Christmas is coming
It’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 http://keithosborn.co.uk/