Darkness and the fight against it play a crucial role in many European traditions and customs. Night-time and seasons when daylight is scarce can be perceived as dangerous. And so customs connected to light, peace and joy help people to navigate their way through dark times.
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Light, is on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which falls between November and December. It celebrates the re-consecration of the temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE after the Macabees took it back from Syrian-Greek control. The Talmud, the central text of Jewish culture, describes how the Maccabean rebels found one last can of kosher oil in the temple, containing enough oil to light the candelabrum for just one day.
Miraculously, it kept burning for eight days and nights.
Celebrating Hanukkah, families and friends come together at home, lighting a candle a day, until all eight candles of the menorah are burning. It is placed in a window or a central place in the house.
Dishes cooked in oil, such as latkes and sufganiot, are served to remember the role of oil in the Temple miracle.
St Lucy’s Day
Bringing light to the darkness is also a central motif in the tradition of Saint Lucy’s Day.
This festival dates back to the Catholic martyr Lucia of Syracuse, who died on 13 December 304 CE, having been tortured by Romans who were trying to force her to deny her faith.
According to legend, she brought food to Christians hiding from persecution. To free her hands to carry as much as possible, she wore a candle-lit wreath on her head. This has been adapted in Scandinavian customs such as Luciadagen (Lucia Day).
13 December coincided with the longest winter night in the calendar - a night supposedly full of danger and supernatural creatures. People started celebrating Lucia in the 19th century and continue to today. Girls (and increasingly boys) wear a white dress, a red sash and a wreath with (electric) candles in it, sing in processions and bring saffron buns to their families.
In Italy, other aspects of St Lucy’s Day are more important. There are parades with her relics in Sicily. Children in northeastern Italy receive gifts – or coal if they have behaved badly.
Just as there is no light without shadow, many figures, customs and traditions can be ambiguous. Although many of them are supposed to bring joy, they often also include aspects of fear or sadness.
Krampus is one such example, a demonic figure from pre-Christian Alpine tradition. People dressed up in furs and elaborate masks, and used bells, rods and horns to chase the evil away.
In the 17th century, the Alpine traditions of Krampus and Saint Nikolaus combined, with both figures parading through villages and being invited into houses. Saint Nikolaus questions children on their behaviour – children who have been good receive presents from him, those that were naughty are punished by Krampus.
There is only one Nikolaus in a parade, but there can be several Krampus - for example in St Johann im Pongau in Austria, there are parades with more than 1,000 Krampus.
This motif of scaring people, especially children, and checking their behaviour in accordance with social norms, is quite common in European cultures - other examples are the Bogeyman, Croque-mitaine or Knecht Ruprecht.
The end of Christmas
Bringing light to the people and their houses plays a role in traditions around epiphany, an important period for many European regions, marking the end of Christmas for many in Europe. In Germany Belgium and in some regions in the Netherlands, children walk from door to door, sing songs and have lanterns with them – another approach from past times to chase away the evil.
In Finland, groups, often men, wander through villages and cities during the dark Christmas time. On St Knut’s Day (Nuutinpäivä), celebrated on 13 January, the 20th and last day of Christmas, people walk from house to house, dressed in scary costumes asking for leftovers of Christmas beer and food.
The idea is to bring Christmas to an end and to start day-to-day life again after the festive season: ‘Good Thomas brings Christmas; evil Knut takes it away’.
Those who cannot provide leftovers and beer are pranked or mocked with songs.
For some, it's a day for gifts. In Italy, the witch Befana brings another kind of positivity to children on the 6 January.
According to legend, Befana refused to join the Three Wise Men on their journey to see the baby Jesus. When she regretted her decision, she decided to bring the child gifts, but never found him. Ever since, she left gifts for other children.
On the evening before Epiphany, Italian children leave out their shoes or put up stockings for Befana. For naughty children, Befana leaves lumps of coal.