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Hi, I'm Rick Steves,
and it's Christmastime in Europe.
From manger scenes to mistletoe from Norway to Rome,
we're celebrating all over the continent.
Buon natale!
Froehliche weihnachten!
Joyeux noël!
Merry Christmas!
And thanks for joining us.
[ Background orchestra plays "Joy to the World" ]
In melting pot America,
Christmas is celebrated year after year
with traditions that came over on the boat with our ancestors.
In this holiday special,
we're traveling back to the old country,
to places of rich variety and deep roots.
We'll explore the history behind our much-loved traditions.
Joining friends and families across Europe,
we'll discover a Christmas
that's both familiar and different.
England is filled with voices singing in the season.
The short days around the solstice
bring Norwegians out
to celebrate the light of Christmas.
Families, friends, and food
are the centerpiece of the French noël.
An angelic Christmas presence fills Germany and Austria
with wide-eyed wonder.
Italy reveals the sacred nature of the season,
from its countryside to its holiest shrines.
Nature in all its wintry glory
seems to shout out the joy of the season in Switzerland.
And everywhere Christmas is celebrated with family,
including my own, as together,
Europe remembers the quiet night
that that holiest family came to be.
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:
An angel sent from God with a message
for a young woman whose name was 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.'"
"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 to Bethlehem to be taxed,
"with Mary, who was expecting a child.
"And while they were there,
"she brought forth her firstborn son
"and laid him in a manger
"because there was no room in the inn.
"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 good tidings of great joy.
"'For unto you is born on this day in the city of David,
"a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.'
"And suddenly there was a multitude of angels
"proclaiming: 'Glory to God in the Highest,
"and on earth peace and good will to all.'
"And the shepherds said, 'Let us go to Bethlehem,'
"where they found Mary and Joseph
and the babe lying in a manger."
Now, after Jesus was born, there also came wise men.
And a glorious star, which they saw in the east,
went before them.
Guiding them, it stood over where the child was.
The wise men knelt down and worshiped the child,
giving him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The long-awaited messiah had arrived.
This is the story
that Christians have celebrated through the ages.
We don't really know on which day Jesus was born.
Historians argue it was likely in the spring,
as shepherds were "tending their flocks."
But, in the 4th century, a pope declared December 25
to be the official birthday of Jesus.
Why that date?
Christianity was newly legal in the Roman empire,
and the clever pope figured it would be smart
if the biggest Christian festival
coincided with the biggest pagan one: Winter Solstice.
And throughout the land, people --
Christians celebrating the birth of the son
and pagans celebrating the return of the sun --
have been rejoicing ever since.
For scenes straight out of a box
of old-fashioned Christmas cards,
we head to England, to the city of Bath.
Here, in the heart of the old town
near the magnificent medieval abbey,
Bath hosts an annual Christmas market.
Carols are a deeply ingrained part
of the English Christmas tradition.
The custom goes back to Shakespeare's day.
Today, young and old sing their way through the season.
Here the Bath Abbey Choir of Boys and Men
are performing a carol concert by candlelight.
[ Choir singing "Oh, Holy Night" ]
[ Introduction to light, staccato melody ]
[ Choir singing ]
As is the case just about anywhere,
it's in the countryside that families celebrate Christmas
in the most down-to-earth style.
My friends Maddy and Paul and their kids,
Theo and Leila, are looking for a living tree,
which they'll decorate and then plant at home.
That the right size?
Man: You think it would look good with the fairy on top?
Brilliant. I like it.
It's a new twist on an old tradition,
with a wink to the nature-worshiping pagans
who once haunted these parts.
Decorating with greens goes back to the druids
who adorned their temples with swags of evergreen.
For pagans, living greens in the dead of winter
represented the persistence of life.
And for Christians, evergreens are a reminder
of the gift of everlasting life.
During the hectic season,
getting together to bake Christmas goodies
while the little ones decorate edible ornaments,
is a fine way for busy mums to spend some time together.
Is that all right?
Maddy's recipe for mince pies
harkens back to the days of Henry VIII.
Back then, the dried fruits, spices, and shredded meat
for the filling were so expensive
that only the wealthy could afford to make mince pie.
According to tradition, 12 pies should be eaten
during the 12 days of Christmas
to ensure good luck each month of the coming year.
Woman: Don't let me forget those mince pies, Maddy.
But it's the Christmas pudding that's the real centerpiece
of a traditional English holiday meal.
This is Christmas pudding,
and it's made with lots of very special ingredients
that in days gone by, they used to be very expensive.
And you know you call it "figgy pudding"
because they used to have lots of figs in it.
But it used to be made in Elizabethan times,
and we all have, because it's so special,
an extra big stir and an extra big wish.
Kids: ♪ Now bring us some figgy pudding. ♪
♪ Now bring us some figgy pudding. ♪
♪ Now bring us some figgy pudding. ♪
♪ Now bring some out here. ♪♪
Put this one up here.
Like a lot of us,
Maddy and Paul are opting for a simpler,
less commercial style of Christmas,
and that's reflected in their family traditions.
Little Theos and Leilas wouldn't always have been
so involved in the family activities.
Childhood as we know it really began
in 19th-century England with the new middle class.
And at Christmas those stern Victorians
gave themselves permission to indulge their kids.
[ Talks indistinctly ]
The English tradition of singing starts very young.
We're visiting Theo's school as the children take center stage
at the 14th-century village church
for a very special Christmas concert.
[ Children singing to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" ]
♪ ...This is the road to Bethlehem ♪
♪ on a cold and frosty morning ♪
♪ We're going to be taxed in Bethlehem, ♪
♪ Bethlehem, Bethlehem ♪
♪ We're going to be taxed in Bethlehem ♪
♪ on a cold and frosty morning ♪
♪ Where should we stay in Bethlehem ♪
♪ Bethlehem, Bethlehem ♪
♪ Where should we stay in Bethlehem ♪
♪ on a cold and frosty morning? ♪
♪ There is no place in Bethlehem, ♪
♪ Bethlehem, Bethlehem ♪
♪ There is no place to Bethlehem ♪
♪ on a cold and frosty morning ♪♪
[ Applause ]
[ Children singing "Jingle Bells" ]
Christmas is drawing near,
and tonight these lucky children
are taking a train through the woods
to meet Santa,
or as the English know him, Father Christmas.
Man: Come on in now.
Come on in and stand just there.
And you stand just there.
You come across there. That's right.
Tell me your names.
Now, what's your name?
Dillon. Hello.
What's your name?
[ Answers ]
And what's your name?
Well done! Now then, most important.
What do you want for Christmas?
I don't know.
Just some surprises.
I'm very good at surprises.
And what do you want?
Well, I haven't writ my list out yet.
So we're going to wait for your list,
and when it comes, I'll be ready for it.
Now, are you going to do something for me?
Are you going to leave me something on Christmas eve?
Child: Yes!
What are you going to leave me?
Mince pies and wine!
And are you going to leave a carrot for the reindeer?
Yeah. Yes!
We'll check back on Christmas Eve
to see what Theo and Leila leave for Father Christmas.
Kate. And something special...
While children on their best behavior
ask Santa for the toy of their dreams,
my wish right now is a chance to hear
one of finest chamber choirs in England,
The Sixteen,
filling a classic church with timeless sounds of the season.
Woman soloist: ♪ The holly and the ivy ♪
♪ Trees that's both well-known ♪
♪ Of all the trees that grows in woods ♪
♪ The holly bears the crown ♪
Chorus: ♪ The rising of the sun ♪
♪ The running of the deer ♪
♪ The playing of the merry harp ♪
♪ Sweet singing in the choir ♪
Male soloist: ♪ The holly bears a bark ♪
♪ As bitter as any gall ♪
♪ And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ ♪
♪ For to redeem us all ♪
Chorus: ♪ The rising of the sun ♪
♪ The running of the deer ♪
♪ The playing of the merry harp ♪
♪ Sweet singing in the choir ♪
Woman soloist: ♪ The holly and the ivy ♪
♪ Trees that's both well-known ♪
♪ Of all the trees that grows in woods ♪
♪ The holly bears the crown ♪
Chorus: ♪ The rising of the sun ♪
♪ The running of the deer ♪
♪ The playing of the merry harp ♪
♪ Sweet singing in the choir ♪♪
Leaving the tranquility of the English countryside behind,
London offers Christmas fun fit for a queen
and streets filled with holiday cheer.
There's magic in the air.
Or...Is that snow?
Here in Trafalgar Square, in the heart of the city,
a winter wonderland has been created just for the day.
[ Exclaiming ]
[ Laughing ]
It's a lovely snowy day, isn't it?
Father Christmas has dropped by for the wintry fun,
and London's town crier is in fine form
as he passes out mince pies and holiday cheer.
Nearby at Somerset House, once a grand palace,
the courtyard has been transformed
into an ice-skating rink,
elegant enough to make a commoner feel like royalty.
At Covent Garden, shoppers can find classic toys for tots
at Benjamin Pollock's famous toy shop,
in business since the 1880s.
The joy and peace of the Christmas season
bring both people and countries together.
This giant spruce, a gift from the citizens of Oslo,
is a reminder of the friendship
forged between Britain and Norway during World War II.
And Norway is where we're headed next.
Here in small-town Norway,
Christmas is celebrated with a unique intimacy
and a Scandinavian flair for community.
We're in Drobak, about an hour south of Oslo.
While it's Norway's self-proclaimed
capital of Christmas,
Drobak feels like any idyllic town on a fjord.
It's Santa Lucia day, December 13th,
one of the darkest days of winter
and an important part of the Scandinavian Christmas season.
All over nordic Europe, little candle-bearing Santa Lucias
are bringing light to the middle of winter
and the promise of the return of summer.
These processions are led by a young Lucia
wearing a crown of lights.
[ Children singing "Santa Lucia" in Norwegian ]
♪ ...Santa Lucia ♪
♪ Santa Lucia ♪♪
[ Applause ]
This home has housed widows and seniors
for over 200 years, and today the kindergarteners
are bringing on the light in more ways than one.
The children have baked the traditional
Santa Lucia saffron buns --
the same ones these seniors baked
when they were kindergarteners.
Taking their cue from Santa Lucia,
Norwegians, cozy in their homes,
brighten their long, dark winters
with lots of candles,
white lights -- you'll never see a colored one--
and lots of greenery.
In Norway, as in the rest of Europe,
pagan symbols -- like the evergreen tree --
survive disguised as Christmas traditions.
The same is true with this sprig of mistletoe.
In Scandinavia,
it's associated with the Viking Goddess of love.
For Celtic people, it was a sacred plant.
They used it to heal the sick and enhance fertility.
For most of us, it's just a handy excuse
to steal a little Christmas kiss.
Oh, that's a mistletoe. Mmmm.
The Norwegian spirit of Christmas
extends even to the departed.
Candles flicker in graveyards
as locals remember lost loved ones.
And all over Norway,
communities gather together in churches just like this
as choirs cap Santa Lucia Day with a concert.
[ Choir singing "Angels We Have Heard on High" ]
♪ ...Glo...ria... ♪
♪ In excelsis deo ♪♪
And as the congregation follows the Santa Lucias out,
more light of Christmas
spills into this little fjord-side community.
[ Choir singing "Santa Lucia" in Norwegian ]
♪ ...Santa Lucia ♪
♪ Santa Lucia ♪♪
Christmases everywhere come with special meals.
Here in Norway, families treat children to a rice porridge
and it comes with a hidden almond.
[ Girl exclaiming in Norwegian ]
The child who discovers it wins...
A marzipan pig!
It's reminiscent of the old days
when a peasant family's wealth was tied up
in its precious pig.
[ Talking, laughing ]
Jule ol or Christmas beer also goes back to medieval times
when the Vikings liked to celebrate the winter solstice
with a particularly stout brew.
And holiday desserts are a big part
of Norway's Christmas season:
The local Christmas fruitcake called julekaka
and a towering marzipan kransekake.
A common theme across cultures is a legendary gift giver --
not always fat and jolly -- who kids butter up with treats.
While I grew up leaving Santa Claus milk and cookies
by the fireplace,
the kids here leave a bowl of porridge out by the barn
for the julenisse.
These mischievous elves-from-the-forest
visit each Christmas, not on reindeer,
but with a horse, pig, and mouse entourage
and a bag of gifts.
Every good child knows
the julenisse is coming with an exciting reward.
Just up the fjord, Norway's capital, Oslo,
celebrates Christmas with a more urban charm.
Streets are decorated,
locals not ready to rely on the julenisse,
are out shopping,
and good cheer is abundant.
[ Shrieking ]
Christmas in Oslo feels low-key.
You'll find it best not on the streets or in the malls,
but in the homes, with friends and in music.
Youthful voices fill the city's oldest church.
The old Aker Church,
which dates back to the 12th century,
hosts the Norwegian Girls' Choir
for an advent concert.
[ Choir singing carol in foreign language ]
♪ excelsis deo ♪♪
[ Loud applause ]
We'll check back with the Santa Lucias andjulenisselater.
And while Norway awaits the return of the sun,
further south, Paris creates its own light.
Paris is nicknamed Europe's "city of light"
for its incandescent energy and effervescent culture.
In the dark of winter, the city's best-loved icon,
the Eiffel Tower,
brilliantly heralds this happy season.
By night, Paris's biggest department stores
dress up the streets.
Printemps is pretty in pink, and the Galeries Lafayette
has woven an exquisite embroidery of lights.
There's ice skating at the Hotel de Ville.
And all along the Champs-Elysées,
it's a festive forest of 2,000 twinkling trees.
[ Bells chiming ]
By day, the signs of Christmas are more subtle
but can be found everywhere.
The best-dressed trees in Paris
are seen here at the Pompidou Center.
Where else but in Paris
will you find avant-garde Christmas trees
making a fashion statement?
With visions of Versace dancing in their heads,
inspired fashionistas can take their wish lists
and head to the designer boutiques on the Rue Royal.
Parisians buy fewer Christmas gifts
than their American counterparts --
more a matter of quality than quantity --
and they favor small specialty shops like these.
Christmas in Paris is subtle,
but the city yields unexpected moments.
Turn a corner, and you just might find yourself
in an elegant arcade all wrapped up in red.
Busy Parisian shoppers fuel up on the city's street food:
Steamy crepes...
And hot roasted chestnuts.
[ Speaks French ]
And neighborhood brasseries are full of friends
slurping fresh oysters rushed in from the Brittany coast.
Oysters are favorites at Christmas,
which makes perfect sense
as they're plump and delicious this time of year.
'Tis also the season of elegant edibles.
Foie gras, a paté made from goose liver
and a smidge of cognac,
is another Christmas tradition.
And chocolate shops and patisseries --
wonderful any time of year --
get even better at Christmas.
There's scrumptious sculptures...
Yummy yule logs...
And food fit for a king.
This patisserie, the oldest in Paris,
was opened in 1730
by an ex-pastry chef of the royal court.
Even sophisticated Paris
rolls out the magic carpet for children.
French families from all over the country
rendezvous at the windows of the grand department stores.
Displays are especially designed
to enchant the little ones.
And stools provided by thoughtful stores
make sure that even the tiniest tot enjoys a good view.
During Christmas, the Eiffel Tower
becomes the highest ice-skating rink in Paris.
There are pony rides at Luxembourg Gardens...
And the city's magical manèges de noëls:
The carousels of Christmas.
A clear, cold day brings out Parisians,
trying to soak up as much sunlight as possible
on these, the shortest days of the year,
while a dusting of snow
brings out hopes for a white Christmas,
just as it would anywhere else.
Whether you're young or just young at heart,
Christmas in Paris is the stuff of dreams.
If Paris is a grandam strutting her Christmas finery,
then Burgundy, where we're heading next,
is her pious country cousin.
[ Choir singing in French ]
Burgundy lies in the quiet, religious heart
of this mostly secular nation.
France's most venerable abbeys are here,
and their spirit seems to animate the small villages
throughout the region.
Ancient traditions survive comfortably here.
This 13th-century abbey
resonates with the rich sounds of the French group Phonema,
singing medieval carols
just as they were sung centuries ago.
[ Singing continues ]
[ Song ends ]
A sense of community runs strong in rural France,
and it expresses itself in simple rituals
shared by families and friends.
[ Chainsaw buzzing ]
[ Men shouting ]
[ Tree crashes ]
These old friends come here each winter
to cut and gather wood
for their fireplaces and stoves.
It's the kind of hard work that builds an appetite.
Fortunately, they brought drinks to cut the chill...
[ Men laughing ]
With just enough red wine for the duck.
There's bacon to sizzle...
And potatoes to roast...
Ahhh... C'est bon!
[ Men talking in French ]
A winter picnic in the woods is as good for the soul
as it is for the stomach.
[ Speaks French ]
In Burgundy, no one goes without.
Communities take good care of one another year-round,
with special treats at Christmas.
This amiable village mayor, accompanied by her entourage,
gets into the spirit of things
by delivering baskets of delicacies to the elderly
for the Christmas eve feast.
[ Both speaking French ]
This morning my friends the Berteloots
are shopping for seasonal fare at the Saturday market.
[ Speaking French ]
[ Speaking French ]
Food's at the center of life in Burgundy,
even in the dead of winter.
Right about now the truffles are at their pungent best.
[ All speaking French ]
Delphine and Emmanuel prepare for the grandest culinary event
of the year.
The French call their Christmas Eve feast
"le réveillon de noël."
[ Speaks French ]
At home the family's busy preparing for the big event.
The children are decorating candles
to set on the windowsill on Christmas eve
to light up the dark on the night
so filled with anticipation.
[ Speaking French ]
[ Speaking French ]
And the tree's not quite done until capped with a star.
[ Both speak French ]
In the kitchen, Delphine slices her foie gras...
Then devotes herself to the centerpiece of the réveillon:
Filet of beef wrapped in brioche.
Stretching the pastry is a two-person job.
After generously grating local truffles
the beef is tenderly wrapped
and ready for the oven.
There's still the serious business
of selecting the perfect wine from the cellar.
Soon guests will be arriving.
This time of year, when days are short and nights are long,
it's customary to leave a welcoming light
in the window.
We'll be back when dinner's ready.
But first, we've got some shopping to do...In Germany.
When it comes to traditional holiday images,
Germany's Bavaria is the heartland.
Here we'll savor classic holiday themes:
Glittering trees, old-time carols,
and colorful Christmas markets.
These markets, called Christkindl markets,
enliven squares throughout Germany.
The most famous is here in Nurnberg.
It's a festive swirl
of the heartwarming sights, sounds,
and smells of Christmas.
Long a center of toy making in Germany,
a woody and traditional ambiance prevails.
Nutcrackers are characters of authority:
Uniformed, strong-jawed,
and able to crack the tough nuts.
Smokers, with their fragrant incense wafting,
feature common folk like this village toy maker.
Prune people, with their fig body,
walnut head, and prune limbs,
are dolled up in Bavarian folk costumes.
And hovering above it all is the golden Rausch angel,
an icon of Christmas in Nurnberg.
Rausch is the sound of wind blowing through its wings.
It's a favorite for capping family Christmas trees.
Bakeries crank out old-fashioned gingerbread --
the Lebkuchen Nurnberg --
using the original 17th-century recipe.
Back then,
Nurnberg was the gingerbread capital of the world,
and its love affair with gingerbread continues.
Shoppers can also munch the famous Nurnberg bratwurst,
skinny as your little finger...
And sip hot spiced wine.
As in so many cultures,
kids love their local version of Santa Claus.
While Santa is a legend,
his character is based on St. Nicholas,
a kind and generous bishop
who actually lived in Turkey in the 4th century.
Holiday gift giving, especially in Catholic regions,
is often associated with the feast day of St. Nicholas,
December 6.
But Germany is Luther country.
Back in the early 1500s, the great reformer, Martin Luther,
wanted to humanize the Christmas story
by shifting the focus away from the saints
and back onto the birthday boy: Jesus.
Rather than jolly old St. Nick
bringing the goodies on December 6th,
Luther established the idea
that gifts would be given on the 25th
by the Christ child or, in German, Christkind.
[ Speaking German ]
[ Laughing ]
But for kids, it was hard to imagine
the little baby in the manger delivering gifts,
so an angel served
as the gift-giving Christ child.
And somehow the angel came to be represented by a young girl.
She spends her reign spreading the joy of the season.
The Christkind concludes by telling the kids,
"If you're very, very gentle, you can touch my wings."
Nurnberg's favorite angel then leads her fans
into the children's section of the market
where expertly bundled kids enjoy a Christmas wonderland.
[ Children shouting ]
The Christkind isn't the only one handing out good cheer.
Carolers spread the joy of Christmas
using the town's historic courtyards
as impromptu concert venues.
And here in the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart,
seasonal music fills the churches.
[ Choir singing in German ]
[ Song ends ]
Now we cross the border into Austria
to the town that to me always feels like Christmas:
With its old town gathered under its formidable castle,
Salzburg celebrates the holidays
with an Alpine elegance.
[ Horseshoes clopping ]
Festive shopping lanes delight browsers.
Markets are busy
as locals gather last-minute decorations
and perhaps a sprig of fresh mistletoe.
[ Gunshots ]
And locals celebrate the season
in noisier fashions as well.
[ Gunshot ]
From the castle ramparts, high above town,
traditional gunners fire away
as they have since the days when they really believed
these shots would scare away the evil.
[ Gunshots ]
Salzburg, nicknamed the Rome of the North,
has a magnificent cathedral
inspired by St. Peter's at the Vatican.
Locals here in the town of Mozart pack the place
to mix worship with glorious music.
[ Orchestra playing; Choir singing ]
[ Bells chiming "Silent Night" ]
It was here, in the region of Salzburg
that the most loved carol of the Christmas season,
"Silent Night," was first sung nearly two hundred years ago.
According to legend, a local priest
went out one Christmas night to bless a newborn baby.
As he walked home in the snow, he was so moved
by the stillness of the starlit and holy night
that he wrote a poem about it.
He gave the poem to Franz Gruber,
the organist in his church, who composed a simple tune.
On Christmas Eve, 1818,
the carol was sung for the first time
accompanied only by a guitar.
[ Plucks introductory notes ]
Both: ♪ Stille nacht ♪
♪ Heilige nacht ♪
♪ Alles schläft...♪
Austria is one of Europe's most traditional corners.
Its strong Catholicism and love of heritage
shine especially brightly
at Christmastime in the countryside.
♪ ...Hochheilige paar ♪
♪ Holder knabe ♪
♪ Im lockigen haar ♪
We're visiting the Weissacher family farm.
A typically Tirolean Christmas yodel
offers us the warmest of welcomes.
[ Group singing in harmony ]
Rick: Sehr schone, danke.
[ Speaks German ]
This family is happy to share its love of the season
with a guest.
Like just about anywhere,
part of Christmas is making cookies with grandma.
More unique to Austria is the ritual
in which the dad blesses the home with incense
as his daughter follows with holy water.
The prayer is for a healthy and happy new year.
Maria teaches her daughters how the advent wreath
marks the four weeks of advent:
The season of preparation
leading to the advent or arrival of Jesus.
Ancient peoples were the first wreath makers.
For Christians, that evergreen circle
came to symbolize everlasting life.
The candles, one for each week,
reminded them that the birth of their savior
was approaching.
Austrians lovingly decorate their tree,
but keep it secret and hidden from the children
until Christmas Eve arrives.
We'll check back to see what the Christkind brings
a little later.
From here in the Alps, we journey to a grand city
that was the capital of the western world
on that first Christmas two thousand years ago
and remains a leading city in Christendom today.
This is home of the Vatican City,
headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church
and some of Europe's most sacred Christmas traditions.
For centuries, pilgrims have hiked
from all over Christendom to this great city.
Domes and ancient obelisks still serve as markers,
lacing together relics and sacred stops...
Including the tomb of St. Peter,
marked by the greatest dome anywhere.
And through the ages, pilgrims have stopped here
at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
The faithful believe the original planks
from Jesus' crib reside in this ornate container.
And here in the capital of Catholicism,
each Christmas, lovingly constructed manger scenes,
called "presepio," pop up all over town.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with assembling
the first manger scene in 1223.
He used it as a tool to teach people
the story of the first Christmas.
Since then, in the creative teaching style of St. Francis,
manger scenes often put Bethlehem in a local context.
Instead of the Middle East, Italians have long set
the Holy Family right here with Italian landscapes.
St. Francis knew that by putting Jesus in a place
people would recognize -- their own neighborhood --
the faithful could relate more easily
to the story of his birth.
And presepi range from the very traditional
to the very contemporary,
like this one that imagines the nativity
in an eskimo village.
The ultimate manger scene is back on Rome's ultimate square:
St. Peter's, where the pope celebrates midnight mass
each Christmas Eve.
For Roman families
there's more than just manger scenes to see.
For centuries this lively square, Piazza Navona,
has hosted a boisterous village-like holiday market
that stays busy until Epiphany in January.
The Christmas season in Europe
stretches for well over a month,
not to maximize shopping days,
but to fit in the season's many holy days.
Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas Eve.
Then comes the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th.
Santa Lucia Day is on the 13th,
and Europeans don't wrap things up on the 25th.
The 12 days of Christmas stretch from the 25th
through January 6th.
That's Epiphany,
the day the three kings finally delivered the gifts.
On Epiphany, La Befana, a popular Christmas witch,
flies over the rooftops of Italy
filling children's stockings with candy...Or coal.
Between visiting their manger scenes
and Christmas witches,
many Italians are shopping for their big Christmas eve dinner.
[ Shouts in Italian ]
When it comes to a festa,
Italians like to buy fresh and local,
and lucky Romans enjoy
an abundance of farmers markets.
La vigilia, the traditional Christmas Eve dinner,
calls for all the trimmings.
Here in Rome, that's lots of veggies
and a nice big female eel!
As in many places,
Christmas in Rome is a time of giving.
The spirit of charity is alive in this neighborhood,
which has come together for a special holiday meal.
At the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere,
tables have replaced pews
and the poor are enjoying a feast
prepared and served by the community.
It's a joyful occasion, and by all accounts
those doing the giving feel as blessed as those they feed.
Outside of Rome,
in villages in regions like Tuscany,
Christmas celebrations are a little more rustic.
The festivities, while low-key, are memorable.
During a busy season that sometimes feels overwhelming,
village life can be refreshingly simple.
These jovial friends are playing an old game.
The idea is to throw the panforte, the local fruitcake,
close to the edge of the table without having it slide off.
[ All talking in Italian ]
[ All exclaim ]
[ Woman calls to child ]
These children are flip-flopping
the gift-giving tradition.
Woman: Graze!
They're delivering another Christmas treat, panettone,
a rich brioche made with raisins and citrus,
to older folks who don't have any family.
[ Women speaking Italian ]
While providing a bright spot in this grandma's day,
the child experiences the joy of giving.
And today the children have another important errand.
It's time to post their letters to Babbo Natale,
the Italian version of Santa Claus.
This special mailbox
mysteriously appears each Christmas.
[ Men singing gregorian chant ]
Sacred music and prayer infuse this tranquil landscape.
Here at the 15th-century Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore,
reclusive monks celebrate their faith
in a timeless fashion
as if one with the communities they serve.
[ Chanting continues ]
And in this town,
the local community is doing a dress rehearsal
for a presepio vivente, or living nativity.
On Christmas Eve in this simple cloister
they'll recreate the town of Bethlehem
on that holiest of nights.
Monks: ♪ Amen ♪♪
In the countryside,
you appreciate how sacred traditions have deep roots.
Here in this medieval Tuscan hill town,
villagers stack neat pyramids of wood for great bonfires.
The lighting of the fires is a signal to villagers,
dressed as shepherds, to come and sing old carols.
[ All singing in Italian ]
It's a reminder that through the ages
Italy's humble shepherds entertained the faithful
as they gathered by fires to warm themselves
and await the arrival of Christmas.
[ Singing continues ]
[ Applause ]
While Italy has the rich history,
magnificent manger scenes, and grand churches,
the spirit of Christmas can be experienced
everywhere in Europe.
High in Switzerland, where the churches are small
and villages huddle below towering peaks,
the mighty Alps seem to shout the glory of God.
Up here, Christmas fills a wintry wonderland
with good cheer.
[ Bells clanging ]
In these villages, traditions are strong,
[ clanging continues louder ]
And warmth is a priority.
Ovens are small so wood is, too.
My family has arrived for a Swiss Alps Christmas.
Along with our kids, Andy and Jackie,
my wife, anne, has joined me here
in the tiny town of Gimmelwald
where we're having some fun
with our friends Olle and Maria and their kids.
[ Shrieks and laughter ]
Hoo! Hoo-hoo!
Olle is taking us high above his village
on a quest to find and cut the perfect Christmas tree.
[ Olle speaks indistinctly ]
Well, what your think about this tree here?
I'm not sure...
Well, let's shake it.
Let's go.
Pappa, look at this.
Yeah, Olle, I think we can do better.
[ Laughter ]
Yeah, this is much prettier.
What do you think?
Yeah, this is a good tree. I think we should cut it.
[ Various people exclaiming ]
[ Indistinct talking and laughter ]
Still high above Gimmelwald,
we're stopping in this hut for a little fondue.
Woman: We've got the tree.
Girl: Yes!
Olle: That was quite a bit of work.
Rick: Mmm. This feels just right in the winter, doesn't it.
Maria: When it's cold outside, it's perfect.
Figugegl Fondu isch guet
und git e gueti Lune Means, um...
And it means in English "Fondue is delicious
and gives a good mood."
So if you have a party, it's going to be --
Yes, everybody knows what figugel means.
If there's fondue, it'll be a good ambiance.
Yes. [ All laugh ]
It's impossible not to linger in this cozy setting.
Before we know it,
the light outside begins to fade.
Here's to a happy Christmas.
[ All laugh ]
As the sun sets, we've got our tree
and take an unforgettable ride home to Gimmelwald.
[ Laughing, shrieking ]
Back in the village, the kids take the tree home,
and we've been invited to enjoy another Christmas tradition.
While I grew up opening windows on paper Advent calendars,
up here the windows are real.
Twenty-five homes each decorate a window for Advent.
The sense of anticipation is the same
as, day by day, Christmas approaches.
[ Bells jingling, sheep bleating ]
Advent is all about anticipation.
And for the kids, much of that anticipation
is about presents:
Rewards for being not naughty, but nice.
And as we've seen, throughout Europe
each culture seems to have its own version of Santa Claus,
who serves parents
by providing children incentives for good behavior.
Here in the Alps, it's Samichlaus.
That's Swiss-German for St. Nicolas --
and his sidekick, Schmutzli.
My son, Andy, is playing Samichlaus this year.
Olle's son, Sven, is playing Schmutzli.
And the donkey is playing himself.
Each year, Gimmelwald's children anticipate a visit
from this dynamic Christmas duo.
Samichlaus surprises the children
and checks in his ledger
to see if they've been doing their chores.
Have you been feeding the cows lately?
[ Speaks Swiss-German ]
Then he might ask for song or a poem,
what would you like to sing?
[ Sings in Swiss-German ]
And the performance is always followed by a treat
from his big bag of gifts.
I hope you have a merry Christmas.
[ Speaks Swiss-German ]
See you next year.
[ Everybody laughing ]
Mission accomplished, it's time for dinner.
Back home, grandma and grandpa have joined the gang
as we settle into a classic Swiss Christmas evening.
For this family, the holiday feast includes ham,
scalloped potatoes with mountain cheese,
and lovingly decorated gingerbread cookies.
After dinner, both our families gather in the living room.
Lighting the candles is a treat
our children will always remember.
[ Man reading in German ]
Three generations come together
as grandpa reads from the ancient family bible.
[ Continues reading in German ]
[ Singing in German ]
And we all love a little caroling.
[ Singing continues ]
[ Song ends ]
The evening's capped off with the sharing of gifts.
[ Exclamations, appreciative comments ]
Christmas Eve is finally here, and right about now,
all across Europe,
our friends are celebrating this long-anticipated night
in their own unique ways.
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound...
In England, the family snuggles together,
anticipating the arrival of Father Christmas.
[ Crowd singing carol ]
Up in Norway, they're joining hands in song.
[ Speaking French ]
In Burgundy, a toast starts the réveillon.
And Delphine's beef is finally done.
[ Exclamations and applause ]
In Austria, the children discover
what their grandparents have been hiding from them.
And final touches are made
to the Bethlehem being created in Tuscany.
[ Bell pealing ]
And at the Vatican, people pack St. Peter's,
as millions around the world
share a sacred and glorious midnight mass.
Choir: ♪ Hark, how the bells, sweet silver bells ♪
♪ All seem to say throw cares away ♪
♪ Christmas is here bringing good cheer ♪
♪ To young and old, meek and the bold ♪
♪ Ding, dong, ding, dong, that is the song ♪
♪ With joyful ring, all caroling ♪
♪ One seems to hear words of good cheer ♪
♪ From everywhere filling the air ♪
♪ Oh, how they pound, raising the sound ♪
♪ O'er hill and dale, telling their tale ♪
♪ Gaily they ring, while people sing ♪
♪ Songs of good cheer, Christmas is here ♪
♪ Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas ♪
♪ Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas ♪
♪ Christmas is here bringing good cheer ♪
♪ To young and old, meek and the bold ♪
♪ Ding, dong, ding, dong, that is the song ♪
♪ With joyful ring, all caroling ♪
♪ One seems to hear words of good cheer ♪
♪ From everywhere filling the air ♪
♪ Oh, how they pound, raising the sound ♪
♪ O'er hill and dale, telling their tale ♪
♪ Gaily they ring, while people sing ♪
♪ Songs of good cheer, Christmas is here ♪
♪ Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas ♪
♪ Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas ♪
♪ On, on they send on without end ♪
♪ Their joyful tone to every home ♪
♪ Ahhh ♪ ♪ On, on they send on without end ♪
♪ Ahhh ♪ ♪ Their joyful tone to every home ♪♪
And as Christmas day dawns,
a joyful chorus heralds the birth of Jesus.
[ Loud chorus of bells pealing ]
[ Bells fade away ]
Happy Christmas!
Joyeux noël!
Schone Weihnachten!
Buon natale...!
God jul!
Merry Christmas.
Frohliche Weinachten!
Joyeux noël!
Happy Christmas!
Ho, ho, ho, Frohe Weihnachten!
Buon natale!
All: God yul!
[ Bell clanging ]
Oyez! Oyez!
I wish you all a very merry Christmas!
From our family to yours,
peace on earth and goodwill to all!
Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas!
This program comes with a companion book
and music CD.
The book is packed this color photos,
more detailed history of Christmas in Europe
and traditional recipes.
The CD is filled with the wonderful performances
found in the program,
along with many other seasonal favorites.
For more information about the locations,
people and performers seen here
and to learn about other Rick Steves DVDs,
his European guidebooks, tours, and free travel newsletter,
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Tip: Click on the article or the word in the subtitle to get translation quickly!


Rick Steves' European Christmas

7250 Folder Collection
Jane published on April 16, 2015
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