25 Days of Christmas: Day 25 ~ Christmas Around the World, Part V

Christmas in the Middle East

Although much of the Middle East is devoted to Islam – or, in Israel, to Judaism – every year thousands of Christians from around the world make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, especially Bethlehem. They come to visit the place where, according to the Gospels, it all began. Not surprisingly, this is the time of the year when Bethlehem is most popular, although the scope of the celebrations often depend on the political climate at the time.

The festivities in the “little town” center on the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherds’ Fields. The Church of the Nativity is believed to stand on the place where Christ was born; under the church, within a small cave, a star on the floor marks the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The Shepherds’ Fields is said to represent the fields where the angels announced the arrival of Christ.

There are three Christian groups in Bethlehem. The Roman Catholics celebrate Christmas on December 25, the Greek Orthodox on January 6, and the Armenian Christians on January 18. Representatives protecting the interests of these three groups sit on a board that governs the Church of the Nativity, so that no group will be favored or slighted. No services are held within the church itself, but rather in an adjoining building. Services on Christmas Eve are by invitation only, but are televised to the crowds outside. Afterwards, most venture to the Shepherd’s’ Fields, which are also divided into three sections.

Christmas is also celebrated quite widely in Lebanon, with lights, carols, and midnight church services.  Papa Noel brings presents to children, and the meal often includes a cake that’s designed to resemble a Yule log.

Some of the more predominantly Muslim countries do have Christian sections, and in those sections Christmas is observed, although the observance is usually more strictly religious, as in Africa. Some countries, however, have Christian populations that have been celebrating Christmas for centuries.

In Armenia, it is believed that Christmas should be celebrated on the day of Christ’s baptism, which is January 6 in most church calendars. However, the Armenian Church follows the old Julian calendar, which marks this date as January 18. One week before Christmas there is a fast, during which no meat, eggs, cheese, or milk may be consumed. Religious services are held on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Afterward, children go onto the roofs with handkerchiefs and sing carols; often the handkerchiefs are later filled with fruit, grain or money.

Christmas in the Far East

In the Far East, Christianity exists alongside such other faiths or ideologies as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism. While Christians celebrate the holidays for its traditional meanings, many of the other aspects, such as decorating and gift giving, have been adopted more widely.

China

China was only opened to the West 400 years ago, so – relatively speaking – Christians and Christmas have not been around for long. A very small portion of the Christian ChinaChristmaspopulation celebrates Christmas that’s referred to as Sheng Dan Jieh, or the Holy Birth Festival. Christmas trees are called “trees of light,” and paper lanterns are intermingled with holly for decorations. Stocking are hung, and there are versions of Santa known as Lam Khoong-Khoong (nice old father) and Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas old man). Gift given has some formal rules: Jewelry and other more-valuable gifts are only given to the immediate family; other gifts are given to relatives and friends.

More important to the majority of Chinese is the New Year, referred to as the Spring Festival, which is celebrated in late January. New toys and clothes are given and feasts are held. The spiritual aspects concern ancestor worship, and portraits of ancestors are displayed on New Year’s Eve. This is not, strictly speaking, a Christmas celebration, but it is a festive and popular seasonal undertaking.

Christmas in Other Parts of the World

Canada

CanadaChristmas1Christmas is celebrated in many different ways in Canada, a result of the way that cultural and religious groups from many parts of the world have found a home there. Many Canadians of Ukrainian descent, for example, follow the Orthodox church’s calendar, and celebrated Christmas on January 6. In French-speaking areas such as the providence of Quebec, the Roman Catholic traditions of displaying creches, or Nativity scenes, as decorations remain very strong, as does attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, followed by a hearty meal that includes tourtiere (a meat pie) and present opening.

The annual Santa Claus Parade in downtown Toronto began in 1905 as a way to celebrate the arrival of Santa at the Eaton’s department store. The first parade featured Santa arriving at the train station and walking to the store. Today, the parade – with bands, clowns, and intricately decorated floats – features almost 2,000 participants and stretches for more than three miles.

Along with the widespread North American traditions of decorating the home inside CanadaChristmasand out with lights, visiting Santa at local stores and malls to offer him a wish list, and decorating Christmas trees with ornaments and lights, many Canadians Christmas traditions depend on geography.

In the north, for example, the winter season was often celebrated before the arrival of Christmas with feasts, games, dogsled races, and gift exchanges. Known as Quviasuvvik, or the Happy Time, many of these traditions have now been wrapped into the church services and charitable causes that are part of Canadian customs throughout the country.

In Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, the Carol Ships are an annual traditional, as boats decorated with sparkling lights to take the harbor in a nightly parade throughout December.

Australia

AustraliaChristmas1As in South Africa, Christmas falls during summer vacation down under. Because of the climate, flowers are the most important Christmas decoration, particularly the Christmas Bush and the Christmas Bell. Father Christmas and Santa exist side by side – like siblings, which they certainly are. Gifts are exchanged on Christmas morning before attending church. Typically, the afternoon is spent at the beach or engaging in sports.

AustraliaChristmasAustralia is also the home of “Carols by Candlelight,” a tradition stated by radio announcer Norman Banks in 1937. After Banks saw a woman listening to carols alone by candlelight, he decided to do something to relieve the loneliness and isolation some feel during the holidays. He announced a community carol sing for anyone who wanted to join in. The concept has grown in popularity over the years, and the recorded program is now broadcast over the world.

 (Jeffrey, Yvonne; The Everything Family Christmas Book)

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Regardless of where you live or how you celebrate the Birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. From our home to yours, we wish you the Merriest of Christmases and Happiest of New Year’s.

 

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25 Days of Christmas: Day 24 ~ Christmas Around the World, Part IV

Christmas in South America

The celebration of Christmas in South America is similar to that in Central America because of the warm climate and the religious aspect of the holiday. As with most countries of Hispanic origin, children receive gifts on Epiphany rather than Christmas; the nacimiento (creche) and midnight Mass are essential, but posadas are not as popular as in other areas.

Chile

Christmas in Chile is observed in accordance with most of the region, including the midnight Mass of the Rooster, but the gift giver here is known as BViejo Pascuero, or Old Man Christmas. Oddly enough, he has reindeer, but of course, with a significant lack of chimneys, he’s forced to enter houses through windows instead. A notable part of the Christmas meal is pan de pasqua, a bread that contains candied fruit.

Peru

Markets become very busy in the days before Christmas, offering both gifts items and decorations for the Nativity scenes, or nacimiento, that many families have. This is a time of song and music, although the Christmas Eve service is, as always, much quieter in nature. Children often receive gifts both on Christmas Day (as Santa becomes a more popular figure) and on January 6, which is the Feast of the Three Kings.

Colombia

Much of the Christmas season in Colombia begins in earnest nine days before Christmas Day, when the Novena, a prayer ritual, begins. The pesebre, or Nativity scene, is also important, with Jesus generally making his appearance on Christmas Eve. Colombia is one of the rare Hispanic countries in which children receive gifts brought by the Christ Child on Christmas Eve, not Epiphany.

Venezuela

An interesting tradition in Venezuela is “The Standing Up of the Christ Child,” or La Paradura del Nino. Accoring to the rules, the figurine of the Child must be stood up on New Year’s Day to indicate his maturity. Any Child found laying down in its manger at that time is likely to be “kidnapped” and kept in a special place of honor until the ransom is paid. Ransom is a paradura party. But before the party can begin, “godparents” must be chosen; later they lead a procession to where the Child is kept. After the godparents return the figurine to the manger setting and stand it up, children offer gifts and there is much food and dancing.

Christmas in Africa

In most African countries, Christians make up a relatively small part of the population, so Christmas is generally a lower-key affair than it is in many western countries. The emphasis is typically on charitable acts and simple presents, rather than the purchase of expensive gifts. Church services and often, caroling, are considered important. In Algiers, for example, there are a number of Catholic churches that celebrate midnight Mass, and streets are colorfully decorated for the holiday.

Ethiopia

The Christian church in Ethiopia is the Coptic church. Believers there still abide by an older calendar, which places Christmas on January 7, when people break their traditional pre-Christmas fast from milk and meat products with a meal of rice and meat.

Ghana

Christmas evergreen or palm trees are seen, and there is a Father Christmas who comes out of the jungle. Children have school pageants and there is more gift giving. Early Christmas morning, a group enacts the story of the shepherds and angels heralding Christ’s birth, traveling the streets and singing songs. This band is often rewarded with gifts.

Liberia

Oil palm trees are often decorated with bells for Christmas, with a church service attended in the morning and Christmas dinner shared in the afternoon.  It’s similar in Nigeria, where Christmas is a time to visit family.

South Africa

Christmas falls in the midst of summer vacation, so the activities are adapted to the warmer weather. Shops are decorated, streets are lit, and Father Christmas puts gifts in the children’s stockings. After a church service on Christmas Day, however, the Christmas feast is eaten outside. Depending on their cultural heritage, South Africans may also celebrate Christmas with feasts, carnivals, and parades.

(Jeffrey, Yvonne; The Everything Family Christmas Book)

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25 Days of Christmas: Day 22 ~ Christmas Around the World, Part II

England

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.

England-BoxingDayAn 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.

Wales

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.

Wales - MariLwydThe 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.

Ireland

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.

Scotland

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

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.

Austria - stnick-krampus-716488Austria

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)

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25 Days of Christmas: Day 11 ~ Santa Claus & Traditions of Christmas, Part I

Santa Claus

SantaClausHe’s called Santa Claus, Sinter Klaas, Father Christmas, and Père Noël, among other names, but the title of St. Nicholas comes closest to the historical roots of this giver of gifts. Although modern Santa’s appearance and traditions spring largely from the last two centuries of popular story and art, the legends associated with him begin with a real person on the shores of the fourth-century Mediterranean Sea. Over the years, he’s evolved into an engaging combination of reality and myth whose hearty, “Ho, ho, ho!” proves impossible to resist each Christmas season.

The Traditions of Christmas

Many of the best-loved Christmas traditions come from the original stories of the Bible. In fact, the gospels of Luke and Matthew hold the keys to explaining the ways in which many people celebrate the holiday today – from the Christmas star that led the Wise Men to the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born to the Nativity displays that recreate the scene inside the stable. While customs have changed over the centuries, many traditions still provide a direct link to the time of Jesus’ birth.

Christkind

Christkind, the German name for the Christ Child, originally referred directly to the Holy Infant Jesus himself, who was said to bring gifts to children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Pennsylvania Dutch region on Christmas Eve. (Other forms of the name are Christkindl, Christkindli, and Chriskinddlein.)

Christkind

Christkind

Later, the name came to stand for the embodiment of the Child’s spirit, in angelic form, that brought the gifts in his place. Veiled in white, with gold wings upon his shoulders, he arrives secretly, often through an open window. When he is through with his work, he rings a bell to notify all that he presents have arrived. Over the years, the name has evolved to Kris Kringle, but contrary to popular belief, the Christkind is not another form of Santa Claus.

Special Days

For most of the churches that follow Christianity, Christmas is only one day – albeit a very important one – in an entire season that focuses on the birth of Jesus. The season begins approximately four weeks before Christmas Day, and carries on through January and even into February. Each of the special days within the season brings with it an opportunity to reflect on the message of peace, joy, and goodwill.

The Season of Advent

For most western Christian churches, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The word advent originates with the Latin word for “coming” and indeed, this season of preparation is a solemn time to make ready for the coming of Christ and Christmas.

AdventCandlesAs a way to mark the passage of time, churches often use an Advent Wreath or candle arrangement that contains five candles. On the first Sunday of Advent, one candle is lit; on the second, two candles are lit; and so on. These candles, which can be various colors depending on the church, often represent such ideas as hope, peace, love, and joy. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the fifth candle is lit, representing Christ, the light of the world.

Christmas Eve

The day before Christmas Day is one of great anticipation, and is marked in many countries and cultures. The most popular Christmas Mass for Roman Catholics is the midnight Mass, a tradition that began in the early 400s. Midnight Mass is traditionally held at midnight, as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, because it’s believed that Jesus was born at midnight. In today’s churches, both Catholic and Protestant, services may be held at midnight or earlier, often incorporating carols and the Nativity.

Of course, the night of Christmas Eve is also when Santa Claus and his many variants are believed to travel the world, leaving behind presents for the children on the well-behaved list. Although in many countries people open presents on Christmas morning, some open them on Christmas Eve – this includes Canada’s Quebec Provence, as well as Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Portugal.

Christmas Eve is a time when families begin to gather to celebrate Christmas Day, often traveling to be with each other, and enjoying a Christmas Eve supper together. Historically, it was also the day when Christmas trees and decorations were set up; however, the festive garlands are now often in place weeks beforehand.

 Boxing Day

Despite the name, it has nothing to do with prizefighting. In England, it was customary for churches to open their alms boxes to the poor on the first workday after Christmas in an attempt to give some cheer to those who could not afford a very merry Christmas. Out of this custom grew Boxing Day, on which day service people and other workers would collect money or treats from their employers. It was popularized during Queen Victoria’s reign in England, in the mid-nineteenth century, and remains a day off from work in many countries.

Epiphany

The Wise Men’s visit to Jesus is commemorated on Epiphany, also know in some places as the Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Eve. Originally, Epiphany marked the manifestation of God to the world in the form of Jesus, so it included both the birth and the baptism of Jesus. Later, when the Romans bean introducing Christianity to the West, they moved the birth of Jesus to December 25, and represented Epiphany as the day the Wise Men presented their gifts.

Tradition marks this event on January 6, which remains the date of the Eastern Orthodox Christmas in many countries. You’ll note that there are twelve days between December 25 and January 6, which is where our celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from.

(Jeffrey, Yvonne, The Everything Family Christmas Book)

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25 Days of Christmas: Day 9 ~ Christmas In America

American Christmas

Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the New World ended when he ran aground on Christmas Eve, and he and his men were rescued by native peoples. His was, of course, the first of many such expeditions to what would eventually be called the Americas. Later explorers found the inhabitants of these unfamiliar lands engaging in end-of-the-year festivals just as people did back in Europe. Peoples in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska had winter celebrations; a tribe in North Dakota hung gifts on cedar trees.

To understand modern Christmas traditions, however, you need to look toward Europe. The first wave of European settlers to the colonies came from English, Dutch, and Germanic backgrounds. These groups, representing a variety of churches and religious affiliations, organized communities according to the traditions and values of their heritage. Among other religious, cultural, and political differences during the colonial period, was the question of Christmas. In this case, there was scant middle ground; Some were completely for it, some completely opposed.

Outlawing Christmas in America

The celebration of Christmas in early America depended very much on where the settlers had come from in the Old World. Those with traditional English backgrounds tended to recognize the holiday, while the Separatist or Puritan pilgrims brought with them the sentiments of the Protestant Reformation in seventeenth century England: They believed that the day didn’t necessarily reflect Christ’s true birth date, and they disapproved of the excesses involved in its celebration. Excerpts from the diary of Governor Bradford of Plymouth Colony, for example, give a dismal description of Christmas in 1621, describing only work and the discouragement of celebration.

Not surprisingly, the traditions of the English grew even more unpopular after the American Revolution. Christmas had a long way to go in the new United States of America.

Christmas Comes Back

puritan-christmasThe Puritans were not the only group of settlers in early America, however. In Virginia, the Cavaliers (seventeenth-century English royalists) observed Christmas by ringing bells, decorating evergreens, and feasting. Dutch immigrants also arrived in the seventeenth century, along with their Christmas traditions, which included Sinter Klaas. And, of course, settlers from Germany also brought their strong holiday traditions with them.

This steady influx of moderates from overseas brought about the repeal of the anti-Christmas law in 1681, and the first Christmas services were held in Boston Town Hall in 1686. Still, even when it was no longer illegal, Christmas remained a workday in Boston. Although Alabama declared Christmas a legal holiday in 1836, the first state to do so, the same was not done in Boston until 1856, and children there were attending school on Christmas day until 1870.

In the nineteenth century, it seemed that wherever Germans settled in America, they brought Christmas cheer. In Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and elsewhere they kept their love of Christmas alive. In some places they were surrounded by some of the holidays’ staunchest opponents, but they carried on anyway, and gradually gained converts to their merry ways. An infusion of Victorian Christmas spirit that began in the middle of the nineteenth century, coupled with the continued dedication to the holiday by German immigrants and their descendants, brought about the beginning of the Christmas that Americans recognize today.

Another important influence in bringing Christmas to America was author Washington Irving. He introduced St. Nicholas in his 1809 book A History of New York, and followed that up with The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in 1819, in which his stories about an English manor house Christmas evoked traditional elements of the holiday, including a Lord of Misrule. In Irving’s Christmas writings, peach and generosity ruled, rather than the raucous partying that had so dismayed Puritan leaders and led to the holiday’s banning.

The American South led the way in returning Christmas, with Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas all declaring the day an official holiday in the 1830s. The federal government didn’t follow until 1870. In 1890, Oklahoma – the last contiguous state or territory that did not officially recognize Christmas as a holiday – also changed its mind. The country was now celebrating from sea to shining sea, gradually incorporating customs and traditions from all over the world.

(Jeffery, Yvonne, “The Everything Family Christmas Book”)

Garland1-1Festive Fact

Christmas was officially banned in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681, rolled in together with such frowned-upon activities as gambling. Those who disobeyed the law, and were found celebrating the holiday by feasting or drinking, for example, could be fined five shillings.

Holiday Helper

Hessian troops at Trenton, unwilling to forsake their customary celebrations during the Christmas season of 1776, were taken by surprise by General Washington in one of the turning points of the Revolutionary War. As it happens, Hessians, who came from central Germany, are believed to have been the first to set up a Christmas tree on American soil.