The Nativity in Sweden is celebrated on the eve of the feast itself—December 24. People exchange presents on December 24, too. Christmas is the principal festival of the year in Sweden, and at the same time it is a purely family holiday. No noisy parties with friends in a bar or restaurant—this is a quiet festival with your family. Swedes don’t usually invite friends, even their closest ones. At Christmas in Sweden tourists will be bored: all cafes, restaurants and bars will most likely be closed, and city streets will be empty. Swedes hardly ever celebrate New Year’s Day.
For the festal table Swedes most often cook turkey; it is sold in all supermarkets, although pork ham is considered much more traditional. There are also several types of herring in different marinades, meatballs, potatoes, Prinskorv sausages and salmon. Interestingly, in Sweden there is a tradition to drink julmust, a carbonated drink made according to a special recipe on Christmas Eve (it surpasses Coke in popularity). At three in the afternoon on December 24, children usually watch the Duck Tales Disney cartoon collection. After that children are given presents, and they do not wait for the evening, let alone night. Tomte brings gifts under the tree. He is a gnome, fat and short, similar in clothes and appearance to Santa—in a cap, a red suit, and with a beard. He has no special attributes (no reindeer or sleigh).
Swedes are very musical and love to sing, including Christmas carols. There is a whole series of Swedish Christmas songs that everyone usually knows by heart from childhood, and sings no matter if he’s religious or not—in church, on the street or in the choir. At present, their content is not always connected with the Bible story of the Birth of Christ. As a rule, these are songs about winter, night, and magic.
Swedes love only live Christmas trees. Tinsel and multicolored lights are considered bad taste. Bulbs are normally single-color, yellow or white, and there are not many toys. Firs on the streets are just live trees with one-color yellow or white bulbs along the outline —they are no longer decorated and are removed very quickly after the festival.
Late in November in Germany the time of Advent begins—the preparatory weeks before Christmas. During this time many families decorate the Christmas wreath with four candles. For four weeks every Sunday Germans light one candle on the festive wreath. On the first Sunday of Advent (four weeks before Christmas) one candle is lit on the wreath, on the second—two, on the third—three, on the last—all four candles are lit. This tradition symbolizes the anticipation of Christmas. Each Sunday of Advent is dedicated to the Gospel readings in cathedrals: the first—the coming of Christ at the end times; the second and third—the transition from the Old to the New Testament; the fourth—the Gospel events preceding the Birth of Christ.
The anticipation is also symbolized by the Advent calendar. This tradition is gradually spreading from Germany all over the world. The children’s Christmas calendar is a box with twenty-five windows. Every day, starting from December 1, a little chocolate surprise awaits a child in one of the windows. The same calendars for adults include reproductions of famous paintings, jokes, quotes from the Bible and other optional “surprises” in the windows.
In many homes, churches and squares figures of the Holy Family are set up on Christmas Eve. Figures can be made in a wide variety of styles, from traditional to modern.
Christmas pastries are prepared ahead of time: gingerbread and stollen. Christstollen is baked in advance, sometimes a month before Christmas, and can be stored in a cool place for two to three months. The shape of sweet bread, abundantly stuffed with raisins, spices and nuts, resembles a swaddled baby—Christ.
Stuffed goose, pork with sauerkraut, and baked carp are also traditional German Christmas dishes.
The current German Santa Claus is the Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Grandfather). He gets into homes through the chimney, leaving presents under the tree. Today, the Weihnachtsmann is increasingly being replaced by der Heilige Nikolaus.
By the twentieth century Christmas in England had become a purely family festival, and only a few of its old customs have survived to this day. The custom of exchanging gifts on Christmas Day, for example, is universally observed.
The custom of putting presents in a Christmas stocking is associated with Victorian England. In the old days, it was said that Father Christmas traveled through the air and entered houses down the chimney. Once, having gone down to one house, he dropped several gold coins into a stocking, which was hung to dry over the hearth. Since then on Christmas Eve people have hung socks and stockings on the fireplace in the hope that something will fall there—children believe that Santa Claus will fill them with presents.
In the nineteenth century it became a custom to exchange greeting cards instead of personal greetings on the festival. In 1843, the first Christmas card was printed in the printing house.
These days, Christmas dinner consists of traditional dishes such as stuffed turkey in England or roast goose in Wales and Ireland, and the indispensable plum pudding. For many centuries, all the inhabitants of the British Isles had a special oatmeal porridge—plum porridge cooked in broth, with bread crumbs, raisins, almonds, prunes and honey added to it, and served very hot. During the eighteenth century plum porridge was gradually replaced by plum pudding. Plum pudding is made of bread crumbs with the addition of various spices and fruits. There is still the custom of hiding small silver coins and jewelry in Christmas puddings “for luck.”
British people by tradition decorate their homes for Christmas with branches of evergreen plants—ivy, holly, and a sprig of white mistletoe is placed over the door. Ivy must cling to something in order to grow. This reminds us that a person should hold on to the Almighty in search of support and strength. The ancient Druids considered the mistletoe a sacred plant and a symbol of eternal life; this plant had been a traditional Christmas decoration in England before the custom of decorating a fir tree appeared. This custom was introduced in England relatively recently—in the mid-nineteenth century, and was brought here from Germany. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first arranged a Christmas tree party for their children in Windsor Castle, and the fashion quickly spread.
Now in almost every English household a Christmas tree is decorated with multicolored shiny toys and sweets for Christmas; an angel or a large silver star is usually attached to the top.
In early December, a traditional Christmas tree sixty-five or more feet tall is delivered from Oslo to London and set up at Trafalgar Square. It is sent to the UK by the Royal Family of Norway as a token of gratitude for the help the British gave to Norway during the Second World War. The tree is decorated only with vertical garlands, which are made up of energy-saving bulbs, and normally looks modest and ascetic. There are charity performances by the Christmas tree every evening by artists from London choirs, performing traditional Christmas carols and helping raise funds for charitable causes.
Another Christmas tradition is related to caroling: On the days before the Nativity groups of people gather, including children, and walk around the area singing Christmas carols and collecting donations. The tradition of staging Christmas pantomimes is considered purely English. These are comedy scenes based on stories and fairy tales that everyone knows (for example, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, etc.).
Christmas in England is celebrated on December 25th. Some families go to church, and after the service they gather at the festive table. On this day, at three in the afternoon, the Queen’s Christmas speech is broadcast on all radio and television channels.
In France families with children buy a Christmas tree early in December, and children eagerly await Christmas when they finally get presents from Pere Noel.
Christmas markets open throughout the country in early December. The most famous of these are in Alsace. They sell almost the same thing every year: gifts and souvenirs in the form of Christmas decorations, liqueurs, Christmas gingerbread, honey and sweets.
The traditional Christmas dish is the “Christmas log” cake, or, as it is called in France, buche de Noel. This is a dessert based on a biscuit roll with chocolate filling, though various fillings are possible. The cake is decorated with figures, chocolate and sprinkles. Every family has special figures depicting animals, Santa Claus and a fir tree. They are stored and washed from year to year to decorate the traditional cake afterwards. Buche de Noel is served at the end of dinner, after a huge variety of dishes, the variations of which depend on the region, such as foie gras, oysters, cheese balls, stuffed capon or turkey, served with potatoes or vegetables.
The city center is decorated for Christmas every year. In addition to decorations, Christmas music plays on the streets. In France some people decorate the Christmas tree, but it is not the main symbol of the festival; many prefer flowers.
But a compulsory element is Nativity scenes.
Before the Christmas season many people in France cross the country to reach their families. As in most European countries, Christmas is a family holiday for the French.
Catholics celebrate Christmas Eve on December 24th. Most Italians do not attend Mass in church all year round, but many people gather for the night service on December 25th.
An important part of the preparations for the festival is setting up Nativity scenes with stylized figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Italian churches and homes. The mandatory elements are a star, an ox, a donkey and other animals that lived in the stable where the Infant Jesus was born. Italians normally try to make a new nativity scene every year so as not to repeat themselves, buying figures of geese, saints, the Magi, supplementing them with waterfalls, building model houses and mountains by hand. The largest and most beautiful Nativity scene is set in the Vatican with full-length figures.
In addition to Nativity scenes, Italians decorate their homes with flowers and decorate the Christmas tree. Earlier, on Christmas night, a spruce branch was hung over the fireplace as a symbol of hospitality to honor the coming of the Son of God into the world; now decorations are limited to the tree and flowers. Christmas rose, hellebore, growing in the mountains, blooms in winter, and one of its species with beautiful white flowers with a pinkish tint is used to decorate houses. Even more Italians love “Christmas (Bethlehem) star” (the Stella di Natale), or poinsettia, with green leaves and ruby-red flowers, which blooms just in time for Christmas.
Italians don’t usually eat meat on Christmas Eve, so all dishes served on the table on the evening of December 24 are vegetable or fish dishes. But on December 25, a lavish feast begins: Italian Christmas is not complete without classic meat dumplings in capon broth, lentils, boiled meat, dried fruits, chocolate and traditional panettone muffins with raisins, dried fruits and pandoro (sweet bread), sprinkled with powdered sugar.
A few weeks before Christmas, usually in November, Christmas lights can be seen on the streets. A typical Spanish picture: Christmas illuminations against the background of green citrus trees and palms.
The Spanish Father Frost looks like Santa Claus: he is dressed in a red fur coat and cap, and here he is called Papa Noel. These days it is easy to find him on the streets, in shops and other places, and his figures and images flicker everywhere. Supermarkets sell typical Christmas products. These are sweets—marzipans, anise lollipops and turron (nougat of different types in Spain is a symbol of the Nativity), polvorones (shortbread cookies), candied fruits, and various nuts.
In Spain the celebrations begin a week or two before Christmas with friends and colleagues. People still go to work, but, in fact, these days are no longer working days. All important matters are postponed until January. Gifts for colleagues and friends in the form of “Christmas bags” are popular, which include a selection of products typical for this festival, from champagne, halva, cheese to jamon—a special type of ham.
Christmas wreaths adorn front doors. The “Christmas flower” (“Star of Bethlehem”) is also very popular. Before the Nativity these flowers can be seen everywhere: in houses, stores and various institutions.
“Belens” are also very popular among Christmas decorations. These are models depicting the Birth of Christ and other biblical scenes related to Christmas. Belens can be of all sizes, from gigantic ones that adorn city squares to miniature—the size of your palm. They appear on Christmas Day everywhere—in squares, churches, and shop windows. A special tradition in Spain is the Christmas Lottery: Spaniards try to buy lottery tickets every year to try their luck and support the tradition. The selection of the winning combination is entrusted to students of the local San Ildefonso School, after which they sing the numbers to those gathered in the hall of the National Lottery in Madrid. The lottery takes place every year on December 22, in most cases this date coincides with the official Christmas weekend. Christmas Day is Preceded by Nochebuena (“the Good Night”)—the night of Christmas Eve. This evening every family gathers for Christmas dinner. The table must be decorated, for example, with compositions of candles, balls, and spruce branches. In addition to goose and sweets, the festal menu is diversified by seafood—shrimps, crabs and lobsters.
After dinner Spaniards sing Christmas carols. Bells ring at midnight to mark the beginning of Mass, and believers often go to church. Christmas presents appear under the tree in the morning. these are often predictable gifts for which wishes were expressed throughout the year.
Every year, one of the federal states of Austria gives a Christmas tree, which is set up at the country’s Parliament. Christmas trees in Austria are decorated so toys and garlands can’t completely obscure the tree. Decorations of the same color are often used, or two types of single-color decorations are combined.
As elsewhere in Europe, Christmas markets are traditional in Austria, most of which open on the last weekend of November. Moreover, in Austria and the surrounding countries, the Christmas market is called Christkindlmarkt in honor of Christkind. Christkind is an angelic boy with wings and a crown, symbolizing (but not identical with) the Infant Jesus, who brings presents without being noticed. It appeared thanks to the Protestants. Previously, St. Nicholas gave gifts to children, but since in Protestantism the saints are not venerated, a replacement was needed. Gradually Christkind took root in Catholic families as well. This tradition includes a list of gifts compiled by children, which is placed on the windowsill, and in the morning it disappears.
There are no public celebrations at Christmas. Everything is closed: nothing works, including restaurants, and streets are empty. Austrians Celebrate the Nativity with their families. In the afternoon on Christmas Eve, cities “die out”. The evening before the gala dinner is time to exchange gifts. Carp is considered the main festal dish; since recently it has also been goose. Christmas Pastries are important: vanilla crescents (Vanillekipferl) must be on the table.
At night some Austrians go to Mass, with a Mass written by Mozart or Haydn celebrated in Vienna.
One of the old traditions is Christmas chants, which are performed by professional and amateur, adult, youth and children’s choirs.
In early December Christmas markets open on Prague squares with delicious food (baked chestnuts, special cookies with cheese, potato pancakes), mulled wine, punch, grog and choral singing. The traditional Christmas decorations are mistletoe twigs, which are sold green, gilded and silvered at fairs.
The day before Christmas in the Czech Republic is called “Generous Day” (Štědrý Den). On this day, and indeed all three holy days (December 24, 25 and 26), there is almost no transport, all stores and restaurants are closed, and life stops.
On Generous Day, families get together. The major dishes on the table on this day are fish soup, fried carp, potato salad (very similar to Russian salad, but without meat), and homemade Christmas cookies. On this evening, every family sings Christmas carols or listens to them on the radio. By tradition on Christmas Eve the whole family then settles down in front of the TV and watches Christmas fairy-tales. At midnight some people go to church for Christmas Mass. On Christmas Day and the next day Czechs visit their relatives and friends.
As in Austria, the “main Character” of the Nativity is the Infant Jesus. It is He Who puts presents under the tree. And before that children write letters to the baby Jesus with their wishes, which are then hung on a string outside the window. When Jesus brings gifts, a bell rings in the house.
Another interesting fact from the history of Czech Christmas traditions: until the eighteenth century, the Christmas tree in Bohemia was hung upside down from the ceiling.
The Nativity in the United States is celebrated on a grand scale. Americans decorate their homes with garlands of lights, set up figures of Santa Claus, snowmen and animals decorated with bulbs in their yards. The preparations for the Nativity begin immediately after Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday of November).
America’s main Christmas tree stands in Washington D.C.: not felled, but living. Around it smaller spruce trees are placed according to the number of states and territories. Throughout December, there are festivals of garlands, various theater performances and markets.
Americans also set up Christmas trees at home, investing all their imagination and capabilities in decoration. They have a custom of having brunch on the weekend preceding the festival. These family lunches are held all over the country. Every family gathers for Christmas, including all relatives. Many families still observe the tradition of attending Christmas services.
Santa Claus in its current form appeared in the USA in the nineteenth century.