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In December every Bulgarian family is in a joyful mood, awaiting Nativity. Our Christmas preparation is associated with infinite love towards our family and siblings as well as hope for a better future.

And, the way we celebrate Christmas is a manifestation of the primordial Bulgarian traditions and values. Is there a Bulgarian, who does not wait with excitement the preparation of the Christmas Eve’s table, the songs of the Koledari (Slavic traditional performers) and the Surva feast? These are venerable traditions amongst the cultural variety that Europe has to offer and we, Bulgarians, are proud of them. But let’s put a question - how do our fellow European citizens celebrate Nativity?

We start from the North, because that is where Santa Claus begins his journey

The Finnish people throw themselves into dreaming about the feast since October. They have named this cheerful time of the year Small Christmas. The adults find a way to meet each other and have fun before they devote themselves to the children. They gather at work, at the sport’s club or among friends to have a chat, listen to music and try the culinary specialties of the season.  On every of the four Sundays before Christmas, a lit candle is placed in the windowsill so that it can be seen from outside. The last Sunday is devoted to the Christmas tree which is decorated with garlands and the flags of all nationalities.
On the morning of the 24th of December the traditional sauna gathers the family together. The feeling there is as if all concerns are evaporated and so the feast begins. At 12 at noon sharp in the city of Turku, the old capital of Finland, the peaceful Christmas is announced. The event is shown live on the main TV channels across the country. After this the celebration is devoted to the children. In the evening Santa Claus sets off with his full of presents sleigh, pulled by his reindeer.  The disguised dad, uncle or neighbour knocks on the door and asks the expected question: “Have you been naughty or nice this year?”  If the answer is “Nice” Santa’s bag is quickly cleared out.  In the morning of the 25th everyone gets up early - at 6.00 am, and the whole family attends the church’s liturgy.  The next day, St. Stephen’s Day, is dedicated to a traditional sleigh ride on the snow.

The Nordic countries celebrate Saint Lucille (or St. Lucy) since the medieval period

In Denmark and especially in Sweden everything begins on the 13th of December - Saint Lucille’s feast. That is when the longest night of the year is celebrated; the day lasts for about four hours. But a hope is born for the vital sun that will start to shine. The name Lucille originates from Latin and means light. The Saint is one of the first Christians lived during the 4th century in Sicily. The legend says that during night time she would bring food to the persecuted Christians who were hiding in the caves. In order to use her hands to carry the bags, she would place a crown of lit candles on her head to light her way.
Nowadays Saint Lucille’s feast is celebrated in every Swedish household. Early in the morning the dad pretends that he is asleep, seeming deaf for the house’s din. The young girls of the family dress up in long white dresses and wear a candle-crown on their heads. Then they bring to the dad coffee, pastries and sweets in the form of stars on a tray. They wish him a joyous celebration with traditional songs.
Every Swedish enterprise, school or town picks out its own Lucille, who usually serves up coffee, pastries and grog as well. On this day in the streets of Stockholm, it is likely to spot blond girls with crowns on their heads, dressed up in coats of white fur, singing Sankta Lucia.
A day before Christmas the father of the family has one more significant part to play - he has to turn himself into the Swedish Santa Claus. And he has nothing to do with any other Santa Claus in Europe as he looks like a gnome.  
In the north the Christmas dinner consists of roasted pork, lamb or fish and has always been accompanied by the special Christmas beer.
An old belief says that it was the god of war and poetry - Odin who revealed the people the secret of its preparation. The tradition enjoins the Christmas beer to be homemade, but who has time for this? Nowadays the assembly lines of the Scandinavian factories produce more than 500.000 litres daily. The Christmas beer is now notorious in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and it gradually takes over the rest of Europe!
In Denmark, after dinner everyone holds hands and together they go around the Christmas tree signing. And there is more - the post stamps for the Christmas cards addressed to kith and kin are specially emitted with Christmas symbols.
In Ireland candles are lit on the windows. Extra cutlery is placed on the table in case someone incidentally passes by. 

A Mosaic of regional traditions…

there are in Germany. In the North part of the country Saint Nicholas gives the children presents on the very 6th of December, while in the South Santa Claus does that a little bit later. The German children enjoy the Christmas calendar with the 24 windows filled with chocolate.
The elders on the other hand in some parts of the country have left aside the turkey in order to indulge with a nice roast pork.  They also have a bite of salamis before they hook them on the balk, in order to keep bad forces away. In Germany no one passes without tasting the Christmas sweet Stollen. This applies in Luxemburg as well, despite that there it is under the form of biscuits with dried fruit.
However, the strangest tradition is noted in the Bavarian Alps. There, holy night is celebrated with a gunshot-concert with around 100 case shots.
At Christmas the Germans pay a lot of attention to the house’s decoration. This is why the Christmas bazaar there is incredible - you can choose between thousands of decorations. It is not coincidental that, 400 years ago, the Germans were the ones to start the custom of decorating the Christmas tree! Yet, the Croatians can compete them with the Christmas fair in Dubrovnik which is a transformation scene of splendour, created by local craftsmen and musicians.
We associate Austria with the fairy melody Silent Night, Holy Night. This fascinating song, composed in 1818, is the apotheosis of the celebration for the Austrians. And yet for the whole world…
Slovakians sing a lot during the feast days. Their country is famous for the rich repertoire of Christmas songs. In Slovakia the celebration begins with the appearance of the first star on the sky on the 24th of December. This is the moment when a big candle is lit and placed on the table.
Once in Latvia people would go out on the feast night dressed up as bears, horses, goats etc. in order to dispel the evil spirits. While, in Lithuania for this aim people clean their houses weeks before Christmas. The traditions in Romania are variegated as well. The youngsters dress up and sing to their friends’ houses.
In France most attention is paid on the dining table. Along with the turkey with chestnuts there is foie gras, oysters, pastries and cake.

The home country of the first Christmas card

is Great Britain. In 1843, the headmaster of “Victoria and Albert” museum in London, Sir Henry Cole, failed to greet his friends. Therefore, he ordered to an artist friend to paint a Christmas card with the greeting “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. Traders immediately realized that they could profit from this and so they turned it into a business. So, Christmas cards started to get actively sold after 1868. Today they are not only to be seen in the streets of Europe, but all around the world. However, passing the English Channel, one can be overwhelmed by the incredible selection! Of course, Christmas does not pass by without the Queen’s speech. Similarly in Estonia, it does not pass by without the president disclosing the Peaceful Christmas.

Santa is still not so popular

in Portugal. The Christmas tree too. There little Jesus brings the presents to the children. And on Christmas Eve everyone has to attend the church Rooster Mass at midnight (named so because the rooster crowed after the birth of Christ).
In Hungary the little Jesus and the angels spread joy and gifts. On the 24th of December the parents secretly hide to decorate the tree and place the presents underneath it. The tradition is to hang special Christmas chocolate candies named salontsukor. Wrapped in gold or silver pieces of paper, the chocolate shell is filled with marzipan, strawberry jelly or something else. When everything is ready the parents take a bell and announce with it that little Jesus and the angels have arrived. The Christmas lights start shining and the presents can be opened. The time has come for the festive dinner.
In Spain three wise men from the east bring gifts to the children. These are the same ones who worshiped the baby Jesus and donated him with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Reproductions of the manger where Christ was born

were first made in churches in Italy- since the 15th century! They were placed at homes from the 17th - 18th century. The tradition requires that nine days before the big Catholic feast figures made of glass, porcelain or wood have to be prominently arranged in the Italian home in order to recreate the birth of Christ. The mangers are also highly respected in Malta. Despite this, Poland seems to be the proudest of its rich decoration. Among the mangers there, the most famous ones are from Krakow. Before Christmas the city even organizes a competition for the “most beautiful manger”.
There is no Christmas in Italy without the traditional cake “Panetone”. This cake appeared around 1490 in Milan but quickly spread across the country. Nowadays it looks wonderful with its tasty raisins, mandarins and oranges that are on the inside and the roasted almonds and walnuts on top. Sunday is dedicated to the children. In Northern Italy, Grandma Natale, the Italian Santa Claus comes down through the chimney of the fireplace and puts the gifts into the shoes next to her. In Southern Italy the witch Befana brings the presents later-on January 6th. This old lady with white hair is very nice and gives to the good ones sweets and to the naughty ones coals. On the 25th of December, all Italians watch the Pope’s blessing from the Vatican on television.
In the Czech Republic, people believe that Christmas is a magical night and one can predict the future. The children put in the water a burning candle on a nutshell and they soothsay. Polish people, on the other hand, believe that miracles can happen on Christmas Eve and that the water in wells, streams and rivers turns into honey, wine and liquid gold. But this can only be seen by the righteous people.  

The illuminated boats of the houses

Christmas in Cyprus, as well as in Greece, is faced towards the sea. Despite that the Greeks have a saying “Trees don’t grow on water” this does not prevent the Christmas tree to become part of the Greek home. This is because several cultures are interlaced in Greece. Santa Claus is popular, but the presents are handed out by Saint Basil. He does not begin his journey from house to house until the night of the 1st of January. In the evening the Greek children sing songs to the neighbours who give them sweets in return. The dinner on the 25th of December brings a wonderful touch of traditions from the past- soup of beef head, trotters and cookies. On the islands and the sea shores the houses are decorated with illuminated boats. A truly marine Nativity…