By Florian Kappelsberger
As snowflakes are dancing outside our windows and slowly covering Vienna’s roofs in white, it is really beginning to look a lot like Christmas… Last year, we presented you five Austrian traditions that add charm to the holiday season. This time, we want to flip the perspective: Here are five European Christmas traditions from all over the continent waiting to be discovered by you!
Crown a king or queen with the French galette des rois
Who will be king or queen of the new year? There is one way to find out that is both exciting and delicious: the French tradition of the galette des rois. In this ritual associated with the holiday of Epiphany, a small porcelain figurine called fève is baked into a cake. Whoever finds it in their slice will be ceremoniously crowned – although, in most cases, with a relatively unceremonious paper couronne. Following the original recipe, the cake is made of puffed pastry and filled with almond-flavoured frangipane, but there are countless regional variations.
This tradition has been celebrated for centuries and remains enormously popular until today. While Epiphany does not arrive until January 6, the galettes are sold in France starting mid-December. If you want to discover this tradition for yourself, you can also find these cakes in Vienna’s numerous boulangeries, such as Parémi and L’Amour du Pain. Otherwise, why not try your luck and bake a galette des rois yourself? In any case: bonne chance et bon appétit!
Sharing a Serbian česnica with your family
There is a tradition in Serbia that is, in a way, analogous to the French cake ritual: the česnica. This round loaf of bread, whose name derives from the Serbian word čest (“share”), is divided among the family on Christmas Eve. Sometimes, a coin is put into the dough before baking; according to the lore, the person who finds it will have great luck in the year to follow!
There are many other rules and rituals associated with the preparation process: The water for the dough is traditionally collected from springs or wells, the surface of the loaf is inscribed with symbols such as the Christogram, and the bread should be rotated counterclockwise three times at the beginning of the dinner.
Breaking a Polish Christmas wafer and speaking with animals
When the entire family is gathered at the table on Christmas eve, it is an important custom in Poland to share the opłatek, a thin white wafer made only of flour and water. Traditionally, the eldest family member will break off a piece and pass the remaining wafer on to the next person with a blessing. This not only replays the Eucharistic ritual from Catholic liturgy, it also symbolises unity and reconciliation within the family. The traditional wafers, often bearing beautiful Christian imagery, are sold in stores for Polish cuisine and delicatessen, for example Wilder Osten in Vienna’s second district.
Another Polish tradition is to speak to your pets on Christmas eve – hoping that they will respond! According to popular lore, animals magically gain the gift of language on this special night. So why not try to strike a conversation with your beloved dog or pampered house cat around the Christmas tree? You never know what they might have to say to you!
Panettone, cavallucci and the Italian Christmas witch
While Americans address their letters to Santa Claus and Austrians wait for the Christkind to arrive, there is an altogether different figure delivering gifts for Christmas in Italy: the benevolent witch Befana. She is said to visit children on the eve of Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they behaved well in the past year. Otherwise, they will wake up in the morning to discover a lump of coal in their sock…
As in many other countries, Christmas is a culinary feast in Italy. The traditional panettone, a Milanese sweet bread containing candied orange, raisins or chocolate, is surely well-known and cherished way beyond the country’s borders – but have you heard of cavallucci, as well? This rich Christmas pastry, originating in the city of Siena, is prepared with honey, anise, almonds and candied fruit… Need I say more? You can discover many different festive dolci with L’angolo di Michel in Josefstadt.
Danish risalamande: a delicious almond lottery
This Danish tradition is reminiscent of the French galette des rois, but quite a bit simpler. On Christmas Eve, the family gathers around a steaming pot of rice pudding and throws in a whole almond before distributing. Whoever finds the nut in his dessert wins a small prize called mandelgave (‘almond present’), often a marzipan pig.
Usually, the winners will even wait to reveal their victory until all of the pudding has been eaten, making the others guess who has won. Although the rice pudding dish is not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak, this beloved holiday tradition is associated with a lot of laughter, stories and fond memories. It is also celebrated in Finland, Norway and Sweden.