Filming Christmas in 7 European Countries

Rick Steves' European film crew
A family sits down for Christmas dinner, Austria
A candle-lit group of choirgirls
By Rick Steves

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 hope will be around for many Christmases to come. 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 traditions. We wanted to feature diverse cultures whose colorful Christmas celebrations 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 recent commercialization of the holiday season has driven me abroad for several recent Christmasses, I was happy to take our crew to a continent where people aren't counting the shopping days left until Christmas.

Writing the script 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 blow-out Christmas to remember…and they all did. These kids will always recall 2005 as the strange year they celebrated Christmas twice.

Scheduling was also tricky, as there were concerts (such as a choir singing "Silent Night" in the church where it was first performed) and Christmas season celebrations (such as Santa Lucia Day in Norway) that had to happen on a specific day. Each crew 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.

After considering everywhere from Poland to Greece to Ireland, we settled on seven cultures: England is so perfectly jolly and ye olde, with a Dickensian ambience and a wonderful tradition of caroling. Norway is the home of three of my grandparents, so it gave us a great chance to be with family while giving a glimpse at the wintry Nordic culture. We included France hoping to show off the rich (and tasty) traditions of a great culture the challenges so many Americans. Bavaria and Tirol are bursting with holiday traditions — home of those famous Christmas markets, "O Tannenbaum," and "Silent Night." We couldn't miss Italy, where we'd film life in Tuscany — so salt-of-the-earth in everything it does, especially holidays — and a very memorable Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. Finally, our storybook "white Christmas" village would be high in the Swiss Alps.

England came through royally. Maddy Thomas (who runs 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.

Norway was wet and warm, and the secular Norwegians don't really do Christmas with the gusto I imagined. I visited my very traditional cousin, only to find that the holiday felt about as robust as Columbus Day. But we did manage to go to 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 Akers Kirch. 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, blond, 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 CD and some of the most beautiful photos for our coffee-table book.

In France, we found Paris celebrates Christmas with its typical urban flair: extravagant lighting, yummy window displays, skating up on the Eiffel Tower. And the Burgundy 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.

Bavaria and Tirol proved to be classic Christmas country. Even though I was determined to keep the shopping focus down, I couldn't help but be impressed by Germany's grandest Christmas market in Nürnberg with its angelic Christkind. We learned how Martin Luther, the local reformer, wanted to shift the focus from St. Nicholas back to the Christ child…who somehow has morphed into a sweet teenage girl. Like the region's children, we were mesmerized with Nürnberg's quirky Christmas angel. In an auditorium with several hundred lovingly wonderstruck grade-schoolers, the Christkind held court. Filming the children mob her after she said, "If you're very, very gentle, you can touch my wings," was great TV.

We knew that filming an intimate family Christmas feast would not necessarily come out natural and fun-loving, so we filmed them wherever we could and expected to jettison a few. The Bavarian family the German Tourist Board lined up for us tried hard…but the evening just felt stiff. We spent long hours feasting and filming with them, but ended up with nothing usable.

Thankfully, just over the border, the traditional Austrian family we filmed the next night exceeded all hopes. They took me dashing through the fields in a two-horse open sleigh. Then, at the door of their gingerbread-cute yet massive home, the entire family greeted us with a Christmas yodel. Inside their time-warp home, a classic grandma was making cookies with children you just had to pinch, an old Habsburg-era grandpa played the zither, Mom lit the advent wreath while teaching her child the significance of each candle, and Dad blessed the house from the attic to the barn with incense as his daughter sprinkled Holy Water with a sprig of spruce. The parents secretly decorated the tree, placed the gifts, and lit the real candles. They rang the bell, and the kids tumbled into the room so filled with wonder. When our cameraman smiles as he films, I know we're getting good footage.

Austria had its musical ups and downs. I was excited to experience the ritual reenactment of the first performance of "Silent Night" in Oberndorf, the town where it originated. We scrambled to get out there on Christmas Eve and set up at the several spots where events were to take place. But it was basically a muddy, touristy mess, with underwhelming music and not a hint of the magic we had naively hoped for. I managed to persuade the musicians to perform for us a private little concert in the church, so we at least filmed "Silent Night" as it was first performed (two guitars and two singers). My Christmas Eve dinner was the last two bratwursts on the griddle with a stale roll, snapped up just as they were closing down the tent.

Racing back into Salzburg to salvage something of Christmas Eve, we hiked to the abbey where Maria of The Sound of Music caused her fellow sisters to sing, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" The sisters had agreed to let our crew be present at their Holy Mass, but I guess they didn't understand we wanted to actually use the big camera we had lugged up the hill. When we got there, they said no camera, just a microphone. So our sound man carefully set up the microphone stand to the side of the altar facing the choir of nuns (as I sat in the back happily humming "Climb Ev'ry Mountain"). Suddenly, the old but very spry Mother Superior dashed across the altar in the direction of the out-of-sight nuns' choir. Seconds later, our sound man was evicted — dragging all his gear along, with a tail between his legs, out of that holy zone. He had to set up the mic farther back in the nave, making the recording unusable. Thankfully, the next morning — Christmas morning — we were given a royal perch from which to shoot in the Salzburg Cathedral as a huge orchestra and choir filled the place with a glorious Diabelli Mass.

Next on our itinerary was Rome — where the specialty is manger scenes. It was a Bethlehem home show, as all over town creative crèches were on display. The highlight was filming the midnight Mass at the Vatican on Christmas Eve — which happened to be Pope John Paul II's last Christmas. The vast basilica was packed, the pope seemed radiant, and our cameraman put our viewers right in the front pew. What you didn't see was 10,000 worshippers tumbling out of St. Peter's at about 1:00 in the morning in the rain. Our crew took up the rear, was unable to find a taxi, and had to walk through Rome for an hour laden with all their gear to get back to their hotel.

Several days before that, we had been in the Swiss Alps, our one last hope for snow. I had to get snow in the Alps...and just barely did. The Alps would also be a great place to rendezvous with my family. (Other shows I'd watched where the host was without family seemed almost mournful.)

I am well-connected in the fairy-tale village of Gimmelwald. My key support person was Olle, the village schoolteacher. He had emailed me photos of his beautiful snow-covered village a month before. But December had been unseasonably warm, and on the days leading up to our arrival the town was bare and wet. Thankfully, a strong snowfall hit the day of our arrival, giving us the white Christmas of our prayers.

Gimmelwald was a folk festival of Christmas traditions. Olle arranged everything. He planned a sledding expedition to cut down the tree, arranged a cozy fondue in a remote hut, and lit our torches as we skied and sledded back down the mountain into his village. Olle's parents came by (grandpa even grew an old-fashioned big white beard for the filming) as they pulled out all the stops to celebrate a traditional Swiss family Christmas Eve…on December 21. Anne and our two kids flew in for just three days and performed heroically considering the jet lag.

After 15 years of cameos in our TV shows, my son Andy got a serious part. This year he was Samichlaus — that's Swiss-German for "St. Nick." Andy's sidekick, the black-clad henchman Schmutzli, was Olle's son, Sven. And the donkey played…himself. We filmed Gimmelwald's children enjoying the annual visit from this dynamic Christmas duo. This year, Schmutzli translated because Samichlaus spoke only English. Ignoring the language barrier, the cute little village children just promised they were nice and not naughty, sang their Swiss Santa a Christmas carol, and eagerly dug into his big burlap bag to get their goodies.

I've worked with producer Simon Griffith for six 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 then 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, assistant field producer), Gene Openshaw (script and book text editing), Maddy Thomas (England mom/guide/organizer), Christina Schneeweiss (Salzburg guide/organizer), our two talented and hard working cameramen (Karel Bauer and Peter Rummel), and many more both in Europe and in our home office.

This was the first time PBS provided me with production funds. This enabled us to bring along an extra crew member (a sound person, as concerts and music would be a huge part of our production priorities) and to pay for the rights to broadcast performances by some top musical groups so we could make a CD.

The tour guide in me was determined to cover the Christmas concepts and "meet the locals." We succeeded, learning 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 they don't put up trees until Christmas Eve. We celebrated the holiday with Umbrian peasants, trendy Norwegians, Victorian English, dirndl-clad Tiroleans, and Burgundian monks, all of whom contributed to this fascinating and heartwarming story.

We hope you can enjoy "Rick Steves' European Christmas" this holiday season on your public television station. Buon Natale! Fröhliche Weihnachten! Joyeux Noël! Merry Christmas!