Christmas in Europe
In the spirit of the holiday season, the Institute for European Studies would like to share with you the Christmas traditions of some countries in Europe. As we decorate our trees, hang lights on our houses, and plan out what to have for Christmas dinner, it can be fun to remember how many of these Christmas traditions came to be, with many of their origins in Europe.
The outdoor lights that we hang on our houses in the U.S. actually have their origins in England, where lights are hung more often on streets and public buildings. Caroling is also a major component of the English Christmas tradition, highlighted not only by local choral groups but also by the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge that is broadcast worldwide. In addition to carols, the weeks leading up to Christmas also traditionally feature “mumming”, masked street performances that travel from house to house featuring funning and satirical renditions of hero-combat plays, sword plays, and wooing plays. Father Christmas, distinguished by his red and white outfit with an unbelted robe and pointed hood, is the English gift-bringer on Christmas Eve, placing presents for children both underneath the tree and in stockings. Dinner on Christmas day features a plum pudding which is made on the Sunday preceding the first Sunday of Advent, known as “Stir-Up Sunday”. On this day it is customary for family members to stir the pudding counter-clockwise and make a wish. Christmas dinner also features a Christmas “cracker” that is placed on people’s plates. Made out of a small, cardboard tube covered with a twist of colored paper, Christmas crackers pop when pulled from both ends, revealing a written joke, riddle, or a small toy. After eating Christmas dinner, many families listen to the monarch’s annual Christmas Day message.
The beginning of Christmas or Weihnachten in Germany is celebrated in accordance with Advent on December 1st, where families will open the first of the 24 windows of their Advent Calendar (a German invention), that contain such tokens as a picture, a biblical verse, or a piece of candy. Advent also marks the beginning of many of Germany’s Christmas markets, featuring a seemingly endless supply of food and decorations, accompanied by traditional singing and dancing. December 6th, the day of St. Nicholas, is celebrated by a feast and used to be when most gift-giving was carried out. Though presently, gift giving has primarily switched to Christmas Eve, many German children still look forward St. Nicholas’ visit. On the eve of December 5th, St. Nicholas traditionally appears in person clad in bishop’s robes and asks children how they’ve behaved throughout the year. For those children who behave badly, St. Nicholas is accompanied by the Krampus, a hideous goat-like creature with a blackened face, dark beard, long tail, and red serpentine tongue. That night children leave their shoes out, to be filled with treats from St. Nicholas or for some, coal from the Krampus. On Christmas Eve, parents will decorate the house Christmas tree, revealing it to the children once it’s completed and presents have been placed underneath. Parents will tell the children that the “gift-bringer” has come; in Protestant households, the gift bringer is Weihnachtsmann, a Santa Claus figure, and in Catholic families it is the Christ Child that brings them. Christmas Eve is also a time to complete the seasonal baking, featuring such treats as lebkucken (spiced cookies with candied fruit) and stolen (candied fruit loaf or fruit cake) to be enjoyed on Christmas Day.
In Ireland, Christmas is celebrated from Advent through Epiphany on January 6th. Christmas decorations include holly wreaths and candles placed in the window of the household for Mary and Joseph. The candles are based on a legend that every Christmas Eve Mary and Joseph would retrace their steps to Bethlehem, and the candles both help show the way and mark places that can offer them shelter. Each family typically has a “principal candle” that is two feet tall and is placed in the house’s central window. After lighting their own candle, families will walk around their neighborhood to enjoy the lit candles of other households. Presents are brought to children on Christmas Eve by Father Christmas, and are placed either on stockings or in pillowcases left by the foot of the bed. Epiphany on January 6th is also known as “Women’s Christmas” where women spend the day to enjoying each other’s company and relaxing as the men clean up the house.
Italy, like Germany, is well known for its Christmas markets, sponsored by nearly every city and featuring various kinds of food and sweets, as well as presents and nativity scene, one of Italy’s most popular Christmas symbols. The primary gift giving occurs on Epiphany, where traditionally children receive gifts from La Befana, a mythical witch very similar to the Russian Baboushka. The legend goes that an old woman was sweeping her house when the three Magi passed by on their way Bethlehem. They invited her to accompany them, but she refused, claiming that her housework prevented her from taking a long journey. After they left, she repented and, after collecting a few toys for the Christ Child, set out to overtake the Magi. Because she found neither them nor the Christ Child, she returns annually via her broomstick and descends into chimneys on Epiphany Eve and examines each sleeping child in hopes of finding Jesus. La Befana then fills the stockings or pockets of deserving youngsters with gifts. For the naughty, she leaves a piece of coal. Children write letters to her, describing what gifts they desire, and they hang effigies of the witch as decorations. In some regions, Babbo Natale, Father Christmas, has replaced Befana as the bringer of gifts. On Christmas Eve, there is a small amount of gift-giving centered around the “Urn of Fate”, an urn of bowl that is filled with gifts. Family members reach into the bowl and see what “fate” has in store for them. Christmas Day in Italy is celebrated with a feast and such traditional desserts as panettone (fruit cake). A distinctive Italian Christmas Day tradition is letters written by children to their parents, asking forgiveness for misdeeds committed during the year and voice their appreciation.