• Institute for a Greater Europe

The Institute Presents: Traditions of Christmas 2020

This is the third Christmas we've celebrated here at the Institute and what a year 2020 has been. Throughout all the crisis at the start, to the pandemic mid-way through, we've been pushed to the end just as many others have. Neverthless, this year was a great one for us, and we thank everyone who has managed to make this one of our most active and impressive years yet, despite the whole situation. This Christmas we're going to be reflecting a lot more on all the people who've helped us get here, and invite all to do the same from where they're from.

In this edition we've managed to get over 37 countries to join us in exploring their traditions, encompassing a good amount of what we like to call Greater Europe. For those wondering why there aren't more, don't worry Orthodox Christmas traditions are coming up soon on the 7th of January!

We hope this collection opens up your eyes as to how we each celebrate Christmas our own way in Greater Europe, and wish you and your family a wonderful Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays wherever you are!

Philippe Lefevre - Chair of the Institute


Thanks to everyone who participated this year! We have a huge amount of traditions to share with you this year, see below the countries we've managed to include and an overview of the wonderful people who helped. See this map for all the countries we've involved this year!

Albania - Lutjona Lula

Austria - Julia Vassileva Latvia - Bella Bērziņa

Belgium - Alex Luyckx Lithuania - Greta Kundrotaitė

Bosnia and Herzegovina - Sara Udovičić Malta - Matt Micallef St John

Bulgaria - Ana Popova Mauritius - Shabneez Ramjane

Canada - Peter Merrit Moldova - EA

Croatia - Iva Brajković Netherlands - Puck van Vlerken

Cyprus - George Pepios Norway - Jakob Matthiessen

Czechia - Eva Faltusova Peru - Diego Sánchez Borjas

Denmark - Kian Vandsted Poland - Maria Popczyk

Estonia - Anna-Liisa Merilind Portugal - Miguel Silva

France - Timothée Albessard Romania - Ruxandra Seniuc

Germany - Lucia Nafziger Slovakia - Lukáš Dravecký

Greece - Valentina Koumoulou Slovenia - Amanda Teršar

Hungary - Marcell Ottó Ormándy Spain (Catalonia) - Pablo Garfias

India (Allahbad) - Abhivardhan Sweden - Beatrice Semmelweis

Ireland - Stefanie Fox Switzerland - Katharina Burren

Italy - Adrian Waters UK - Philippe Lefevre

Kosovo - Lorena Sekiraqa USA - Jack Lashendock

Albania - Lutjona Lula

Christmas atmosphere in Albania is very vivid and bright and despite general understanding of Albania as a "Muslim country" this might be surprising!

The fact is that Albania is a as Muslim-majority country with orthodox and Catholics being the second largest religious groups. However, the entire country is lightened up for Christmas and New Year and almost every house puts up a tree, despite the religion. This can be explained through history throughout which religions were imported to the country by different civilizations crossing by, but the most recent influence is that of communist where religion was banned for 40 years. This is considered to have created a secular society.

However, in the country, all religious holiday are a way to stay close to the family. The biggest celebration is that of New Year’s Eve where people gather with families and cook traditional dishes. The food that mustn’t miss in the tables that night is ‘Baklava’, which is often a topic of pride for each family.

Austria - Julia Vassileva

The pre-Christmas time is very important for Austrians. Starting four weekends before Christmas, four “advent-candles” are being lit each Sunday, accompanied by Christmas songs. Christmas markets are particularly important in December, with traditional Christmas food, such as mulled wine, Langos (Hungarian fried dough), or Kiachl (in the Western part of Austria). Cities are decorated with lights and Christmas trees.

Austrians celebrate Christmas eve as the most important day of the three days of Christmas. A particularity of Austrian Christmas is that Austrian children do not believe in Santa Clause, but in the “Christkind”, or child of Christ, and angels which bring the presents. Traditionally, families have dinner on Christmas eve, then suddenly, in the room where the Christmas tree stands, presents “appear” and the candles are lit. Traditional Christmas songs (many coming from folklore) are sung.

As the majority of Austrians are Catholic, two additional dates are important. The first is the Stephansdom, Vienna - by Author

5th of December, which is St Nicolas day, when the

“Saint” (dressed in a costume) visits households and brings presents to the good children; those who have been naughty are scared by Krampus (an obscure monster-like hairy creature). The second important date is after Christmas day: the 6th of January, when the three holy kings (organised by the church, usually three children in costumes) visit houses, give their blessings and receive donations.

Belgium - Alex Luyckx

In Belgium, the festive period begins on December 6th with St. Nicholas' Day. The saint patron of children distributes gifts to the wiser children and salt and coal to the more dissipated ones. Then comes Christmas. Families gather around the Christmas tree to distribute gifts and share a good time by the fire. As in many countries, turkey is the traditional dish. However, despite the cold and snowy weather that is common in Belgium, the Christmas log, a chocolate or chestnut ice-cream cake, is the country's favourite dessert. After the meal, some families continue to brave the cold to go to midnight mass and then share a mulled wine.

Another tradition is that the youngest children prepare a small presentation (poem, nursery rhyme, music) for their grandparents. Finally, a typical Belgian pastry of the winter period is the cougnou, a sweet brioche that perfectly accompanies the hot chocolate of the youngest as well as the oldest.

Bosnia and Herzegovina - Sara Udovičić

Christmas in Bosnia, at lest for me is one of the most magical days of the year. Every year, my family and I have a tradition where we go to our friends' house and all collectively celebrate it. There is a big Christmas tree under which are presents for all guests and there are a lot of festive decorations.

A few families that live all over the world gather and we all have drinks and have a great bonding time. We usually don't see a lot of those people because they live elsewhere so it's always fun catching up and seeing what's new in their lives. We have a big Christmas diner, with turkey, potatoes, all sorts of vegetables and a variety of deserts and Christmas cookies. We all bring presents and open them there. When I and other kids were younger, my friend's dad would dress up as Santa Claus and give us presents. Christmas is one of the best childhood memories that I have.

Bulgaria - Ana Popova

Celebrating Christmas in Bulgaria is all about a miraculous process of weight gain. The traditional Christmas’ Eve dinner is made of an odd number of dishes which should not contain meet. However, drinking 45% Mulled Rakia without the consumption of any animal would not meet the standards of a true Bulgarian. Your grandmother has at least put some effort into hiding the meat in pickled cabbage leaves and has created the wonder of Sarma.

The enjoyment of this dazzling array of tastes is followed by a heart-warming tradition called Koleduvane. Christmas Carolers visit the homes and sing songs wishing health and happiness, starting their rounds on Christmas Eve. The positive power of these wishes chases away the demons, which makes the visit of these young men an especially positive experience for Bulgarian households.

The whole evening in expectation of the Koledari singers is spent with the family around the fire, where a huge block of oak or cherry tree called Badnik keeps the house warm all night long. This Christmas Dinner - by Author embodies one of our oldest Christmas traditions which

have been around since pagan times and is used to tell our fortune. If the stump burns heavily and bright, the year is going to be one of much health and fertility.

Canada - Peter Merrit

The Christmas season in Canada is the happiest time of the year. The festive feelings begin early into December when many people decorate their house and front yards with flashy, colourful, and cheerful christmas celebrations in anticipation of the big day. Many children receive advent calendars from their parents, as a daily reminder that Christmas is right around the corner.

The centrepiece of the Christmas season in any house is the Christmas tree. Households decorate their Christmas trees with garland and ornaments special to them, no two Christmas trees are ever the same. As the day draws near, families gather from all across the country (and globe) and embrace each other’s company. On Christmas Eve, children are allowed to open one gift and hang up their stockings to be stuffed.

Cookies and milk are left out, in anticipation of Santa’s arrival. In the early hours of the morning on the 25th Santa Claus comes down the chimney and delivers presents to all the children. These presents are opened with great excitement on the morning of the 25th, followed by a day of eating sweets and festive foods. In the evening Christmas dinner is served. The most common Christmas meal is Turkey with ‘all the trimmings’, such as mashed potatoes, gravy, and a variety of vegetables. The day following Christmas is known as ‘Boxing Day’, it is a day where many stores have discounts and deals, so many people spend the day going from store to store to stock up on Christmas gifts for next year!

Croatia - Iva Brajković

The Christmas period in Croatia is very much about traditions. It is customary to have an Advent wreath with four candles representing the four weeks of Advent. Every Sunday during the Advent period we light one additional candle. The younger members of the family and all those young at heart also have an Advent calendar filled with chocolates to count down the days until Christmas. On 6th December we celebrate Saint Nicolas Day when children wake up to find small gifts in their shoes. Another important date in Croatia is Saint Lucia's Day on December 13. It is a day when we plant wheat seeds in a small pot, so that it grows until Christmas. It is often said that the taller the wheat is, the more prosperous the coming year will be. In short, December in Croatia is all about anticipation of Christmas.

However, the most traditional part of Christmas is related to food. In continental Croatia we usually eat cod fish on 24th December as it is traditionally a fasting day. It is true that cod fish has a very strong smell and there are many people who cannot eat it because of it, but it remains a tradition in my family and I couldn't imagine eating anything else on Christmas Eve. Many Croatians go to Midnight Mass where we sing traditional Christmas songs. In my

family we open the gifts on Christmas morning. In

Wheat Growing - by Author contrast to Christmas Eve, you can be sure to

enjoy a real feast on Christmas Day in Croatia. In my family we usually prepare turkey or duck served with potatoes or a special type of pasta called mlinci. Dessert is, of course, mandatory and there are many traditional cakes and pastries. My personal favourite are simple Christmas biscuits filled with marmalade and a traditional Croatian layered cake filled with chocolate called Mađarica (literal translation is “Hungarian girl”, but it really is a classic Croatian dessert). Although it is impossible to escape the commercial aspects of the holidays, many people in Croatia enjoy Christmas festivities and keep the traditions alive year after year.

Cyprus - George Pepios

Christmas in Cyprus has always been a traditionally religious holiday, centred around the family. Testament to this is the fact that many Cypriots fast 40 days before Christmas Day to cleanse their body and soul for welcoming newborn Jesus. Young people do their part in celebrating the birth of Jesus by re-enacting the centuries-long tradition of going from door to door signing carols on Christmas Eve. They get rewarded either with small amounts of money or the two most popular sweet treats of the season: kourabiedes (almond biscuits coated in icing sugar) and melomakarona (cinnamon and honey syrup cookies glazed in nuts). Undoubtedly, Cypriot

Christmas revolves around the quasi-ritualistic consumption of copious quantities of home-cooked food. Feasting begins early in the morning of Christmas Day, as the 6am church service is followed by a zesty soup of egg lemon and a rich, meat-heavy lunch that usually involves extended family members and lasts for hours. However, staying true to tradition, children do not receive their presents on Christmas Day but on New Year’s Day, to honour Saint ‘Ai’ Vasilis, the Greek Orthodox version of Santa Claus.

Czechia - Eva Faltusova

The 24th of December is in the Czech Republic most festive and joyful day of the year dedicated to family, calm, traditions, and sort of retrospect of past year. And mainly to food (and getting fat too ☹)

Firstly, December is a month when every Czech kid opens every morning one window of the adventcalendar and agog waits till the Christmas Eve. At the same time through the month of December, moms and grandmas prepare according to their old family recipes Christmas biscuits (cukroví) which can vary among regions (For example I come from north-east Bohemia and our Christmas cannot be without a biscuit (bobaľky or Buchtičky se sirobem) with special sour sirup filling made from sugar beet and poppy). These biscuits are made carefully throughout whole month in order to be perfect at the Christmas Eve, where they complete the table with another sweet speciality called Vánočka. During the 24th tradition is to fast, so lunch is connected with Vánočka or other regional variants of apple strudel or Stolle completed with pearl barley with mushroom and garlic. After whole day of eating sweets, we all sit around the family table and eat potato salad with carb, schnitzel or sausage.

Cukroví Potato Salad and Carp Vánočka

by Dezidor CC BY 3.0 by Wuestenigel CC BY 2.0 By Ntr23 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

All in all, Christmas are for Czechs connected with traditions not only concerning food. The Czechs are famous for Christmas carols but mainly for the “Christmas mass” or Rybova mše from Jakub Jan Ryba that we tend to either sing or we go to a concert to church or we do the “midnight church mass” of the Christmas Eve.

With these carols there are many other traditions regarding future and storytelling as Christmas for Czechs are time to close the previous year and start a new one. That is why, every member of the family cuts an apple and if there is a star in the core of the apple that person will be lucky in the next year. Also a weird tradition is throwing a slipper, these are only for non-married women. So to explain, the women shall stand back to door and throw backwards a slipper, if the slipper is afterwards located by the toe towards the door it means that this women will marry next year…

So on you girls, to try this tradition if you will be stay “single” or will marry soon.

Denmark - Kian Vandsted

Christmas in Denmark is usually full of joy, good food and plenty of traditions. On 1 December, many Danes light the “special” candle that both counts down to Christmas (24 December), but also plays an important part in the famous Danish “hygge.” When the candle reaches day 13, Denmark celebrates Saint Lucy’s Day. This takes place mostly in schools, hospitals and retirement homes where a Saint Lucy designee, who is wearing a lighted wreath, is leading a procession followed by young girls (and sometimes boys) dressed in white who carries lighted candles in their hands.

The 24th of December is the big day where the family is gathered together to celebrate. The Christmas dinner usually consists of duck and Danish roast pork called “flæskesteg” (good luck pronouncing that) with boiled potatoes (both regular and sugar browned), brown sauce (gravy) and red cabbage. Hereafter follows the traditional Danish rice dessert, “risalamande,” with crushed almonds and topped with cherry sauce. The most

interesting part of the dessert is to find the one whole almond that is hidden in the dessert as the one finding it will receive an additional Christmas gift called “the almond gift.” When everyone is done eating, the family dance around the Christmas tree for a few traditional Danish Christmas songs (yes, this is another fun Danish tradition) and then the gifts can finally be opened. For 25 and 26 December, Danes celebrate the last Christmas days with family by eating Christmas lunch together.

Dancing around the Christmas Tree

by Upplandsmuseet CC BY-NC-ND 2.0