December 25, 1994 archive
Christmas In Europe
Many Christmas traditions in Europe have very deep roots. They can be established from pagan practices and even mythology. These traditional celebrations can be quite different from modern American ones. St. Nicholas Feast Day is practiced in a lot of Eastern European countries. There are 12 dishes in a Christmas Eve dinner and carolers dot the streets. Children follow the life of St. Nicholas and try and emulate what he would do. The evening of December 5th has kids wearing both devil and angel costumes (some of each), and caroling from door to door, where they may receive presents.
Santa may visit some children on the morning of December sixth. Tannenbaun is the German name for Christmas tree and there’s a Christmas song called Oh Tannenbaum. In English it’s known as Oh, Christmas Tree. The advent wreath is another European tradition and it has four candles which are lit on each Sunday in December. Advent calendars are made from paper and a child can open one door each day of December and see a little scene revealed.
St. Andrew’s Day occurs on the last day of November and it’s the first of two prophesizing days. The second is St. Barbara’s Day which is on December 4th. In Santa Barbara, California, a real person portrays Saint Barbara at the head of their (held in August) Fiesta Parade and entertainment. In Europe, Santa gives gifts out to children on December 6th, and the night of December 13th is St. Lucia’s Day and the night is taken over by bad spirits.
Feast and meals are a tradition in Europe and they can be associated with fasting as well. The French have 7 meatless meals before attending church mas on Christmas Eve. Roast meat and wine break the fast after the service. Danish families eat biscuits, cookies, biscuits, and small cakes made by children. Lunches are long affairs, and fish, pudding, cold meats, fish, biscuits and cheese, and beer and schnapps are served. Lithuanians hold a Christmas Eve supper called kucios. This is to break the fasting held for several days before Christmas.
In the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, and a few other Central European countries, the main public celebration date is December 24th. This can be a fasting day and children are said to be able to see a golden piglet if they don’t eat until dinner. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the main dish is fried carp and potato salad and cabbage or fish soup. Some areas prefer mushrooms and porridge while other homes eat and serve from twelve rich entrees and desserts.
Gifts are given out after dinner and they can be from the Christkind (Little Jesus), or parents. Gifts have been placed under the Christmas tree and the children’s names are written on stickers. Under Soviet influence, the Russian tradition of Grandfather Frost was promoted heavily. Many people like to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Bethlehem cribs, trees, garlands and mistletoe are a tradition in Europe. Santa Claus comes early to visit children in several countries. This is on December 6th, or St. Nicholas Day. Candy bags and presents are deposited into shoes which children have placed on window ledges the night before.
Santa, without his sleigh and reindeer, may visit families accompanied by his devil-like servant called Krampus. Krampus gives out no presents, but gold-colored birch twigs for naughty children. Most children get both twigs and presents. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Christmas Eve is called Generous Day. Gifts are brought by baby Jesus and any old traditions are celebrated with a fun twist and attitude. Families can fast on Christmas Eve and will eat a small amount of sauerkraut soup for a little energy. Children wait to open presents and when they hear the Christmas bell, they may do so.
Other traditions are predicting the future and if someone cuts an apple across the middle and a star appears, then they’ll have a great year. If it’s a warped-looking star, then that means bad luck or sickness. If a girl throws a shoe over her shoulder and the toe points outward, then she’ll be getting married in the near future. In a few instances, molten lead is poured into water and messages are guessed from the shapes which form.
In Austria, Knecht Ruprecht is often a companion of St. Nicholas. In a lot of German-speaking countries, presents are delivered on Christmas Eve by the Christ Child. He rings a bell before entering, but is invisible. In protestant circles, a late afternoon church service comes before the Christmas Eve meal, and then gifts are exchanged. Lutheran churches may offer midnight candlelight services.
Christmas trees are usually erected and decorated in the morning, on December 24th. In many families, it is customary to sing Christmas songs before opening presents. Potato salad with hot dogs cut up in it are a favorite dish for German families.
Christmas In America
Santa Claus as we know him, more or less, today — was born in the U.S. in the 1860s. He traditionally has a white beard and a big belly because he’s known as the Jolly Old Elf, and his name came from the Dutch for Saint Nicholas, Sintaklaas. He actually came over from Europe (the tradition that is) with the Dutch in the 1600s. Washington Irving included Santa Claus in a novel in 1809 and this is how he became known in the U.S.
When he was still called St. Nick, he smoked a pipe, flew around in reindeer-less wagon and brought presents to children at Christmas. Renamed Santa Claus in 1863, he gained his famous red outfit, and his reindeer-pulled sleigh. Many different variations of Christmas are celebrated in the U.S. because of the different ethnicities in areas of the country. Moravians in Pennsylvania build a Christmas scene called a putz, which is place under the tree. Also on Pennsylvania, Germans are gifted with goodies by Belsncikle, who can also dispense punishment if they’ve been naughty.
Southerners in the early days of Christmas traditions, shot off their guns and set off fireworks at Christmas. In Hawaii, Santa arrives by boat and families eat Christmas dinner outdoors in the gorgeous Hawaiian climate. A lesser known tradition is practiced in Alaska. Herod’s men follow someone carrying a star on a pole from door to door, and they try and snatch it away. At Christmas, Colonial homes in the South can be decorated with pineapples. In D.C. in the U.S., the president lights up a huge Christmas tree placed at the White House.
Boston loves a lot of carol singing events at Christmas. Hand bells are used with groups of singers and in New Orleans, a large ox is taken around and it’s decorated with ribbons and holly on its horns. Los Posadas is practiced in Arizona, due to Mexican traditions. A passion play of sorts showcases the Mary and Joseph search for a room at the inn. Families take on the roles and visit their neighborhood houses. They also look at what kind of crib each family has on display, with a baby Jesus in it.
The Christmas tree ship arrives in Hawaii, along with Santa Claus. It carries a lot of presents and other holiday goodies. Santa arrives in California on a surfboard. A traditional Christmas dinner in the U.S. is turkey and vegetables and sauces. There are still some wild turkeys running around, but these Christmas ones are usually the large, white kind raised on farms. American desserts may include Christmas pudding, fruit tarts, or mince pies. Also on the scene are pumpkin pies (as at Thanksgiving), along with apple and other kinds.
Most people in the U.S. exchange gifts and cards and visit with family at Christmas time. Midnight mass is celebrated on Christmas Eve by Catholics and the next day, Christmas dinner is eaten, usually indoors. It can consist of a meat, such as goose, turkey, ham or a duck, or even roast beef. In California, it may even be tri-tip (a type of beef roast which is often barbecued). The meats can be served with cranberry sauce or horseradish and even salsa, if it’s tri-tip. For dessert, there are many traditions, such as pumpkin pie, plum pudding, as well as fruit and nuts.
American homes are decorated (some quite lavishly) with garlands and branches of trees (called swags), holly, and mistletoe. Trees are commonplace and they may have tinsel, candy canes, ornaments, and any number of other things on them, including small presents. A lot have strings of lights, popcorn garlands (traditional) and large tree-toppers. Buildings under construction can be topped with a small tree and prominent city landmarks, such as city halls, are often draped with lights.
Hay is spread on the floor of Polish Americans so they are reminded of the Christmas manger and stable. Two extra plates are always set at the table in case Joseph and Mary stop by. There’s a mummers’ parade in Philadelphia. In New Mexico, lighted candles are placed in paper bags, weighted with sand. These line rooftops and streets so that the Christ child may find his way. In large and small cities in the U.S., retail stores decorate their window displays lavishly and some even have animated figures and elaborate scenes.
In California and Florida at major themes parks, such as Disneyworld and Disneyland, all parts of the parks show a Christmas theme and characters wear red Santa hats. Even lampposts are swagged with garlands and candy canes and ornaments and there are many Christmas parades. Often, in neighborhoods far and wide, whole blocks put up elaborate Christmas lights and they sometimes have a prize for the best display each year. People see these displays listed in the local newspaper, and streets at night are crowded with families driving by. Christmas music is played on loudspeakers within stores and malls.
Christmas trees are usually evergreen, although people in different parts of the worlds may get creative if no real evergreens exist in their area. To decorate a Christmas tree has been the tradition for hundreds of years. Back in the sixteenth century, Livonia and Germany were the first countries to start decorating these large, dark green trees. Candles were first used, then electric Christmas lights.
Trees are brought inside and then candy, lights, garlands, store-bought ornaments and tinsel, plus many homemade ornaments and even small gifts, are attached to the tree branches. A star or angel of some type is usually used as a tree topper, as it represents the Star of Bethlehem, from the nativity story. Some trees can be unusual and a few people love to decorate with one color of tinsel, garlands and ornaments. Christmas trees can be made from plastic or aluminum and many other substances, such as regular tree branches or even wire. Trees are symbolic and are often created by the fertile imagination of a child.
The first Christmas tree is rumored to be from St. Boniface, who lived from 672 to 754 AD. He apparently chopped down a sacred tree in Geismar, Germany, so he replaced it with a handy and close by (one might assume) fir tree. Historically, erecting a Christmas tree at the appropriate time was started in Livonia back in the fifteenth century. This was in the area of present day Latvia and Estonia. Northern Germany also had the tradition a century after that. Perhaps someone from the area took the tradition with them when they moved to Germany.
The Brotherhood of Blackheads (nice name, but I’m sure they mean black hair or hoods) put up a holiday tree in their house in Reval (now named Tallinn). Right before Christmas, they took the tree to the town square and danced around it. Perhaps that was the eggnog talking to them. In the mid-1500s, a pastor wrote about the tradition of young men and women setting up a spruce tree in a market square, singing and dancing around it, then setting it on fire.
Guildhalls also started the tradition of putting up a tree in front of their buildings and this would be like our present day malls, but more understated. They may have decorated these trees with dates, nuts, paper flowers and pretzels. Children would eat these (except for the paper flowers I would imagine) on Christmas Day.
Towns had established the tradition of erecting a Christmas tree by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the upper Rhineland area of Germany. Roman Catholics regard the tradition as being a Protestant one. After a while, the RC church accepted the tradition as it couldn’t prevent people from following the custom. A general and his wife started the tradition in Canada in 1781 when they held a Christmas party in Sorel. During the first part of the nineteenth century, royalty and nobility spread the custom in Russia and other countries.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story titled The Fir-Tree in 1844. Queen Victoria in England started having a Christmas tree but the tradition hadn’t spread much within the palace at that time. When Victoria married Prince Albert, the tradition of having a Christmas tree started to spread. The royal family’s tree was copied and published from a London newspaper in Christmas of 1850, in Godey’s Lady’s Book, in the United States. German founders of American cities laid claim to the Christmas tree during the mid 1700s. Lancaster in Pennsylvania, claimed the first Christmas tree erected in America, in 1821. Others across the country made claim to that as well.
August Imgard, who had emigrated from Germany, decorated his tree with candy canes in 1847. A star made from tin was placed on the top and he used paper ornaments for additional decoration. The first candy canes were all white. During the twentieth century and our millennium, decorating a tree at Christmas became very popular and now we see trees in infinite varieties, made from artificial materials, as well as cut trees from farms and living trees, which can be planted outside after the holidays.
The National Enquirer in Florida (a tabloid) erected the biggest decorated tree that existed at that time, which was during the 70s and 80s. When the paper’s owner died, the tradition was ended. A Festival of Trees occurs at Christmastime in many cities across the country and the world. Many trees are decorated then sold to help charity. Trees are often given by countries to other countries, in commemoration of certain events. A national Christmas tree is lit on the lawn of the White House each year, and many decorated trees line different rooms inside.
Tiny withered trees are referred to as Charlie Brown trees, after a TV special called A Charlie Brown Christmas. New Zealand has a tropical tree called a Pohutukawa, and as that Southern hemisphere country celebrates Christmas in December the same as everyone else, it’s their Summer. This tree has green foliage and red flowers, and is used as a substitute evergreen, much like the Poinsettia often is. The latter are often placed on tree-shaped platforms and formed into a Christmas tree-like creation.