January traditions in Europe

January traditions in Europe

Off to a cool start

Swimming in icy water is a January tradition in both northern Germany and parts of eastern Europe. It's not just about testing your body's defenses though; it's a religious tradition meant to symbolize the cleansing of sins. It's observed on Epiphany, which is celebrated on January 19 in Eastern Orthodox churches. In Christian theology, Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God as Jesus.

January traditions in Europe

Na zdorovje!

Holy Supper on Christmas Eve is enjoyed in Russia when the first star can be seen in the sky — on January 6, rather than on December 24, according to Russian Orthodox tradition. Christmas is celebrated by breaking the pre-Christmas fast with 12 delicious dishes and plenty of beverages.

January traditions in Europe

New Year's baptism

In Greece, Epiphany on January 6 is known as Theophany. The new year cannot begin properly until the water has been cleansed of evil spirits. To do that, the priests throw a holy wooden cross into the water in a ceremony known as the Great Blessing of the Waters. People rush to touch it, believing they will receive a special blessing for the new year if they do.

January traditions in Europe

Searching for the holy child

As the legend goes, the old lady Befana was among the first to learn of Baby Jesus' birth. But she left to find him too late and missed seeing the Star of Bethlehem and the child himself. Since then, she visits children in Italy every year on January 6 and fills their stockings with gifts — if they behaved well enough. Santa Claus was only recently introduced in Italy.

January traditions in Europe

King for a day

The first week of the new year is a great time to visit a French bakery, where you'll find the traditional "galette des rois." The "kings' cake," made of pastry dough and marzipan, is enjoyed for Three Kings' Day (Epiphany) on January 6. Careful, though! There might be a small porcelain figure inside. The person who finds it in their piece gets to be king for a day — and wear a paper crown.

January traditions in Europe

Hello, Knut!

In Sweden and Finland, St. Knut's Day is celebrated on January 13 in honor of the Danish patron saint. Children remove the decorations from the Christmas tree and are rewarded with sweets. The holiday is incidentally not observed in Denmark, despite its namesake.

January traditions in Europe

Winter sled race

For over 40 years, Garmisch-Partenkirchen has been turned into a sledding paradise every year on Three Kings' Day. Sleds were traditionally used to transport hay into the valley for the livestock. But now adventurous participants use them to race down the 1.2-kilometer (about 4,000-foot) slope — at speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour)!

January traditions in Europe

Of kings and kids

In parts of Germany on January 6, it's common for children to dress up as the Three Magi: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They go door-to-door, singing, collecting donations for needy children, and writing their initials surrounded by the year — 20*C+M+B*19 — on the doorframes. Casper is sometimes represented by painting a child's face black — a controversial practice.

From jumping into cold water to sledding down hills at breakneck speeds, here's what Europeans are up to in January.

While some people have already taken down their Christmas trees and are busy implementing their New Year's resolutions, Christmas is just getting underway for others across Europe.

In a few European countries, January also rings in a collection of chilly, adventurous and religious traditions. Click through the gallery to learn more.

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