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  • Hi, I'm Rick Steves,

  • and it's Christmastime in Europe.

  • From manger scenes to mistletoe from Norway to Rome,

  • we're celebrating all over the continent.

  • Buon natale!

  • Froehliche weihnachten!

  • Joyeux noël!

  • Merry Christmas!

  • And thanks for joining us.

  • [ Background orchestra plays "Joy to the World" ]

  • In melting pot America,

  • Christmas is celebrated year after year

  • with traditions that came over on the boat with our ancestors.

  • In this holiday special,

  • we're traveling back to the old country,

  • to places of rich variety and deep roots.

  • We'll explore the history behind our much-loved traditions.

  • Joining friends and families across Europe,

  • we'll discover a Christmas

  • that's both familiar and different.

  • England is filled with voices singing in the season.

  • The short days around the solstice

  • bring Norwegians out

  • to celebrate the light of Christmas.

  • Families, friends, and food

  • are the centerpiece of the French noël.

  • An angelic Christmas presence fills Germany and Austria

  • with wide-eyed wonder.

  • Italy reveals the sacred nature of the season,

  • from its countryside to its holiest shrines.

  • Nature in all its wintry glory

  • seems to shout out the joy of the season in Switzerland.

  • And everywhere Christmas is celebrated with family,

  • including my own, as together,

  • Europe remembers the quiet night

  • that that holiest family came to be.

  • While each European culture

  • 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.

  • The Christmas story begins with the annunciation:

  • An angel sent from God with a message

  • for a young woman whose name was Mary.

  • And the angel said,

  • "'Fear not, for thou shalt bring forth a son,

  • "'and you will name him Jesus.

  • "'And he shall be called the Son of the Most High

  • and his Kingdom will have no end.'"

  • "And it came to pass,

  • "that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus,

  • "that all the world should be taxed.

  • "And Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth,

  • "went to Bethlehem to be taxed,

  • "with Mary, who was expecting a child.

  • "And while they were there,

  • "she brought forth her firstborn son

  • "and laid him in a manger

  • "because there was no room in the inn.

  • "In that region, there were shepherds,

  • "keeping watch over their flocks by night.

  • "An angel of the lord came to them, and said,

  • "'Fear not, for behold,

  • "'I bring you good tidings of great joy.

  • "'For unto you is born on this day in the city of David,

  • "a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.'

  • "And suddenly there was a multitude of angels

  • "proclaiming: 'Glory to God in the Highest,

  • "and on earth peace and good will to all.'

  • "And the shepherds said, 'Let us go to Bethlehem,'

  • "where they found Mary and Joseph

  • and the babe lying in a manger."

  • Now, after Jesus was born, there also came wise men.

  • And a glorious star, which they saw in the east,

  • went before them.

  • Guiding them, it stood over where the child was.

  • The wise men knelt down and worshiped the child,

  • giving him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

  • The long-awaited messiah had arrived.

  • This is the story

  • that Christians have celebrated through the ages.

  • We don't really know on which day Jesus was born.

  • Historians argue it was likely in the spring,

  • as shepherds were "tending their flocks."

  • But, in the 4th century, a pope declared December 25

  • to be the official birthday of Jesus.

  • Why that date?

  • Christianity was newly legal in the Roman empire,

  • and the clever pope figured it would be smart

  • if the biggest Christian festival

  • coincided with the biggest pagan one: Winter Solstice.

  • And throughout the land, people --

  • Christians celebrating the birth of the son

  • and pagans celebrating the return of the sun --

  • have been rejoicing ever since.

  • For scenes straight out of a box

  • of old-fashioned Christmas cards,

  • we head to England, to the city of Bath.

  • Here, in the heart of the old town

  • near the magnificent medieval abbey,

  • Bath hosts an annual Christmas market.

  • Carols are a deeply ingrained part

  • of the English Christmas tradition.

  • The custom goes back to Shakespeare's day.

  • Today, young and old sing their way through the season.

  • Here the Bath Abbey Choir of Boys and Men

  • are performing a carol concert by candlelight.

  • [ Choir singing "Oh, Holy Night" ]

  • [ Introduction to light, staccato melody ]

  • [ Choir singing ]

  • As is the case just about anywhere,

  • it's in the countryside that families celebrate Christmas

  • in the most down-to-earth style.

  • My friends Maddy and Paul and their kids,

  • Theo and Leila, are looking for a living tree,

  • which they'll decorate and then plant at home.

  • That the right size?

  • Man: You think it would look good with the fairy on top?

  • Brilliant. I like it.

  • It's a new twist on an old tradition,

  • with a wink to the nature-worshiping pagans

  • who once haunted these parts.

  • Decorating with greens goes back to the druids

  • who adorned their temples with swags of evergreen.

  • For pagans, living greens in the dead of winter

  • represented the persistence of life.

  • And for Christians, evergreens are a reminder

  • of the gift of everlasting life.

  • During the hectic season,

  • getting together to bake Christmas goodies

  • while the little ones decorate edible ornaments,

  • is a fine way for busy mums to spend some time together.

  • Is that all right?

  • Maddy's recipe for mince pies

  • harkens back to the days of Henry VIII.

  • Back then, the dried fruits, spices, and shredded meat

  • for the filling were so expensive

  • that only the wealthy could afford to make mince pie.

  • According to tradition, 12 pies should be eaten

  • during the 12 days of Christmas

  • to ensure good luck each month of the coming year.

  • Woman: Don't let me forget those mince pies, Maddy.

  • But it's the Christmas pudding that's the real centerpiece

  • of a traditional English holiday meal.

  • This is Christmas pudding,

  • and it's made with lots of very special ingredients

  • that in days gone by, they used to be very expensive.

  • And you know you call it "figgy pudding"

  • because they used to have lots of figs in it.

  • But it used to be made in Elizabethan times,

  • and we all have, because it's so special,

  • an extra big stir and an extra big wish.

  • Kids: ♪ Now bring us some figgy pudding. ♪

  • Now bring us some figgy pudding. ♪

  • Now bring us some figgy pudding. ♪

  • Now bring some out here. ♪♪

  • Put this one up here.

  • Like a lot of us,

  • Maddy and Paul are opting for a simpler,

  • less commercial style of Christmas,

  • and that's reflected in their family traditions.

  • Little Theos and Leilas wouldn't always have been

  • so involved in the family activities.

  • Childhood as we know it really began

  • in 19th-century England with the new middle class.

  • And at Christmas those stern Victorians

  • gave themselves permission to indulge their kids.

  • [ Talks indistinctly ]

  • The English tradition of singing starts very young.

  • We're visiting Theo's school as the children take center stage

  • at the 14th-century village church

  • for a very special Christmas concert.

  • [ Children singing to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" ]

  • ♪ ...This is the road to Bethlehem

  • on a cold and frosty morning

  • We're going to be taxed in Bethlehem, ♪

  • Bethlehem, Bethlehem

  • We're going to be taxed in Bethlehem

  • on a cold and frosty morning

  • Where should we stay in Bethlehem

  • Bethlehem, Bethlehem

  • Where should we stay in Bethlehem

  • on a cold and frosty morning? ♪

  • There is no place in Bethlehem, ♪

  • Bethlehem, Bethlehem

  • There is no place to Bethlehem

  • on a cold and frosty morning ♪♪

  • [ Applause ]

  • [ Children singing "Jingle Bells" ]

  • Christmas is drawing near,

  • and tonight these lucky children

  • are taking a train through the woods

  • to meet Santa,

  • or as the English know him, Father Christmas.

  • Man: Come on in now.

  • Come on in and stand just there.

  • And you stand just there.

  • You come across there. That's right.

  • Tell me your names.

  • Now, what's your name?

  • Dillon. Hello.

  • What's your name?

  • [ Answers ]

  • And what's your name?

  • Jack.

  • Well done! Now then, most important.

  • What do you want for Christmas?

  • I don't know.

  • Just some surprises.

  • I'm very good at surprises.

  • And what do you want?

  • Well, I haven't writ my list out yet.

  • So we're going to wait for your list,

  • and when it comes, I'll be ready for it.

  • Now, are you going to do something for me?

  • Are you going to leave me something on Christmas eve?

  • Child: Yes!

  • What are you going to leave me?

  • Mince pies and wine!

  • And are you going to leave a carrot for the reindeer?

  • Yeah. Yes!

  • We'll check back on Christmas Eve

  • to see what Theo and Leila leave for Father Christmas.

  • Kate. And something special...

  • While children on their best behavior

  • ask Santa for the toy of their dreams,

  • my wish right now is a chance to hear

  • one of finest chamber choirs in England,

  • The Sixteen,

  • filling a classic church with timeless sounds of the season.

  • Woman soloist: ♪ The holly and the ivy

  • Trees that's both well-known

  • Of all the trees that grows in woods

  • The holly bears the crown

  • Chorus: ♪ The rising of the sun

  • The running of the deer

  • The playing of the merry harp

  • Sweet singing in the choir

  • Male soloist: ♪ The holly bears a bark

  • As bitter as any gall

  • And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

  • For to redeem us all

  • Chorus: ♪ The rising of the sun

  • The running of the deer

  • The playing of the merry harp

  • Sweet singing in the choir

  • Woman soloist: ♪ The holly and the ivy

  • Trees that's both well-known

  • Of all the trees that grows in woods

  • The holly bears the crown

  • Chorus: ♪ The rising of the sun

  • The running of the deer

  • The playing of the merry harp

  • Sweet singing in the choir ♪♪

  • Leaving the tranquility of the English countryside behind,

  • London offers Christmas fun fit for a queen

  • and streets filled with holiday cheer.

  • There's magic in the air.