Christmas in Europe is a very special time of year. Each country has unique traditions and it’s a wonderful time to travel across the continent looking at the holiday through new eyes. The village streets are decorated with pristine white lights and an occasional Christmas tree peeks through a window. The commercialism we experience just doesn’t exist on the same level.
The actual day of December 25 is a quiet religious, family holiday in many places. You’ll awaken to the sound of bells ringing and the sight of families strolling to church. Many things are closed, so you’ll want to talk to your hotel in advance to figure out dinner arrangements. You can spend this quiet day going on walks or bike rides around town. Or, consider dropping in to a local church to experience the spiritual side of the celebration in another country.
Just because December 25 is a quiet day, doesn’t mean European countries are lacking in fun traditions, but their traditions are different than ours and may occur on different days. If you happen to be visiting at the right time, here are a few things you can experience first hand.
The big excitement in the Netherlands, revolves around Sinterklaas and his trusty Zwarte Piet. This tradition rules the country for three wild weeks beginning mid-November and culminating on December 5 when children find a bag of toys left by the front door.
The fun and merriment begins with Sinterklaas arriving all the way from Spain. His big arrival into Amsterdam is televised on TV, but if you talk to the locals they’ll all know when he’s scheduled to appear in their particular village. It’s big news. He and his helpers usually arrive by boat down the main village canal, but if there isn’t a canal he’s been known to arrive by bus, train, carriage or horse.
“The fun and merriment begins with Sinterklaas arriving all the way from Spain. “
No matter his arrival mode, you’ll find bands playing loud music, families singing traditional songs, candy thrown to the children and contagious chaos and excitement. Bundle up to await his arrival. The winds off the canals and the North Sea can be brisk in December, but it’s worth it and you can warm up with a hike through the village followed by a Dutch coffee.
If you are going to be in Germany you should plan on visiting a Christmas Market. They are an old, old custom and each market specializes in local, traditional foods and products. They are a fun place for you to meet some of the locals who are selling their homemade wares. You’ll find wonderful things like candles, carved wooden figures, toy dolls made out of fruit, and handmade ornaments. Not only are there products for you to buy and take home, there are delicious things for you to taste right on the spot – baked apples, spiced cakes, gingerbread, roasted almonds, cooked sausages and mulled wine.
“You’ll find wonderful things like candles, carved wooden figures, toy dolls made out of fruit, and handmade ornaments.”
The village will be decorated with white lights, advent wreaths and dazzling Christmas trees. If you’re really lucky, there will at least be a dusting of snow and maybe some children dressed up as kings, singing carols. You’ll find Christmas Markets all over Germany, from Aachen to Wuerzburg, with maybe the most famous being in Nuremberg. We visited the market in Rothenburg ob der Tauber and still decorate our tree with the beautiful ornaments we bought there. Any of these markets will give you a great feel for what Christmas is like in Germany.
You can’t get much closer to the North Pole than this. Consider visiting one of the many resorts you can find in the Lapland region of Finland. In this winter landscape of frozen lakes and snowy woods, you can book packages for whatever type of accommodation you are most interested in, ranging from small isolated cabins to quaint hotels and large resorts with swimming pools and saunas.
“You may even believe in Santa afterwards.”
Once you figure out your lodging, then you are faced with the monumental task of deciding what kind of activities to pursue. Let’s see, are you interested in a reindeer ride or reindeer-lassoing? How about a husky sled ride, or safari? Perhaps you want to cross-country ski, dog sled, snowmobile, toboggan, go for a sleigh ride, or arrange a visit with Santa and his elves. None of those interest you? Well, then you can go view the Northern lights or go hunting for trolls. The air is fresh and clean, the landscape is clear and white, and friends report the experience is truly magical. You may even believe in Santa afterwards.
I confess that I have a favorite place on the planet. I’ve traveled a lot, but my heart always longs for Tuscany, specifically for La Foce. I have talked about this place so often with friends that a few of them have visited as well.
One friend and her family decided to visit during Christmas, which I am bound and determined to do someday (I seem to always be there in hot July.) She reports that the region was quiet and peaceful. The ancient (but updated) villa that they stayed in had an enormous stone fireplace in their apartment, where a fire was always raging. They relaxed, read and played games sprawled in front of the fire, eating cheese and drinking delicious Tuscan wines while her children drank cups of warm chocolate and experimented with locally made sweet treats.
“Instead, they went empty handed and trusted they would found everything they needed. They did. “
Each day they would explore another hilltop village, where they’d buy small Christmas gifts to give to each other on Christmas morning. They did not pack a suitcase full of gifts like so many holiday travelers do. Instead, they went empty handed and trusted they would found everything they needed. They did. When the mood was right, they went for hikes around the beautiful Tuscan countryside, where Cypress trees line the roads and the cold earth crunched beneath their feet. Even though I have a personal fondness for La Foce, I suspect no matter where you stayed in Tuscany you’d have a delightful holiday.
If you’d rather have a little more hustle and bustle, then I suggest you hop on over to London. One of the first things I think of when I think about London is the theatre. This time of year you can find a myriad of festive productions like The Snowman, The Twelve Days of Christmas, A Christmas Carol, and The Night Before Christmas just to name a few.
London is also known for its pantomime productions. These shows are often based on fairy tales, but are really variety shows with singing, dancing and jokes. They are outrageous and hysterical and they’ll definitely propel you into the holiday spirit. For something a little more sedate, but still spectacular, see the English National Ballet production of the Nutcracker.
“Walk through Trafalgar Square where you’ll find carolers and an enormous Christmas tree, which is a yearly gift from Finland. “
When you are out walking and shopping, make sure to visit London’s West End to view the Christmas lights and all the stores on Oxford and Regent Streets. Walk through Trafalgar Square where you’ll find carolers and an enormous Christmas tree, which is a yearly gift from Finland. Find an outdoor ice skating rink and practice your pirouettes or (like me) just try to stay upright.
Sign up to go on an organized Christmas walk. They are offered all over the city, but you could take a boat up the Thames and do the one in Greenwich. Once again, things are closed on Christmas day, but with a little pre-planning you may be able to venture outside of London for a holiday dinner in a castle, complete with plum pudding and crackers to pop before dinner.
Spain is a very religious country, so if you are planning to be there for Christmas you’ll see many nativity scenes called “Nacimiento,” and instead of Santa you’ll see the Three Wise Men out and about. The season officially starts December 8 and culminates on January 5 with the Three Wise Men leaving gifts for children.
“instead of Santa you’ll see the Three Wise Men out and about.”
Christmas markets and brightly decorated trees are also abundant throughout the country. In the markets you’ll find delicious piles of fruits, colorful flowers, sweets, candles and other wonderful hand-made decorations. At midnight on Christmas Eve, bells ring calling all families to church. If you attend one of these church services you’re likely to hear the sweet sound of a boys’ choir.
The actual day of Christmas is spent in church and with family and friends celebrating with enormous feasts. There is one unusual Christmas tradition that is known as “Hogueras” that happens with the Winter solstice. This custom, primarily celebrated in Granada and Jaen, is where you’ll see people jumping over bonfires to protect against illness. Feliz Navidad!
Wherever you go, you are going to make a Christmas memory that you will always hold dear in your heart. Have fun, and Merry Christmas!