In fact, Santa doesn’t even visit every European country. At least not in theory, though he’s knocking on the door. There are a scores of Christmas rituals that don’t involve ol’ St. Nick. And in general, yuletide traditions across the Atlantic usually involve one main thing: stuffing the face.
Here are some of the top non Santa Claus European Christmas traditions.
[Photo by Feuillu via Flickr]
Before the year 312, when Roman emperor Constantine made it official-that the small, but growing cult of Christianity would be officially tolerated within the empire and its ardent followers would stop being fed to the lions in the Coliseum-December 25 was known as Saturnalia, a winter solstice celebration. The burgeoning Church then cleverly decided to plop their own holidays on top of the pagan ones (it’s worth noting that Easter-celebrating the resurrection of Christ-occurs during a pagan holiday, honoring the onset of spring, the rebirth of nature), thus ensuring an easy transition for new converts. Christmas was born.
But oddly enough, the world center for Catholicism isn’t filled with the yuletide frenzy often found in, say, Boston or Baton Rouge. Rome’s version is a low key event, punctuated by a mix of traditional religious settings and, as you might guess, a lot of food. Meat is technically forbidden, so fish is almost always served, sometimes it’s a traditional dish is capitone, a large female eel, roasted or fried. Yum! After dinner, most Romans stroll through the historic center, popping into various churches to check out the ornate nativity scenes that have been set up for the occasion. Midnight mass is usually an obligatory event for Romans.
On Christmas day, gifts are swapped next to the Christmas tree (some presents even come from Santa himself), and sweets are nibbled on. Panitone, a sweet bread that contains candied fruit, is a favorite. So are pastries with nuts and almonds, a peasant folk custom alleging that eating nuts favors the fertility of the earth and aids in the increase of flocks and families.
But the celebrating doesn’t end on December 25. The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, which is the twelfth day after Christmas, can be maddening chaos if you’re on Rome’s Piazza Navona. As the story goes, the old witch, La Bafana, brings presents to good children while bad ones are left with a lump of coal. Today, however, all children are rewarded, as the “coal” is a black rock candy that tastes great.
Oh, About That Sweet Golden Pig in Your Living Room
North of the Alps, Czech holiday celebrations may not involve witches and fried eels, but there’s something just as seemingly drug-induced. Traditionally, Czechs fast on Christmas Eve (which, by the way, is on December 23; Christmas is December 24). If a Czech has fasted properly, he or she will be rewarded with a heavenly vision: a golden pig. That’s right. Accompanied by a chorus of angels and dazzling light from above, a golden pig mysteriously appears in the living rooms of meat-famished Czechs on the night before Christmas.
The next day, when the family sits down for a long meal, turkey or even ham is not the center piece of the meal. It’s fish, and not just any old fish. They eat carp. The fish we’ve relegated to inedible riverbed shit scavengers is actually quite tasty if prepared the right way. The real fun, however, is the week before Christmas, when massive plastic tubs full of live carp appear on every street corner in cities around the Czech Republic. If you want, the grizzly man working the corner will take his machete-like knife and slaughter the fish right there in front of you, letting the insides fall into the gutter. But it’s preferred that you take the fish home alive and let it swim around in the bathtub until Christmas arrives. The meat is fresher that way.
Santa vs. Baby Jesus
Over the centuries, the Czech lands have been invaded by Papal armies, Austrians, Germans, and Russians. They’ve had Catholicism and Communist forced upon them, and in a violent way. As a result, the Czechs have become largely suspicious of foreign ideologies, including religion. In fact, about a decade ago almost fifty percent of Czechs claimed to be atheist on a recent census. The anomaly is Jezicek, or “Little Jesus.” Despite their irreverence for all things Jesus-like, the main event on Christmas day is marked by a visit from Little Jesus, who rings his bell after he has come and left presents under the Christmas tree.
Lately though, Jezicek has had some competition in the gift-giving business. Each year since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which ushered the Soviets out of the country and American businesses in, Santa Claus has become increasingly present in the month of December.
It’s a celebrity death match of sorts: Jezicek vs. Santa Claus, with baby Jesus “the bell ringer” Christ being the odds-on favorite to KO Santa “the death cause” Claus in the first round.
At least that’s what Prague resident Stan Vitecek believes. “I just don’t see it happening here,” he said. “Jezicek persevered through communism, despite the authorities’ disapproval of anything religious. In the end, Jezicek will stay.”
Hey, Fat Stomach
Next door, in Germany, the Christmas landscape becomes a virtual candyland for adults. Rivers turn to wine, animals speak to each other, tree blossoms bear fruit, mountains open up to reveal precious gems, and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea. There’s another name for it: drinking too much.
Which is exactly what a lot of Germans do on Dickbauch, or “Fat Stomach,” an old term known to the rest of us as Christmas Eve. Not many Germans obey by the Dickbauch tradition these days, but if they did, it would go something like this: if you don’t become a Dickbauch on December 24 by eating and drinking as much as possible, demons will haunt you during the night. To ensure a proper night’s sleep, most Germans spare no expense, hauling out the suckling pig, jellied pigs feet, umpteen varieties of sausage, duck, and a myriad of sweets. Remember, being a Dickbauch is a good thing, so the next time you see a fat German man, don’t be afraid to pat him on the belly and tell him what he is!
On Christmas day, the stuffing of the face doesn’t stop: roast goose, Christstollen (long loaves of bread bursting with nuts, raisins, and lemon), lebkuchen (spice bars), marzipan, and Dresden stollen (a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit), are just some of the delights eaten by Germans as they sit around the Christmas tree drinking wine retrieved from the nearest river.
This Christmas I’ll know better when my dad tells me that Santa has just pulled his sleigh into the Czech Republic. I’ll say, “Santa doesn’t go to the Czech Republic. It’s Jezicek, you stupid Dickbauch!