Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Few Holiday Traditions in Europe

by Nicki Halenza and Gosia Labno


Happy holidays from the European Union Center! In this blog post, we highlight a few holiday traditions in Europe that caught our eye as really interesting or unique. Note that there are many more traditions that we did not cover, and if you notice one missing, please share some facts about it in the comments section!

Christkindelsmärik - France
In France, the December holiday is commonly acknowledged through a market that dates back to 1570 in Strasbourg, which makes it the oldest Christmas market. This event usually persists from November 30 through December 31 and includes a plethora of decorations and illuminations - a Christmas tree may commonly be displayed as well. The Christmas market occurs in an outside space that is made up of a bunch of small, wooden “stalls” that house crafts, trinkets, and treats made by several different locals that are available for purchase. These markets may also have parades, play Christmas music, or hold other kinds of shows.

Christmas markets exist in places outside of its Strasbourg origins, and some have even made their way into the United States, like at the annual Chicago Christkindlmarket, which holds German origins. But because of its long history with Christmas markets, Strasbourg proudly claims to be the “Capital of Christmas.” 

Tió de Nadal - Spain
One of the many various cultural Christmas traditions in Europe is that of  “Tió de Nadal,” which commonly takes place in a region of Spain, specifically, Catalonia. In English, the phrase “Tió de Nadal” translates to “Christmas log.” Also called  “cagatió,” the tradition essentially revolves around a personified, mythological log that is decorated with a face, a blanket, and a traditional Catalonian hat. The “cagatió” is usually put up in the house around two weeks prior to Christmas and children are supposed to leave a little bit of food for it to eat, which usually consists of items like nuts or fruit. It is even said that sometimes children will feed their leftovers to the “cagatió” as well. Then, on either Christmas Eve or Christmas day, the children are supposed to sing a traditional song that comes in different variations and hit the log with a stick, which is done in order to make the log defecate food and gifts, and this is indicated by either an egg, an onion, or a head of garlic. Meanwhile, the parents usually sneak gifts under the blanket that is on the log to surprise the children.

La Befana - Italy
This particular Italian holiday tradition derives from this legend of an old witch, La Befana. There are some variations of the legend behind La Befana, but a common belief is that she was visited by the Three Wise Men in search of baby Jesus and they asked for her help. The witch was unable to offer assistance to them because she was busy doing housework. The next day, upon an eagerness to help, La Befana went around to children’s houses delivering gifts of candy or toys to good children, in hopes of finding baby Jesus. For bad children, she delivers coal and other bad treats. From the sounds of it, La Befana is not terribly unlike Santa Claus. This tradition takes place on the eve of the Epiphany, January 6, which is an important part of Italian Christmas tradition.

Santa Lucia’s Day - Scandinavia 
Santa Lucia is a saint's day celebrated by the Scandinavian countries on December 13. The tradition can be traced back to St. Lucia of Syracuse, who lived in 283. Traditionally, people believed that evil spirits came to Earth on Lucia’s night and animals were able to speak. Thus, candles were needed to fight the darkness of this possessed night.  Now, girls and boys who participate are dressed in white gowns. The girl representing St. Lucia wears a crown of candles and is followed by a procession of handmaidens each carrying a candle. The ‘star boys’ wear pointed white caps and carry stars on a stick. Each year in Sweden a national competition takes place where one girl becomes the Lucia; every village and town also picks a girl to play the role. The procession goes around the town, school, and office singing traditional St. Lucia songs. The Scandinavian Club and Scandinavian Studies program at the University of Illinois hosts an annual Julfest concert in Champaign.

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