We asked six of our trip leaders from around the continent to share their favorite Christmas rituals with us – and we came away with six very different snapshots of how our neighbors across the pond spread holiday cheer.
Our European Trip Leaders Share Their Favorite Holiday Traditions
Posted on Monday, December 5th, 2022
Story by: Ken Lovering | Travel Writer
You might think Christmas is celebrated the same throughout Europe. Viewing the EU through a wide-angle lens, you would generally be right. At the center of many celebrations, locals enjoy a special family meal, religious celebration, and deck out old-town squares and charming houses with festive lights and decorations.
But when you zoom in, you begin to see the details that make each country stand out in its own singular way, from yuletide joys to long held traditions. We asked six of our trip leaders from around the continent to share their favorite Christmas rituals with us – and we came away with six very different snapshots of how our neighbors across the pond spread holiday cheer.
FRANCE: Where Joyeux Noël Means 13 Desserts
Trip leader Véronique Marget enjoys the many holiday traditions of her native Provence. Perhaps her favorite, she jokes, is the fact that “midnight mass is now held much earlier, at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., so people can enjoy a nice dinner afterward.”
The timing also works for her so she can savor her favorite part of the Christmas Eve meal without have to rush off for service – the traditional 13 desserts. In Marseilles tradition, they are said to represent Jesus and the 12 apostles. And Véronique has been known to assemble them all – to delicious effect! They vary by region, but her version may include raisins, dried figs, almonds, and nuts. Each of these first four represents one of the monastic orders: Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians, respectively. The orange is a sign of wealth, while its smaller cousin clementine might be fashioned into a miniature oil lamp. Yellow melons – stored in the attic since September – are retrieved and served with dried grapes. Soft white and hard black nougats are said to symbolize good and evil. There are also candied plums, pears, apples, and quince paste. In many households, the pompes à l’huile, a brioche made with orange flower water and olive oil, takes center stage. “With all these desserts,” Véronique asks, “who needs dinner?”
PORTUGAL: Sharing Dinner with the Dearly Departed
The sweet aroma of grilled chestnuts wafts through the streets of Lisbon and Porto. But they are a tiny part of Portugal’s holiday culinary traditions. “The real banquet begins on the night of the 24th,” says trip leader Hélène Blesbois. The consoada feast traditionally honors the friends and relatives who have passed away. Each year, an empty chair is left at the table so that the alminhas a penar, or souls of the dead, may attend. “It is a lovely sentiment in our culture,” Hélène says. Today, turkey is a common dish, but the most typical remains bacalhau no forno, cod baked in the oven. Portuguese cabbage, potatoes, garlic, and onions are also served, as is – what else? – a fine wine from the Douro Valley.
Then there’s dessert. “Sonhos are my favorite,” Hélène shares. The rich fried confection is made from flour, egg, and butter, then covered in cinnamon and orange zest. A nice port wine or brandy is the ideal pairing. After dinner, leftovers remain on the table so that the hungry spirits can partake of the feast.
SPAIN: It’s All About the Three Magi
The nativity plays a large part in the Spanish celebration of Christmas. “Presents are typically exchanged on January 6th,” explains trip leader Nicolas Alcala. “and they are not brought by Santa, but by the three wise men.” Children write their Christmas wishes to the gift-giving trio, who then make their annual appearance in the Parade of the Three Wise Men (La Cabalgata de Los Reyes Magos) on January 5th or 6th, throwing candy and small gifts into the crowd.
All over Spain, nativity scenes of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the three wise men are much more prevalent than Christmas trees, even in individual homes. “Some of these Portales de Belén, as they are called, may be sitting on a small coffee table” says Nicolas, “while others might dominate a living room or the entrance to a house.” You’ll also see them all over towns and cities.
In what is perhaps a testament to the Spanish sense of humor, Portales de Belén often include a unique character called a cagner, typically depicted as a boy or man yielding to the call of nature. The presence of the cagner brings a sense of mischief to the nativity scene—and, as legend has it, finding the cagner brings good luck. Children and adults alike challenge themselves to find this small, irreverent figure hiding within the Portales de Belén.
ITALY: Embracing Peace in the Nativity … and in Family
It’s no surprise that the Holy Nativity is also ubiquitous in Italy. It was here in 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi, inspired by his recent visit to Bethlehem, created the first live staging. “Every family, neighborhood, and town followed suit,” says trip leader Sandro d’Onofrio. Creations of the presepe natalizio, as it is known in Italy, can be quite elaborate. Actors might play it out every evening in a piazza. Families might collect hundreds of handmade figurines from the presepe natalizio. Some towns even recreate the entire village of Bethlehem, complete with animated windmills, running water, and sound effects.
After cenone, the large dinner on the 24th, everyone dons their holiday best to visit a long list of relatives. Christmas greetings and homemade sweets are exchanged, to be sure, but dropping by also honors family hierarchies. “This is an old and very complicated tradition related to age, family relationships, and ancestors,” explains Sandro. “Forgetting to visit someone is, at best, a reflection of a bad education and, at worst, a personal snub not soon forgiven.” Now that’s a good reason to spread lots of cheer!
SLOVENIA: A Capital City Draped in Festive Lights
Slovenia’s medieval and baroque capital of Ljubljana is a charmer any time of year. And during the holiday season, it is transformed into a raucous festival of lights, making for quite a holly, jolly Christmas. It all begins on November 26 at the stroke of 6:00 p.m., when the Christmas market of the elegant Staro Mesto, or Old Town, is lit up by a dizzying array of lights. Starbursts twinkle, trees glimmer, and garlands of light drape on lampposts like discarded shiny-white necklaces. The contours of many buildings are traced with straight and curvilinear lines of light, turning them into illuminated drawings that evoke a child’s storybook. The Ljubljana Castle perches above it all, a dazzling bejeweled crown in a flood of beryl-blue.
“I enjoy strolling the Christmas market,” says trip leader Damjan Mikolic. “You can find local handmade woolen socks and hats, wooden table games, honey bee liquor, and plenty of delicious treats!”
HUNGARY: Boots on Sills and a Secretive Tree Trimming
“In Hungary, children receive gifts twice during the season,” explains trip leader Natalia Gacs-Toth. On the eve of December 6, St. Nicholas Feast Day, children leave their polished boots on the windowsill so that Mikulás will fill them with juicy oranges and mandarins while they sleep. But the most important day of Christmas is the 24th.
The celebrations begin with a large dinner of fish soup, fried breaded carp, and stuffed cabbage, followed by a beigli, a sweet roll with poppy seeds. “Then the miracle happens,” Natalia continues, “especially for the children.” Hungarians wait until this night to trim their trees and place presents underneath. Often, the grandparents take the kids out for a walk while parents adorn the branches with colorful ornaments and chocolate szaloncukor candies wrapped in shiny red foil. Or the parents shoo away the kids into another room while they trim the tree, calling them in with the ring of a bell when they’re done – and, no doubt, basking in the joy of their tiny tots with eyes all aglow.