Before the birth of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, there already existed a range of festive winter celebrations across the world. The religious significance of Christmas has, nonetheless, played an enormous part in shaping how we celebrate the time of year today – as has the commercialization of Christmas that the U.S.A sparked during its 19th century industrial revolution. With globalisation, traditions are merging and becoming more similar – but fascinating differences remain in the way that different countries celebrate Christmas, even within the same continent. Below are some unique European traditions that you may not have known about.
England has played a big part in shaping the USA’s interpretation of Christmas, and has thereby influenced the global commercialisation of Christmas. Whilst chopping down trees and decorating them for the home was a tradition that had existed long before Christmas, it was Prince Albert (the German husband of Queen Victoria) who helped entrench this tradition as intrinsically tied to Christmas celebrations. After an illustration of the tree Prince Albert and Queen Victoria had decorated at Windsor Castle was published in a popular women’s magazine in the US, the practise really took off in North America and the modern day concept of a ‘Christmas tree’ was born.
English writer Charles Dickens also played a role in defining the spirit of Christmas through his classic novel, ‘A Christmas Carol’. The story was intended to show Victorian society how Christmas could be an opportunity to do good and charitable things for your fellow man. The book became widely influential. In England, television and radio adaptations of the story are broadcast throughout December.
In the weeks up until Christmas, it is common for school children and church goers to sing carols for an audience. Children will also write letters to Father Christmas in which they give a ‘wish list’ for presents. On Christmas Eve, young children leave out a plate of mince pies and a glass of milk for Father Christmas (plus a carrot for Rudolph!) in anticipation for his visit during the night.
On Christmas Day, family members will come together, exchange gifts, watch television and play party games such as charades. Essential components of the classic Christmas dinner in England include a stuffed Turkey with cranberry jam, parsnips, sprouts, roast potatoes, carrots, bacon rolls and gravy. Sweets, meanwhile, come in the form of Christmas pudding, mince pies, Christmas trifle and boxes of chocolate from popular brands such as Quality Street and After Eight.
Before Christianity gave the Italians Christmas, a holiday called Saturnalia was celebrated in Rome. In homage to Saturn, the God of agriculture, the Romans would eat, drink, dance and make exceptions to the otherwise strict law enforcement.
Today, Christmas celebrations in Italy usually start days eight days before Christmas Day. During this time, church services and prayers known as ‘Novenas’ are held in cities and villages.
Christmas in Italy is a very family-orientated holiday, with relatives coming together to cook large amounts of food, including fish and pasta dishes. The most common type of seafood for Christmas dinner will differ depending on which area of Italy you find yourself in, however codfish is perhaps the most popular. Italians also have a wide variety of Christmas sweets, often enjoyed with a mug of hot chocolate after church service. Struffoli, venetian layered fingers, pandoro, panettone, biscotti, panforte, cantuccini, raffiolo, semifreddo – all of these quintessential Italian treats are regularly eaten around Christmas time. After Christmas dinner and coffee, Italian families come together for games. Children sometimes play Tombola (a type of bingo), whilst adults might gamble pennies with poker variants such as five card stud.
When it comes to Christmas cribs, Naples is the most famous place to get a nativity scene decoration. The Neapolitan Cribs are extremely detailed and beautiful, crafted by artists who sell their work at markets in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Most Italian households will have a nativity scene on display throughout December, even if it’s just a small decoration on the windowsill.
In some parts of Italy, the 6th of January (or ‘Epiphany Day’) is the day on which children receive most of their gifts. Children wait for an old lady called ‘Befana’ to visit their home and put presents in their stockings. For most children, however, the main day for receiving gifts is Christmas Day itself, after having been paid a visit from ‘Babbo Natale’ (Santa) during previous night.
In Germanic mythology, Odin was a feared but respected God associated with healing, death and sorcery. Pagans believed that he would fly across the sky throughout the winter to observe the people beneath, deciding who deserved to prosper and who deserved to suffer. Odin is believed to have been one of the many influences that has formed our modern day vision of Father Christmas, or Santa. Germany underwent gradual Christianization following the fall of the Roman Empire.
In some parts of Germany it is a winged figure by the name of Christkind who brings presents to children. Decorated letters are left on windowsills by children who want to request a gift from Christkind. There is, however, also a figure called Weihnachtsmann in Germany, who is more similar to the traditional image of Santa Claus. On the 6th of December, some Germans celebrate Nikolaustag (St Claus Day). Tradition goes that children leave a boot outside their door on the night of the 5th, and then wake up to find either presents or (if they’ve been bad) a rod. Advent candle displays are also very big in Germany, with one candle being lit for each week leading up until Christmas Day.
Germany’s love for Christmas markets will immediately become apparent upon visiting the country during winter. German markets are famous all over the world for being cosy, warming places full of wooden stalls that sell meats, sweets, decorations, handmade items, woolly clothes and toys.
A peculiar tradition which is said to have roots in Germany, and possibly Ukraine, is the legend of the Christmas spider. Back when Christmas trees came from forests and not factories, it was not uncommon to find a spider lurking amidst the branches. This was considered a sign of good luck, and inspired folklore about good things happening to people who’d found spiders in their tree. If you’ve ever seen spider web ornament for Christmas trees – this is the legend on which it is based.
Finally, there’s Krampus. The terrifying half-goat, half-demon creature is the opposite of Santa, as he visits children only when they have behaved badly, punishing or scaring them into being better behaved next year.
When it comes to Christmas food, Germany prides itself on a very distinct and famous set of staple dishes and sweets. Lebkuchen, yulelog, stollen, baked apple, rum pot, spritzgebäck are all classic German sweets eaten around Christmas time. The Germans are also keen on making gingerbread houses. The traditional Christmas can might include duck, goose or rabbit, and will usually be accompanied by apple sauce, red cabbage and potatoes.
St Lucia Day is an integral aspect of Christmas celebrations in Sweden. St Lucia was a martyr who died for her faith. The young girl was said to have brought food for persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs of Rome, with candles on her head so that she could carry as much sustenance as possible in her hands. Swedish schools and churches often organise St Lucia concerts in which girls dress up as the saint and sing carols. During this time it is also common to eat a special type of saffron bun called ‘Lussebulle’.
Besides lussebullar, Swedes eat a lot of cinnamon buns and pepparkakor throughout December, typically enjoyed with a mug of mulled wine or glass of julmust. Food is central to the Christmas experience in Sweden just as it is in most places, with the iconic ‘julbord’ featuring everything from glazed ham, sausages, meatballs, herring and salmon to rye bread, eggs, potatoes and beetroot. During the cold winter months, children often eat a bowl of rice pudding in the mornings before school. They might also stick cloves in oranges to hang as a fragrant decoration around the home.
Each year, there is a Swedish tradition of erecting a large straw goat in the town of Gävle. Unfortunately, recent years has also seen a tradition of people finding ways to burn down the goat prior to Christmas. Each year, authorities make an attempt to prevent any mischievous arson attacks on the enormous straw goat, but the tradition of setting it aflame has become so accepted amongst Swedes that it’s almost a formal tradition.
Sweden’s version of Santa is Jultomten, who can sometimes be spotted with his reindeer at Christmas markets, handing out sweets to children. He doesn’t come during the night in Sweden. Rather, he visits during the day of the 24th, bringing presents for the children. Children aren’t allowed to open their present until the afternoon, however. To help pass the time until they can unwrap their gifts, families will watch an hour-long annual show that is broadcast on Swedish television each Christmas, comprised of segments from classic Disney films and Donald Duck cartoons. Millions of Swedes watch this every year, and since it’s always the same, many of them have the entire thing memorised from start to finish!