In December, it’s hard to see anything but Christmas lights, trees and presents. However, there are lots of December European traditions that don’t involve the Christian holiday. We’ve picked out some of our favourites, which we think deserve a bigger spotlight at this time of year.
Mari Lwyd, Wales
A folk custom native to south Wales, on this night, expect to see a horse’s head being carried around by singers. Traditionally, these singers would visit local houses, and request to come in via song, the house owners would agree or deny again via song. If they were let into the houses, they would be given food and drink. The tradition is usually performed around Christmas and New Year, however has no direct relation to the celebrations themselves. The name of this festivity is believed to either be in relation to Holy Mary, or mean Grey mare.
Hundreds of years old, this tradition belongs to Greenland Inuits. It is a recipe that keeps the community fed in the long, dark winter months. It is fairly simple to make – simply stuff 400 whole (dead) auks into the body of a hollowed out seal carcass. Seal tightly and cover with seal fat. Leave for 3 -18 months as the birds soften and ferment. And voila, you can eat everything minus the feathers. Not everyone’s ideal winter meal, however it proves vital when winter conditions are too dangerous for hunting.
This impressive display sees Romanians dressing up in real bear skins and parading down streets. The tradition usually takes place some time between Christmas and New Year. It is thought to date back to when Romani gypsies would emerge from forests with bears. Villagers would pay the gypsies for bear cubs to walk on their bad backs, or watch bears ‘dance’ on hot plates. The bear is a symbolic animal in this part of the world, as it symbolises strength and ferocity, and also represents changes between seasons. The dance is believed to ward off evil before the start of the new year. A ban on bear hunting has slowed this European December traditions down somewhat, as well as the economic landscape of the country. Unfortunately, many have sold their bear costumes and are unable to buy new ones.
Saint Lucia Day, Sweden
This festival is celebrated on December 13th, in honour of a Sicilian Christian Martyr, murdered in the 4th century. She was said to secretly bring food to prisoners, and thus wore candles on her head in order to see in the dark tunnels. Nowadays, you will see children and teenagers lead processions dressed as a myriad of characters (unrelated to St Lucia herself). Star boys are the most common after St Lucia, and occasionally Santa and Gingerbread men will make an appearance too. Only one girl is allowed to dress as St Lucia with candles on her head, the rest simply hold their candles. They sing the traditional ‘tip tap’ song and carry saffron buns.
Of course, there are many cultures and religions that do not recognise the Christian December holiday. Judaism has a special 8 day-long celebration in honour of the “rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt.”
On each night of this holiday, a candle is added to the menorah and traditional foods are eaten. Interestingly, the term ‘Happy Holidays’ is used at Christmas time thanks to America. Since the US has (depending on where you get your data) the largest Jewish population in the world, the term is used at Christmas time in order to wish people an indiscriminate holiday if their religion is not known.
We love hearing about each country’s traditions and cultures, so let us know if we’ve missed out anything in the comments below!