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is the most important family holiday of the year in all East European countries, except Albania and Bosnia. The buildup to the great festivity starts on December 6th, the feast of St. Nicholas, the patron of children, a bishop in Myra, south Turkey, in the 4th century. In most countries it is customary to give small presents, such as candies, to children on this day. Common to nearly all countries in the region is the tradition of caroling, as well as the custom of serving twelve different dishes at the Christmas Eve dinner.

The Christmas celebration lasts for two or three days, and always starts with the. Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally dinner should begin when the first stars appear in the sky. Catholic and Greek Orthodox families do not have any meat dishes on Christmas Eve, as this is considered a day of fast. Presents are generally exchanged after dinner, however it was not usual to give as many presents as has become customary in America. Most Catholics go to Midnight Mass. Others go to festive church services on Christmas morning. Christmas Day dinner is served with meat dishes, such as goose or turkey. Every country has some special dishes which are traditionally served only during this great family holiday.
In most countries the day after Christmas, St. Stephen's Day, is still a holiday from work. Various kinds of festivities continue until January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany commemorating the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the manger of baby Jesus. Decorations and Christmas trees are not removed until after that day.

In recent times the Christmas tree has become almost essential in most Eastern European homes, but it was not indigenous to Eastern European cultures, but introduced by Germans in the middle 19th century. Until recently the Christmas tree was not placed in the home until Christmas Eve.
It is an ancient custom in nearly all countries to use straw or hay somewhere in the home decoration, most commonly on the Christmas Eve dinner table. This is to commemorate that Jesus was born in a manger.

St.Nicholas has changed in American folklore into Santa Claus who brings presents on a sled pulled by reindeer. Since tradition has it that he comes from the North Pole, let's start from the north to visit some countries.

Estonia is very much influenced by Scandinavia, even the Estonian name for Christmas jõulud is derived from the Swedish name for the winter solstice. The wearing of wreaths on the head is also of Scandinavian origin, derived from the ancient pagan feast to celebrate the winter solstice and the start of a new solar year.

The Lithuanian customs resemble those of neighboring Poland, which is not surprising as the two countries were joined in union for several hundred years. Particularly noticeable is the emphasis on fish courses and poppy seed dishes in the typical menu for the Wigilia (Christmas Eve) dinner. Traditionally twelve different dishes were served - there is no hurry, dinner lasts until it's time to go to Midnight Mass! These always include a clear beetroot soup, barszcz, served with little dumplings. Usually there would be two fish dishes, one a cold dish consisting of carp in a jelly as an appetizer. Later on there is a hot fish dish. Other items on the menu are pierogi (crepes filled with sauerkraut or mushrooms). Later courses include kompot, a mixture of different stewed fruits, ground poppy seed mixed with honey, and a variety of cakes. The Polish tradition requires that an extra place be set at the table for any unexpected guest. As everybody prepares to sit down at the table, the father and mother break a blessed wafer, Op³atek in half while exchanging good wishes. Then they turn to the children and guests repeating the breaking of the wafer into smaller and smaller pieces.
On Christmas Day, Hunter's Stew, bigos, is normally served. Made of sour and sweet cabbage with pieces of pork, sausage and mushrooms and herbs, it is often laced with vodka. The longer it stands and the more frequently it is reheated, the better it tastes! It is normally prepared many days in advance and only needs reheating, thus allowing the women of the house to have a rest from cooking.

Suppressed by the Soviet regime for 70 years, rich Christmas traditions have survived in Ukraine. It is not called Christmas, but the Nativity. However, the Orthodox Church has never recognized the correction to the calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in the 17th. Century. They still follow the Julian Calendar which is now 13 days in error. This means that now in 2006 the Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on January 7th! Presents are give on St. Nicholas Day, normally December 6, but in the Orthodox Church this becomes December 23, so just in line with gift giving time in the western world!
Of course, the traditional holiday dishes were not subject to political persecution and have survived intact. The only problem is that some Ukrainians cannot afford to buy the ingredients in today's economy. Try some of these tasty recipes from the source listed in the right-hand column. In the old tradition, the father brought a sheaf of wheat, didukh, tied in the middle with beautifully embroidered ribbons, into the house. He walked around the inside of the home three times and then placed it near the family's holy Icon.

In the old Czech tradition, a bowl of garlic is placed under the Christmas Eve dinner table to provide protection to all the family against evil spirits. The father would dip bread into honey and pass out to all present, before starting the meal. The fresh water fish carp plays an important role in the Czech Christmas Eve dinner. In fact fishing for carp is a popular pastime in the days before Christmas. Earlier I mentioned that in much of Eastern Europe Christmas celebrations start on December 6. The Czechs start even earlier with the feast of St. Barbara on December 4.

Wood carving is a national holiday pastime in neighboring Slovakia.

In Hungary the preparations for the Christmas holiday start already on the first Sunday of Advent, when candles are lit and wreaths appear in offices, schools and homes. Before Christmas, groups of boys dressed in costume go from house to house carrying a plaque representing the Holy family. They perform a short skit with songs and poems. Finally on Christmas Eve the tree is brought into the house and decorated by the whole family. The dinner follows a similar pattern to that in neighboring countries and always starts with a fish soup. Among the desserts are Beiglie, soft rolled cookies containing walnuts and poppy seeds.

Further south, in Croatia, a unique tradition is the planting of wheat grain in a small dish on St. Lucy's day - December 13. By Christmas Eve the fresh shoots are about eight inches tall, a candle is placed in the center and this serves as the table decoration. Another Croatian specialty are hearts, Licitar, made of red colored dough, and decorated with sparkling sugars, which are used to decorate the tree. There are many special Christmas dishes, which include stuffed cabbage and Dalmatian pot roast.

Cross over from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, to Orthodox Bulgaria. The similarity of the traditions is striking - twelve meatless dishes on Christmas Eve, straw under the tablecloth. Bulgarians are famous for their religious songs. On Christmas Eve young men walk along the streets singing a cycle of carols, Kolehndy. They carry sticks, and at some houses they are rewarded with a round bread, which has a hole in the center to place on the stick. Unique to Bulgaria is the custom of carving the figures of the Nativity Scene in bread.

We would like to hear from you. Tell us about Christmas traditions or recipes that you remember, by Email to us. We will add to this page.

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Last updated: November 2009.