Christmas in Europe
As a general rule, the Christmas season in Europe begins in early December and lasts through January 6. The celebration is marked by beautiful and expansive Nativity scenes, delicious feasts, and the observance of Epiphany. Though each culture has its unique customs and rituals, there are elements that unify the holiday for all within a given country.
For the French, the winter holiday (known as Noël, from an expression meaning “day of birth”) begins on December 6, St. Nicholas’s Day. St. Nicholas’s Day is celebrated most heartily in the provinces, particularly in Lorraine, as it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave Lorraine to Nicholas as a gift; he is its patron saint. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children; little ones throughout France leave out their shoes in the hope that St. Nicholas will leave gifts of nuts and candy during his night visit.
Unlike the American Santa, Pere Noel is tall, dresses in a long red robe, and travels with a sack and a donkey. Though Pere Noel is not seen in department stores as often as Santa is in the United States, he too can be contacted by sending letters to the North Pole.
French homes are known for their crèches, or Nativity displays, which are meant to look as realistic and beautiful as possible. Some contain santons (little saints) representing people in the Nativity. Santons came to France in the 1800s from Italy, by way of Italian merchants. The figures are made of clay, and in most cases, are clothed with fabric.
Flowers are another staple decoration in the French home during the holiday season. Lush arrangements of roses, gladioli, carnations, and snapdragons are often found on the table or next to the fireplace, as are poinsettias, hyacinths, azaleas, and Christmas begonia plants. Some houses assign a special place on the table a bouquet the hellebore, or Christmas Rose.
The arrival of Christmas Eve sees the infant Jesus taking his place in the family crèche after a small ceremony. Little children are put to bed, hoping that the gifts they ask for will be left by Père Noël. Previously, Petit Jesus, or Little Jesus, was the one who came to children on Christmas Eve. Later, the visitor was the spirit of Christmas, Père Noël. In present-day France, most children believe Jesus sends Père Noël in his place.
After the children are in bed, the older members of the family head off to midnight Mass. Along the way there are often processions re-enacting the Nativity, some of which end in living crèches (where people play out the manger scene). The midnight Mass itself is very important in France, and almost everyone attends.
At the Mass’s conclusion, all head home to begin the reveillon (awakening), which is the grand Christmas Eve feast. The feast may have as many as fifteen courses, ranging from soups, fruits, salads, meats, fish, and chicken to cheese, breads, nuts, pastry, and candy. The reveillon often lasts the entire night, with no time for the adults to sleep before the children wander down to open their gifts. The adults wait to exchange their gifts on New Year’s Day, though some villages near the Spanish border mix Spanish and French traditions and open gifts on January 6.
Gift giving in Belgium traditionally takes place on December 6. In French-speaking areas, it’s Père Noël who brings the gifts, while in Walloon-speaking areas, it’s more likely to be St. Nicholas himself, who makes a quick visit two days beforehand to take a look around and gauge children’s behavior. On December 6, good children can expect special treats, while bad ones can look for sticks in the shoes that they’ve left out to be filled.
An area of the country known as Flanders is famous for its Nativity plays, which are performed with great care and attention to tradition. Three men who are chosen for their good behavior during the year dress as Magi and walk through the town. They sing songs at each house and are rewarded with snacks. Belgium is also known for its processions on Christmas Eve, which wind through town until they reach the church for midnight mass.
Italy is the birthplace of the manger scene, or presepio, which is filled with clay figures called pastori. It rightfully holds a place of distinction in the Italian Christmas, dating back almost eight centuries to the time of St. Francis of Assisi.
The ceppo is an Italian version of the Christmas tree. Made of wood, the ceppo gives the appearance of a ladder, with shelves linking two sides. The bottom shelf contains a presepio; other shelves contain gifts and decorations.
Italian children receive gifts twice during this season. The Christ Child is said to bring small gifts on Christmas Eve, but the more anticipated gift giving is from La Befana, who comes down the chimney on Epiphany Eve to leave goodies in shoes. Legend has it that La Befana was the woman who declined the Wise Men’s offer to accompany them on their journey to see the Christ Child. Regretting her decision later, she set out to bring the Child gifts, but, as she never found Him, she leaves gifts for other children instead. (The tradition has variants in many other countries as well.) Santa Claus is also a familiar figure in Italy, where he’s known as Babbo Natale.
As part of an older tradition, shepherds (pifferai) often come in from neighboring villages to play their horns and bagpipes before the holy shrines. In a role similar to that of the American Santa Claus, women dressed as La Befana collect for charities like the Red Cross.
The Christmas season in Spain begins on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This includes Los Seises, the Dance of Six, an ancient custom whereby six boys (now ten) perform a dance that symbolizes Christ’s birth and life. This is celebrated annually at Seville’s cathedral.
The manger scene, or nacimiento, has a place of reverence in the Spanish Christmas. This manger scene contains all the traditional elements, along with a few distinctly Spanish ones, including a Spanish bull and a stream of water. Sometimes bullfighters are part of the onlookers. These scenes are set up in public squares and in homes, taking precedence over Christmas trees, which are not common.
The Spanish refer to Christmas Eve as Noche Buena (Good Night). On Christmas Eve, family members gather in the room containing the nacimiento to sing hymns and pray. Late in the evening, the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) is attended. Many Hispanic countries refer to midnight Mass as the Mass of the Rooster; it has been said that the only time a rooster ever crowed at midnight was the moment when Christ was born. After Mass, a big meal is consumed.
A fast for the 24 hours preceding Christmas Eve ends with a festive meal, along with the tradition of the "Urn of Fate." a bowl filled with both presents and empty boxes. Each person picks to see whether he or she is fated to receive a gift-although no one ever really goes away empty-handed.
Adults exchange gifts on Christmas Day. Another treat is the Urn of Fate, a bowl filled with the names of everyone present. Two names are picked out at the same time; those whose names are chosen together are supposed to enjoy a lasting friendship or romance.
There is much dancing and other festivities through Epiphany, the day that children receive presents in their shoes from the Three Wise Men. (There is no Santa Claus figure.)
In England, the Christmas tree has been widespread since Prince Albert introduced the custom in 1841. Caroling and bell ringing are very popular as well, and the land that gave us the Christmas card is still sending them by the millions. Father Christmas, so similar in many ways to the American Santa Claus, leaves gifts for children. Letters to him were traditionally thrown in the fire (a little more difficult now that many houses no longer have an open fireplace) so that their lists could fly up the chimney.
House decorations of holly, ivy, and mistletoe and children hanging up their stockings are also traditional elements of Christmas in England. Christmas Eve might see people attending church services. Many families open their gifts Christmas morning, sitting down to a meal of turkey or roast beef in the afternoon. For dessert, sweet mince pies and brandy-laced plum pudding are still favorites, and pulling crackers is looked forward to throughout the meal. Many people make time to listen to the Queen’s annual message, which is aired on television in the afternoon.
Christmas crackers-which first appeared in London in 1846-are cardboard tubes covered with bright paper that's twisted to close up both ends. When the crackers are pulled apart they make a small "bang" or "crack." and release little toys, jokes, and tissue-paper hats hidden within the tubes.
An additional observance, or day off, at this time of year is Boxing Day, held on December 26. The name is taken from the old custom of opening the alms boxes in church the day after Christmas to give money to the needy. The idea expanded to servants and tradesmen, who expected to be tipped for the year’s service.
Carol singing, or eisteddfodde, in Wales has become an art form. Nowhere in the world are Christmas carols more carefully crafted and lovingly sung. Many churches retain a carol-singing service known as Plygain at Christmas. Once a Christmas-morning service that began as early as 3:00 A.M., it now tends to be an evening service.
The Christmas season is also the time for the Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare, to appear. This odd creature is represented by a man wearing a sheet and carrying a horse’s skull or imitation horse’s head. The creature dances around in public and tries to bite people with the horse’s jaws. If he manages to bite you, you must give him money!
Pulling (making) taffy, which is a chewy toffee candy, is one way to spend the day; in Wales, taffy is as much a part of Christmas fare as candy canes are in America.
Christmas in Ireland takes on quite a religious tone, although decorations and gift giving (and shopping) are popular, too. Lit candles (often replaced now with electric lights) are left in the windows on Christmas Eve to light the Holy Family’s way, with church services attended on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
Father Christmas is the gift giver here, with presents traditionally given out on Christmas morning, followed by a big holiday meal later in the day. For a treat, three special puddings are made during this season: one for Christmas, one for New Year’s, and one for Twelfth Night, the latter of which is also known as Little Christmas.
On the day after Christmas (St. Stephen’s Day), many once engaged in “hunting the wren.” This old tradition called for the killing of a wren to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the new. The dead wren was carried by the hunters from house to house, singing carols. The homeowner would give the hunters some goodies for their troubles, and they would give a feather for good luck in return. Areas that still observe this custom today use a fake stuffed wren, and money collected usually goes to charity.
With Christmas celebrations banned after the sixteenth-century Reformation in Scotland, December 25 remained a regular working day until 1958, when it was finally declared a public holiday. Today, it has largely caught up with European traditions of gift giving and decorating, although it retains some of its own special superstitions— including the idea that the home’s fire needs to be kept burning on Christmas Eve to keep mischievous elves from coming down the chimney and causing bad luck.
The Scots also celebrate Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve, as a major event, often gathering together friends and family to celebrate the coming of the new year. Cities such as Edinburgh host huge public celebrations.
Germany is also one of the countries in which children leave a shoe out on the eve of St. Nicholas’s Day (December 6) to be filled with candy. There are more gifts after Mass or church on Christmas Eve. That’s when the Christkind, or Kris Kringle—not to be confused with St. Nicholas or Santa Claus—brings the gifts.
At first, the Christkind was meant to be the Baby Jesus; later the name came to stand for a more angelic figure that embodies the spirit of the Christ Child. The Christkind wears a flowing white robe, a white veil, and gold wings, often entering by an open window and ringing a bell when gifts have been left.
St. Nicholas’s Day opens the Christmas season in Austria as well, when the saint arrives with the devil (St. Nicholas often appears with a darker companion who deals with the children on the “misbehaving” list). Both figures test the children, and the good ones receive presents.
One of Austria's most important contributions to the celebration of Christmas is a song sung by church choirs and carolers around the world: "Silent Night" On Christmas Eve. 1818, organist Franz Gruber composed the music to accompany Josef Mohr's poem. The carol was Gruber's only published musical work.
The Nativity scene is displayed around the family tree, which is often decorated with small toys and candy as well as ornaments. There are processions known as “Showing the Christ Child,” and Nativity plays are also performed; similar to the Spanish posadas, they dramatize the Holy Family’s journey. On Christmas Eve, many enjoy music from the Turmblasen, a brass band that plays carols from church steeples or building towers.
Switzerland is populated by four distinct groups of people, all of whom tend to follow their own traditions: French, German, Italian, and Romansh. Regardless of nationality, however, manger scenes and trees are common themes, and on December 6, the Chlausjagen Festival, or Feast of St. Nicholas, is often celebrated.
In some parts of Switzerland, great care is taken to emphasize the holiday’s religious significance before its festive side. Presents are brought by the Chriskindli: The angelic figure arrives to the sound of bells. In fact, churches in Switzerland are famous for their bells—bell-ringing competitions are held in some areas, such as Valais, on Christmas Eve.
Of all the countries in the world that celebrate St. Nicholas’s Day, Holland is the one in which the saint can truly be said to reign supreme. Arriving by steamer on the last Saturday in November, he’s greeted by huge crowds of people, including dignitaries. After parading through the streets in full bishop’s regalia, Nicholas and his companion, Black Peter, take up residence in a hotel and begin preparations for St. Nicholas’s Eve. In the time between his arrival and the holiday, St. Nicholas visits schools, hospitals, and shopping malls. The presents he leaves in children’s shoes on St. Nicholas’s Eve are disguised and come with catchy poems; Black Peter leaves switches for misbehaving children.
For Christmas, there are church services and much eating and merriment. Boiled chestnuts are among the popular snacks. The houses are decorated with holly and pine, and there are Christmas trees. December 26, also a legal holiday, is referred to as Second Christmas, but is usually an opportunity for resting up from the previous day’s activities. One nice feature of this day is the abundance of music that can be heard from a variety of choirs, radio broadcasts, and other performances.
In Denmark, Santa is not alone. A mysterious creature lurks about during the Christmas season: the mischievous Julnisse. Dressed in gray with a red bonnet, red socks, and white clogs, the elf-like Julnisse hides in farmhouse lofts or barnyards. Unless appeased with a treat, he may play tricks; but if properly taken care of, he’ll watch over the family’s animals for the upcoming year. The figure is quite popular and is often featured on collector’s plates made specially for Christmas.
The tradition of collecting such plates began years ago, when rich families would give their servants plates of goodies for the Christmas holiday. The servants set aside the plates, which they considered far better than their everyday dishes. The custom caught on, and now the Christmas plate—with or without a Julnisse—is a popular collectible.
Food is a major element of the Danish celebration, including the Christmas meal—which often features roast goose or turkey, red cabbage, potatoes, and pastry. One custom (common to other Scandinavian countries as well) involves hiding an almond in the rice pudding. The child who receives the portion with the almond gets a prize.
Norwegians, like other Scandinavian peoples, believe in sharing Christmas with the animals. On Christmas Eve day, a sheaf of grain, or “Bird Tree,” is hung out in the yard so that the birds may feast, too.
By four o’clock on Christmas eve, all work has ceased; all are dressed in their best clothes to begin the festivities; and other Scandinavian customs are observed. The rice pudding is eaten, and whoever finds the magic almond is given a treat. Of course, some rice pudding must also be given to the barnyard elf to ensure he’ll protect the animals and not pull pranks.
For the children, there is Julesvenn to bring gifts on Christmas Eve. Between Christmas and the season’s end on January 13, there are many parties for children and adults, including the Julebukk, a Halloween-like celebration named after Thor’s goat. Children wear costumes and knock on neighbors’ doors asking for treats.
Although St. Lucia’s Day on December 13 is observed in other Scandinavian countries, it is celebrated on a grand scale in Sweden. St. Lucia, who was martyred in A.D. 304 for being a Christian, is important to the Swedes because, legend says, she brought food to Sweden during a time of famine. In the wee hours of December 13, thousands of young girls in white robes, acting the part of St. Lucia, serve pastry and coffee to their parents while they are in bed. Special buns are made with an “X” on them to symbolize Christ. There is also an official St. Lucia parade in Stockholm.
On Christmas Eve day, the family gathers in the kitchen for a ritual known as doppa i grytan (“dipping in the kettle”). A kettle is filled with drippings—corned beef, pork, and sausage—each person dips a piece of dark bread in the kettle until it is soaked through, then eats it. This ritual is meant to remind each family member of those who are less fortunate, and to encourage thankfulness.
Because King Knut had once declared that Christmas should be celebrated for twenty days, the season doesn't officially end until January 13, Saint Knut's Day. (King Knut IV ruled from 1080-1086 and is honored as a saint for his virtue and generosity.) The days between Christmas and Saint Knut's Day are filled with parties for children and adults.
The Swedish also have the Scandinavian tradition of rice pudding with the hidden almond, only here the finder of the almond is destined to be married within a year. And like other Scandinavians, the Swedes have their gnome, known as Jultom-ten, who must be appeased, and who puts presents under the tree on Christmas Eve, accompanied by poems.
Christmas in Finland encompasses most of the Scandinavian traditions already described, with some unique Finnish customs added for good measure. The period of Advent is known as Little Christmas, and is a time of preparation and celebration. Gingerbread is a favorite treat, as is glögli, a drink of red wine and spices. Another custom is visiting the steam baths before Christmas Eve, presumably to get squeaky clean for the holiday.
In the Greek tradition, Christmas is not as important a holiday as Easter, so the celebration is on a smaller scale than some might expect. December 6 marks St. Nicholas’s Day, but emphasizes his role as the patron saint of sailors; December is a time of rough seas around Greece, so prayers are for safety rather than gifts.
Christmas itself is celebrated merrily, however: Children wander the streets singing carols and playing little drums or triangles and are rewarded with candy, nuts, or money. There are no Christmas trees, however, and gift giving is reserved for St. Basil’s Day (January 1). Featured within the Christmas meal is the Christopsomo, or Christ Bread. The bread is usually decorated with a symbol indicating the family’s occupation. Because the Greek Church is an Eastern church, it celebrates Christ’s birth on January 6, which is also when the Blessing of the Water takes place. In this ceremony, a priest dips a crucifix in a lake, river, or stream. The water, called Baptismal Water, is now considered holy and is used by the faithful for its healing powers. This Blessing of the Water is also done in Syrian and Coptic churches, as well as in some parts of Russia and the United States.
Many of the Russian Christmas customs date back to prerevolutionary Russia, when Christianity flourished. Father Frost was a staple of the old tradition, and presents were brought by Babushka, Russia’s version of the old woman who was supposed to have declined to join the Wise Men. There was also a girl dressed in white called Kolyada, who would visit houses, singing carols and giving treats. Some communities engaged in the Blessing of the Water; sometimes a priest would go through the village with this water to bless the houses.
Christmas returned to Russia in the early 1990s, and many of the older traditions did, too. These include several weeks of fasting—avoiding meat—until after church services on Christmas Eve (which, according to the Julian calendar, is January 6). Christmas Eve dinner often includes kutya, a porridge made of wheat berries, honey, and poppy seeds, symbolizing hope and happiness.
During the Christmas season, the letters “C,” “M,” and “B” are the most important in Poland. Representing the initials of the Three Wise Men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), the letters are painted on the doors of homes along with three crosses, in hopes of ensuring a good year.
The Star of Bethlehem is very important to the Poles. On Christmas Eve. after the first star has appeared in the sky, the head of the household breaks a wafer, called oplatek. and shares it with every person in the house. These wafers, which bear images of the Nativity, have been blessed by a priest.
Lucky children in Poland receive gifts twice during the Christmas season. St. Nicholas brings the first round on St. Nicholas’s Day; the Star Man, accompanied by Star Boys, brings the second round on Christmas Eve.
Wigilia, the Christmas Eve meal, has 13 courses — one for Jesus and each of the Apostles. Hay is placed under the tablecloth in some homes, as a reminder that Christ was born in a manger. The midnight Mass in Poland is called Pasterka, the Mass of the Shepherds. It is believed that on this night the animals bow in reverence and receive the power to speak.
The Czech Republic
The Czech Republic sets aside both December 25 and 26 for Christmas, which are known as First and Second Christmas. The season opens with Svatej Nikulus (St. Nicholas’s) Day on December 6 and ends with the visit of the Tri Kralu (Three Kings) on January 6. Svatej Nikulus has a bag of goodies for nice children; his companion for the trip is the devil, who carries switches for the bad ones.
The manger scene, or Jeslicky, is a must in churches and homes. There are Christmas trees, which are lit Christmas Eve. Dinner consists of carp, pudding, and fruit stew, and a seat at dinner is left empty for the Christ Child. Later, Pasterka (midnight Mass) will be attended.