18 Most Original Christmas Traditions in Europe

18 Most Original Christmas Traditions in Europe

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Christmas is coming, and we’re all getting ready to celebrate it in our own way. But have you ever wondered what this holiday looks like in other homes - or even in different countries? 

Learning about the most original Christmas traditions in Europe makes this time even more magical than it already is. You’ll be surprised by the variety of customs people in different European countries enjoy! Have a look at the most surprising ones:

  1. The gherkin in Germany
  2. Hiding brooms in Norway
  3. The witch in Italy
  4. Krampus in Austria
  5. Mari Lwyd and Noson Gyflaith in Wales
  6. Dancing around the tree and shiny kayaks in Denmark
  7. Hay, fish scales, and 12 dishes in Poland
  8. Donald Duck and the Yule Goat in Sweden
  9. Tío de Nadal in Catalonia, Spain
  10. Spider webs in Ukraine
  11. Christmas crackers in England
  12. 13 Yule Lads, the Yule Cat, and Jolabokaflod in Iceland
  13. Chichilaki in Georgia
  14. Koledari in Bulgaria
  15. Almonds in Porridge and the Declaration of Peace in Finland
  16. Leaving a shoe out in the Netherlands
  17. The red candle and The 12 Pubs of Christmas in Ireland
  18. Making your own Advent calendar in Switzerland


  1. The Gherkin in Germany

 

Have you ever seen pickle-shaped Christmas ornaments and wondered if you’re seeing things? No, there aren’t any naughty connotations tied to them (we know it’s crossed your mind). 

 

Decorating your tree with pickles is a tradition originating in Germany. Back in the day, German families would engage in a treasure hunt quest - a gherkin would be hidden somewhere on the tree, and the first person to find it would get a reward. 

 

For children, it was usually an extra present and for adults, locating the green vegetable was supposed to come with luck and prosperity for the next year. 

 

Reportedly, hardly anyone cultivates this tradition these days. In some houses, the customary pickle will find its way onto one of the branches, but no competition comes with it anymore. 

 

Still, we think it’s quite original to decorate your tree with vegetables. Why a pickle and not a carrot or tomato? There are multiple legends explaining the possible origin of this custom - you can tell us if you know one!


  1. Hiding brooms in Norway 

 

Christmas is magical - all countries pretty much agree on that. In Norway, however, the connotation is a bit more negative than anywhere else…

 

Evil spirits and witches are said to break free on the day before Christmas. Norwegians protect themselves by stashing away their brooms. If they don’t hide them, the witches might sweep them away and kidnap them to broom-travel across the whole country. 

 

Of course, the tradition is as old as they come, so it’s unlikely anyone besides children still actually believes it. The brooms are hidden away out of a habit of fear of evil spirits. 


  1. The witch in Italy

 

Carrying on with the topic of witches… it’s not Santa who brings gifts in Italy

 

La Befana doesn’t visit homes during Christmas, but on Epiphany, on the 6th of January. She rewards the nice children with tasty treats, and the naughty ones with a lump of coal.

 

It does ring a bell, but contrary to what you may think, La Befana has been visiting Italian households way before Santa Claus followed in her footsteps. It is said that the tradition dates back as far as the 8th century, while Santa didn’t enter the picture until some eight to ten centuries later. 

 

Santa and La Befana don’t stand in each other’s way, though! One comes during Christmas and the other 2 weeks later, so who says they can’t be partners in crime? 


  1. Krampus in Austria

 

Norway is not the only country where Christmas is accompanied by an evil twist. Growing up in Austria would have caused many unaware children from other places a good dose of nightmares.

 

Just like La Befana, Krampus isn’t associated strictly with Christmas. Originally, he would appear on the 5th of December and pop up throughout the period leading up to Christmas itself. He also appears in different forms in other countries, for example, in Germany. 

 

Who - or what - is Krampus? It’s a creature said to originate from the pits of hell with fur, horns, and a seriously terrifying face. Men dressing up as Krampus usually don animal skins and expressive horned masks, and decorate their attire with bells.

 

They also carry scary-looking sticks and empty sacks meant to stash away naughty children. Reportedly, Krampus would actually toss children into the bags and drag them through the snow in the past, but these days, parents only use it as a hypothetical scenario when their son or daughter refuse to behave. Thank God.


  1. Mari Lwyd and Noson Gyflaith in Wales

 

Carrying on with the ominous climate, we have one more dark tradition for you. It’s the last one before we move on to more positive accents, we promise!

 

It’s not as scary as it is creepy, to be honest. And having lived in Wales for a few years, I can say it’s not common anymore, either. It’s probably people in smaller Welsh villages who would still remember this old, possibly pagan, custom. 

 

Mari Lwyd (pronounced Marie Loyd) is a skull of a horse decorated with colourful ribbons, lights, ornaments, and a veil and mounted on a stick. Her eyes (because she’s said to be a female) are usually replaced with baubles, which adds to the disturbing character of Mari.

 

The skull is paraded around the village in a small procession whose members will demand entry into houses by singing songs and exchanging banter with the owners. If they are let in, the inhabitants of the house are said to have good luck next year. 

 

It is not unlike Mari to prank and tease people, chasing them and snapping her jaws. Supposedly, that only means she likes you. Yikes.

 

As for more positive traditions, the Welsh also enjoy Noson Gyflaith. It’s the process of making or eating pieces of toffee around the fire while playing games and chatting. Sounds much lovelier, doesn’t it?


  1. Dancing around the tree and shiny kayaks in Denmark

 

To chase away the chills still running up and down your spine from the previous traditions, we decided to discuss one of the most joyful ones now. 

 

On Christmas Eve, the Danish drag their Christmas tree to the middle of the room and dance around it to the tune of Christmas carols. It’s part embarrassing, part very good fun. We guess it depends on how much wine you’ve had with your dinner. 

 

Another cosy custom the Danish enjoy falls on the day of Santa Lucia, on the 13th of December. Eleven days before Christmas, people jump into kayaks and canoes decorated with Christmas lights and paddle around Copenhagen. It’s a sight to behold!

 

Personally; however, our favourite part about Danish Christmas is the Risalamande. It’s a sort of sweet rice pudding mixed with whipped cream and chunks of almonds. It’s topped with a thick cherry sauce, and believe us when we say you get addicted from the first spoonful. 


  1. Hay, fish scales, and 12 dishes in Poland

 

Poland has a lot of Christmas traditions. I’m not exactly objective as it’s where I’m from, but everyone I tell about our holiday customs admits they’re all quite lovely!

 

For the Poles, it’s Christmas Eve that is the big deal. They celebrate it with a dinner that should typically consist of exactly 12 dishes - one for each Apostle. They majorly vary depending on the region, but anywhere you go, meat is not allowed. The dinner must start as soon as the first star is spotted in the sky and is preceded by a day-long fasting. 

 

While meat is forbidden, fish is okay and the main star and probably the only dish every Pole will have on their Christmas table regardless of which part of the country they come from, is the carp fish. 

 

Now, this comes with a tradition that many people consider weird but that I personally really appreciate. It’s not very common as I don’t know anyone in Poland who would know it, but it’s been in my family for generations, so we keep cultivating it. 

 

As the carp fish has to be cleaned before cooking, all its scales are preserved and carefully washed. Then, once they’re clean and dry, each member of the family is given one to put in their wallet. It’s supposed to bring luck and prosperity, and is not removed until a new one replaces it the following year.

 

Many Christmas traditions in Poland are related to fortune. Money is placed next to everyone’s plates - bills for adults, small change for kids. It’s meant to be kept and multiplied over the next year. A bit of hay is also placed under the tablecloth, and an extra setting always finds its way onto the table. 

 

Most people believe it’s for an unexpected guest, as Christmas is a time when we should be generous and help everyone. However, in my family, the extra setting is said to be for everyone who can no longer join the table. Instead of an empty chair, we have an extra setting, and personally, I love this alternative. 

 

In some parts of Poland, it is also common to rub someone's head when serving them cabbage (one of the traditional dishes served on Christmas Eve). Thank you for bringing this custom up, Patryk!


  1. Donald Duck and the Yule Goat in Sweden

 

You are probably familiar with the famous Christmas ornament in the shape of a straw goat held together by a red thread. You have probably seen it at least once, most likely in Ikea. And it’s not a coincidence, as, just like the famous shop, the goat originates in Sweden!

 

The original figure is actually much larger than the tiny decorations. They’re all miniatures of the giant straw Yule Goat located in the Swedish town of Gävle. Sadly, it has been destroyed 35 times in 55 years, as local arsonists seem to have made it into their main target. 

 

It is unknown whether the huge goat has offended someone personally, but luckily, the local authorities insist on recreating it every year, without a fail. 

 

And the Donald Duck? He’s not a primarily Christmasy character, after all. 

 

Well, for the Swedes, he is. There is no Christmas without Donald Duck. 

 

On the 24th of December, families gather in front of TVs and watch vintage Disney cartoons - especially one from 1958 called From All of Us to All of You (or, as the Swedes call it in short, Kalle Anka). 

 

The custom originates from the times when TVs only had first one, then two channels in Sweden. Christmas time was the only opportunity for families to watch the famous American Disney cartoons. 

 

The tradition has sprouted its roots so deep into the Swedish culture that even now, when owning a TV is as common as dirt and there are plenty of channels to choose from, the Swedes still sit down in front of the TV at 3 pm sharp on Christmas Eve and watch the Disney gang wish them a happy Christmas. 

 

If that’s not adorable, then we don’t know what is. 


  1. Tío de Nadal in Catalonia, Spain

 

This Catalan Christmas tradition is as peculiar as they get. 

 

During the holiday period, you will find a figure of a smiling wooden log with a jolly little hat in every Catalan household. They come in all shapes and sizes, but their function is not just decorative. 

 

The log is welcomed into the house on the 8th of December. It is covered with a blanket to keep it warm and fed sweets every day leading up to Christmas. On the 24th or the 25th of December, its kind treatment is over. 

 

The families - usually children - grab sticks and beat Tío with them, trying to force it to poop presents. The logic behind it is that the act of defecating gifts should be a reward for having fed it sweets for the past few weeks. 

 

Some tíos poop through a hidden flap, through which the presents - previously hidden inside the log by the parents - fall out. Other times, the gifts are already under the tree and are thought to have come out of tío when nobody was looking. 

 

The beating is accompanied by a special song with quite interesting - albeit morally questionable - lyrics

 

Some find the tradition adorable. Others find it disturbing. We’ll leave you to make your own judgement. 


  1. Spider webs in Ukraine

 

Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated on the 7th of January, with a festive dinner the night before. The gifts are brought by Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost) accompanied by his daughter, Snegurochka. 

 

Among the standard decorations, you can spot one original ornament. Ukrainians decorate their trees and houses with spider webs, giving them a truly beautiful look. 

 

The custom comes from an old legend in which a poor widow couldn’t afford to decorate her home for Christmas. Local spiders took pity on her and spun silvery webs overnight, turning the house into a true masterpiece. 

 

True or not - it sure does look splendid to see the winter sun reflecting off the delicate threads, illuminating everything in a silvery sheen. Truly magical!

 

Please note: some Ukrainian citizens admit to not following the spiderweb tradition and report this symbol holding different connotations. This bit of information has been confirmed by someone we know and trust who comes from Ukraine, so we didn't remove it, but please be aware that traditions may greatly differ in various parts of the country and may not be known by everyone!

 

Another custom contributed by Volodymyr is the practice of koliadky. This tradition involves groups of people, often dressed in traditional Ukrainian costumes, visiting homes and businesses to sing holiday songs and receive treats in return.

 

The lyrics of these songs often tell stories of the Nativity, and the carolers may also perform folk dances and plays as part of their performance.

 

In western Ukraine, a popular Christmas tradition is the practice of burning Yule logs, or vianky. This tradition involves the lighting of a large log, often made of oak or pine, in the fireplace on Christmas Eve.

 

The log is believed to bring good luck and prosperity to the household, and it is often decorated with ribbons, candles, and other festive ornaments.

 

Head over to the comments section to read more about the fascinating traditions described by Volodymyr (the very first comment at the bottom).

 

Another holiday custom in Ukraine is to prepare 12 dishes, each with its own meaning, and wait to celebrate until the first star appears in the sky. 


  1. Christmas crackers in England

 

You have probably heard - or even experienced - this one before, but it’s such a classic, it simply couldn’t be missing from the list. 

 

A British Christmas cracker is not a crunchy snack. It is a piece of paper formed like a giant candy, containing various surprises inside. It’s a bit like a piñata, except you don’t beat it with the stick; you tear it apart.

 

During dinner on the 25th of December, families gathered around the table rip open their crackers together. Everybody crosses their hands and grabs one end of their own cracker, and one of the person sitting next to them. On the count of three, everyone pulls. 

 

The Christmas crackers tear open with a resounding POP! The contents are oftentimes tossed in the air, much to the chagrin of everyone while they scamper and try to complete their own set. 

 

Inside, you can typically find a blotted paper crown in all colours - which the funny ones often wear for the rest of the night - a very bad joke or a riddle, and sometimes also a small toy. 

 

Very tacky, but it’s a Christmas must-have for every Brit. I can confirm that there is something oddly satisfying about hearing the unmistakable pop, laughing at the jokes that are made to not be funny, and sporting the paper crown like a loon. 


  1. 13 Yule Lads, the Yule Cat, and Jolabokaflod in Iceland

 

When you think about dream destinations to spend your Christmas in, Iceland likely doesn’t top the list. We can guarantee that in a minute, it will.

 

The island is a real goldmine of original Christmas traditions. Firstly, the children enjoy the visits of not one, but thirteen Santas. They’re not actually Santas, but local equivalents known by the name of 13 Yule Lads. 

 

Originating from the Icelandic folklore, each of the characters has a name and a peculiar characteristic. Each one pays a visit to every household in Iceland on the 13 days leading up to Christmas. 

 

They fill the shoes previously left by children by the windows with sweets if they have been good, and rotten potatoes if they have been naughty. The motivation to be nice is, therefore, quite high. 

 

In case that’s not enough incentive, there is also the Yule Cat. According to local legends, it’s a giant cat which scouts the country on Christmas Eve and devours everyone who’s not wearing at least one piece of new clothing. 

 

Originally, the threat of being eaten alive by a giant cat was probably invented to motivate the lazier ones to dress up for the holy day. The tradition remained, and it’s customary that everyone should invest in something new every Christmas - whether it’s a sock or a sweater. 

 

And last but not least - our favourite custom. Jolabokaflod - the Christmas Book Flood - is the habit of gifting one another books for Christmas. It started as a national action to encourage readership but has ingrained itself into the culture so deeply that it remains a tradition up to this day.

 

Is there anything better than exchanging books during the most wonderful time of the year? We don’t think so.


  1. Chichilaki in Georgia 

 

We’ve talked about pickles and spiderwebs, but Georgia is yet another country with its own special Christmas decoration. 

 

The chichilaki is a sculpture shaped like a Christmas tree, made of shaved hazelnut or walnut wood. The curly shavings are arranged in a way giving the tree a mop-like look. It is decorated with red berries, dried fruits, and traditional Georgian sweets called churchkhela. 


  1. Koledari in Bulgaria

 

You’ve heard about Christmas carolling. But Bulgaria takes this adorable holiday custom one step further.

 

On the morning of the 24th of December, Bulgarians prepare a special kind of bread called колаче (kolache) - similar to a pretzel. Meanwhile, single boys and unmarried men dress up in traditional winter clothes and go out into the streets. 

 

They pass by each house, singing special songs and reciting poems. The lyrics wish good luck, health, and prosperity to everyone who invites the men in, and explain the miracle of Jesus’ birth, encouraging everyone to celebrate. 

 

That’s not all! The songs are also tailor-made for different residents. For example, a different song will be sung in front of a house inhabited by a single girl, and another one in front of a house of an elderly couple. Brilliant!

 

In return for the wishes and singing, the people reward the men with kolache, red wine, and small sums of money. This results from the Bulgarian belief that you have to give something to receive something. The kolache are typically piled on top of special sticks the men carry with them and enjoyed later. 

 

A similar tradition where it’s the girls singing occurs right before Easter. Both are rooted in Bulgarian history. Back in the day, all the walking around the town and singing used to be a way for single boys and girls to meet, and for betrothed couples to see each other before the wedding. 

 

Sadly, you won’t experience this custom everywhere anymore - bigger cities have forgotten it altogether, and not even all small towns still practice it. However, the towns and villages that still cultivate this joyful tradition are spread all across Bulgaria, so it’s not specific for any region in particular. 


  1. Almonds in porridge and the Declaration of Peace in Finland

 

In Finland, a special rice porridge with vanilla and cinnamon constitutes part of the Christmas Dinner. A blanched almond is hidden in one of the portions, and whoever finds it is supposed to enjoy good luck throughout all of next year. 

 

Many countries have a similar version of this tradition, with various kinds of nuts or other elements hidden in all kinds of Christmas food. The winners will be lucky or receive an extra gift. 

 

Some families reportedly go to the lengths of dropping the nut in every portion meant for a child, as especially the youngsters are known to get upset and throw tantrums if they’re not the chosen ones. 

 

What is typical just for Finland, is the Declaration of Peace. While Swedish families gather to watch Donald Duck at 3 pm on Christmas Eve, the ones in Finland do the same to listen to the famous declaration being read out in Turku at noon. 

 

It is similar to the famous Queen’s Speech (now, for the first time this year, a King’s Speech) in the UK, but much less known. The Finnish tradition reportedly continues since the year 1300, in slightly different wording but with the same message.

 

The Declaration of Peace is meant to remind everyone that Christmas should be a time of peace and harmony and that all offences will be severely punished. It is also an opportunity for the local authorities to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. 

 

In Finland, it is also customary to enjoy a nice session in the sauna after Christmas dinner. Yet another custom we would happily get behind. 


  1. Leaving a shoe out in the Netherlands

 

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, children in the Netherlands leave their shoes out by the window or the fireplace at night. They fill them with little offerings - sweets, drawings, poems, or anything they can think of in hope that once they wake up, Santa (or, as he is locally known, Sinterklaas) will have exchanged them for gifts.

 

Admittedly, this tradition is also cultivated in other countries in the North of Europe. Even some of my friends in the North of Poland do it, but for St. Nichlaus’ Day on the 6th of December. For me, being from the South of the country where people don't do it, this is quite exotic. 


  1. The red candle and The 12 Pubs of Christmas in Ireland

 

In Ireland, people cultivate a lovely tradition of leaving a lit red candle by a window every Christmas Eve. It is meant to show Mary and Joseph the way to the stable in Bethlehem. How kind!

 

It’s a rather old tradition, and it deeply touches us to hear multiple Irish admit many people still do it. 

 

Another Irish Christmas tradition is much more modern. The 12 Pubs of Christmas is nothing more than a Christmas-themed pub crawl, ideally involving - you guessed it - 12 bars. The participants usually don silly Christmas clothes - the tackier, the better. At least one compulsory drink (usually a pint of beer) must be consumed in each bar. 

 

Different rules, games, and challenges often accompany the Christmas fun. They must be obeyed throughout the entire duration of the night, but with each pub - and every drink - remembering to talk like Batman or address each other with señor/señorita preceding the name becomes more difficult. 


  1. Making your own Advent calendar in Switzerland

 

The Swiss are reportedly a creative bunch. While citizens in other countries usually settle for the customary Advent calendar involving chocolates you can get at any supermarket, people in Switzerland up the ante. 

 

The methods for making your own calendar are endless. The more creative, the better, so there is no common recipe. Whether you make it giant-sized, build it out of cardboard boxes, or hang it from your ceiling, it’s your call. The sky is the limit!

 

When you make your own Advent calendar, you’re also the one who gets to decide what you put in it, so it does indeed sound like an attractive initiative. 


So, here it is! The 18 most original Christmas traditions in Europe.

 

Do you have a favourite? Is there any custom you didn’t know about but would happily adopt from now on? Show of hands - how many of you are introducing a new tradition into your holiday repertoire this year? We are definitely adding a few. 

 

Maybe there are traditions we didn’t mention, but you think deserve the spot on the list - either in the countries that are already here, or other places in Europe? Let us know in the comments!

 

To end, we would love to wish you a holly, jolly Christmas spent exactly the way you like it, with no interruptions. All the best, from the entire ELJ Team, to you!

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