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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)



25 Days of Christmas: Day 23 ~ Christmas Around the World, Part III

Christmas in Central America and the West Indies


Hondurans have their own version of posadas. For nine days before Christmas, the faithful act out Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. Once house in the village is chosen to be the place of shelter, where people go to sing and pray. Tamales are served, dances and firework displays are held, and people visit each other’s creches.

Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, the Nativity scene is given its own room, not just a spot in a corner or on a table. In accordance with the climate, the decorations consist of brilliantly colored flowers and wreaths of cypress leaves and red coffee berries. Children put out their shoes for the Christ Child to fill, as their parents did, but Santa is beginning to show up more and more.


By late November, festivities have started in Nicaragua. Children gather in the streets with bouquets to honor the Virgin Mary with song. This portion of the holiday ends on December 8, with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. On December 16, the Novena to the Holy Child begins; another kind of posada, it concludes on Christmas Eve at midnight Mass. Children receive gifts from the Three Kings on January 6.


Schoolchildren in Panama emerge in pre-Christmas activities much like the ones enjoyed by American children. Decorations and cards are made, gifts are exchanged, and there are plays. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are celebrated, with the meal including chicken with rice and tamales. Once again, children receive gifts on Epiphany, King’s Day.

Puerto Rico

Understandably, there is a large American influence on the Puerto Rican Christmas, which features a mixture of Spanish and American traditions. Puerto Ricans have Santa Claus and a tree, but received gifts on both Christmas and Epiphany. A fun pre-Christmas tradition is Asalto, in which a band of people appear on someone’s lawn to shout, sing carols, and plead for goodies. The owner usually opens up his or her home to them; after a small party, the group moves on to another house. Generally Christmas in Puerto Rico lasts from early December to Las Octavitas, which is eight days after Epiphany.


(Jeffrey, Yvonne; The Everything Family Christmas Book)


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


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.


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.


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.

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)


25 Days of Christmas: Day 21 ~ Christmas Around the World, Part I

Christmas is observed in all kinds of places around the world – from the privacy of a single home to public worship in a cathedral, in the smallest villages and the largest cities, in the jungles and in the deserts. In many places however, it looks much different than a North American Christmas. Do they have Santa Claus in China, for example? What’s for Christmas dinner in Sweden?  What happens when Christmas arrives during summer vacation? Here’s a sampling of global traditions, to answer some of these questions and more.

Christmas in Europe

As a general rule, the Christmas season in Europe begins in early December and lasts through January 6.  The celebration is marked by beautiful expansive Nativity scenes, delicious feasts, and the observance of Epiphany. Though each culture has its unique customs and rituals, there are elements that unify the holiday for all within a given country.


For the French, the winder holiday (known as Noël, from en expression meaning “day of birth”) begins on December 6, St. Nicholas’ Day.  St. Nicholas’ Day is celebrated most heartily in the provinces, particularly in Lorraine, as it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave Lorraine to Nicholas as a gift; he is its patron saint. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children; little ones throughout France leave out their shoes in the hope that St. Nicholas will leave gifts of nuts and candy during his night visit.

French homes are known for their Crèches, or Nativity displays, which are meant to look as realistic and beautiful as possible. Some contain santons (little saints) representing people in the Nativity. Santons came to France in the 1800s from Italy, by way of Italian merchants. The figures are made of clay, and in most cases, are clothed with fabric.

Flowers are another staple decoration in the French home during the holiday season. Lush arrangements of roses, gladioli, carnations, and snapdragons are often found on the table or next to the fireplace, as are poinsettias, hyacinths, azaleas, and Christmas begonia plants. Some houses assign a special place on the table a bouquet the hellebore, or Christmas Rose.

France - Pere Noel The arrival of Christmas Eve sees the infant Jesus taking his place in the family creche after a small ceremony. Little children are put to bed, hoping the gifts they ask for will be left by Père Noël. Previously, Petit Jesus, or Little Jesus, was the one who came to children on Christmas Eve. Later, the visitor was the spirit of Christmas, Père Noël. In present-day France, most children believe Jesus sends Père Noël in his place.

After the children are in bed, the older members of the family head off to midnight Mass. Along the way there are often processions re-enacting the Nativity, some of which end in living creches (where people play out the manger scene). The midnight mass itself is very important in France, and almost everyone attends.

At the conclusion of Mass, all head home to begin the reveillon (awakening), which is the grand Christmas Eve feast. The feast may have as many as fifteen courses, ranging from soups, fruits, salads, meats, fish, and chicken to cheese, breads, nuts, pastry, and candy. The reveillon often lasts the entire night, with no time for the adults to sleep before the children wander down to open their gifts. The adults wait to exchange their gifts on New Year’s Day, though some villages near the Spanish border mix Spanish and French traditions and open gifts on January 6.


Belgium ChristmasGift giving in Belgium traditionally takes place on December 6, In French-speaking areas, it’s Père Noël who brings the gifts, while in Walloon-speaking areas, it’s more likely to be St. Nicholas himself, who makes a quick visit two days before-hand to take a look around and gauge children’s behavior. On December 6, good children can expect special treats, while bad ones look for sticks in the shoes that they’ve left out to be filled.

An area of the country known as Flanders is famous for its Nativity plays, which are performed with great care and attention to tradition. Three men who are chosen for their good behavior during the year dress as Magi and walk through the town. They sing songs at each house and are rewarded with snacks. Belgium is also known for its processions on Christmas Eve, which wind through town until they reach the church for midnight Mass.


Italy - La BefanaItaly is the birthplace of the manger scene, or presepio, which is filled with clay figures called pastori. It rightfully holds a place of distinction int he Italian Christmas, dating back almost eight centuries to the time of St. Francis of Assisi.

The ceppo is an Italian version of the Christmas tree. Made of wood, the ceppo gives the appearance of a ladder, with shelves linking two sides. The bottom shelf contains a presepio; other shelves contain gifts and decorations.

Italian children receive gifts twice during the season. The Christ Child is said to bring small gifts on Christmas Eve, but the more anticipated gift giving is from La Befana, who comes down the chimney on Epiphany Eve to leave goodies in shoes. Legend has it that La Befana was the woman who declined the Wise Men’s offer to accompany them on their journey to see the Christ Child. Regretting her decision later, she set out to bring the Christ Child gifts, but as she never found Him, she leaves gits for other children instead. (The tradition has variants in many other countries as well.) Santa Claus is also a familiar figure in Italy, where he’s known as Babbo Natale.


ThreeWiseMen1The Christmas season in Spain begins on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This includes Los Seises, the Dance of Six, an ancient custom whereby six boys perform a dance that symbolizes Christ’s birth and life. This is celebrated annually at Seville’s cathedral.

The manger scene, or nacimiento, has a place of reverence in the Spanish Christmas. This manger scene contains all the traditional elements, along with a few distinctly Spanish ones, including a Spanish bull and a stream of water. Sometimes bullfighters are part of the onlookers. These scenes are set up in public squares and in homes, taking precedence over Christmas trees, which are not common.

The Spanish refer to Christmas Eve as Noche Buena (Good Night). On Christmas Eve, family members gather in the room containing the nacimiento to sing hymns and pray. Late in the evening, the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) is attended. Many Hispanic countries refer to midnight Mass as the Mass of the Rooster; it has been said that the only time a rooster ever crowed at midnight was the moment when Christ was born. After Mass, a big meal is consumed.

Adults exchange gifts on Christmas Day. Anotehr treat is the Urn of Fate, a bowl filled with the names of everyone present. Two names are picked out at the same time; those whose names are chosen together are supposed to enjoy a lasting friendship or romance.

There is much dancing and other festivities through Epiphany, the day that children receive presents in their shoes from he Three Wise Men. (There is no Santa Claus figure.)

(Jeffrey, Yvonne; The Everything Family Christmas Book)


25 Days of Christmas: Day 16 ~ Christmas on the Silver Screen

When you think of Christmas, you may think of the joy that’s brought each season by television, music, and the movies. The Grinch, George Bailey, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, and a host of other figures who came to prominence after World War II now play an important part in our celebration of the holiday. While some of them have little connection to the origins of Christmas, they nonetheless provide a window into the holiday and how you recognize it today.

It’s a Wonderful Life

ItsAWonderfulLifeIf you asked twenty people to name their top-ten Christmas films of all time, odds are that nineteen of them would find a place on the list for Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. It graces our television screens every season, to the point where the season wouldn’t be quite the same without it.

The Movie Background

During World War II, Capra, who has scored with such hits as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, headed the government’s Office of War Information, and directed the powerful Why We Fight series of documentaries. When the war ended, Capra returned to Hollywood and, with William Wyler, George Stevens, and Samuel Briskin, formed Liberty Pictures – an independent production company in an era of big-studio moviemaking.

For Capra’s first Liberty Pictures project, he bought the rights to a short piece by Philip Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift.” It told the tale of a man who was afforded the opportunity to see what life would have been like if he had never been born.

Capra asked Jimmy Steward, who had returned from active duty as an Air Force pilot, to be his leading man in It’s a Wonderful Life. To win Stewart’s commitment before any script existed, Capra had to give a verbal summary of the plot he had in mind. According to Stewart, the account was a rambling one that had to do with an angel who didn’t have any wings yet, a good man named George Bailey who wanted to see the world but never got to, a savings and loan company, a small town, and a misplaced wad of money – among many, many other things. Although Capra’s summary left Stewart more baffled than ever about what the film was actually about, he agreed to do the picture, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Thomas Mitchell also signed on.

The picture was filmed over the summer of 1946. All the snow in the winter scenes is fake; all the actors in overcoats and mittens were sweltering. When the movie was released in late December 1946, it received generally positive critical notices, but not such a positive welcome at the box office.

The Movie Flop

One argument goes that the film failed because it was Capra’s darkest effort to date. It’s a Wonderful Life includes a child-beating scene, a suicide attempt, and a nightmarish tour of a very seedy, very depressing outpost that could no longer call itself Bedford Falls. It may well be that the many down moments of the film just weren’t in tune with the mood of the moviegoing public shortly after World War II. Even though the film features what may be the happiest (or, depending on your perspecitve, corniest) ending in movie history, that ending is a long time coming, and a war-weary audience may simply have been looking for more upbeat entertainment in late 1946 and early 1947.

Another line of reasoning has it that Liberty Films had trouble competing with bigger, better-promoted, and better-distributed studio films. This may well have been the case; even though RKO was handling the distribution of the picture, the number of theaters initially showing the film seems quite low for a major release, and Liberty apparently had trouble collecting from theaters.

The third theory suggests that bad timing was the film’s undoing. It was released to a few dozen theaters very late in December 1946, with broader distribution coming only late the following January. Not, perhaps, the best way to launch a Christmas movie. Another obstacle may have been the weather; A major blizzard put a huge hole in the East Coast movie attendance during the film’s run.

Whether it was because of the tone of the film, the competitive pressures from the big studiod, the timing, or a combination of all three, It’s a Wonderful Life was anything but a wonderful experience for the fledgling Liberty Films studio. By the end of the year, that project and others like it had brought the company into serious financial trouble. To avoid personal responsibility for Liberty’s debts, Capra and his partners dissolved the studio – and, in doing so, paved the way for the remarkable revival of the story of George Bailey of Bedford Falls.

The Television Revival

The irony is that if Liberty hadn’t failed, It’a a Wonderful Life might never have become a holiday tradition – television, not the movies, was the medium through which Capra’s film became widely known and loved. This was largely because the company’s failure allowed the film’s copyright to enter the public domain at a time when broadcasters were hungry to cheap holiday-oriented programming.  If you had a copy of the film, you could show it, period. (You could also delete as many scenes from it as you pleased in order to accommodate television’s appetite for commercial breaks, a fact that has frustrated many a Capra purist.)

Thankfully, the official, original, and unedited version of the film is available on DVD (Turner Entertainment< which obtained the RKO library, has the original negative).


Even the experts aren’t perfect all the time. Watch for these film flubs in Capra’s holiday masterpiece.

  • In the dinner scene before the big dance, when Harry Bailey says, “Annie, my sweet, have you got those pies?” the water-pitcher on the table is about one-third full. Later in the scene, without anyone’s assistance, the level has mysteriously risen to about one-half.
  • Shortly after Mary loses her bathrobe and dashed into a nearby bush, she tells George that she’s hiding in the hydrangea bush. It’s hard to tell what the set designer was getting at with this “plant,” but one thing is for certain; It isn’t a hydrangea.
  • Watch very closely after George tosses the robe onto the bush; the robe vanishes in the next shot.
  • In the scene in which George walks into the Building and Loan carrying a holiday wreath, the wreath magically appears and disappears on this arm in various shots.
  • After George leaves Mr. Martini’s on the night he attempts to commit suicide, he crashes his car into an old tree. Before the car hits the tree, the car has no snow to speak of on it, but in the very next shot, noticeable snowdrifts have suddenly appeared on the car’s body.
  • Right before George’s line “I wish I’d never been born,” Clarence Oddbody is standing with his arms at his sides. But in the very next shot, Clarence’s arms are crossed.
  • Near the end of the long final scene of the film, Zuzu reaches for the pocket watch before the stocky man pulls it out of her coat to surprise her with it.

If you can spot them all, give yourself an extra cup of eggnog!

(Jeffrey, Yvonne; The Everything Family Christmas Book)