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27 November 2011

European Christmas Legends and Traditions—a Look to the Past and Present

The Jena Christkindlmarkt or Christmas Market in Germany.  THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Rene S. 

From Advent to Christmas to the Epiphany, the holidays herald time-honored traditions and customs that bring the sights and sounds of the season to life throughout Europe and all the world. Truly, it is the most wonderful time of the year. But did you ever wonder how we got here and why we celebrate the religious and secular traditions that we do? As we gather with family and friends this holiday season to recount the stories of Christmas, let us not forget from whence we came. Join me on this journey through the past and present of Christmas legends and traditions.

2016 Advent: November 27 – December 24


The Advent wreath marks the passage of the season by lighting one of the four candles on each Sunday during Advent.  Pictured above, are three Advent-purple candles and one rose. This rose candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent or Gaudete Sunday in celebration of the Christmas season and thus combines the colors of Advent-purple with Christmas-white—the white candle is placed in the center and lit on Christmas Day. THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Jonathunder.

Sunday, November 27, marks the first Sunday of Advent, a time when Christians around the world celebrate the “adventus” or coming of Christ—a season of redemption and hope for life everlasting. Commemorating the affirmation that Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ is yet to come, Christians celebrate Advent with myriad traditions. From adoring interiors with living greens–symbolic of the promise of life everlasting and renewal, to the lighting of the five candles of the Advent wreath, Advent is also time to find hidden treasures waiting behind the closed doors of the Advent calendar as well as a visit to one of the vibrant Advent or Christmas markets throughout Europe. Beginning on the first Sunday of the new Western church calendar, Advent Sunday falls on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and is observed for the following four weeks until Christmas Day.


Finding Sinterklaas: Nov. 12 (official), Amsterdam Nov. 13 – December 5 and 6


Sinterklaas and Black Pete arrive in Amsterdam, Netherlands November 13 to mark the beginning of Sinterklaas Season. THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Arch.

Do you know of the legend of Sinterklaas? Originally thought to be unique to the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is actually celebrated throughout Europe and the traditions vary depending upon where you live.

According to legend, Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, Patron Saint of Children, spends most of the year in Spain watching over the children and checking to see who's naughty and who's nice. Sound familiar? As November approaches, he and his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) pack up all the gifts into one giant sack, and together with Sinterklaas’ trusty steed Amerigo or Schimmel as he is known locally, embark on a steamer for one of the port towns in the Netherlands in mid-November. This year, Sinterklaas will arrive in Amsterdam on Sunday, November 13 via the Amstel River where he'll make his grand entrance in his kilometer-long water pageant of floats and boats and sail along the city's canals to the delight of nearly 400,000 guests. It's the largest Saint Nicholas parade in the world according to IAmsterdam.com.

As the story goes, on December 5 or Sinterklaas Eve, he flies through the night to deliver his gifts to all of the good boys and girls around the world. The trio alight upon the rooftops where Sinterklaas listens carefully at the chimney for sounds of good behavior, and if all goes well, he sends Amerigo down the chimney to replace the carrot and straw left in the children's shoes with special gifts.

Today, believers in Sinterklaas leave their shoes by the fireplaces in hopes of receiving their presents. Upon waking in the morning, each opens a gift and reads a short poem that reveals a little known fact or something humorous about the recipient. After all the gifts are opened, the Sinterklaas Feast is served.

Winter Solstice—Odin and the Yule Celebration: December 21


Odin the Wanderer from the Nordic traditions of the Winter Solstice celebration of Yule.  THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Public Domain.

Have you ever wondered about the origins of our beloved Santa and his eight tiny reindeer? And why do celebrate at this time of the year? Throughout history, many legends recount the tales of a benevolent being who travels furtively by the winter’s night bearing gifts for children around the world. But have you heard of Odin the Wanderer and his eight-legged horse Sleipner?

Long before Christianity spread throughout the world, Pagan rituals and customs were prevalent throughout the lands but it was in northern Germany and Scandinavia that Odin can trace his roots back to the celebration of Yule—a pagan religious festival heralding the arrival of the winter solstice from mid-December to early January. During this time, many believed that Odin, disguised in a long blue-hooded cloak, would travel to earth by night with his eight-legged horse Sleipner to help those in need of food. Why is he missing an eye? To gain knowledge of the past, present and future, Odin had to drink from the Well of Wisdom but for a price. Ultimately, he sacrificed his left eye and today, it lies at the bottom of this Well of Wisdom as a symbol of the price he paid for the wisdom he possesses.

As traditions grew over time, the children of these lands would anticipate the arrival of gift-bearing Odin and would fill their boots with straw, carrots or sugar, and place them near the fireplace so that Sleipnir could come down to eat during his midnight rides. Odin would then reward these kind children by replacing the food with gifts and candy.

Here's a fascinating animated short "The Night Before Christmas, Or Yuletide or such..." by Celestial Elf recounting the legend of Odin the Wanderer.



Christmastide: December 25 – January 6.


Giotto's "Adoration of the Magi" shows the Three Kings arriving and bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Baby Jesus.  THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Public Domain.

Beginning on Christmas Day, the Twelve Days of Christmas mark the time from the Nativity to the Epiphany—the birth of the Savior to the day God revealed Himself unto the gentiles and the Magi or Three Kings. With that said and contrary to modern belief, the Twelve Days of Christmas are those that follow Christmas, not those that come before. It begins on Christmas night and concludes on the Twelfth Night or evening of January 5 with the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day following on the next.

Christmastide is a time when Christians celebrate the Glory of God and His gift bestowed upon man as promised by the Angel Gabriel’s proclamation "fear not, for behold, I bring tidings of great joy"—a gift that would bring forth peace and good will for all—the Birth of the Savior.

Did you know?

While "Twelve Days of Christmas" is usually sung during the holidays, its origins can be traced back to the 16th century when it was taught to children as a mnemonic device for learning the Christian faith. As you know, each verse begins with the lines “On the # day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…,” "my true love" refers to God and "me" represents every baptized Christian in the world. The partridge in a pear tree symbolizes the Baby Jesus whom God gave to the world on this first day of Christmas. The second day brought "Two Turtle Doves" or the Old and New Testaments. On the third day, "three French hens" represent the three religious virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. “Four calling birds” embody Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And for you trivia buffs, “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah. “Six geese-a-layin'” represent the six days of creation. “Ten lords-a-leapin'” represent the Ten Commandments, and finally, “eleven pipers piping” represent 11 Apostles sans Judas.

How do you celebrate the Christmas holidays? What customs and traditions passed down by generations do you and your family embrace? Please share your Christmas stories and celebrations with all of us.

37 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the history of how other countries celebrate Christmas. The videos were beautiful.
    You really put everyone in the Christmas spirit.
    Well written and another job WELL DONE. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

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  2. Greetings Anonymous!!

    Once again, thank you for stopping by and I couldn't agree with you more about learning how other cultures celebrate the holidays and the origins of their customs! Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year as well!

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  3. Thank you for a most instructive post. In France, Christmas is mostly celebrated on Christmas Eve. Everyone leaves out a pair of shoes and the presents are distributed accordingly. Every year, I bake my Australian Christmas cake at the begininng of Advent. The whole family has to stir and make a wish.

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  4. Fraussie,
    I totally agree with you on celebrating on Christmas Eve...my family has done so for generations! Your traditions sound wonderful especially your Christmas cake...yum. Thank you for sharing your Christmas magic with all of us!

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  5. Such an interesting history, thanks for sharing. In Germany St. Nicholas normally only brings candy, looks like the German kids are missing out.

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  6. Hey there Laurel,
    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your Christmas traditions! I am disappointed for all the German children...but something tells me they probably receive lots of gifts as well from you know who. I just found an article on your site about Strasbourg that I must link to from my Alsace overview...the photography is enchanting!

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  7. Very interesting post on all the history and lore of Christmas! We start our celebrating Christmas eve with a family movie-Christmas Vacation! Wake the next morning to the smell of my husbands sticky buns and finish with a grand Prime Rib.

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  8. Hi Debbie,
    Oh, it all sounds so wonderfully festive and delicious...especially the sticky buns! I'll take two please. Thank you so much for stopping by to share your traditions with all of us!

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  9. Hey - I posted about Advent calendars today, too! Great Euro minds think alike.

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  10. Hi Sonja...well, us EuroPals make a great team, don't we? Can't wait to read about the Christmas markets in your post. On my way....Thx for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  11. Great post about holiday traditions. We opened our first little door today. It's truly the "official" start of the holiday season. We don't put candy in, we put a small holiday "prize" inside. The rule is that you can't spend a lot of money so you need to be creative. It's a lot of fun.

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  12. Hi Sue,
    Love your advent traditions! I too, opened my first door today but no surprises...maybe I need to come to your house. ; ) Thank you for sharing your holiday happenings with all of us and please spread the word and tell others to come back and share their Christmas traditions.

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  13. Great post, Jeff. I'm all about the present;)

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  14. Lesley, I couldn't agree more!! I am all about the present as well although the influence of past traditions makes for an interesting read! Thx once again for stopping by!!

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  15. What an interesting, inspiring article, with enchanting pictures, thank you for taking the time to write and share. My parents were American, but they left when I was 2 years old and I grew up in Switzerland, getting to know all about St Niklaus, the Kristkindelmarkt too, then I married and live in France, and have tried to bring to my in laws and husband all the fun of looking forward to Christmas with colourful decorations, stocking presents that are thoughtful and fun, ginger bread and Christmas teas and egg nog, wrappings and scents, and he taught me that French Chapon was more delicate and unction than dryer turkey, and of course, has all the right fine wines to go with it! Plus foie gras as an entrée.

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  16. Marnie,
    How delightful your celebrations and traditions sound. I wish I could be there to experience all of your festivities. Perhaps, one day I will!! If I make it to Europe next Christmas, guess who's coming to dinner? LOL. Or staying at the castle? Me!! Thx so much for stopping by and sharing your inspiring story as well!! Loved every word of it. Happy Holidays!

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  17. Fantastic information Jeff! Amazing to learn so much history when it comes to Christmas! I've already learned a lot this year that I never knew. Outstanding resource and source of information here!

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  18. Jeremy,
    I am so glad you found this post so informative and fun. I too learned a lot while researching just some of the traditions and customs and found that I could have written a novel about each one. Thank you for your kind compliments and stopping by to share your thoughts!

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  19. Seems like the European Christmas traditions stretch out a lot longer than in the US! More time to enjoy the festivities :)

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  20. Leslie, don't you love it? So much history in all of these stories and it's amazing to see how many pieces are integrated into today's celebrations! Thx for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  21. Thank you for a most instructive post. In France, Christmas is mostly celebrated on Christmas Eve. Everyone leaves out a pair of shoes and the presents are distributed accordingly. Every year, I bake my Australian Christmas cake at the begininng of Advent. The whole family has to stir and make a wish.

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  22. Hi there Chimney Pipe! What a lovely tradition you and your family share on Christmas Eve. I just love to hear how people around the world celebrate Christmas! By the way, do you ship your Australian Christmas cake to Florida? ; ) . Thank you so much for stopping by to share your experiences!!

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  23. Hi Jeff - Once again I have spent some very enjoyable time reading your work - you are a very talented writer, and I always learn something very interesting when I read your posts! Thanks for all the great efforts, photo's, videos and insight you bestow upon all of us! Look forward to "speaking" to you on facebook & twitter!

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    1. Hi there my friend!

      Thank you so much for stopping by to share your kind words! They go a long way with me and I truly appreciate every word. Thank you for sharing and see you on Twitter!

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  24. Loved the explanation for the 12 days of Christmas - even though I always found that song rather annoying ever since we first learned it in English class the first year I had to take it as my second foreign language in high school :)

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    1. Hi there Mariella and thank you so much for stopping by. I too, found the "12 Days of Christmas" particularly fascinating especially as it relates to Christianity! I think I like that version better than the song, however, there is a great re-make called "The 12 Pains of Christmas" and it's quite hilarious!

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  25. Very cool....I did not know the story behind 12 days of Christmas. Now I do.

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    1. HI there Anita!
      I too, learned something new while researching this article. Interesting huh? Thank you so much for stopping by to share your thoughts!

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  26. Oh, you know I love all things about European Christmas and there were some very interesting tidbits and pics here. Had no idea about the origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

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    1. Hi there Cathy and thank you so much for your comment. I too learned a great deal from this post, especially the origins of the 12 Days of Christmas. Plus I love all the comments above regarding Christmas traditions from around the world!!

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  27. Amazing! So many insights on the Christmas traditions. :) I got to learn a lot today! We celebrate Christmas during the month of December - 1 to 25th and then it's the New Year buzz. We decorate our houses, Christmas tree, pack gifts, throw a party, attend church, bake cake, sing carols, bonfire and eat lots of donuts. :)

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    1. Merry Christmas to you Renuka and thank you so much for stopping by to share your Christmastime traditions. I love to read how others celebrate Christmas and I share many of your traditions too!! Have a wonderful holiday and thank you again.

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  28. I have my Christmas traditions of food (rib roast with Yorkshire pudding) and music (Irish Tenors and King’s Singers) and now have a third: your beautiful photos of Christmas in Europe.

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    1. Thank you Tim for sharing your traditions. You know, I have never tasted Yorkshire Pudding but hope to someday! Layer in the music and oh how magical! Most of all, thank you for your kind compliments, they mean a lot to me!! Happy New Year!!

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  29. Giotto's frescoes may lack depth perception but there is something devout and mystical in his works. Medieval artists were believers.

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    1. Cheers Tim!! Thanks so much for stopping by my friend! I too love his work and it wasn't too long after Giotto that perspective arrived on the art scene with Masaccio among a few others.

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    2. Yes. Saw Masaccio's breakthrough painting in Florence.

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!