Executive Director’s Blog – Christmas across the EU

christmasChristmas really is just around the corner!  Many observe it as a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, while others see Christmas as a national holiday and a great opportunity to splurge on presents, eat up everything in sight and spend time with our families and friends.  Across Europe, there are some unique ways of marking this special time of the year.


The Dutch community of Belgium, based in the Flanders region, and all of Holland has a long standing tradition of ‘SinterKlaus’.  On December 5th each year, SinterKlaus and his helper Pete deliver treats to families via the chimney, not unlike our own Santa. The only differences between Santa Claus and SinterKlaus, is that SinterKlaus travels around on a grey horse instead of a reindeer-pulled sled and sends naughty children to Spain!


Similar to our tradition in Ireland, the people of Germany celebrate Christmas with a big tree in the living room, from which decorations are hung and presents are kept underneath. However, unlike Ireland where we top our tree with an angel, the Germans’ final addition is a Gherkin decoration which can be put anywhere on the tree. The first child to find the gherkin gets an extra present.

Greece & Cyprus

In Greek and Cypriot tradition, instead of ‘Father Christmas’  there is a slighter character of modest origins who wears meagre clothing, Saint Basil, who gives out the presents on January 1st.  On the eve of Saint Basil day, early in the morning, children go to their neighbours’ houses in search of treats.  Then there is Saint Basil’s Day cake, in which a small amount of money is hidden and eventually shared with the family.


In the Mezzogiorno region of southern Italy, it’s the witch Befana who gives presents to children on January 6th.  According to the legend, Befana was informed of the birth of Jesus by the wise Kings, but having lost her way, she strayed from the star and lost track of Jesus’ whereabouts. Since then every year she wanders in search of baby Jesus and leaves a present with a sleeping child in case it is him. According to the tale it is always possible to see her on her broom in the sky, carrying a sack full of presents on her back.


We are all familiar with advent calendars, but in the Catalonia region of Spain, they have their special version, known as the ‘Ciga tia’.  Catalonians hollow out a wooden log which generally sits by the fireplace. From December 8th up until the 25th the ‘Caga tia’ is whacked with a stick like a piñata, releasing sweets and other treats.


In Sweden, Christmas celebrations begin with Saint Lucia Day, on December 13th.  Legend has it that Saint Lucia would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome and wore candles in her crown so she could have full use of both hands when walking through the night. Today, the eldest girl in a family wears a white dress and a crown with candles.  During the family dinner, the girl of the house gives her parents special buns called “Lussekatts” and some “Glögg” (mulled wine). Christmas is also the time when the Swedes drink lots of Julmust, which is a non-alcoholic fizzy drink.  In Swedish, ‘Jul’ is Christmas and ‘must’ is a juice.


As we know there are many elements that make up an Irish Christmas, and there are very special traditions which are specific to my own home county of Cork.  Spiced beef is a big one, which is a festive recipe passed down from generation to generation. The special Holly Bough edition that the Evening Echo boy sells is another constant Christmas presence in the homes of many Cork families. S.H.A.R.E. collectors are another vintage Cork tradition where the famous yellow sticker is an annual accessory to Corkonians’ jackets and coats. There are also more recent traditions such as the lights of Bishop Lucey Park and the Ferris Wheel on Grand Parade, which have become steadfast images of Christmas in Cork.

So, across Europe, we all have distinctive traditions when it comes to the festive season, yet this doesn’t stop us all from celebrating together.  It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

This blog post is an edited version of our Executive Director Noelle O Connell’s monthly column in the Cork Evening Echo. 


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