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
To celebrate the season, I’m sharing clips, extras, and behind-the-scenes notes from Rick Steves’ European Christmas. Today we travel to London, which offers Christmas fun fit for a queen and streets twinkling with joy.
The Christmas special is the only time we’ve ever filmed with a sound technician. We knew that we’d be privileged to film at wonderful Christmas concerts throughout Europe and we wanted to get the music just right. Our sound team did a marvelous job, and music was a big part of the program (even giving us the bonus of a great Christmas CD as a souvenir).
Writing the script for my Christmas special was a fun challenge, and I needed to tap my European friends not just to be good tour guides, but to take us into their homes to be there with their families as they celebrated. England came through royally. Maddy Thomas (who runs Mad Max Tours, my favorite minibus tours from Bath into the countryside) has a lovely family and delighted our crew with kindergartners singing in ancient churches, crusty blokes playing gruff Father Christmas, and an intimate afternoon with her kids and husband preparing the figgy pudding and mincemeat pies for a fairy-tale English Christmas.
Yesterday, I shared some exciting news: Our community of travelers has now raised one million dollars to help empower Bread for the World, an advocacy organization that speaks up for hungry people in the halls of government.
We did it! Rick Steves’ Europe travelers have met our goal of raising one million dollars to help empower Bread for the…
Many of you understand the value of advocacy. But a few questioned why we would fundraise for “lobbyists in Washington D.C.” and not for groups that directly feed the poor. As one commenter, Rolf, said, “Man, I’m sure the Salvation Army would have done a whole lot more with that money.” Tim agreed, saying, “I would prefer that my donations go to organizations that actually feed people.” And Alan wrote, “This 1.078 Million can just be flushed into the riches of those unneedy while the truly wanting go unfulfilled.”
Then, just last night, I received a briefing from Bread for the World president David Beckmann about the impact of their advocacy (or “lobbying”). In his note, he explained vividly how huge the stakes are when it comes to US government budgeting decisions — and why the $1 million that we raised together will have a far more powerful impact than more traditional charity giving. Here is what he said:
This afternoon, Congress passed a Farm Bill with no cuts to SNAP (a.k.a. ‘food stamps’), and improvements to international food aid. Bread for the World has been a significant player on that issue. The House of Representatives had passed a version of the Farm Bill that would have taken $20 billion in groceries away from struggling American families. Thankfully, this version of the bill failed. Bread for the World and its members have also done a lot of work on criminal justice reform and this year’s appropriations. A compromise criminal-justice reform bill seems likely to pass Congress during this lame-duck month. The bill is not as good as we wanted, but it will definitely improve conditions in federal prisons and reduce sentences for some people who shouldn’t be in prison any longer and fund prison programs that prepare prisoners to make a living when they get out. The big appropriations package that we’re hoping will pass this month includes increased funding for international and domestic anti-poverty programs. (That’s being held up by President Trump’s demand for $5 billion for the border wall. No one knows how that stand-off will be resolved.)
It’s important to remember that with every dollar Bread for the World raises, it leverages $100 in terms of assistance and funding that is vital to hungry and poor people in our country and abroad. (That’s the great thing about advocacy — our government wants to do the right thing, when properly encouraged.) Assuming that ratio holds, our $1,000,000 donation will generate $100 million in life-giving, hope-instilling funding. Together, we are giving struggling people a voice in Congress. Again, thank you for your generous partnership. I find it both loving and patriotic.
You can still elevate your holiday season by joining in with a $100 donation at www.ricksteves.com/bread. (And when you do, I’ll send you my European Christmas gift pack or my Complete Collection DVD Box Set as a thank you gift!)
In writing the script for the special, I had to choose which countries would “make the cut.” I could fit only seven into the mix. Being Norwegian, I admit that I was biased…and Norway was destined to make the cut. But when we started filming, it looked like Norway would be a weak segment…so I needed to scramble.
Norway happened to be wet and warm when we visited, and the secular Norwegians don’t really do Christmas with the gusto I had imagined. I visited my very traditional cousin, only to find that their holiday celebration felt about as robust as Columbus Day.
But we did manage to go to Drøbak, the self-proclaimed Christmas capital of Norway, and take part in Santa Lucia Day, which brings everyone out to dance around the trees…with their crowns of real candles.
In Oslo, we had one night to get some music. When a concert we planned to film fell through at the last moment, I searched the entertainment listings and found the Norwegian Girls’ Choir performing in the oldest church in Oslo — the tiny, heavy-stone, Viking Age Gamle Aker Kirke. We drove there and arrived just half an hour before the concert began. With the crew double-parked in the dark, I ran in, found the director, pleaded my case…and he said, “Ya, sure.” We finished setting up just minutes before show time. The lights went out and an angelic choir of beautiful, blonde, candle-carrying girls processed in, filling the cold stone interior with a glowing light. As the harpist did her magic, I just sat in the back, feeling very thankful. This concert ended up giving us several of the best cuts on our European Christmas CD and some of the most beautiful photos for our European Christmas book.
Scheduling was also tricky. Certain events — such as a choir singing “Silent Night” in the church where it was first performed near Salzburg, Santa Lucia Day in Norway on December 13, and Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican — were fixed, so we had to work our schedule around those. Each of the two crews generally had three or four days to film a region, and then one day to travel to the next. Our script was designed to playfully let the Christmas season build — but never quite reach a holiday climax — in each place we filmed. Then, in a festive finale, bells ring throughout the Continent as Christmas Day sweeps across Europe.
But I’m getting ahead of myself — that clip is on its way. First — like a video Advent calendar — we have lots more windows to open, peeking in on families and cultures and countries as Christmas approaches.
Christmas is almost here! Over the next two weeks, I’ll be sharing clips, extras, and behind-the-scenes notes from my one-hour special, Rick Steves’ European Christmas.
The tour guide in me was determined to cover the biblical story of Christmas in the special while also explaining related holidays and traditions and meeting the locals. We learn about Epiphany, Advent wreaths, the origin of St. Nicholas, the pagan roots of so many Christian traditions, and all those fascinating cultural differences. For example, German Christmas tree lots were just opening up on December 22, as most Germans don’t put up trees until Christmas Eve. We celebrate the holiday with Umbrian peasants, trendy Norwegians, Victorian English, dirndl-clad Tiroleans, and Burgundian monks, all of whom contribute to how their community celebrates Christmas.
In this clip, we begin where the Christmas story does: with the Annunciation of Mary and the birth of Christ. While each European country 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.