Christmas Traditions in Helsinki, Madrid and Prague
The Finnish capital marks the holiday season with sucking up to the sauna elves, drinking glögi (mulled wine paired with vodka) and tracing the footsteps of Suomenlinna’s Fortress Gnome.
Once upon a time at Christmas, Finnish men used to dress up as goats, put on a pair of horns or masks made of birch bark, and wander around the town demanding food and drinks. They were usually served lutefisk (dried cod with a gelatinous texture), barley porridge and Christmas beer. As Santa Claus with his entourage now lives in Lapland, which is not far from Helsinki, times have changed. Buildings in Helsinki are adorned with gigantic Advent calendars made out of Christmas lights, while bustling Christmas markets seem to have sprung up on every street corner. By the way, that’s the right place for a glass of glögi – mulled wine with spices and raisins, and if you’re lucky, a shot of vodka.
Many restaurants serve festive meals, and one of the most traditional ones is the smörgåsbord. It looks like Christmas brunch or what your parents might serve when you visit them. Of course, there’s no Christmas without the traditional Finnish ritual of purification – the sauna. If you want to get in the good books of the sauna elves, you are supposed to leave them a bucket of water, birch bath broom and a jug of beer at Christmas. In Helsinki, the tradition borrowed from Swedes – crowning Saint Lucia – is still observed every December 13. Clad in a white dress with a red belt and wearing a crown of candles on her head, the maiden walks to the cathedral and around the city centre. You can also see Tiernapojat (literally, star boys) – shows staged by young boys singing the dialogues from the legend of the three kings and the murders of young men. If you’re looking for something more exciting, go to Suomenlinna fortress and, a map in hand, follow the footsteps of the Fortress Gnome. On Boxing Day, the Finns are fed up with munching on leftovers and reading the books Santa gave them, so they go out to the cinema or to dance at a restaurant.
The world’s biggest lottery takes place in Madrid during the holidays, and the winning numbers are broadcast on TV, delivered in song by children. Spaniards welcome the New Year with 12 grapes in their mouths, and they bake a Jesus figurine into the national dessert.
Madrid is the capital of a very Catholic country, so Christmas is the star celebration of the year. If you enjoy being a part of a crowd, the centre of the city will be just the place to be! Reproducing the nativity scenes of Bethlehem is a big deal in Madrid – they are exhibited all over the city in different shapes and forms, and it’s the perfect souvenir to bring home. On the Spanish Christmas dinner table, you will find the blackspot seabream (besugo), tiger prawns and, of course, their national treasure – ham. During the winter season, turrón is in big demand, a treat made from honey, sugar, egg whites and nuts.
One of the main Spanish attractions during the holidays is the Christmas lottery, considered to be the biggest in the world. If you happen to meet a Spaniard, ask them how many tickets each of their family members has bought. Be ready – it might turn out to be a very long and surprising conversation. Streets in Madrid on the morning of December 22 are not just silent, but completely mum, as every Spaniard is glued to the TV set, listening to the winning ticket numbers, delivered in song by children. New Year’s Eve in Madrid is spent by the clock at the Puerta del Sol square – on each strike of the clock you have to put a grape in your mouth, so kissing at midnight is out of the question. Afterwards, all twelve grapes are chased down with Cava, a Spanish sparkling wine that comes from Catalonia and is similar to French champagne. Another popular drink is Sidra el Gaitero, and its official slogan is quite eloquent: „Absurdly sweet and not that strong. So why worry?” Lots of folk still can’t seem to choose between Father Christmas and the Cabalgata, the parade of the three kings on January 5. In the evening, a spectacular show is put on in Madrid, and the three kings – Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar – with flying fairies, palaces and camels in tow, walk through the city and dole out candy to kids. It all culminates in an impressive fireworks spectacle. The next morning, rosca de reyes is served in Spanish homes, and a Jesus figurine is baked into it. The lucky finder is believed to be blessed, and has to take the figurine to the closest church on February 2 (Candlemas Day).
The Czechs fast on Christmas Eve in the hopes of seeing a golden pig appear on the wall, and they balance the sour taste of mulled wine with a sweet cinnamon spit cake. In Prague, you can celebrate Christmas in the company of animals by attending one of the festivities at the zoo.
In the Czech capital, the festive season is kicked off on December 5 when Saint Nicolas (Svatý Mikuláš) arrives in town, accompanied by angels and one or a couple devils. If the child has behaved well and recites a poem or sings a song, they receive chocolate and some fruit as a gift. Children who confess to having been naughty are gifted a piece of coal by the devil. On Christmas Eve, many Czechs fast, hoping to see a golden pig appear on the wall before dinnertime. It’s said to bring extremely good luck. The traditional feast includes fish soup and fried carp with potato salad on the side. The famous Prague ham also has its place on the table. When you’re doing rounds of the Christmas markets, have a trdelnik or trdlo – a cinnamon spit cake, covered in a sweet nut mix and filled with cream.
The traditional Czech mulled wine (svařák) is rather sour, but adding as much sugar as you please saves the day. The Prague Zoo has its own list of holiday events, and the zoo is considered to be the 4th best in the world. Too see what gifts the elephant or the tiger got, head there, or just enjoy the celebration among animals. If you crave a stunning evening, attend the Christmas concert at the Clam-Gallas Palace. It is not only and acoustic marvel, but a beautiful thing to behold.