10 Quirky Christmas Traditions from Around Europe

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How do you like your Christmas traditions? Quirky, with mischievous trolls leaving you a present in your shoes (that happens in Iceland), or wonderfully festive, with frenzied consumerism and lots of sparkle?

Whatever your idea of the perfect Christmas, no place does yuletide traditions quite like Europe.

From Latvia’s burning of the Yule Log to how the Czechs keep their carp in the bathtub ahead of turning them into lunch on Christmas Eve, here are 10 of our favorite Christmas traditions from around Europe. Who knows, maybe a few will inspire you to shake things up this holiday season…

Austria

Christmas with the Sachertorte

The festive season in Vienna, Austria

The festive season in Vienna

What makes it special

From mid-November to Christmas, Vienna’s most charming squares are transformed into magical Christmas markets, and yuletide nostalgia aplenty. Aromas of mulled wine and festive treats fill the atmosphere, and the whole experience feels like stepping into a Christmas card or a sparkling fairytale land, often covered in fresh snow.

Christmas itself starts around 4.00pm on Christmas Eve when the locals gather around the Christmas tree in the town’s main square to sing carols, the most famous of which is Silent Night, written in Austria in 1818.

The food

The main Christmas meal is also eaten on December 24. Expect fried carp served with all the trimmings you could hope for (many Catholics fast that day and do not eat meat), and the evening ends with a slice of Sachertorte, Vienna’s famous chocolate and apricot cake served with whipped cream and a great sense of pride.

Your home away from home to experience it all

Hotel Sacher Vienna, with a guest list that includes names like John F. Kennedy, Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth, is that quintessentially Viennese hotel where history has been preserved and local traditions are kept as authentic as possible. The hotel is also the home of the Original Sacher-Torte, and sits in the heart of Vienna.

Belgium

Belgian gastronomy and an unforgettable Christmas atmosphere

Belgium all festive...

Belgium all festive…

What makes it special

December is a beautiful month in Brussels when Winter Wonders makes for an unmissable end-of-year event and the city has a warm and joyful atmosphere to it. Expect all the great classics, from magical lights to majestic Christmas trees and cultural activities. There are Christmas markets too that burst with treats for both the eyes and the tastebuds.

A highlight of any trip to Brussels around this time of year are the hot chocolate stalls that line the historical streets and alleyways of the city. In the crisp and chilly winter, they warm both hands and hearts, while the traditional Christmas Eve, which starts with an apéritif and ends with stuffed turkey is a special treat.

The food

Belgians are bon vivants. They like to eat and drink. Around Christmas, this translates to mouthwatering seafood platters and stuffed turkeys. For dessert, expect a bûche de Noël, which is a chocolate Christmas Log made of a sponge cake roll filled with cream. The outside is covered with chocolate buttercream.

Your home away from home to experience it all

Hotel Amigo, set just around the corner from Brussels’ Grand Place (where the Winter Wonders event happens), is the ultimate bolthole for a festive experience in the city this time of year. Beautiful Christmas trees, sparkling lights and floral displays by Daniel Ost, the hotel does it all, along with an iconic biscuit house to get guests in a festive spirit.

Czech Republic

Home of the bathtub carp tradition

How the Czechs do December

How the Czechs do December

What makes it special

Fried carp is a highlight of the traditional Czech Christmas dinner, which happens on December 24. So, on the days leading up to Christmas, the streets of Prague are all about fish farmers selling live carp from huge water-filled tanks. This is pretty unusual in itself. Throw in the fact that most people buy their carp and take them home to swim around in the bathtub until Christmas Eve, and you’ve got yourself one of the quirkiest Christmas traditions of Europe.

In sweet contrast, Christmas in Czech Republic also sees a delicious sweet bread served on the morning of Christmas Day. The bread looks like a Jewish Challah, and has its roots in the 16th-century.

The food

We covered the fried carp and the sweet bread. The traditional Czech Christmas dinner, eaten on Christmas Eve, also consists of fish soup and the fried carp is served with a delicious potato salad.

Your home away from home to experience it all

The atmosphere of the medieval center of Prague makes its Christmas markets very popular. Set right below the Prague Castle, and just steps from Charles Bridge, Augustine, a Luxury Collection Hotel, is a portal to everything Prague does well: history, character, breathtaking architecture and Christmas shopping frenzy.

France

Christmas with foie gras, oysters and Bûche de Noël

Paris, France

Paris, France

What makes it special

In Paris, Christmas is a classy affair. There is frenzied consumerism, sure, but despite department stores in the city resembling riots in the Paris suburbs, there is a sense of understated chic to the whole holiday season.

Food, of course, is on everyone’s shopping list, and the main Christmas meal- traditionally called Le Reveillon- is eaten on Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning after locals return from the midnight church service.

The food

The big seasonal delicacy in Paris this time of year is foie gras. Parisians also love their Bûche de Noël, which is a tradition in itself. The story goes that the Christmas buche used to be a log put in chimneys to keep the fire going until the family returns from mass. In recent times, fewer chimneys means that the log has been replaced with a chocolate dessert instead.

Your home away from home to experience it all

Located on Rue de Rivoli where all the Christmas shopping frenzy happens, Le Meurice is the original palace hotel of Paris where the French art of living is perfectly captured. At Christmas, wonderful things unfold here, from festive feasts to spa treatments tailored to the party season.

Germany

For those German Christmas markets and nightly concerts

The most beautiful Christmas markets on the planet happen in Germany

The most beautiful Christmas markets on the planet happen Germany…

What makes it special

Over the festive season, Berlin is a busy place thanks to its Christmas markets. The most popular is the one in Gendarmenmarkt square, surrounded by the imposing architecture of two churches and a theatre. Classic wooden huts, delicious sausages, warming cups of mulled wine and off-kilter Christmas presents, the market has it all.

Our advice: stick around for the nightly concerts. Ranging from choral to jazz, there are no out-of-tune carols here.

The food

An image a German Christmas should always conjure is food, and lots of it. The biggest shindig happens on Christmas Eve, right before Midnight Mass. Fish in the form of salmon, hake and carp are common.

Your home away from home to experience it all

Hotel Adlon Kempinski, located just off Brandenburg Gate, is the gateway to memorable festivities and winter charm this time of year. If you stay until New Year, the hotel also offers a perfect view of the fireworks display that happens at Brandenburg Gate on December 31.

Ireland

A traditional 8-day Christmas

Dublin looks particularly regal this time of year

Dublin looks particularly regal this time of year

What makes it special

Come December 8, Christmas officially begins in Ireland. In the capital, the landscape begins to twinkle and Christmas markets are abuzz. From Christmas Eve to the feast of Epiphany on January 6 (which many locals call ‘Little Christmas’), the festive spirit is at its peak.

Watch out for an old tradition where a tall, thick candle is lit on the sill of the largest window of Irish houses after sunset on Christmas Eve. The candle is left to burn all night, and represents a welcome for Mary and Joseph. Carols at St. Patrick’s Cathedral are also an annual Christmas highlight, and has been around for more than 60 years.

The food

The traditional Christmas food in Ireland is a round cake, full of caraway seeds. It’s delicious and makes for a perfect finish to the turkey and spiced beef Christmas dinner main course.

Your home away from home to experience it all

Sitting in the heart of Georgian Dublin, The Merrion is a beautiful hotel to check into this time of year. Crackling fireplaces, rich drawing rooms, beautiful decorations and memorable dining experiences, the hotel has it all, and provides the perfect setting for celebrating the festive season in style.

Italy

Where culture and tradition meet taste and discovery

Christmas in Rome

Christmas in Rome

What makes it special

Visiting Italy in December offers two bonuses: You avoid the crowds of the high summer season, and you get to see the country decked out in holiday finery. Our favorite highlight: the Christmas cribs that enliven Rome around this time of year. They range from the traditional to the unconventional, and some- like the one in St. Peter’s Square, can be larger-than-life. It’s a feast for the eyes, before you head to Vatican City for a Christmas Eve midnight mass delivered by the Pope.

The food

The food scene of Italy needs no introduction, and around Christmas, things only get better when there is the only rule is eating to your heart’s content. Christmas food in Italy is also regional and can range from the spicy kick of a Calabrese soppressata to rosemary scented lamb served with crispy roast potatoes.

Your home away from home to experience it all

Portrait Roma, located just a short sashay from the Spanish Steps, is more a private mansion than a 5-star hotel in the heart of Rome. There is no better place to take in the grandeur of Rome around this time of year than a hotel that overlooks it.

Russia

Christmas in January

Moscow, Russia

Moscow, Russia

What makes it special

In Russia, December 25 is a normal working day. Christmas is celebrated 13 days later, on January 7, which is the date of Christ’s birth according to the Julian calendar. Officially the partying starts on New Year’s Eve and goes on for two weeks until mid-January.

If you’re in the mood for lots of drinking and work-dodging this Christmas, Russia is the place to be.

The food

Winter festivities in Russia would be incomplete without generous servings of its olivier salad that has its roots in Soviet times. It’s a simple dish made with just potatoes, vegetables, ham, eggs and mayonnaise, but it has a rich history that you simply cannot avoid this time of year.

Your home away from home to experience it all

Sitting in the heart of St. Petersburg, with palatial interiors revamped by Olga Polizzi, the Hotel Astoria has a magical ambiance this time of year. New Year festivities range from concerts to lavish dinners, and there is nothing quite like it.

Switzerland

For the best molten cheese fondues and mulled wines

And this is what a Swiss Christmas looks like...

And this is what a Swiss Christmas looks like…

What makes it special

Christmas in Switzerland is a fun experience. First, there is warding off the winter chill. The locals do it with pots of cheese fondue and cups of hot mulled wine, and we can’t think of a better winter break.

The country, especially Zurich, also puts up beautiful Christmas markets around this time of year, perfect if buying gifts is high on your agenda. Expect lots of holiday cheer and shopping streets lit with thousands of Christmas lights.

Another annual lighting spectacle is the city’s Lichterschwimmen tradition, which happens on December 21. Hundreds of tiny lanterns are floated down River Limmat, and the experience is heartwarming.

The food

Christmas in Switzerland shares many customs with neighbours Germany and Austria, so the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, and popular foods include a Christmas ham and scalloped potatoes. For dessert, expect walnut cake and the most delicious Christmas cookies you’ll ever have.

Your home away from home to experience it all

Set in a castle-like building on a hilltop, the Dolder Grand is Zurich’s most picturesque hotel to celebrate Christmas. You can also expect festive experiences, from a cosy English afternoon tea served beside a crackling fireplace to dinner galas overseen by chef Heiko Nieder, just minutes from the city centre.

United Kingdom

Weeks of winter festivities

Every Christmas, London gets all decked up, and it is a go big or go home situation

Every Christmas, London gets all decked up, and it is a go big or go home situation

What makes it special

No city lends itself to Christmas quite like London. Dazzling street decorations, fabulous window displays, and tons of yuletide activities (and fun) make London one of the best Christmas destinations in Europe.

To get in the holiday spirit, there is no place like the glorious surroundings of St Paul’s Cathedral or the Westminster Abbey. Then, of course, there are the festive foods like mince pies, Christmas pudding and turkey, best enjoyed while watching the Queen’s speech, a tradition that began in 1932 and still compels millions of Britons to gather around their television at 3.00pm on Christmas Day.

The food

Christmas in London is all about turkey served with all its trimmings, followed by a mountain of Christmas pudding. Love it or hate it, the fruity pudding, served with rich and luxurious brandy butter, embodies the very spirit of a British Christmas spent right.

Your home away from home to experience it all

The Connaught, located in London’s chic Mayfair village, has a charming English ambience. Around Christmas, stepping in the hotel feels a little like entering another, better world, where time-honoured traditions are celebrated and Christmas trees are among the most decadently dressed you’ll see in the capital.

Honorable mentions

Latvia’s burning of the Yule Log

Latvia’s burning of the Yule Log is a cathartic Christmas tradition whereby a special log is dragged around the house (or town), picking up all the bad luck of the past year, and set alight to welcome the new year and its opportunities. It’s an ancient pagan ritual, and we love it.

Sweden’s Christmas cartoonfest

Sweden has many charming Christmas traditions, but our favorite is the affection shown to Donald Duck every year on 24 December. Swedes sit down after their Christmas meal to watch a 1958 festive edition of Donald Duck on the main public service TV channel. It’s like watching the Queen’s Christmas Message in England…only better.

The “Yule Lads” of Iceland

Forget Santa… In Iceland, children are visited by 13 trolls (or “Yule Lads” if you will) at Christmas, and depending on how the behaved during the festive season, they may get a gift or a potato in their shoe. Now this is a tradition we would define as quirky.


About Nimah Koussa

The best part about being a travel writer is bringing cities and destinations to life: their stories, secret addresses, luxurious gems and unique holiday moments. And I have been one for a little more than 10 years. From the best bars and restaurants in different cities of the world to hotels where you can check-in to get away from it all, this Magazine is all about making every trip just a bit more meaningful.

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