Even though Christmas is celebrated in most parts of and by many citizens in Europe, you will find quite some variety when in comes to regional Christmas traditions and customs. Many of these go back centuries or even date back to pre-Christian pagan times. From traditional Christmas dinners, local celebrations or superstitions - customs and traditions still play an important role in many places of Europe today and we have put together a small selection from our destination to dive into the festive spirit.
The ghost of Christmas paste
The traditional Christmas celebration in Portugal is called "consada" and it is all about coming together with the family. Some families take this to a whole new level and set extra places at their dining table for relatives that are no longer with them. It is believed that this will ensure good fortune for the household for the upcoming year.
Braga goes bananas - the "Bananeiro"
The Northern Portuguese city of Braga has a very unique Christmas tradition as every year people from all over the town come together to eat bananas and drink Muscatel at the "Casa das Bananas". The tradition was born when the banana shop owner set up a little Muscatel stand for some extra income before Christmas. One hungry customer was offered a banana with his drink and a tradition was born, which grew bigger and bigger each year and now attracts more than a hundred visitors each Christmas Eve.
Christmas treat - the Bolo-rei
Hardly any Christmas table in Portugal goes without a Bolo-rei, a sweet cake which is consumed between Christmas and the Three Wise Men on January 6. The round-shaped Bolo-rei is topped with crystalized fruits and filled with nuts and makes a delicious treat with your afternoon coffee. It also held a little surprise gift in the past and whoever found (or ate) the gift would have to buy the next cake the following Christmas. Unfortunately, European Union's health and safety protocols no longer allow for gifts to be hidden in cakes.
While most people are looking forward to the arrival of Santa Claus over Christmas, evil spirits and witches are also expected to show up at your door on Christmas Eve in Norway. To make a visit to your household less attractive, the most obvious thing to do is to hide your broom over night before you go to sleep.
Julebukk - the "Christmas goat"
Between Christmas and New Year's Eve, kids will dress up in Christmas-themed masks and costumes and would go from door to door singing Christmas songs while receiving candy and sweets (and drinks for the older generations) in return.
This popular tradition is commonly believed to have originated in a pre-Christian-pagan ritual, when pagans worshiped the god of Thor, who rode in a chariot pulled by a pair of goats. During the Yule ("Christmas") holiday, pagans would dress in a goat skin and go from house to house carrying a goat head. Over the centuries, the goat has been replaced with Christian and more child-friendly costumes.
Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree
The festive tree on Trafalgar Square in London is gifted to the people of Britain by Norway since 1947 and it lights up the square between early December and January 6. The Norwegian spruce is usually over 20 meters high and is selected from the forests surrounding Oslo with great care, sometimes even years in advance. The tree is a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during World War II.
Nisses - Mythical Christmas spirits
The tie with small, mythical spirits (kobolds) has been strong in many Nordic countries and Norway is no different. While children all over Norway are waiting for the visit of the "Julenisse" (Santa Clause), there is another particular nisse that needs looking after in rural Norway. This little manlike creature usually lives in barns on active farms and looks after the animals, making sure that they don't get sick over winter. To thank the "Fjøsnisse" for his hard and good work throughout the year, it is expected that the farmer leaves a bowl of "Julegrød" (Christmas porridge) outside his house for the nisse to enjoy on Christmas. It is very important to put a good blob of butter into the porridge as otherwise the nisse might get upset and the animals ill for Christmas!
The Yule cat
A giant cat is said to roam the snowy countryside of Iceland at Christmas time. Traditionally, farmers would use the yule cat as an incentive for their workers and reward those who have worked hard with a new set of clothes while those who didn't would be devoured by the gigantic cat-like beast. To avoid an unsavory demise, it is customary today for everybody in Iceland to get new clothing on Christmas.
The 13 Yule Lads
Instead of one Santa Clause, kids are visited by the 13 Yule Lads that either reward children for their good behavior or punish them if they were naughty. The first lad comes to visit 13 days before Christmas and each following day, one lad comes to the house and fills the shoes that children leave under the Christmas tree with small gifts or sweets or rotten potatoes, depending how the behavior has been the previous day. If the child has been really naughty, the horrifying mother of the Yule Lads, half troll and half beast, comes to kidnap that child and boils it in her cauldron.
Guinness and mince pies
On the night before Christmas, all across the world, children lay out something special for Santa to eat or to keep warm. While he might get a coffee in Sweden, some sherry in the UK or milk and biscuits in the US, he would never miss the sustaining pint of Guinness accompanied with mince pies that is waiting for him in Ireland!
The 12 pubs of Christmas
Even though this is a rather new tradition to the Irish run-up for Christmas, it is nonetheless popular. It might be banned for 2020, but will surely make a comeback once it is safe to do so.
In the month of December, groups of people meet dressed up as Santa Clauses or simply in Christmas jumpers and venture off to take on 12 pubs of Christmas for the night. The mission for the evening is clear - visit 12 pubs in one evening and have at least one drink in every one of them. If you make it to pub number 12, there is a badge of both honor and shame waiting for you.
Welcoming strangers to Scottish homes has always been connected to bringing good fortune for the new year since ancient times. Traditionally, the first-footer should not be somebody who was already at the house when midnight struck and will usually come bearing some gifts like a coin, bread, salt, a lump of coal and whisky - gifts representing all the things that the new year might hopefully bring. For the sake of fortune for the new year, it is also hugely important who first visits your house in the new year - while a dark-haired man is said to bring good luck, a light-haired man, redheads or even worse - a woman - are said to bring ill fate for the new year.
The Christmas ban
Our last digression on Christmas is not so much about a tradition, but more about an odd fact from Scottish history.
By the early middle ages, the Celts knew Christmas as Nollaig Beag or Little Christmas, and celebrations centered around the birth of Christ. Lightning candles or baking mince pies can be dated back to this time. Before the Scottish Reformation in 1560, Christmas was commonly known as yule in Scotland and celebrated in a similar way to the rest of the then-Catholic countries.
But celebrating Christmas largely dropped out of the Scottish shared consciousness after the reformation as traditional celebrations were now largely banned. Baking mince pies became prohibited, which lead bakers to making smaller sized pies as we know them today to make them easier to hide.
Christmas in Scotland was not widely celebrated again until the 20th century! Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958 and Boxing Day in 1971. Before this, people generally worked on these days, having only a light Christmas meal after work and saving their energy for Hogmanay celebrations a week later.
How, where and with who ever you will spend your Christmas this year, we hope that you will have a wonderful time, that will maybe feel a bit normal in this unusual times and that you and your loved ones will stay safe.
Wishing you a very happy holiday and all the best for the next year!
The Small Adventure Company