Around the world, Christmas is celebrated by many different people in many different places in many different lands. Many cultures have shared traditions, yet each culture has their own unique beliefs and traditions that are celebrated during this special season. Having lived in Europe for several years now, I have been privileged to see and experience several European countries during the Advent Season. With some of these beliefs and customs so special, their story must be told. Here are some of the unique traditions and experiences that I have observed during my travels around Europe.
Vienna at Christmas is absolutely stunning! The imperial city is very beautiful in its own right. However, at Christmas, Vienna pulls out all of the stops to welcome in the Advent Season. Cakes, cakes, and even more cakes will welcome the traveler to Christmas in Austria. The Sachertorte (a chocolate and apricot cake) and Weihnachtsbaeckerei (Christmas cookies as big as cakes) are two of the most traditional Christmastime sweets. Every café and bakery have these tempting sweets on display to tease the person passing by. It is nearly impossible to go one full day with indulging in these delicious cakes.
The hustle and bustle of Vienna is augmented with many roads and squares decorated with Christmas Lights of all colors and sizes. It seems as if the entire city has rolled out a carpet of lights that give it a charm that no other city in the world can boast of having. It is, simply put, Yuletide in all its glory on display for everyone to behold. Furthermore, in every square are stands selling Christmas Trees, which are grander and fuller than anywhere else I have seen in Europe! These Christmas trees in their fullness and height take on the characteristics of their host city, the regal and grandiose Vienna. All in all, Christmastime in Austria and Vienna will delight the visitor and bid them to welcome in the Advent season like no other place can in the world.
Christmas is a very special time in the Czech Republic and is full of kapr (carp), Bramborový Salát (Potato Salad), and Christmas cookies. Every family has their own secret and special recipe for all of these delicious foods (and every family claim THEIR recipe is the best in the Czech Republic!). Christmas is celebrated on 24 December and is welcomed in by family gathering together for a very large and delicious dinner. After dinner, Ježíšek (Baby Jesus) puts presents under the Christmas Tree for the children and announces his presence by the ringing of a small bell. No one can answer what the baby looks like, nor how the presents arrive, but they somehow do. (I have asked several Czechs and the only answer I have received form them all is that Jesus is Jesus and the presents simply appear.) Christmas is indeed a jolly time all around the Czech Republic.
However, a more unique event takes places three weeks before Christmas. The charming tradition of Mikuláš (St. Nicholas) is celebrated on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, 5 December. If you find yourself walking the streets on that evening in any village in the Czech Republic, you may run into a group of strange characters: Mikuláš (St. Nicholas), anděl (the Angel) representing good, and čert (the Devil) representing evil. All three of these people wear costumes. (Mikuláš looks a bit like Santa Claus whose origin was traditionally inspired by St. Nicholas.) These characters walk the streets, stopping children and asking them if they were good in the past year. Most kids say yes and sing a song or recite a short poem. They are then rewarded with sweets, candy or other treats, which are handed out by the Angel. Bad kids are put into the Devil’s sack (and taken to hell), or only get a sack of potatoes or coal instead of candy. Children also receive Mikuláš presents from their parents and relatives. The gift, such as sweets and chocolates, can be put into a stocking and hidden somewhere in the child’s room. Every village and city center truly comes alive with people during this night. All in all, it is a must see for anyone wanting to experience a uniquely Czech celebration.
Christmas is a time that commemorates the Christian event of the birth of Jesus Christ. In Liberal France, this long-established custom is also surprisingly observed as nearly every French home at Christmastime displays a Crèche (Nativity Scene), which serves as the focus for the Christmas celebration. The crèche is often filled with little clay figures called Santons (little saints). These Nativity Scenes are very lavish, and in addition to the usual Holy Family, shepherds, and Magi, the families also have figures in the form of local dignitaries and characters bearing witness to the nativity of Jesus.
The main Christmas meal, called Réveillon, is eaten on Christmas Eve and includes roast goose or duck with chestnuts, oysters, foie gras, lobster, venison, and cheeses. For dessert, a Bûche de Noël (a chocolate sponge cake Yule Log) is normally eaten. Many French people spend hundreds and hundreds of Euros on their Christmas meal, as they will buy top quality ingredients and the perfect wine to accompany each course of the dinner. It is impressive how this one meal receives such attention and care in its preparation. All of this makes it the perfect way to celebrate this special holiday; the delicious food and the top notch wine accompanying each delicacy make it one of the best times to visit France!
One lovely tradition that is unique to France is the tradition of le Petit Jésus (the Baby Jesus). Once dinner is over and the family goes to bed, they leave a fire burning and food and drink on the table in case the Virgin Mary stops by. Children leave their sabots (Wooden clog shoes…think traditional Dutch shoes) in the hearth for le Petit Jésus (the Baby Jesus) to fill with small toys and candy. (In modern France, some families have replaced the tradition with Père Noël (Father Christmas or Santa Claus) filling the shoes rather than the Baby Jesus). This unique tradition of wooden shoes being filled by the Baby Jesus coupled with the incredible extravagance of the Christmas Dinner make France a must see for Christmas.
Germany is a country that has long been associated with Christmas and many beautiful Christmas traditions. It is from this marvelous country that we get such things as the Christmas Tree, Fruitcake, and the Advent Calendar. Visions of quaint village folk gathered around a candle lit tree singing Christmas songs come to mind of any Anglophone thinking of Germany at Christmas. Even though these and many more traditions have traveled around the world and been adopted by many cultures, Germany is still best-known for its holiday spirit filled Weihnachtsmärkt, or Christmas Market. (I know that Christmas Markets have sprang up across the world in recent years, nevertheless the Germans do them best!)
During this time of the year, every city and village no matter how big or small has at least one Christmas Market, usually found in the main square of the city. (Dresden has 10!) These markets are packed full of many different kinds of Christmas decorations, Nussknacker (Nutcrackers), and Weihnachtspyramiden (Christmas Pyramids) for sale. Even more importantly, several special baked goods, such as Lebkuchen (Gingerbread Cookies) and Stollen (powdered sugar covered Fruitcake) can be found among the wooden stalls tempting the passerby to give in to the urge and enjoy a little piece of heaven on earth. Smells of Bratwurt and Glühwein (Mulled Wine) float through the air, as its chill nips at your nose. These sights, smells, tastes, and sounds awaken and delight every sense that the visitor has. Walking through these crowded, but gorgeous markets, you can feel the holiday spirit coming alive and dancing through every nook and cranny of the square. Christmastime in Germany is indeed a magical and vibrant season.
Christmas in Italy is filled with friends and family, and it is one of the perfect times to experience the best of Italian cuisine! To prepare and purify their bodies for the holy event of Christmas, Italians avoid eating meat during la Vigilia (Christmas Eve) on 24 December. Although the idea is to eat a small meal, most people indulge on dinners of multiple courses of fish and seafood. (Yes, I know that fish is meat too, but Italians insist that it is different.) These large meals sometimes include as many as seven to ten courses! On Christmas Day, 25 December, Italians invite their family and friends for a large lunch that usually lasts all day. Many save up money far in advance to have the most lavish celebration possible, serving up traditional dishes like tortellini in brodo (pasta in broth), several roast meats, salad, more pasta, and sweet bread desserts such as panettone and pandoro. Celebrations often extend into 26 December with the national holiday of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen). On this day, families get together yet again and eat leftover Christmas food and sweets. Needless to say that Christmas in Italy isn’t for the calorie conscious. However, the food that is prepared over these three days is the best in Europe! Every dish is made from fresh ingredients and from recipes that have been passed down for generations. This coupled with the good company, wonderful wine, and the animation of Italians when telling multiple stories make Christmas in Italy the Merriest in Europe!
It is therefore no surprise that one of the most unique traditions of the Christmas season takes place in Italy. Italian children wait until Epiphany, 6 January, for their presents. According to tradition, the gifts are delivered by a kind and ugly witch on a broomstick called La Befana. Tradition says that she was told by the three kings that the baby Jesus was born. But, she was busy and delayed visiting the baby. Because the guiding star was not visible anymore when she left for Bethlehem, she lost her way flying to the Holy City and has been flying around lost ever since, leaving presents at every house along the way with children in case the Baby Jesus is there. She slides down chimneys, and fills stockings and shoes with gifts and candy for good children or leaves coal for children who are not so good. If you are in Italy around this time, nearly every shop and house have small withes hanging up and every child is talking to their parents about the upcoming visit of the good witch La Befana.
Christmas is definitely the most beautiful time of the year to visit Europe. Many different traditions are on display to fill the air with the Christmas Spirit like no other place in the world. It is a very beautiful and magical time to experience a Christmas season like you have never had before. The melding of the ancient and modern to make one Holiday so special is simply amazing! So, jump on a plane and come and experience it for yourself! From Europe, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays wherever in the world you may be!
(For these and many more pictures from Christmas in Europe, please visit my Album “Christmas in Europe” here on my website.)