A couple of days ago, we at SAXOPRINT had a look at Christmas in Germany and found that there was no shortage of similarities between Christmas over here and over there. In fact, the only major difference seems to be the date: Christmas Eve is the big day in Germany – and indeed in most of the rest of Europe. Or rather, the meal on 24th is the big meal, as the 25th is considered Christmas Day pretty much everywhere: every country in Europe celebrates it as a national holiday. There are some big (and very odd) differences, though.
In France, for example, the Christmas meal frequently straddles both days, beginning late in the evening of the 24th and going on well into Christmas night. This comes from the tradition of the reveillon (the “wake up”) of eating a meal after the Catholic midnight mass. While the Christmas meal for the Brits and most of Northern Europe centres around poultry of some kind (turkey, goose, duck), the most important element of a really traditional French Christmas meal is shellfish, usually oysters. Most families do follow this up with poultry, but it really plays second fiddle – or even third fiddle to two other really important features of the French Christmas meal: the yuletide log (Bûche de Noël) and the “thirteen desserts” to recall Jesus and the twelve disciples. As for presents: unlike their German or Scandinavian counterparts, most French children are expected to wait until Christmas morning – just like their British and American counterparts.
In other parts of Europe, there is a big meal late on Christmas eve, too, but nothing much by of way of presents. In Holland, for example, kids get their biggest gifts on 6th December – from a figure called Sinterklaas, who, although he is the man behind the English name “Santa Claus”, comes out on St. Nicolas’ day. Beware, though: Sinterklaas doesn’t have any time for naughty children, though, leaving his helper Zwarte Piet to give them a jolly good whipping.
Meanwhile, children in Spain have to wait until Epiphany, 6th January, for theirs. And it isn’t Santa or Father Christmas who brings the presents, but the Three Wise Men (los Tres Magos). If that wasn’t confusing enough though, children in the Catalan parts of Spain also have a living yule log to deal with called the tió de Nadal, a small bit of firewood decorated with a face who has to be given something to eat every night from 8th December onwards. On Christmas Eve, the children can then start hitting the log and presents, er, come out of the other end… And to think that American kids complain about having to put of cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer!
In Italy, too, the 6th January is the big day for present-hungry kids. Nevertheless, in another odd twist of European Christmas traditions, Italian children don’t get gifts from the Three Wise Men, but from a witch who heard about Jesus’ birth from them, called the Befanas (she also “haunts” the Italian parts of Switzerland). On Christmas Eve, meanwhile, the Italians do like the French and go in for seafood – but in a big way, with eels and seven course fish meals being popular. This absence of meat is due to Catholic tradition, of course, which has 24th as a day of fasting in the calendar: in Poland, one of Europe’s most Catholic countries, the traditional Christmas Eve meal is a carp, often bought live and kept in the bathtub until slaughter for extra freshness.
I wonder what a Christmas tradition mash-up between all these countries would look like? Children getting gifts from a witch on 24th who puts rotten oysters and living carp in their stockings if they’ve been naughty? Then again, we’re in no position to laugh, as some UK Christmas traditions are just plain bonkers after all: why oh why does everyone have to eat the world’s least popular green vegetable, the Brussels sprout, on Christmas Day? Maybe we should go and ask the Belgians…