- Culture & Society
Different Christmas Traditions in Europe
06 Dec 2021
When you think of Christmas, you think of the chubby Santa Claus with a red suit and a long white beard, the prototypical image made famous by Coca Cola since the 1930s. In Europe, however, there are countless Christmas traditions that have grown out of Christian and pagan traditions alike. Santa Claus or Father Christmas does not play a role in all countries. Important figures for Christmas in Europe are also the Christ Child, St. Nicholas, angels and other mythical creatures. Find out in this article about different Christmas traditions in Europe
In the Netherlands, the most important day for Christmas is 6 December, St. Nicholas Day. On the last Sunday in November, St. Nicholas arrives in the Netherlands by ship from Spain. Therefore, on this day, children put their wish list in a wooden shoe. Next to it they put a glass of water, a carrot and some hay so that St. Nicholas' horse is well fed. The next day they find sweets in their shoes and a poem listing the child's good and bad deeds.
The day before St. Nicholas' name day, on 5 December, a sack is placed in front of the door, which is then filled with presents in the evening. The next evening there is a big family party. The Christmas season ends in the Netherlands on 6 January with the day of the Three Wise Men.
In Romania, Christmas is a thoroughly Christian celebration. 24 December, the day Jesus was born, is the most important day in Romania. People fast all day long, then break the fast with a feast in the evening with the whole family. They often have cabbage rolls with polenta at Christmas. In addition, the clergy of the community go from door to door with pictures of the saints.
In Bulgaria, food plays a big role at Christmas. On Christmas Eve, 24 December, a huge feast is served. There are at least 12 dishes, each representing a month of the year. The more that is put on the table, the more food you will have the next year. A special feature is that the Christmas meal is completely meatless.
In addition to Christmas, the Danish celebrate Lucia, the Festival of Lights, on 13 December. In the Middle Ages, this day marked the winter solstice, i.e. the days became longer again and the light returned. For the Festival of Lights, it is customary for Lucia, dressed all in white with a wreath of candles on her head, to light up the rooms. She is followed by children, also dressed in white with a candle in their hands.
On 24 December, many people in Denmark go to church and then enjoy the festive meal at home. This usually consists of poultry, red cabbage and potatoes. A speciality in Denmark is the dessert at Christmas: a kind of rice pudding with cherry sauce called Risalamande, in which a whole almond is hidden. Whoever finds it gets a present.
Finland is considered the home of Santa Claus (in Finnish: Joulupukki). He lives in Korvatunturi mountain, to which no one has yet been able to find the secret entrance. Korva, by the way, means ear in Finnish - the mountain where Santa lives is supposed to be shaped like an ear so that Santa can hear the wishes of all the children. Of course, Santa doesn't live there alone; he gets help from his wife and countless Christmas elves throughout the year to make all the Christmas presents. Santa even has his own post office in Finland, which receives letters from all over the world.
The festivities in Finland mainly take place on 24 December. On this day, the Christmas Truce is proclaimed in Turku, the former Finnish capital, which has been a firm tradition for 500 years. The afternoon is dedicated to the deceased and the graves in the cemeteries are festively decorated. In the evening there is a big feast with the family.
In Britain, many of the Christmas traditions go back to pagan customs. Mistletoe, for example, has long had a special significance in the rituals of the Druids, as have the red berries of the holly. The Christmas log (the Yule Log) was already burned by the Vikings to worship the god Thor, and this tradition has continued in England to this day, even though Norse mythology no longer plays a role here.
A British tradition that has now become established throughout the world is that of writing Christmas cards. In Britain, over a billion Christmas cards are sent to friends and relatives every year.
The Christmas tree can also be found in homes at Christmas. Prince Albert brought this tradition with him from Germany. Christmas Eve is all about music with choirs going from house to house. After the presents are opened on the morning of 25 December, there are many delicacies all day long. From plum pudding and Christmas cake to turkey and roast beef. On the table, you'll find a Christmas cracker next to each place setting. Not forgetting, of course, the Queen's Christmas address, which many Britons watch on television.
In France, 24 December is the most important day for Christmas celebrations. People feast all night and then many go to church for midnight mass. Father Christmas in France is called Père Noel and he secretly comes down the chimney to put the presents in the shoes which are opened after mass.
In Greece, it is a tradition for children to parade through the streets with their instruments to bring blessings and good luck to the houses. On both 24 December and 1 January, the children make music in this way to earn small rewards from the inhabitants of the houses.
In Greece, the presents are not brought by Father Christmas, but by Saint Basilius, who has his name day on 1 January. That is why the presents, the festive roast (stuffed turkey) and the Basilius bread are given on this day. Whoever finds a golden coin in the Basilius bread will be especially lucky next year.
During the Christmas season, Christmas fires burn everywhere to drive away the goblins who want to play tricks on people. So to have a peaceful Christmas, in Greece the fires burn from 24 December to 6 January.
Italians revive an old dispute every year at Christmas. There are those who decorate their house with a Christmas tree. The other camp insists that there must be a nativity scene in every house. The nativity scene is so important because in Italy, 6 January is the most important day. On this day, the Three Wise Men arrived to see the Christ Child. Children receive presents from the ugly but wise witch Befana in Italy. Just like the Three Wise Men, Befana is on the lookout for the Christ Child and enters every house through the chimney.
Of the many mythical creatures in Iceland, the 13 trolls that visit people in the days leading up to Christmas Eve are very important for Christmas. They all have different characteristics and preferences that Icelanders take into account when preparing for the trolls' arrival. For example, some trolls like sausage tails or unwashed cooking spoons that they can lick off. When the trolls are satisfied, they leave small gifts.
The morning of 24 December belongs to the deceased, so the graves are festively decorated. In the evening, Christmas is then ushered in by the ringing of bells and the gifts are presented at the decorated Christmas tree.
In Norway, children are given presents by Julenissen, little Christmas goblins. They find the presents under the Christmas tree, which is decorated behind closed doors. The children's excitement is often immeasurable, because they are not allowed to see the Christmas tree until after the festive meal. Before the presents are opened, everyone joins hands, sings and dances around the Christmas tree. Christmas beer is especially important in Norway, and fresh cod and rice porridge are not to be missed.
In Hungary, too, fish or fish soup is eaten at Christmas. The presents are given on 24 December. However, the presents are not brought by Father Christmas, but by angels.
In Poland, people fast on 24 December until the first star appears in the sky. Wafers with pictures printed on them are common in Poland. These are shared after the reading of the Christmas Gospel and distributed to the whole family as a sign of love and reconciliation. In addition, there is always an extra place setting on the table in case unexpected visitors arrive.
In Spain, children are given presents by the Three Wise Men on 6 January. The day before, there is a big procession of the three kings through the city and in almost every house you will find a lovingly decorated nativity scene with wooden figures.
It is also customary for children to go out into the streets before Christmas with instruments and sing to ask passers-by for donations.
In Russia, St Nicholas is the most important figure at Christmas. After the communist revolution, however, he was replaced by Father Frost. After all Christian holidays were abolished during this period, the New Year is the central holiday in Russia. However, it is very similar to Christmas in other countries. For example, there is a decorated tree called the New Year tree, and Father Frost and his granddaughter Snow Maiden bring presents.
Since the Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, Christmas falls on 7 January. A strict period of fasting begins 40 days before Christmas and is not broken until 6 January. Therefore, on this day, believers celebrate the end of the fast and the beginning of Christmas with a midnight mass, and on 7 January, the celebrations take place with the family.
As you can see, there are many different customs throughout Europe that are not only based on the Christian celebration of Christmas, but date back to times when Christianity was not yet widespread in Europe. Do you have your own experiences with Christmas traditions in Europe? Then let us know here in the comments or write to [email protected]!
Written by: Tanja Holbe
Cover Photo: made with Canva
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