Christmas Around The World: Part III




Traditionally, Christmas is centered around the crib or presepju. The child's version of the church crib is known as a grotta. The cribs are to be found everywhere in Malta, varying in size and detail. The crib figures are called pasturi and represent the Holy Family, shepherds, angels, villagers and animals such as cows, donkeys and sheep. The Nativity scenes are surrounded by lights and plants. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is the climax of all religious activities. The entire family attends and everyone weard new clothes for the occasion. Mass begins with songs by choirs and the highlight of the evening is the reading of the Nativity story by a ten-year-old boy.

People exchange gifts on December 6th, which is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, or on the evening before which is known as Sinterklass Eve. A man dressed in the rich robes of a bishop to represent the saint questions the children about their behavior during the year. He is believed to journey from his homeland in Spain by boat, sometimes accompanied by a helper known as "Black Pete" or "Black Peter," who wears Spanish-style clothing. Many people travel to the Amsterdam docks to greet the saintly gift-giver, who mounts a snow-white horse and rides through the streets in a magnificent parade. He promises to return during the night with gifts for those who have been good. The children fill wooden shoes with cookies and candy for the benefactor, who takes the offerings and leaves toys and other gifts in their place. In these Lowland Countries of Europe, Christmas Day is purely a religious occasion. Farmers often blow long horns at sunset each evening during the Christmas period. The horns are blown over water wells, which accentuates the sound. This is done to announce the coming of Christmas.

In Luxembourg, from the beginning of December, streets and store windows in all major cities are richly illuminated and decorated. Glittering Christmas trees adorn public squares and outdoor markets are often favorite places to purchase gifts. Christmas Eve is usually celebrated with friends and family and many people attend Midnight Mass, after which the family will gather for a supper consisting of a typical menu: black-pudding with mashed potatoes and apple sauce. Some cities produce Nativity plays, with children as the actors, while others give concerts on the afternoon of December 25th. In some villages, these concerts are followed by a Christmas Tree auction, the profits from which are given to charitable organizations.

The Yuletide season begins on December 21st, Saint Thomas' Day. Cakes are specially baked for the saint on Christmas Eve. Another Norwegian custom is "shooting in Christmas," which dates back to an ancient belief that witches appear on Christmas night. Young people go visiting, creeping up to houses and shooting a gun to frighten any loitering witches. The Norwegian Christmas pudding contains an almond. It is believed that the person who finds the almond in his or her portion of the pudding will be the next to marry. Many people take a trip to the woods to select a Christmas tree. This is a modern custom since the Christmas tree was not introduced into Norway from Germany until the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. Decorating of the tree is done on Christmas Eve, usually by parents behind closed doors while the children wait outside the room. Then follows a Norwegian ritual known as "Circling the Christmas Tree." Everyone joins hands to form a ring and then walks around the tree singing carols. Afterward, gifts are distributed.

The Philippines is the only Asian nation in which Christianity is the religion chosen by the people. Celebrations begin nine days before Christmas with a mass known as Misa de Gallo, where the story of Christ's birth is read from the Bible. A Panunuluyan pageant is held each Christmas Eve, with a couple chosen to renact the search for shelter originally experienced by Mary and Joseph. Mass is heard on an hourly basis on Christmas Day so that everyone may have the opportunity to attend. Religious services include the pastore, or play, based on the details of the Nativity. The play concludes with a star from the upper part of the church sliding down a wire and coming to rest over the church's Nativity tableau. The people call their favorite Christmas dish colacion. It is made by cooking fruit with various root sprouts. In each family, one or two members remain at home to serve any guests who happen to come visiting. The remaining family members receive their colacion at other houses. Most familes do not have fresh pine trees since they are very expensive. Handmade trees are the most common, in an array of different colors and sizes. Star lanterns or parol appear everywhere in December. They are made from sticks of bamboo covered with brightly-covered rice paper or cellophane, usually featuring a tassel on each point. There is normally one in every window of each house...a symbol of the Star of Bethelehem. Some Christmas celebrations are believed to have evolved from old tribal customs which have been mixed with other influences. Serenading cumbancheros (strolling minstrels) usually end the Christmas festivities by singing Maligayang Pasko to the tune of "Happy Birthday."

People fast the entire day prior to Christmas and then indulge in a feast at nightfall. A vacant chair for the Holy Child always stands at the festive table and a few straws are scattered upon the table or spread beneath the tablecloth as a reminder to everyone of the stable in which Christ was born. Small semi-transparent wafers of unleavened dough known as Oplatek are baked and stamped with Nativity figures. These are blessed by the priest and then exchanged with friends and family, much like Christmas cards in other parts of the world. Traditionally, Advent is the most important season with special church services called Rororaty being held every morning at 6:00 a.m. The four Sundays of Advent are believed to represent the 4,000 years of waiting for Christ. In some Polish homes during Advent, beeswax is poured on water and fortunes told from the shapes which emerge.

Poland is rich with intriguing traditions and legends. The first star which appears on Christmas Eve night holds such importance as a remembrance of the Star of Bethelehem, that the evening itself is called Gwiazdka, or "little star." The moment the star appears, everyone exchanges greetings and good wishes. Families gather together for the Wigilia (Christmas supper) which is the most carefully-planned meal of the Polish year. An even number of people must be seated around the table or tradition states that someone might die in the year to come. Traditionally, there is no meat served at the Wigilia, which begins with the snapping of the Oplatek. Everyone at the table breaks off a piece and eats it as a symbol of their unity with Christ. Custom dictates that the number of dishes in the meal must be odd...usually nine or eleven. An even number would eliminate any hope of an increase in wealth, children or anything else found to be desirable. Dishes vary from region to region, but almost always include poppy-seed cake, beef broth soup, prune dumplings and poppy-seed noodles. After supper, nobody leaves the table until a signal is given by the head of the house. Then, they all rise in unison. This is the result of an old belief that the first to rise will die before the next Christmas Eve. In some villages, crumbs are saved from this festive meal to be sown in the Spring. They are said to bestow medicinal power to the grasses upon which they are sprinkled.

The remainder of Christmas Eve is spent telling stories and singing songs around a Christmas tree decorated with nuts, apples and ornaments made from eggshells, colored paper and straw, all of which have been brightly-painted. Christmas gifts are tucked below the tree. At midnight, the children are put to bed and the adults attend Pasterka, or "Shepherd's Mass."

Carols are an important part of Romanian Christmas tradition. Singers walk the streets of the villages and towns holding in their hands a star fashioned from board and paper and painted with biblical scenes, or displaying icons of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. Pork is the favorite seasonal meal, washed down with wine or plum brandy.

On Christmas Day, hymns and carols are sung and people gather in churches which are decorated with Christmas Trees (called Yelka), flowers and colored lights. The Christmas meal includes a variety of different meats, goose and suckling pig being the favorites. In the rural areas, hay is spread upon floors and tables in order to encourage horse feed to grow. Children in Russian villages formerly celebrated Christmas Eve by going from house to house, shouting and singing until people came out and gave them treats. This custom may have originated from a much older tradition in which crowds of children drew a beautiful girl through the streets on a sled, stopping at each house to sing.

Christian Americans, Europeans, Indians, Filipinos and others living in Saudi Arabia are obliged to celebrate Christmas privately in their own homes. Christmas lights are generally not tolerated and most families place their Christmas trees somewhere inconspicuous.

In South Africa, Christmas is a summer holiday. Christmas trees are far from common, but windows are often draped with sparkling cotton, wool and tinsel to represent snow.

The people enjoy dancing at Christmastime. After Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the streets quickly fill with dancers and onlookers. The words and music for the Christmas dance, known as the Jota, have been handed down for centuries. Spaniards call their miniature Nativity scene the Nacimiento. Another popular Christmas custom is Catalonia, a lucky-strike game. A tree trunk is filled with treats and children hit at the trunk trying to knock out the hazel nuts, almonds, toffees and other goodies. One Spanish Christmas custom not at all common anywhere else in the world is that of Hogeuras, or bonfires. This tradition originated long before Christmas itself and was the observance of the Winter Solstice...the shortest day of the year and the beginning of Winter. The ceremony is characterized by people jumping over fires as a symbolic protection against illness. This fire-jumping is seen primarily in Granada and Jaen. Christmas dinner is never eaten until after midnight. It is a family feast, often featuring Pavo Tufado de Navidad, a turkey with truffles (truffles being a mushroom-like delicacy found underground). After the meal, everyone gathers around the Christmas tree to sing carols and hymns. This rejoicing continues until the early hours of the morning.

Christmas Day is spent attending Church services, followed by further feasting and more merry-making. Another custom peculiar to Spain is that of "swinging." Swings are erected throughout the courtyards and young people swing to the accompaniment of songs and music. The people believe their gift-givers to be the Three Wise Men, who are seen everywhere in Spain during Christmastime, visiting hospitals, orphanages and other such institutions. The men who dress in these garments and portray the generous Magi come from all walks of life. Legend tells that the original Wise Men travelled through Spain on their way to Bethelehem and Spanish children have a great fondness for these Three Kings, particularly Balthazar.

Celebration of the Christmas season begins on December 13th, Saint Lucia's Day. The youngest daughter from each family puts on a white robe with a red sash and wears a crown of evergreens adorned with tall, lighted candles. She wakes her parents and serves them coffee and Lucia buns. The other children sometimes accompany her...the boys dressed as "star boys" in long white shirts and pointed hats, carrying star wands. This origins of this custom are associated with Saint Lucia, a Christian martyred in Syracuse during the Fourth Century for her beliefs. The Swedish ceremony of Saint Lucia itself is relatively recent and represents the traditional thanksgiving for the return of the Sun.

Children believe that elves called Juul Nisse help them with many holiday tasks. The elves are rewarded for their work by gifts of food left for them at night. On Christmas Eve, there are candle-lit processions to church and, in the home, candles are lit by the matriarch of the family which, it is hoped, will burn brightly that night as a traditional sign of good luck. Part of the festive decorations include a goat crafted from straw, which stands ready to butt any disobedient children, while other decorations include colorfully-painted wooden animals and straw centerpieces. Most people buy their trees well before Christmas Eve, but it is not uncommon for the trees to be taken inside and decorated only a day or two prior to Christmas. Evergreen trees are adorned with stars, sunbursts and snowflakes made of straw. Other decorations may include candies, apples, Swedish flags and figures of small gnomes wearing caps with red tassels. Some families adorn their houses with red tulips.

For many Swedes, fish is the main dish of the Christmas feast. They prepare their lutfisk from the finest catch and serve it with a special sauce. In other regions, Julafton, the Christmas Eve dinner, may be a smorgasbord (open buffet) which includes julskinka (Christmas ham) and pickled pigs feet. The people also enjoy pepparkakor, a gingerbread biscuit often shaped like a heart, star or goat, and Juulgrot (also known as Risgryngrot), a special pudding made of rice and milk, which is served hot with sprinkles of cinnamon and sugar. Hidden in the pudding (sometimes referred to as porridge), is a single almond and tradition states that whoever finds the almost will marry during the coming year. After Christmas Eve dinner, a friend or family mentor dresses up as Tomte, the Christmas Gnome. Tomte is believed to live under the floorboards of the house or barn with his straw goat, upon which he rides. The make-believe Christmas Gnome, wearing a white beard and dressed in red robes, distributes gifts from his sack. Many are delivered with a humorous rhyme that give hints about the contents of the present.

Young people visit nine fountains on their way to midnight church services. They take three sips of water from each fountain. A legend tells that if they do this, they will find their future spouse waiting at the door of the church. The week prior to Christams, children dress up and visit homes with small gifts. Bell-ringing has become something of a tradition in Switzerland and each village competes with it neighbors when calling people to Midnight Mass. After the service, familes gather to share huge homemade doughnuts known as ringli and to drink hot chocolate. The Swiss gift-giver is Christkindl, a white-clad figure who wears a veil held in place by a jeweled crown. Christkindl, who arrives to the herald of a silver bell and the lighting of tree candles, enters each house to distribute presents from a basket carried by her child helpers. In some areas, it is believed that animals are able to speak at midnight on Christmas Eve and that the beasts kneel in honor of the Christ Child.

Christmas is celebrated on December 25th by Catholics and on January 7th by Orthodox Christians. Christmas is the most popular Ukraine holiday. During the Christmas season (which also includes New Year's Day), fir trees are decorated, traditionally including a spider web of good luck for the family, and parties are thrown. One particularly charming custom is that of a child star-bearer who walks with each group of carolers, carrying a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem.

Christmas celebrations differ greatly between the regions due to the variety of nationalities who have settled in the United States. Generally, cities, towns and even simple villages are adorned with sparkling lights and colorful decorations. Store windows are full of enticing gifts and people decorate their homes and lawns with fairy lights and festooned trees. Many churches and houses put up a creche or tableau of the Nativity scene, complete with a manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, Angels and Shepherds. For weeks prior to the holiday, people begin to prepare for the festivities. Gifts are bought or made and wrapped with brightly-colored paper and ribbons. Greeting cards and gift packages are sent to friends and family, and some practice in church choirs or rehearse Christmas plays. On Christmas Day, families traditionally gather to exchange presents, although some people exchange their gifts on Christmas Eve. The Christmas meal is usually served in the afternoon and usually features turkey, chicken, duck, goose or ham.

In some areas, people still follow the Christmas customs of the early settlers. In Pennsylvania, for example, the old German and Swiss ceremonies may be observed while the Moravian familes usually erect a miniature Nativity scene called a putz, which means "ornament," beneath the Christmas tree and gifts may be delivered by Belsnickle, who taps children with his switch if they have misbehaved during the year. Some Moravians may also bake cookies in the shapes of sheep, camels and angels and add them to the putz and engage in musical services where the congregation partakes of simple food while the choir sings appropriate hymns and anthems. Customarily, the congregation must be served sweet buns and coffee in the time it takes to sing three hymns. Candles are distributed, made of beeswax...an ancient belief being that bees were made in Paradise...and, as the final anthem is sung, everyone raises their lighted candles in praise.

In Minnesota and Wisconsin, many Scandinavian traditions are still in use and French customs remain popular in Louisiana and the Canadian Province of Quebec. In some Southern states, firearms are shot into the air on Christmas Day to greet distant neighbors and Colonial doorways are often decorated with pineapple, a symbol of hospitality. In Boston, carol singing festivities are famous, the singers accompanied by hand bells, while in Washington D.C., a huge and spectactular tree is lit ceremoniously when the current President presses a button and turns on the tree's lights. In New Orleans, a huge ox is sometimes parades around the streets decorated with holly and ribbons tied to his horns. In California, Santa Claus may sweep in on a surf board and, in Hawaii, Christmas begins with the arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship, which transports an enormous cargo of Christmas fare. The Hawaiian Santa Claus also arrives by boat and, in the shopping areas, his helpers are displayed as menehunes, the legendary "little people" who are thought to have been the first inhabitants of Hawaii prior to seizure of the islands by the Polynesians. Palm trees are strung with decorations and fragrant flowers are hunt in leis around the indoor Christmas tree.

In Alaska, most Christians celebrate the holiday on December 25th, just like those in the Continental United States. Santa Claus may arrive for a pre-Christmas visit, but the food, gift-giving and decorations are much the same as what might be seen in Texas or Wisconsin. One traditional Alaskan custom, however, is that of star on a pole, which is taken from door to door, followed by Herod's Men who try to capture the decoration. Songs sung in the home include Aleut words, such as Gristuusaaq suu'uq, which means "Christ is born" (where everyone joins in the closing chorus), or Mnogaya leta, meaning "God grant you many years." After the caroling, the host or hostess provides maple-frosted doughnuts, cookies, candy, fish pie and, sometimes, smoked salmon.

From ancient times, Native Indians have held religious dances to coincide with the Winter Solstice. Franciscan monks succeeded in bringing this Indian celebration and the Christmas Holy Day together. Just south of Santa Fe, in the San Felipe Pueblo, is held perhaps one of the most unique Christmas Eve dances. Shortly after the priest has delivered the Christmas Eve sermon and departed, birdcalls burst from the loft (produced by blowing into a shallow dish of water through a split, perforated hollow reed). An insistent drum takes over and dancers move into the blazing light of the altar. Dressed in masks, animal skins, feathers, coral sheels, turquoise and head dressed with authentic antlers, these dancers perform the deer, turtle, eagle and buffalo dances. Women carry a spring of Hakak, the sacred spruce tree, which represents eternal life which they believed helped to create mankind.

German settlers migrated to Canada from the United States in the 1700s, taking with them many of the Christmas traditions still celebrated today...advent calendars, gingerbread houses cookis and Christmas trees, for example. French Canadians, believing it to be unlucky if a cat meows in the house on Christmas Eve, feed their cats particularly well on December 24th. In some provinces, a large winter festival called Sinck Tuck is celebrated by the Eskimos with dancing and a gift-giving party, while in Labrador, turnips are saved from the summer harvest and given to children, with a lighted candle inserted into a hollowed-out hole. In Nova Scotia, which was settled by Scottish highlanders, songs and carols which originated from Great Britain two centuries ago are sung on Christmas morning.

The traditional Vietnamese religions are Buddhism and the Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucanism. Nevertheless, during French rule, many people converted to Christianity. Christmas is one of the four most important festivals of the Vietnamese year (the other three being the birthday of Buddha, the New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival). Those Vietnamese who are Christians observe the religious rituals and, on Christmas Eve, attend Midnight Mass. Afterward, people return to their homes for Christmas supper, usually consisting of chicken soup...or turkey and Christmas pudding for the more wealthy. The European customs of Santa Claus and the Christmas Tree are gradually gaining in popularity and children have recently begun to leave out their shoes on Christmas Eve.

Children celebrate the second Sunday before Christmas as Mother's Day. While their mother sits quietly, the children steal in and tie her feet to the chair. Then, they shout: "Mother's Day, Mother's Day, what will you pay to get away?" She gives them gifts. The following Sunday, the father receives the same treatment...with the same favorable results for the children. The Serbs believe they will have bad luck if the badnyak (Christmas log) burns out and someone stands watch over the log all night. A Serbian Christmas Cake, called a chestnitsa is baked containing a silver coin. The coin is believed to bring good luck to whoever finds it in his or her portion of the cake. The Serbs serve roast pig at Christmastime in honor of Bozhitch, an ancient Sun God whose name now means Christmas.

Part I/Albania to Germany and Austria

Part II/Great Britain to Iran

Part III/Italy to Lebanon and The Middle East


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