What sweet treats can't you imagine Christmas celebrations without? Here's the answer from 27 countries comprising the European Union.
Let's explore the most popular Christmas holiday treats in each EU country without further ado.
Italy - Panettone
The Italians know how to celebrate with flair, and they don't skimp on desserts. In fact, Italians themselves might have a bit of trouble deciding which is their signature Christmas dessert. But according to the sales numbers, it's Panettone, a leavened, fluffy, and airy, Milanese sweet bread traditionally filled with candied citrus and raisins, and nowadays often filled with chocolate chips, nuts, various flavored creams, and more.
But the list of staple Italian Christmas desserts is quite long and includes Pandoro, a Veronese sweet bread without candied fruits, Torrone (brittle nougat candy with toasted nuts, often flavored), Mostaccioli, soft, heavily spiced and dark chocolate-covered cookies from Naples, and Frutta di Martorana, marzipan candy shaped like fruits and painted as realistically as possible.
Germany - Stollen
Stollen, a dense and heavy sweet bread dense straddled with various ingredients like candied or dried fruit, nuts, spices, and rum-softened raisins, has been a staple of German Christmas celebrations since at least the early 14th century.
This is not to say that no other desserts contest stollen's place at the top. Other staple German Christmas desserts include Lebkuchen, one of the world's most famous gingerbread cookie varieties, and Pfeffernüsse, petite, heavily spiced cookies covered with white icing. Marzipan candy and Rumkugeln (Rum balls) are also popular during the season.
Spain - Turron Nougat
It's a well-known fact that Christmas in Spain is unimaginable without turron. Turron is a Spanish nougat. What sets it apart from other European nougats is the higher nut content: both Turron de Alicante and Turron de Jijona must contain over 60% of their weight in almonds. The only difference is that the brittle Alicante-style turron contains whole nuts, while the soft Jijona turron has the nuts ground to paste first.
Other traditional Spanish Christmas treats include Polvorón cookies and marzipan, particularly Toledo-style marzipan.
France - Bûche de Noël
There's no shortage of sweet treats served during the holiday season in France, but Bûche de Noël, or Yule Log Cake, is the uncontested favorite that has undoubtedly become the seminal French Christmas Dessert in the eyes of the world. The base is a simple sponge cake (usually genoise), which is rolled to form a cylinder and then elaborately decorated with chocolate buttercream or ganache to resemble a tree log as realistically as possible.
Interestingly enough, Bûche de Noël is younger than other staple French Christmas desserts like Bredele cookies, Pâte de Coing (quince paste), or Nonettes, small gingerbread-honey cakes. It emerged in the 19th century.
Luxembourg - Äppelklatzen
The influence of its neighboring Germany and France is very apparent in Luxembourg, with stollen, Yule Log cake, and gingerbread cookies all staples of the Christmas season.
But among its native desserts, Äppelklatzen is the absolute seasonal favorite. It's an apple pastry made with twice-cooked filling. First, the apples are separately cooked with sugar and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Once they get soft, they're wrapped in pastry and baked until the dough is golden brown.
Belgium - Speculaas or Speculoos
While the names sound similar, Speculaas and Speculoos are two different cookies. Speculaas is traditionally seasoned with a blend of Speculaas spices, while Speculoos obtains its signature flavors through a painstaking sugar caramelization process. Lotus cookies are the most famous Belgian Speculoos and often a staple of Christmas feasts, both as cookies and as flavoring ingredients in other desserts.
Netherlands - Banketstaaf
Banketstaaf, or Dutch Banket Letter, is a sweet pastry filled with either almond paste or persipan, commonly shaped like a letter. It traditionally used to be consumed on December 5, Sinterklaasavond or Saint Nicholas' Eve, the original gift-giving holiday. Nowadays, it's served throughout the month, firmly establishing itself as a prime seasonal treat. The Netherlands is another country where Marzipan figurines are a Christmas staple, often given as gifts.
Portugal - Bolo Rei (King's Cake)
As it befits the name, the King's Cake, or Bolo Rei, is the main dessert during Christmastime in Portugal. In fact, it's considered mandatory to have at least a few bites on Christmas day, even if the person in question doesn't like it.
Bolo Rei is a type of fruit cake made with soft, sweetened dough generously filled with crystalized fruits, nuts, and raisins. It's additionally flavored with lemon or orange zest and a splash of Port wine. The cake contains a small object (traditionally a dried fava bean, but nowadays, a metal token is also common). Whoever gets the hidden object in their slice pays for the cake the following year.
There's also a version of the cake called Bolo Rainha or Queen's Cake. It's essentially the same, but it doesn't contain crystallized fruit, just raisins and nuts.
Formigos de Natal (port. "Christmas ants") is another traditional holiday treat. It's made with bread, pine nuts, honey, raisins, dried fruit, Port Wine, and lemon peel. The wine and peel are first boiled together, and then the rest of the ingredients are added until you get a pudding-like consistency.
Bulgaria - Banitsa
Banitsa is a multi-layered bread made with filo pastry. The thin pastry sheets are wrapped around the filling and then baked in the oven. Banitsa is traditionally baked in Bulgaria for Christmas and New Year's Eve holidays. It can be either savory (the most popular banitsa filling is made with whisked eggs, natural yogurt, and brined cheese) or sweet, filled with apples or pumpkins, sugar, and walnuts.
Croatia - Kroštule
Croatian Kroštule or Hrustule are deep-fried dough ribbons dusted with powdered sugars. Kroštule is also called Angel Wings. They're typically twisted into knots before frying, though the shapes of the knot differ. One of the most popular knots is a simple ribbon pin shape. They're very crunchy and sweet. Other Christmas staples include Kiflice, vanilla-flavored crescent cookies, and Breskvice, two-layered peach-shaped pink cookies.
Republic of Cyprus - Gennopitta
Greece and Cyprus share many dishes, including Christmas staples, but Gennopitta is inarguably Cyprus's specialty. It's a sweet yeast-leavened bread generously flavored with sugar, mastic, and aniseed. It's made on Christmas Eve and eaten on Christmas day. It's decorated with a dough cross on top and covered with sesame seeds. Gennopitta is supposed to symbolize the birth of Christ, so it's also called Christopsomo.
Cyprus's most popular Christmas cookies are Kourabiedes, light shortbread-like almond cookies. They're usually flavored with brandy, vanilla, mastika, or rose water.
Greece - Melomakarono
Melomakarono or Melomakarona are egg-shaped honey cookies filled with dates and nuts. The cookie dough is made by mixing flour or semolina with honey and olive oil, with orange zest (or juice), cinnamon, and cognac added for additional flavor. Once baked, the cookies are immense in honey-sugar syrup.
Other typical Greek winter holiday sweets include Kourabiedes (the shortbread-like almond cookie), and Vasilopita, Greek New Year's Cake.
Czech Republic - Vánoční Cukroví
Vánoční Cukroví literally translates to "Christmas sweets" and are traditional Czech Christmas sugar cookies. The dough is often shaped into various figurines associated with the holidays, like Christmas trees, stars, or snowflakes, and decorated with colorful icing. Vánoční Cukroví is commonly two-layered, with the layers stuck together with jam, not unlike British Jammy Dodgers. Other typical Czech Christmas desserts include Apple strudel and Pernik (gingerbread cookies).
Austria - Vanillekipferl
Austrian Christmas desserts often overlap with other popular desserts in the region, like Speculaas (flat spiced shortcrust cookies), German Lebkuchen, and Rumkugeln, truffle-like cake or cookie butter flavored with chocolate and rum, rolled into small balls.
But Vanillekipferl is arguably Austria's signature Christmas treat. It's a small crescent-shaped biscuit made with walnuts (though almonds and hazelnuts are also common) and generously dusted with vanilla sugar. They originated in Vienna and are, to these days, the staple in Viennese coffee shops.
Slovakia - Makovník
Slovakia is another country under the spell of poppy seed cake. Slovakian Makovnik has a lot of similarities with Polish Makowiec, made similarly with a thin cake sheet rolled with a thick layer of poppy seed mixture.
If there's a traditional Slovakian Christmas pastry giving Makovnik a run for its money, it's likely Medvedie Labky (SK. "bear paws"), cookies made with ample amount of butter, eggs, walnuts, and cocoas. It's shaped similarly to French madeleines, and the brown color from cocoa makes it look like a bear paw, hence the name.
Denmark - Risalamande
A traditional Danish often served at Christmas dinner and Christmas lunch (Julefrokost), Risalamande is a type of sweet rice pudding. It differs from other similar desserts in that the pudding is mixed with whipped cream, making for a more decadent, sweeter dessert. Risalamande is usually served with chopped almonds and cherry sauce.
Other typical Christmas desserts include Brunkager, Danish brown sugar gingerbread cookies, Marzipan candy, particularly marzipan pigs, and Klenät, the Danish version of Angel wing pastry, similar to Kroštule.
Sweden - Lussebulle
Lussebulle is a Swedish saffron bun. It's technically more of a St. Lucia day (December 13), but it's served throughout the entire holiday season. Swedish saffron buns differ from Cornish ones, as there's no added cinnamon or nutmeg, and the bun has an unmistakable saffron flavor.
Risgrynsgröt is the Swedish Christmas rice pudding. It's typically served with sugar and cinnamon or, more rarely, with a fruit juice sauce.
And last, but not least, Sweden is another on the long list of countries that cannot do without gingerbread, or rather gingersnap, cookies during the winter festivities. Swedish gingersnap cookies are called Pepparkakor.
Finland - Joulutorttu
Joulutorttu literally translates to "yule tart," which says it all. It's a puff pastry tart, typically shaped either like a star or a pinwheel, and filled with sweet plum jam. While Joulutorttu is undoubtedly the king of the season, Finnish gingersnap cookies called Piparkakut do give it a run for its money. Other popular seasonal treats include Maustekakku, Finnish spice cake, and Riisipuuro, Finnish sweet rice pudding served with cinnamon.
Estonia - Piparkook
Typical Estonian Christmas feasts are more focused on savory foods than desserts. Cakes and fresh fruits like apples and mandarin oranges are common, but the one dessert that's distinctly Estonian would be Piparkook - thin, heavily spiced gingerbread cookies. In Estonia, it's traditional to bake Piparkook at home; however, many households simplify the process by getting pre-made dough.
Hungary - Bejgli
Poppy seed rolls are typical Christmas cakes in Central and Eastern Europe, with many countries giving them a distinct flair. Bejgli is the Hungarian take on the dessert, a combination of flaky dough and rich filling made with poppy seed or walnut paste. In Hungary, adding cherries, plums, chestnuts, and apples to the filling is becoming common.
Other Hungarian Christmas staples include Fatörzs, the Hungarian take on French Yule Log cake) and Szaloncukor, fondant candy covered with chocolate. It's typically wrapped in shiny colorful foil and hung up as a decoration.
Romania - Cozonac
Romanian Cozonac is a sweet, leavened bread made with a generous amount of eggs, milk, and butter. It's traditionally baked on special occasions and is a staple treat during Easter and Christmas periods.
Hungarian Szaloncukor candy is another treat popular in Romania during the Christmas season.
Slovenia - Potica
Slovenian Potica is somewhat similar to poppy seed cakes, but the cake layer is much thinner, and it's rolled more times, resulting in more layers. Potica can be filled with various ingredients, but walnuts are the most common. It's a traditional celebration cake served at Easter and Christmas.
Ireland - Irish Christmas Pudding
Irish Christmas Pudding, also known as Plum Pudding, is a local take on traditional British Christmas pudding. It's a dense and rich rum cake flavored with dried fruits, spices, brandy, and Irish whiskey.
Latvia - Piparkūkas
Latvia is another country where a thin gingersnap-style ginger cookie rules the holiday season. In Latvia, it's called Piparkūkas.
Mellenu Klimpas, a semi-thick blueberry soup with sweet dumplings made of wheat flour, milk, eggs, and sugar, is another seasonal favorite, often served as a dessert after Christmas dinner.
Lithuania - Kūčiukai
In Lithuania, the traditional Christmas feast is quite a complicated affair that includes twelve very specific dishes. There can be no hot food, meat, or dairy. Kūčiukai is the final dish served, thus automatically acting as a dessert. It's a small dry bread only slightly sweetened with sugar. Kūčiukai is often served soaked with poppy milk or cranberry kissel, upping the sweetness level.
Malta - Maltese Christmas Log
Malta is another country where Christmas Log cake reigns supreme, but the Maltese Christmas Log is quite different from the French Yule Log. It has more similarities to Italian chocolate salami. The base of the cake is made with crushed butter biscuits, nuts, and condensed milk, sometimes with the addition of candied fruits. The mixture is rolled into a log shape and left to set. Once it's solidified, it's covered in chocolate icing and decorated to look like a tree log.
Poland - Makowiec
Poppy seed roll reigns supreme once again! Only the Polish version is called Makowiec. Unlike Hungarian Bejgli, it's rare to find a novel take on the cake. The cake roll is most often made in the traditional manner, with a thin sheet of yeast-based pastry smeared with a layer of sweet poppy seed mixture, then rolled together to form a log. The poppy seed layer often contains raisins and candied fruit.
Poland is another country where the season is nigh-unimaginable without gingerbread cookies. Polish gingerbread is called Pierniczki Tradycyjne (traditional Pierniki).