In the second instalment of our two-part series, we're focussing on Christmas in Europe and Central America, exploring how nations have taken the same Biblical event and commemorated it in very different ways. Some of these countries may be close geographically, but these December traditions provide a fascinating insight into the choices and chances that led each of them to arrive at their own unique definition of Christmas.
In the month before Christmas, German families set aside evenings for baking spiced cakes, gingerbread houses and a special tree-shaped pastry called das Christbaumgebäck, which is then hung on the Christmas tree. Christmas comes twice for German children; on 6th December St Nicholas arrives to fill their shoes with nuts, oranges and chocolate, then on Christmas Eve, the Christkind angel descends laden with even more gifts. This tradition can be traced back to the Reformation, when Martin Luther popularised the Christkind as an alternative to the Catholic veneration of saints.
The Christmas season begins on 13th December with the festival of Saint Lucia, the patron saint of light. The biggest Christmas celebration occurs on 24th December, when a smörgåsbord of home-made liver pâté, rye bread, and fish dishes is served.
Sinterklaas, as Saint Nick is known in the Netherlands, arrives in Amsterdam each November accompanied by his controversial companion Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes. Tradition states that he lives in Spain for the rest of the year, making his annual arrival by boat a major event now broadcast on national television. On Sinterklaas Eve, the Dutch exchange gifts and play traditional party games, and children hope to find sweets hidden in their shoes in the morning. On 26th December, known as the Second Christmas Day, there are no presents, though there is a large feast in the evening.
Italian children have an impressive collection of holiday gift-givers to choose from: Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas, has gained popularity in regent years, but Baby Jesus, Saint Lucia and a kindly witch known as La Befana all have prior claims to the role. In this part of the world, celebrations focus on la famiglia, l’amore e il cibo, or family, love and food, culminating in a lavish and lengthy lunch on Christmas Day. The traditional dessert is il pandoro, which translates literally as "golden bread".
Spanish families eat a large Christmas Eve meal before attending La Misa Del Gallo or 'the Mass of the Rooster', so called because a cockerel apparently crowed the night Jesus was born. As in Mexico, the Three Kings visit Spain on the 6th January, which is when most Spanish children receive gifts. On this day, many towns will host a lavish parade, with themed floats and a special carriage for each King.
In Mexico, the festive season begins on 12th December with the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. On 16th December, the first posadas are performed – re-enactments of Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem, which end with the actors being welcomed into the 'inn'. Children receive gifts on Christmas Eve from Baby Jesus, and again from the Three Wise Kings on 6th January.
If you'd like to spend your next Christmas or Epiphany learning about all these world traditions first-hand, contact Engel & Völkers for help in finding a second home abroad.