Monthly Archives: December 2012

A Global Christmas (III)

Christmas past and Christmas future

Image005All 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

A global Christmas (II)

The night before Christmas

FakeXmas13At last Christmas is here. It’s so close you can almost touch it. We reach the climax of the festive season with the coming of Christmas Eve and the dawning of Christmas Day. But what special treats do they bring across the world?

In Canada as in Germany, a lavish Christmas dinner takes place on Christmas Eve. But whereas in Canada Santa brings his gifts down the chimney in the night for children to open gleefully the following day, in Germany, they open their gifts on Christmas Eve too. For Venezuelans, the main celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, Noche Buena, as it is called in Spanish. Families get together to enjoy the traditional holiday meal: hallacas, pan de jamón, dulce de lechoza. The pan de jamón is a long bread filled with cooked ham and raisins. The dulce de lechoza is a dessert made of green papaya and brown sugar, slowly cooked for hours and served cold. In France and in Québec, Christmas dinner is called Réveillon (waking up) and is often eaten when everyone returns from midnight mass on Christmas Eve – maybe as late (or as early) as two o’clock on Christmas Day morning. It’s usually duck followed by rice pudding with almonds in Québec, but the French prefer goose in Alsace, turkey with chestnuts in Burgundy, or oysters and pâté de foie gras in Paris. Vive la différence!

There is a lovely tradition in Poland called Wigilia. The Christmas feast cannot begin until the first star appears in the night sky. So, Christmas is often known as Gwiazdka (Little Star). The celebrations begin with the sharing of a rice wafer that has been blessed by the parish priest. The main meal really is a feast worth waiting for. Eaten on Christmas Eve, it consists of 12 courses representing the 12 apostles. An extra place is always set at the table in case a stranger or the Holy Spirit drops in. There is a similar tradition in Portugal where they have an additional feast, called consoada, in the early hours of Christmas Day. The extra places they set at the table are for the souls of the dead (alminhas a penar). In the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church, Christians fast until Christmas Eve when they have a meat-free meal. A Christmas porridge, called kutya, is the primary meal. The ingredients of wheat berries and grains symbolise hope and immortality, honey and poppy seeds bring happiness and success.

The Christmas Eve supper in Lithuania is similar to the celebrations in Poland. The table is spread with a linen tablecloth under which a little hay or straw has been placed. In earlier times the hay or straw was put on the floor under the table for the dead to rest on after their meal. The Christian interpretation is that the hay is there to remind us that Christ was born in a manger. The members of the household sit down at the table in order of seniority. Up until quite recent times it was not unusual to set a place for an absent or recently deceased person and some Lithuanians still do so. The meal begins with a prayer and the breaking of the special Christmas Eve wafers, called variously kalėdaičiai (from the word Kalėdos “Christmas”), plotkelės (wafers) or Dievo pyragaičiai (God’s biscuits/wafers), begun by the head of the household. As the wafer is broken, good wishes for the coming year are exchanged. These thin wafers, made from unleavened wheat dough are also a symbol of the body of Christ. These wafers are made by the Catholic Church and are available at any parish rectory in good time for Christmas Eve. The wafers usually have either the cross or the contraction IHS (Iesus Hominem Salvator – Jesus, Saviour of Humankind) on them. In earlier times, before the widespread availability of these wafers, bread would have been broken.

The traditional Christmas Eve supper in Lithuania consists of 12 dishes, one for each month of the year. The more recent interpretation – under the influence of Christianity – is that the 12 dishes remind us of the 12 apostles at the Last Supper. These are some of the dishes (which differ from region to region and how well off people are): pickled or marinated herring with mushrooms; fried herrings in tomato sauce; baked stuffed fish (pike or carp); beet soup with ‘little ears’ (a kind of dumpling); sauerkraut salad; sautéed sauerkraut; cranberry pudding; oatmeal pudding; whole wheat with honey (i.e. kūčios or kūčia); Christmas Eve biscuits with poppy seed milk (made by grinding the poppy seed in a mortar; a job given to the men or children of the household); apples; and dried fruit compote. Homemade beer or gira, a fermented non-alcoholic drink, would be served with the meal.

In Germany, Christmas Day traditionally involves roast goose, Christstollen (long loaves of bread made with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), Lebkuchen (spicy biscuits), marzipan, and Dresden Stollen (fruit loaf). In Greece, after 40 days of fasting, everyone is more than ready to eat a huge feast. And a big hog roast fits the bill wonderfully. Christopsomo loaves (Christ bread) are popular, and often engraved with a symbol to denote the family’s profession. Christians in Iran fast from meat on 1 December, this custom is known as the Little Fast (the Big Fast being for lent). So, it is not surprising to learn that after church on Christmas Day, Christmas Dinner is known as the Little Feast. Harasa (chicken stew) is one traditional dish) eaten for the Little Feast in Iran. Christmas was introduced to Japan by the Christian missionaries, but now it has been adopted (and commercialised) wholeheartedly – even down to the eating of turkey on Christmas Day.

The tradition of a yule log, now a frequent feature of Christmas globally, comes from Scandinavia. For most of us, the yule log means food – usually a very tasty cake. But originally the yule log was exactly that – a log, or more often than not, a whole tree. After much ceremony, the yule tree was placed in the hearth and it slowly burnt in the fire. It would keep the family warm for the whole of Yuletide. Yuletide, means “the turning of the sun” or the winter solstice.

Check out the next instalment of our Christmas blog to find out what customs are celebrated after Christmas Day and how the New Year is welcomed in.

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

A Global Christmas

Christmas is coming

Image007It’s Christmastime. Don’t we all just love Christmas and all its traditions? But have you ever wondered whether your Christmas traditions are the same the world over? And, where did it begin anyway?

O’ little town of Bethlehem: this is where Jesus is said to have been born. Bethlehem is the site of the Church of the Nativity and it prides itself on a most magnificent procession of galloping horsemen, who every year solemnly place an effigy of the Holy Child in the church. A silver star marks the site of the birth of Jesus.

We can’t all go to Bethlehem to see this beautiful nativity scene so many cultures create their own. The popularity of the Nativity scene originated in Italy when St. Francis of Assisi performed mass in front of an early Nativity scene. In northeastern Brazil, creating a Presépio has been a common tradition since the 17th century. The word originates from the Hebrew word “presepium”, which means the bed of straw upon which Jesus first slept in Bethlehem. Both France and Spain too have very strong traditions of displaying a nativity scene, which becomes the focus of the Christmas celebration. In Venezuela, many homes put up a Christmas tree but the most authentic Venezuelan custom is to display a nacimiento (Nativity scene). A more sophisticated nacimiento is the pesebre. This represents an entire region with mountains, hills, plains and valleys. The central point is a replica of the manger at Bethlehem. The structure is a framework covered with canvas and painted accordingly. Often, the pesebre becomes a real work of art.

We may have Father Christmas in the UK, but does he really travel the world? In Australia, there’s talk of the Swag Man taking over the reins from Santa Claus. He wears a brown Akubra – you know, that iconic Australian hat – a blue singlet and long baggy shorts. That’s certainly not the big and cheery, white-bearded, ho-ho-ho-ing Santa we all know and love. Instead of a herd of reindeer with Rudolf at its head, he spends the winter under Uluru (otherwise known as Ayers Rock) with his pack of merry dingoes, and instead of a sleigh, Swag Man has a big four-wheel drive of course! In Brazil, he is Papai Noel (Father Noel), who lives in Greenland, but sheds his layers in favour of a cool silk outfit in keeping with the summer heat. In Greece, St. Nicholas is patron saint of sailors and a very powerful image, drenched in seawater and dripping in brine! In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklass, travels from Spain on his feast day of 5 December. Children fill their shoes with hay, carrots and sugar for his horse and in return, Sinterklass fills their shoes with treats and gifts. In Nicaragua, the three wise men bring gifts for children on 6 January, the feast of Epiphany. In Norway a little gnome, known as Julebukk (Christmas buck), is the bringer of gifts. This goat-like creature dates back to Viking times when pagans worshipped Thor and his goat. In Sweden, a Christmas gnome, known as tomte, comes up from the cellars on Christmas Eve bringing a sack of gifts for everyone. In Russia, St. Nicholas is highly popular, but he was transformed into Grandfather Frost during the communist years. Before the revolution, it was Babouschka who brought children gifts. In Venezuela, tradition has it that it is the Child Jesus who brings gifts to the Venezuelan children instead of Santa Claus.

Christmas comes but once a year, but when does it come to you? If you were in New Zealand, you would be among the first people in the world to celebrate Christmas; New Zealand is the first country immediately west of the international date line, so they start celebrating early. Everyone else just has to wait a bit longer for Christmas to come. Many European countries get round this time delay by starting early. Often children leave a shoe or boot by the fireplace on the eve of 6 December. During the night, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, moves from house to house to fill up these boots. Remember tho’, if you’ve been good, your boots will be filled with all good things (often tasty treats), but if you’ve been bad, all you’ll get are twigs or coal! Spain’s festive season begins on 8 December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, with a traditional dance ceremony called los Seises or the “dance of six”. (Although it is now more usually danced by 10 beautifully costumed boys rather than six!)

The custom of gift-giving on Christmas Day, at least in the US and the UK, dates back to Victorian times. Before then it was more common to exchange gifts on New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night. In France, Père Noël may bring young children small gifts on St Nicholas eve (6 December), and then he comes again on Christmas day. The poor adults, however, have to wait until New Year’s Day before they exchange gifts. In Greece too, gifts aren’t exchanged until St. Basil’s Day (which is 1 January), when all the water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with new St. Basil’s Water and offerings are made to the spirits of Spring.

King Canute of Sweden declared that Christmas would last a month, from 13 December – the feast of St. Lucia – until 13 January. Christmas celebrations begin with a most beautiful ceremony on the feast of St. Lucia. The eldest daughter of each family dresses in a long white dress, with a red sash, and wears an evergreen wreath with seven candles on her head. Often they bring coffee and special buns to friends and family as a reflection of the legend of St. Lucia. Lucia was a 4th century Sicilian saint, who is said to have taken food to persecuted Christians hiding underground in dark tunnels. There are usually large processions of children in towns and villages, singing carols and bringing light and hope to the community, in thanks to the Queen of Light.

In Venezuela, the religious celebrations begin on the 16 December with masses said every morning until 24 December, when the religious service is held at midnight (Misa de Gallo).

Do you dream of a white Christmas? For me, Christmas is always cold, sometimes snowy, but definitely crisp. Wouldn’t it be strange celebrating Christmas in Australia where it’s summer time, and anything from 25-40 degree heat?

Before children could tweet, text or email their Christmas wish list to Santa or Father Claus, how on earth did they get their messages to him? There was a time, not so long ago, when good old snail mail sufficed in the UK and all mail addressed to Father Christmas at the North Pole would certainly be delivered. But before that? Children still wrote their letters to Father Christmas, but they tossed them in the fireplace. Not because they’d been naughty and knew their wishes would go unanswered, but because the draft would carry their letters up the chimney and Father Christmas would read the smoke, clever man. It’s a similar tale in Italy where children write their Christmas wishes to their parents. After being read aloud, their letters are tossed on the fire for La Befana (the mythical Christmas witch) to receive. La Befana means Epiphany, so Italian children have to wait until 6 January – Epiphany – to receive their gifts.

Do you still hang out a stocking on your fireplace? Once, Father Christmas is said to have dropped some gold coins down the chimney. Luckily, a stocking had been hung out to dry by the fire and caught them before they disappeared into the grate. Since then, children have been hanging out stockings in the hope of them being filled with goodies. On Christmas Eve, Christian children in China hang up their muslin stockings that are specially made so Dun Che Lao Ren, or Christmas Old Man, can fill them with wonderful gifts. Santa Claus may also be called Lan Khoong-Khoong, Nice Old Father.

Carol singing is an old English custom. The word “carol” means “song of joy”. In the middle ages, groups of singers called “waits” would pass from house to house spreading the holiday spirit through song. In Greece, children pass from house to house on Christmas Eve spreading their good wishes and singing kalanda (like our carols); sometimes they are given sweets as a little reward. Music plays an important role in the celebrations in Venezuela too. The traditional songs are called aguinaldos. In the old days the aguinalderos (singers of aguinaldos) would go from home to home singing their songs and playing traditional instruments such as the cuatro (a small, four-string guitar) the maracas (rattle) and the furruco (a small, elongated drum with a wooden stick in the middle).

The custom of trimming and decorating a Christmas tree with lights originated in pre-Christian Germany. The tree symbolises the Garden of Eden and was called the Paradies Baum or tree of Paradise, sometimes the tree of life. The custom evolved into decorating the tree with cookies, fruit and eventually candles. The idea never really took off in France, but it has been popular in the UK since 1841 when Prince Albert had a tree set up in Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria. Christmas trees were banned by the Russian communist regime, but New Year’s trees continued to be decorated. In most Greek homes, instead of decorating a Christmas tree, it is more usual to place a piece of fresh basil in a wooden bowl of water, suspended by wire and wrapped around a cross. Every day, the basil and cross are dipped in holy water and then each room of the house is given a sprinkling to keep the mischievous Killantzaroi (goblins and sprites) away. In India, you are more likely to see a mango or banana tree decorated than a Norway spruce or Nordman fir. Christians in China put up a Christmas tree called the “tree of light”. It is decorated with beautiful lanterns, flowers, and red paper chains to symbolize happiness. Christmas is known as Sheng Dan Jieh, which means Holy Birth Festival. The Chinese decorate their homes too with evergreens, bright paper chains and paper lanterns, and they cut out red pagodas to paste on the windows.

Many countries have adopted the German tradition of making an Advent wreath four Sundays before Christmas. The wreath is usually made of fir or pine branches and on it should be four coloured candles (often red) and one white candle, which is usually in the centre. Every Sunday until Christmas one of the coloured candles is lit but it is not until Christmas Day that the white candle burns bright.

The poinsettia is a native plant of Mexico and is thought to have been part of the Christmas celebrations since the 17th Century. The legend associated with the poinsettia is of a boy who realises he has nothing to offer the Christ Child when visiting his church nativity scene, he picks some green branches from the roadside and when he laid them in the manger, beautiful red star-shaped flowers appeared. It is now used globally as a symbol of Christmas.

Check out the next instalment of our Christmas blog to find out how the countries of the world celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

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