Everybody’s Waiting for the Man with the Bag.

First of all, I am never again making a decision without consulting you people. You are an eternal font of knowledge, and I cannot thank you enough for the cascade of bra recommendations. In the past year alone my readers have helped me plan my wedding, plod through IVF research, and more importantly, get up the courage to wax my Area. Surely I would be lost without you.

As you may remember, my mother is living in Switzerland. At the moment she is still in the hospital after being struck by a car driven by a crazy Italian, but she is hoping to be back in her apartment for Christmas, as my brother and uncle will be visiting her through January. Scott and I are having Christmas by ourselves, and in an attempt to make us feel included in the festivities being planned across the ocean, my uncle has taken to emailing me snippets he finds on the Internet about Swiss holiday traditions. Swiss traditions are not entirely foreign to me—my family is of Swiss descent, after all, and we customarily have a meal of raclette or fondue around the holidays, and eat pffernusse and tiny delicious nut cookies. However some of the traditions referenced in my uncle’s messages have been decidedly…unfamiliar. My favorite is the following paragraph:

“Schmutzli is nearly all brown: dressed in brown, with brown hair and beard, and a face darkened with lard and soot. He is St. Nicholas’ helper in Switzerland. He carries a switch and sack. Children used to be told that Schmutzli would beat naughty children with the switch and carry them off in the sack to gobble them up in the woods.”

Now here is a Christmas belief I can get behind—Schmutzli (presumably so-named because of the schmutz smeared all over his face), whom I imagine as a bearded, slightly more bloodthirsty version of a Walter Mathau character. It cuts right through the treacle of Santa Claus, don’t you think? And I have always had a soft spot for curmudgeons.
I have been telling every impressionable creature I can think of about Schmutzli. Cat chewing upon the branches of your Christmas tree? Remind him in a stern voice of another cat you once knew, who was carried away in a sack on Christmas Eve after nibbling the leaves of a favorite potted plant…and was never heard from again. Babies still refusing to kick reassuringly at 19 weeks? Perhaps they have heard of Schmutzli’s uncommon fondness for succulent fetal flesh. No? Well let me tell you children a story…

Scott is rarely supportive of my ideas (most recently, my proposal for a steamy reality show called Red Hott to be set in a communist co-op full of nubile young ideologues—“From each according to his abilities…to each according to his needs…”) and I suspect my plan to introduce Schmutzli as a part of our holiday tradition is doomed to failure. But that won’t stop me from greeting my husband nightly with hearty cries of “Merry Christmas, and may Schmutzli spare you!” until he beats me to death with a switch of his own.

My past three holiday seasons ranged from excruciating to mildly dysthymic. Three years ago I was pregnant, but miscarried on New Year’s Day. Holidays the next year were nearly unbearable, and last year seemed better only until I arrived at Christmas dinner, where my good mood dissolved little by little.
This year I am overwhelmed by my luck, and find myself thinking a great deal about those of you who are still gritting your teeth through family gatherings and excusing yourselves to the bathroom to blink back tears after a cousin announces her plan to get pregnant between the coming June and September in order to coordinate her childbearing with her teaching career.
I wish you all fortitude this holiday season, and better things in the New Year.
Merry Christmas, and may Schmutzli spare you.


  1. allison says:

    I love the idea of Schmutzli…going to get that on my children, pronto. Maybe invoke him year round.

    More than that, though, just blessings and peace this Christmas as you have so much to celebrate. And in that, you still remember those yearning. Here’s to a grander Holiday and New Year for anyone hoping, desiring.

  2. Mel says:

    This is by far the best Christmas post ever. It took me three tries to get through it because I ended up in one of those fits where you’re laughing so hard that you literally can’t breathe. My husband had to come across the room to read it. I know what we’re going to be telling the twins about tomorrow morning. Oh? Don’t want to eat breakfast so we can get on the road? Let me tell you about a friend who is coming around on Tuesday covered in lard and soot.

  3. amanda says:

    and merry christmas to you. hope you enjoy the holiday thoroughly despite being far from your mom.

    i, personally, am making this the first christmas that i don’t spend with my fundamentalist christian family… so i think Schmutzli already spared me!!!

  4. MsPrufrock says:

    Jen completely stole my link! I had even googled “Sedaris, 6 to 8 black men”, because as soon as I started to read about Schmutzli, this was the first thing to come to mind.

    But anyway, read it. It will be well worth your while. If you don’t, Schmutzli will stuff you in a sack and be off with you. He hates bloggers who don’t read links they are directed to.

  5. Bittermama says:

    I’m totally going to start calling my son Shmultzli now, it’ll make me feel better about forgetting to wipe his face off before sending him to school in the morning if I can just explain to the teachers that we’re Swiss.

    Hope you have a lovely quiet Christmas just the two and two-halves of you.

  6. Heidi says:

    I choked on my coffee at your “Red Hott” suggestion — now that’s a reality show I could get behind! (Er…)
    Anyway, a very Merry Christmas to you & Scott & the babies.

  7. elise says:

    Hey, thanks for this post. I really needed to read it. I was just doing the whole blinking back tears thing last night at my husband’s family Christmas, and thinking how sucky the holidays can really be, oh woe is me, etc.

    I forget that I’m not the only one who’s ever felt that way.

    And I’m even more thrilled that for you, this Christmas is turning out HAPPY, and CELEBRATORY, as it should!

  8. Becky says:

    Merry Christmas to you, too.

    I’m always hoping that Schmutzli avoids me. But you never, ever know. But now I can see my husband warning ME against doing naughty stuff (like buying myself gifts when I should be buying them for others.) by threatening Schmutzli on my ass.

  9. kate says:

    A fifth (sixth, whatever) for the David Sedaris story. My husband is German, but grew up about 6 kilometers from the border to the Netherlands, and also taught Dutch while finishing his PhD. According to him, the “Schwartz Pete” thing is absolutely true. Sinterklaus comes on Dec. 5th (or 6th, depending on where you live), and brings with him 6-8 black men, though one of them is the “head Pete”. I’m sorry to say, but the brown beard, brown clothes, etc., is really just the modern day version of the “blackface” of olden times. It’s not used to make the Schmutzie look dirty, but rather to make him look African, since there are, uh, well… not a lot of black people in Switzerland (and even if there were, I doubt you would find one willing to take on this particular role), and I’m wagering that similar to the Dutch and the Germans, Schmutzie, frankly, come from Christmas tales of Sinterklaus and his “helper” (an improvement over past titles of “santa’s servant” and “santa’s slave”).

    Anyway, yes. We’ve always thought that would be a lovely tale to pass along to our children. “If you don’t act nicely, Santa and his posse may snatch you, beat you, and stuff you in a bag to take back to Spain… so BE GOOD, BWAHAHAHAHA!”

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