Christmas is celebrated in many different ways throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Most of the regions’ festivities begin with the period of Advent which is four weeks prior to Christmas and the feast of Saint Nicholas on the 6th of December. Although the celebration of the season is shared, each country has developed their own specific traditions and customs.
Christmas is one of the most important holidays in Austria. Festivities begin with the Advent period. Many Austrians will set-up an “Adventskranz”, a wreath traditionally made from pine branches with four candles on it. On each of the four Advent Sundays leading up to Christmas, a candle is lit which is often followed by prayers.
The Christkindlmärkte is also an important tradition in Austria. Seasonal markets are set-up throughout many parts of the country.
On Christmas Eve, shops close early and families return home to have Christmas dinner. A traditional Austrian Christmas meal can include carp, goose, ham, braised cabbage, glühwein as well as many cakes and pastries.
In Austria and most German-speaking countries, Christkindl is the bringer of gifts for children.
The world’s most famous Christmas song, “Silent Night,” was written and composed in Austria in the early 1800′s.
The feast of St. Nicholas or “Svaty Mikuláše” on December 6th is enthusiastically celebrated in the Czech Republic. The legend tells how St. Nicholas climbs down to earth from heaven on a golden rope along with both a devil and an angel.
A traditional Christmas meal in the Czech Republic is fried carp and potato salad. The custom started after excessive increase of fishpond cultivation in the Baroque era. As well, a sweet type of bread known as “Vanocka” is often prepared around the Christmas holidays.
On January 6th, known as Three Kings Day, it is common for children to go outside to sing carols and give well wishes to people in their neighborhood. The initials K+B+M are written in chalk above the entrance to people’s homes, signifying the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, or “Christ bless this home”. Many charitable donations are also collected on this day.
In Germany, Christmas traditions vary by region. The period of Advent is observed followed by Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th.
The legend of Saint Nicholas tells how the saint hops from house to house carrying a book of sins in which all of the misdeeds of the children are written. If they have been good, he fills their shoes or boots with candy. If they have not been good, their shoes are filled instead with twigs.
In some parts of the country it’s also believed the “Christ Child”, das Christkind, sends an angel in a white robe and crown as a messenger on Christmas Eve bearing gifts. There’s also a figure called der Weihnachtsmann, who looks like Santa Claus and also brings gifts.
The culinary feast takes place at supper on Christmas Eve or on the first day of Christmas and usually includes either roast goose or duck. Some families prefer a lighter and simpler meal on Christmas Eve with the larger meal the following day.
On Christmas Day, many families will eat potato salad and sausages, carp or a hearty soup as well as goose, duck or pork roast.
It is believed the custom of decorating a Christmas tree originated in Germany during the 1500′s.
Christmas in Hungary begins with the period of Advent. Wreaths are displayed everywhere including in shops, schools, and homes.
On December 6th also known as St. Mikolas Day, children set their shoes or boots out overnight for Mikulás.
The legend of Mikulás tells how he arrives wearing the robes of a bishop, with a red miter on his head, a staff in one hand and a sack full of presents in the other. Accompanying him is a “Devil” boy in a black costume, complete with horns and long tail. He holds a switch made of dry twigs, ready to smack any naughty children. Each good child receives a small gift, usually a toy or candy.
On Christmas Eve also known as “Szent-este” or “Holy Evening“, dinner is served first followed by the sharing of gifts under the tree left there by baby Jesus. Later in the evening, some families will attend midnight mass at their local church.
One of the most popular foods prepared around Christmas in Hungary is beigli, a sweet bread made with either poppy-seed or walnut filling. As well, szaloncukor, a type of fondant candy is a very common treat decorated on Christmas trees.
In Poland, many households will observe a strict 24-hour fast known as “Wigilia” prior to Christmas Eve. The tradition generally ends with a huge feast. The meal consists of twelve courses or dishes, one for each Apostle. Fried carp, beetroot soup, and uszka are just a few of the most common foods served at the dinner. Krupnik is sometimes drunk after dinner. However, no meat is served for religious reasons.
Many families finish off by attending a special Christmas mass called “Pasterka” held at midnight at their church. The following day is often spent visiting friends.
The gift bearer in Poland is Swiety Mikolaj or Saint Nicholas.
Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated on January 7th according to the Gregorian calendar.
“Sviata Vechera” or “Holy Supper” is the central tradition of the Christmas celebrations in Ukrainian homes. The dinner usually includes 12 different types of foods such as a sweet grain pudding known as “Kutia” and fish dishes like carp or herring to symbolize Jesus and his disciples as “fishers of men.”
An old Christmas tradition was to give children gifts on the 19th of December which is St Nicholas’s Day in Ukraine. Grandfather Frost flies across the sky in his sleigh drawn by three reindeer. He is accompanied by his granddaughter who is called Snowflake Girl who is always dressed in silver and blue and has a snowflake shaped crown.
In Ukraine, it is also customary to include a spider among the decorations on a Christmas tree.
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Suzanne Urpecz, creator and editor of The Hungarian Girl. Click on my About page for more info.