this Samichlaus to come to you, you’ll have to move to Stettfurt, as he exclusively visits families in the village. But if you happen to be walking in the surrounding vineyards around the beginning of December, you might catch sight of a red hood or hear a pair of donkeys braying.
The other 364 days of the year, Werner is a Business Development & Client Relationship Manager in Pictet Asset Services in Zurich.
*Stettfurt is a small village, 50km north east of Zurich.