Facts About Christmas in Europe
While it sometimes feels like the movies, music, and TV shows that portray Christmas have, in a sense, standardized the Christmas holiday for many people in America, there are still a wide variety of unique traditions and celebrations in Europe that have roots that go back hundreds of years. Before all the Christmas television specials, photo Christmas cards, and last-minute shopping, many other countries had developed some great ways to celebrate the season.
This country knows how to take the “naughty or nice” thing to its logical conclusion. If someone is going to show up to deliver a reward for the nice, it only makes sense that someone else should be there to deliver the punishment for the naughty. On Saint Nicholas’ Days (Dec. 6), the Saint would show up at homes, schools, or public events and put goodies in children’s shoes. Sometimes though, he shows up with Knecht Ruprecht, who is usually dressed somewhat diabolically and is carrying a small whip or stick. (It must be said, though, that his job is mostly to stand there and be threatening to remind the naughty what could happen if they don’t straighten up.)
The decorations start going up in Italy around December 8 during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and they aren’t taken down until January 6, the Celebration of Epiphany. A common practice in between these times is to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and then follow a tradition of not eating meat that day. Their special dinner, then, is often made up of many courses of seafood.
Christmas here is often about remembering any relatives and friends who have passed on. Many people arrange to have prayers said for their dead relatives during Mass and decorate graves with wreaths of holly and ivy. This is still a time to for celebration, though, and the season doesn’t officially end until January 6, which is sometimes called Little Christmas.
Just before the official Christmas festivities really start, many people in Finland will take a special Christmas Sauna. This is a little different from normal because a person would usually hit the sauna in the evening, but on Christmas Eve they will go just before sunset. This is a tradition that goes back before the 20th century when it was believed that this was a time when the spirits of the dead would come back and use the sauna during those hours.
Depending on the exact region you are in, the Christmas festivities may start on December 6 (Saint Nicholas Day) or December 13 (Saint Lucy’s Day). Much like in Germany, gifts may be given by those saints, but they are often accompanied by a far more dour person to keep the children on their toes. In Croatia, families will also plant wheat seeds in a bowl of water on Saint Lucy’s Day so it will grow a few inches by Christmas Day. It is then bundled together with a ribbon so it can hold three lit candles that represent the Trinity.
Of course, these are just the tip of the iceberg. Every country in Europe will have its own traditions and celebrations – whether it’s a special kind of Christmas card or a city-wide event – and each one is unique. If you take a closer look at some of the activities and celebrations from these areas, you might just find some things you want to add to your own family’s traditions.