THE MOST INTERESTING CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS IN EUROPE

The phrase "every country has its own customs" applies just as well to Christmas

The phrase "every country has its own customs" applies just as well to Christmas. Because even though the world's most famous Christmas carol "Silent Night" has been translated into as many as 175 languages, virtually every country has its own Christmas rituals that are hard to find anywhere else.

Spending Christmas outside one’s native land has become an increasingly common practice. It allows many people to even shortly get away from the winter cold, while others use this opportunity to avoid the duty of cleaning the apartment before the arrival of guests and washing a pile of dirty dishes after they leave. Regardless of the motives accompanying the reservation of accommodation and tickets for this festive season, it is worthwhile to have at least a basic understanding of how this special time is traditionally spent in a given region of the world.

Christmas is the most important holiday of the year i.a. on the Iberian Peninsula. In Portugal, Christmas Eve, or Vespera de Natal, is mostly centered around family get-togethers around home Christmas trees, followed by a collective outing to the church to attend midnight mass – known there as Missa do Galo, which literally translates to rooster’s mass. The unusual name derives from the legend stating that the only time the rooster crowed at midnight was the night of Jesus' birth. After the service, all return to their houses to consume the Christmas Eve meal – consoada. Traditional dishes include i.a. typical Portuguese fish – cod (bacalhau). In its Christmas edition it is served i.a. with boiled cabbage.

In Spain, the Christmas menu varies depending on the region. For example, in Andalusia it is customary to serve roast turkey, in Castilla Leon and Castile La Mancha – lamb and pig, and on the coast – fish and seafood. Common dishes include a traditional halva delicacy called turron, as well as cava which contrary to expectations is not synonymous with the dark beverage prepared on the basis of coffee beans, but with white sparkling wine. Remarkably, great importance is attached by Hispanic population – just like the Italians or French – to nativity scenes which are much more significant than a decorated Christmas tree. Curiously, there is no tradition of breaking the Christmas wafer combined with exchanging wishes with the close ones. It should also be added that in Spain, children have to wait for Christmas gifts until the Epiphany on January 6.

That day heralds gifts also for the youngest inhabitants of Italy. They are brought by the Christmas witch Befana who according to legend was late to welcome Jesus along with the Three Kings, having got lost along the way. Since then she has reportedly been tormented by guilt and thus annually leaves gifts in every house where a child resides – in case it proves to be Baby Jesus. To ingratiate themselves with Befana, it is a tradition for kids inhabiting the Apennine Peninsula to leave an orange, tangerine, and even... a glass of wine in their rooms before going to sleep. However, if over the year they were naughty, it will do little to help them, because – instead of bringing the desired toys and sweets – Befana will probably punish them by filling a special sock with ash, coal, garlic or onion.

But considerably more than the old woman with a crooked nose who bestows children, Italy is famous for its Christmas nativity scenes. Many people consider them as the most beautiful in the world – which should not come as a surprise given that the Italians have decidedly the richest experience in adorning Christmas cribs. This friendly tradition was spread personally by St. Francis of Assis, and the most famous installation can be annually admired in St. Peter's Square in Rome. Significantly, nativity scenes are set only in churches but also in squares, private homes and stairways.

Being in Italy in late December or early January, it is also an absolute must to try typical local Christmas pastries in the form of Panettone (traditional cake with the addition of delicacies and liqueur) and Pandoro (cake without any additives, only dusted with powdered sugar). Although both of these cakes look quite commonly, their preparation is extremely time-consuming and can even take up to 20 hours (not counting several hours required for the rise of the yeasted dough). Their social importance is also reflected in the fact that the recipes have been legally regulated – egg yolk in both cakes must make up at least 4 percent of the total dough weight, while raisins and candied fruit in Panettone are to constitute at least 16 percent.

In neighboring France during Le Réveillon, or a festive dinner, which usually takes place after midnight mass, it is impossible to resist tasting the traditional dessert Bûche de Noël (literally: "Christmas log"), i.e. delicious rolls with cream or ice cream filling. The set of more substantive dishes depends on the region: Brittany is dominated by buckwheat pancakes topped with sour cream, Paris – oysters, Burgundy – turkey and chestnuts, and Alsace – goose. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of this seasonal carelessness is rather short-lived, because the following Boxing Day is already an ordinary business day. Another thing is that in France, as in many other countries, from year to year Christmas is losing its religious character. And it could not be any other way as the country has a growing Muslim population and out of 60 percent of people declaring themselves as Catholics, only a few percent regularly participate in Mass.

While in Germany, it is worth setting aside some time to visit at least a few out of the nearly 40 large and more than 2,200 smaller Christmas street markets scattered throughout the country. Their history dates back to the fourteenth century, when local craftsmen were given permission to sell their products in urban squares during Christmas time. Since then Weihnachtsmarkten have become an integral part of German culture. To such an extent, in fact, that many residents living in areas between the Oder and the Rhine simply cannot imagine a day during Advent that would not involve leaving the house to meet with friends at one of the beautifully decorated squares filled with stalls and smell of tasty food. According to research, it is the desire to meet with loved ones, rather than shopping, that motivates Germans to frequently leave the house on December evenings. Suffice it to say that 79 percent of Christmas fair visitors spend money on food, 64 percent on mulled wine, 44 percent on occasional ornaments, and only 31 percent on Christmas gifts.

The scale of the phenomenon is best illustrated by the fact that only in 2014, participants of Weihnachtsmarkten in Germany consumed as many as 50 million liters of mulled wine and produced 82,000 tons of traditional gingerbread known as Lebkuchen. Despite the fact that perhaps the most famous fair is held in Nuremberg and – statistically speaking – most visitors (1.5 million people) in recent years have been drawn to fairs in Cologne, each Christmas market is unique and deserves a visit. But if someone is determined to be truly “wowed”, they should start off by venturing to Dortmund, home to a one-of-a-kind Christmas tree. Suffice it to say that this 45-meters high tree is decorated with as many as 48,000 lights.

It is also hard to imagine German houses at the end of the year without special wreaths decorated with four candles (one is lit on each subsequent Sunday during Advent). Christmas Eve itself passes in fairly intimate atmosphere, and the most important Christmas meal is eaten on December 25 (with the most common dish being roast goose or duck, but it is also relatively easy to come across a potato salad or typical German sausages). Anyone spending Christmas in the homeland of Goethe should also remember that gifts are to be placed at the Christmas table and not under the decorated tree. In the northern, eastern and central part of the country they are brought by The Christmas Guest (Weihnachtsmann), who resembles modern St. Nicholas, and in the south and west this honorable task falls to the Christ Child (Christkind).

A special kind of countdown to Christmas is also practiced in Hungary. In Budapest and its surroundings, consecutive weeks preceding the feast are called respectively: paper, bronze, silver and gold. Christmas Eve is marked by family gatherings and... delicious food. On the holiday table at Magyar households it is customary to serve i.a. baked carp, fish soup, soup with cherry or dessert called szaloncukor – pralines with vanilla, nut, marzipan or jelly paste inside. Guests also gorge themselves on bread braids with poppy seeds and nuts. The unwritten rule is that every housewife should bake enough of them to treat not only her relatives and friends, but also neighbors.

Anyone setting off for Christmas in the UK should, in turn, keep in mind that the British do not celebrate Christmas Eve and that the most important meal is consumed on December 25 (Boxing Day). A classic position on the menu is stuffed turkey (baked even as long as four hours!), while the so-called Christmas pudding makes for the most popular dessert. Unlike some countries, such as Poland, St. Nicholas of the British Isles is not in the habit of stressing children with the necessity to sing a song or recite a poem before receiving gifts. As the night comes he simply slips down the chimney and leaves gifts in specially prepared socks, stockings or shoes.

Few people also remember that it were the British who started the wonderful custom of sending Christmas cards with wishes. In 1846 a man named Jon Horsley designed the first greeting card with the slogan "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year." And although on the global scale handwritten Christmas wishes are being increasingly replaced by e-mails or text messages, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition this custom is still widely practiced, with an average of a dozen or so cards per person.

As befits the United Kingdom, another indispensable element of Christmas is the annual speech given by the Queen to her subjects. At precisely 3 pm, the whole country freezes in front of television sets to listen to what the monarch has to say over the following ten minutes. Worthy of mention is also the curious habit of sharing – or basically tearing apart – the so-called Christmas crackers (also known as bon-bons), i.e. cardboard tubes resembling big candies, which when pulled from both sides snap open, revealing a witty message and a small gift. There is no tradition of sharing the Christmas wafer. Very much alive, on the other hand, is the custom of kissing under the mistletoe – it is still practiced not only in homes, but also in offices and pubs (especially during the extremely popular turn of the year parties). The period of Christmas and New Year in England has also long been associated with... football matches. This is because while in other countries leagues take a break, British players run out onto the pitch to compete for points on both December 26 and January 1. It is needless to say that the results of these meetings have a significant impact on the mood in many homes in London, Manchester, Liverpool and other cities and towns...    

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