In England, the Christmas tree has been widespread since Prince Albert introduced the custom in 1841. Caroling and bell ringing are very popular as well, and the land that gave us the Christmas card is still sending them by the millions. Father Christmas, so similar in may ways to the American Santa Claus, leaves gifts for children. Letters to him were traditionally thrown in the fire (a little more difficult now that many houses no longer have open fireplaces) so that their list could fly up the chimney.
House decorations of holly, ivy, and mistletoe and children hanging up their stockings are also traditional elements of Christmas in England. Christmas Eve might see people attending church services. Many families open their gifts on Christmas morning, sitting down to a meal of turkey or roast beef in the afternoon. For dessert, sweet minced pies and brandy-laced plum pudding are still favorites, and pulling crackers is looked forward to throughout the meal. Many people make time to listed to the Queen’s annual message, which is aired on television in the afternoon.
Christmas crackers – which first appeared in London in 1846 – are cardboard tubes covered with bright paper that’s twisted to close up both ends. When the crackers are pulled apart they make a small “bang” or “crack,” and release little toys, jokes, and tissue-paper hats hidden within the tubes.
An additional observance, or day off, at this time of the year is Boxing Day, held on December 26. The name is taken from the old custom of opening the alms boxes in church the day after Christmas to give money to the needy. The idea expanded to servants and tradesmen, who expected to be tipped for the year’s service.
Carol singing, or eisteddfodde, in Wales has become an art form. Nowhere in the world are Christmas carols more carefully crafted and lovingly sung. Many churches retain a carol-singing service known as Plygain at Christmas. Once a Christmas-morning service that began as early as 3:00 A.M., it now tends to be an evening service.
The Christmas season is also the time for Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare, to appear. This odd creature is represented by a man wearing a sheet and carrying a horse’s skull or imitation horse’s head. The creature dances around in public and tries to bite people with the horse’s jaws. If he manages to bite you, you must give him money!
Pulling (making) taffy, which is a chewy toffee candy, is one way to spend the day; in Wales, taffy is as much a part of Christmas fare as candy canes are in America.
Christmas in Ireland takes on quite a religious tone, although decorations and gift giving (and shopping) are popular, too. Lit candles (often replaced now with electric lights) are left in the windows on Christmas Eve to light the Holy Family’s way, with church services attended on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
Father Christmas is the gift giver here, with presents traditionally given out on Christmas morning, followed by a big holiday meal later in the day. For a treat, three special puddings are made during this season: one for Christmas, one for New Year’s, and one for Twelfth Night, the latter of which is also known as Little Christmas.
On the day after Christmas, (St. Stephen’s Day), many once engaged in “hunting the wren.” This old tradition called for the killing of a wren to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the new. The homeowner would give the hunters some goodies for their troubles, and they would give a feather for good luck in return. Areas that still observe this custom today use a fake stuffed wren, and money collected usually goes to charity.
With Christmas celebrations banned after the sixteenth-century Reformation in Scotland, December 25 remained a regular working day until 1958, when it was finally declared a public holiday. Today, it has largely caught up with European traditions of gift giving and decorating, although it retains some of its own special superstitions – including the idea that the home’s fire needs to be kept burning on Christmas Eve to keep mischievous elves from coming down the chimney and causing bad luck.
The Scots also celebrate Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve, as a major event, often gathering together friends and family to celebrate the coming of the new year. Cities such as Edinburg host huge public celebrations.
Germany, perhaps more than any other country, has influenced the way Christmas is celebrated around the world. The tradition of the Christmas tree began in Germany, after all, and most modern families there would consider it unthinkable to pass the holiday without one. Advent wreaths and calendars (which mark the countdown to Christmas Day) make their appearance at the end of November. Germany is also one of the countries in which children leave a shoe out on the eve of St. Nicholas’s Day (December 6) to be filled with candy.
There are more gifts after Mass or church on Christmas Eve. That’s when the Christkind, or Kris Kringle – not to be confused with St. Nicholas or Santa Claus – brings the gifts. At first, the Christkind was meant to be the Baby Jesus; later the name came to stand for a more angelic figure that embodies the spirit of the Christ Child. The Christkind wears a flowing white robe, a while vail, and gold wings, often entering by an open window and ringing a bell when gifts have been left.
St. Nicholas’s Day opens the Christmas season in Austria as well, when the saint arrives with the devil (St. Nicholas often appears with a darker companion who deals with the children on the”misbehaving” list). Both figures test the children, and the good ones receive presents.
One of Austria’s most important contributions to the celebration of Christmas is a song sung by church choirs and carolers around the world: “Silent Night.” On Christmas Eve, 1818, organist Franz Gruber composed the music to accompany Josef Mohr’s poem. The carol was Gruber’s only published musical work.
The Nativity scene is displayed around the family tree, which is often decorated with small toys and candy as well as ornaments. There are processions known as “Showing the Christ Child,” and Nativity plays are also performed; similar to the Spanish posadas, they dramatize the Holy Family’s journey. On Christmas Eve, many enjoy music from the Turmblasen, a brass band that plays carols from church steeples or building towers.
(Jeffrey, Yvonne; The Everything Family Christmas Book)