The night before Christmas
At 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 http://keithosborn.co.uk/