Christmas Traditions Across Europe

Not every European country decks the halls with boughs of holly. The Christmas traditions across Europe are as varied as the landscapes that they are all set in. We were curious to learn about some of these celebrations and asked some of our friends across the continent what they looked forward to most at Christmas time.

AUSTRIA

Manarola, Cinque Terre, nativity scene.Hot spiced wine & dried pear bread, Christmas Market, Seefeld Tyrol. Austrian National Tourist Office / Kresser Gunter The last month of the year in Austria is dominated by the customs and traditions of Christmas, including Christmas markets selling Christmas decorations, pastries, gingerbread and Gluhwein (a sweet, warm mulled wine). The Christmas markets in Vienna, Innsbruck, and Salzburg are so spectacular that people come from all over the world to visit them. While the feast of St Nicholas (the giver of gifts) on December 6 officially marks the beginning of the Austrian Christmas, it is the "Kristkindl", a golden haired baby with wings who brings presents to the children. Youngsters are taught that the Christ child comes down from heaven on Christmas Eve and, with his band of angels, decorates the trees and distributes the presents. In Austria, Christmas Eve is much more important than Christmas Day. It's on this day that farmers chalk the initials of the Three Wise Men on the archway of the stable door (C for Caspar, M for Melchoir and B for Balthazer) to protect their herds from sickness in the coming years, shops are closed, and people gather in church towers and town squares to sing carols. On Christmas Eve, Austrian families attend church services and then return home for a traditional Christmas dinner, after which a bell is rung, and the Christmas tree, adorned with gold and silver ornaments, stars made from straw, and sweets and biscuits wrapped in tinfoil, is lit for the first time and gifts are exchanged. Frohe Weihnachten!

ITALY

Manarola, Cinque Terre, nativity scene.The Manarola Presepe in the Cinque Terre is the world's largest. Image courtesy of Miriam Rossignoli Traditionally, Christmas trees go up and a religious feast is enjoyed on the 8th of December to celebrate the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. On Christmas Eve, children across the country leave out a glass of wine and cake for Babbo Natale (Father Christmas). In some cities, like Trieste, San Nicolò (Santa Klaus) brings presents on December 6, while in Verona the tradition of Santa Lucia sees the whole city celebrate with Christmas markets and children receiving presents on December 13. Across Italy the nativity scene, Presepe, is a very popular and widespread tradition with most churches and even many homes taking part. Some towns even host competitions for the best one. Children add small statues to recreate the manger at the time of Christ’s birth with the statue of the baby Jesus only added on Christmas Eve. The traditional Italian cakes eaten through the season include Pandoro, originally from Verona, and Panettone, from Milan, both sweet breads with raisins and candied fruit included in the Panettone. On Christmas Day, the hero dish is roasted capon (cockerel). Buon Natale!

CZECH REPUBLIC

Christmas tree lights up the square in Prague.Christmas tree lights up the square in Prague. Advent, the period of fasting that begins four weeks before Christmas holidays, is the most eagerly awaited time of year for many Czechs as it means the preparations for Christmas can begin. Some of the most intriguing holidays include St. Barbara’s Day on December 4, when Barborky used to be observed. According to folklore a branch from a ten year old cherry tree had to be be cut when the first ray of sun fell on it. It was then taken to the house of an unmarried girl and if it blossomed on Christmas Eve the girl would find a groom in the coming year. Barborky is still a typical pre-Christmas decoration found in many homes. In Bohemia, children place stockings in their windows on St. Barbara’s Day eve, into which St. Barbara puts small sweets for the nice children or either coal, rocks or potatoes for the naughty ones! On Christmas Eve, fairy tales are told and houses all over the Czech Republic are decorated with mistletoe and of course a Christmas tree. Traditions include an all-day fast (it is said that whoever lasts until the evening will see a golden pig), the casting of lead (to tell the future from the shape of the cast piece), or the throwing of a slipper (if it lands with the toes pointing at the door, it means that the girl in the house will marry within a year). Meatless dishes are served for lunch – peas, barley, or a mushroom casserole. Once the first star comes out, families sit for their Christmas Eve dinner of fish soup and fried carp with potato salad. There is always an extra plate set in case somebody drops by. On Christmas, families meet for lunch made of roast duck or goose with dumplings and cabbage. If you put a carp scale under your plate it will bring you good luck for the year ahead. Other unique Czech Christmas traditions include; placing a candle in a nutshell and then in water, if it doesn’t sink it’s good luck for the year ahead; and cutting apples crosswise if you find a star inside it’s good luck. Ježíšku panáčku!

SLOVENIA

City centre of Ljubljana at ChristmasCity centre of Ljubljana at Christmas. Image by Vid Gajšek via Wikimedia.org Around 60% of Slovenians are Christians and typically only this part of the Slovenian population celebrates Christmas. For many other non-Christian Slovenians New Year’s Eve is celebrated, instead of Christmas, however, the family gets together on January 2 for the celebratory meal. The coming together of the family at Christmas dinner is the main highlight for many of those who do celebrate Christmas. Dinner consists of soup, a rolled pork roast with potatoes and sauerkraut, or roast goose with baked potatoes and red cabbage. Potica, a Slovenian walnut cake, and apple strudel are enjoyed for dessert. Children in Slovenia can receive gifts from St. Nicholas, Baby Jesus, Santa Claus, or Grandfather Frost. St. Nicholas visits on St. Nicholas Day, December 6. Santa Claus or Baby Jesus visits on Christmas while Grandfather, or Father, Frost may appear on New Year. Vesel božič!

THE NETHERLANDS

Sinterklaas parade on the canals of Amsterdam.Sinterklaas parade on the canals of Amsterdam. Image courtesy of melalouise The Sinterklaas holiday on December 5 is the tradition most children look forward to. Before going to bed kids place a shoe down the chimney (zetten hun schoen), fill it with a carrot and hay and then sing Sinterklaas songs. The next morning they wake up very early to find a present and ‘pepernoten’ (a spiced small biscuit). Many companies also share in the festive spirit in December by rewarding employees with a ‘kerstpakket’ (Christmas box) that traditionally contains groceries like lobster soup, bread sticks, ragout & patties, candles, crisps and maybe even a bottle of mulled wine. However like so many other countries in Europe and elsewhere, it’s the Advent calendar in the Netherlands where kids receive a chocolate a day leading up to Christmas, as well as the main Christmas meal that is embraced by almost all members of society. Christmas dinner in the Netherlands typically includes either a roulade with trimmings or a raclette dinner. Gelukkig Kerstfeest!  

GERMANY

Traditional Christmas market in Jena, GermanyTraditional Christmas market in Jena, Germany. Image courtesy of Rene Schwietzke. For most Germans the one colourful tradition is the Christmas market. Beginning mostly in late November in almost every city, town or village in Germany, Christmas markets will pop up on the local square and often in several other locations with beautifully decorated stalls, entertainment and all kinds of delicious foods like Glühwein (mulled wine) & roasted chestnuts. The lively markets are definitely a reason to come and get a taste of Christmas in Europe. Heiligabend (Christmas Eve) is the main day where presents are exchanged. Traditionally, a small meal like potato salad with small sausages (Frankfurter/Wiener Würstchen) or carp are served before the opening of gifts. Christmas Day is celebrated with huge banquets. Traditional Christmas dishes consist of plump roast goose or duck, "Christstollen" (long bread loaves stuffed with nuts, raisins, citron, and dried fruit), Lebkuchen (spice bars), marzipan, and Dresden Stollen (a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit). Frohe Weihnachten!

FRANCE

Decorations at a French Christmas fair in StrasbourgDecorations at a French Christmas fair in Strasbourg. Image courtesy of Anna & Michal. Like most other countries in Europe, Christmas in France is all about getting together with families. As you would expect in France, the Christmas meal is something to behold with a Christmas turkey served with pommes dauphine (sometimes referred to as dauphine potatoes; crisp potato puffs made by mixing mashed potatoes with savory choux pastry), green beans rolled in bacon and some chestnuts. And it wouldn’t be a French Christmas without some good red wine of course! Several days before Christmas the towns and villages of France take on a festive air. Town hall facades are decorated, huge trees are erected in the major squares and the main streets begin to dazzle with a wonderful array of Christmas lights. Joyeux Noël!

ICELAND

The lights in the sky are the real attraction during an Icelandic Christmas.The lights in the sky are the real attraction in Iceland at Christmas. Image courtesy of Andrés Nieto Porras Because the days are so short and dark the Christmas lights are put up early in Iceland. Icelanders celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December. The hero dish varies across households with people choosing to eat either ptarmigan, lamb or pork steak. On Christmas day the traditional meal that most Icelanders enjoy is smoked lamb (hangikjöt) served with leaf bread (Laufabrauð). The leaf bread is a hard, deep fried, thin bread that families get together to bake, cutting decorative patterns in the dough. Learn how to cook your own here. Baking holds a special place in Iceland at Christmas time as it provides an opportunity for families and friends to do something together while the kids dance around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. There are 13 Santas, or Yule lads, in Iceland with each providing children a small present in their shoe for each of the 13 nights before Christmas. If the kids are naughty they get an old potato. This tradition has helped to ensure guaranteed good behaviour for the second part of December! Gleðileg Jól!

ENGLAND

The Harrod's Christmas decorations are legendary. The Harrod's Christmas decorations are legendary. Image courtesy of Nan Palmero Being with family and sharing a meal is the one thing most English people look forward to at Christmas. The Christmas meal is always a highlight - a turkey with bacon on top and all the trimmings like potatoes, carrots, brussel sprouts and let’s not forget the plum pudding for dessert. The Christmas pantomime is quite unique to the UK, where many of the television stars (including soap stars from the Australian shows Home & Away and Neighbours) dress up, with men dressing as women and vice versa, to bring extra cheer to the season. The most anticipated event in England however is the Royal Variety Performance which is attended by the Queen and other members of the British Royal Family. Merry Christmas!    
Austria, Christmas traditions, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy

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