All around the world, Christmas is one of the happiest and busiest times of the year. Many people look forward to family parties and the exchanging of gifts. Others observe the season in a more solemn fashion with religious ceremonies and prayers. For Christians the world over, it is a time to celebrate joy on the birthday of Jesus Christ.
The people eat a Christmas Eve meal of pancakes made without butter or oil. At the end of the meal, each person leaves a spoonful of food on his or her plate, to show gratitude for having more than is needed. Then, everyone stands to swing the table back and forth while singing: "May there be plenty in this house. May the time for a wedding be near."
In Armenia, the favored meal is fried fish and boiled spinach, eaten on Christmas Eve. They believe that the Virgin Mary ate boiled spinach on the night before Christ was born. Armenian festivities last for three days and include visiting and parties.
Christmastime is Austrialia is often very hot. The traditional meal might consist of a turkey dinner with ham and pork. Mince pies and a flaming Christmas plum pudding are frequently part of the dessert. During the gold rush, the pudding would sometimes contain a gold nugget. Today, a small favor is baked inside. Whoever finds this trinket is believed to be blessed with good luck. Some Australians (and tourists) have their Christmas dinner on the beach. Bondi Beach in Sydney's eastern suburbs in particular attracts thousands of people on Christmas Day. "Carols by Candelight" is an Australian trdition which began in 1937. It takes place every year on Christmas Eve, when tens of thousands of people gather in the City of Melbourne to sing their favorite songs while holding candles. A favorite Christmas decoration is the Christmas Bush, a native plant which sports tiny red-flowered leaves.
Christmas Day is an important occasion in Bulgaria. A special meal consisting of at least twelve dishes is prepared...all of them without meat and each one representing a separate month of the year. The dishes consist of beans, a variety of nuts, dried plums, cakes and the traditional Banitza. The entire family eats and finishes the meal at the same time, from a table covered with straw. In past times, Christmas was celebrated in a different fashion. Boys and young, unmarried men would visit houses, singing songs to bestow health and wealth upon the family. They were rewarded with money and food. They carried long sticks to hold the kravai (round breads with a hole in the middle) which they often received as compensation for their caroling.
For the small percentage of Chinese people who are Christians and who celebrate Christmas, the observed customs are similar to those practiced in the United States. Most erect artificial trees decorated with spangles, paper chains, flowers and lanterns. Chinese Christmas trees are known as "Trees of Light" and their Santa Claus goes by the name of Dun Che Lao Ren, which means "Christmas Old Man."
One ancient Christmas custom is for a girl to tell her fortune by putting a cherry twig in water on December 4th. If the twig blossoms before Christmas Eve, this is believed to be an indication that she will marry during the coming year.
An old but enchanting Czechoslovakian legend tells of how children were once asked to take a gift to put beside the crib in church. One family had no money with which to buy such a present, but was determined that their children should take something. They found an orange, which they felt would suffice, but were disappointed to find it molding at the top. Deciding to scoop out the rotted parts, they thought they would place a candle in the top and turn it into a lantern. When this proved to be rather ordinary looking, one of the daughters took a red ribbon from her hair and tied it around the middle. They had difficulty in getting the ribbon to stay in place, so they fastened it with four small sticks, upon the ends of which they put a few raisins. Apprehensive of the reactions of the other children, the makeshift lantern was nonetheless taken to church, where the priest acknowledged the gift and told the congregation how special it was. His reasoning for such a statement was as follows: The orange is round like the world and the candle stands tall and straight, giving light in the darkness, just like the love of God. The red ribbon encircles this "world" and is a symbol of the blood shed by Christ when he died for humankind. The four sticks point in all directions and symbolise North, South, East and West, as well as representing the Four Seasons. The raisins are reminiscent of the fruits of the Earth, nurtured by the sunshine and the rain.
Each Sunday in Advent, guests are invited to join in the lighting of the candles on the Advent Crown. Adults drink a warming mixture of red wine, spices and raisins, and children drink a sweet fruit juice, something like strawberry. Everyone eats small cakes of batter which have been cooked over the fire in a special pan and dusted with icing sugar.
The Coptic Church in Egypt is an Orthodox Church and Christmas is celebrated on December 7th. Advent is observed for forty days and, during this period, people are expected to fast, eating no meat, poultry or dairy products. Some people are inclined to do this only during the last week of Advent. On Christmas Eve, everyone goes to church wearing an entirely new outfit. The Christmas service ends at midnight with the ringing of church bells and people return to their homes to eat a special Christmas meal known as fata, which consists of bread, rice, garlic and boiled meat. On Christmas morning, people in Egypt (and other areas of the Middle East) visit friends and neighbors. They carry kaik with them, which is a type of shortbread, as a gift for those they call upon. Kaik is usually consumed with a drink known as shortbat. For Christians, Christmas Day is a public holiday.
In Ethiopia, the Christmas holiday is known as Ganna and is celebrated on January 7th. The celebration take place in ancient churches carved from solid volcanic rock and also in more modern churches that are designed in three concentric circles. Males sit in a separate area from the females, while the choir sings from the outside circle. People receive candles as they enter the church. After these are lit, everyone walks around the church three times and then stands throughout the remainder of the Mass, which may last up to three hours. Christmas meals usually include injera, a sourdough pancake, which serves as both a plate and an eating utensil. Doro wat, a spicy chicken dish, might be the main meal and is served in a beautifully decorated basket. The giving of gifts plays a very small part in the Ethopian Christmas celebrations. Children usually receive very simple presents, such as clothing.
Villagers cut pine boughs and pile them in a long, green carpet from the top of a hill the center of the village. This carpet is for the Christ Child. Finns eat a special Saint Stephen's Day porridge on Christmas Day and cookies are an important Scandinavian Christmas treat. Houses are given an extra good cleaning in readiness for the season and hours are spent in the kitchen, cooking and baking special treats for the family festivities. Some Finns fell their own trees (usually firs) which are tied to sleds and then taken home to be decorated. Natives of all Scandinavian Countries give food to birds at Christmas, since all the seeds, nuts and insects are covered with snow. Extra grain is left in the yard or garden for birds on Christmas Eve, and a sheaf containing an additional supply of nuts and seeds is often tied to a pole. In many rural areas, the people will not begin their own Christmas meal until the birds have eaten dinner.
Children put shoes on the doorstep or by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, in order that Petit Noel (the "Christ Child") or Pere Noel ("Father Christmas") might fill them with gifts. The houses are decorated with misteltoe, considered to be a symbol of good luck, and the French gift-giver has been known to leave sweets, fruit, nuts and small toys hanging on the Christmas tree. In cathedral squares, the story of Christ's birth is reenacted by both living players and puppets. In Provence, an area of southeastern France, the entire family helps bring in the Yule Log, which must be large enough to burn from Christmas Eve until New Year's Day. Many years ago, part of this log was used to make the wedge for the plough as good luck for the coming harvest. French families often set up a small Nativity scenes in their homes and, for their Christmas meal, will frequently serve Strasbourg (liver) pie and black pudding.
Many Christmas customs practiced around the world today are believed to have originated in Germany, the chief of which is probably the Christmas Tree. The modern German Tannenbaum is traditionally decorated in secret by the matriarch of the family and revealed on Christmas Eve. The trees are decorated with lights, tinsel, ornaments and candy, lubecker marzipan being one of the favored sweets. Marzipan is a type of almond candy which can be colored and moulded into many different shapes, such as fruit or toys. Some people have Christmas trees in their homes for each member of the family. Often, German families make their own gifts. The women and girls frequently give presents of hand-embroidered kerchiefs or sofa cushions, while the men and boys carve figures, both human and animal, from wood and paint them in bright colors. Children leave letters on their windowsills for Christkindl, a winged figure dressed in white robes and wearing a golden crown who distributes gifts. Sometimes, the letters are decorated with glue and sprinkled with sugar to make them sparkle. There is also a Christmas Eve character called Weihnachtsmann, or "Christmas Man," who bears a strong resemblance to Santa Claus and often comes bearing gifts.
On Christmas Eve, everyone gathers for the Bescheerung (the ceremony of lighting the tree). Afterward, the Christmas story is read, children receive their gifts, and everyone eats fruits, nuts, chocolate and biscuits from brilliantly decorated plates displayed close to the tree. Many German families enjoy roast goose for Christmas dinner, followed by cookies and beautifully-made gingerbread houses. Other popular treats include Christstollen (long loaves of bread bursting with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), Lebkuchen (spice bars) and Dresden Stollen (a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit). Another favorite is the Christmas tree pastry known as Christbaumgerback, a white dough that can be pressed into shapes and baked for tree decorations which can later be consumed when the tree is taken down.
In German, Dickbauch means "fat stomach" and is a name given to Christmas Eve because of the tradition that those who do not eat well on that occasion will be haunted by demons during the night. So, in addition to all the other food available, such dishes as suckling pig, Reisbrei (a sweet cinnamon), white sausage, macaroni salad and many regional dishes are on hand, should anyone feel the need to partake of a snack.
December 21st, traditionally the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, is Saint Thomas' Day. In some parts of the Sauerland, whoever wakes up late or arrives late to work on that day is issued the title: "Thomas Donkey." The person is given a cardboard donkey and is the subject of numerous jokes throughout the day. This gentle abuse comes to a delicious end with the eating of round, iced currant buns called Thomasplitzchen. According to German legend, on Christmas Eve, rivers turn to wine, animals converse with each other, tree blossoms bear fruit, mountains open to reveal precious gems and church bells may be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea. Of course, the legend tells that only the pure in heart are able to witness this Christmas magic...all others must content themselves with the traditional German celebrating, which begins on December 6th, Saint Nicholas' Day.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas also marks the beginning of Christmas in Austria. Brass instruments play chorale music from church steeples and carol singers, carrying blazing torches and a manger, travel from house to house before gathering on the church steps. Christmas is one of the most important Austrian holidays. In the countryside, farmers chalk the initials of the Three Wise Men on the archway of the stable door..."C" for Caspar; "M" for Melchior; and "B" for Balthazar. This is to protect the herd from illness during the coming year. Christmas trees are lit and in many villages, "shelter-seekers" plod through deep snow from farm to farm, reenacting the plight of Mary and Joseph who sought shelter on the eve of Christ's birth.
In the Alpine regions, families descend from their mountain homes into the valley below. They hold aloft torches to light their way. Carolers gather in church towers and village squares to guide the people toward the Christmas services. All shops, theaters and concert halls are closed, since this is considered a special evening to be spent only with family and closest friends. Following the services, people return home for Christmas dinner, which is often a dish of Gebackener Karpfen, or fried carp. Dessert may include a chocolate and apricot cake known as Sachertorte and Austrian Christmas cookies called Weihnachtsbaeckerei. After the meal, the ringing of a bell signals the opening of a long-locked door and, for the first time that season, children are allowed to witness the Christmas tree, glimmering with lights and laden with colored ornaments, together with gold and silver garland, candies and cookies. Beneath the tree may usually be found a manger scene, arranged in elaborate fashion. Almost every family owns a hand-carved manger and figures which have been handed down from generation to generation. The head of the family reads from the Bible about Kristkindl (the Christ Child) and traditional carols, such as "Silent Night" and "O'Tannenbaum" are sung, after which, the presents are distributed and opened. Advent wreaths made from various types of Christmas greenery and suspended by ribbon from a decorative and colorful stand are favorite seasonal decorations.