Time to deck the halls: exciting Christmas traditions in Europe

Christmas tree and snow

Time to deck the halls... Christmas is just around the corner. And when the time comes, we leap at our cherished traditions. The same family members and friends are always invited and certain procedures are the same every year.

But every family celebrates Christmas differently. Read on to learn how Christmas is celebrated in different countries.

 

Christmas in the Netherlands

Christmas Eve isn’t that big a deal in the Netherlands. In the neighbouring country of Belgium, however, it is another story. Christmas Eve is an important holiday, on which most families sit down and eat together. The Dutch wait until Christmas Day or Boxing Day: over the Christmas period, gourmetten is very popular in the Netherlands. The family sit together at the table in front of an electrical appliance with a grill and various little pans.

Sounds similar to raclette? It is. Sauces and meats are bought – specially prepared packets of gourmetten meat are sold in supermarkets – and served with baguette and vegetables. This is a real Christmas classic for families in the Netherlands!

For New Year’s Eve, oliebollen are traditionally baked. They are made with dough, fried in hot oil and have bits of apple or raisins in them. Every year, the newspaper AD announces the best oliebol (and oliebol bakers) in the Netherlands. In some areas of Belgium, these delicious treats are called smoutebol.

The alternative to Father Christmas/Santa Claus is Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). Some families receive all their presents on St. Nicholas' Day and some only on Christmas – while some families just get double the presents.

 

Christmas in France

Families attend Messe de Minuit on the 24th of December, which means Midnight Mass though it actually takes place early in the evening. After celebrating the birth of Christ in a decorated parish church, everyone heads home, where a feast in the truest sense of the word will be eaten.

For a traditional French Christmas dinner, the choice is between a turkey filled with chestnuts or a plum-filled capon. Oysters or the characteristic foie gras (stuffed geese livers) are often served with these dishes. Fish, cheese platters and other delicacies complete the sumptuous and multi-course Christmas dinner. Particularly important is the bûche de Noël, a biscuit dough cake filled with butter cream.

On the 25th December, which is the only official public holiday for Christmas in France, presents are exchanged.

The Fête des Rois or the Épiphanie (the Epiphany) doesn’t take place on 6th January as it has in the past, instead it takes place on the first Sunday of the new year. This is the end of the Christmas period in France.

Traditionally, a galette des rois, a puff pastry or leavened dough cake filled with an almond cream, is served. In the past, a fève (broad bean) was hidden in this cake but nowadays that has been replaced with a small porcelain or plastic figure. The person who finds the fève is king or queen for the day and must bake or buy a new galette des rois on the following year.

Christmas in Spain

In Spain, Christmas begins on the 22nd December with the Christmas lottery, Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad. Because of the final sum, it is considered the largest lottery in the world and the majority of Spaniards buy tickets for it.

On the 24th December, the whole family gets together and has dinner with each other. After dinner, Misa del Gallo (Midnight Mass) takes place, which marks the official beginning of the festivities.

The 25th December is the only official public holiday for Christmas and is celebrated with a family meal. A Spanish Christmas delicacy which cannot be forgotten is turrón, which is made of roasted almonds, sugar, honey and eggs.

In Spain, presents are usually given on the 6th of January, the Epiphany but in recent years, children receive little presents on the 24th and 25th of December as well.

In Catalan there is a special custom: from the 8th December (the Immaculate Conception), a small man made of a wooden block with two legs and a red barretina (hat), is put in houses and children must feed him every day. The Tió is covered with a blanket so that he doesn’t get a cold. On Christmas Eve, children find presents underneath the blanket, that Tió has excreted. The more you’ve fed him, the more presents you get. The real gift exchange takes place on the 6th of January like in the rest of Spain.

Similar to France, a specific cake is eaten on the 6th of January, the Roscón de Reyes which has two things inside: a figurine and a bean. Whoever finds the figurine in their piece of cake is King/Queen for the day. Whoever finds the bean has to buy the cake the following year.

 

Christmas in Poland

The magic of Christmas begins on Christmas Eve in Poland. That’s the time that the whole family comes together. For this special evening, there are 12 dishes on the table. Traditionally, the celebrations begin as soon as the first star in the sky is visible. As a symbol of love and warmth, bread or wafers are shared with each other before dinner begins.

A special custom: a place at the table is left empty. So that those family members who have passed away or are unable to attend are thought of. Additionally, the empty place represents the readiness to take in an unknown guest. As a sign of modesty and sobriety, meadow hay is placed underneath the tablecloth.

Amongst the most popular dishes are red beetroot soup, breaded carp, uszka (specially formed, filled pasta goods with sauerkraut and dried mushrooms), piroggen, herrings in oil, makówki (a sweet poppy dish) and gingerbread.

After dinner, presents are exchanged. Dependent on the region, presents are received from Father Christmas/Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, the Holy Star or the baby Jesus. After that, Christmas songs are sung and around midnight, the whole family goes to church.

 

Christmas in Italy

The pre-Christmas period begins on the 8th of December in Italy. This day is a bank holiday and marks the point that Christmas decorations should be put up.

For Christmas in Italy, there are two special cakes: panettone and pandoro. The panettone is traditionally a partially baked, sweet dough which contains candied fruit and raisins. Pandoro, in contrast, is a sweet cake made of a dough with eggs, which is very similar to a French brioche. Pandoro is usually baked in a star-shaped cake tin and is sprinkled with icing or vanilla sugar.

When asked about these cakes, Italians fall into two camps: some love their panettone, others swear by their pandoro. Both are not an option.

Presents are first given to Italian children on the 6th of January. The presents are not, however, given by an old, bearded man but instead by an old woman called Befana. She rewards good children with presents and bad children only receive coal.

 

Try something new this Christmas

Even if many of us enjoy celebrating Christmas in the same way every year, maybe you could try out a custom from the Netherlands, France, Spain, Poland or Italy this year.

Merry Christmas!