In today’s modern world, Christmas is a time where families and friends come together to celebrate and spend time off work enjoying one another’s company. Famously, Christmas is also a time where many of the old-fashioned traditions are in full-swing in the month of December, although these traditions vary hugely from country to country, particularly in Europe. For most of the European nations, Christmas is a time of present giving, carol singing and decoration hanging, although not every country celebrates December 25th quite like we do here in Britain…
Originating in Germany, Christmas Markets are one of the country’s oldest traditions, with history dating back to the late middle ages. Wooden street markets are erected in towns and cities across the country during the four weeks of Advent, with the most visited markets being in Berlin, Munich and Cologne, but there are hundreds of replica markets across the world too. Visitors can expect to see all sorts on offer at the markets, from fresh meats and cheeses to handmade clothing, jewellery and toys. Christmas in Germany is mainly celebrated on Christmas Eve, with the tree being put up and decorated in the morning, and present giving in the evening, after Church. The family dinner is either eaten late on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day, and is made up of carp, frankfurter sausages and soup.
Taking place on Christmas Eve, The Feast of St Nicholas starts off the Christmas celebrations in Austria. The tree is lit for the first time and families gather to sing Christmas carols while gifts that are placed under the tree are opened after dinner. According to Austrian Christmas tradition, it is the Christ Child who is the Santa figure; children write their present letters addressed to him, and it is him who brings the children their Christmas presents and decorates the Christmas tree. The main event of the night is The Christmas Eve dinner and fried carp is traditionally served for main, with the famous sachertorte (chocolate cake) and different types of chocolates served afterwards as dessert.
In the Roman Catholic areas of Poland, Christmas Eve usually begins with a day of fasting, followed by a night of feasting. Like that of the Austrian tradition, the Christmas meal in Poland is known as Wiglia (meaning The Vigil) and is made up of fried carp and beetroot soup, with other dishes including ravioli and potato salad. The appearance of the first star in the night sky on Christmas Eve marks the start of the Christmas celebrations; children eagerly wait for it to show and then cry out ‘the star has come!’ – only then can the family sit down and eat their meals. Christmas Eve ends with Midnight Mass at the local Church and is followed by early morning and then day time masses on Christmas Day.
Compared to other European countries, Christmas festivities take place early on in December, with the Hungarian version of St Nicholas visiting the homes of children on the night of the 5th of the month, the eve of Saint Nicholas Feast Day. On Christmas Eve, the day is generally a fasting day, whilst the tree is put up and decorated and is followed by the evening family meal of traditional Hungarian foods, such as fish soup and goulash. After the meal, local actors visit families and go from house to house re-enacting the birth of Christ (they refer to it as ‘playing Bethlehem’) and the actors receive gifts after each of their performances.
As opposed to an early celebration in Hungary, Christmas in Russia is not celebrated until the turn of the new year, on 7th January, due to the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian Calendars. Christmas in Russia is extremely religious, with many Church services taking place all day on Christmas Eve (6th Jan) and on Christmas morning too. During the later part of Christmas Eve, the family return home from Church for the traditional evening meal (The Holy Supper) consisting of 12 different dishes, one to honour each of the Twelve Disciples. For Russians, Christmas is a national ten-day holiday at the beginning of every new year.
Declared a national holiday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception takes place in Italy each year on 8th December, with the Christmas tree and decorations being hung in towns, villages and cities across the country on this day. Like other European cultures, there is a strong emphasis on religion and most citizens attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, with bonfires being lit to ‘warm the Baby Jesus’. Dinner that evening consists mainly of sea food, not meat, with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, followed by traditional Italian sweets and cakes. Christmas Day itself is celebrated by having a family lunch with different meats and cheeses for the main course.
Over here in the UK, we like to do Christmas a little differently. Towns and cities across the country are adorned with festive banners, Christmas trees and twinkling lights as early as November, and there is a big lead up to the day itself, with pantomimes and nativity plays throughout the whole of December. On Christmas Eve it is common for many to attend Midnight Mass services at Churches, with Father Christmas visiting the children that night. Traditionally on Christmas Day, children open their presents first thing in the morning, and the family meal is eaten in the afternoon, consisting of roast turkey with vegetables and roast potatoes followed by a Christmas pudding.
So there we have it, 7 different European Christmas Traditions that may surprise you! I hadn’t heard of many of them before, so it’s fascinating to know how other cultures and countries celebrate the big day! Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!
By Jessica from Journeys With Jessica