Tis the season…

As an American living in Europe for many years, I’ve gradually learned about a lot of differences with what I thought everyone did for Christmas. I assumed all our customs came from here. So shouldn’t they be the same as ours?

Well it turns out that it’s not the case. France has many different Christmas traditions, as do neighboring countries. In France, the “Père Noël” — as Santa Claus is known here — is taller and thinner than my idea of a rotund jolly Santa Claus, and he carries a wicker basket leading a donkey, and not a bag of gifts. The very first year I spent in France, my husband’s grandfather dressed up as the famous figure and handed out candy to kids in the small city where they lived. It was nothing like visiting Santa Claus in the mall. Unfortunately, there’s a few too many American Santa Clauses making their way to France nowadays.

So what about the mythical St Nicolas in other countries in Europe?

If you’re living in Germany, then today you were probably treated by St Nicolas, or Sankt Nikolaus, when you got up this morning. My German colleague Kerstin assures me that he came to her house this morning leaving goodies for her kids in their shoes just outside their bedroom door. In Germany, they have another tradition that has recently made its way across the Atlantic: the advent calendar. This calendar is special with 24 “doors” to open from December 1st through 24th, each one with an image or, most likely today, candies or other treats.

In Germany, gifts from the advent calendar and St Nicolas Day get the spirit of Christmas started and lead up to a bigger exchange of gifts on December 24th. However, in Belgium and the Netherlands, Saint Nicolas’s Eve and Day are the main occasions for giving gifts to children. Sinterklaas, as he is known there, travels by boat wearing red bishop’s robes, along with his servant called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). When he arrives, all of the local church bells ring in celebration.

Our neighbors to the south in Italy and Spain are much like the French, where the nativity scene is central to Christmas. Cribs are traditionally put out on the 8th of December in Italy. But the figurine of baby Jesus is only placed into the crib on Christmas day. In my husband’s family, the tradition is to place the figurine baby Jesus in the crib on Christmas morning, before going to see how gifts magically appeared by Christmas tree overnight…

No matter the country, the December holiday season is rich in history and traditions. While the globalization may diminish the importance of some, and exaggerate others, we can still hold onto the magic from our youth and pass it along to own children.

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