I don’t know about you, but I love learning about Christmas traditions in other countries. Read on for some of my favourites.
13th December: St Lucia, Scandinavia
Today is the feast day of St Lucia, or Saint Lucy. Unless you are from a Catholic country, are Scandinavian or have a particular interest in saints, you may not have heard of her. I hadn’t, until my brother moved to Stockholm. Lucy of Syracuse was executed by dagger during the Roman Empire persecution of Christians in 304 AD. When she became a saint, 13th December was named as her feast day.
St Lucia Day in Scandinavia is also a festival of light. That’s because the day used to coincide with the Winter Solstice, the pagan celebration of the shortest day of the year. The solstice falls a week later nowadays – 21st December this year – due to calendar changes.
Sweden and Norway celebrate St Lucia most of all, getting up early to celebrate the light and ‘break the spell’ of winter darkness. Totally understandable, given that at this time of year there are about 18 hours of darkness and six hours of light each day.
Today, though I’m sure most of the usual celebrations have been cut back, processions of people normally walk and sing together wearing white robes, holding candles and heralding the light of the day. Traditionally, a girl would lead the procession wearing a red sash (a nod to Saint Lucia’s martyrdom) and a crown set with real candles – steadily you’d hope. Nowadays, boys also take the lead role. After the processions are complete, candles collect together like carpets along pavements, staying lit in their glass holders until the wax is worked through and the wicks wane.
It sounds wonderful, and I hope to get to see all the blazing candles one day. But there is another element of the tradition that excites me more… freshly baked bread!
Buns called Lussebullar (‘Lucia buns’) are traditionally made for the celebrations. They are also known as saffransbullar because of all the saffron that goes into them. And some call them Lussekatter because they look a bit like curled up cats.
Naturally, I had to have a go at baking some myself today.
And here’s how my Lussebullar have turned out. I’m quite pleased!
The taste? Like saffron brioche. Buttery and light, soft and delightfully full of savoury-sweet saffron flavour. Completely worth the effort.
If you fancy making a batch yourself, the recipe I followed is by the owner of Scandi Kitchen Brontë Aurell who wrote her recipe up for a recent issue of the Waitrose newspaper. (Two tips – use a teaspoon of saffron if you can’t measure 0.4g. And whisk then stir the mixture if you don’t have a dough hook).
As you might guess, it’s not just Nordic festivals of light that interest me at this time of year. Below are some other Christmas celebrations, events and traditions that take place around the world.
Want to share your own traditions? Comment underneath!
6th December: Sankt Nikolaus, Germany
Going back in time to last Sunday, this is the point in the year when children (or big kids) leave out their shoes at night in the hope of waking up on 6th December to find them full of sweets, instead of coal.
We’ve carried out the shoes & sweets tradition of Sankt Nikolaus as a family for many years, and I can confirm that this year I received only sweets – phew. It’s also tradition (any time in December really) to eat Christmas biscuits, especially lebkuchen gingerbread.
Sankt Nikolaus / Saint Nicholas, from whom the Santa Claus narrative derives, was an actual early Christian bishop of Greek descent who hailed from the island of Patara, near Turkey. He was known by the fantastic nickname of Nicholas the Wonderworker, on account of the many miracles attributed to him. He is patron saint of all sorts of people, from sailors and merchants to prostitutes, the unmarried (hi), students and children. Though very little is known about him, he had a penchant for secret gift giving, so it’s him we should thank for getting roped into Secret Santa every year.
Germany doesn’t have a monopoly on St Nick; his feast day on 6th December is celebrated by Christians around the world and characters like the devilish Krampus in Austria add some extra drama. Plus we have The Netherlands to thank for the establishment of Santa Claus; when Dutch colonists built the settlement of New Amsterdam (now Lower Manhattan), they introduced their Sinterklaas traditions.
December up to Christmas Eve: Jólabókaflód, Iceland
I love the romance of this Icelandic book-giving tradition, especially how lots of Icelanders spend their Christmas Eves.
Iceland is an island of serious book lovers – on average 1,300 books are published each year for a population of only about 300,000. Many of the books are published before Christmas. Hence the name of the tradition, Jólabókaflód, meaning ‘Christmas Book Flood’.
Each year every household receives a book ‘bulletin’ featuring all the soon-to-be-published book titles, and there is usually a book fair in Reykjavik as well as author interviews on TV.
Gifting books dates back to the Second World War when paper wasn’t rationed, making books commonly available.
It’s an over-romanticised view to expect every Icelander to do this, but on the most important day for most Scandinavians, Christmas Eve, after gifts are exchanged and big family meals take place, many Icelanders like to start reading the books they’ve received, often into the night, abs sometimes with a Christmassy glass of jolabland, made of beer and fizzy orange.
I love this idea so much that I’ve bought myself a book to open on Christmas Eve and a bottle of Guinness and Orangina for some DIY jolabland.
19th December: Giant Lantern Festival, Philippines
Small traditional lanterns called parols are made all around the Philippines around Christmas time, destined to decorate Filipino homes during the holidays.
But where this light festival gets seriously impressive is in the scale of the lanterns that decorate city streets and village roads. Competitions are popular, with Filipino craftspeople working on lanterns as big as 20 feet high, made of wire patterns and bulbs inside steel cylinders. The various styles of lanterns are usually designed to switch on and off to the sound of music, which must be an awesome sight and sound to behold.
24th December: le Réveillon de Noël, France
Another Christmas Eve tradition I can wholeheartedly get behind. Many French spend their Christmas Eves staying awake past midnight to enjoy an extravagant meal of luxury dishes, accompanied by various French wines.
Aware that once is never enough, there is also le Réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre, a night of extravagance on New Year’s Eve.
Lots of family and friends merrily together around the dining table is key to celebration, so it will all undoubtedly have be much more muted this Christmas, but I’m sure the food will be just as opulent – snails, oysters, lobster, chestnuts, truffles and the centrepiece, a Bûche de Noël chocolate log.
Kids aren’t left out of proceedings, as le Père Noël sneaks by if he can and places presents under the tree.
24th December: hiding your broom, Norway
Yep, as random as it sounds. A centuries-old tradition to avoid brooms being ridden by witches and evil spirits the night before Christmas. Crisis easily averted by simply hiding one’s broom somewhere safe about the house.
Slightly more fun-sounding, on the day before, 23rd December, Norwegians celebrate what’s called Little Christmas, carrying out family traditions like putting the tree up or making gingerbread.
24-25th December: fireworks, El Salvador
On Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, Central American countries like El Salvador celebrate the season with fireworks galore. There aren’t restrictions on people using them so, from volcancitos fire crackers to Roman candles and classic fireworks, they’re everywhere.
Advent and New Year’s Day: la ribote, Martinique
Families visit neighbours with favourite dishes of yams, pork stew, boudin creole (blood sausage) and pork pies style pastries called pâtés salés. After eating they’ll sing Creole versions of traditional carols into the early hours, in their houses or with the rest of their community.
5th January: Cider wassailing on Twelfth Night, UK
Wassailing on Twelfth Night is a very old tradition in Britain, said to date back to Saxon times. There are numerous local variations to the customs but essentially it’s based on a pagan tradition of blessing apple and pear orchards before the following year’s harvest.
This involves processions, singing in the orchards, blessing the trees, drinking from a cup of mulled cider (traditionally a ‘wassailing cup’) and making a ‘hullabaloo’ by banging pots and pans – all in the hope of encouraging a great future harvest.
What does the word ‘wassail’ actually mean? National Trust curator explains in an interesting article on the origins of wassailing that the word ‘is believed to be derived from the Old English “was hál’, meaning “be hale” or “good health”’
I would dearly love to take part in a nearby wassail in January, now that I live in Somerset, home of all good cider. Though something tells me we won’t all be drinking from a shared wassail cup this time around…
7th January: Eastern Orthodox Christmas
Most Orthodox Christians (with the exception of Greeks, Cypriots and Romanians) celebrate Christmas on 7th January rather than 25th December. This is simply because they use the Julian calendar which pre-dates the Gregorian calendar we use today, and doesn’t include its modifications.
In Eastern European countries and elsewhere, such as Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Israel and Egypt, Orthodox Christians have many traditions that are very distinctly their own.
In East Slavic countries (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, Macedonia and others), their version of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus is Ded Moroz, or ‘Grandfather Frost’. Together with his granddaughter and helper Snegurochka (‘snow maiden’), they deliver presents on New Year’s Eve, which is often the start of the Christmas holidays for Orthodox Christians.
Elsewhere in the world, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians celebrate a mass on Christmas Eve (6th Jan) known as the gahad. The church service begins at 6pm and continues into the early hours of Christmas Day. And in Egypt, with a Coptic Orthodox Church that has upwards of 10 million members, 43 days of fasting take place from 25th November. Making Christmas Day lunch all the more enticing!
As for me
When it comes to it, in my mind, the heart of most Christmas traditions is family and community, lights amid the winter darkness and sharing food with friends and family.
That’s why, although I always like to borrow some Christmas traditions from further afield, I’ll still treasure the little things I’ve grown up doing; fishing through the myriad boxes of baubles with my mum and making the Christmas pudding on Stir-up Sunday; trying and failing to open my Christmas stocking at the same slow speed as my brother; getting my dad ever larger boxes of Turkish Delight, something he still loves despite his ailing health; Muppets and kids home alone and an unholy amount of board games. But not forgetting perhaps the best thing of all. Great company, from friends and family – online or otherwise.