If there’s a place to fully enjoy and immerse yourself in a real Christmas atmosphere, that is surely the region of Alsace, in the northeast of France. Its amazing natural landscapes and its lovely fairytale-like villages become even more charming during the Christmas season. Christmas markets, events, and beautiful decorations dress each village.
What is this region known for?
Alsace was the birthplace of many Christmas traditions in France. In fact, the Christmas tree comes from a little town called Sélestat. The region also hosts some of the oldest, most beautiful, and most renowned Christmas markets in France. They are the perfect place to enjoy the Christmas traditions and ambiance. In addition to buying regional crafts and Christmas decorations, you can also savor typical Christmas confectionery like “manalas” or “pain d’épices”, or drink the traditional “vin chaud”. Along with the markets, other Christmas events like parades, concerts, or light shows take place.
Saint-Nicolas and Hans Trapp
The main Christmas characters in Alsace are Saint-Nicolas, Hans Trapp, and Christkindel. On the 6th of December, the town celebrates Saint-Nicolas. He brings presents to the nice children accompanied by his grey donkey. However, also on the 6th December, the figure of Hans Trapp chases and scares naughty children. The Christkindel is the protestant figure that replaced Christian Saint-Nicolas at the times of the Reformation. It is an angelic figure that delivered the presents on the 25th of December
Not surprisingly, the Alsatian Christmas has gained fame over the years. It has now become a great tourist attraction that welcomes millions of visitors from all over Europe each year. Strasbourg and Colmar and their respective Christmas markets are among the most known and visited. However, if you want to feel the authentic Alsatian Christmas atmosphere, I would advise you not to miss the markets of smaller villages.
If you are a Christmas lover, Alsace is definitely the place to visit during the Holiday season; it is simply magical.
While Christmas markets are not so popular in Spain, there’s a different, very rooted, and widespread tradition: the Nativity Scenes. Most Spanish families set up the nativity scene each year in their houses. Moreover, the nativity scene is very often performed by people in the popular “living cribs”. Crib exhibitions and even contests are organized in towns and villages.
Papá Noel, Olentzero and Tió de Nadal
Regarding traditional Christmas characters… There are plenty of them in Spain!
Apart from the worldwide known Santa Claus, known as Papá Noel in Spain, there are a few equivalent figures in the regions of the Basque Country and Catalonia, in charge of delivering children’s presents during the night of the 24th of December.
Papá Noel’s basque counterpart is called Olentzero. He is a mythological coalman dressed in typical clothes that descends from the mountain to carry the presents to the children in the regions of Basque Country, Navarra and the French Basque Country (south of France).
A different and quite interesting equivalent figure is the Catalonian Tió de Nadal (Catalonian for “Christmas log”). It is actually a log, decorated with a smiley face and a traditional beret. According to the tradition, children must leave food for the Tió and cover him with a blanket every night since the beginning of the advent. Then, on the night of the 24th of December, children hit the log with a branch while singing him a typical song and the Tió, fully covered by a blanket, “poops” presents for the children who have been nice along the year. Similar traditions can be found in other regions both inside and outside Spain.
The Story of The Three Wise Men
Nonetheless, the most important and widespread Christmas characters in Spain are, undeniably, the Three Wise Men: Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar. They are biblical characters that, according to the Christmas Tradition, bring presents to the Spanish children on the night of the 5th of January. The festivity of the Three Wise Men is accompanied by many other traditions and sets Spain apart from other countries regarding Christmas. While in many places around the world families trade gifts on the 24th or 25th of December. In Spain, many do it on the 6th of January upon the “arrival” of the Three Wise Men.
Firstly, children must send a letter to the Three Wise Men, to let them know what they want as presents and explain whether they have been nice during the previous year. Often, children have a preferred king among the three, to which they address the letter and who they expect to carry their presents. On the night of the 5th of January, many leave a shoe somewhere in the house, so that the kings know where to leave the presents. It is also usual to leave some food and drinks both for the kings and their camels near the Christmas tree.
Another very important tradition is the Three Kings’ parades. On the evening of the 5th of January, the Three Wise Men tour Spanish cities and towns in big and popular parades throwing candies from the floats. Important parades like those of Madrid or Barcelona are even broadcast on national TV.
Roscón de Reyes
Finally, we cannot talk about the Three Wise Men festivity in Spain without mentioning the typical “Roscón de Reyes” and the tradition around it. The “Roscón de Reyes” is a special ring-shaped cake that is commonly eaten in family reunions (for breakfast, as a dessert, and so on) on the 6th of January. It is filled with whipped cream and/or chocolate cream and it usually hides two surprises. On the one hand, a small figurine (typically one of the Three Wise Men), on the other hand, a bean. The families divide the cake and eat it. The person that finds the bean on his/her slice is supposed to pay for the cake. However, those that find the figurine win a (paper) crown and become “the king”.
The night of the 5th of January is considered by many Spaniards to be the most magical night of the year.
Without a doubt, there are numerous traditions to discover and innumerable reasons to enjoy the Spanish Christmas.
Interested in Christmas around the world? Check out our blog where we compare Christmas in Portugal vs Britain!