Catalan people sometimes think that ourtió, a log that defecates presents when you hit it, is very original. But every country has its own set of unique Christmas traditions. In many places, children get their presents on 6 December, on St Nicholas’ Day, and in other places they have to wait until New Year’s Day. Except Slovenia, where Father Christmas and his alter egos pay a visit three times in one month. There are a wide range of characters responsible for handing out presents: in Italy, it’s a witch, in Iceland, 13 trolls and in Greece, the presents appear under a miniature ship. Portugal has kept its ancestral tradition of bonfires for the winter solstice, and in Austria, St Nicholas has a feared helper, the Krampus, who is almost more popular than him.
St Nicholas’s Day, when Northern European children get their presents. In the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, etc., the main festive day is 6 December, because St Nicholas brings children their presents. This 4th century Turkish bishop is considered to be the patron saint of children because legend says that he resurrected some children that a butcher and his wife had killed. But the European St Nicholas and Father Christmas, who are sort of related, are very similar in appearance: an old man with a long white beard, dressed in red and white.
The three good Slovenian boys In Slovenia, a country which is far from St Nicholas’ sphere of influence, we have the “three good boys”. They are three charming old men who bring presents to the children on different days; on the night of 5 December St Nicholas pays visit, on Christmas Eve, it’s the turn of Santa Claus, who brings the best presents, and in may areas of the country they have a parade for Grandfather Frost, who also gives out some toys.
The Tyrolean Krampus In Austria St Nicholas’s Day is a deeply-rooted tradition, but the devil that usually accompanies him has ended up being more popular than the saint. This is Krampus, who has a body covered in black hair. He is the one who warns children that if they aren’t good, they won’t get any presents. Especially in the Tyrol region, on the eve of 6 December, groups of young people dress up as Krampus for parades that have been named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity event.
The 13 ‘jólasveinar’ from Iceland. Every day, from 12 December to Christmas Eve night, a horrifying troll arrives in Icelandic towns and cities. There are 13 of them in all, each one has a specific name and appearance, and they are known generically as ‘jólasveinar’. At night, they leave little presents in the shoes of children who have been good, and potatoes for children who have been bad. After Christmas, when it is time for them to leave, they disappear into the forest, one by one, until 6 January.
The Christmas Markets of Central Europe. One of the most deeply-rooted Christmas traditions is the Christmas market, particularly in Central Europe. They are held in many cities in Belgium, Austria, Hungary, etc. Among the most popular are the German ‘christkindlesmarkt’ The one in Nuremberg is the oldest in Europe, dating from 1628, but the ones in Cologne and Munich are really spectacular. In addition to selling all kinds of typical Christmas things, you can get ‘glühwein’, a mulled wine inspired by a Roman recipe.
St Lucia in the Scandinavian peninsula. White and light are the main features of a Scandinavian Christmas, which culminates in the St Lucia festival. On 13 December, groups of young people give Christmas carol concerts, dressed in long white tunics and holding candles. The girls wear blueberry crowns and the boys have golden stars and conical hats. The procession is always led by a girl who acts as St Lucia. She wears a crown with seven candles to light the way and keep her hands free, just like the saint did, according to legend, so she could look after sick people better.
Nativity scenes, beyond the Mediterranean basin The nativity scene is a strong tradition in the northern region of the Mediterranean, especially in Catalonia and Naples. In Malta, the ‘presepju’ are the stars of the Christmas season, and every home tries to make their nativity scene nicer and more elaborate than their neighbour’s. Living nativity scenes, done on a large scale, are also popular on the island. However, far from the Mediterranean, nativity scenes are also very popular in Poland. In the region around Krakow, they hold nativity competitions, or ‘szopikarkowskie’, as they are known there.
Father Christmas’ Finnish home Legend puts Father Christmas’ house in Lapland. More specifically, it says he lives in a remote place called Korvatunturii, and only the reindeer that pull his sleigh know how to get there. But it’s common knowledge that he has central offices in Rovaniemi, which you can visit all year round and see how his sophisticated logistics work.
The first Christmas carol in the world was Irish. There are lots of Christmas carols in all languages that refer to the birth of Jesus, Christmas or winter in general. But the oldest of them all is ‘Wexford Carol’. It dates back to the 13th century and is part of a manuscript found in an Irish monastery at the beginning of the 20th century. The original Gaelic lyrics refer to the birth of the Messiah, but the English version has also become very popular.
Christmas Bonfires in Portugal. Fire, which has strong links to the summer and winter solstices, is one of the outstanding features of a Portuguese Christmas. Especially in the north of the country, fires are lit in the inner courtyards of churches on Christmas Eve, and they stay lit until 6 January, when the cycle ends. This festival, which seems to have Celtic origins, is called ‘fogueiras do Menino’ and represents the triumph of light over darkness.
Trying 13 desserts for good fortune. The city of Marseilles is the source of a curious tradition that has spread throughout the South of France: they say that during Christmas dinner, you have to try 13 different desserts if you want good luck for the new year. What’s more, the repertoire for these desserts is more or less fixed; there has to be nougat (the French version of turron), a biscuit made from flour, olive oil and oranges, known as ‘gibacié’, an assortment of candied fruit, in-season fruit, such as grapes, figs, nuts…
Britain’s Boxing Day. Although it is also held on 26 December, there is absolutely no resemblance to our Sant Esteve [St Stephen’s Day]. It’s origins are uncertain, but it seems it could be connected to boxes and the donation of left-overs on the day after Christmas Day; the gentlefolk gave their left-over food to the poor and the churches shared out the midnight mass alms collection among the needy. Later on, it became the day on which business people gave their employees their Christmas hampers.
St Basil, or when presents arrive on 1 January. In Greece and Cyprus, children receive their presents on the first day of the year, which is St Basil’s Day. Furthermore, tradition dictates that the presents don’t appear under the tree, like in many other places, but under a ship. This is why most houses have a miniature wooden ship, which is decorated with lights at Christmas. And in Cyprus, they eat a cake with a coin hidden inside, which they believe brings good fortune to the person who finds it.
The Italian witch Befana. An apocryphal legend explains that the Three Wise Men who got lost on their way to Bethlehem were helped by a witch called Befana. They invited her to join them, and although she said no at first, she later regretted the decision. That’s why on every Kings Day Eve (5 January), she flies her broom over the towns and cities of Italy, to see if she can catch up with Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. And on the way, as she’s a good witch, she leaves some presents behind for the kids.