Traditional European Winter Celebrations You Need to Experience in 2023/24

Bell   |   17 December 23

Winter is one of the most magical times of the year and these unique European winter celebrations are the perfect way to make the most of it. From wonderful to weird, these celebrations make for a memorable winter trip.

I personally love travelling to new places in winter. From Christmas decorations to unique celebrations, winter is the time when the culture of a place shines through and the community comes together to celebrate away the winter blues.

From scary to wholesome, Europe has some truly unique traditions and celebrations over winter. Here are the ones you can’t miss this year:

Krampusnacht, Germany

5. December

krampus nacht, Germany
Photo by Alessio Zaccaria on Unsplash

Growing up in Germany, the concept of Krampus is not foreign to me. However, he didn’t nearly look as scary and always came together with St. Nicholas on the 6th of December, who brought presents if we were “good”. 

Krampusnacht on the other hand is celebrated in most Alpine parts of Europe, including Austria, Germany, Northern Italy and more. Krampus is a legendary monster that is half demon, half goat. Legend says he comes out on the 5th of December to punish naughty children and drag them to hell (brutal, I know). Children wake up to either present from St. Nicholas on the 6th or to nurse their injuries, depending if they have been bad or good.

Nowadays, Krampusnacht is a show and drinking festival more than anything. People dress up in elaborate costumes for the Krampuslauf, a costume parade like no other which makes for a truly terrifying sight. 

To see a Krampuslauf, head to e.g. Berchtesgaden in Germany or Toblach in Italy. Beware though – Krampus are still known to occasionally chase onlookers down the street.

Sinterklaas Avond, Netherlands

5. December

sinterklaas, saint nicholas, netherlands
Photo by Mira Ohoro on Unsplash

The Netherlands has a calmer approach to the evening of the 5th of December called Sinterklaas Avond. Sinterklaas is based on St. Nicholas, a tradition which is common in many countries in Europe.

While it is said that his birthday is actually on the 6th of December, he comes to bring presents and candy on the evening of the 5th. 

If you want to catch the arrival of Sinterklaas on a traditional steamboat, you will need to head to Amsterdam on the 19th of November. This is often followed by a Sinterklaas parade around town.

Winter Solstice at Stonehenge, England

Sunrise on Friday 22 December 2023

winter solstice stonehenge
Photo by Ankit Sood on Unsplash

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, where we get the least daylight hours. At Stonehenge, this is a truly special event where thousands of people turn up each year.

The festival here is one of new beginnings and marking the passing of seasons, attended by many Druids and Pagans. It is the only day of the year where you can access the famous stones for completely free. 

The reason Stonehenge is so special for winter solstice is that is is said to have been built to mark the seasons through the position of the sun in relation to the stones. At the solstice, the sunset is framed perfectly by the stones, making for once-in-a-lifetime photos and memories,

Madeiros bonfires, Portugal

24th December - 6th January

madeiros bonfire portugal
Photo by Jens Mahnke

The bonfires, also called  “Madeiros de Natal” or “Fogueiras do Galo”, are traditionally lit on Christmas Eve and burn all through the night. It is meant to bring the whole community together in front of a “cosy fire” like we have in our own home. It is also said to welcome the sun after the winter solstice.

Some towns keep the fire burning all the way till the 6th of January, dedicated to a feeling of togetherness and hospitality-. 

St. Lucia Day, Hungary

13th December

st lucia day hungary
Claudia Gründer, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

St Lucia Day, also called Lucy’s Day, celebrates Saint Lucy whose name is said to come from Latin “lux” meaning light. There are many traditions connected to the day that are followed to this day.

The most common one is the making of the Luca chair, a small stool made of wood with only three legs. The chair uses up to 13 different types of wood and is finished before the 24th of December. At this point, you can stand on it in your church to spot the “witches” of the community. If you do spot any though, make sure to run home as fast as you can as they will try to catch you. 

People also commonly plant wheat, which can predict how well the crops are going to grow in the next year.

Yule Lads, Iceland

13th December - 6th January

yule lads iceland
Lusinemarg, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Rounding up our European Winter traditions are the Icelandic Yule Lads. Starting on the 13th, the 13 Yule Lads visit local homes one by one, coming from the mountains. They are described to look like Christmas Elves with a “nordic twist“.

Each Yule Lad has a different mischievous task they complete once they come down from the mountain. From licking spoons to stealing your stuff, you better watch out. 

Nowadays, kids leave their shoes out for the Yule Lads and either receive presents or rotten potatoes, depending on their behaviour this year. 

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Hi, I'm Bell

Bell from Travel Off Script

My blog is here to show you that there isn’t one correct way to travel the world. Together, we can figure out what that means for you. Learn more about me here!

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