From sun to snow, here’s how festive traditions and experiences differ
By Jenna Berndt
Twinkling lights, turkey, Boney M, Michael Bublé, and more mince pies than you could eat. For millions around the globe, these are familiar signs Christmas is upon us. Whether you choose to spend the festive season locally or dashing through the snow in Europe, your holiday will come packaged with very different traditions and seasonal experiences.
Teresa Richardson, Managing Director of The Travel Corporation in South Africa and a frequent traveller, shares some of her favourite festive pastimes when celebrating the most wonderful time of the year in the sunshine or the snow.
Experiences: Sandcastles to snowmen
There’s no doubt that the most significant difference between Christmas-time in South Africa compared to Europe is the weather.
“For South Africans more familiar with 30 degree-plus sunny days, the thought of snow at Christmas is a magical prospect,” says Richardson. “I don’t think you could find a more festive place to soak up the wintery atmosphere than at one of the traditional Christmas markets in Germany, Austria, Switzerland or Poland.”
Wooden stalls are piled high with beautifully crafted handmade toys and decorations while the smell of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, Gluhwein and stollen tempt passers-by, Richardson adds.
“Trafalgar’s eight-day Christmas Markets of Austria, Germany and Switzerland guided holiday visits a trio of the most famous markets such as the Christkindlmarkt in Vienna, Marienplatz in Munich and Franziskanerplatz in Lucerne,” says Richardson.
She recommends: “The little Bavarian town of Oberammergau, famous for its Passion Play held only once every ten years (don’t miss out on the 2020 event by booking your trip now with Trafalgar) also has a lovely little market. Don’t leave without tasting the Kiachl doughnuts!”
When the Europeans aren’t shopping and eating up a storm at local Christmas markets, they can be found sledging, building snowmen, making snow angels and ice skating.
It’s a world apart from the days spent under the summer sun swimming, playing on the beach or braaing at home.
Food: Swap boerewors for brandy pudding
While many determined South Africans make their way through Western hemisphere meals of roasted turkey, gammon and potatoes better suited to colder climates, others prefer to feast on hot-weather food such as boerewors and fish braais, ice cream and watermelon. Don’t forget the cold potato salad and Malva Pudding!
In the UK, when the maximum temperature is more likely to be around 10°C than the local 30+ degrees, feasting on turkey, gammon, goose, roast lamb and post-dinner desserts of flaming brandy or plum pudding, is more sensible.
Abroad, festive meals and traditions vary significantly from country to country.
In Poland and Spain, the main Christmas meal is enjoyed on Christmas Eve. Polish families enjoy a 12-course dinner and begin eating when the first star appears in the night sky. (Now that’s a food coma waiting to happen!)
In Finland, it’s traditional to eat a special rice porridge. If you find the almonds hidden in the meal, it’s believed you’ll have good luck in the year ahead.
“If you’re spending the festive season in Europe, swap your ice-cold lager and refreshing G&T for warm mulled wine and lightly spiced eggnog. It’s the ultimate warm-you-up-from-the-inside treat,” says Richardson.
Traditions, trees and Santa
While most South Africans celebrate the season on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the festive season differs across Europe.
In the Netherlands and parts of Belgium, Christmas begins earlier when Sinterklaas (St Nicholas or Father Christmas, as we know him) arrives as early as late November. Children receive their presents on December 5. Father Christmas, or Santa, doesn’t live in the North Pole either, rather, he’s from Spain. And, instead of arriving by reindeer, he travels with a white horse instead.
In Finland the jolly and plump, red-suited man is known affectionately as Joulupukki, which translates as “Christmas Goat” and people wear goat-shaped masks.
In Sweden, Father Christmas is called Tomten. In Italy, it’s the rather old and ugly witch, La Befana, who leaves stockings filled with either presents or coal for the children.
Northern hemisphere traditions get even stranger. In Spain, a hollowed-out log (Tió de Nadal) is filled with treats. Come Christmas Eve, children beat the wood with sticks until the treats fall out. Children in Spain have an even longer wait to open any presents as, traditionally, gifts are unwrapped on January 6.
The Christmas trees are something else, too.
“In Europe, pine trees proudly take centre stage in markets, squares and homes whereas here in South Africa fir or store-bought replicas are more common,” muses Richardson.
If you’ve missed the boat for a wintery European Christmas holiday this year, there’s no better time to book for travel in 2019 than now.
“Take advantage of Trafalgar’s rand guarantee, which fixes the rand price of your holiday, so no matter what the rand does, you’ll have peace of mind that you won’t pay more for your holiday,” Richardson explains.
Give yourself the ultimate gift this December; one you buy now, anticipate opening all year long and get to enjoy this time next year. Now that’s a gift that keeps on giving.