19 Dec European Holiday Traditions: Part I
It is our decades long relationship with craftsmen in Murano, Italy and generations-old collectors in France which help us delight your eyes and interiors with collectible furniture, fine art, and hand-blown Murano glass lighting in our showroom and online gallery. This month we celebrate the traditions and customs of these culturally rich locales. We explore the events we have in common and those which are more diverse and region-specific. Let us journey to these majestic destinations while examining one’s own individual traditions important to each of our families and communities.
In the US, children have a practice of penning their wishes to Santa Claus (derived from the Dutch: Sinter Klaas) in a letter sent to the North Pole. In France, there is legislation dating from 1962 stating that any letter to Père Noël (Father Christmas) must be responded to in the form of a postcard.
Another common sight in America is the Nativity scene adorning the front of homes, squares, and religious structures. In France, this is known as “Crèche de Noël,” literally a manger or crib, and is displayed publicly with ceramic statues and hand-carved wooden figurines, called Santons. During the French Revolution, public “Crèche” scenes were forbidden based on the separation of church and state. In this period Santons became popular items for purchase at Christmas festivals and markets. The French have expanded upon the classic representations of Mary, Joseph, the Christ child, and the Magi to now include bakers, local dignitaries, and other regional figures. Italians also have capaciously enhanced this idea to include local personalities and elaborate backdrops. Crèche de Noël scenes represent the distinctive spirit within each community, which is perfectly in sync with the French motto: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Crèche will be kept on display until the second of February. On this day, known as “La Chandeleur,” crêpes are served while decorations are stowed away.
In Italy and France, it is not uncommon to witness live Nativity scenes enacted publicly by actors in costume. A cave in the village of Greccio is where the manger depiction is said to originate. Local villager, Giovanni Vellita, was commissioned by St. Francis of Assisi to create the first Nativity scene in 1223. Inside the Cava d’Ispica in Sicily, Il Presepe is still portrayed today involving vibrant local processions in which town-folk participate. In the hills of Tuscany, the medieval walled city of Barga Vecchia has a living Nativity Scene followed by a parade of hundreds of locals that winds through town from Piazza Garibaldi to the Duomo.
Some traditions involve a bit of folklore with roots steeped in more ancient traditions. On January 5th, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, a crone named Befana visits children of Italy to fill their socks with treats if their behavior was satisfactory. They are given a stick or a lump of coal if their behavior was unsavory. As children might leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus in America, here the family offers a glass of wine and snacks for the good witch. There are stories incorporating La Befana into the Christian narrative in that she provided shelter to the biblical Magi, but some believe she is a remnant of the ancient Roman goddess of the New Year, Strenia.
In Austria, St. Nicholas is accompanied by a growling, dancing, beast-like, almost mythical, horned figure known as Krampus. He bestows gifts to the children and whips naughty children, pretending to toss them in his basket. Many people gather in squares on the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, as Krampus impersonators celebrate this unsettling Alpine tradition.
In France, Père Foettard, also referred to as the Whipping Father, accompanies St. Nicholas on the saint’s day, December 6th, to impose a similar intimidating punishment for les vilains enfants. The roots of the lore surrounding Père dates back to the year 1150. Today, actors still depict him with a long beard donning a dark cloak. As sinister sounding as it might seem, these events incite reverie amongst adults and children alike, and are often performed in the town center as a symbolic mock celebration honoring traditions of the region.
Following St. Nicholas’ Day in the Lyon region, a festival of lights, “Fête des lumières” is celebrated from December 7th through the 10th. On the exterior of the windows of each house a candle is placed in honor of the Virgin Mary. The festival dates back to the 17th century when Lyon was struck with the plague. Townspeople placed candles outside their windows in tribute to Mary in hopes they would be spared the plague. Modern-day festivities in Lyon include a spectacular light show held in the Place des Terreaux.
Similar to the North American tradition of hanging stockings over the mantle, the French place their shoes by the fireplace or front door for Père Noël to fill with fruit, nuts, sweets and other goodies.
Beyond the tradition of carolling, French singer Jacques Dutronc made Père Noël the subject of a pop song, La fille de Père Noël, in the 1960’s.
What are the best loved holiday traditions in your home? We look forward to hearing the customs honored by your family in the comments below!
Check back in with Le Blog this weekend as we share delectable traditional recipes from France and Italy in time for your holiday menu in Part II!