The world is celebrating Christmas and the New Year

The world is celebrating Christmas and the New Year


Such different Christmas celebrations in the most Catholic country in the world

Not everyone in Italy celebrates Christmas as a purely religious holy day observing all the canonical rites of the church. For many, Natale is a compulsive and even thoughtless shopping, a sort of contest ‘who has the best Christmas tree and ‘presepe’’ (the Nativity scene), as well as giving gifts to all friends and relatives with huge ‘panettone’ (Easter cakes) and, perhaps, all play some kind of simplified lotto - tombola.

The puppet “Nativity Scenes” are the scenes of the birth of Jesus and were introduced by St. Francis of Assisi from Umbria, who built the first ‘presepe’ in 1223 in the small village of Greccio. Since then, the trend has caught on.
“Christmas in our house is a serious thing,” said Franco Spadafora, a young scientist from Cosenza, in an interview with EcoTourism Expert. “The Christmas tree and the ‘presepe’ (the Nativity scene) must be installed exactly on December 8th. Our father always thoroughly checked whether all the figures were in place - Mary, Joseph the Carpenter, the bull, the donkey, and, of course, the baby Jesus. Grandma Angela composed a menu and cooked - with the meticulousness of a nuclear physicist - all the food for three feast days: December 24, 25 and 26. The menu for every day must be different. I was responsible for selecting the films for the holiday that we had already seen a hundred times.”

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In Italy, stretching for 1,500 kilometers from north to south, the Christmas traditions can vary. For example, the ‘Christmas tree’ is not always decorated on the 8th of December. In Bari - on the 6th, on the Saint Nicholas’ Day, and in Milan - on the 7th, on the St. Ambrose’s Day. On the whole, the tradition to establish an evergreen beauty in Italy was only started in the second half of the 19th century by Queen Margaret of Savoy.

In Rome, a true Christmas atmosphere begins to be felt only when the flavor of ‘zampone’, a boiled pork leg stuffed with minced pork and lentils, is in the air from the downtown ‘trattoria’. “Initially, it was a tradition in the central and southern Italy, mainly in Abruzzo and Molise,” metropolitan restaurateur Alessio told me. “Shepherds walk down the hills bringing their simple food, as well as their songs and drinks. And today, we live in the ‘globalization’ age, and even in Bologna, a fat ‘zampone’ is not uncommon any more."

On this Catholic holiday, just steps from the Pope, things sometimes happen that are not mentioned in the Christian theology. Somewhere from over the Alps (they say, from the Germanic heathens), a tradition came to Italy to set fire to a Christmas log so that it would smolder until January 6. In Rome, this half-burned firewood is called ‘ceppo’, in Lombardy – ‘zocco’, in Tuscany – ‘ciocco’. The point is not to throw away the remaining coals until the next Christmas. A kind of a home talisman.

About the most ‘delicious differences.’ When to arrange a festive celebration in the family - in the evening of the 24th of December or in the afternoon of the 25th? There is still no ‘all-Italian’ answer to this question. In the central and southern Italy, they prefer to have a hearty dinner ‘On the Eve’, in the northern Italy - on the Christmas Day. Moreover, the dinner on the ‘Eve’ should be strictly fish, because December 24 is a fasting day for the Catholics. December 26, the day of St. Stephen, it is customary to fight the flab gained. Let's reveal the secret: the Italians celebrate ‘Natale’ at the table all three days in a row.

Now, let's go to the South-Eastern Europe

The Balkans

Christmas bonfires and chimney smoke

Winter holidays are a relaxation and entertainment time all over the world, and the Balkans are no exception. Here, you need to be prepared for special experiences. In the Balkans, the traditional Christmas bonfires are added to the usual fireworks. Combined with the smell of grill and hot wine punch, they add an unforgettable aroma to the winter Balkans.

New Year's holidays in all countries of the Balkan Peninsula are celebrated simultaneously according to a similar scenario: Clock Chimes, gifts, firecrackers, guests.

There is much in common in the celebration of Christmas: Christmas carols, night service, a special ‘surprise’ cake.

But Christmas falls on different dates, and they meet it in a narrow family circle according to special traditions.


Inextinguishable Fireplace and Christoxilo (Christmas firewood)

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In Greece, the Christmas holidays begin on the night of December 24 to 25, coinciding with the Gregorian calendar of the Western Christians. On the Christmas Eve, it is customary to light an Inextinguishable Fireplace, in which it is necessary to add ‘Christoxilo’ (Christmas firewood) for 12 days - from Christmas to Epiphany. Usually these are logs brought by the man of the house from the nearest forest. It is believed that in this way, the Evil Spirit is driven out from the house. In our time, not everyone has fireplaces, so traditional ‘pyromania’ is shifted to the streets of cities and villages.

For example, in the small town of Pella in the north of Greece (which used to be the capital of the region where Alexander the Great was born and Euripides was buried), large bonfires are made and the arrival of Christmas is happily welcomed.

Huge bonfires are also made in the centre of Florin, despite the fact that the European Union invests in promoting the ecotourism here, because the place is famous for its beautiful landscapes and the nearby ski resort.

But in Seatista, located not far from the ‘Natura 2000’ protective zone, the custom to make Christmas bonfires is combined with carnival processions and original round dances.

In some regions of Greece, bonfires are burnt not only on the Christmas Eve, but also on the New Year's Eve. And where there is not enough firewood for this, they use dry branches. These are carried along the streets lit and people try to produce as many sparks as possible, sincerely believing that this will bring good luck.


Deda Mraz and Oak Bádnjak

In Serbia, the New Year is celebrated first: on December 31, next to the decorated holiday fir-tree, children are waiting for ‘Deda Mraz’ (Grandfather Frost) and ‘Snegulica’ (The Snow Maiden), while adults, sitting at the festive table, enjoy a local strong drink – ‘šljivovica’ (plum brandy). ‘Nova Godina’ (New Year) celebration ends with gifts and fireworks.

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A week later, Christmas comes. On the Christmas Eve, on January 6, every self-respecting Serbian man goes to the forest to bring the oak ‘bádnjak’ (oak log), which is a must at the ceremony. They treat this ‘bádnjak’ as a living creature: they ask it to forgive them, strew it with grains and sprinkle it with wine. And then they burn it. If they cannot do it at home, they do not bother and burn it outside. The ‘bádnjak’ should smolder for three days: its fire is considered sacred and is supported by all higher forces. After all, it symbolizes the bonfire that the shepherds made to warm the newborn Christ.

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And a week later, from January 13 to 14, the ‘Srpska Nova Godina’ (Serbian New Year or ‘Little Christmas’) is coming. They celebrate it with great enthusiasm: they again set festive tables, burn ‘bádnjak’, congratulate each other and have a tremendous time.


Badnji dan (Christmas Eve) and the položajnik (guest of honour)

New Year's holidays in Montenegro are not celebrated as grandiosely as Christmas. There is no tradition to decorate houses with Christmas trees. Coniferous beauties decorated with illumination and bright Christmas tree ornaments are set only in the city squares, where the main festivities with fireworks and music take place. And the main family celebrations occur on January 6-7, when they celebrate Christmas.

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As in the entire Orthodox world, people prepare for the Christmas celebration the day before, on the Christmas Eve, which is called ‘Badnji dan’ in Montenegro. In addition to delicious pies and smoked pork, the oak is also a must for Christmas holidays. Previously, men brought oak logs from the forest, but now many use bundles of dry twigs. They decorate not only their homes, but also cars, shops and even small stores.

However, the sacred Christmas bonfires are still made. They are lit at the night of January 6 to 7 right near the churches and private houses immediately after the solemn divine worship. The festive mood is supported by ‘rakjia’ (strong drink) and Christmas sweets. Jets of flame and smoke are at the place of the all-night vigil until the everlast ones go home. And in the morning, after the feast's prayer, the celebration starts. But not earlier than the ‘položajnik’ (guest of honor) visits the house. He symbolizes the Magi who welcomed the newborn Jesus. The duties of a ‘položajnik’ include burning the oak twig in the hearth. It is necessary to produce as many sparks as possible, trying not to burn the house, but to attract wealth to it.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Božić and Božić

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christmas is celebrated twice: the Bosnian Croats celebrate it in December, and the local Serbs - in January. These two Christmas celebrations differ not only in dates, but also in traditions.

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The Catholic Croats must sprout wheat grains for the holiday, decorate them with three candles, and on December 25, their ‘piece of art’ is solemnly brought to the Christmas table. Then begins the feast.

But the Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina precisely observe the canonical rituals of the Orthodox Christians of the Balkan region: on January 6, they must bring a ‘bádnjak’, strew it with grains, pour it with wine, and then burn it solemnly, most often outside. Well, on January 7, of course - a lavish feast. In this, the traditions of the Serbs and the Croats completely coincide: there should be plenty of food and it is desirable to enjoy it drinking their famous ‘šljivovica’. The name of the Christmas coincides, too: the local Catholics and Orthodox pronounce it the same way - ‘Božić’ (Bozhich).


Coleda and a ‘Minute of Love’

In Bulgaria, winter holidays begin a week before the New Year and last - with short breaks - until January 8. At first, everyone cheerfully meets ‘Koleda’ - Bulgarian Christmas. It is celebrated on the night of December 24 to 25. The Bulgarians also celebrate a church service, have a sumptuous table and burn traditional logs. The bonfires outside are not made - only a home hearth, because the most common type of heating among Bulgarians is a wood-burning fireplace. Therefore, in a cold season, dense smoke appears in the cities and villages of Bulgaria. The European Union has repeatedly expressed environmental concerns about this, but the problem remains, since no alternative to wood heating has yet been found: electricity and gas are very expensive here, and the income level of the population is among the lowest in the EU countries.

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But the Bulgarians are not discouraged, compensating for the lack of warmth in their houses with hot coffee, strong ‘rakija’ (rakee) and a hearty meal. At Christmas, instead of bonfires, jack roasting ivories with whole pork or sheep appear out-of-doors. The stove smoke mixes up with the smell of a grill, forming a peculiar festive spirit. Then comes the time of the New Year. It is welcomed the usual way: at the Christmas tree with champagne and fireworks. But there is also an interesting custom called A ‘Minute of Love’: in the first seconds of the year that has just come, all kiss each other to attract love and happiness, at least, for the next 365 days of the year. And although the official holiday in Bulgaria ends on January 2, the fun continues. Indeed, Epiphany is coming (January 6), and immediately after it, the Ivan’s Day (January 7) comes - they celebrate it to honour St. John the Baptist, and they swim in ice water; they also celebrate the ‘Babin Den’ (Midwife’s Day on January 8) - a female answer to the local Ivans. In addition, at the beginning of January it is customary to arrange festive celebrations with ‘kukeri’ (costumed guisers), scaring away all evil spirits. In general, there will never be a dull moment and you will not be bored and chilly.


Advent and Sylvestrovo

In Croatia, Christmas is celebrated on December 25. According to the Catholic tradition, the ‘Advent’ - the preparation period for the most important winter holiday - begins 4 weeks in advance. At this period, Christmas fairs are arranged on the streets and Advent wreaths with 4 candles appear everywhere, which are lit sequentially every Sunday. By Christmas, all four candles shine in a wreath.

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On the Christmas Eve, festive Christmas trees are decorated in the houses, people set the festive tables and bring oak logs. However, until January 1, the tree is not burnt: it takes part in the festival as a beautiful symbol. The log burning process takes place on the Day of St. Sylvester, which falls on of December 31. Therefore, the New Year in Croatia is called ‘Silvestrovo’ and the people celebrate both holidays at the same time: attend the church service, prepare delicious food, set off fireworks to the sky and set fire to the ritual log. They do not go far from the fire, carefully watching the log burning. The first person to see the coals of a log is given a gift. After all, the sacred tree, completely burned down in ‘Silvestrovo’, is sure to attract happiness to the house.


Miklavž, Santa Claus and Dedek Mraz

It is in this order that the magic characters of the winter festivals ‘visit’ Slovenia. On December 6, the Day of St. Nicholas, ‘Miklavž’ was the first to manifest himself, putting sweets in special socks.

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On the Christmas night from December 24 to 25, ‘Božič' (Santa Claus) hides children's gifts under the Christmas tree. And although this tradition appeared only after the collapse of Yugoslavia, the local children love it, because earlier they got presents only on the Day of ‘Miklavž’.

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And finally, just before the New Year, ‘Dedek Mraz’ (Grandfather Frost) appears. He solemnly drives around in cities and villages in a beautiful sleigh, wishing a Happy New Year.

However, not only children have fun in this magical time. Adults also have fun: Slovenia is very fond of making Christmas crèches, competing whose crèche is better. It comes to the point that, instead of man-made figures, real animals take part in the Nativity scenes, and the biblical characters are played by the professional actors and amateurs. The Christmas crèches look especially impressive in the ‘Postojnska jama’ (Postojnska Cave) not far from Ljubljana. The spectators can enjoy a colorful musical performance in the unforgettable atmosphere of the karst caves.

Of course, during the holidays, Slovenia’s residents and guests can enjoy all the beauties of the Christmas fairs, colorful illuminations and beautifully decorated fir trees, and even fireworks. Indeed, normally, any pyrotechnic fun is prohibited here. Only in the New Year festival it is allowed to use skyrockets and firecrackers in Slovenia. And this is called the ‘Festival ognjemeta’ (Fireworks Festival).

Northern Macedonia

Božik and the Fool

In the Republic of Northern Macedonia, ‘Nova Godina’ (New Year) is celebrated on the streets with music and fireworks - no festive tables. Well, perhaps, enjoy fried chestnuts and mulled wine. But on January 7, on ‘Božik’ (Christmas), usually they lay a sumptuous table with a sacrificial plate in the centre, where they put a piece of all the Christmas delicacies. In the houses decorated with fir branches and candles, close relatives gather at the festive tables, pray together and have fun. They also try their luck with ‘Börek’ (a pie). A coin is specially baked into it, and whoever gets it will be lucky, at least until the next ‘Božik’.


It is unlikely that a tourist will be invited to a Macedonian family on the Christmas Eve, but anyone can have fun at the carnival - just come to the village of Vevkani on the ‘Old’ New Year. It has been almost 1,500 years (!) that costumed folk festivals are held on the feast of St. Basil the Great, which falls on January 13-14. To the shrill tune of violins and the noise of the drums, you can see the most unexpected characters walking around the streets: drunkards and evil people, merry men and pessimists, as well as the most important mask, ‘The Royal Fool’. They all communicate with the people involving them in psychedelic actions, which at times becomes ‘tezkoto’, a lively local dance often ending with dancing on the tables. And, of course, they can’t do without bonfires: the more ‘smoked’ you are jumping through smoke and over the flame, the more you comply with the fest’s heathen spirit.

Vevkani Carnival is one of the few in the Balkans that is officially part of the Federation of European Carnival Cities (FECC).


Krishtlindje and Babagjyshi

Surprisingly, December 25 is a day-off in Albania. But here, everyone celebrates his own holy day: believing Christians celebrate Christmas, and the Muslim majority population celebrates Krishtlindje, the day of the winter solstice. And if everything is clear with the Christians - the traditional Christmas Eve is followed by a Christmas liturgy and congratulations at the festive table, the things are much more complicated with the rest of the Albania’s population. 

Firstly, Krishtlindje, Kershendella, Kullanat, Kolendre are celebrated at the same time, which can mean ‘mid-winter’, ‘deep snow day’, ‘Christmas night’ and even the ‘Christmas cake’. Secondly, this ‘explosive’ mixture of Christianity and heathendom results in completely different ceremonies: in some places in Albania, people light candles in all corners of the house, and in other regions, they put a small piece of wax in the hearth. 

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Well, the most spectacular traditions are connected with making bonfires. Moreover, everything is ambiguous here: the amount of ‘buzmi’ (logs) burned varies depending on the region: it can be one big log, or four crosswise stacked logs, and even 15 ‘buzmi’ put as a pyramid. What unites these ancient traditions is the belief that all ills and evils would burn away. Well, the festival ends the same way everywhere: with a sumptuous festive table.

But in a few days, on January 1, they set the tables again to celebrate the New Year with traditional Christmas trees, fireworks and gifts from ‘Babagjyshi,’, the Albanian Santa Claus. Yet, the New Year is far from the most important fest in January in Albania: all Muslims of the country celebrate Navruz. However, this is a spring story.


Mos Craciun and Anul Nou

In Romania, Christmas and the New Year are so similar that December 25 is called ‘Great Christmas’, and January 1 is called ‘Small Christmas’. Both holidays begin with carols – the guisers dressed in lambskins and goat masks sing wassails - good wishing songs - and receive money and refreshments in return. The more generous the gifts are - the louder the songs. Then comes the turn of religious ceremonies: the church service on December 25 and the burning of wax candles in front of the icons on the night of January 1. It is interesting that it is a tradition to decorate the New Year tree not only with Christmas ornaments, but also with small icons.

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After that, on both holidays, families gather at their richly furnished table. And then comes the time for congratulations and gifts. And again, traditions coincide. On New Year (Anul Nou), Mos Craciun (Christmas Saint) congratulates children. This is according to the legend that has it that Mos Craciun was a shepherd who sheltered the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus and gave them cheese. That's why this magical character is entrusted the solemn mission of presenting New Year's gifts.

All Romanians are tireless dancers. All the New Year night, they enjoy their national dances tirelessly - both old and young - streaming with sweat. Well, as usual, the festival ends with fireworks, and also fortune-telling. Usually they tell fortunes on New Year's day. But since the Romanians are very superstitious, they use garlic and try to make as much noise as possible to drive all evil spirits away. They also believe here that on January 1, nothing can be thrown away - not to lose good luck. For the same reason, the mistress of the house does not go outside until the arrival of the first guest. It is only important that the guest does not turn out to be blond - otherwise one should wait for troubles! But, as you know, the majority of the local population are raven-heads, so the probability of having an unwanted guest is very small. And if this happens, then you need to eat a piece of Christmas cake with a happy coin inside as soon as possible, and a good mood will not leave you any more!