Christmas customs vary

  • By Rick Steves / Special to The Herald
  • Saturday, December 10, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

For my new Christmas PBS television special, filmed last December, my crew and I joined Brits drinking spiced wassail, Norwegian kids winning marzipan pigs, Parisians slurping oysters and the Swiss swirling pots of fondue. The show airs at 2 p.m. today and at 7 p.m. Dec. 22 on KCTS Channel 9.

England came through royally. We saw kindergartners singing in ancient churches, met white-bearded blokes playing Father Christmas and spent an intimate afternoon with a local friend as she prepared the figgy pudding and mincemeat pies for a fairy-tale English Christmas. We sipped wassail, a type of spiced wine or ale enjoyed at Christmas. Maidens used to go door to door with a wassail bowl, asking people to fill it as an act of yuletide kindness.

Norway was wet and warm. We discovered that secular Norwegians don’t really commemorate Christmas with gusto; the holiday feels about as celebratory as Columbus Day. But we did get to Drobak, the self-proclaimed Christmas capital of Norway, to take part in Santa Lucia Day on Dec. 13, which brings everyone out to dance around the trees, wearing crowns of real, lighted candles.

Norwegians sit down to a big Christmas family dinner that ends with a special rice porridge. There’s an almond hidden in the mix. The child who discovers it wins a prize: a marzipan pig, a gift reminiscent of olden times, when a peasant family’s wealth was tied up in its precious pig.

In Oslo, we filmed the Norwegian Girls Choir performing in the oldest church in Oslo, the small, stone Akers Kirch, dating to the Viking era. The lights were turned off, everything went black, and an angelic choir of beautiful girls carrying candles entered, filling the cold stone interior with a glowing light.

Sophisticated Parisians celebrate Christmas with urban flair. All over the French capital, there’s extravagant lighting and yummy window displays. The first level of the Eiffel Tower turns into an ice-skating rink. In Paris, oysters are a popular holiday treat.

But it was the Burgundy countryside, located southeast of Paris, that surprised us with its rustic, small-town enthusiasm for the spirit of Christmas. We followed the mayor with her sack of gifts as she visited her town’s senior citizens. We enjoyed a humble picnic in the woods with guys out to chop some firewood, and filmed a private concert of medieval carols in an ancient abbey.

In Rome, the specialty is manger scenes. It was a Bethlehem home show, as all over town creative creches were on display. The highlight was filming the midnight Mass at the Vatican on Christmas Eve, which happened to be Pope John Paul II’s last Christmas.

In Switzerland, a strong snowfall hit the day of our arrival, giving us the white Christmas of our dreams. The town of Gimmelwald was a folk festival of traditions. With Olle the schoolteacher, we went on a sledding expedition to cut down the tree, shared a cozy fondue in a remote hut and lit our torches as we skied and sledded back down the mountain into the village.

Gimmelwald’s children enjoy an annual visit from a dynamic Christmas duo: Samichlaus – Swiss-German for “St. Nick” – and the black-clad henchman Schmutzli, his sidekick. This year, my son Andy played Samichlaus, and Olle’s son, Sven, joined him as Schmutzli. And the donkey played himself.

Schmutzli had to translate, because Samichlaus spoke only English. The cute little village children promised they were nice and not naughty, sang Samichlaus a carol, and eagerly dug into his big burlap bag to get their goodies. Language barriers disappear when children celebrate the joy of Christmas.

Next week: It’s Frliche Weinachten in Germany and Austria.

Rick Steves of Edmonds (425-771-8303, is the author of 30 European travel guidebooks, including “Europe Through the Back Door.” He hosts a public radio show, “Travel with Rick Steves” (Saturdays at 2 p.m. on KUOW 94.9 FM) and the public television series “Rick Steves’ Europe” on KCTS. This week’s schedule:

Today, 2 p.m.: Rick Steves’ European Christmas

Thursday, 7 p.m.: The Alps of Austria and Italy

Friday, 7 p.m.: France’s Alsace

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