Every year it seems that chocolate Santas begin filling supermarket shelves earlier than the last, and with it putting a damper on our Christmas spirits before the holiday season has even started. At Christmas markets, too, it seems that it’s the same procedure as last year, year after year. Just a smidge of variety would be nice to have to help us get us in the holiday spirit. The hark and behold! How grand indeed that our European neighbors have traditions that we do not. If you are planning on taking a weekend trip during the Christmas season to some other destination in Europe, you can experience new traditions while enjoying some time away from the pre-Xmas stress. Here are some of the best Christmas traditions Europe has to offer.
Christmas markets are not just limited to the famed Christkindlmarkt in Nuremberg. In fact, on the French-German border, just a car ride away, is Alsace, which is especially bathed in light come Christmas time. Everything is decked out in holiday décor and even the smallest villages have Christmas markets steeped in tradition.
The regional capital Strasbourg is high atop nearly every traveler’s itinerary—which should not come as a surprise, as it calls itself “Capitale de Noël,” the Christmas capital. The name is certainly apt as the historic city center is home to France’s oldest Christmas market. Glühwein, candied almonds and all kinds of artistic Christmas decorations are given out to good little boys and girls from Pére Noël (France’s Santa Claus), while kids who’ve been bad are snubbed by Hans Trapp—or even stuffed in a sack.
Alsatians also claim to be the inventors of the Christmas tree tradition. The first decorated Christmas tree is said to be from 1539 and put on display as a symbol of the city.
The Christmas season officially begins in Italy on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. From that day forward, the country is full of culinary delights, intricate nativity scenes and colorful parades and fests.
In southern Sicily, the Festival of Saint Lucia starts on December 13, which is usually celebrated in Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia. Similar to Saint Nick, Saint Lucia brings sweets and small gifts to well-behaved boys and girls. After the procession is finished, the streets are lined with vendors selling savory arancine (fried rice balls) or sweet Torrone dei Poveri. The festivities shorten the waiting time for Christmas Day, when gifts star coming, which are primarily delivered by Italy’s Santa Claus, Babbo Natale.
Donning the role of St. Nick in Italy is a witch called Befana. Like most Italians, she takes her time, not appearing with gifts until January 6. According to legend, Befana missed the star of Bethlehem and with it the gifts that the three Wise Men brought for the Baby Jesus. Ever since she has been searching far and wide for the newborn king. To bring her gifts, she flies down chimneys on her broom to fill stockings with sweets and treats.
The nighttime phenomenon that captivates visitors to the polar circle known as the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, is high on many an intrepid traveller’s list. The best time to make this particular wish come true is around Christmas time. In Iceland, the chance to behold the wondrous celestial spectacle is especially high during the Christmas season. And by paying a visit to the nature baths Mývatn, Iceland lets you combine the feat without getting frostbite on your feet.
If you are really lucky, one of the 13 Christmas trolls may even turn up: the so-called Jólasveinar (aka the Christmas fellows). They take on the job of Santa Claus for Iceland beginning on December 12. One of cranky trolls descends each day from the mountains east of Mývatn lake to place sweets in the shoes of kids who’ve been good and potatoes in those who’ve been naughty.
A brief excursion during the Christmas season to one of the three destinations above not only breaks up any yuletide monotony, but also puts you in the Christmas spirit. Then instead of “Merry Christmas” you hear “Joyeux Noël,” “Buon Natale” or “Gleðileg jól!”
By the way, Iceland is not alone among Scandinavian countries with their own traditions—Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark each have their own unique way of celebrating Christmas. If you would like to learn more about how Christmas is celebrated in northern Europe and learn more about some of the unique Scandinavian customs, be sure to read more here.