FROM traditional wooden market stalls to trees lit with real candles, each European town has its own traditions when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Whether it is a public sing-along in Rinteln, a hill-walk to Midnight Mass in Zrece, or a pre-Christmas visit from Father Christmas in Albert, KATIE DICKINSON looks at how three of South Lakeland’s twin towns celebrate the festive season.
In the north-eastern Slovenian town of Zrece, Christmas begins on December 24 with the putting up of the tree, traditionally lit with real candles.
Christmas dinner is also more likely to be on Christmas Eve before going to mass, but wishing someone ‘Merry Christmas’ – vesel božic – is not done until Christmas Day itself.
Presents are exchanged by hand when people arrive.
David Burbidge, organiser for Sedbergh Town Twinning, has been to Zrece several times for Christmas, and said family gatherings tended to be large, with most houses having somewhere that could seat 50 people.
He said he had often joined walkers who every year make the journey on foot down from Rogla, a ski resort on top of a mountain.
He said: “The walkers all carry blazing torches and stop in clearings in the woods to drink Borovnicevec, Slovenian blueberry brandy made in the town, and eat Potica, a walnut cake associated with Christmas.”
He went on: “Because most of the churches are on top of hills, there are many opportunities to combine hill-walking with taking mass – on Christmas Day the whole community walks from Zrece to the top of a local hill called the Brinjeva Gora where they sing in the church there.
“Another difference is that while we might go carol singing before Christmas, our good friends in Zrece go out on January 6 dressed as The Three Kings and sing outside the houses of their friends and neighbours, who bring out refreshments and welcome them.”
Albert – best known as a key location in the Battle of the Somme during World War I – is typical of many French towns in that most people are more likely to exchange cards at New Year rather than before Christmas.
During the run-up to December 25, Father Christmas (Père Noël) visits the town to make sure that all is well.
This year he will visit Albert on December 21, arriving by train and then being escorted to the Town Square where a ‘Children’s Village’ has been created.
There will then be a series of dramatic shows involving the reindeer and Santa’s other helpers to entertain the children.
As in England, French children write to Père Noël saying what they would like for Christmas and, in 1962, a law was passed in France decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard.
This means that when a class of schoolchildren writes a letter, each student gets a response.
On Christmas Eve, rather than putting up stockings, children in Albert put their shoes in front of the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Père Noël.
Sweets, fruits, nuts and small toys are also sometimes hung on the Christmas tree (Sapin de Noël) overnight to be found in the morning.
The traditional Christmas dessert is called La bûche de Noël – a log-shaped cake made with chocolate and chestnuts.
La bûche de Noël represents the special wood log burned from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day in the Périgord, which is a surviving tradition from a pagan Gaul celebration.
Many families in Albert will go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and then have a large feast – their main Christmas meal – known as Le Réveillon.
Le Réveillon symbolises an awakening to the meaning of the birth of Christ, and is the culinary high point of the season.
FOR 28 days of the festive season, the small town of Rinteln is transformed with a Christmas market – a common feature in most German towns during December.
As well as a stage with a daily live music programme, around 20 stalls fill the historic town square until December 29, selling gifts, hot wine, bratwurst and cookies.
Up until two years ago, the market lasted only until December 23, when all the huts were put away to make room for an open air Christmas service with up to 800 people on Christmas Eve.
After opposing the decision to extend the Christmas market, the biggest local church decided to cancel the open air service and hold it inside the church building instead.
This created a public uproar, and a compromise was eventually reached with an open air service held at a quiet church place 50 metres away from the markets.
Local journalist Dietrich Lange said that while singing Christmas songs had become less popular at home, it had become very common in public.
“In our main church – St. Nikolai – there is a sing-along four Sundays before Christmas, where the church is crowded with more than 400 amateur singers, led by a conductor, and the church is lit only by candles.”
One thing that has to be done before Christmas is to purchase a real Christmas tree (usually fir or pine) either from local dealers or by cutting them in private forests with permission.
The Christmas tree is usually put up on the afternoon of December 24 and marks the first part of the Christmas Eve festivities.
On Christmas Eve most people attend a church service where the children act out the story of the Nativity.
After the service, families will get together and have a meal, which will often simply consist of sausages and potato salad.
Some of the treats prepared for Christmas Day include Christollen (bread with raisins, nuts and dried fruit), Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and marzipan.