One of the best things about traveling overseas is learning about different countries, cultures, and traditions. While we prepare for Christmas by trimming the tree and hanging up stockings ready for Santa (hey, you’re never too old for some Christmas magic!), other countries are celebrating in different ways…
It’s not just the 25 December that’s special in some countries – festivals and other celebrations before and around Christmas make December a magical month.
In Sweden, Norway and parts of Finland, St Lucia’s Day is celebrated on 13 December. The festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season and in many towns there’s a candle-lit procession led by the person chosen by the town to represent St Lucia.
Christmas comes early for children in the Netherlands, as they get their gifts from Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) on 5 December. There are often parades and other celebrations around this date, so be sure to keep an eye out for them if you’re in the Netherlands in early December.
Want a taste of tradition this December? Germany is home to some fantastic traditional Christmas markets – which have proved so popular, similar events are now held in many cities across Europe – these magical markets offer a range of wonderful gifts, traditional foods and gluhwein, a delicious and decidedly festive mulled-wine.
We love trying new and different foods on our travels and if you’re visiting a different country over the holiday season it can be a great opportunity to try some traditional dishes.
In Greece, melomakarona honey cookies are traditionally enjoyed over the holiday period, whilst in Germany sweet and spicy lebkuchen are just one of the delicious cookies that are enjoyed around Christmastime.
Italians, meanwhile, celebrate with panettone, a sweet bread packed with candied peel, sultanas, raisons, and other dried fruit. And for many Brits, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a mince-pie – a pastry case packed with mincemeat (don’t let the name fool you, mincemeat is actually a sweet concoction of spices and dried fruit, not ground beef).
But what about the main festive meal? In Mexico, you’re more likely to find bacalao (salted cod), not turkey or goose, taking pride of place on the Christmas dinner table, whilst carp is a popular choice in many Eastern European countries.
Perhaps the most unusual Christmas meal choice is from Japan, where tucking into a certain well-known brand of fried chicken has become so popular that Christmas Eve reservations at the chain restaurants in question need to made months in advance.
Celebrating the new year
And it’s not just Christmas that’s celebrated in a host of different ways, new year festivities also vary from country to country.
Perhaps the most famous new year celebration is Scotland’s Hogmanay. In fact, the Scottish celebration is so good that whilst the rest of the UK return to work on 2 January, there’s an extra day’s holiday in Scotland to allow everyone to party to the fullest!
The biggest party is usually held in Edinburgh, and the city’s Hogmanay festivities typically include a huge street party, concerts, and a spectacular firework display above the historic Castle.
Many of the events are now so popular that you need to buy tickets for them in advance, but even if you can’t make it to an official event, welcoming the new year in Scotland is a fantastic experience.
There are some special traditions associated with the occasion, such as toasting the bells with a dram of whisky and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight. But perhaps the most unusual Hogmanay tradition is First Footing. The “first footer” is the first person to be welcomed into someone’s home in the new year; traditionally it’s someone who’s wasn’t inside the home at midnight (so if you’re attending a new year party in Scotland and are asked to go outside on your own just before the bells, don’t be alarmed). As the first footer is linked with the luck of the household for the year ahead, there are chosen with care – a dark haired male is considered to bring the best luck, and they usually bring a coin, a lump of coal, salt, bread, and some whisky inside with them to ensure everyone enjoys prosperity, warmth, good food, and good cheer in the year ahead.
Can’t make it to Scotland for the end of December? No problem, visit Lerwick in Shetland on the last Tuesday in January and you can mark the end of the yule season at the legendary Up Helly Aa fire festival. Expect torch light processions and the burning of a replica Viking galley (long-ship).
This holiday season, whether you find yourself discovering new festive celebrations in mainland Europe, celebrating new year in Scotland, or travelling home to be with those you love, embrace the adventure, make great memories, and enjoy the holidays.