From keeping carp in a Czech bathtub to shooting ptarmigan for the Icelandic table, Ettie Neil-Gallacher looks at festive traditions and customs across the continent
Many may be familiar with the French, Spanish and Italian festive customs, says Ettie Neil-Gallacher, but what about the more unusual continental Christmas traditions?
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CONTINENTAL CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
How we decide to celebrate Christmas is generally determined by our childhoods. We either ape family tradition or rail against it. Just as chocolate Advent calendars were Christmas kryptonite when I was little, so my own children are subjected to tasteful German ones imported at tremendous expense when they’d much rather gorge themselves into a Cadbury’s-induced coma. But our festivities fall within certain very British parameters; and while we share certain traditions with our European neighbours, they have some different, and perhaps more expansive, celebrations of their own, marking Advent and various feasts right up to – and even beyond – Epiphany itself.
Many readers of The Field will be familiar with how Christmas is celebrated in the most frequented holiday destinations in Western Europe: from the galette des rois and leaving shoes out for Père Nöel in France to the joyous celebration of the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and the Epiphany in Spain and Italy. Perhaps it’s the dark evenings, or the cold, but in those countries a little further north, we find a rich source of festive tradition and inspiration. To follow, are a few of the more unusual and interesting.
The home of hygge and lagom might well be expected to get Christmas just right, so the level of festive feeling that emanates from these countries should come as no surprise. While it is an oversimplification to examine Scandinavia and Finland altogether, they do share many customs. One is that Advent is much more of a celebration than it is here in Britain. Advent wreaths, with four candles being lit incrementally every Sunday, are to be found in most households; in Sweden, candles are often lit in windows, and in Norway and Denmark Advent calendars hide little presents.
The first important feast is St Lucia’s Day on 13 December. While this is a particular celebration in Sweden, it is in fact marked throughout Scandinavia and Finland. St Lucia was a fourth-century martyr in Rome, who would wear a ring of candles on her head, leaving her hands free to carry food to persecuted Christians. Every year, processions are held, with a young girl chosen to represent Lucia wearing a white dress with a red sash and a crown of candles in a garland of evergreen lingonberry branches. They sing carols and hand out pepparkakor (ginger biscuits); saffron buns, or lussekatts, are part of the tradition, too.
In Norway, 23 December, or Lille Julaften, marks the beginning of the Christmas celebrations. Families gather to decorate the house and the tree, which generally doesn’t go up until shortly before the day itself. Throughout Scandinavia and Finland, presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve, which is perhaps the highlight of the festive period. Variations on a rice pudding are traditional on Christmas Eve: in Sweden, it’s sweetened with raspberry jam or cinnamon; in Norway, with butter, sugar and cinnamon; in Finland, with spiced plum jam; in Denmark, with almonds and whipped cream. In different areas, the person who finds a whole almond in their rice pudding is either given a marzipan pig or small token, which is thought to bring them luck in the year ahead.
But there are regional variations. In Finland, where Advent kicks off with Pikkujoulu, or Little Christmas, on 1 December, when “everybody throws a party: your office, your club, your favourite restaurant, your neighbours. It’s obligatory,” summarises half-Finnish bon viveur Leif-Erik Hannikainen. Come Christmas Eve in Finland, when ‘the Peace of Christmas’ is declared by the mayor of Turku, it’s also traditional to have a sauna and to visit the graves of family members and friends, leaving lanterns on the graves.
In Denmark, it’s traditional to give animals a treat on Christmas Eve, so people often go for a walk with a view to doing that.
In Norway (and Denmark), plaited, heart-shape baskets, or julekurver, are hung on the tree and porridge is left out for the elves, or nisse, who are said to guard property and accompany Julenisse, their Santa Claus-figure; carol singing is still popular and in some parts of the country candles are lit every night of December.
In Sweden, Christmas is spun out until 13 January, a day called Tjugondag Knut, when it is traditional to take the tree down and eat any leftover sweets.
Christmas is a big deal in Iceland. As summarised by Dr Karl Ægir Karlsson, a professor at Reykjavik, it “goes by its earlier name of ‘Yule’ or Jól and is a holy blend of Christian celebration and older festivals related to the winter solstice”. The baking and decorating begins on 1 December, accompanied by festive music (“a blend of the current Western Christmas music and the way, way darker and more sombre Icelandic stuff”). There is a strong Christian tradition behind the candles, which are lit on Sundays through Advent: the first is for the prophets; the second for Bethlehem; the third for the shepherds; and the fourth for the angels.
As for presents, for the 13 days before Christmas, 13 magical creatures, or Jólasveinarnir, come down from the mountains. But they’re not the cutesy elfin figures of our more sanitised Christmas fantasies but the sons of blood-thirsty, child-eating trolls. These imps are playful, however, and leave small presents in the shoes left on windowsills. They are accompanied by a cat that is supposed to eat those who don’t have presentable new clothes for Christmas.
The first significant feast is that of St Thorlak on 23 December. He’s Iceland’s only Catholic saint and, traditionally, fermented skate is eaten in his honour. According to Icelandic tradition, a new day begins at 6pm rather than midnight, so the celebrating begins in earnest promptly at that time on Christmas Eve. Dr Karlsson summarises: “Bells. Mass. Food. Presents.” He says that it is “simply impossible” to be alone at this time, and that nobody is left lonely. Traditional foods include smoked pork, a Danish dish from the time when Iceland belonged to Denmark; aged, smoked lamb; and rjúpa, or rock ptarmigan. Karlsson has hunted ptarmigan since he was 12 and many people in Iceland shoot this high mountain bird in November to ensure they can have it at Christmas. “The hunting is nothing like the well-managed moors of, say, Scotland. Every year, a couple of hunters get lost and freeze to death,” he warns.
It’s impossible to separate the celebration of Christmas from that of New Year, which is taken equally seriously. Karlsson says there are “fireworks like you’ve never seen”. Certain magical occurrences are supposed to take place, too: the elves move rocks, seals take on human form, cows can talk. But one must be careful not to make eye contact with an elf maiden; if you do, you will fall in love with her and follow her into her rock, never to emerge again.
Advent wreaths or Adventskranz are also a feature of German homes. German student Rebekka Stahlhut recalls “sitting down with my family to light another candle on the wreath every Sunday. We would always sit together and have some tea, lebkuchen and stollen.” These sweet treats have made their way to these shores, but Stahlhut recommends schmalzkuchen if we’re able to find it. These are small, unsweetened yeast pastries, fried and dusted in icing sugar.
As absent as schmalzkuchen from British festive experience is the celebration of Nikolaustag, or St Nicholas’ Day, on 6 December. While certain festive traditions are regional, this is a countrywide celebration. Children clean their shoes and leave them outside the night before, hopeful that St Nicholas will leave them something. Strictly speaking, he only leaves something if children have been good; if they haven’t, the tradition was that they would be left a stick to be beaten with by St Nicholas’ assistant, Knecht Ruprecht, a figure typically depicted in a black- or brown-hooded cloak, who acts as a sort of manservant. (In southern Germany, Austria and further afield in Hungary, Croatia and elsewhere, St Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht are accompanied by the Krampus, a terrifying, chained, goat-demon hybrid with fangs that hunts down children who have been earmarked for punishment.) Traditions are changing, however, and children now get small presents instead of fruit and nuts and sweets, and they often leave presents for their parents, too.
St Nicholas’ Day is the first significant festivity in The Netherlands, too, though most of the celebrations take place on 5 December, when shops are decorated and families exchange Sinterklaas surprises: elaborately wrapped presents for each other. For Dutch children, Sinterklaas or St Nicholas comes by steamboat from Spain, accompanied – increasingly controversially – by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who traditionally carried a stick with which to beat those who’d been naughty and a large sack over his shoulder in which to cart the really bold off to the Iberian Peninsula. Zwarte Piet was supposedly a Moor, or perhaps blackened by soot from the chimneys he descended; but every year the requirement for blackface causes much controversy and he has evolved into Sooty Pete in many instances. Sinterklaas rides a white horse when he disembarks, and then sits on a throne, carrying a mitre, while children queue up to have their conduct assessed; some even write poems to curry favour. On Christmas Day itself, people sing carols, visit family and often attend church. The food itself varies but tends to feature rabbit, hare or venison, cranberries and stewed pears, although whether these should be served hot or cold is a topic for passionate debate.
Years of Soviet Christian persecution meant the celebration of Christmas was suppressed. In response, many festive traditions were shifted to the more secular New Year, the result being that the two have been somewhat blended in Russian culture, according to expatriate Olga Berg. Families decorate their Christmas tree on New Year’s Eve amid much celebrating and dancing, and the Frost Father, Ded Moroz, accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden, Snegurochka, arrive on a sleigh pulled by three horses. (Both figures are relatively modern, emerging from folklore at the turn of the 20th century.)
And while church attendance is increasing, the numbers are still relatively low. Advent is 40 days long, however, stretching from 28 November to 6 January, with Christmas celebrated on 7 January, as the Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar. On Christmas Eve, it’s traditional to eat kutia or sochivo, a porridge made from rice or wheat, sweetened with honey, dried fruits and poppy seeds. It’s sometimes eaten from a communal bowl to symbolise unity, and some still throw a spoonful at the ceiling: if it sticks, it augers good luck for the year ahead.
THE CZECH REPUBLIC
On 5 December, St Nicholas, accompanied by an angel and a devil, visits houses, asking children if they’ve been good. Children sing songs and tell St Nicholas how well behaved they’ve been, and are rewarded with sweets or a small toy. Petra Brisby, Czech-born blogger and influencer, warns that “small children can be terrified” of the devil.
The main Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve, when families gather for a feast of carp soup, followed by carp with a cold potato salad. Families buy their carp the week before, with some buying a live carp that is kept in a bath until the time comes to kill it and cook it. There’s less tradition around pudding, though Brisby says that Christmas biscuits are a popular feature. While there are hundreds of varieties, “Each family has usually their own family recipes; you would make a kilogram of at least four different types.”
During dinner, a window is left open for the Christ Child, or Jezisek, to come through with presents, which are opened after the family has eaten. People often then go to Midnight Mass. Christmas Day and the day after is spent with the wider family, exchanging more presents and eating duck or goose, rabbit or turkey, with bread or potato dumplings.