Christmas past and Christmas future
All too soon, Christmas is over. Or is it? It seems like most countries of the world like to keep the celebrations going for as long as they can.
Boxing Day – 26 December – is unique to Great Britain. Traditionally, it is on this day that churches in England open their alms boxes and distribute the contents to the poor. Servants used to be allowed a rare day off and it was customary to break open their tips boxes on this day. Other countries may not have Boxing Day, perhaps, but most tend to keep this “second day of Christmas” special too. In Sweden the Second day of Christmas is traditionally a day of carol singing. In Holland this Second Christmas Day often finds families going out to a restaurant to eat, and many concerts, recitals, and other musical performances make this Christmas Day special.
The feast of the Holy Innocents is 28 December. Traditionally this day is celebrated with the lighting of bonfires in the towns and villages of Spain. One young boy takes the role of the mayor and demands that the people perform all sorts of community tasks. Failure to comply results in fines to pay for the celebrations!
For the Scots, New Year’s Eve, called Hogmanay, is most definitely the primary focus of the festive season, with parties and celebrations across the country. The first person to set foot in the house in the new year is meant to dictate the fortunes of the family. Unusually, strangers are thought to bring good luck. For the Japanese, New Year’s Day remains the most important day in their calendar. The house is cleaned from top to bottom ready for the start of the new year, and evil spirits are banished with the throwing of dried beans into every corner of the house!
The Mari Lwyd or, in Welsh, Y Fari Lwyd, is a New Year custom once prevalent in the valleys of South Wales. Translated, the name means ‘the Grey (or Holy) Mary’ although this is likely a more recent rendering of ‘the Grey Mare’, as the tradition surrounding the Mari Lwyd involves the parading of a horse’s skull. To create the Mari Lwyd, a skull is fixed to a wooden pole with white sheets attached to its base so that the person holding it is concealed beneath. Green bottle-bottoms provide the eyes and ribbons festoon the skull. The lower jaw is often sprung so that it can snap shut at anyone foolish enough to get too close. The Mari Lwyd is then escorted by a Sergeant and Punch and Judy figures, as well as a choir of singers, as the group goes door-to-door through the community. They challenge the occupants of houses or, more recently, public houses, to a singing contest where each tries to outdo the other in clever putdowns, all the while maintaining the strict rhythm of the verse.
Many people celebrate Epiphany on 6 January (12 days after Christmas in the Gregorian calendar), and others celebrate on the first Sunday of the New Year. This day marks not only the end of Christmas but also the start of the Carnival season, which climaxes with Mardi Gras. In some European countries, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, children dress as the three kings and visit houses. In their roles as the kings, or wise men, they sing about Jesus’ birth and pay homage to the “king of kings”. They are rewarded with praise and cookies.
Dia de los Reyes Magos is the Latin American celebration of Epiphany. In many Latin American countries, it is the three wise men and not Santa Claus who bring gifts for children. Children write letters to the wise men telling them how good they were and what gifts they want. In France Le Jour des Rois (the Day of Kings), sometimes called the Fête des Rois, is celebrated with parties for children and adults. The gallete des rois, or “cake of kings”, is often the highlight of these celebrations. In Québec, the end of Christmas is signified by La fête du Roi (on 6 January). To celebrate, you make a cake with a bean inside. Whoever gets the bean in their slice of cake is the King (or Queen) for the day!
Children in Spain receive gifts on the feast of Epiphany. Traditionally, they fill their shoes with straw, carrots or barley for the three kings’ horses to eat and place them on balconies or by the front door on Epiphany Eve. The next day they hope that Balthazar, who rides a donkey, has left cookies, sweets or gifts in their place. Of course, that’s if they have been good. If they’ve been bad, then all they receive is coal – this tradition is still preserved today, but luckily there a many “coal” sweets on the market now! The “three kings” still make an entry in many cities in Spain on Epiphany Eve, accompanied by military bands and drummers in medieval dress.
If you can’t get enough of Christmas, and can’t wait for next Christmas to come, simply head for Ethiopia. The Ethiopians follow the ancient Julian calendar, which means they celebrate Christmas on 7 January. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s celebration of Christ’s birth is called Ganna. It is a day when families attend church. Everyone dresses in white. Most Ethiopians don a traditional shamma – a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly coloured stripes across the ends. Twelve days after Ganna, on 19 January, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ.
The Chinese lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, begins in late January or early February. Celebrations last for three days and although not part of Christmas, the New Year is the most important celebration of the year for Chinese people. People travel long distances to be with their families. They decorate their homes with brightly coloured banners carrying messages of good wishes for the coming year. Many people exchange gifts at New Year. For the first celebration, on New Year’s Day, people offer rice, vegetables, tea, and wine to heaven and earth. They burn incense and candles to pay tribute to their ancestors and to all living members of the family.
Chinese families are awed by spectacular New Year’s fireworks displays and the exciting lion dance. Several performers, dancing inside an enormous costume, make the lion walk, slither, glide, leap, and crouch along the street as it leads a colourful procession. The greatest spectacle takes place at the Feast of the Lanterns, when everyone lights at least one lantern for the occasion. Other special events of the New Year include the Festival of the Dragons and the Fisherman’s Festival. What a fantastic way to round off such wonderful Christmas and New Year celebrations?
However you choose to celebrate the festive season, we hope that your Christmas sparkles with fun, laughter, and good cheer and we wish every one of you a healthy, happy and most delightful New Year.
Grace, Jacqui and Sarah
Please note that our office will be closed from Monday 24 December until 9:00am on Wednesday 2 January 2013.
Photo courtesy of Keith Osborn Photography http://keithosborn.co.uk/