Christmas tradition in Italy: Panettone
The way to a person’s heart in Italy is through their stomach, right? Nowhere radiates quite as much warmth as an Italian kitchen, where the nonna is rolling out pasta dough and stirring the ribollita every so often. So it makes sense that there are plenty of tasty traditions in Italy at Christmas too. One of those is panettone, a sweet treat that’s eaten in many Italian households at this time of year. It’s a tall, sweet bread loaf with a dome shape and a texture that’s lighter than air. The dough is filled with candied fruit and raisins, and icing sugar is often dusted on top when it comes out of the oven. Famously soft and buttery, panettone is usually served with coffee or as a dessert. Here in Switzerland, the equivalent to our Italian neighbours’ favourite festive treat is stollen.
Christmas tradition in Spain: El Gordo
Don’t worry – there’s no offence to be taken here: El Gordo ("the fat one") isn't a reference to Santa Claus, but the legendary Spanish Christmas lottery, also known as the Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad or Lotería de Navidad. El Gordo is one of the biggest lotteries in the world – the jackpots are eye-watering. In the past, lucky winners have claimed millions and sometimes even billions of euros. The draw takes place on 22 December every year, with the excitement building even outside of Spain. This tradition started back in the 19th century, when it was introduced by the nation’s rulers as a way of filling up the state coffers and getting the population in the Christmas spirit. Who says money can’t buy love?
Christmas tradition in Sweden: Julbock
The Julbock, the Christmas goat, is as much a part of Christmas in Sweden as the Advent wreath is here in Switzerland. Usually made of straw, these festive friends come in all shapes and sizes – from tiny hanging decorations to huge statues that stand in front of the Christmas tree. Although the goat originally delivered the presents at Christmas time, that responsibility has since been handed over to Jultomte, or Father Christmas. But the Julbock is still an important Scandinavian Christmas tradition – along with Father Christmas, his reindeer and his little helpers, who are known as Nisser.
Christmas tradition in Iceland: Jólabókaflóð
Winter in Iceland is much longer and darker than it is here in Switzerland. So what could be better than snuggling up with a good book in front of the fire? That dreamy picture has given rise to an Icelandic Christmas tradition called the Jólabókaflóð – the "Christmas book flood". The Jólabókaflóð tends to begin in November, when lots of new books are published so they can be bought as gifts to put underneath the Christmas tree. What better way to show your love than with the gift of a book? The country has become known for its national celebration of reading and giving books as gifts. This tradition has also had the knock-on effect that Iceland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Christmas tradition in England: Mistletoe
In England, mistletoe is strategically placed in people’s homes – usually in the hallway or living room. The plant symbolises love, happiness and peace. And an innocent green bunch of mistletoe with white berries is enough to get even the shiest of people coming up to you all of a sudden: tradition has it that two people standing under the mistletoe together have to kiss each other – whether they want to or not! So things can get interesting in public spaces like cafés and restaurants ... Who needs Tinder when there’s mistletoe around at Christmas time?
Christmas tradition in Greece: Kalanta
In many parts of Greece, Christmas is a time for belting out Κάλαντα or Kalanta. These are Greek Christmas carols that are often sung by children as they go from door to door to wish everyone in their neighbourhood a Merry Christmas. As you can imagine, the little singers are hopeful that they’ll receive a sweet treat as a reward for their angelic performance.
Christmas tradition in Finland: Joulusauna
Joulusauna is one of the oldest and most cherished Christmas traditions in Finland. Once all the tough manual labour was done and Christmas was approaching, families would come together to spend the afternoon relaxing in the sauna, bathing and cleansing themselves for the big day. Finns and saunas go together like reindeer and sleighs to this day, so it should come as no surprise that this tradition has stood the test of time.