As December approaches, I become insufferably gleeful. It may be dark and cold and miserable outside, but there’s a full month of mini celebrations to be enjoyed. Each door that pops open on the advent calendar, each party, each annual ritual dutifully upheld is just as warming to the soul as a hot mince pie and mulled cider to the stomach.
While I always migrate to the north of England in true homing-pigeon fashion when the big day nears, it’s also a wonderful time of year to go and explore the rest of the world and see how it celebrates throughout December. Sometimes I’ve had to miss out on Christmas activities I truly love when I’ve been away, but for every tradition you leave behind, you’ll discover an equally charming, equally meaningful one to adopt in its place.
Did you know, for example, that tonight children across Europe will be tucked up in the beds, unable to sleep in anticipation of waking up tomorrow morning and discovering their shoes, which they’ll have left by the fire, filled with presents?
In the UK and the US, we’ve rather rolled the celebrations of Saint Nicholas and Christmas into one big blowout, but in the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Germany, the festivities remain separate. Every year on the 6 December many Europeans celebrate Sinterklaas (St Nicholas), and for children this is often the main gift-giving day of the whole festive season.
Oddly enough, I first came across the festival of St Nicholas’ Day not in Europe, where it traditionally belongs, but in Uganda. I was convalescing after a day’s grade 5 white water rafting at an infamously raucous campsite on the banks of the Nile, when two Dutch girls produced a bag a kruidnoten — small spicy traditional biscuits — and insisted that we celebrate ‘their Christmas’ with them. It happened to be 6 December, so celebrate we did. With kruidnoten. And Nile Special. Through a beer bong.
Fast forward one year and I was working in the European Parliament in Brussels, surrounded by people of more nationalities than I could count on my fingers and toes combined. I learnt so much from colleagues and friends about how Christmas was celebrated all over the continent. In many countries, for example, Christmas dinner is actually eaten on Christmas eve, and fish, usually carp, is often eaten instead of turkey. My Dutch friends taught me about another Sinterklaas tradition – the writing of humourous poems poking fun at members of their families (an activity I’m rather keen to adopt into my own boisterous, jolly clan).
I happened to be in Bruges on the day of the Sinterklaas festival, and I saw the procession through the streets – which was rather low key compared to other ‘holiday season’ parades around the world. St Nicholas pootled through the streets, accompanied by his helpers known as ‘Black Petes’ (the less said about them the better) who handed out sweets to the crowd.
Belgium was a magical place to be in the run-up to Christmas. An enormous tree was erected in the Grand Place in Brussels, along with a full-scale stable and nativity scene. It even had real bleatin’, breathin’ sheep.
Of course there was also a Christmas market, complete with ice rink and big wheel. And it certainly helped that it snowed.
Parliament trainees in Brussels are allowed to choose one plenary session during their stage to attend and observe the proceedings in Strasbourg. Naturally, many of us in the autumn/winter cohort chose to go in December, when the city was at its prettiest and the Christmas markets were in full flow. I imagine that in any month Strasbourg would seem as if it were doing little else other than waiting patiently and expectantly for December to arrive, for never have I visited a place that seems more utterly suited to being dressed up with lights and little wooden cabins and a dusting of snow.
We bought gifts for our families and ate tarte flambee, and on our final day, I decided to catch a later train back to Brussels in order to explore the timber-framed houses in the Petite-France area of the city.
Where better to go though, for a real Christmas market than Germany? I’m not talking about Cologne or Frankfurt, or any of the other big hitters, which lure in tourists on the hunt for ‘authentic’ gifts and experiences. Rostock is a small Hanseatic city on the north-east coast of Germany. It’s a clean, pretty, but fairly ordinary university town, with some notable baroque and gothic architecture – it’s annual Weinachtsmarkt though is pure magic. It’s less like of a shopping extravaganza and more of a festival, which the whole city turns out for every day leading up to Christmas.
There are rides, an ice rink, a stage with performances, an enchanting medieval market and let us not forget the food. Locals consume the most enormous bratwurst for about 2 euros (compared to the £5 you pay for the smaller version in English Christmas markets), croustillons coated in powdered sugar and chocolatey, marsmallowey schaumkusse (which translates as ‘foam kisses’). Parents parade their delighted mitten-clad children around on their shoulders, and when the kids have gone to bed, the adults gather in huts to sip on gluhwein and hot chocolate with amaretto.
If you’re seeking a genuinely Christmassy market experience rather than a glorified shopping trip, I suggest you seek out these smaller markets, which are aimed at locals instead of tourists.
Which destination most gets you in the Christmas spirit? Have you been to any wonderful Christmas markets in Europe? Let me know. And happy Sinterklaas day to all who celebrate it!