Friday, 12 December 2014 00:00

A merry, wacky European Christmas

Written by Nicoletta Enria
Photo: Bas Ernst; Licence:  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Every January in Italy, an old woman, very similar to a witch, delivers gifts to children (or coal, depending on whether they have behaved well or not during the previous year)


With the Christmas celebrations coming up soon, it's the right time to learn more about traditions that sometimes overlap but can also differ from country to country. Taking advantage of the fact that she's lived in different European cities, Nicoletta Enria uncovers the origins and current life of lesser-known European Christmas traditions featuring, among others, a witch and tasty desserts. Stay tuned on E&M to read more about Christmas traditions in Europe.


Advent has begun and with it the countdown to the most awaited holiday of the year. Christmas decorations appear as if from thin air, the temperature halves and overall the atmosphere seems to be one of blissful joy, no matter what. There is nothing like wondering through a Christmas market or merely observing Christmas decorations and feeling that inexplicable explosion of excitement. Originally, Christmas was solely the celebration of the birth of Christ but, interesting enough, in Arabic the word for birthday and Christmas are the same. Due to its origin, Christmas is mainly celebrated in Christian countries, however it has seeped its way into the atheist homes with each European country, region and household developing its own unique traditions.

 I remember being caught between two cultures, forever dwelling on the fact that I wasn't sure who'd brought my gifts

In Italy, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, Christmas is still mainly valued for its religious attributes. Most important in all families' homes is the nativity crib scene, "Il Presepe". Most stray away from just the nativity scene, staging lively villages alongside with moss, shooting stars and the like. On 24 December, at midnight, baby Jesus is traditionally added to the nativity scene. Oddly enough, there is no set staple dish for Christmas dinner: it can vary across regions, but the Catholic tradition is that of eating fish, as one must abstain from eating meat, followed by world-renowned panettone or pandoro for dessert.


In more Catholic households, Baby Jesus on his donkey brings you gifts instead of Santa Claus. I remember being caught between two cultures, forever dwelling on the fact that I wasn’t sure who'd brought my gifts: were Santa Claus and Baby Jesus collaborating and if so, why were they keeping it a secret? I always laid out two mugs of milk and cookies to ensure no one was disappointed and let them know that their secret was safe with me.


My personal favourite Italian Christmas holiday celebration is the one that takes place on 6 January, because I find it completely different from that of any other country. On 6 January, Epiphany, an old woman known as the Befana delivers a stocking of sweets and small gifts to well-behaved children that have been good, with a nasty surprise of coal for the naughty children.


An Italian nativity scene, "Il Presepe", which is placed in every house. Children move the Magi day by day until they reach Baby Jesus on 6 January 


There is no denying it, no country gets quite as excited about Christmas as Germany. Perhaps as an arctic tundra descends upon northern Europe, Glühwein and other such delicacies and merriments available at the Christmas markets are the only thing to distract people from the miserable temperature and weather. The Christmas markets are like villages within the city, normally built within a day and taken down equally as fast. Every kind of Christmas decorations you could ever possibly imagine, entire districts of the markets dedicated to different objects such as candles, toys or food are to be found in Christmas markets. Plentiful bratwurst and other tasty German delicacies ready to line your stomach for the streams of Glühwein and hot chocolate with shots of rum which await you. At the Hamburg Rathaus Christmas market an electrically-powered Christmas sledge with a Father Christmas greeting the market-goers hovers above the market.


Although there are many speculative theories surrounding the origin of the Christmas tree, most refer back to it's being a German tradition, associating it with Protestant reformer Martin Luther being the first to add lighted candles to his evergreen tree.


German Christmas traditions really embody the Christmas spirit: on 26 December all the decorations disappear, leaving Germany’s inhabitants disappointed and anxiously awaiting the merriment that will return the following year.


Christmas GermanMarkets
A traditional German Christmas market and its beaufitul lights 


Crossing the English Channel, the UK also anxiously awaits the magical day. Differently to other European countries, the UK places more importance on 25 and 26 December. On 24 December (Christmas Eve) children hang up their stockings by the fireplace in antipication of Santa Claus' mystical arrival. Trips to the local pub by the more mature members of the family are often a must in the evening. By the next morning, Santa Claus along with his trusty reindeers Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Rudolf will have filled up everyone’s stockings! Dinner on Christmas Day is a veritable feast with stuffed turkey accompanied by a plethora of side dishes and topped off with Christmas pudding for dessert, which is usually prepared weeks in advance and then set on fire at the table to awaken its flavour.


One British Christmas tradition not drawn from the ancient times is the British Monarch’s Christmas message. The tradition began in 1932 when King George V read out a special speech written by Rudyard Kipling: it was an enormous success and Queen Elizabeth II still carries on this tradition today. Boxing Day (26 December) is also particularly important in the UK as it originated there about 800 years ago, because on that day the churches opened the alms box, collection boxes for the poor, so that its contents could be distributed.


Christmas is a holiday that both divides and unites Europe; we are all united by the merry Christmas spirit and divided in the way that we celebrate it. This, however, is no negative division: rather it celebrates the diversity and uniqueness of each European country. With increasing globalisation, each country begins to pick up traditions of other countries: a house anywhere at Christmas without a Christmas tree seems impossible doesn't it? A heart-warming advert adopted by a British supermarket depicts British and German soldiers during World War One, celebrating Christmas together by the trenches: it is based on true facts and helps us see the uniting element of Christmas and how it truly is the season to be jolly.


Christmas stockings
Christmas stockings awaiting Santa Claus by the fireplace 



Nicoletta Enria


Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, but has lived most of her life in Rome. She is now stationed in London and a third year student at University College London, studying BA Language and Culture with a focus on German and Arabic. She is currently on her year abroad in Hamburg


Last modified on Thursday, 18 December 2014 10:49

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