Rick Steves' Travel Blog
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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As we wrap up 2013, I’m enjoying travel memories of a richly rewarding year. It has been a year of getting out of my comfort zone and broadening my horizons. While I’m thankful for this thrilling year of travel, I’m also thankful for you — my Blog and Facebook fans. Social media has added a dimension to my travels that I couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Not only do I get the joy of turning my insights into guidebooks and television shows that travelers will use for years into the future, I now get to have you as my real-time, virtual travel partners. Reading your thoughtful comments is an enjoyable way to end each day while on the road. Our online conversation makes my travels all the richer. So thank you!
I hope you enjoy this slideshow of some of my 2013 highlights.
Writing the script for our Rick Steves’ European Christmas special was a fascinating challenge. We had two crews to fan out across Europe, visiting seven countries in two weeks leading up to the 25th. While we could only actually be in two places on Christmas Eve and Day (Salzburg and Rome), we managed to fake Christmas Eve in the other places. This required calling on European friends (mostly tour guides and people who run B&Bs that I recommend in my guidebooks who had small children) to let us come into their home as they celebrated “Christmas Eve”…several days before the actual holiday. As they cooked the goose, invited the grandparents, hung out under the mistletoe, and so on, we were right there — on the carpet, in the kitchen, and under the tree — with our cameras rolling. Since we were footing the bill, we encouraged each family to pull out all the stops and put on a blowout Christmas to remember…and they all did. These kids will always recall 2005 as the strange year they celebrated Christmas twice.
I’ve worked with producer Simon Griffith for many years, and his brilliance was what I’ve come to expect. When Simon suggested that his wife, Val, co-produce and direct the second crew, I was skeptical. My rule is generally, no family on the crew. I knew Val socially but had never slogged through a TV production with her. But smartly, I trusted Simon. Val was absolutely wonderful — an artist, a great writer, and a strong leader and manager. Her crew ended up with the hardest schedule (England, France, Italy), and they did more than just cover the script. Val also co-authored the Christmas book that was a byproduct of our project.
We could never have pulled off the production of this special without the help of Steve Cammarano (editor and assistant field producer), Gene Openshaw (script and book editing), Maddie Thomas (England mom/guide/organizer), Christinia Schneeweiss (Salzburg guide/organizer), our two talented and hardworking cameramen (Karel Bauer and Peter Rummel), and many more both in Europe and in our home office. We hope you can enjoy Rick Steves’ European Christmas each holiday season on your public television station. Buon Natale! Frohe Weihnachten! Joyeux Noël! Merry Christmas!
By the way, I’m hoping to do a similar public television special on European Easter, with related Carnival and Lent festivities. I expect we’ll have two crews filming in Europe during the next two Easters to put this together. I’d love your help in planning this. What are your favorite Easter-related happenings in Europe that you’d recommend I consider for our Easter special?
Our American Santa Claus — a plump, jolly old fellow dressed in red — is just one of many gift-giving characters who preside over the Christmas season. Depending on where you are in Europe, it’s possible to bump into St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Père Noël, Samichlaus, Sinterklaas, and others. All are brothers of sorts, tracing their lineage back either to an early Christian saint or a pagan deity. The origin of these multicultural gift-givers is a tangle of folklore, crossed with some early Christian public relations and a dash of modern commercial branding.
Let’s start with the branch of the family that hails from the frozen north. Long before the birth of Christ, there was Odin, father of the Viking gods. Like Santa, Odin was a stout old man dressed in furs with white hair and a long beard. During the winter solstice, Odin rode through the sky on his eight-legged magical horse, Sleipnir, and descended to earth. Disguised in a hooded cloak, he would eavesdrop on Vikings sitting around the campfire, trying to figure out who had been naughty and who had been nice. Occasionally, he would leave a gift of bread for a poor family.
Around the same time in the British Isles, chilly Celts were crowning a Frost King and appealing for leniency during the harsh midwinter months. In the Middle Ages, the legends of King Frost and Odin became associated with the Christian practice of helping the poor at Christmas. Parishes would hire actors in disguise to go undercover through the village, finding needy families, and reporting back to the village priest. In the 16th century, during the party-hearty reign of the Tudors, the character morphed into Captain Christmas, a sort of master of ceremonies presiding over the unruly fun at Christmastide. Banned by Puritan prudes in the 17th century, he re-emerged in the 18th century in plays put on by itinerant players as Father Christmas.
In the 19th-century Victorian era, Father Christmas was portrayed as a bearded pagan wearing robes and a crown of holly, ivy, or icicles, while hoisting a bowl of wassail. Gone were any saintly attributes, but he was a jolly enough fellow who made people happy during the dark days of winter.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Father Christmas was reinvented as the bringer of gifts to children. This probably came about because of the Victorians’ emerging interest in their children, coupled with influences from Europe and America, where St. Nicholas and Santa were popular.
Today, Father Christmas is a kind old gentleman who dresses, depending on his whim, in a long red robe trimmed with fur or a belted red jacket and cap (in which case he is easily confused with Santa, whose nocturnal habits he has also acquired).
Meanwhile, another branch of the Santa Family tree was sprouting from an early Christian monk named St. Nicholas. It’s believed that the historical Nicholas was born in the Eastern Roman Empire (now Turkey) sometime around A.D. 280. Some folklore experts have suggested his life story was probably recycled from tales of various pagan gods and then Christianized. Legends abound about St. Nicholas, who became the bishop of Myra (modern-day Damre, Turkey) and was much admired for his piety and kindness. He was rumored to have given away all of his inherited wealth to travel the countryside helping the poor and sick. He kept an especially watchful eye on orphans, occasionally giving them gifts; over the years, his reputation grew as a compassionate protector of children.
According to one story, he prevented three poor sisters from being sold into prostitution by their destitute father. Nicholas provided them with a dowry, so they could be married. The legend grew that he gave the money anonymously by tossing bags of gold through a window, or perhaps down the chimney. The gold landed in the girls’ stockings (some versions swap stockings for shoes), which had been left by the fire to dry.
By the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. On the eve of his Feast Day, December 6th (the anniversary of his death), a bearded, robed man appeared in every village, passing out gifts to children and the poor.
In many lands, there were now two Christmas figures — the Christian St. Nicholas (commemorated on December 5th and 6th) and the pagan party animal who became Father Christmas (December 24th, 25th, and beyond). Over the centuries, different cultures merged these two figures, some emphasizing one legend over the other, some celebrating on the 6th, some on the 25th, some both. Today, a European Christmas brings the whole extended Santa Family together as you can see in our chart of Santa’s Family Tree.
Early American settlers had strong ties with the Christmas traditions of England. In the 17th century, Dutch immigrants brought the story of St. Nicholas to America. Americans loved the custom, but had trouble pronouncing the name. The Dutch “Sinterklaas” became “Santa Claus,” and the name stuck. Our modern Santa Claus is an amalgam of European traditions, combining the kindly, gift-giving St. Nicholas and the mischievous, fun-loving Father Christmas.
Today’s image of the American Santa Claus — the jolly fellow with the apple cheeks and twinkling eyes — came by way of a German immigrant who published his illustrations in Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800s. This magnanimous Santa Claus was a boon to shopkeepers during a period of unprecedented growth in retailing — department stores, chain stores, and new-fangled billboards. They joyfully exploited the commercial potential of an entire season dedicated to gift giving, brought to you by Santa. In the 1930s, the Coca Cola Company, in need of a sales boost, borrowed Santa’s image and branded their product with the merry ol’ gent… thus completing his epic journey from saint to salesman.
Today, in many parts of Europe, there’s a movement to preserve the tradition of St. Nicholas, who’s at risk of being crowded out by the American Santa. Some villages are even creating Santa-free zones. They see Santa as a super-size symbol of consumption. St. Nicholas, they argue, embodies the real Christmas spirit, a monk whose example taught that giving doesn’t make us poorer — it makes us richer.
The Christmas tree’s roots run deep into the origins of the midwinter celebration. When winter’s gloom descended on ancient pre-Christians, they looked around and saw a few things that didn’t die: evergreens. This seemed to promise that the warmth and fertility of summer would return. After they decorated their huts with holly, ivy, or laurel, they likely took a deep whiff… and dreamed of spring.
The mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, adorned their temples with evergreens as a symbol of everlasting life. The Vikings of Scandinavia considered evergreens the favored plant of their sun god. In many regions, people believed that evergreens, especially mistletoe (which was considered a sacred plant), would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
The custom continued in Christian times, but it wasn’t until about 500 years ago in Germany that the practice of decorating evergreen trees became a part of Christmas. These first trees were strewn with cookies, apples, nuts, and sugar sticks — which children eagerly raided. In the 1800s, when candles became affordable, the tree of lights arrived, and the tradition of the family gathering around the tree to exchange gifts was established.
Lutherans like to believe (wrongly, according to scholars) that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. The story goes that when he was walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Christmas trees as we know them got a big boost in popularity in the mid-19th-century, after a London magazine showed Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family gathered around a Christmas tree. Victoria was a favorite with her subjects, and what she did immediately became fashionable — not only in Britain, but in East Coast American society as well. In the early 1900s, during the Art Nouveau age, trees began to be draped in tinsel and ornamented with lovingly painted glass bulbs. The Christmas tree had arrived.
In Germany — the land of — Christmas trees became so popular that during World War I, thousands of them were actually mailed to soldiers on the Western Front. These tiny fake trees, made of feathers and paper, came in a kit, ready to be assembled right out of the postage box. (Next time you’re in Germany’s Rothenburg, you might enjoy the excellent little German Christmas Museum at the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store.)
In the seven countries we visited to film Rick Steves’ European Christmas, Christmas is more than just December 25th — it’s a season that lasts for more than a month. This isn’t to give people more time to shop, but to fit in all of the holy days and festivals.
First comes Advent, the time to anticipate the “arrival” (advent) of the baby Jesus. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas Eve. In Europe, this truly is the start of Christmas, since advertisers are reluctant to commercialize the season any earlier.
Next up is the Feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated mostly in Catholic countries with lots of gift giving on the eve or day of December 6th. In some countries, St. Nicholas’ Feast is even bigger than Christmas Day.
December 13th brings Santa Lucia Day — a highlight in Scandinavia, when young girls decked out in candles lead processions promising the return of the light.
For many Europeans, Christmas Eve is the main event, celebrated with Midnight Mass and a grand meal. Others concentrate on the family time and gift giving of Christmas Day.
But for those who really get into the holiday spirit, December 25th is just the start. The Twelve Days of Christmas — featuring more parties, gift giving, and the ringing in of the New Year — stretch from December 25th until January 5th. This period is followed by Epiphany (January 6th), the day the Three Kings delivered their gifts. The Christmas season finally goes into hibernation after this…until next year.
As I’m reflecting on the making of my Rick Steves’ European Christmas television special, CD, and companion book, I wanted to share this book excerpt, which outlines how much of our contemporary notion of celebrating Christmas actually has prehistoric and pagan roots:
For as long as people have shivered in the winter, they’ve celebrated the beginning of its end. For ancient people of Europe, midwinter was known as the Yuletide, meaning the “turning of the sun.”
Imagine you’re living in the cold of northern Europe before the birth of Christ. Your gods are the mysterious forces of nature: the sun, rain, and wind. In summer, it’s warm, plants grow, and food is plentiful. Then it gets cold and dark, and the earth becomes frozen and bleak.
Just when everything looks darkest — around December 21st, the winter solstice, the longest night of the year — what do you do? You throw a party! And, slowly but surely, the cycle turns. Your sun god, who’d been weak and sick, is now on the mend, spring is coming, and once again life is returning to your world.
For the prehistoric people of Europe, late December — though dreary and dark — was the perfect time to celebrate. Why? Because they had fresh meat and good grog to celebrate with: In December, villagers often slaughtered the cattle they couldn’t afford to feed through the winter, so this was the only time of year when many of them had fresh meat. Also, wine and beer made earlier in the year had finally fermented and were ready to drink. Time to party!
The pagan Romans conquered the pagan Celtic people around 50 B.C. The Romans called their solstice festival Saturnalia, and it was marked by feasting and good-natured goofiness. Then, as Christianity slowly spread through Rome — becoming the empire’s chief religion by the fourth century A.D . — the midwinter celebration got a new twist.
In the first few centuries of Christianity, Easter was the primary holiday — Jesus’ birthday wasn’t even celebrated. The Bible doesn’t say exactly when Jesus was born, and what it does say — that “shepherds were herding their flocks” — suggests spring rather than winter. But in the year 350, Pope Julius I decided to make the birth of Jesus a holiday, choosing December 25th. Politically, it was a clever choice, because the young religion (legal for less than a century) could then adopt and absorb the traditions of the immensely popular Saturnalia. The fun-loving spirit of the pagan festival dovetailed nicely with the joyous welcome given to the Christ child. By the mid-fifth century, the Feast of the Nativity — as Christmas was first called — was celebrated from Egypt to England.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity had largely replaced pagan religions. But the hedonistic partying of pre-Christian religions was inextricably woven into Christian celebrations. On Christmas, believers attended church, and then got wild and crazy.
Though church leaders would have preferred to celebrate with more reverence than revelry, pagan customs survived: People still sang in roving bands, shared bowls of wassail (spiced wine), performed farcical plays, and exchanged gifts at New Year. Most medieval lords provided a Christmas feast for their tenants and made the 12 days of Christmas a holiday from work, so for many people, Christmas was as much about feeding the body as feeding the soul. From these festive rituals — long celebrated around the winter Christian holy days — many sacred observances emerged that are still beloved by the faithful as integral parts of their Christmas celebrations.
You probably won’t be able to jet over to Paris for Christmas. But if you could, here are ten fun things to do (excerpted from the Rick Steves’ European Christmas book). Read these and imagine a Joyeux Noël in the City of Light:
From Paris to Burgundy, Christmas in France is the stuff of dreams. Rich sounds of medieval carols abound, simple rituals are shared by families and friends, and when days are short and nights are long, it’s customary to leave a single candle flickering in the window.
In France, we found that Paris celebrates Christmas with its typical urban flair: extravagant lighting, yummy window displays, and ice skating up on the Eiffel Tower. And the Burgundian countryside surprised us with its rustic, small-town enthusiasm for the spirit of Christmas. Highlights included following the mayor (with her flaming-red hair and sack of gifts) as she visited her town’s senior citizens; enjoying a humble picnic in the woods with the guys out to chop some firewood; and filming a private concert of intimate medieval carols in an ancient abbey.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
Once upon a time, for the 12 days of Christmas, we had two busy television crews a-filming: 12 carol concerts, 11 mugs of Glühwein, 10 living mangers, 9 happy families, 8 Christmas feasts, 7 Euro-cultures, 6 mistletoe kisses, 5 alternative Santas, 4 pounds of weight gain, 3 midnight Masses, 2 exhausted cameramen, and a festive hour of great new public television. (Go ahead, sing it.)
During the 2005 holiday season, my crew and I enjoyed producing a one-hour public television special we hoped would be around for many Christmases to come. As it turns out, stations all over the country air this to audiences who have come to think of watching the show as part of their holiday tradition. For a little holiday cheer here on Facebook, I’m kicking off a “12 Days of Christmas” series of video clips from our experience there.
From England to Norway, Burgundy to Bavaria, and Rome to the top of the Swiss Alps, our mission was to get you a seat at the family feast, save you a pew up in the lofts with the finest choirs, and hand you a rolling pin in Grandma’s kitchen as she labored over her best-kept holiday secrets. We joined Romans cooking up female eels, Parisians slurping oysters, Tuscans tossing fruit cakes, and Norwegian kids winning marzipan pigs. Exploring the rich and fascinating mix of traditions — Christian, pagan, commercial, and edible — we learned lots about the holiday festivities we know and love today and packed it into this special program.
Rather than feature a bunch of shopping malls and Christmas markets, our goal was to get an inside look at sacred, traditional, intimate family Christmas celebrations. We wanted to feature diverse cultures whose colorful yuletide traditions would be appreciated by American families whose ancestors emigrated from those places. Our goal: to give our viewers a look at European Christmas through the eyes of a child, a parent, and a pilgrim. This was not a “happy holidays” sales gimmick, but a true celebration of Christmas. As the increasing commercialization of the holiday season has driven me abroad for several recent Christmases, I was happy to take our crew to a continent where people aren’t counting the shopping days left until Christmas.
So, get ready. Starting tomorrow, for the next couple of weeks, we’ll enjoy a daily dose of European Christmas right here.
Our state has produced some great and serious authors (most notably Sherman Alexie and Richard Brautigan), and some very popular, mass-market writers (including romance novelist Debbie Macomber, Dune author Frank Herbert, and rabble rouser Glenn Beck). But they chose a guy who writes guidebooks. I suppose if it was based on titles in print (67) or ongoing sales (about a million a year), it might make sense to pick me…but certainly not for “literature.” Still, I will willingly join the ranks of other states’ most famous writers, from Herman Melville (New York) to Mark Twain (Missouri).
In my defense, I believe that, out of the 51 writers named, I’m the only one who’s designed a series of phrase books, assessed the flamenco options in Sevilla, laid out a pub crawl in Venice, collected a listing of coffeshops where older travelers might enjoy a joint in Amsterdam, discussed the morality of stealing lunch from your guesthouse’s breakfast buffet, or explained how to enjoy the Vienna Boys Choir without buying a ticket.
Take a look at Business Insider’s list, and see if you agree with the writer who made the cut for your state. (And, to whoever at Business Insider chose me: Thanks, and happy travels!)