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Let there be light: but keep it contemplative
Fairy lights can be seen twinkling in many front gardens, on windows and on fir trees in the run-up to Christmas. Swiss neighborhoods are also becoming more and more colorful, brighter and American. Is it permitted to put up a larger-than-life flashing reindeer or to decorate your entire property with thousands of lights?
“If it’s so bright that passing motorists are distracted or the neighbors are no longer able to sleep, that’s going too far,” says Thomas Oberle, legal expert at the Swiss Homeowner Association HEV. Since lights, decorations and glittering surfaces are a traditional part of Swiss culture, even Christmas grouches have to put up with the most cheerful and flashing decorations during the Advent season.
A few Christmases ago, a not so pleasant case made the news throughout Switzerland: an enthusiastic family living in Möhlin in the canton of Aargau had their plug pulled by court order. The homeowners had already illuminated their property all year round with spotlights and decorative lighting on the facade and in the trees. From St. Martin’s Day (11 November) to Candlemas (2 February), they added lavish Christmas illuminations to their house and the surrounding land.
The neighbors across the street felt that their nightly peace was being disturbed and demanded a time limit on the lights. The administrative court of Aargau ruled in favor of the neighbors and described a normal Christmas illumination period as lasting from the start of Advent until 6 January – until 1 a.m. each day at the latest. The federal court in Lausanne even made a landmark ruling: now homeowners may be required to switch off lights from 10 p.m. during the overnight rest period.
The expert from the Homeowner Association gives the following recommendation: “Partly for the sake of electricity costs and the environment, illuminations should be switched off from midnight or 1 a.m. onwards each night, for example with a timer.” However, this is only obligatory if the neighbors are disturbed by the so-called light pollution.
Reindeer crawling up the facade: safety first
A giant Santa Claus climbing up a house facade, a reindeer clambering over the balcony railing, a life-size illuminated snowman on the roof – all this is unusual, but permitted under certain circumstances: “Homeowners can indulge their passion for decoration however they like,” says legal expert Oberle. To be on the safe side, however, he recommends asking the local building authority whether permits are necessary for very large decorative elements.
The situation is different for tenants or condominium owners in an apartment building: “In this case, you should obtain the approval of the landlord or the owners’ association before planning and purchasing your decorations,” advises Thomas Oberle.
No matter if it’s your own house, a multi-family unit or your balcony, the most important thing is: “The decorations must be well secured against gusts of wind and storms – if loose parts damage a car or even injure a cyclist or passer-by, it could prove very expensive.”
When the singing Santa Claus is too loud
“Silent night” can be over very quickly if the melody resounds continuously from the neighboring garden throughout the Advent season. But when are chimes and singing Santa Clauses really considered too loud?
“There are no official limits,” says the legal expert. “During the day, a normal conversation volume is tolerated, but at night, even the most beautiful Christmas music must be silenced.” Depending on the canton, the hours from 10 or 11 p.m. until 6 or 7 a.m. are regarded as night rest periods. But even during the day, the continuous playing of music violates the ban on excessive emissions.
“Constantly repeating melodies can be annoying – that’s why we at the Homeowner Association appeal to common sense in order to preserve neighborhood peace,” says Oberle. “Nobody will object indoors, you don’t necessarily have to take it outdoors.”
Decoration in the stairwell: observe fire protection
A wreath on the apartment door or cute little gnomes in the stairwell are standard decorations for many tenants and condominium owners during the Advent season. Is there anything to keep in mind?
“Traditional wreaths are certainly allowed. However, anything you place in the hallway can hinder the cleaning service or the caretaker in their work, and even block fire escape routes,” says Oberle. “So the rule that applies, especially in apartment buildings, is that you should check with the caretaker or the homeowner association.” One thing that should definitely be taboo in every stairwell is burning candles. “All it takes is one person bumping into it and the mistletoe next to it could catch fire.”
Some like it opulent: examples of decorations from Switzerland
One of the most photographed farms in Switzerland at Christmas time is probably the Grossenbacher family farm in Kärselen in the Bernese Oberland. Thousands of lights turn the farm building and stable into a sparkling sea of lights. Year after year, at the end of September farmer Ruth Rossenbacher starts to dust off the boxes of Christmas decorations and get everything ready. Drivers stop to take pictures and marvel at the illuminations time and again. Since the farm is situated in the middle of greenery with a view of large meadows and a breathtaking mountain panorama, nobody is at risk.
Several neighbors in the Stegmatt area in Lyss are taking the Christmas madness to the extreme, with kilometers of shining fairy lights, illuminated snowmen, sparkling reindeer and larger-than-life Santa Clauses, gingerbread men and angels. The street has become a meeting place for locals and tourists alike during Advent. Almost every bush is lit up with thousands of red, yellow and white lights. Visitors gaze in wonder at Christmas tree baubles, illuminated stars and model railways whizzing through the gardens.
But the fun is extremely expensive: one of the decoration enthusiasts from Stegmattweg estimated his electricity bill for Advent to be around 800 francs. The splendid lights always provide for amusement: “They’ve slightly overdone it again,” writes one viewer, describing the winter wonderland on Instagram.
Conclusion: Advent is a time for contemplation
No matter whether you prefer an exhilaratingly colorful front garden or a discreet sea of lights: Advent decorations are traditional, increase the feeling of anticipation before the reflective period over Christmas, and are something that everyone can indulge in. But if neighbors or passers-by are disturbed or even put at risk, then the fun is legally over.
To be on the safe side, tenants and condominium owners should discuss unusual Christmas decorations with the property management before they buy. In principle, homeowners are allowed to do virtually anything they like. However, in order to keep the peace with the neighbors, a brief discussion in advance can prevent conflict – after all, Advent should be and remain a period of reflection.