It seems fitting to celebrate Christmas in Pennsylvania Dutch country with traditions imported from the old world.
In this case, we imported some of them ourselves. Every year my mom, sister, husband, friend Leslie, and I celebrate Christmas together with raclette for dinner.
Raclette is a specialty that my Swiss host families introduced me to when I was an exchange student there in 1994. Following that exchange, I returned to Switzerland many times and frequently partook in the cheesy treat.
Dave and I enjoyed raclette together with my former boss’s daughter Simone, in Carona, Switzerland in February 1997. Mom developed the taste for it when the two of us spent Christmas 1996 in Switzerland with the Sterchi and Ehernsperger families.
Before Christmas each year now, Dave and I purchase raclette imported from Switzerland or France by Mandros Foods in Lancaster, PA. Then we pull out the raclette grill that Dave ordered as a gift for me many years ago (he bought it from a place in Minnesota). Once my red raclette grill heats up, we melt the cheese in the little pans and eat it along with potatoes and a variety of pickled vegetables.
The first time I ate raclette I’d been in Switzerland just three weeks. The Land Jugend, which works in collaboration with the International Four-H Youth Exchange (IFYE) program to host exchange students from around the world, invited us “up the Alp” for a weekend adventure. We milked cows, cooked cheese in a huge copper kettle, and celebrated the weekend with a variety of characters who spend their summers on this particular mountaintop.
Our group had assembled in a parking lot in the valley near Wengen, Switzerland. We had hiked up, up, up — emerging above the tree line to a place where streams form from melting snow and tufts of summer grass peek through the rocky terrain.
We had arrived in the land of Heidi.
You may recall that in the children’s storybook, Heidi and her grandpa went up the Alp with the cows. They would have lived in a chalette without electricity — milking the cows and storing the milk as cheese — while folks down in the valleys gathered the summer hay.
The Swiss do this so their cows can eat the grass that grows in un-harvestable places, thus preserving the grass in the flatter (harvestable) lands to cut, dry, and store for use in the cold, winter months.
My first raclette was quite authentic: up on this Alp, in a house where the barn and the living quarters lie under the same roof, we built a roaring August fire. We placed a half wheel of raclette cheese near the open flame. Once the exposed surfaces of the cheese wheel melted, we scraped the gooey part onto plates to eat with red-skinned potatoes, gerkins, baby corn, and the like.
Melt, scrape, repeat… all evening long!
My biological family enjoyed the raclette tradition as much as my hosts. So, we make it part of our Christmas gathering every year now. In addition to raclette, we often celebrate Christmas with the candleholders that the Sterchi family sent Mom some years back. (In Switzerland, many families use real candles with real flames to light their trees. When we have a live tree, we do, too, but with tremendous care.)
I was such a lucky kid to be able to live in Switzerland on a cultural immersion program. I’m incredibly grateful for that five months of 1994 when I had opportunity to live with six wonderful families. I hope to one day find them all again.
My hosts are listed below. I’ve stayed in contact with the first family, but I’ve lost touch with the others. (You’ll recall my November blogs about Esther’s visit to Dublin. )
I’ve temporarily gone blank on a couple of names (I’ll come back and fill them in when they return to my mind). If you can help me locate any of them, please email me at shannonchance (at) wm (dot) edu.
- Esther, Erich, Anja, Marcus, and Karin Sterchi who live in Ferenberg near Bern (Swiss-German speaking)
- Nigel, Elsbeth, Jan, and Mike Evershed in LaVaux on Lake Geneva (the French-speaking region)
- Tommy, Helena, Ramona, and Marion — in Aeschi near Soloturn (Swiss-German speaking)
- Vreni, Henier, Sabina, and Peter Ehernsperger in Hegi near Winterthur and Zurich (Swiss-German speaking)
- Maurizio, Lucia, Nora, Francesco, and Alice Lorenzetti in Maggia, Ticino (the Italian-speaking region)
- Vreni and Alfred Buchi in Boltshausen, canton Thurgau (Swiss-German speaking)
I am so incredibly thankful to each of these families for taking me in, sharing their traditions, and showing me the ropes of being a global citizen.
I am also eternally grateful to my 4-H extension agent, Dr. Joyce Martin, who made many learning opportunities possible for me in my youth. Dr. Martin passed away this very morning after a 14-month bout with pancreatic cancer. She was one of my earliest mentors and she made a world of difference in my life.
Had it not been for Dr. Martin, I might never have been an IFYE.
I have fond memories of traveling with Dr. Martin to the 1985 International Egg and Poultry Convention in Louisville, KY . I was competing in egg cookery demonstration and — with her coaching and encouragement — I garnered third place in the national competition. She was so proud because I was one of the youngest participants, and held my own against a group of contestants ranging from 15-19 years old.
I couldn’t have done so well without her! My parents also helped me prepare (by buying many eggs and by heckling me while I rehearsed so I could learn to ignore distractions).
And, my grandmother (Lillian “Ma” Massie) made huge contributions. Ma hand-sewed my apron and two dresses especially for the trip. I was the height of 4-H fashion in 1985!
Here’s a little tribute to the family traditions around the world, sent out today in honor of Joyce Martin and Lillian Massie: