So one cold night in November, a few of my best friends from school days were sat talking about what Christmas means to us, and exploring the different traditions we follow as families! It became clear that we were all very set in our ways and had very different takes on how we should celebrate the big day.
It transpired that all our parents had a very different deal with Father Christmas as to how many presents he brought us for Christmas. The treats we left out for Father Christmas and Rudolf also differed.
I remember a snowy Christmas Eve in 1984 when I was five years old and I'd called into the local radio station. I had a direct dial to Father Christmas! We had a great chat and I told him all the things that I wanted that year. A 'Speak and Spell' was one of those gifts on my list, and I now know he wouldn't have had a clue what I was talking about. Back then, I proceeded to tell him that we would leave the back door open, as our chimney was unlike other people’s chimneys (we had a gas fire) and so he would have to come through the back door in order to leave my sister and I any presents. At the end of this conversation, Father Christmas advised me that he got rather a lot of whisky and brandy on his travels and he'd much rather have a glass of orange juice and, as he was on a diet, would prefer to forego the mince pie and asked if I would offer up a carrot for Rudolph instead. Of course I obliged, and a new tradition was then established in our house for the next five years or so…
So whether or not all our presents come from Father Christmas, or from a combination of him and his helpers in the guise of our family and friends, Christmas is Christmas! Once I started thinking about it, I decided to investigate some of the European Christmas traditions, from the sweet and nice to the weird and wonderful, here’s what you'll find.
It all starts with Advent…
In the office the other day, my colleague, Jo, said she had put her Christmas tree up in the last week of November. Too early I said, horrified that you could even think about Christmas in November. While Jo was away every weekend in December, November being the only time she could put up her tree, it got me thinking about why I was so horrified, and it all stemmed back to family tradition. In our house, the Christmas tree would not go up more than a week before the big day itself and I still won’t entertain the idea in my house today! Part of this is, I think, because we have a real tree and I'd imagine if we were to start early, the needles would drop and it would look like a pretty bleak tree by the time we sat down to our Christmas dinner!
It is Germany we have to thank for Christmas trees, as well as Prince Albert who brought that tradition to the UK. Who can resist the sumptuous smell of pine that penetrates the air around the open fire during those cosy winter evenings - or that wakes you up on those cold Christmas mornings as you come down the stairs to that unmistakeable scent?
The Germans are also known for their Christmas markets which, again, have been making their way through Europe as they have grown in popularity. Having been to the said markets on our British shores, I have to say, there is nothing quite like a traditional Christmas market in the Bavarian city of Munich or across the border in Austria and Salzburg. Those truly traditional Christmas markets are all at once an assault on the senses and a visit to at least one of them should be an absolute 'must' on anyone’s bucket list.
The humble advent calendar is a recognised 'must have' for most children in the UK. In recent years we have been able to indulge in beauty-themed advent calendars but, in actual fact, this tradition can be traced back to the pre-war Scandinavian countries. In Denmark and some of the Scandinavian countries, kalenderlys or Christmas advent candles which are printed with the numbers of 1 to 24 are lit each day at breakfast in the countdown to the day itself. But again, we have to go back to good old Germany and the Germans who invented the great, tried and tasted, chocolate advent calendars we know and love today, which were a product of the post-war period.
Naughty or Nice
Once advent is underway, it’s actually the 5 and 6 December that become the key dates in the Christmas Calendar. In Germany you may have heard of Knecht Ruprecht, or Krampus as he is known in Austria, who accompanies St Nikolaus on his rounds. He is a monster with horns that wears rags and chains, and is there to punish naughty children - the complete opposite of good old St Nick in fact. I'm not sure how this fits in with the idyllic Christmas story, but it is one that intrigues me. In Austria, there are many parades and festivals themed around the 'Krampuslauf' or Devil Run... Better watch out if you're a party to one of these parades, as it's not just the naughty children who might feel the swish of a Krampus birch-twig broom!
In the Netherlands and upper parts of Germany, a similar character called Schwarzer Peter or Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) joins Sinterklaas, as Santa is known in these parts. Schwarzer Peter performs the duties of both St Nikolaus and Krampus, giving out presents to those that were good throughout the year and punishing those who have been naughty. However, in the many parades in the low countries today, Schwarzer Peter can be seen helping Sinterklaas to hand out gifts and flowers to the happy onlookers.
While in the UK we have a similar story, it seems to be much less threatening. Those who are good are rewarded with presents, while those who have been bad receive a lump of coal... Presumably this is what makes Schwarzer Peter black, as he has climbed down the chimney! Though there are other theories that he was actually a slave, a Moor coming across the sea from Spain, something which is unthinkable and unacceptable in present day, but nonetheless, part of someone's Christmas tradition somewhere.
Come 8 December and the nativity usually gets brought out. This is something that is very common in Italy, in the country's churches and in people's homes. True to the story, the baby Jesus does not appear in the crib until Christmas Eve. Along with the nativity, children will often go out carol singing, something that is also followed in other European countries. Sadly carol singing is now dying out, which is a real shame as it was fun for the children and greatly appreciated by many in the local communities, for whom Christmas traditions fire up so many lovely memories of Christmasses past.
The nativity scene is also very popular in France, where it adorns many church services, the French nativity will often feature a character from the modern day, such as a butcher, a baker or a policemen and priest, in its cast.
In Portugal, if baby Jesus doesn’t appear in the crib after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, then it is believed that you will be unlikely to find any presents under your Christmas tree.
The Yule Goat
While the donkey is often an animal that is associated with Christmas, we should not forget the yuletide goat. In Nordic counties the Gävle Goat is something which is celebrated with the construction of a straw goat, a tradition that was started in the 1960’s. There are many songs, however, that date back to the earlier 19th and 20th centuries where a Christmas goat is referenced.
The goat itself is meant to help deliver presents, much like the reindeer in other parts of the world. For this reason, Santa has been known to ride a goat instead of his sleigh! In modern times however, the youth of today seem to take the Gävle Goat to new levels and see it as some sort of modern day 'straw man' and so the goat features in many a festival, where it shares its stage with some amazing pyrotechnics.
Talking turkey - and fish?
Christmas Dinner always amazes me. As a vegetarian I guess it’s different for me - who can really get excited about a nut roast? Dry, nutty and quite frankly, boring. However, I never understand why we think that our stomach is going to suddenly expand for two or three days of the year to indulge in such a gluttonous feast! I think I am the only one in my house who holds that opinion, and an opinion is all it is, as just about everyone else I know thinks differently.
In the UK we dine on mountains of turkey, but this was not always the way. In Victorian times, you would often find Christmas diners eating goose or roast beef. The turkey, however, came from Mexico a fact which may surprise you. It was Edward VII who made eating turkey fashionable at Christmas.
In Russia, after fasting on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day's feast features roast pork and goose, Pirog and Pelmeni (meat dumplings). In Portugal, as in Spain, the Christmas meal is called Consoda and is actually eaten on Christmas Eve, being made up primarily of fish and served with potatoes and other wild meats.
If we skip to dessert, this is where I find the most fascinating and delicious delicacies. The wonderful Christmas spices of cinnamon, cloves, mixed spice and nutmeg, feature in high quantities in treats such as Christmas cake in the UK, or stollen from Germany. Add some gingerbread-style lebkuchen into the mix and right now I am in heaven!
For the less adventurous with their flavours and spices, we can thank the French for the introduction of the Yule log. While they may have introduced a log that was made of cherry wood into people’s homes, that was covered in wine and then burnt, they also decided to make a log out of chocolate. While I don't know of anyone who ceremoniously wastes good wine by pouring it over a burning log, I do know many - myself included - who now relish and embrace the chocolate Yule log as a traditional pudding which is enjoyed by many the world over.
Boxing Day Madness…
In the press you will see people queuing up from 5am in the morning in the UK, all eagerly waiting for the Boxing Day sales to open their doors and let the mad dash for a bargain begin. Personally, I couldn’t think of anything worse. The true meaning of Christmas is trampled under foot and forgotten as crowds of frenzied shoppers get into fisticuffs in tussles over TV’s, white goods and an array of designer labels, all at bargain basement prices for one day only...
In Spain, however, it is far more good humoured as people there will celebrate 'Dia de los Santos Inocentes'. Though it has a lovely ring to it when you say it out loud, it expresses a sentiment similar to April Fool's Day. More fool you if you are are caught up in the aforementioned scrum at Next in the Boxing Day sales. Instead, the Spanish use the day to play practical jokes on each other, while indulging in some tasty tapas and fruity wine of course, as is their way.
I’ve had an epiphany…
While the festive period is a time of peace, love and goodwill to all men, there are other parts in Europe that celebrate much later than we do.
In France, on 6 January, you will find yourself celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, when tradition dictates that you should eat an almond cake known as Fete des Rois. This is no ordinary cake. It is known as the 'king cake' and its mixture - gallette des rois - roughly translates as 'pastry of the king'. It takes the shape of a flat circular confectionary, often topped with golden paper crowns, while inside the baker hides a treasure - usually a small toy animal - for one lucky person to find in their piece of the cake.
In Italy this is a time when children hang up their stockings. An old lady will then bring presents to the children to fill their stockings. This is a similar tradition to Babushka who brings presents to the children in Russia on 7 January, rather than on Christmas Day, as Christmas was banned during the First World War. Thankfully, this was all overturned in 1991 and Soviet people became free to celebrate Christmas, but it is much lower key affair than in other countries.
In Spain, the children also open presents during Epiphany, having written letters to the three kings on Boxing Day asking for specific presents, much like children in the UK do before Christmas for all the presents they hope to receive from Santa on Christmas Day.
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