Rick Steves' European Christmas


By Rick Steves

By Valerie Griffith

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 27, 2013. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Rick Steves, America’s expert on Europe, teams up with co-author Valerie Griffith to explore the rich and fascinating mix of traditions-Christian, pagan, musical, and edible-that led to the Christmas festivities we enjoy today.

Rick brings home an authentic, surprising portrait of holiday celebrations in England, Norway, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. Romans cook up eels, Salzburgers shoot off guns, Germans buy “prune people” at markets, Norwegian kids hope to win marzipan pigs, and Parisians ice-skate on the Eiffel Tower.

With thoughtful insights, vibrant photos, and more than a dozen recipes, this great gift book captures the spirit of the season. It’s a delightful way to learn something new-and old-about Christmas.



EUROPE IS MY FAVORITE PLACE TO TRAVEL, WITH A CHARMING, DIVERSE MIX OF peoples and traditions. And Christmas is my favorite holiday. For those who celebrate the birth of Jesus, for people surrounded by a loving family, for children filled with wonder, dreaming of goodies under the tree … it’s the best day of the year. We hope that, by immersing ourselves in the vivid holiday traditions of Europe in this book, our own Christmas season will have a little more meaning, a little more diversity, and a little more sparkle. Merry Christmas!

Christmas: Fact or Fiction?

Christmas is a season of mystery and magic. For kids, it’s a time when adults take their visions of the supernatural seriously. For Christians, it’s the first miraculous episode in the life of the Son of God on Earth. For everyone, it’s a time to celebrate with loved ones, a joyous respite from the mid-winter blahs.

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth gave Christians a reason to celebrate in winter.

And for historians? Well, unfortunately for historians, the “magic” of Christmas can be a problem. Scholars debate the accuracy of the Bible’s account of Jesus’ birth, but any book about the way various cultures celebrate Christmas will be full of fanciful legends. As Napoleon once asked, “What is history but a legend agreed upon?”

But is Christmas real? For Christians, the birth of Jesus is the cornerstone of their faith: the belief that God gave his son to live on Earth among us to empathize with our mortal experience and share his Father’s will with us. The place of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem, was the first stop on the Christmas-to-Easter journey that ultimately led to the Crucifixion, where our salvation was earned.

How literally should we take the Bible’s account of that first Christmas? That depends on your brand of religion. Taken literally, it’s a historical record of three kings arriving 12 days after a young woman gave birth, and presenting gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. Taken on faith, it’s a rich story that believers can use to understand the greatest gift ever given.

Of course, just as most of Europe’s greatest churches sit on the remains of pagan temples, the Christmas story is founded on the remnants of pagan history. These lusty pre-Christian legends enliven traditional Christmas festivals, injecting many of the fun cultural differences that make the holiday season in Europe as varied as travel there is in general.

Whether Christmas is about leading you out of the darkness of winter, out of the darkness of sin, or just out of the cold into a warm home and a kiss under the mistletoe—it is a wondrous event. It’s a time to bask in the glow of childhood memories, to remember the importance of loved ones in our lives, and to practice the virtue of kindness even to those who might not necessarily deserve it. For most people—at least in our culture—it’s the best holiday of the year.

Historians might object to the legends and myths that tinsel the Christmas story told in this book, but I’m writing from a love of the mystery of Christmas, not for strict historical accuracy, so I won’t be bogged down by a scholarly approach to history. If the Bible says it happened, that’s good enough for me. If locals tell it to me, it’s a part of them and their celebrations, so I pass it along to you. In researching this book, I learned that nobody really knows much of anything for sure about the misty origins and meanings of the many legends associated with Christmas. If you’re the type of person who needs everything to be a proven fact … you’re probably not reading this book.

An Italian church at dawn on Christmas—soon the bells will ring for joy.

Now, as you anticipate the arrival of another Christmas, sit back and enjoy this book. We’ll begin by traveling back in time to the origins of our Christmas traditions. Then we’ll travel through modern-day Europe—from England to Norway, to France, Germany, and Austria, and then south to Italy, finishing in the Swiss Alps. Along the way we’ll find Christmas customs that are both foreign and familiar, exploring new and different ways to celebrate the joy of the holidays.

Christmas brings families together and fills children with wonder.

THE ROOTS OF Christmas

Midwinter Celebration:A Pagan Party

For as long as people have shivered in the winter, they have celebrated the beginning of its end. For the prehistoric people of Europe, midwinter was known as the Yuletide, meaning the “turning of the sun.”

Imagine you’re living in the cold of northern Europe before the birth of Christ. Your gods are the mysterious forces of nature—the sun, rain, and wind. In summer it’s warm, plants grow, and food is plentiful. Then it gets cold and dark, and the earth becomes frozen and bleak.

Just when everything looks darkest—around December 21st, the winter solstice, the longest night of the year—what do you do? You throw a party! And, slowly but surely, the cycle turns. Your sun god, who’d been weak and sick, is now on the mend, spring is coming, and once again life is returning to your world.

The pre-Christian world was ruled by mysterious gods and the forces of nature.

For the prehistoric people of Europe, late December—though dreary and dark—was the perfect time to celebrate. Why? Because they had fresh meat and good grog to celebrate with: In December, villagers often slaughtered the cattle they couldn’t afford to feed through the winter, so this was the only time of year when many of them had fresh meat. Also, wine and beer made earlier in the year had finally fermented and were ready to drink. Time to party!

Christianizing the Winter Fest:
From Sun Worship to Son Worship

The pagan Romans conquered the pagan Celtic people around 50 B.C. The Romans called their solstice festival Saturnalia, and it was marked by feasting and good-natured goofiness. Then, as Christianity slowly spread through Rome—becoming the empire’s chief religion by the fourth century A.D.—the midwinter celebration got a new twist.

In the first few centuries of Christianity, Easter was the primary holiday—Jesus’ birthday wasn’t even celebrated. (The Bible doesn’t say exactly when Jesus was born, and what it does say—that “shepherds were herding their flocks”—suggests spring rather than winter.) But in the year 350, Pope Julius I decided to make the birth of Jesus a holiday, choosing December 25th.

Politically it was a clever choice, because the young religion (legal for less than a century) could then adopt and absorb the traditions of the immensely popular Saturnalia. The fun-loving spirit of the pagan festival dovetailed nicely with the joyous welcome given to the Christ child. By the mid-fifth century, the Feast of the Nativity, as Christmas was first called, was celebrated from Egypt to England.

Christmas: Party or Pray?

The “true” meaning of Christmas is tricky to determine. By the Middle Ages (A.D. 500–1500), Christianity had largely replaced pagan religions. But the hedonistic partying of pre-Christian religions was inextricably woven into Christian celebrations. On Christmas, believers attended church, and then got wild and crazy.

A pagan midwinter ritual is the centerpiece of this small-town Italian Christmas Eve celebration.

Though church leaders would have preferred to celebrate with more reverence than revelry, pagan customs survived: People still sang in roving bands, shared bowls of wassail (spiced wine), performed farcical plays, and exchanged gifts at New Year. Most medieval lords provided a Christmas feast for their tenants and made the 12 days of Christmas a holiday from work, so for many people, Christmas was as much about feeding the body as feeding the soul. From these festive rituals, long celebrated around the winter Christian holy days, many sacred observances emerged that are still beloved by the faithful as integral parts of their Christmas celebrations.

In the later Middle Ages, as Europe’s ethnic groups coalesced into nations, they took their Christmas customs in separate though often similar directions. In this book, as we travel through England, Norway, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and the Swiss Alps, we’ll survey the many traditional ways in which Europeans celebrate Christmas.

The Bible’s Christmas Story: The “Christ” in Christmas

While each European culture gives Christmas its own special twist, they all follow the same story of how the son of God was born on Earth—as told in the Bible and illustrated over the centuries by great artists.

The Christmas story begins with the Annunciation: God sending an angel with a message for a young woman named Mary. And the angel said, “Fear not, for thou shalt bring forth a son, and you will name him Jesus. And he shall be called the Son of the Most High and his kingdom will have no end.”

Detail from The Annunciation (c. 1450–1453), Fra Filippo Lippi, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

And it came to pass, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth, went with Mary, now expectant with child, to Bethlehem to be taxed.

Detail from Census at Bethlehem (1566), Pieter Brueghel the Elder, courtesy of Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

And while they were there, she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

Detail from The Nativity at Night (late 15th century), Geertgen tot Sint Jans, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

In that region there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord came to them, and said, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy. For unto you is born on this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

Detail from The Adoration of the Shepherds (1496), Luca Signorelli, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

And suddenly a multitude of angels appeared, proclaiming: “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace and goodwill to all people.”

Detail from Mystic Nativity (1500), Sandro Botticelli, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

And the shepherds said, “Let us go to Bethlehem.” There they found Mary, Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

Detail from The Adoration of the Shepherds (1646), Rembrandt, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

Now after Jesus was born, there also came Wise Men. And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, a beacon lighting the way to the Christ child.

Detail from The Adoration of the Kings (1649), Carlo Dolci, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

The Wise Men knelt down and worshipped the child, giving him gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Detail from The Adoration of the Kings (c. 1500), Vincenzo Foppa, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

The long-awaited Messiah—meaning the “anointed one” in Hebrew—had arrived. The Greek word for anointed was Xristos, or Christ. The day people celebrated the Mass of the anointed king became Christ’s Mass … Christmas.

Detail from The Adoration of the Kings (1649), Carlo Dolci, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

So What’s the (Real) Story?

When it comes to the Christmas story, religious scholars—conservative, liberal, evangelical, feminist, and those in between—still discuss and dispute its most beloved elements. In fact, the part of Jesus’ biography that church historians feel most uncertain about is the story of his birth. These aren’t debates about the literal truth of the Gospels, since there’s general consensus that the dramatic arc of Jesus’ life story isn’t based on physical evidence. Of the four Gospels, only the two written by Matthew and Luke contain accounts of that first Christmas, but these are contradictory. What scholars want to know is: What motivated Matthew and Luke to tell the story of the Nativity differently?

Detail from The Adoration of the Kings (1649), Carlo Dolci, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

For example, compare the different Annunciation scenes in these two Gospels. In Matthew’s version, an angel reveals the news to Joseph, not Mary, that a special child will be born to his future wife, and does so through a dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; and she will bear a son, and you shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Later, an angel appears again to Joseph in a dream (not to Mary), and tells him to flee with her and the baby to Egypt for safety.

In Luke’s version (the more familiar one), the angel Gabriel appears directly to Mary and makes an elaborate and rather lengthy announcement: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Detail from The Annunciation (late 15th century) Giannicola di Paolo, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

And Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no husband?”

And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

Both Matthew and Luke were scribes who must have passionately believed in the remarkable events they recorded. So why are the details of their stories different? Does this difference discredit the big story? Many historians point out that to really understand written history, we have to examine the background of the authors, their motives, and the audience they were writing for. Perhaps Matthew and Luke were just taking different approaches to arrive at the same theological goal—to win converts to their fledgling Christian faith.

Detail from The Annunciation (late 15th century) Giannicola di Paolo, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

Xmas is OK

While some believe that “Xmas” takes the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” it’s actually not the case at all. X was the ancient Greek abbreviation for the word “Christ. “The word for “Christ” in Greek is Xristos. During the 16th century, Europeans began using X, the first initial of Christ’s name, as shorthand for the word “Christ” in “Christmas.” Although the early Christians understood this shorthand, later Christians mistook “Xmas” as a sign of disrespect.

Matthew was raised as a Jew in a Jewish neighborhood at a time when Christianity was first spreading among the Jewish populace. He wrote his story down sometime after A.D. 60. The voice he uses is direct and plainspoken. Intended to strike a chord with a Jewish audience, his Gospel echoes stories from the Old Testament (and therefore also from the holy book of the Jews, the Torah), working in themes and symbols familiar to Jews.


On Sale
Aug 27, 2013
Page Count
248 pages
Rick Steves

Rick Steves

About the Author

Since 1973, Rick Steves has spent about four months a year exploring Europe. His mission: to empower Americans to have European trips that are fun, affordable, and culturally broadening. Rick produces a best-selling guidebook series, a public television series, and a public radio show, and organizes small-group tours that take over 30,000 travelers to Europe annually.  He does all of this with the help of more than 100 well-traveled staff members at Rick Steves’ Europe in Edmonds, WA (near Seattle). When not on the road, Rick is active in his church and with advocacy groups focused on economic and social justice, drug policy reform, and ending hunger. To recharge, Rick plays piano, relaxes at his family cabin in the Cascade Mountains, and spends time with his son Andy and daughter Jackie. Find out more about Rick at http://www.ricksteves.com and on Facebook.

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