European Christmas traditions to make your own

European Christmas traditions to make your own

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

For many families, an overseas posting results in forging bonds with the host nation that are destined to last a lifetime. While you don’t have to embrace everything about the place you’re presently calling home, incorporating parts of the rituals locals carry out at Christmas could result in quirky, hybrid celebrations sure to bring back memories of your family stationed abroad in the years to come. Here are just a few holiday practices observed throughout Europe that, with a few flourishes, could be yours and yours alone. Cajun carp, anyone?

Germany: Home baking of  classic cookies

As Advent approaches, many German households embark upon a baking frenzy. For many families, the ritual of whipping up countless plates of “Plätzchen,” or Christmas cookies, ranks top among all holiday traditions. While you could just go to the “Backerei” (bakery), it’s much more fun for multiple generations to gather in the kitchen to lovingly combine butter, eggs, flour and sugar with the spices that announce Christmas: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom and anise. The result of these hours of combined family labor are the “Butterkekse,” “Kipferl,” “Spekulatius,” “Lebkuchen,” “Dominosteine,” “Pfeffernüsse,” “Zimtsterne” and other treats that make this the season of stretch-waist trousers.

Italy: Setting up the nativity scene

The nativity scene, known as “Presepe” or “presepio” in Italian, is an essential part of Italian holiday traditions. These tableaux take the manger scenes you might have seen back in the states to a whole new level. Not only must the figures of baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Magi and shepherds all be in position, essential too is the backdrop, brought to life with plants and rocks, wooden structures and other features. Families across all social classes set up these familiar scenes at home, as well as venture out to take in the sight of the presepe adorning public spaces from churches to central squares. In many communities, the nativity scene is brought to life with actors and live animals. Presepe are traditionally set up on Dec. 8, the date of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and remain in place until at least Jan. 6, the Epiphany feast that commemorates the visit of the Three Kings or Magi.

Those based in Naples won’t want to miss a stroll down the San Gregorio Armeno, the famous street where skilled craftsmen exhibit and sell their carvings – its atmosphere throughout the Christmas season is truly one of a kind. Enjoy a virtual stroll down the lane in all its gritty glory with this video by Antonio Lanni.

England: Pulling Christmas crackers and the wearing of silly hats

Sitting down to the Christmas dinner, a prettily wrapped tube graces each person’s place setting. Neighbor turns to neighbor, each grabs an end, the cracker is pulled and with a cap gun-like “bang!,” the treasure within is revealed: a cheesy gift the likes of what you’d find in a Crackerjax box, a flimsy paper crown and a silly riddle. Tradition dictates you must read the groan-inducing riddle to all assembled and wear the crown throughout the meal. For a quick introduction to the custom, see this video from BBC Learning English.

Denmark: Finding the almond in the Christmas pudding

A traditional dessert on Christmas Eve is “Risalamande,” a creamy rice pudding made all the yummier with the addition of real vanilla, whipped cream and a tangy cherry sauce. French speakers might have deciphered the origins of the dessert’s name, derived from “riz à l’amande.” While the dessert incorporates ample quantities of chopped almonds, the number of whole nuts in it is precisely one. Following the Christmas Eve dinner, guests ladle generous helpings into their bowls and carry on eating until such time as a lucky diner unearths the whole almond in his or her bowl. The lucky finder is then presented with a small token gift such as a marzipan pig or chocolate figure. The Scandinavian Standard offers this rice pudding based on an old family recipe.

Spain: Tending to a log with a very special talent

In Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain, it’s traditional for families to acquire a new household member in the run-up to the holidays. A “Caga Tió,” or “Tió de Nadal,” is a log with a merrily painted face painted on one of its cut sides and wearing a jolly hat. This inanimate friend is lovingly tended to, kept warm with a blanket and fed tasty treats right up until the big day comes. To the accompaniment of singing, the log is knocked with sticks and implored to poop out the nougat candy known as “turrón.” And not, according to the words of the song sung as the beating takes place, salty herring. This video on BBC Mundo shows you how it’s done.

Poland: Keeping the Christmas carp in the bathtub

Carp is a traditional Christmas meal in Poland, Slovakia andthe Czech Republic, and like all fish, it tastes best when served fresh. But it’s often necessary to do one’s food shopping days ahead of the feast itself. So what’s a family to do? Give that fish a temporary home and there’s no better place than in the bathtub. There’s another reason letting the fish bask in freshwater for several days beforehand is a popular custom. As a bottom-feeding species, spending several days in freshwater is thought to clear the fish from mud and swampy off-tastes before it gets plated up. For some families, the fish keeps giving long after the meal’s been eaten: keeping hold of a fish’s scale in one’s wallet is said to ensure good luck. In keeping with feel-good tales at holiday time, there are stories of some families becoming so enamored of their fishy pets that they choose to set them free in a lake or river instead of putting them into the frying pan. To learn more about the Christmas carp tradition, watch this video by Prague Morning.

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