November 21, 2013 – Children anticipate the wonderment and joy of the Christmas season with family traditions that are passed on from generation to generation. Here are a few enchanting customs from select countries that I thought you might find interesting.
BELGIUM Children believe they receive their presents from St. Niklaas who rides a horse. They leave hay, carrots and water for the horse just outside their house on December 6th.
Pere Noel visits children who speak the Walloon language and in fact, he visits them twice. On December 4th, he finds out which children have been good and which have been bad. If a child is good, he returns on December 6th with candy and toys and if they were bad, he leaves twigs inside their shoes or in small baskets that are left in the doorway.
Pere Noel also visits children who speak French with his companion Pere Fouettard and asks whether the children have been good or bad. If they have been good, they receive chocolates and candies and if they were bad, they are more likely to receive a handful of sticks. Christmas for both gift-givers is on December 6th, the feast of St Nicholas, which is a religious occasion and is observed with services in churches and quiet family gatherings. Special cakes are baked and served during the holiday season, which are a treat for children and adults alike. The children who are Dutch speak Flemish and live in the northern region of Belgium. They are visited by St Niklaas.
CHINA Christians decorate their homes with evergreens, posters, and bright paper chains and light their homes with beautiful paper lanterns. Children hang their muslin stockings so that Dun Che Lao Ren (Santa) can fill them with wonderful gifts. The small number of Christians in China call Christmas "Sheng Dan Jieh," which means Holy Birth Festival. The family puts up a Christmas tree called "tree of light," which is decorated with beautiful lanterns, flowers, and red paper chains that symbolize happiness. Christmas season is ushered in with fireworks, jugglers, and acrobats.
CZECHOSLOVAKIA In Czech Republic, St. Nicholas is called Svaty Mikalas and is believed to climb down to earth from heaven on a golden rope along with his companions - an angel and a whip-carrying devil.
The Czechoslovakian people fast for one day and have baked carp for Christmas dinner. They are also known to eat a soup made of cod roe and tempt each other with tales of a mythical golden pig. According to tradition, a girl can tell her future by putting a cherry twig in water on December 4th. If the twig blossoms before Christmas Eve, the girl will marry sometime during the year.
St Nicholas visits and brings good children gifts, and for those children who were bad, folklore says the devil comes with switches. The famous King Wenceslas of the Christmas Carol was a real King in this country. His goodness and his beliefs in Christianity infuriated his mother, and his brother murdered him on the church steps. Before he died, he asked for God's mercy for his brother's evil act and became the patron saint of Czech Republic.
At midnight, most families go to Holy Mass called Pasterka. On Christmas Day, the churches are filled with evergreens and Christmas trees. Celebrations for Christmas begin with a visit from St. Nicholas on December 6th and end with the visit of the Three Kings.
DENMARK Santa is known as Julemanden in Denmark and he arrives in a sleigh pulled by reindeer with a sack full of gifts. Danish children called the elves Juul Nisse, and believe they live in the attic of their home.
Baking Christmas cookies is a family tradition that begins weeks before Christmas during the Advent season. Whether it is rolling, cutting, stirring, decorating, or nibbling - everyone takes part. Gathering around the kitchen table with Grandma and Grandpa, and Mom and Dad to decorate the burne kager (gingerbread cookies) is a tradition the youngest children enjoy. Danish butter cookies and peppernoder (peppernuts) are also favourites. Plates of Christmas cookies are shared and passed between family and friends. It is said that if a visitor leaves your home in Denmark without being fed, he will carry away the Christmas spirit, so of course, that just isn't allowed.
Danes love to decorate their homes for Christmas with advent wreaths, Nissers (elves), evergreen boughs, mistletoe, and holly. If a family lives in a rural area, the whole family sets out with a sled to find and cut their perfect juletrae (Christmas tree). The day before they cut their Christmas tree the Danes have a special tradition called 'cut and paste day' where everyone sits down and spends the day making and decorating homemade Christmas ornaments. Much like Americans string popcorn for their tree, Danish people make strings of small red and white Danish flags, red and white checked heart shaped baskets, and cornucopias filled with treats are favoured ornaments.
Christmas Eve is called Lille Juleaften, and December 23rd, can be the busiest day of the year with last minute shopping, wrapping presents, house cleaning, baking for Christmas Eve dinner and the children set out sheaths of grain for the birds and other special treats for the animals.
According to Danish Christmas tradition, the main Christmas event is celebrated on Christmas Eve, Juleaften, when the four o'clock church bells signal the beginning of the celebration. Relatives arrive and together they attend a candlelight church service. The Christmas feast starts after the service. A bowl of rice porridge is set out for the Julenisse (mischievous Christmas gnomes) so that they will stop their pranks. Dinner includes a beautifully browned goose, browned potatoes, red cabbage and Ris A L'Amande (rice pudding) served with cherry sauce. Father closes the meal by reading the Christmas story from the Bible.
It is tradition to light real candles on the ends of Christmas tree branches and then every member of the family joins hands, sings, and dances around the Christmas tree. Julemand (the Danish Santa), comes and distributes his gifts.
ENGLAND Christmas trees decorated with apples and other pretty things became customary and popular during the reign of Queen Victoria when her husband Prince Albert who was born in Germany missed the tradition of bringing a tree into his home and placing it on a table.
Throughout the holidays, carolers go from house to house at twilight ringing hand bells and singing Christmas songs. People give the carolers treats, such as little pies filled with nuts and dried fruits. The day before Christmas families wrap presents, bake cookies, and hang stockings over the fireplace. The tradition of hanging stockings by the chimney started when Father Christmas was on his way down the chimney when he accidentally dropped some gold coins and they fell into wet stockings that were hung by the fireplace to dry.
Then everyone gathers around the tree as someone tells the favourite story, "A Christmas Carol." Afterwards children write a letter to Father Christmas with their wishes. Instead of mailing out their Christmas list, children throw it into the fireplace and Father Christmas would read the smoke. After the children fall asleep on Christmas Eve, Father Christmas arrives on his sleigh pulled by reindeer to every child's home wearing a long, red robe, and sprigs of holly in his hair, carrying a sack of toys. Children wait until Christmas afternoon to open their gifts rather when they just wake up.
On Christmas Day, the family enjoys a feast of turkey with chestnut stuffing, roast goose with currants, or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and best of all is the plum pudding topped with a sprig of holly. Brandy is poured over the plum pudding and set aflame. Whoever finds the silver charm baked in their serving has good luck the following year. The wassail bowl, brimming with hot, spiced wine, tops off the day's feast. It is said that all quarrels stop when people drink wassail.
The second custom known as Boxing Day is celebrated the first weekday after Christmas when small wrapped boxes with food and sweets, or small gifts, or coins are given to anyone who comes calling that day. Long ago, people filled church alms boxes with donations for the poor. Then on December 26, the boxes were distributed.
ETHIOPIA Ethiopians follow the ancient Julian calendar so they celebrate Christmas on January 7th. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church's celebration of Christ's birth is called Ganna and on this day families attend church. The day before Ganna, people fast all day. The next morning at dawn, everyone dresses in a white traditional shamma, which is a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly coloured stripes across the ends. It is worn much like toga.
Twelve days after Ganna, on January 19th, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ. The children wear the crowns and robes of the church youth groups they belong to as they walk to church services in a procession. The priests wear their red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas. Ganna and Timkat are not occasions for giving gifts in Ethiopia. If a child receives any gift at all, it is usually a small gift of clothing. Religious observances, feasting, and games are the focus of the season.
FRANCE Christmas Eve is the most special time in the French celebration of Christmas. Church bells ring and voices sing French carols called Noels. Santa is known as Pere Noel who is accompanied by Pré Fouettard, the person who keeps track of who has been good or bad.
On December 5th children place their shoes by the fireplace in hopes that le Pere Noel/Father Christmas or le Petit Jesus/Little Jesus will place gifts into them. In some parts of France, Pere Noel brings small gifts on December 6th for the children that were good and returns on Christmas Eve to deliver more gifts. If children did not leave their shoes out to be filled with gifts by Pere Noel on St. Nicholas Eve, they leave them out on Christmas Eve to be filled by Pere Noel or the Baby Jesus. Before going to bed, some families leave food and a candle burning, in case Mary passes by with the Christ Child. In homes that have a Christmas tree, Pere Noel hangs little toys, candies, and fruit on the branches of Christmas trees for the sleeping children.
Families have a dinner celebration at midnight on December 24th called Le Reveillon, and afterwards they have a cake called La Buche de Noel. The children open their gifts on Christmas but parents and other adults have to wait until New Years to open their gifts.
Tiny clay figures of Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the Three Wise Men, the shepherds, and angels are used in a Christmas crèches otherwise known as mangers. These figures are unique because they are dressed in what is popular in provincial clothing that current year. On Christmas Day, the family goes to church again and then enjoys another abundant feast of wonderful dishes, ending with the traditional Buche de Noel, a rich buttercream-filled cake shaped and frosted to look like a Yule log.
GERMANY Christmas Eve is the most important time of the Christmas season for families and some even say it is a magical night when animals can speak. German families prepare for Christmas throughout December. Four Sundays before Christmas, they make an Advent wreath of fir or pine branches with four coloured candles. They light a candle on the wreath each Sunday, sing Christmas songs, and eat Christmas cookies. The children count the days until Christmas with an Advent calendar. Each day they open a little numbered flap on the calendar to see the Christmas picture hidden behind the flap.
St. Nicholas Day is December 6th. Many German children write letters to St. Nicholas asking for presents and other children write their letters to the Christ Child. In some parts of Germany the Christ Child, who is dressed all in white, with golden wings and a gold crown brings gifts to children on St. Nicholas Eve and in other areas on Christmas Eve. The wonderful tradition of the Christmas tree started in Germany and is the heart of the celebration. Adults decorate the evergreen tree with coloured glass ornaments, carved wood, silver stars, and strings of lights and a golden angel is placed at the very top of the tree.
Under the Christmas tree, the family arranges a manger scene to depict the stable where Baby Jesus was born. Parents may also pile presents from the Christ Child beneath the Christmas tree's richly decorated boughs. Just after dark a bell rings, and the excited children run into the room to see the beautiful lighted tree in all its glory. The family members exchange gifts, recite poems, and sing Christmas carols, and then everyone enjoys a Christmas feast of roast goose, turkey, or duck.
In some parts of Germany, families still follow an old tradition where children leave their shoes outside the front door filled with carrots and hay to feed St. Nicholas' horse as he rides by. If the children were good all year, St. Nicholas leaves apples, nuts, and candy for them. On Christmas Day, the white candle of the Advent wreath is lit and this day is focused on family. They attend church together, and then they eat a delicious Christmas dinner together.
INDIA Christmas Day called 'Bada Din' (Big Day) in Hindi is a national holiday in India and people from all religions join their Christian friends to make the most of the joyous celebrations. Christians across the country mark the birth of Lord Jesus Christ on Christmas Day by participating in special masses organized in churches. Houses are decorated with strings of mango leaves, lights are placed on windowsills and walls, and a star is hung outside. A sweet holiday treat called 'thali' is brought to neighbours and friends.
Schools run by Christian missionaries celebrate Christmas by organizing nativity plays, which depict the birth of Jesus Christ. Carols, songs and dramas make these celebrations even more joyful. Even non-Christian students enthusiastically participate in such celebrations.
In Christian households, preparations for Christmas begin at least one month in advance. People get their homes whitewashed and indulge in spring-cleaning to give it a fresh new look. Ladies start preparations for the traditional Christmas cake, which is anxiously awaited not just by the entire family but also the neighbours. Hectic shopping activities takes place as everyone buys new clothes for the festival.
In South India, Christians light clay lamps on the rooftops and walls of their houses the same way as Hindus decorate their homes during the Diwali Festival. In northwest India, the tribal Christians of the Bhil tribe go out night for a week during Christmas to sing carols the whole night through. In Mumbai, which has one of the largest Roman Catholic communities in India, there is a tradition to depict nativity scenes and decorate their homes with big stars.
The most exhilarating celebration of Christmas can be seen in the vivacious state of Goa. A large number of domestic and international tourists flock to the beaches Goa during Christmas festival to watch Goa at its cultural best. One can also regale in the best of Goa music and dance during Christmas festivities. Catholics in Goa participate in the traditional midnight mass services locally called Missa de Galo or Cock Crow as they go on well into early hours of the morning.
ITALY During Novena, nine days before and including Christmas Day, children go from house to house reciting Christmas verses for coins. The family sets up the presepio (manger) on the first day of the Novena. They gather before the presepio each morning or evening of Novena to light candles and pray. It is believed that Saint Francis of Assisi set up the very first nativity scene. Villagers were very impressed by the display and today many of the communities compete for the best nativity scene.
During the Christmas season children write letters to their parents wishing them a "Merry Christmas," promising good behaviour, and making a list of the gifts they hope to receive. The parents read these letters aloud at dinner. Then they toss them in the fireplace. The children chant to La Befana, the mythical Christmas witch, as their wishes go up the chimney.
When the first star appears in the evening sky on Christmas Eve, families place lit candles in their windows to light the way for the Christ Child. They also light candles around their presepio and pass the figure of the Baby Jesus from person to person, finally placing it tenderly in the manger. Then the family walks through the torch-lit streets to attend Christmas Eve mass. Some Italian children receive gifts from Baby Jesus or from Babbo Natale, known as Father Christmas and then everyone sits down to a big Christmas dinner.
The main exchange of gifts doesn't occur until January 6th, the day traditionally believed when the Three Wise Men reached baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The legend says that old Befana was too busy cleaning her house to help the Wise Men. Now the aged wanderer flies through the air on her broomstick looking for the Christ Child on the eve of Epiphany. Children set out their shoes by the fireplace on that night, hoping for the gifts they asked for during Novena. La Befana leaves candy and gifts for children that are good.
JAPAN Only 0.5% of the population in Japan are Christians but despite this fact, Christmas is a popular festival. Japanese people decorate their stores and homes with Christmas trees and other greens and today they decorate the outside of their homes with Christmas lights.
The main celebration of the festival revolves around Christmas Eve when they eat Christmas cake and give out gifts. Parents give presents to their children but children do not give presents to the parents. Only Santa brings presents for everybody. Once the children no longer believe in Santa, presents are no longer given.
MEXICO Mexicans call their Christmas 'Navidad'. Las Pasdas is celebrated for nine days starting on December 16th when people dress as Mary and Joseph to travel from house to house asking if Mary may stay the night whereupon they are told the inn is full. Then the door opens up again and everyone is invited for a party with food, songs, and a Piñata for the children. The Piñata is made of paper mache and filled with different candies and goodies. The object of the game is to break the piñata open with a stick while your eyes are blindfolded. When someone hits the piñata and breaks it open the children try to pick up as many candies as they can. On the 9th night Mary and Joseph are told that there is room in the stable and everyone is welcome for food. Then they go to Church to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child where children place a figure of the Christ Child in the nacimiento or nativity scene.
The weather is warm in Mexico during the Christmas season so people decorate their homes with lilies and evergreens. They make lanterns called farolitos out of brown paper bags cut into intricate designs and place them along sidewalks, rooftops, on windowsills and outdoor walls to illuminate the community with the spirit of Christmas.
After mass, the church bells ring out and fireworks light up the skies. Many Mexican children receive gifts from Santa Claus on this night. The children help to set up the family's nacimiento in the best room in the house.
Many children receive gifts on the eve of Twelfth Night, January 5th, from the Reyes Magos, (the Three Kings) who pass through on their way to Bethlehem. Children leave their shoes on the windowsill and find them filled with gifts the next morning. At a special Twelfth Night supper on January 6th, families and friends enjoy hot chocolate flavored with vanilla and cinnamon, and a ring-shaped cake. Whoever gets the slice of cake containing a tiny figure of a baby will give a tamale party on February 2nd, Candle Mass Day.
The whole family helps to prepare the tamales, which are a meat or chicken filling wrapped in corn dough. The tamale is then wrapped in cornhusks and steamed. A religious service held on Candle Mass marks the end of the Christmas season in Mexico.
NETHERLANDS In Holland Santa is called Sinterklaas who, according to folklore, comes to Holland by boat on December 6th from Spain every winter. Sinterklaas carries a huge sack of gifts and makes his deliveries on a white horse. He wears a red robe and a tall, pointed miter on his head. The mayor and all the people of Amsterdam flock to the harbor to greet Sinterklaas as he arrives. Bells ring out, the people cheer, and a brass band leads a parade through the streets. The parade stops at the royal palace where the Queen welcomes Sinterklaas.
While children eagerly await the arrival of Sinterklaas, their parents write little poems to accompany each gift, and carefully wrap the contents so it will be a surprise to the receiver. A small gift might be hidden in a potato! Even though the gifts are from family and friends they are all signed "Sinterklaas" because no one is supposed to know who gave the gift. Families celebrate St. Nicholas Eve at home with lots of good food, hot chocolate, and a "letterbanket" - cake made in the shape of the first letter of the family's last name or a person's first name.
The children leave their shoes by the fireplace and fill them with hay, carrots and sugar for Sinterklaas' horses. The children sing a song about how much they hope the cold, wet, foggy weather will not keep Sinterklaas away that night. Then they tell their parents how well, or how badly, they have behaved throughout the past year. When well-behaved children awake in the morning, their shoes are filled with nuts, candy, and other surprises
In the eastern part of Holland, farm families announce the coming of Christmas at the first Sunday of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas, until Christmas Eve by blowing a horn made from hollow elder-tree branches. The horns make an eerie noise as they are blown at every farm in the neighbourhood. Later in December, Dutch families decorate a Christmas tree and trim the house with candles, evergreens, and holly. Some children hang up a stocking from the fireplace mantel on Christmas Eve, but there are no more presents after St. Nicholas Day for most Dutch children.
Families go to church together on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas morning and then they gather for a family dinner of roast hare, venison, goose, or turkey. Eggnog and a mulled drink are specially made for this celebration. After dinner, the family gathers before the fireplace to tell stories and sing carols. December 26th is called Second Christmas Day. Often the family goes out to a restaurant and they attend concerts, recitals, and other musical performances.
PAKISTAN Christmas is celebrated by Pakistani Christians and is often referred to as the "Big Day" or "Great Day." While December 25th is a public holiday in Pakistan, it is not officially designated as Christmas, but rather as the birthday of Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.
People celebrate Christmas by going house-to-house singing carols, and in return, the family offers the money they collected for charity works or to the church. Their homes are decorated with local Christmas handicrafts while stars signifying the Star of Bethlehem are hung on rooftops.
In Christian homes, cards and gifts are exchanged, new clothes are worn, and friends' houses are visited. The villagers wear bright clothes because it is a happy occasion. People embrace and greet each other with 'Bara Din Mubarrak Ho', 'the blessing of Christmas on you'.
POLAND From Christmas to New Years the streets of Poland are lined with lovely stalls called joselki, each one carefully painted with scenes from the Christmas story. The booths are elaborately decorated with tinsel and lit candles.
Traditionally on Wigilia Day, the Christmas tree is decorated with apples, oranges, candies and small chocolates wrapped in colourful paper, nuts wrapped in aluminum foil, hand-blown glass ornaments, candles, and lights. This is quite an event for children. Christmas and Santa Claus Day are not celebrated at the same time but three weeks apart. Santa Claus Day (Mikola) is celebrated on December 6th, when St. Nicholas visits some children in person or secretly during the night.
On Christmas Eve, family gathers together and wait impatiently for the appearance of the first star. With its first gleam, they all approach a table covered with hay and a snow-white tablecloth. All Polish homes reserve a vacant chair and place setting for an unexpected guest.
One of the most beautiful and most revered Polish customs is the breaking of the oplatek - a thin wafer made of flour and water. In Poland, coloured wafers are used to make Christmas tree decorations. In the past, wafers were baked by organists and distributed from house to house in the parish during Advent.
The father or eldest member of the family reaches for the wafer, breaks it in half and gives one-half to the mother. Then, each of them breaks a small part from each other's piece. They wish one another a long life, good health, joy, and happiness, not only for the holiday season, but also for the New Year and for many years to come. This ceremony is repeated between the parents and their children as well as among the children; then, the wafer and good wishes are exchanged with all those present, including relatives and even strangers. When this activity is over, they all sit down and enjoy a tasty though meatless supper, after which they sing koledy (Christmas carols and pastorals) until it is time for midnight Mass, also know as Pasterka ("the Mass of the Shepherds").
Christmas Day is called The First Holiday by the Poles and is spent with the family at home. No visiting, cleaning, nor cooking is allowed on that day - only previously cooked food is heated. This is a day of enjoyment, for Jesus was born. On Christmas Day, people start to observe the weather very closely. It is believed that each day foretells the weather for a certain month of the following year. Christmas Day predicts January's weather, St. Stephen's Day impacts February's, etc.
St. Stephen's Day is known as The Second Holiday, a day for visiting and exchanging Christmas greetings. When night begins to fall you can hear stamping and jingling, and the singing voices of Christmas carollers who wander from home to home. Herody, a popular form of carolling is a live performance usually played by twelve young boys who are dressed in special costumes as King Herod, a field marshal, a knight, a soldier, an angel, a devil, death, a Jew, Mary, shepherds, and sometimes the Three Kings and an accordionist.
RUSSIA Folklore tells of a woman named Babouschka who failed to give food and shelter to the Three Wise Men and so year after year she searches the countryside for baby Jesus and to all the children she visits door to door she gives gifts. Santa was known as Saint Nicholas but today is called Grandfather Frost, who wears a blue outfit instead of a traditional red one.
Before the Revolution of 1917, the Russians used to celebrate Christmas with great joy and happiness by strolling up and down the streets with stars on the end of sticks they called 'Stars of Bethlehem'. The people went to church service and shared a special meal at home. After the Revolution, the Soviet government banned Christmas.
Today they celebrate New Year's Day with a special tree decorated like a Christmas tree and children attend a party where they join hands and sing songs as they walk around the tree. They wait for Dyet Moroz (Grandfather Frost), and his helper Syyegorachka, the Snow Maiden to bring them their gifts.
SLOVENIJA Christmas is the most popular religious and family holiday in Slovenija with a long history of traditions and celebrations. The holiday season begins with Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th. On the eve of this holiday, children set out plates, shoes, and other containers expecting to receive small gifts of candies and fruit from Sveti Miklavž. He is accompanied by devils and angels who determine which children are good and deserve a gift, and which children are bad, and receive sticks instead of a gift. This tradition remains a vital part of the Slovenian community and is re-enacted each year by local Slovenian parishes and communities.
In almost all parts of Slovenija, homes were traditionally decorated with a fir or pine tree, which was hung from the ceiling upside down in the living room, or on a fence in front of the house. Rarely was the tree placed facing upwards like it is today. Ornaments on Christmas trees were modest consisting mostly of coloured paper chains, apples, nuts, and cookies.
The Advent season is when families set up the nativity scene (jasilce), and no Slovenian home is complete without one. Located in the living room’s Bohkov kot (God’s corner), the jasilce is the focus of Christmas prayer and carol singing. The first documented nativity scene in Slovenija was created by the Jesuits in Ljubljana in 1644. Though nativity scenes were commonly displayed in the home, they have grown in popularity and can now be viewed in public places specifically in Postojna and at Ljubljana's Franciscan Church on Prešeren Square.
It is customary for Slovenians to burn incense on Christmas Eve and sprinkle holy water in all the rooms of the house – an ancient practice to expel demons and bless the home. The Christmas feast includes a variety of traditional delicacies including a rolled walnut loaf called 'potica'. After dinner, families would share in the tradition of telling fortunes. Slovenian farmers believed that their homes would be blessed with happiness all year round, if there was a large wooden stump burning in the centre of the fireplace on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve predictions for the future were made from the shape of the burning flame and by the shapes formed by the melted wax in cold water. The fathers used to ask what the harvest would be like the following year, and whether the livestock would remain healthy. The young, unmarried girls were interested mainly in whether they would become brides.
One custom that can be traced back to the 13th century but is almost forgotten today, is called 'Koledovanje'. The Koledniki used to be groups of men that went from house to house singing carols to families, wishing them luck, happy holidays and presenting them with gifts. Legend has it that the Koledniki brought joy and a good harvest to the households they visited. It is also common to prepare a ceremonial bread, portnjak, during the holiday season. The bread is covered with a cloth and is placed on a table in the home. However, it is not eaten until the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6th when it is distributed to the children. The Festival of the Three Kings marks the end of the Christmas season, which Slovenians everywhere consider a truly hallowed and magical time.
SPAIN Christmas Eve is called La Noche Buena, the Blessed Night. When the first star shines in the evening sky, people light bonfires, called luminarias, in public squares and outside church walls. Traditional plays called Las Pastores depict the shepherds' adoration of the Christ Child in Bethlehem.
They decorate the churches and outdoor markets with evergreens. Tambourines, gourd rattles, castanets, and miniature guitars are offered for sale to enliven the singing and dancing in the streets. Children go from house to house reciting verses or singing carols for sweets and toys.
Life-size nativity scenes called nacimientos are set up in public places, and every family has a small nacimiento in the best room in the house. In some villages, families send their sons to bring in a Yule log. As the boys tug the log home, they stop at homes along the way for chocolates and nuts.
At home, each family places a burning candle above the door and lights candles around the nacimiento. Families fast all day and then go to midnight mass. When they return home, they enjoy a feast of almond soup, roasted meat, baked red cabbage, and sweet potato or pumpkin.
On Christmas Day, children sing and dance around the nacimiento and the family exchanges gifts. Some families add to the fun with the traditional 'Urn of Fate' where names are written on cards and placed in a bowl. Two names are drawn at a time and those two people will be friendly to each other throughout the coming year.
On Epiphany Eve, January 6th, Spanish children leave their shoes on the window sills filled with straw, carrots, and barley for the horses of the Wise Men, who they believe re-enact their journey to Bethlehem every year. One of the wise men called Balthazar leaves the children gifts. In some villages, children march out to the city gates carrying special cakes for the Three Kings and other foods for their servants and camels in hopes of meeting the Three Kings on their way to the Holy Land. The children are disappointed that they were not able to meet the Three Wise Men and then eat the food they have brought with them. They are then directed by their parents to the nacimiento in the village church where they find the Three Kings presenting gifts to the Christ Child in a manger.
SWEDEN The Swedish people call Santa 'tomte', a gnome who comes out from under the floor of the house or barn carrying his sack of gifts on a sleigh drawn by a goat named Julbokar. Santa Lucia Day is celebrated on December 13th, where before dawn the oldest daughter wears a long white dress and a wreath of seven candles on her head acting as the patron saint of light and serves a special meal of ham, fish, and rice pudding. God Jul! Singing "Santa Lucia," the Lucia Queen goes to every bedroom to serve coffee and treats to each member of the family with the assistance of the younger children.
Another custom in Sweden is called Julkapp where a present is wrapped with many layers of paper and then someone knocks on a door of a house and they leave the gift in front of the door. The longer it takes the present to be opened, the better the Julkapp. The children count the days from the 1st day of December until Christmas with an Advent calendar. Each morning, they open a flap in the calendar's Christmas scene to see the charming picture behind it.
Many families go to the Christmas market in the old medieval section of Stockholm to buy handmade toys, ornaments, and candy. Gift-givers like to seal their Christmas packages with sealing wax and write a special verse that will accompany the gift. The whole family helps to select the Christmas tree just a day or two before Christmas. Then they hang papier-mache apples, heart-shaped paper baskets filled with candies, gilded pinecones, small straw goats and pigs, little Swedish flags, glass ornaments, and small figures of gnomes wearing red hats to decorate the tree. The delightful smells of gingerbread cookies in the shape of hearts, stars, or goats fill the house. Many families set out a sheaf of grain on a pole for hungry birds.
At the midday meal on Christmas Eve, families follow the tradition of "dipping in the kettle", commemorating a time when food was scarce in Sweden the family eats bread dipped into a kettle of thin broth. After this modest beginning, they enjoy a bountiful smorgasbord of lutefisk (dried fish), Christmas ham, boiled potatoes, pork sausage, herring salad, spiced breads, and many different kinds of sweets. Legend states that whoever finds the almond in the special rice pudding will marry in the coming year. After dinner, they light the Christmas tree. Sometimes a friend or family member will dress up in a red robe and a long white beard to bring toys for the children. Other families leave Jultomten's gifts beneath the tree. After the gifts are opened the family dances around the tree singing a special song.
In the predawn darkness of Christmas Day, candles illuminate every window and bells ring out calling families to churches. Back home again, the parents kindle a blaze in the fireplace to light the darkness. The Second Day of Christmas is a day of singing carols. On January 5th, the eve of the Twelfth Night or Epiphany, young boys dress up as the Wise Men and carry a lighted candle on a pole topped with a star and go from house to house singing carols.
Then on January 13th - St. Knut's Day, there is one last Christmas party. The grown-ups pack away the Christmas decorations while the costumed children eat the last of the wrapped candies left on the tree. Then they take the tree out while they sing the last song of Christmas.
SWITZERLAND A week before Christmas, children dress up and visit homes with small gifts. Bell ringing has become a tradition, and each village competes with the next when calling people to midnight mass. After the service, families gather to share huge homemade doughnuts called ringli and hot chocolate.
In Switzerland, the Chlausjagen Festival or Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated at dusk on December 6th with a procession of "lifeltrager' wearing gigantic illuminated lanterns in the shape of a Bishop's mitre on their heads.
The Swiss wait for Christkindli, a white clad angel with a gold crown and veil over her face that is held in place by a jewelled crown. She tinkles a silver bell heralding her arrival by a reindeer drawn sleigh with gifts for all the children. The tree candles are lit as she enters each house and hands out presents from the basket held by her helpers.
On December 24th, the family decorates a Christmas tree and during the evening children are not allowed to enter the room. Suddenly a bell rings and then everybody hurries to the Christmas tree. All the gifts are under the tree and candles are lit everywhere. The window is open and some body tells the children: "Come quick, watch, the Christ child has just left, I saw her flying away..." - that's how the Christmas-gifts arrive here in Switzerland.
UKRAINE The Ukrainian Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar, starts on January 6th, Christmas Eve, and ends on 'Jordan' the 19th of January - otherwise known as the Epiphany.
Sviata Vecherya or 'Holy Supper' is the central tradition of Christmas Eve celebrations in Ukrainian homes. The dinner table sometimes has a few wisps of hay under the tablecloth as a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem and occasionally the floor is covered with straw. A special loaf of bread called a Kolach is braided from three pieces of dough, which signifies the Holy Trinity and placed in the centre of the table with a lighted beeswax candle in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem.
In farming communities, the head of the household may leave an axe outside the door to ward off evil spirits. He brings in a sheaf of wheat called the didukh (literally meaning “grandfather spirit”), which represents the importance of the ancient, rich wheat crops of Ukraine and symbolizes the family's ancestors. In pagan times ancestors were considered to be benevolent spirits, who, when properly respected, brought good fortune to the living, family members. The table usually has one extra place setting for the deceased family members, whose souls, according to folkloric belief, arrive on Christmas Eve and partake of the food.
When children see the first star in the eastern sky, symbolizing the light that led the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus, the Sviata Vecherya may begin. Kutia (sweet grain pudding made with cooked wheat, honey, ground poppy seeds and, sometimes, chopped nuts) is served as the first dish of the traditional, twelve meatless dishes of the Christmas Eve supper. The courses are meatless because there is a period of fasting required by the Church until Christmas Day. The other dishes in the meal may include borshch (beet soup), vushka (boiled dumplings), fish, pidpenky (mushrooms), varenyky or pyrohy (boiled dumplings filled with potatoes, cabbage, or buckwheat), holubtsi (cabbage rolls), fasoli (mashed beans), and uzvar (a kompot prepared from several kinds of dried fruit.
At the end of the Sviata Vecherya, the family often sings Ukrainian Christmas carols. Christmas Eve is a family day, so no visiting occurs except for Yuletide greetings. The family may attend a special Christmas service enriched with beautiful choral music at midnight or in the early morning. From Christmas Day afternoon through to the following days, organized groups of carollers visit homes, singing ancient and modern carols, bringing traditional Yuletide greetings, and soliciting funds for worthy causes. The very popular “Carol of the Bells” originated from a Ukrainian carol.
The Christmas tree (yalynka) may be decorated with wood, straw, or dough, which is glazed and baked. One variation is the Children's Tree, which is less than one metre tall where children make decorations during the season and hang them on the tree. Candy canes and other treats for the children are put on the tree by the parents. Advent sweets or chocolates are also wrapped, numbered, and put on the tree for each of the children. It is customary to add decorations to this tree that have been given as presents to the family.
St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 19th), not Christmas, is the usual gift-giving day in much of Europe including Ukraine, although for Christmas it was customary for all members of the family to get a new article of clothing. St. Nicholas (Svyatyi Mykolai) is the Patron Saint of Children. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life. Such stories of generosity fostered the image of St. Nicholas as a gift-giver, and made their way into many of today’s Christmas stories and rhymes, such as Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (also called “A Visit from St. Nicholas"), written in 1822. St. Nicholas is the basis for today’s traditional Santa Claus.
The Feast of the Epiphany (January 19th), also known as Jordan Day, marks the end of the holiday celebrations. It commemorates the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. Families celebrate on the eve of Jordan with another special dinner (Schedrij Vechir, meaning “bountiful night”), but there are no restrictions limiting the dishes to a meatless variety, so the feast contains many meat dishes. The principal ceremony of Epiphany traditionally consisted of the solemn outdoor blessing of waters, usually at a river or at a well, where a cross was erected out of blocks of ice (today water is usually blessed inside the church). Holy water is taken home and kept in a special vessel for the rest of the year in the hope of having a safe and healthy home. Children may visit neighbours’ homes on Jordan Day with pockets full of grain seeds, tossing a handful into the house with wishes for a bountiful crop and a prosperous year.
Ukraine Christmas written by Dave Didur