Holiday Traditions in Europe

Some of our favorite European Christmas traditions

Instead of a language article, we shifted gears and are taking a look at some of Europe’s more exciting holiday traditions, given the time of year!

1) Italy – La Befana

In Italy, instead of having Santa visit, children wait for a kind old witch to fill their socks with candy and presents. Sometimes, in parts of Italy, parents will leave out broccoli with sausage to entice the witch to leave nice gifts.

Holiday traditions

Not only is the befana different, but it marks the official end of the holiday season, on January 6, the day of the epiphany. Similar to Santa, she supposedly comes down the chimney, and is sometimes known to leave coal, as well.


2) Spain – Los Reyes Magos, el Caganer, y Caga Tió

Similar to Italy, Spain celebrates the day of the epiphany, albeit completely differently. There are two traditions particular to Spain that are celebrated. First, the processions of the three kings, or the reyes magos that go through every town, throwing candy out to children. There is something special about this unique tradition. The kings arrive on January 6, with the day of the epiphany, and bring gifts and presents to the children who come out to celebrate their arrival. Then, later in the afternoon, Spanish children leave out a shoe in case the kings leave anything behind overnight. The holiday season officially ends on January 7, when children wake up to their presents and can bring them straight to school to show off!

Another tradition unique to Spain is that of el Caganer. This is the most important holiday figurine in Spain, and is similar to what Americans engage in called “Elf on the Shelf”. The word literally means ‘the defecator’ and refers to the figurine squatting with his pants down. Legend has it that farmers would be punished with a poor crop harvest if they didn’t include one of these funny figurines in their nativity scene during the period leading up to Christmas. You can now find modern versions of this funny doll in Christmas markets all around Spain.

Finally, the Spanish in Catalunya have a tradition of their own: Caga Tió. This might be the most bizarre tradition of them all! Each year, on December 8, the official beginning of the Christmas season in Spain with the feast of the immaculate conception, families bring out Caga Tió. What is it? Caga Tió is a hollowed out log that shows up and expects to be taken in and fed throughout the holiday season. Spanish children ‘feed’ the log dried fruit, orange peels, and nuts all month long, until Christmas eve, when the fun really starts. The log is known to give great gifts, but he needs some incentive, so children beat him with a stick until presents come out of a hole as the children sing a song encouraging him to deliver! The origins of this tradition go back to a time when people would cut logs to warm their homes. The Catalans would save a log to celebrate and commemorate the warmth that the earth gave them even during the winter months. How, however, the tradition has become somewhat of a Catalan Santa Claus experience.

3) Sweden – St. Lucia Day

Sweden celebrates St. Lucia day on December 13. Tradition says that St. Lucia was a young girl, killed in 300 because of her Christian beliefs. To commemorate the event, the Swedes celebrate with parades, led by a young woman dressed in a white dress with a wreath of candles on her head. Although not an official holiday, the tradition is longstanding, and is also a time when University students tend to hold their Christmas banquets before they head home for the rest of the holiday season. Most cities in Sweden elect a ‘Lucia’ each year, who leads a group of young people to engage in charity. They will visit shopping malls, old persons’ homes and churches, singing carols and handing out the traditional gingernut cookies.

4) Greece – Basil Crosses

In Greece, despite Easter being the holiday that is most predominant, Christmas is still celebrated. Children go from house to house singing carols in exchange for sweets on Christmas eve. They play music and wait to be rewarded. Before Christmas, fresh Greek basil is wrapped around a wooden cross in each household. The cross is then used to sprinkle water around the house. The Greeks believe this will keep the killantzaroi away. Killantzaroi are goblins that appear during the twelve days of Christmas. They are mischievous and can be known for spoiling milk or braiding horses tails. Another effort to keep them away has the Greeks burning constant fires during the twelve-day holiday period. Greeks also are very fond of St. Nicholas, as he is the patron saint of sailors.

How do you plan to celebrate this holiday season? Is there a tradition you want to share with us? We’d love to hear about it! We are enjoying learning about the many wonderful ways that the holidays are celebrated around Europe, and the world!

Do you still have to buy gifts? You should read our article about Gift ideas for the writer in your life!