Europe is a real hub of different traditions and cultures when it comes to a pinnacle event like Christmas. Most countries across the continent are practising Catholics, and Christmas is a much more holy and revered festival compared to the jolly and fun occasion that we know so well here in the UK! There are also many traditions deeply rooted in ancient pagan beliefs from across Europe, since the Christian festival of Christmas coincided with the pagan festival of celebrating the winter solstice.
It’s lovely to indulge in a bit of culture when you are visiting another country abroad, and no better time to do it than when you are skiing at Christmas! Inghams have put together this little guide of intriguing European Christmas traditions that you might hope to see across different countries while making the most of your winter getaway.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without the one and only jolly old Santa Claus, would it?
But the origins of the real Santa can be a bit blurred across many European cultures. Some say that early ideas are embedded in pagan traditions, but many countries prefer to think of him as the kindly figure of St. Nicholas, a pious bishop and saint who gave generously to children in need.
In the UK, USA, France and some places in Italy, Santa Claus/ Père Noël (French)/ Babbo Natale (Italian) is seen as a bringer of presents on Christmas Eve and comes armed with his many elves and reindeer friends from his workshop in Lapland. However, for many countries across the Alpine region, Father Christmas comes without his elves and reindeer pals, and he assumes the figure of kindly Saint Nicholas, a protector of children.
As the story goes, St. Nicholas didn’t want to receive fame and recognition for his kindly deeds to the children in need, so he would often leave his gifts anonymously by putting coins and goodies in children’s shoes that were left by the door. St. Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 5th December, and across many European cultures, this is sometimes the one and only day that the jolly red-and-white paternal figure makes an appearance. You can expect to see wonderful parades and processions on St. Nicholas’ Day in Austria and Switzerland.
It is not uncommon in countries like Austria and Switzerland to see children still putting their shoes by doors and windows in hope that St. Nicholas will bestow his little presents on them! Who knows what they might get? Mandarin oranges are a popular choice and so are chocolate coins.
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While jolly St. Nicholas brings gifts and rewards to those little children who have been good... he often comes with his particularly unpleasant accomplice, Krampus!
In lots places across the Alpine region The Krampus Procession can be seen taking place on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, for he is the punisher of naughty children. Sometimes he is seen accompanying St. Nicholas himself, or sometimes he is seen on his own.
Often quite scary and gruesome in appearance, with shaggy fur and goat-like horns, Krampus carries a whip and rattles chains to warn children of what might happen to them if they misbehave.
Krampus is still seen along with St. Nicholas on the 5th December in many places across Europe but particularly those of Germanic descent, such as Austria, and Switzerland. You can catch him at various markets and Christmas processions at the beginning of the season, especially in Salzburg, Austria.
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Across the Alpine region, the lead up to Christmas is just as exciting as the actual event itself. Advent is a respected and practiced tradition in Switzerland, Austria, France and Italy and goes beyond the usual practice of opening another window on a calendar!
Traditionally, Advent celebrates the four Sunday’s leading up to Christmas. In many houses you will find the Advent Wreath (pictured) - a wreath made of evergreen twigs and four candles, each candle represents another Sunday in the lead up to Christmas, and when that Sunday comes around, the representative candle is lit. Many traditional families gather around the wreath when a new candle is lit to sing carols.
Italians tend to celebrate the Nativity above anything else during this lead up to Christmas, and many families have Nativity displays in their homes; Nativity cribs are particularly popular across Italy, but they remain remain empty until Christmas Eve and then a figure of the infant Jesus can be placed into the crib.
This is a very similar tradition in France, where many family homes will feature the complete nativity scene, but with a few unconventional characters thrown in too! You might see a postman, a butcher or a doctor amongst Mary, Joseph and the three wise men...
In Austria it is the time that Christmas markets throw open their doors to the public, selling delightful handmade gifts and edibles, you can stroll around and enjoy a cup of glühwein, which is the name of traditional mulled wine across the German-speaking regions.
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The evergreen fir tree has been symbolic for thousands of years. It is believed that ancient pagan festivals that celebrated the winter solstice used the pine tree as a symbol of everlasting life during the bitter cold winter months, and the tradition has been passed down through the years.
The Christmas tree was a predominantly a German tradition and didn’t become popular in England until Queen Victoria’s marriage to her German husband, Prince Albert during the 1840’s!
Today, it is often tradition for countries to bring their Christmas trees into the house around the beginning of advent. However, for countries like Austria and Switzerland, the Christmas tree isn’t bought in and decorated until Christmas Eve, and then it is revealed to the children, along with their presents placed underneath. Children believe that the Christkind angel visits on Christmas Eve and decorates the tree, leaving presents for them underneath.
In Austria, many towns have one large Christmas tree erected in their town centre. Families gather around this Christmas tree to sing traditional carols like ‘Silent Night’, which was written in Salzburg in 1818... and then elsewhere there is a second tree, covered in breadcrumbs which is a gift for the birds!
It is a well known tradition that Norway sends the UK a grand Christmas tree every year, which proudly stands in Trafalgar Square, as a way of saying thanks for the aid Britain sent during World War II.
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We have mentioned a few times already that it is traditional across the Alpine region that the Christkind (Christ child) visits on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christkind takes on a very similar role to Santa Claus, and adds that little extra Christmas magic!
Thought to be a golden-haired cherub like angel, the Christkind is a prominent Christmas figure across Switzerland and Austria, and some places in Italy and France (although many families prefer Père Noël and Babbo Natale!). Children believe that on Christmas Eve they will hear the sound of a bell ringing, and rush into the room to see the fully decorated Christmas tree for the first time, and beneath it sit the family Christmas presents.
But no matter how fast they run, no-one ever catches the Christkind spirit before he dashes out the window again!
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When finally, all of the advent candles have been lit and the markets are closed for the day, families across Europe settle down to enjoy what Christmas is really about. Around 7pm, candles on the Christmas tree are lit on Christmas Eve across Austria and Switzerland and many people gather to sing carols in the town. Christmas dinner is often eaten on this night either before or after the Midnight Mass service.
Dinner in Austria, Italy and Switzerland is often a fish course (sometimes fried carp is served in Austria and Switzerland, in Italy it is usually a seafood medley of calamari, cod, clams and more!) because it is a Catholic tradition of ‘fasting’ on Christmas Eve, and must forego eating meat.
Lots of people across these regions are practising Catholics, so the most important church service of the season is Midnight Mass. Churches are often beyond capacity as everyone stays awake for this important service.
Christmas Eve is also the night where presents are exchanged, for children believe that the Christkind angel has visited and decorated the tree for them! This is also the evening that the Yule Log is lit in the fire, and must traditionally stay burning for the twelve days of Christmas.
There is also a quirky superstition in Norway that on Christmas Eve, after all the commotion has come and gone and as the evening dies down, all brooms in the house must be hidden. It is an old pagan belief that on the night of the festivities, evil spirits will emerge and steal brooms from households, riding them around the night sky!
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Across the UK, Christmas Day is usually the day of festivities. Church services, presents exchanged, roast turkey and all the trimmings... But in many places across Europe, Christmas Day is actually a much quieter day compared to the evening before.
Christmas is relatively new to Norway and Finland, for they did not start celebrating the festival until around 1000AD, when Christianity first came to the country. It coincides with the original pagan festival of celebrating the winter solstice which was originally called ‘Jul’ or ‘Jol’, and so Merry Christmas in Norwegian is ‘God/ Gledelig Jul!’
Christmas Day is also the day that many people break their ‘fast’ on meat, and celebrate by having a rich lunch/dinner (the lines after often blurred since the eating never stops!) of numerous different courses. In Italy you can expect to see an array of antipastos, cured meats, and several pasta courses followed by de rigeur which is usually either roasted veal, beef or chicken with the trimmings.
In Austria, it is traditional to eat carp at Christmas, and many families keep a live carp in their bath tubs until it’s time for dinner! You can find out lots more about traditional Christmas Day food and drink in our other Insider’s Guide: Food and drink traditions around Europe.
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Boxing Day and the New Year
One of the best things about spending Christmas in the Alpine region is that the festivities just never seem to stop! Many places continue with Christmas traditions into the New Year because Epiphany is just as big an event as advent is.
An old tradition called Silvesterklausen is still practised in Switzerland to usher the New Year in with yodelling, ringing of cow bells and dressing it bright peasantry-inspired garb (with even brighter hats and masks!). The tradition has it that making as much noise as possible on New Year’s Eve will drive out the evil spirits from the old year, so that New Year can celebrate a clean start.
In Italy, there is a custom called Lancio del cocci, which literally means to throw old crockery out of your living room window! The act of smashing plates, old mugs and unwanted bowls at the stroke of midnight is thought to be symbolic of smashing any negativity and evil before it follows you into the New Year. Lancio del cocci can also be done within the home, not to risk your neighbour being hit on the head by a falling cup!
Italian children are also given one last present of the season on Epiphany Eve, but this time they believe that the present is bestowed upon them by an old woman named Befana (pictured). Befana is a similar to Father Christmas, good children receive toys, or sweeties whereas bad children receive a lump of coal.
In France they make a type of cake to mark the beginning of Epiphany called the galettes des rois, or ‘King cake’. The cake is traditionally baked in a flat circle and has a little paper crown in the middle of it and it is symbolic of the Three Kings who came to visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.
Another interesting Epiphany tradition coming from Austria is the Sternsinger which means the ‘star singers’. Little children typically dressed up as the three wise men and one dressed as a star (accompanied by an adult) go from door-to-door singing carols. A chalk marking is made above the doorway to signify that The Three Kings have visited that house. The markings are traditionally the year (for example, 2016) divided up with the initials of the Three Kings: Caspar, Melchoir and Balthazar. So next year would be: 20-C-M-B-17!
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