Winter traditions in Europe
Whether you partake in these winter traditions or have a few special rituals of your own, may you spend quality time with your family and loved ones during the cold, dead of winter.
St. Martin’s Day
November in Germany is inevitably cold, wet and gray. In order to brighten up an otherwise gloomy month, a cheerful tradition was introduced long ago. On the night of November 11, children all over Germany honor St. Martin by marching in lantern parades.
This custom is meant to remind us to emulate St. Martin’s example of goodness, because he always shared everything he had, even down to the clothes on his back. When he met a freezing beggar on a cold winter’s night, he had no money to give him as he had already given it all away. Instead, he cut his cloak in half and gave one half to the poor man, thus saving the latter’s life.
The lesson the children learn as they proudly display their handmade paper lanterns and sing uplifting songs is that we can all share our light with others, especially when things look gloomy and bleak. This is reinforced by the reenactment of the legend of St. Martin which follows the parade.
St. Barbara’s Day
On December 4, it is customary to cut a branch off of a fruit or other blossoming tree, keep it inside in a vase filled with lightly sugared water and wait for the buds to open. If the branch blossoms by Christmas, it is a sign of good luck in the upcoming year.
This custom goes back to St. Barbara, a princess who lived in the 3rd century and was killed by her own father for refusing to give up her Christian faith. Prior to her martyrdom, she was imprisoned in a tower, where she supposedly watered a withered cherry branch, causing it to bloom. Then as now, a blooming branch in the dead of winter symbolizes new life and vitality.
Three Kings’ Day
In Germany, the Christmas season is not over until Three Kings’ Day, sometimes known as Epiphany, which takes place on January 6. This holiday is a celebration of the Three Wise Men following the Christmas Star to go and visit Christ when He was a child.
On and around January 6, children dress up as the Three Wise Men and go from door to door singing songs and collecting donations for the poor. They are known as the Sternsinger, or star singers, because they carry a large star with them, reminding everyone to seek out Christ as the Three Kings did. When they come to visit, they will sing a few songs, bless your house and ask for a donation. Many people will also give the children some candy as a reward for their selfless service, for the children voluntarily spend the entire day walking in the freezing cold in order to help the needy.
The “C+M+B” they inscribe on or above your door does not actually stand for “Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar”, the names of the Three Wise Men, as some people believe. The chalk letters are actually an abbreviation of “Christus mansionem benedicat”, which means “Christ bless this house” in Latin. It is considered bad luck to turn away the Sternsinger and forego having your house blessed for the year.
What is however considered to be good luck is to find the bean or small figurine in the Dreikönigskuchen (Three Kings’ Day cake). In France and some areas of Germany, a special cake is baked with a surprise inside. If you get the piece with something inside, you get to be king (or queen!) for a day and choose your royal court.
January 6 is also the last of the Raunächte (rough nights) in Bavaria, which start on December 21, the winter solstice. This tradition of wearing gruesome costumes at night to scare away evil spirits is a pagan tradition much like Halloween, except that it takes place over the Twelve Days of Christmas. On these nights, supposedly Odin’s – he is the chief God in Germanic mythology – wild armies are out carousing in the stables as well as amongst the houses and must be chased away