The Nativity Fast begins 40 days before Christmas Day and has two aspects: spiritual and physical. The spiritual aspect of fasting is the abstention from evil thoughts and deeds. The physical aspect entails the complete avoidance of fatty foods, which includes all animal-sourced food products (meat, milk, dairy products and eggs). Fish may be eaten on certain days.
On Christmas Eve, the owner of the house goes out early in the morning to collect an oak branch (badnjak) which is brought into the house at sunset that evening. Christmas Eve dinner is strictly in accordance with church rules on fasting and bread is not cut by knife, but broken by hand. Apart from yeast-free round-bread, fish, honey, wine and bean stew are consumed, as well as walnuts, apples, pears, prunes, dates, other dried fruit, almonds and hazelnuts.The Nativity Fast ends on Christmas Day which Serbs celebrate according to the old Julian calendar, meaning that it falls on 7th January by the modern calendar. The položajnik is the first person to enter the house on Christmas morning and it is believed that he brings well-being to the home. He greets the household members by saying, “Christ is born!” (Hristos se rodi!) to which the household replies, “He is born indeed!” (Vaistinu se rodi!)
Christmas dinner is formal and consists of certain ceremonial foods which are only prepared on this day: Christmas pečenica (roasted whole pig) and česnica – a cake of wheat flour in which a coin is hidden and which is only broken by hand. Whoever finds the coin in their portion of bread will have good fortune for the next year.
Human Towers or castells in Catalan, are (as the name says) human towers that have been built in Catalonia for more than two centuries. It was initially the final icing of a dancing called ball dels valencians but with the time they acquired more and more importance and finally emancipated from the ball. Castells are built by colles castelleres all around Catalonia . There are plenty of colles castelleres in Catalonia,with Els castellers de Vilafranca and Colla vella dels xiquets de Valls being the most famous ones. Every two years Tarragona hosts the most important Castells competition which is seen by ten thousands of people in the Tarraco Arena. On Novermber 16, 2010, castells were declared by UNESCO as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Since then, castells have been performed in several places such as New York or recently, London.
– Max, Barcelona
Glühwein – mulled wine
Served by most German families around Christmas time, Glühwein is the German version of mulled wine famous worldwide. There are many different varieties: ingredients range from from cinnamon sticks and vanilla pods to cloves and oranges. German Glühwein is normally mixed in with rum or brandy. So children don’t get left out, there are many recipes for a non-alcoholic type – apple juice is used as the base for this. Here’s a recipe that everyone can enjoy as a winter warmer during the Christmas season:
4 cups of apple juice (best not from concentrate)
2 cups of black tea
2 tablespoons of sugar
The peel and juice of 1 lemon
The peel and juice of 1 orange
1 cinnamon stick
Heat the apple juice and black tea in a pan, then add the other ingredients slowly, stirring all the time.
Strain the Glühwein through a sieve, then pour into mugs for serving.
Lebkuchen – German gingerbread
Often in the shape of Lebkuchen Herzen – gingerbread hearts – you can find these German biscuits in many other countries around Christmas time. In London, they are sold at market stalls, hanging on colourful strings. The Lebkuchen usually feature Christmas messages written in icing writing, or winter-related pictures like Santa, reindeer or snowmen. You can also buy plain hearts to decorate yourself at home. Although in Germany Lebkucken are eaten all year round, the Christmas type is normally softer and sweeter, spiced with cinnamon.
Although the number gets smaller every year, some French people attend Midnight Mass on the night of Christmas Eve – December 24. When they get home – in the middle of the night! – they gather with their families for a big meal called le réveillon. This name comes from the French word réveil, which means “waking”. This is because participating in the feast involves staying awake not only until midnight, for the Mass, but into the small hours of the morning, for the meal. They usually eat oysters, snails, seafood, smoked salmon, or caviar as a starter. As the main course, people eat a roasted bird: this is normally goose. For dessert, each family has its own tradition, but a Bûche de Noël (like a Yule Log) is commonly eaten. People try and make these look as log-like as possible,with chocolate buttercream textured to look like bark. The bûche is then decorated with powder sugar resembling snow, berries, leaves and moss, which are often made out of a meringue-like mixture.
Two sweet things traditionally eaten around Christmas time in Holland are chocolate letters from Sinterklaas, and pepernoten (similar to kruidnoten).
Rather than celebrate like many other countries, on December 24 or 25, the big day for the Dutch is December 5. Before Sinterklaas (their version of Santa/ Father Christmas) arrives, on the 5th, children leave their shoes next to the fire place – or nowadays, the radiator – in the hope that their shoes will be filled during the night. Normally, they leave a little treat for Sinterklaas’ horse, like a carrot or some hay. When they wake up, they find some sweets or a little present in their shoes.
Pepernoten and kruidnoten are like little round biscuits, often mixed with sweets and given in sacks to little children at the time of Sinterklaas. They are spiced with ginger and cinnamon, and are often hidden in rooms along with chocolate coins for children to hunt for on Sinterklaas eve.
At many Dutch Sinterklaas parties, people also receive chocolate initials, the first letter of each person’s name. These letters, which come in melk (milk), witte (white), or puur (dark) chocolate, are popular throughout the Sinterklaas season, early December, and are eaten by children and adults alike. The letters are only sold from the first day of October till December 5 . We can trace the custom of giving people edible letters back to Germanic times – when children were born, they were given a bread letter as a sign of good fortune for their lives. Interestingly, we can see evidence of pastry letters in some Dutch Masters‘ still-life paintings which date back to the 1500 and 1600’s.
German Christmas does not start on Christmas Eve but starts at Advent. There are four Advent Sundays before Christmas when Germans light a candle on each Sunday on beautiful wreaths. There are sometimes also small presents given on those evenings. On 6th December it is St Nicholas day where the children put a plate under their beds in the night before and tradition says that St Nicholas comes and brings presents if the children have been good and sticks and coal if they were not. However the biggest difference between an English and a German Christmas is that the Germans celebrate on Christmas Eve. The presents are opened then, followed by a family meal. In Germany they do not have a single dominant Christmas meal like turkey, but instead eat goose or carp. Often Father Christmas visits the family on Christmas Eve and children play their instruments or recite poems. Christmas Day and Boxing Day mean further family meals but do not have any special traditions, unlike in other countries.