Reward True Stories: How to learn a new language in three months

Blog 10 Christmas traditions from Europe to try at home
Date: 30 November 2020

10 Christmas traditions from Europe to try at home


It’s safe to say that Christmas 2020 will be quite different from other years. So why not go all out and take on a brand new tradition this festive season?

No matter how or where you’re celebrating, the following quirky Christmas customs from across Europe will add a little extra sparkle to your holidays – and they can all be tried at home!

1. Put a spider’s web in your Christmas tree – Poland, Germany and Ukraine

Silver spider web ornament on a Christmas tree
Cobwebs in Christmas trees are common in some Eastern European countries. Photo: Erika Smith – Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Although spiders and cobwebs are usually associated with Halloween, they’re actually common Christmas decorations in Eastern European countries.

According to the ‘Legend of the Christmas Spider’, once upon a time there was a poor, hardworking widow who couldn’t afford to decorate her Christmas tree. When she awoke on Christmas morning, she found a spider had spun webs all across the tree, and when the sunlight shone on them, it turned them into gold or silver.

As such, spiders are considered to be symbols of prosperity in Poland, Germany and Ukraine, and you’ll find cobweb decorations adorning Christmas trees all across the country.

2. Have a festive family sauna – Finland

Sauna surrounded by snow and decorated with blue Christmas lights
Families in Finland head to their nearest sauna on Christmas Eve

Sauna is one of the few Finnish words to make it into everyday English language, and everywhere you go in Finland you’ll find one – even in places you’d never expect like a Burger King or a ski lift!

The tradition of joulusauna, or Christmas sauna, is one that dates back centuries in Finland. Here, families gather on Christmas Eve to purify their bodies and calm their minds before the onset of the festivities. They make their saunas extra cosy with scented oils, lanterns and crisp, fresh towels. They even leave Christmas treats for the saunatonttu, or sauna elf.

Get together with loved ones and enjoy your own sauna or experience in the run up to Christmas. And if you can’t quite make it to a spa, you could also embrace the calming spirit of the Finnish Christmas sauna at home with a relaxing bath and some scented candles – just don’t forget the sauna elf treats 😉.

3. Leave your shoes by the fire – the Netherlands

A boot with 2 carrots inside, a chocolate S in front and a gold and red wrapped gift beside it
The Netherlands gives new meaning to the phrase ‘fill your boots’

Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, is a well-known and loved figure for children across the Netherlands. On 5 December, families settle down to celebrate St. Nicholas’ Eve, also known as pakjesavond, when parties featuring singing, games, and the exchanging of gifts take place.

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands from Spain, around two or three weeks before pakjesavond. In the days leading up to this date, children put their shoes in front of the fire (or sometimes by the radiator or the back door) in the hope that they will be filled with gifts and treats by Sinterklaas as he makes his way across the rooftops on his white horse. Some even leave a carrot in their shoes for the horse.

4. Set up a ‘pooping log’ – Catalonia, Spain

Catalonian Tió de Nadal logs with smiling faces and red hats
Embracing the Catalan tradition of ‘pooping logs’ could be a good way to entertain the kids in the run up to Christmas. Photo: Kathryn Greenhill – Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The region of Catalonia is home to some bizarre but fun traditions, and not least the Tió de Nadal or Caga Tió, which is essentially a smiley-faced wooden log wearing a hat.

Every year the Tió de Nadal logs make their long journey from the forests and arrive at the homes of excited children across Catalonia on 8 December. The kids are told they must take care of their log in the days leading up to Christmas, so they cover him with a blanket and feed him every night with bread and orange peel. 

Then, on Christmas Day, the children gather round to hit the log with sticks and sing songs encouraging him to ‘poop’ presents and turrón (nougat).

The gifts the Tió leaves are usually small, as traditionally families across the whole of Spain do their gift-giving on 6 January, when the Three Kings or Three Wise Men arrive.

5. Give porridge to the Nisse – Norway

A Norwegian Nisse figure with red trousers and red hat stands beside a wooden bowl of porridge and a bowl of red apples in a kitchen
Leaving out porridge for the Nisse is a typical Norwegian Christmas tradition

You might have read that Norwegians hide broomsticks in their closets on Christmas Eve to stop witches from stealing them, and while it’s an interesting concept, in fact this is not a widely known tradition in Norway.

Much more common is the custom of leaving out a bowl of porridge for the family Nisse (like a pixie or gnome) on Christmas Eve.

In Scandinavia, it’s thought that every household has its own guardian spirit, or Nisse, in the form of a short man or woman who wears a hat and looks after the household or farm.

On Christmas Eve, it’s tradition to thank the Nisse for their hard work by leaving them a bowl of porridge.

Another tradition in some parts of Norway at Christmastime is to indulge in a feast of wood-smoked sheep’s head, or smalahove. Find out more in our post on weird Nordic foods you’ve probably never heard of.

6. Make gingerbread cookies – Germany

Dozens of gingerbread cookies with Christmas decoration in the frosting on a red table
Nowhere does gingerbread like Germany!

Gingerbread cookies and gingerbread houses are well-known the world over as a staple Christmas food, but arguably nowhere does them as well as Germany. In fact, Nuremberg is considered the Mecca of Lebkucken, or gingerbread, and each bakery keeps its recipe a secret.

Every year, these sweet treats appear in homes, stores and across Germany’s spectacular Christmas markets. Lebkuchenherzen – gingerbread hearts with messages written in frosting – can often be seen hanging from ribbons at the markets and at Oktoberfest, and make for great gifts for friends and family.

7. Give the kids a Krampus fright – Austria

A person wearing a Krampus mask with horns, long hair and sharp teeth
Krampus is certainly one of the more eerie Christmas traditions originating in Europe. Photo: Anita Martinz – Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

You’ll also find gingerbread cookies in Austria, but there’s a far more sinister Christmas tradition which originates here, too.

The Krampus is a scary-looking creature who has appeared during Advent in Austria for centuries. The half-goat, half-demon beast is the definition of an anti-St. Nick, and folklore has it that he whips naughty children with his bundle of birch sticks and drags them down to his lair in hell.

The night of 5 December is known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. Adults dress up to scare kids and there are often parades in the streets, sometimes even a Krampuslauf, or Krampus run, where hundreds of Krampuses fill the streets (mainly to party and blow off a bit of steam).

8. Leave out wine for La Befana – Italy

A Befana witch-woman ornament complete with broom and headscarf
Leaving out a little tipple for La Befana is customary in Italy

A Christmas legend in Italy that dates back to medieval times is that of La Befana, an old witch-like woman who was invited by the Three Wise Men to join them in visiting Baby Jesus.

The story goes that La Befana declined at first as she had too much housework to do. She later changed her mind and went looking for them with her broom and a basket of homemade goods for Mary, who she thought might prefer a clean floor and some food to other gifts. But she was unable to find them. She even ran so fast to catch up with them that she was lifted into the sky on her broom.

So every year on the night of 5 January – the eve of the Epiphany – La Befana visits all the homes in Italy in search of the Three Wise Men and Baby Jesus, bearing caramele, or sweets, which she leaves for the good children, and coal, which is given to the naughty ones.

Nowadays, kids put out stockings for La Befana to fill with gifts, as well as a glass of wine, and a plate of sausage and broccoli for her – nothing too hard to eat as she might not have all her teeth left!

Stock up on wine to leave for La Befana yourself with VinosOnline, and earn CashPoints.

9. Watch Donald Duck on TV – Sweden

Donald Duck's face in cartoon format on a blue background
The 1950s Donald Duck Christmas special is not to be missed on Christmas Eve in Sweden

Every Christmas Eve at 3pm, Swedish families sit down in front of the TV to watch Kalle Anka, a Donald Duck Christmas special which was first aired in 1958.

Watching the hour-long special, known in English as From All of Us to All of You, has become a central part of Swedish Christmas tradition for almost half the country, one which has even been known to have an effect on the number of calls to the Emergency Services on Christmas Eve. Studies have shown that each year from 2011-2016 there was around a 20% decrease in 112 calls during the ‘Donald Duck hour’. Turns out TV can be good for your health 😉

10. Eat 13 desserts – Provence, France

Different desserts on a Christmas-themed table, including cakes, dried fruits and sweets
How about taking a bite of 13 different desserts as they do in Provence this Christmas? Photo: Erica Ashleson – Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This indulgent Christmas tradition comes from the French region of Provence, and sees families scoff a whopping 13 desserts after the Christmas meal. Each treat is said to represent one of the 12 apostles, and there’s an extra one to represent Jesus.

The desserts are usually served all at once and everyone must share them all, taking at least a bite of each one. Traditions vary from home to home, but each tasty dessert brings something to the table, symbolising certain elements of the Christian religion or superstitious customs.

For example, ‘The Four Beggars’ are dried fruits and nuts which represent the monastic orders: Walnuts for Augustines, dried figs for the Franciscans, raisins for the Dominicans and almonds for the Carmelites.

You’ll also find at the table a platter of fresh fruit, white and dark nougat, a spice cake, and fougasse, or pompe à l’huile: an olive oil flatbread sweetened with sugar, which must always be broken with the fingers – never with a knife – and dipped in mulled wine or grape jam.

Check out all 13 desserts and give this French Christmas custom a go at home (or make your own version!).


Reward True Stories: How to learn a new language in three months