VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Christmas holidays can be a particularly tough time for the Swiss Guards, especially the new recruits. The colorfully clad protectors of the pope must stand guard for numerous ceremonies at the Vatican, all of them many miles away from their own homes and families.
A new book of recipes, The Vatican Christmas Cookbook, presents a collection of meals enjoyed by the Swiss guards, who often find home and community in eating together. It includes 70 original wide-ranging recipes by former Swiss Guard David Geisser.
“You could say the Swiss Guards are total foodies!” said Andreas Widmer, who acts as a representative of the Swiss Guards in the United States and is a former guard himself.
Anyone who has lived abroad for a time can identify with the nostalgia for the smells and tastes of home. For the Swiss, Widmer explained in an interview with Religion News Service on Tuesday (Jan. 5), national identity mostly stems from the city or canton (region) of birth, each with its own typical sweets, recipes and — of course — fondue variation.
The enthusiasm of the Swiss Guards for their home province is best represented by the feats performed for the annual swearing-in ceremony, when “trucks full of goodies” are brought down from Switzerland, Widmer explained. Spending time together enjoying food reminiscent of home is “super exciting” for Swiss Guards, especially during the holidays, he added.
Geisser, originally from Zurich, was already a chef when he arrived at the Vatican in 2013, the same year Pope Francis was elected. Widmer, who wrote a short foreword for the cookbook, said the young cook made quite a name for himself among the Swiss Guards by cooking alongside the small army of Polish nuns charged with preparing meals.
In his introduction, Geisser said the recipes were inspired by “the splendor of the Vatican and enhanced by the stories of the Swiss Guard,” with a sprinkle of Christmas spirit. Whether it’s veal fillet with mushrooms and a dash of nutmeg or zesty ravioli with ricotta cheese and fresh sage leaves, the recipes in the cookbook stay true to Swiss Guard favorites with a touch of the cosmopolitan tastes of the Vatican.
“Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the busiest days of the year for the Swiss Guard,” Geisser writes, but the few who don’t have to remain on duty through the night gather with family and friends to celebrate. “It may seem modest, but these close Christmas Eve celebrations make for treasured memories in the minds of many Swiss Guard families.”
On such a night years ago, Widmer was on duty outside the papal apartments, when then-Pope John Paul II emerged. Widmer reminisces in the book, he “noticed both that I was new and my red eyes.”
“The good pope embraced me, told me that he was very glad I was there, and that he would go and pray for me as he celebrated midnight Mass,” he said. “Since that night, in my life, Christmas has always been the glorious feast day deeply connected to John Paul II and my service in the Swiss Guard.”
The recipes aren’t just drawn from Swiss traditions but are also inspired by the popes whom the guards have served over the centuries. “No one is closer to the pope than the Swiss Guard,” the book states, while presenting several accounts of the special relationship that exists between the guards and the pontiffs.
Widmer said it’s common for popes to share meals with the Swiss Guards or bring them some of the food they are gifted. “It’s like in a house. When you have too much food, you know the teenagers are going to eat this!” he said. Whether it be barbecues at the papal summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo with Benedict XVI or an elderly John Paul II attempting to bite into stone-hard Swiss cookies, these occasions offer plenty of opportunities for memorable anecdotes.
The book contains impressive stories of some of the most influential popes in Catholic history, from Pope Leo the Great’s incredible defeat of the Huns in 451 (with some stories suggesting the intervention of the sword-brandishing Sts. Peter and Paul) to Pope Gregory I, who led Catholics from 590 through famines, wars and plagues.
Pope Benedict XV, who led the Catholic Church during the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, also makes an appearance, with the book paying homage to his leadership of dioceses worldwide in helping those who were sick and suffering, before succumbing to the flu himself in 1922.
These popes are hailed as examples of leadership during troubling times. By including their stories along with the convivial joys of eating and feasting, the new book attempts to bring a glimpse of hope during the holidays, which for many were marked by solitude and sacrifices due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The time you will spend here is a unique moment in your life,” Pope Francis, who like his predecessor often brings gifts and food to the Guards, told new recruits in October of last year. “And I thank you not only for what you do — which is a lot! — but also for how you do it.”
The cookbook concludes with samples of global cuisine, from Egypt to Argentina to Switzerland — all, of course, with a focus on communal eating, standing in defiant hope against the socially distant realities of our shared present. These traditions have brought people together in the past, and hopefully, will do so once again in the future.