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Rick Steves Classroom Europe™ is a free resource allowing teachers to share the best of European art, history, and culture with their students and fellow educators.

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Europe’s Festivals: Christmas in Germany, Austria, Norway, and Switzerland

Germany

We see a medley of Christmas festivities in Nürnberg (Christmas market with toys and food), Salzburg (big guns scaring away evil spirits), Norway (St. Lucia Day procession), and the Swiss Alps (cutting a tree, having fondue with friends).

Complete Video Script

Each Christmas, Nürnberg’s main square becomes a festive swirl of the heartwarming sights, sounds, and smells of the holiday season.

Long a center of toy making in Germany, a woody and traditional spirit that celebrates local artisans prevails. “Nutcrackers are characters of authority: uniformed, strong-jawed, and able to crack the tough nuts.” Smokers — with their fragrant incense wafting — feature common folk, like this village toymaker. Prune people with their fig body, walnut head, and prune limbs are dolled up in Bavarian folk costumes.

Bakeries crank out the old-fashioned gingerbread — the Lebkuchen Nürnberg — using the original 17th-century recipe. Back then, Nürnberg was the gingerbread capital of the world, and its love affair with gingerbread lives on.

Shoppers can also munch the famous Nürnberg bratwurst — skinny as your little finger — and sip hot spiced wine.

Like Easter, Christmas is built upon a pagan pre-Christian festival. And we celebrate it today with plenty of pre-Christian rituals — often without even knowing it. In Salzburg they shoot big guns to scare away evil spirits. In the Tirol, fathers bless the house as their ancestors did.

Families, friends, and food are integral to the French Noël. Winter brings a sense of magical wonder to Germany and Austria. Italy reveals the sacred nature of the season, from its countryside to its grandest church. Nature, in all its wintry glory, seems to shout out the joy of the season in Switzerland. And everywhere, Christmas is celebrated with family, as together Europe remembers the quiet night that that holiest family came to be.

The European Christmas season is long and festive. Rather than counting down the shopping days left, it’s all about traditions and saints’ days. For example, December 13 is big in Norway. It’s Santa Lucia day — one of the darkest days of winter — and an important part of the Scandinavian Christmas season. All over Nordic Europe, little candle-bearing Santa Lucias are bringing light to the middle of winter, and the promise of the return of summer. These processions are led by a young Lucia wearing a crown of lights.

This home has housed widows and seniors for over 200 years, and today the kindergarteners are bringing on the light in more ways than one. The children have baked the traditional Santa Lucia saffron buns — the same ones these seniors baked when they were kindergarteners.

Taking their cue from Santa Lucia, Norwegians — cozy in their homes — brighten their long dark winters with lots of candles, white lights — you'll never see a colored one — and lots of greenery.

And high in Switzerland, where the churches are small and villages huddle below towering peaks, the mighty Alps seem to shout the glory of God. Up here, Christmas fills a wintry wonderland with good cheer.

In these villages, traditions are strong… and warmth is a priority. Stoves are small, so fire wood is, too.

My family has arrived for a Swiss Alps Christmas. They’ve joined me here in the tiny village of Gimmelwald. Our friends Olle and Maria and their kids are giving my kids, Andy and Jackie, a good lesson in high-altitude Christmas fun.

Olle is taking us high above his village on a quest to find, and cut, the perfect Christmas tree.

Olle: What do you think?
Andy: I like it a lot, Olle.
Jackie: Yeah this is a good tree; I think we should cut it.

Still high above Gimmelwald, we’re stopping in a hut for a little fondue. Fondue seems perfect in winter after you’ve come in from the cold. For them, it sets the scene for a warm and convivial time. Combined with good friends and family during the Christmas season, we have all the ingredients for a delightful little Alpine festival.

Before we know it, the light outside begins to fade.

Rick: Here’s to a happy Christmas.
All: Cheers!

As the sun sets, we’ve got our tree, and enjoy a fairy-tale ride home to Gimmelwald.

In every part of Europe, and in every season…in big cities, and in remote farmsteads…from timeless traditions to modern celebrations, people embrace life through festivals. They celebrate what the season brings with great parties. They bargain with God and show their faith with festival rituals. They remember the accomplishments and lives of their forebears. They enjoy fun-loving opportunities to dress in traditional costumes and wave their national flags, all the while gorging themselves with great feasts, and lubricating themselves with the local drink. And all of it may just be an excuse for the very human need to celebrate family, friends, and culture…year after year.