Greg and I aren’t taking an antiques buying trip to Europe during this holiday season because we’re too busy filling customer orders for gifts. But I love thinking about interesting Old World Christmas traditions – especially the food! It’s fascinating to see the different ways people in France, England, and Italy celebrate the holidays. While some of these Old World Christmas traditions are familiar to us too, at least in certain regions of the USA or Canada, others are less well-known.
Old World Christmas Traditions in France
Did you know that instead of hanging up a stocking for Santa Claus, children in France often leave shoes out by the fireplace for le Père Noël to fill? Around the holidays, French bakeries are busy making Galette des Rois or King’s Cake. The puff pastry cake is filled with frangipane or almond paste to be enjoyed around Epiphany on January 6. That date is also known as Twelfth Night, to close the twelve days of Christmas. The Galette des Rois traditionally had a lucky bean hidden inside it. Over the centuries that changed to a little charm. If you are served the slice with the charm in it, then you are crowned King for the Day!
Old World Christmas Traditions in England
It isn’t an English Christmas without a plate of mince pies! The pies are filled with mincemeat — despite the savory-sounding name the tarts are actually a dessert treat. The mincemeat is a sweet blend of dried fruits, spices, and usually a hearty dash of brandy or rum.
The photo of the robin taking a nibble of a mince pie is just so cute, but also the robin is symbolic of Christmas in England. You often see robins on Christmas cards there. European robins are much smaller than our American ones, and they have a deep red breast. Some say the robin’s red breast is associated with the blood of Christ. Others tell the nativity tale, where the night of the holy birth was so cold in the Bethlehem stable that Mother Mary asked the animals to help warm baby Jesus as the fire near the manger started to die out. Then Mary heard the flapping of wings and looked down to see a tiny plain brown bird fanning his wings at the fading embers, till the fire burst up brightly again to warm the Christ child. In the process, a flame burned the robin’s breast a vivid red, the color it has been ever since.
Christmas crackers are also essential to English celebrations. They are ‘cracked’ before Christmas dinner begins, by one person pulling on each end. The cracker splits apart with a bang, and a trinket, a joke, and a paper hat fall out. You often see Christmas crackers in American stores now too. It’s important to realize that you don’t expect the joke to be very good. It’s usually some kind of groaner!
Old World Christmas Traditions in Italy
Panettone is one of the most delicious Italian Christmas treats. The light and fluffy sweetened fruit bread is shaped like a tall puffy chimney. It originated in Milan and some say its long history stretches back as far as Ancient Rome. Panettone appeared in a 16th century Bruegel painting, and was baked for emporers and popes!
Panettone is tasty on its own, usually served with sweet wine or liqueur. You can also make a quick and sophisticated dessert dish by toasting slices of Panettone, and topping them with a fruit compote. Make a compote with frozen or fresh fruit cooked with a little sugar and water, plus some cornstarch to thicken the syrup if needed. Any fruit will work, but frozen mixed summer berries add a festive splash of color and the tart flavor complements the sweet bread. Pears poached in wine would be wonderful too! Then sprinkle some snowy confectioners sugar on top and add a dollop of whipped cream.
Another sweet Old World Christmas tradition: Italian children dress up head-to-toe as shepherds when they go carol-singing. Bless them! Then on Christmas Eve, Italian households bring out the Urn of Fate. The Urn of Fate is a large bowl that holds lots of small presents. Family members take it in turn to take their chance in a kind of lucky dip.
Do you have any favorite Old World Christmas traditions that you enjoy in your family? Tell us about it in the comments box below.