Christmas Traditions in Europe
Christmas is, by far, the most celebrated holiday across the planet, at least in the modern world. The origins of this holiday and how it came to be are markedly different across the planet, with each culture having a different way that they celebrate the flagship of the holiday season. This is especially fascinating to observe in places like Europe, where each of the countries has a radically unique culture, despite each of their populations living so close together. For this reason, almost all countries in Europe have their own special traditions and ways to celebrate Christmas and the rest of the holiday season. Here’s a handful of fascinating countries that have their own ways to celebrate Christmas that are rooted deep in their culture…
In traditional Greek, Christmas is referred to as Christougena. Similar to many countries in Europe, there are specific dates that enclose the holiday season and dictate how long people celebrate it. In Greece, this period extends from November 30th until January 6th (which is known in many countries as “Epiphany”). Many children walk around door-to-door on Christmas eve, much like they do on Halloween, except instead of collecting candy and goodies, they sing carols and spread good wishes. In Greece, presents are actually given on January 1st, in honor of St. Basil’s Day.
As a large fishing country, there are many, many boats in Greece, and it is a huge part of their culture around the coasts. During the Christmas season, all of the fishing boats in the country are elaborately decorated, making the docks look absolutely stunning. This is because St. Nicholas is a patron saint of sailors, and it is believed that his goodwill saves ships in danger of sinking from storms on the high sea.
The Greeks tend to eat a lot of pork-related food around the Christmas holiday. The Christmas feast itself usually consists of pork and Christopsomo (a sweet and decorative bread), among other things. Culturally, they tend not to spend as much on Christmas as many other industrialized nations around the globe, which is probably a good thing because of how their economic health has been suffering, lately.
Christmas in Italy is traditionally celebrated from December 16th to January 6th (also called Epiphany in their country). Like Greece, the children of Italy do lots of caroling during the holiday season (the practice is far more popular across Europe than it is in the United States). However, Italian children tend to carol throughout the entire season, while the Greeks usually do it all at once on Christmas eve. Interestingly enough, Christmas carols actually started in Italy. The first carolers were country shepherds who would come into town to spread cheer and holiday spirit through song.
Rather than a jolly ol’ Saint Nicholas, the gifts of Christmas-time in Italy are delivered by a folk legend, an ugly, but kind witch named la Belfana who soars through the skies on a broomstick on Christmas Eve. Aside from this, however, strong Catholic tradition has a strong effect on the practices of Christmas in Italy. So much so, in fact, that traditional nativity and manger scenes actually originated in the country. At the end of the season, during Epiphany, puppets are burned on a pyre to symbolize the new year.
Iceland is a country with many unique and interesting traditions are quite distinct from the rest of Europe, particularly due to its separation from the mainland. In this country, the season traditionally begins four Sundays before Christmas Eve. On each of those four Sundays leading up to the holiday, a candle is lit until there are four burning candles on Christmas Eve. On December 11th (a symbolic 13 days before Christmas Eve) children in Iceland leave their shoes by their windows so that the Yule Lads (mythical old men with an affinity for mischief) will leave gifts for them, in return for the shoes.
A traditional Christmas feast in Iceland may comprise of many main courses, such as lamb, turkey, pork, or ptarmigan, all of which are quite popular. Traditionally, many families will also make what is called Laufabrauo, or Leafbread, around Christmastime. This bread is very thin, and is often folded many times to make it mighty filling.
On January 6th, during Epiphany, the entire country holds many bonfires across the land, in order to conclude the year and beckon in the new one. These fires also stem from a tradition where many of the spirits, such as the yule lads, that arose during this season would return to the ethereal lands from which they came.
As the birthplace of St. Nikolaus, Christmas is a fairly big deal in Germany, as you can imagine. Indeed, many modern Christmas traditions originated in Germany, such as the tradition of giving gifts as a form of celebration. That tradition was started by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther in Northern Germany on Christmas eve in the 16th century.
Another enormous Christmas tradition began in Germany around that same period of time. The first Christmas tree was created in Germany sometime around the year 1511. Supposedly, Martin Luther also decorated the first Christmas tree as a form of worship, but this isn’t actually confirmed, as opposed to him starting the tradition of giving gifts. However, one thing is certain. This action started an industry that takes in almost $3.5 billion, annually, in America, alone. If you’d like to try out a traditional Christmas tree, much like the first in Germany, check out this post on how to tell if a tree is healthy and strong before picking it out.