There’s no time like the holidays to connect to your roots and celebrate traditions with your family. Many of the popular customs we practice today were inherited from our ancestors… sometimes even from other people’s ancestors! Immigrants carried their traditions with them to their new home countries, where these practices were assimilated into the local culture — often with a new local twist.
Let’s explore Christmas traditions from across Europe and how some of them evolved into beloved holiday practices all over the world.
Wreaths and Christmas trees
Evergreen wreaths and decorations have been used in many cultures to symbolize eternal life, from the ancient Egyptians to the Chinese. In northern Europe, it was customary to decorate the house and barn with evergreen branches around the time of the New Year. The modern Christmas tree can be traced to western Germany in the Middle Ages, where it was featured in a popular medieval play about the Garden of Eden. This “paradise tree” was set up in German homes on December 24 to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve. The tree was hung with wafers, symbolizing the eucharistic host, and these later evolved into cookies in an assortment of shapes.
Today, Christmas trees are commonplace in many northern countries, including the U.K., Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. There’s even a modern Norwegian tradition of presenting a giant Christmas tree to the United Kingdom in thanks for coming to Norway’s aid during World War II. The tree is placed in Trafalgar Square in London, and thousands of people flock to watch it light up.
Another tradition where we find evergreen wreaths is in the costume of St. Lucia, a saint whose feast day is widely celebrated in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. On December 13, a girl chosen to depict St. Lucia in the holiday procession wears a long white dress and a wreath on her head topped with candles. She distributes cookies and saffron buns in memory of the saint, who, according to legend, distributed food and aid to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs wearing a candle-lit wreath to light her way.
Santa Claus and St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas’ Day takes place on December 6. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas’ Eve, December 5, is the day the children look forward to most, because it’s when St. Nicholas brings them their gifts! The name “Santa Claus” actually comes from the Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas: Sinterklaas, shortened from Sint Nikolaas.
St. Nicholas was a Christian saint, believed to have been born around 280 C.E. in what is now Turkey. He was known for his piety and kindness, and according to tradition, he gave away the wealth he inherited and traveled around helping the poor and the sick. After his death, he was canonized and became one of the most popular saints in Europe.
The Dutch brought Sinterklaas to the United States, and there he took on a life of his own, evolving into the jolly bearded figure from the North Pole popularized by American culture. But back in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is believed to live in a much warmer location: Madrid, Spain! Dutch children believe that he sails to the Netherlands on a ship and arrives at a different harbor each year.
This is especially interesting given that in Spain, Santa Claus is known only as a foreign American commercial figure. St. Nicholas isn’t even the one who brings Spanish children their presents — that would be the Three Kings. Which brings us to our next topic:
Gift-giving is one of the most universal Christmas traditions, but exactly when and how it takes place differs across cultures. As mentioned above, Dutch children eagerly await their gifts from Sinterklaas on St. Nicholas’ Eve, while Spanish children get their gifts a month later on Three Kings’ Day.
In Germany, there is a tradition in the workplaces and at schools to give Wichteln, or “Secret Santa” gifts. Each member of the group places a gift under the Christmas tree and then at a specific place and time the gifts are exchanged.
Like most holidays, Christmas is universally celebrated with great feasts. In the U.K. and Ireland, it’s traditional to serve a Christmas pudding for dessert. This pudding is more like a fruitcake than what Americans know as pudding — it’s thick enough to slice, and made with dried fruit, candied citrus peels, apples, brandy, and spices.
In Denmark, the traditional Christmas dessert is risalamande, a rice pudding made of milk, rice, vanilla, almonds, and whipped cream. One whole almond is left in the pudding, and the person who gets the whole almond gets a special present called a Mandelgave. Traditionally, this present was a pig made of marzipan, but today it may be a different kind of sweet or a small toy.
The traditional Christmas dessert in France is the Yule Log cake, Bûche de Noël. This rich cake is shaped like a log and often decorated to look like it came from a forest, often with little meringue mushrooms, sugared berries, and rosemary.
Boxing Day & St. Stephen’s Day
The day after Christmas is a holiday in its own right in some countries. In various parts of Europe, December 26 is celebrated as St. Stephen’s Day. Customs on this day vary from country to country: in Ireland, it’s also known as “Wren Day,” in reference to Irish mythology linking parts of Jesus’ life to the wren. Irish people go door to door with fake wrens and sing, dance, and play music, wearing old clothes and straw hats. In Catalonia in northeastern Spain, a traditional “leftover” meal is eaten: canelons — Catalan-style cannelloni — are stuffed with leftover meat from the feast eaten on Christmas Day.
In Great Britain, December 26 is celebrated as Boxing Day. In the past, Boxing Day was known as a holiday for giving gifts to the poor, but in modern times it’s mostly a day to rest, go shopping, and enjoy another day of vacation before heading back to the daily grind. It’s not clear where the term “Boxing Day” originated: some historians believe it refers to “boxes” of donations or gifts given on this day, while others believe “boxes” were another word for tips, which workers sought from the people they had served throughout the year.
New Year’s Eve
The new calendar year is welcomed all over the world, whether as part of a religious or cultural celebration, or simply as an opportunity to get the new year off to a good start. Many people are familiar with the ball-dropping ceremony in New York City’s Times Square, but have you heard of the grape-eating ceremony in Spain? It’s customary to eat 12 grapes, one for each chime, when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. In large Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona, people gather in the city squares and eat their grapes together.
In Denmark, there’s a superstition that you must “jump” into the new year by jumping off a chair when the clock strikes midnight — or have a year of bad luck!
The Scots term for the last day of the old year is Hogmanay, and the Scottish have their own special customs associated with it. One of them is the ritual of “first-footing”: the first guest to cross the threshold of the home of a friend or neighbor is thought to bring good fortune, so people visit each other, bearing symbolic gifts such as coins, coal, whiskey, or black buns.
What holiday traditions did your ancestors practice? Christmas is the perfect time to explore the places where their traditions began. Learn more about your ancestors and plan your next heritage trip on the MyHeritage Heritage Travel Hub: expedia.com/myheritage.
Source: My Heritage