Christmas traditions from “Around the World”

BUCKHANNON — In the spirit of the City of Buckhannon’s “Christmas Around the World” decorative theme this year, The Record Delta has chosen to highlight various holiday traditions from the 12 countries on the list. Please keep in mind that these are generalizations and that each country’s customs can vary by region.

First alphabetically is Austria. Austria shares many Christmas traditions with its neighbor Germany, but it also has many special traditions of its own. Unlike in the United States, the Christmas tree is usually only brought inside and decorated on Christmas Eve. Popular decorations include sparklers and candles (usually electric ones nowadays), as well as edible candy-based ornaments for children. Austria also popularly celebrates St. Nicholas’ Day on December 6, and on the prior eve the saint will leave small gifts for well-behaved children. However, naughty children are threatened with punishment by Krampus, a demonic horned figure that accompanies St. Nicholas. Krampus is said to beat children with his horsehair whip or leave bundles of wooden switches for the parents to discipline children themselves. This legend also survives in some Pennsylvania Dutch communities, where Krampus goes by the name Belsnickel.

Brazil shares many of its traditions with Portugal, which was the colonizing force in the country. Nativity scenes are very popular, with some households devoting entire rooms to recreating the town of Bethlehem in miniature. “Os Pastores” (“The Shepherds”) are Christmas plays that tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and are popular throughout Latin America. In Brazil, most people, especially Catholics, will attend a midnight church service called “Missa do Gallo” (“Mass of the Rooster”) which normally finishes around 1 a.m. and is often followed with large fireworks displays in the town square.

Canada shares many of its Christmas traditions with the US, though with wide cultural influences from the likes of many European and Native American peoples, they can have any number of variations. Skiing, skating and sledding are all popular wintertime activities, as is the perennial Canadian sport of ice hockey. One tradition known as “mummering” is like caroling, except that the performers wear disguises. They go door to door, singing and dancing while hoping for treats or a warm drink. Often, if the person visited could not guess who was behind the disguises, they had to join the mummers as they caroled! Mummering is banned in some places today, as it was often used as an excuse for begging.

Christmas celebrations start early in Denmark—parties are held as early as November 1 and continue all the way to Christmas Eve. As in many countries on this list, Danish children often celebrate using Advent calendars, which contain a small gift for each day leading up to Christmas. Advent calendars were first created in Germany and became popular throughout Europe and North America. Most families in Denmark serve a traditional dish called “risalamande,” a rice pudding made of milk, rice, vanilla, almonds and whipped cream. All but one of the almonds in the dish are chopped into pieces, and the person who finds the whole almond gets a special gift—traditionally, a small pig made of marzipan, representing good luck for the coming year.

France shares many traditions with nearby Germany, including large Christmas markets selling decorations and Nativity scenes, and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6, marking the day that the Magi (Wise Men) arrived in Bethlehem. One uniquely French tradition is the “bûche de Noël” or Yule log, a chocolate sponge cake taking the form of a log, often dusted with powdered sugar to emulate snow and topped with fruits or other small, edible decorations. This food takes its inspiration from the French tradition of bringing in a log of cherry wood on Christmas Eve and sprinkling it with red wine to make it smell nice while burning. It is customary to leave the log burning all night while setting out food or drinks in case Mary and Jesus pass by during the night. Christmas dinner in France is eaten after a midnight church service and can include everything from roast goose or turkey with chestnuts, to oysters, lobster, foie gras or venison.

Germany is considered by many to be the Christmas capital of Europe, and not without reason. It is thought that the concept of the Christmas tree originated in Germany, with records of them being decorated in the Late Middle Ages. If there are young children in the house, the tree is usually secretly decorated by the mother of the family and only brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Blown glass Christmas ornaments were created along with the tree custom, although the legend of the “Christmas pickle” does not seem to exist in Germany; it was likely created in America just for laughs, and most Germans have never heard of it. Advent calendars also originated in Germany, consisting of either a box with several compartments or a wreath of fir branches with several bags hanging from it, each containing a small gift to be opened once a day leading up to Christmas. In some parts of Germany, particularly the southeast, children write letters to “das Christkind” asking for presents, which they decorate and leave on the windowsill at the beginning of Advent. Das Christkind is not Baby Jesus, even though the name translates to “the Christ Child.” Instead, das Christkind is described as a young girl with Christlike qualities; she is usually depicted wearing a long white and gold dress and a golden crown, while having curly blond hair and wings like an angel. She is a traditional gift-giver and holiday figure in German tradition, along with St. Nicholas and Krampus.

Ireland shares many traditions with the UK and US, although it too has some notable customs of its own surrounding Christmastime. As time has gone on, these customs have mostly died out, being replaced by ones commonly practiced by the English and Americans, but two that stand out are the tall red candle and the Wren Boys’ Procession. In some Irish households, it was customary to put a tall, thick red candle, often surrounded by holly or pine, in the sill of the largest window after sunset on Christmas Eve. The candle was left to burn all night and represented a welcoming light for Mary and Joseph as they looked for shelter. The Wren Boys’ Procession takes place on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26. Young men and women dress up in costumes and go door to door carrying a long pole with a holly bush tied to the top and singing a rhyme about a wren bird. In the past, a real wren was killed and put in the bush, but that practice fortunately disappeared over time. Sometimes they are accompanied by violins, accordions, harmonicas and horns as they sing and ask for money “for the starving wren,” which has a loud song and was often called the “king of all birds.”

For most children in the Netherlands, the most important day of December is not Christmas Day, but St. Nicholas’ Eve, December 5, when Sinterklaas visits! Much like the Santa Claus of other parts of the world, Sinterklaas (the Dutch name for St. Nicholas) travels to the Netherlands every year to deliver gifts to good children. Sinterklaas is accompanied not by elves or demons, but by his servants called “Zwarte Pieten” (“Black Peters”) or “Sooty/Roetpieten” (“Sooty/Chimney Peters”). It is said at that at night, Sinterklaas rides around on his white horse, stopping on the roofs of children’s houses. If they have been good and left out hay or carrots for Sinterklaas’ horse in their shoes, one of the Peters will come down the chimney and leave candy or presents in their shoes. Christmas Day itself is a much quieter affair in the Netherlands, usually consisting of a church service and family meal. Though on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus, who is treated as a separate figure from Sinterklaas, comes from the north to deliver even more presents.

People in the Philippines like to celebrate Christmas for as long as possible. The playing of Christmas carols in shops can start in September! Christmas celebrations formally start on December 16 when many people go to the first of nine early morning masses. The last mass is on Christmas Day, and the celebration continues until the Feast of the Three Kings on Epiphany. Other Christmas customs in the Philippines are a mix of western and native Filipino traditions. In addition to having Christmas trees, Santa Claus and the like, there is the parol, a bamboo pole or frame with a lighted star lantern on it. It is traditionally made from bamboo strips and colored Japanese or cellophane paper and represents the Star of Bethlehem. The parol is considered the most popular Christmas decoration in the Philippines.

In Poland, a heavily Catholic country, Advent is considered the beginning of the Christmas season, and it is treated much like Lent, with many people giving up their favorite things for a time and living without excess. There are also “roraty,” special masses held at dawn to commemorate Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel. The smell of tangerines in schools or workplaces is said to be a sign of Christmas approaching, and plenty of Polish Christmas desserts include tangerines. Many people thoroughly clean their houses to prepare for Christmas, and Polish children often have Advent calendars, as in many neighboring countries. Children frequently get small presents on St. Nicholas’ Day (he is called Święty Mikołaj in Polish), but they may also receive presents on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is known as “Wigilia” (“The Vigil”) and traditionally no food can be eaten, or no presents can be opened until the first star appears in the sky, a reminder of the Wise Men following the star. On the table there are 12 dishes, meant to give good luck in the 12 months of the new year, and to symbolize Jesus’ 12 apostles. The meal is traditionally meat-free, to remember the animals who took care of Baby Jesus in the manger. Everyone must eat, or at least try, some of each dish. Popular dishes include beetroot soup, small dumplings with mushrooms, and “krokiety,” described as pancakes with mushrooms and/or cabbage, coated in breadcrumbs and fried in oil or butter. It is also customary to leave an empty place setting in case someone shows up unexpectedly, though in some cases this empty plate commemorates a dead relative or a family member who could not make it to the meal.

Christmas in Russia is a very small, quiet holiday. This is because during the time of the Soviet Union, Christmas was banned as a religious holiday and all religions were suppressed. During this time, the New Year became a more important holiday, though people still celebrated Christmas secretly in their homes. This almost seems fitting, since the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest church in Russia, which still uses the Julian calendar for marking holy days, celebrates Christmas on January 7. The Orthodox Church also celebrates Advent, although it has fixed dates from November 28 to January 6, so it is exactly 40 days long. The New Year is seen as a time for big celebrations and lots of food and drink, whereas Christmas is more religious and private. In fact, under the Soviet Union, Christmas trees were banned until 1935 when they became “New Year’s trees.” New Year’s is also when Grandfather Frost (called Ded Moroz in Russian) brings presents to children, accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka. On New Year’s Eve, children hold hands around the tree and call for Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, and when they appear, the star and lights on the tree light up! Russians may also celebrate the Christmas Eve Vigil like the Poles, and one of their favorite foods for the meal is “sochivo” or “kutia,” a porridge made from wheat or rice and served with honey, poppy seeds, fruit (especially berries and dried fruit like raisins,) chopped walnuts, or sometimes even fruit jellies. It is eaten from a large common bowl to symbolize unity, and some families like to throw a spoonful of it up at the ceiling; if it sticks, it is said to indicate good luck or a good harvest in the coming year.

Lastly, Spain is another country with rich, unique traditions for the holidays. The Mass of the Rooster (“La Misa de Gallo”) is commonly held, and an old tradition afterwards was to walk the streets carrying torches, playing guitars and beating on tambourines and drums. A Spanish saying regarding this says, “Tonight is the good night, and it is not meant for sleeping.” December 28 is “Dia de los Santos Inocentes” (“Day of the Innocent Saints”) in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, and it is celebrated much like April Fools’ Day in the US. People try to trick each other into believing silly stories and jokes, and those who fall for them are labeled “innocent.” Despite being a day of mirth and silliness, the holiday is also a religious observance remembering the babies who were killed on orders of King Herod while he was hunting for Jesus; thus, the children are called “innocent saints.” New Year’s Eve is called “Nochevieja” (“The Old Night”) in Spain, and one special tradition is to eat 12 grapes with the 12 strokes of the clock at midnight. Each grape represents a month of the new year, so if you eat all 12 grapes, you are said to be lucky in the new year. Apart from Christmas itself, there is another festival related to the Christmas story that is celebrated: Epiphany, or “Fiesta de Los tres Reyes Mages” (“Festival of the Three Magic Kings.”) Children have some presents on Christmas Day, but most are opened on Epiphany. Children believe that the Three Kings bring them presents on Epiphany. They write letters to the kings asking for toys and gifts, much like writing to Santa Claus. They then leave their shoes on windowsills, balconies, or under the Christmas tree to be filled with presents. Gifts are often left out for the kings as well, such as a glass of Cognac, oranges or walnuts. Some even leave buckets of water for the kings’ camels!

The Record Delta would like to wish all its readers Happy Holidays this year and hope that learning of Christmas around the world helps you appreciate the holiday season. Please stay safe as you celebrate with the ones you love.


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