Christmas and New Year's is a great time to visit Europe. German Christmas markets, speeches from the Pope, big New Year's parties, presents from the Three Kings in January, visits to Santa in Lapland—every country in Europe can make your Christmas extra special.
One thing to bear in mind is that in much of Europe, Christmas Eve is a bigger deal than Christmas Day. Children open their presents at midnight, after a big meal with their family. What this means for you, the visitor is that in most cities in Europe on Christmas Day you'll find shop, restaurants, and bars open especially in the evening.
Often New Year's celebrations start with the bells at midnight, followed by partying until the early hours of the morning. This is particularly the case in Spain, which is famous for its late nightlife.
La Festa di San Silvestro, New Year's Eve, is celebrated all over Italy with a special traditional dinner, fireworks, music and dancing, and prosecco, Italian sparkling wine.
The Fat Ox Fair is held in Bologna on New Year's Eve. Age-old New Year's traditions like throwing your old things out the window to symbolize your readiness to accept the New Year and wearing red underwear to ring in the New Year for good luck are still carried out, especially in the south.
Rome and Naples, with its amazing fireworks, are good places to celebrate in Italy.
Major German Christmas Traditions you'll want to know about include the origin of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree, or Tannenbaum, first made its literary appearance in 1605 in a chronicle out of Strasbourg in Alsace, then a part of Germany.
Christmas Markets are magical and are held in the main town plazas throughout Germany. You can shop for wooden ornaments, drink mulled wine and savor spicy Lebkuchen.
Germany has many ski resorts and winter sports opportunities to ensure you have a white Christmas.
There is no better background for Christmas than the Swiss Alps. Switzerland's Christmas Markets don't go back in history as far as Germany's, but they've become very popular.
Horse-drawn sleighs are a common sight at ski resorts. There are local customs like in Gstaad, where Santa Claus pays a visit and walks with the town’s children from the historic Posthotel Rössli to the church.
The Janeiras is a Portuguese tradition consisting of a group of people strolling the streets of a town singing in the New Year. To the modern eye, Janeiras is like Christmas caroling as this tradition involves a group of friends or neighbors going from house to house singing and sometimes playing instruments.
Nativity scenes are a major custom in Portugal, with one of the biggest can be found in Penela where the locals put together a "living" Christmas display, the largest in Europe. Hundreds of wooden animated figures tell the story of the birth of Jesus. These 3D figures are all hand painted.
One of our favorite Christmas songs comes from Austria. Silent Night or "Stille Nacht" is sung the world over, although it's sung a bit differently than the piece Franz Gruber had originally written.
If you're in Austria in early December, Salzburg is a great destination, with its Salzberg Advent Singing Festival. There are traditions throughout the towns of Austria such as horse-drawn sleigh rides, Christmas Markets, and traditionally decorated trees.
Since 1962, all letters sent by kids in France to Santa get a response. France has some interesting Christmas customs. French Nativity scenes, especially in the home, have clay figures in them. The figures are sold at pre-Christmas markets.
Yule logs are part of Christmas and the Christmas Eve dinner is the most important meal.
Young French people often go clubbing in Paris or other big French cities on New Year's Eve, but France offers some unique alternative ways to celebrate New Year's Eve. You can enjoy a romantic Seine River cruise, a torchlight procession to pick grapes at midnight, or an illuminated city tour of Avignon.
United Kingdom and Ireland
You can find fascinating Christmas Markets in the U.K. Get a sense of Christmas in Ireland via The Irish Twelve Days of Christmas. London is a special place at Christmas with Christmas markets, winter festivals, and twinkling lights. Harry Potter's Hogwarts in the Snow is a popular draw.
The highlight of New Year's Eve in London is the huge fireworks display. Lots of London clubs have special New Year's Eve parties and restaurants have special New Year's Eve dinners. You can also take a cruise on the River Thames or attend the largest fetish ball in Europe, the Torture Garden New Year's Eve Ball.
Nowhere is New Year's Eve more important than in Scotland, where it is known as Hogmanay. The celebration has its origins in the celebration of the winter solstice among the Vikings.
Saint Nick is short for Saint Nicolas which is certainly a Greek name. Could Santa be Greek? The Christmas Customs of Greece are unique. In Greece, the Christmas season is in full swing by December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, when presents are exchanged, and lasts through January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.
In Greece, you will find less commercialized decorating but the Yule Log tradition is alive and well as is some interesting elf lore.
Christmas goes on longer in Spain than in most countries, with Three Kings' Day in January being the most important day for children (this is when they get their biggest presents).
New Year's Eve (Noche Vieja) in Spain is a party night like everywhere else in the world, though the structure is a little different from in other countries. It starts late and involved eating 12 grapes with the strokes of a bell at midnight. This tradition was started by some shrewd farmers about 100 years ago when they were left with too many grapes after the harvest.
Christmas in Iceland is full of lore and tradition. In fact, you'll find that they have 13 Santas. The origin of the Icelandic "Santas" is centuries old, and each has its own name, character, and role.
Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, is known as a good place to party on the long, dark winter nights. New Year's Eve starts out calmly with a service in the Cathedral, dinner, and a bonfire. At midnight, the fireworks go off and then it's downtown to party until at least 5 a.m.
In recent years, Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands have been a bit controversial, due to the presence of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), Santa's African helper, who is usually portrayed by a white Dutchman in blackface. Christmas in Holland is full of lights and decorations.
New Year's Eve in Holland is really called Old Year's Evening. But whatever you call it, if you're looking for the big party scene, New Year's Eve in Amsterdam is the place to go. The streets and squares will be filled with people and there are plenty of parties in bars and clubs. Not the place to be if you don't like crowds.