European Christmas Traditions

From majestic Alpine slopes to cozy Christmas markets, travelling through Europe in winter truly is a fairytale experience, with plenty of festivities along the way!

The problem is though, while hopping from city to city and country to country, it’s all too easy to miss those small and beguiling details that make travelling so worthwhile in the first place.  

And at no time is this fact more obvious than during the holiday season.

With that in mind, we’ve decided to compile a list of some unique, strange or otherwise endearing Christmas traditions from all over Europe.

UK – The Doctor and the Queen

Christmas in Britain, as with many things, tends to be a rather understated affair – nothing to make a big fuss about. Carol singing, of the sort one might associate with the days of Dickens, is still quite popular in places, though overt sentimentality tends to be viewed with suspicion – stiff upper lip and all that!

Christmas Day is spent with family but true Brits are expected to watch the Queen’s annual speech before their Christmas dinner. That said, year after year, her TV ratings tend to be beaten by another British institution, the Doctor Who Christmas special.

Ireland – Guinness and Cookies

In neighboring Ireland, meanwhile, the faithful attend a special midnight mass on Christmas Eve, while the thirsty go to the pub. In case there’s any confusion as to which side Santa Claus is on, rather than milk and cookies, Santa’s traditional libation while visiting the Emerald Isle has always been a glass of Guinness.

The day after Christmas Day is known in Ireland as Saint Stephen’s Day and it’s a day where people sometimes dress up in raggedy clothes and go busking door to door. This is known as “Hunting the Wren” and is also popular throughout the Irish diaspora, for example in Boston and Newfoundland.

Spain – Festive Logs and Lotteries

While traditionally a summer destination for tourists, you owe it to yourself to visit Spain during the Christmas. There’s something truly magical about meandering through tiny streets and plazas decorated with colorful lights and lavish nativity scenes.

The first big fiesta of the season is the drawing of El Gordo, the Spanish Christmas lottery grand prize, on December 22nd. Dating back to 1812, it’s the world’s second oldest lottery and an essential part any Spaniard’s Christmas festivities. With an estimated 90% of adults taking part, it’s the most popular lottery on the planet and, with €2.3 billion in prizes to be given away this year, it’s also the biggest.

Christmas in Spain is all about feasting with la familia. The dishes vary by region – with coastal regions tending to have more seafood – but always there’s plenty of specially smoked ham.  

The Spanish aren’t a naturally bashful bunch, and bodily functions seems to be no exception. Christmas and constipation go hand-in-hand, but we tend not to talk about it. In the region of Catalonia, however, it’s actively celebrated. Go walking through the streets of Barcelona during the holidays and you’ll be certain to find special logs on sale called caga tió, or crapping lots. Burning these are said to bring good luck. Similarly, you’ll also find little effigies, known as caganers – tiny figurines crouching down taking a number two. These are considered to be symbols of good luck and, in more recent times, also take the form of celebrities and politicians. (Trump and Hillary have been two best-sellers this year!)

Austria – Dragged Straight To Hell

Have you been good this year? You better be! And no, we’re not talking about Santa’s naughty and nice list. Trust me, getting a bag of coal is the least of your worries. Because in Austria naughty kids get beaten, thrown into a sack and then dragged straight to hell by the demon Krampus. Not the most heart-warming of Christmas tales, admittedly, but certainly a great way to ensure over-active children don’t stay up past their bedtime.   

Poland – Full of Carp

Instead of turkey at Christmas the Polish prefer to have Carp, and the main celebration is on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day.

Carp is just one of twelve traditional dishes served (one for each of the apostles). The feast doesn’t begin, however, until the first star is visible in the sky.

If you want good fortune for the year ahead, meanwhile, it’s said that you should keep a scale from the carp in your wallet.

Scandinavia – Christmas Goats

In Scandinavia Father Christmas is depicted as riding a goat –

somewhat surprising for a region that’s famously home to reindeer.

But long before Rudolf there was the Christmas Goat, a belief that actually dates back to pre-Christian times and the Norse feast of Yule.

In Nordic mythology Thor, the alpha god, rode through the sky in a chariot drawn by two giant goats. In the post-pagan era, however, the goat has become synonymous with Christmas.

These goats are commonly found hanging on Christmas trees but the most famous Christmas Goat of all is located in the Swedish town of Galve. Made from wood and hay, and standing as tall as a house, the goat proves an irresistible target to arsons. Despite the best efforts of authorities, including fences and CCTV, pretty much every single year, without fail, the goat is torched.

It’s also the target of cynical Swedish gamblers who love to bet on the goat’s lifespan.  

Italy – Mangers and Witches

Visitors to Italy during Christmas might be forgiven for thinking they’ve got their holidays mixed up.

In addition to exquisite nativity scenes, you’ll also see lots of witches on display. And, although we might associate witches with Halloween, in Italy the Befana, or Christmas Witch, is as popular a figure as Santa Claus – if not more so!

The Befana flies on a broomstick like a traditional witch but, like Santa Claus, she also enters houses through the chimney delivering presents.

She visits children on the eve of the Epiphany, the night before December 6th, when Christmas officially begins. Good children are given bags of candy, while bad children are given coal.

She’s also said to appear in a window in Rome’s famous Piazza Navona, site of one of the country’s most famous Christmas markets. There, both locals and tourists alike can buy delicious treats as well as toy Befana figures as well as special brooms which to sweep away bad luck for the following year.

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