Buon Natale, Joyeux Noël, Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Fröhliche Weihnachten
Winter is a wonderful time to visit to truly immerse yourself in the culture of Christmas. Glühwein or Glögg? Gingery Lebkuchen or torrone? The festive period, and the season of Christmas markets, is upon us. Large or small, each market reflects the culture of the region – food, drink, music and more. Here are 16 of Europe’s best. The Christmas traditions of Europe have their roots in ancient practices. In Europe, “Christmas” lasts much longer than a day. The season stretches well over a month, not for shopping but to enjoy the many holy days and pagan festivities.
First comes Advent, beginning four Sundays before Christmas Eve. Next up is the Feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated mostly in Catholic countries on December 6. For many Europeans, the season’s main event is Christmas Eve, celebrated with Midnight Mass and a grand meal. Others focus more on Christmas Day and gift-giving. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” stretch from December 25 until January 6, which is Epiphany, the day the Three Kings delivered their gifts.
Advent wreath and calendar
During Advent, which is the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day, both the Advent wreath and calendar are used to help build anticipation and educate children about the story of Christ’s birth. The wreath holds four candles and is placed in a prominent location. On each of the four Sundays before Christmas, a new candle is lit. Sometimes a fifth candle is also included to be lit on Christmas day. The wreath has been attributed to German minister Johann Hinrich Wichern of Hamburg in 1839. Wichern volunteered in an orphanage and each Sunday before Christmas used the wreath to accompany Advent prayers.
Advent calendars also originated in Europe in the 19th century as a fun way to count down the days before Christmas. The calendar has 24 windows and doors. Beginning Dec. 1, a door is opened each day to share a different picture and Nativity story. Sometimes treats or small gifts await behind the doors.
Christmas markets or “Christkindlmärkte/Weihnachtsmärkte”
Dating back to the Middle Ages, these markets began as a way for local merchants to sell practical goods and food to prepare for the long winter. The markets transformed into beautiful, traditional meeting places to eat, drink and buy goods and gifts and celebrate the coming of Christmas. Most towns and cities have their own Christmas markets, which usually open on the first weekend of Advent. They exude a fantastic atmosphere and offer great shopping opportunities.
Many traditional holiday foods are found at the markets. Dresden’s 14th century “Strietzel,” or “Christstollen,” the namesake of their Christmas market called Strietzelmarkt, is a sweet, dense loaf bread of dried fruits and spices. Nuremberg offers both its famed 12th-century sausages and lebkuchen, a soft gingerbread sold and shipped in gift boxes worldwide. Glühwein, or “glow wine,” is an ever-present alcoholic drink found at markets. This hot, mulled wine helps stave off the cold as you visit with friends. Perhaps it receives its name from the “glow” that comes after you’ve had a few. The wine’s potency does have a way of sneaking up on you.
The Christmas tree and decorations
The Christmas tree was first documented in Germany in the 16th century. For thousands of years before, evergreen boughs were used to decorate great halls during Winter Solstice as symbols of everlasting life during the winter months. Evergreens were incorporated into Christmas because the symbolism was mirrored in the Christian faith.
Originally, Christmas trees were adorned with edible décor. Candles were later added for illumination, and carved wooden ornaments were created to hold the candles and fill the tree. The 20th century brought electricity and lights replaced candles, but many of these traditional and popular wooden decorations are still made by hand. For authentic Ore Mountain treasures, visit “The Christmas Lady” at Galerie Wagner in Kindsbach or go to Kunsthandwerk & Design in Tübingen-Kressbach near Stuttgart. Both of these wonderful stores offer authentic, German handmade items including pyramids, nutcrackers, smokers and nativity scenes hand-carved in the famed Erzgebirge. Either buy for yourself or send a timeless gift to a loved one at home.
Some families in Germany still honor the old tradition on Christmas Eve, “Heiligabend,” when the tree is decorated by one parent and then illuminated for the children that evening. Traditional Christmas dinner and festivities will follow. Both Dec. 25 and Dec. 26 are considered holidays in many European countries to spend time with family and friends.
Christmas Traditions in France
In France, Christmas is a beautiful, festive time of year. French Christmas traditions share some similarities with other European cultures and yet has it’s own unique ones as well. In France, Christmas is called Noël. This comes from the French phrase “les bonnes nouvelles,” which means “the good news” and refers to the gospel. The Christmas season in France begins with St. Nicholas Day which is December 6th. Historically, gifts were always exchanged on this day, at least for children. Nowadays, some families have retained this tradition, while others have changed their gift-giving date to Christmas Eve, when “Père Noël” (Santa Claus) visits the homes of children. In many countries, families gather and give gifts on Christmas Day, but French people tend to exchange gifts on the night of Christmas Eve (le réveillon (de Noël)), rather than on Christmas Day (Noël/le jour de Noël).
Stores in France usually have some kind of Christmas decorations, although it may be subtle. Typically, stores don’t play Christmas songs – at least not to the extend of what I experienced in the US. Strolling the big department stores in large cities in France, like “les grands magasins” in Paris at Christmas time is really a pleasure: the Christmas tree at “les Galeries Lafayette” is spectacular, different each year and worth a detour!
For religious families, the Christmas season begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. These four Sunday masses are special ones at Catholic churches, much like the Christmas Eve midnight mass is easily distinguished from a generic Sunday mass. From the specialty lighting on the streets at night, to singing in churches, the Christmas season lasts throughout December and carries on until Epiphany, a full twelve days after Christmas, known as the Feast of the Kings (La Fête des Rois), on January 6th. To celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany boulangeries sell galette des rois (translates to pastry of the king), flat round pastries that come with gold paper crowns. Inside the galette, bakers place a fève, usually a small plastic trinket, is hidden inside the cake. The one who finds the fève is crowned king or queen for a day.
Santon Figures – Provence, France
“La crèche” is an important French Christmas tradition. It’s part of the French Christmas decorations, and is a traditional element of the French Catholic Christmas. “Une crèche”, a Christmas manger in English, represents the night of the birth of baby Jesus. The essential characters of “la crèche” are Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, usually a donkey and an ox, sometimes the 3 kings. Typically, a Christmas manger in France would feature many little figurines, also called “un santon“, representing towns folks as they gather around the stable for the birth of baby Jesus.
Santons (“little saints”) are small hand-painted terracotta nativity figurines made in the Provence region of southeastern France. The figures represent various people from late 18th to 19th century Provençal village life, including the miller, the baker, the scissors grinder, the fishwife and the chestnut seller. Marseilles artisan Jean-Louis Lagnel made the first santons of clay in the late 18th century during the French Revolution when large nativity scenes were banned from public display. Today, creating santons is a family craft passed down through the generations. Santons are traditionally made of clay that is molded into two halves, which are then fused together. Intricate details such as hats, baskets and other accessories then are applied with an adhesive.Santons were air-dried through the 19th century, but the modern process includes kiln drying, which makes the figures less fragile. After a figure is completely dry, it is dipped in a gelatin bath for hardening. Then an artist hand paints its face, hair and clothing. Since each figure is hand painted, it is a unique piece of art. Many people collect the colorful figures, adding to their family’s Santon nativity set with a new figure or two each year. The Musée du Santon (et des Traditions de Provence) located in Fontaine de Vaucluse, France has a collection of more than 2,500 santons on permanent display.
The French Christmas Feast
As with any special day in France, food is a focal part of Christmas traditions. The special Christmas meal in France is most often served following the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. This meal is called “le Reveillon”, and the food served varies from region to region and from family to family. Expect a large meal, starting with soup or other appetizer followed by a delectable dessert (most often the “Bûche de Noël” or Christmas Log) and a cheese platter. Popular main courses are goose and other exotic poultry, as well as seafood (oysters (huîtres), scallops (coquilles Saint Jacques), smoked salmon (saumon fumé)) and, of course, foie gras. This last one is the star of Christmas. Not all French people eat foie gras (although that’s usually simply because they don’t like it, rather than animal rights-related issues), but for most of the population, it’s the essential part of a true holiday celebration. Different surveys show between 80% and 60% of the French consider foie gras a holiday “must”.
In French fashion, the meal will last a long time, be served on a beautifully-set table, and be accompanied by wine. On Christmas Eve, many families do not wait until December 25th to unwrap the gifts! Usually, the kids will start unwrapping after midnight mass on Christmas Eve, while the parents are feasting on delicacies and Champagne!
Enjoying the Christmas Season in France
Many towns will have un marché de Noël – A Christmas market in France: small wooden châlet like stands selling local arts and crafts, special Christmas food such as le pain d’épice (gingerbread), regional delicacies, handmade clothing, des décorations de Noël (ornaments)… Lots of things. Even if they tend to be expensive, it’s really fun to roam the market and gaze at everything and Christmas markets are very popular among French people.
Should you find yourself in France at Christmas, or in the month leading up to it, be sure to enjoy the atmosphere. Many larger towns, especially those in the Alsace region, have Christmas markets that provide a wealth of decorations and crafts, as well as an unforgettable Christmas atmosphere. The Christmas season in France is a delightful one, infused with great food, and music, lighting, and decorations to lift the spirit.
Christmas Traditions in Italy
Italy may be considered one of the world’s best summertime escapes but there are many advantages in visiting during the winter months. When you travel during low season, you’ll find fewer tourists, optimal skiing conditions in the north with mild temperatures in the south and a festive spirit around the holidays.
Italians call Christmas “Il Natale”, meaning “the birthday” and is a major holiday in Italy… which means Italians celebrate lots of great, unique Christmas traditions! Across Italy, “Natale” tends to be a time spent with family, a time to stay at home with loved ones. Customs differ from region to region, dishes served on Christmas Eve and Christmas day vary, each Italian region becoming an even more interesting place to enjoy the holidays. Christmas Holidays officially kicks off with the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on December 8. This is generally when decorations go up (both on the streets and inside Italian homes) and when some Christmas markets start.
Decorations and huge Christmas trees can be found in main piazzas, like in front of the Colosseum in Rome or in Milan’s Piazza Duomo, and “Babbo Natale” (Father Christmas, the Italian version of Santa Claus) spreads holiday cheer. Along with the fancy lights, wreaths and trees, “presepi” (nativity scenes) are displayed in many churches and piazzas. The tradition of creating the Nativity scenes actually comes from Italy, from Saint Francis of Assisi who made the first live one in the 13th century (1223). He hit on the idea of recreating the birth of Christ in a way that everyone could understand. Crafting these ornate works of art by hand remains an artisan tradition in many parts of the country. If you want to go to the source, head to Naples; the southern Italian city is world-famous for their hand-made “presepi”. It still has whole streets with one workshop after another devoted to the craft.
Traditions vary from city to city: up north, in the Italian Alps and the Dolomites, they ski down the slopes with torches at midnight to welcome Christmas. On Christmas Day, Italians invite their family and friends for a large lunch that usually goes on all day serving up traditional dishes and desserts like “panettone” (an oven baked holiday cake originating from Milan). Gifts are commonly exchanged on Christmas Day after lunch. But some smaller, northern Italian cities also celebrate “Santa Lucia” day, saint protector for the blind, who brings gifts for children on December 13.
Santa Lucia and her flying donkey
In some Northern Italian areas, especially in parts of Lombardy and the Veneto, Santa Lucia is said to bring gifts each December 13th. Accompanied by her faithful flying donkey, Santa Lucia rewards good children and gives coal to the cattivi (naughty) kids. To celebrate her arrival, children often leave a carrot out for her donkey and coffee for Santa Lucia. In the city of Verona, the townspeople erect a huge Christmas market in honor of Santa Lucia.
January 6, commonly known as the Epiphany marks the closing of all Christmas celebrations. That is when “la befana”, kind of a “good witch” who is believed to have followed the wise men, but got lost, drops off presents. The “befana” is a pagan tradition in Rome and Bologna, where the main piazzas often host fun activities for children; in Venice, locals believe that the “befana” arrives every year by boat!After the family dinner on Christmas Eve many Italians head to midnight Mass at their local church to celebrate. (Some Romans even head to the Vatican for Mass with the Pope!).
Mercatini di Natale
Chestnuts roast on a fire.Torrone tempts your taste buds. Strings of lights blink overhead. Where are you? In a mercatino di Natale or one of Italy’s Christmas markets. Throughout November and December, towns big and small are home to outdoor holiday bazaars — selling tempting treats like candied nuts, carved ornaments, and local toys. It’s one of the country’s most beloved Italian Christmas traditions.
Presepi – Naples, Italy
Visitors to Naples, Italy flock to the Via San Gregorio Armeno. On this historic pedestrian street – sometimes calls “Christmas Alley” – artists create intricate presepi. In Italian, “presepio” means “crib” or “crèche.” Although these Italian artists work all year on their craft, the best time to visit Via San Gregorio Armeno is in the early fall when they are preparing their shops for the Christmas season. Visitors can watch them as they hand carve and hand paint their figures. Many collectors begin with the Holy Family and then purchase new presepi each year as they create their own tiny village. Some presepi include running water, electric lighting and elaborate backdrops. The Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples houses the largest nativity scene in the world. It features more than 160 human figurines, 80 animals, 28 angels and more than 400 other miniature objects.
In some parts of Italy, like in Manlio’s region of Friuli, the Pignarul (bonfires), when communities come together to mark the occasion, drink mulled wine and sing. It’s one of the oldest rituals in the region, with origins dating back to pre-Christian times. As evening falls and darkness begins to chase away the light, all over Friuli hundreds of bonfires are lit at sunset on 5 January, but more frequently on 6 January, to mark the winter solstice. It is said that you can tell the future, and especially the coming year’s harvest, by the direction in which the bonfire smoke blows.
Italian Christmas meals
My husband, who is Italian born and raised, told me that they really never had a specific Italian dinner, unlike the US or Canada where turkey or a spiral ham is tradition.
Historically, especially in southern Italy, Christmas was one of the few days of the year where poor people could eat rich, expensive dishes made with meat, sugar and exotic spices. The motives may have changed, but the tradition hasn’t, and in certain parts of Italy, their Christmas lunch is quite a feast. The antipasti almost always include cured meats and cheeses. Many regions, in fact, have special “Christmas salamis,” which are meant to be cured until the holidays. More elaborate dishes are also common, like vitello tonnato (cold roast veal with a tuna-spiked mayonnaise sauce from the region of Piemonte), or infinite variations on frittata. Christmas pasta almost always has some sort of meat in it. Throughout Italy, but especially in Emilia-Romagna, one finds the incomparable tortellini in brodo—meat-stuffed circles in a golden broth of beef and capon.
In the south of Italy, there’s pasta al forno, or baked pasta. A true “everything but the kitchen sink” celebration of abundance, pasta al forno might have long-simmered ragù, fried tiny meatballs, salami, hard-boiled eggs, chunks of cheese and a rich béchamel sauce, all baked together until the top is crisp and the inside gooey and impossibly rich.
Normal Italian meals usually don’t include much meat—maybe one sausage a person, or a thin cutlet. Christmas is an exception. From the tortellini broth, there’s succulent boiled meat, called bollito, traditionally served with salsa verde (piquant green sauce) or mostarda (candied fruit in spiced syrup). Some type of roast is very common, like roast baby lamb in Rome, or a baroque faraona ripena (guinea fowl stuffed with ground meat and spices).
And, of course, there are desserts. The two most common are panettone and pandoro. Both are sweet, bread-like cakes, boxes of which can be found stacked high in shops in the weeks before Christmas. The Panettone originates in Milan. It has a distinctive dome-shaped top and traditionally contains citrus peel and raisins or candied fruit – though all kinds of variations are available. The dough contains yeast and is cured in a similar way to sourdough – it needs to be left rise three times before being baked. The Pandoro (literally, “golden bread”) is from Verona. This star-shaped vanilla-scented cake gets its yellow color from the eggs in the batter. It’s light, airy, and plain, and is usually dusted liberally with icing sugar before serving.
Note: The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is an Italian-American tradition in which families eat seven types of fish on Christmas Eve. It is not typically found in Italian families.
Christmas traditions in Spain
Christmas is a big deal here in Spain, where it’s seen first and foremost as a time for family gatherings and old friends. Aside from the major religious celebrations, there are a number of regional festivities and traditions to look forward to as well. If you don’t want to miss out on anything over the holiday season, read our guide to celebrating Christmas in Spain like a true local. The Christmas season properly kicks off on December 8 in Spain, with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This day is a religious celebration, and many Catholics here attend church to mark the occasion. While there’s not much going on in terms of public celebrations on that day, it does very much signify the beginning of the festive season.
From then onwards, nativity scenes, Christmas lights, roasting of chestnuts picked in the mountains, and all other kinds of holiday traditions commence in the build up to December 24th. Although not directly associated with Christmas, you may want to consider buying a ticket for the Christmas lottery, nicknamed El Gordo (the Fat One) in reference to the big prize. About three out of every four Spaniards enter the lottery, which is believed to be the largest in the world. The winners are drawn on December 22nd every year, and the tot al prize money available is upwards of €2 billion each year.
Known as Nochebuena, Dec 24 is the first big celebration. Businesses and shops close around 3pm that day to allow workers get home and prepare meals or go out and have a pre-dinner drink or two before the family evening meal starts at 9pm or even 10pm. Fish and seafood are popular for this meal.
There are Christmas markets organized in all big towns and cities in Spain, and they tend to have remained quite traditional. Most markets sell a mixture of decorations, gifts, and usually Christmas trees too. Building your own nativity scene at home is also a popular Christmas tradition, and markets usually sell everything you need from miniature figurines to moss and straw for the manger.
In Spain, presents are exchanged on the Epiphany (The Three Kings) celebrated on January 6th. Something typical for Spain is having El roscón de reyes (it’s a cake filled with creme) before or after opening the presents. A funny custom related to it is that there are always a ‘king’ and a ‘bean’ hidden in a cake. If you get a bean, you’re responsible for buying El roscón de reyes next year. And if you get a king, then you need to put a crown on your head. Churros and hot cocoa are also very traditional to have on that day.
Time to Go to the Market
Food plays an important part in Spanish culture any time of the year, but around Christmas, there are certain dishes and ingredients which are even more important. While nut season may be coming to an end, you’ll find that the stores fill up with the nut-based treat known as turrón. Made with honey and eggs, this seasonal treat is everywhere at Christmas, and any excuse for a little bit of turrón here and there is a good one. Another favorite Christmas time treat is the polvorones and mantecados, a type of shortbread made using pork fat instead of butter and sold in a variety of different flavors: cinnamon, nut, citrus, etc. Of course, the iconic Spanish cured ham jamón Iberico features heavily on the Christmas menu too, but now is the time to splash out on the more expensive kinds. Look for the mention of bellota, which means the ham was fed on acorns, giving it a distinctive nutty flavor, making it all the more mouthwatering. This is the time of the year when seafood is also particularly appreciated, and there will be plenty to choose from at the market. Upgrade your regular prawns for Palamós prawns (from the port of Palamós in Catalonia) for extra approval, and try something a little different like the tiny tallarines or even razor clams. We toast with cava in Spain, and enjoy this bubbly drink for everything from appetizers to dessert. That’s right, cava and lemon sorbet is a traditional holiday dessert in Spain.
Celebrating Christmas and the Three Kings
The 24th and 25th are days for feasting with family and close friends and also partaking in mass and religious celebrations. Many shops and businesses close early on the 24th. Most people in Spain still identify as Catholic and so for this reason, after the main meal on Christmas eve, it’s normal for some families to head to church for the misa de gallo; midnight mass. This special service is an affirmation of faith, and one of the most-attended Church events of the year! This special mass is a time for families to get together each year and give thanks.
Santa Who? That’s right; Santa Claus doesn’t come to Spain. Instead, Spanish girls and boys get their presents from the Three Wise Men. And these Reyes Magos don’t come on December 25th, either! Nope, kids here have to wait until January 6th, the day of the Epiphany, the day of the Three Kings. Before heading to bed, each child leaves out a slipper in the same way a stocking may be hung elsewhere – for the present. A drink might be left out for the kings and something for the camels as well. This is a religious celebration of the arrival of the three Wise Men to visit baby Jesus, and it is customary for gifts to be given to children on that day in homage to the gifts brought by the Kings. But it’s worth the wait! On the day the Reyes come, locals flock to the streets to greet them. There’s a massive parade, and the Three Wise Men ride atop floats and throw candy to the masses. Known as cabalgatas, these floats are one of the highlights of Spanish Christmas! But if waiting those 12 extra days seems too hard, don’t worry. Nowadays, kids in Spain usually open a few presents on Christmas Day as well. It’s also customary during this time to eat a special pastry known as Roscón de Reyes, a circular pastry filled with cream and covered with colorful candied fruit.
El Portal de Belén
If you visited Spain fifty years ago, you might have struggled to find Christmas trees during the holidays. While they’re more common now, these are a pretty recent addition to the Navidad lineup. In more traditional households, however, you’ll still find the classic portal de Belén (also known as the belenismo). Incredibly ornate, these gorgeous nativity scenes are the old-school way of decorating your house come Christmas. There are plenty of Christmas markets across the country that specialize in handmade figurines and icons—from the baby Jesus to the Three Wise Men and a flock of sheep. You’ll see them appearing in store windows from the start of December, and big companies will open their doors to families, and show off their extensive nativity scenes to the public.
If you are looking for some of the strangest Christmas traditions in Europe, look no further than Catalonia. This region prides itself on being distinct from Spain, and when it comes to Christmas, it’s no different. Of course, Catalonia takes part in some of those typical Spanish Christmas customs such as the Mass of the Rooster, a big Christmas Eve dinner, and The Three Kings on January 6th.
However, what makes the Catalan Christmas so unique, is one central figure: the Caga Tió (or Tió de Nadal). The Caga Tió quite literally is a pooping log. Every year on December 8th, the tió is brought in from the forest. He is given a blanket because he is cold, and food to eat because he is hungry. In fact, he is given so much food that, just before Christmas, he has to poop. So, naturally, being the giving people they are, the Catalans have to help him with this endeavor. A few kids are rounded up, given a stick, and begin to hit the tió while singing a song in Catalan that roughly means, ‘poop sweets tió, if you don’t want to poop, we will hit you with the stick’. After one, two, maybe three tries, the children look under the blanket and discover something every kid would love to see. The tió has ‘pooped’ out sweets.
What at first glance seems like a weird Christmas tradition, turns into this fun, elaborate way for children to get Christmas candy from their parents. It’s one of the most unusual Christmas traditions in Europe.
Vin Brulé/Vin Chaud (mulled wine) Recipe
A favorite drink in the Christmas markets in France and in cozy cabins in the Alps, Vin Chaud, or French mulled wine, is not only the perfect winter drink, but also delightfully easy to make yourself. Why not be transported to the Italian and French Alps in your own kitchen with the spicy aroma of ‘Christmas in a glass’
Vin Chaud was originally made as a means of saving wine that had gone bad—by adding sugar and spices it often made the wine drinkable again. Today it is a traditional wintertime drink.
2 bottles of red wine
1-2 star anise (cloves)
2 sticks cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
Peel the skin from the orange and lemon. Combine the fruit skin, spices, sugar, and just enough wine to cover the sugar in a saucepan. Heat the wine to boiling and stir constantly until it becomes syrup; add the rest of the wine and keep warm (at this point not boiling, so as not to evaporate the alcohol).