Christmas traditions in Europe



The origin and the name given to this celebration are different depending on the country. For exemple, for the French word Noël definitely comes from the Latin word natalis(birth). The masses of Christ, held by English evangelists in December, gave birth to the English word "Christmas". "The Holy Night" is translated in German as Weihnacht...Taking place in the last few days of December, this holiday is not celebrated in the same way in every country. There are many symbols attached to this holiday in Europe, and each country has kept its own identity and traditions, while enriching them with influences form various other sources. This diversity and richness prove the importance given by Europeans to the Christmas holiday.

Here are some exemples...

Advent, its crown and its calendar...

Couronne de l'AventAdvent corresponds to the four-week period that precedes "the arrival"(adventus in Latin) of baby Jesus, that is Christmas. In certain parts of Germany, Advent begins on the 11th November, on Saint Martin's Day. Depending on the country, various saints (Saint Martin, Saint Catherine, Saint Eligius, Saint Barbe, Saint Nicholas or Saint Lucia) are honoured in a meaningful way during this period. These celebrations sometimes become more important than Christmas itself.
The Advent Crown

The Advent Crown, made of woven fir branches and four candles, representing the four seasons of the year, appeared quite late in the Protestant regions of Germany. It reached Scandinavia before spreading to various other countries. The four candles are lit one by one, on each of the four Sundays before Christmas.

The Advent Calendar

The Advent Calendar is a tradition of German origin aimed to encourage children to be patient until Christmas. Thus, in order to feel that they have less time to wait, children are given an Advent Calendar at the beginning of December, which has twenty four little doors. Every evening, they open one door, the last one being opened on Christmas Eve, just before the arrival of Santa Claus. Originally, the closed doors hid pious images that have been replaced nowadays with sweets. The first Advent Calendar is thought to date back to 1851.

The Christmas tree

sapin de Noël de la Place KléberThe evergreen Christmas tree, like ivy and holly, is the symbol of eternal life. This tradition is first mentioned in the 16th century, in Alsace; but as early as the 11th century, the houses seem to have been decorated with "greenery taken from trees". Very early on, the Christmas tree was covered with various decorations and candles to light it up when Christmas came. In Hungary for exemple, the tree is decorated with biscuits, sweets and chocolates, which can be eaten from December 24, making sure that the coloured wrappers are not removed, so as not to leave the tree bare.
In the 18th century, the Christmas tree reached the whole of Germany, and then spread to many other countries. However, certain countries, such as Italy and Spain, were long reluctant to adopt this tradition.
In Greece, the Christmas tree does not exist, but people grow a Christmas rose called Ellebore.

The Christmas crib

Crèche, Sapin de Noël de la Place KléberThe Christmas crib, which reminds us of the Nativity, first appeared in Italy and underwent considerable development in other southern Catholic countries of Europe (Spain, Portugal) as well as in France and Southern Germany after the 13th century. In the Early Middle Ages, cribs were set up in churches and liturgical games (Nativity games) were organised on Christmas night. Set up in a cave, or more modestly, in a stable, the traditional crib gradually became commonplace in the homes of churchgoers. At that time, it included only the main characters: baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the three Wise Men, the Angel Gabriel, not to mention the donkey and the bullock. However, in certain countries, other characters are traditionally included in the Nativity scene. This is particulary the case in Poland, where national heroes, represented by small figurines, are included alongside the crib characters. Moreover, the French Jean-Louis Lagnel invented in the18th century, small clay figurines, very colourful, representing little characters from the south of France, that are included in the Nativity scene. These are known as the Santons de Provence and have been since quite popular.

Christmas Markets

marchés de Noël de StrasbourgChristmas Markets originated in the Middle Ages. The oldest are those taking place in Vienna in Austria and Munich in Germany. In 1570, Strasbourg organised its first Christmas Market. This is the Christkindelsmärik (baby Jesus market) which still takes place today.
Christmas Markets bring the opportunity to discover various culinary specialities, as well as Christmas decorations, cribs and other objects made by craftsmen.
They bring a holiday atmosphere to cities, waiting for Christmas Day.


Marché de Noël de StrasbourgSince ancient times, the Romans would give each other gifts dring the Saturnales (festival in honour of Saturn, celebrated in Ancient Rome at the winter solstice).
Whether it is Saint Nicholas' Day, Saint Basil's Day, Christmas, New Years's Eve, or even Epiphany, we have continued the tradition of offering gifts. The Roman word strenae became étrennes (gifts) in the French language.

Saint Nicholas

Marché de Noël de Strasbourg : maenelesIn the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas) is celebrated on December 5. This holiday is much more important than Christmas itself. TV channels even broadcast Saint Nicholas' arrival!
Sinterklaas is said to live in Spain, and spend a good part of the year checking up on the behaviour of Dutch children.
As for his servant, Père Fouettard (or Zwarte Piet), he is in charge of preparing the gifts for the good children.
They both arrive in the Netherlands aboard a steamboat, during the night of 5 to 6 December.
They travel over the roofs of the houses, and Zwarte Piet goes down the chimneys to deliver the gifts, which is why his clothes are black with soot.
In northen Germany, Saint Nicholas is also widely celebrated, as he is in Belgium and Austria.

Saint Lucia

Sainte LucieEach year on December 13, Sweden celebrates Saint Lucia at a feast of light.
The legend of Lucia, holy martyr of Syracuse, probably dates from the IVth century.
It tells how Lucia helped Christians who were persecuted by the Romans to survive by bringing them food in their hiding places.
To light her way, she wore a crown of candles.
On December 13, young Swedish girls, dressed in a long whites night gown and wearing a crown of candles like Saint Lucia, going around their houses and giving cakes to their families.
Processions of Saint Lucia are also organized; the first took place in 1927.

Father Christmas

santa clausFather Christmas (also known as Santa Claus in English, Babbo Natale in northen Italy, Mos Craciunen in Romania…)
whom we know today, with his white beard and red costume (inherited from a famous brand of drink) did not appear until recently in folklore, in Anglo-Saxon countries.
He lives in the north of Finland with his faithful reindeer. Father Christmas arrives by sleigh, the night of December 24, to distribute presents to good children by going down the chimney.
This character seems to have many ancesters in France, particularly Father Chalande Sovoyard, Father January Bourguignon or the Basque Olenzaro.
But it is mainly Saint Nicolas who appears to have founded the principal model.

Saint Basil

Saint Basile, Marche de Noël In Greek and Cyprian traditions, there is not a Father Christmas with a white beard and red suit to give presents to children; it is Saint Basil who distributes presents on January 1.
A thinner character, of very modest origins, he wears only very thin clothing. On the eve of Saint Basil's Day, early in the morning, the children celebrate his arrival and go to their neighbors to search for candy.
Saint Basil's Day cake, in which a piece of money is hidden, is shared with the family.

The Three Wise Men

rois magesIn Spain, the Wise Kings, Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar, occupy a prominent place in Christmas celebrations, similar to Father Christmas in other countries. On January 6, Spanish children stand at the door or window of the house, their slippers full of food for the Wise Men and oats for their camels. They hope thus to exchange presents with these men who came from the Orient and are tired from their journey.
The Wise Kings bring toys to good children and coal to naughty children. In Finland, according to one legend, Father Christmas was supposed to be the fourth Wise Man. Living too far north on the planet to see the shepherd's star, he never got to Bethlehem to see baby Jesus.


befanaIn southern Italy, it is the witch Befana who distributes presents to the children on January 6. According to the legend, this witch had been advised of the birth of Jesus by the Wise Kings; but, having mistaken the way, she lost track of the star. Ever since, she has wandered in search of the baby Jesus and leaves a present with each sleeping child in case it is he. It seems that it is always possible to see her on her broom, in the night sky before the dawn of January 6, carrying on her back an enormous sack filled with presents.
The texts of this page are a repetition of a brochure created by the Information Center on European Institutions and the City of Strasbourg for Strasbourg's Christmas market in 2008 for the French presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Photo credit: City of Strasbourg – Dir. Comm. Photographes : G. Engel et JF Badias. Photo of Saint Lucia: Photo credit: Institute/ Jan Tham - Father Christmas photos: Photo credit: Office of the Finish Tourist Board - Christmas Market Photos: Office du Tourisme de Strasbourg - Advent Crown Photo: Office National Autrichien du Tourisme – Phtographer : NBTC – Illustration : Robert Scouvart – Conception
graphique : Roland Ohlenbusch.