CHRISTMAS AROUND THE WORLD
Christmas is celebrated in most parts of the world with different nuances and traditions. Our students will experience the American celebrations for the first time this year. Learning how Christmas is viewed, experienced and rejoiced in other countries will help us to better connect to our students and enrich our own traditions.
This is how Christmas is celebrated in some countries…
Germany, preparations for Christmas begin before December falls. But the real celebration starts from 6th December, St. Nicholas Day, known here as “Nikolaustag”. On the night of 5th December (St. Nicholas Eve) children put their shoe or boot outside the door.
The Christmas tree is an integral part of German Christmas celebrations. It should be kept in mind that the Christmas tree actually originated in Germany.
A unique aspect of the German Christmas decorations is that, kids cannot take part in the beautification of the Christmas tree. It is believed that the tree has some mysterious spell for all young eyes that rest on it before Christmas Eve. Hence, the Christmas tree is decorated on Christmas Eve, prior to the evening feast. The father usually keeps the children in a separate room while the mother brings out the Christmas tree from a hidden place and decorates it with apples, candy, nuts, cookies, cars, trains, angels, tinsel, family treasures and candles or lights. The gifts are kept under the tree. Nearby, beautiful plates are laid for each family member and filled with fruits, nuts, marzipan, chocolate and biscuits. The decorations finished, a bell is rung as a signal for the children to enter the room. The Christmas story is usually read during this time and carols are sung. Often, sparklers are lit and gifts opened too.
In Brazil Christmas is one of the most important festive days, or “dia de festas”. Every December, presépios (nativities) are created during Christmas and displayed in churches, houses and stores. On Christmas Eve, thousands of devout Catholics attend the “Missa do Galo” or Midnight Mass. A highlight of Christmas celebrations in Brazil is making huge Christmas “trees” of electric lights. Caroling is quite a popular custom. “Noite Feliz” (“Silent Night”) is probably the song most associated with Christmas in Brazil.
Papai Noel is the Santa Claus in Brazil and is the country’s gift bringer. It is believed that Papai Noel brought gifts to children while they were asleep on Christmas Eve, and the children would eagerly unwrap their presents in the morning. Papai Noel is not bedecked in the traditional red and white attire. Instead, he is portrayed wearing silk robes, even in the warm climate of Brazil, and is shown carrying a brown bag distributing gifts.
In Brazil, the Christmas feast is a hushed affair, and is usually served on Christmas Eve. There are a variety of local foods infused with traditional Christmas dishes, making the Brazilian Christian feast, an interesting one. The dishes are – Fresh Vegetables, Kale and garlic, Exotic fruits, Roast Turkey, Roast Pork, Fish, Brazilian Nuts pie, Chocolate cake, Panettone, Cold Potato Salad, Colorful Rice.
With the high temperatures and the absence of snow, the Christmas in Brazil, may not seem like Christmas at all! However, the erection of Christmas trees, the lights, Masses at church and the Christmas feast at home signify the importance of the festival in the country.
In France is a time for get together with family and friends. During Christmas, nearly every home in the country displays a Nativity scene or crèche which is the center of Christmas celebrations for families. Little clay figures called “santons” or “little saints” are placed in the crèche.
On Christmas Eve, children put out their shoes or wooden clogs called sabots to be filled with gifts from Père Noël. A popular Christmas song for French children is Petit Papa Noël. On the eve of Christmas, churches and cathedrals are beautifully lit with candles, church bells are rung and Christmas carols are sung by all present. In cathedral squares, the story of Christ’s birth is re-enacted by both players and puppets. On Christmas Eve, after the midnight mass is over, a very late supper known as “Le réveillon” is held.
The “Bûche de Noël” is a traditional Yule log-shaped cake specially prepared here for Christmas and is an indispensable part of the grand French Christmas feast.
On the eve of Christmas churches and cathedrals are beautifully lit with candles, church bells are rung and Christmas carols are sung by all present. In cathedral squares, the story of Christ’s birth is re-enacted by both players and puppets. The custom of Christmas tree decoration has never been that popular in France. The use of the Yule log has faded in the country, though in the southern parts a log is burned in individual homes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day.
In Italy, the Christmas season goes for three weeks, starting 8 days before Christmas known as the Novena and lasts till after the Feast of Epiphany. A week before Christmas, poor children dress up as shepherds complete with sandals, leggings tied with crossing thongs and shepherds’ hats. Then they go from house to house reciting Christmas poems, singing Christmas songs and playing them on flutes (shepherds’ pipes) as well. In return for such acts, they are given get money to buy presents and treats.
The Nativity scene is one of the most beloved and enduring symbols of the Christmas season. Creating the Nativity scene during Christmas actually originated in Italy. On the 8th of December, the day of the Immacolata, is observed a tradition to set up the “Presepio” (Crib) and the Christmas tree. The Presepio (manger or crib) represents, by means of small statues (usually hand-carved and finely detailed in features and dress), scenes regarding Jesus’ birth with the Holy Family and the baby Jesus in the stable.
The Torrone, the most typical of the Christmas sweets, its available with honey or chocolate almonds or pistachios. The Christmas cake eaten is of a light Milanese variety known as “Panettone” and contains raisins and candied fruits.
During Christmas, small presents are drawn from a container known as the “Urn of Fate”. According to the “La Befana” legend, while on their way to Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus, the three wise men stopped during their journey and asked an old woman for directions. In Italian folklore, she is called Befana and depicted variously as a fairy queen, a crone, or an ugly witch on a broomstick. Befana is said to be flying around ever since, looking for the Christ Child each year and leaving presents at every house with children in case he is there. She slides down chimneys, and fills stockings and shoes with good gifts for good children and pieces of charcoal for the bad ones.
In Spain, the Christmas season officially begins with December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the main cities, stores are beautifully decorated with Christmas lights and stuffed with Christmas supplies from the first week of December. Christmas trees come up in almost every home across the country from the second half of December.
Also to be found in every household are beautiful mini-sized “Belénes” or Nativity scenes. The Belén typically includes baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, Baltasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. It depicts life in the village where Jesus was born. Christmas Eve in Spain is known as “Nochebuena” or “Good Night.” It is a time for family gatherings Christmas dinner is never eaten until after midnight. A typical Spanish Christmas dinner begins with the serving of prawn followed by a roasted lamb.
The dessert is traditionally a Christmas sweet, either the “turrón” – a nougat made of toasted sweet almonds or the “Polvorone”, made from almonds, flour, and sugar. The feast is followed by family members gathering around the Christmas tree and singing Christmas carols and hymns of Christendom. The merrymaking often continues until daybreak.
On Christmas Day, families visit local churches to attend the religious services. Families have a grand lunch on the afternoon of Christmas Day. A unique custom here is the hanging of swings throughout the courtyards and young people riding them with much joy. Children receive a small gift on the 25th morning but they have to wait till the 6th of January (Epiphany) to get their actual presents, supposedly from the Three Wise Men (not Santa Claus) who are said to leave gifts for kids on the latters’ shoes on the Eve of Epiphany, January 5th.
Mexican Christmas celebrations begin on December 12, with the birthday of “La Guadalupana” (Virgin of Guadalupe), and end on January 6, with the Epiphany.
Children usually do not attend school on January 6. They wake up early in the morning to find gifts or toys kept in their room and figures of the Three Magic Kings at “El Nacimiento”. Like Santa Claus in the US and other western nations, the Three Wise Men are the ones believed to bring gifts not only to baby Jesus but also to millions of Mexican children who have placed written requests in their shoes. Also unlike in the US where children get presents on 25th December, most Mexican kids receive their gifts at Epiphany (January 6th). The construction of the “Nacimiento” or “El Nacimiento” (Nativity scene) is a popular custom here, as in many other countries. During the festive season, almost every family creates a Nativity scene in their home. At midnight on Christmas, a figure of baby Jesus is placed in the nacimiento to commemorate the birth of the Lord. This is a symbolic representation of Christmas in Mexico as a whole.
On Christmas Eve another verse is added to the Ave Marias, telling the Virgin Mary that the desired night has come. Small children dressed as shepherds stand on either side of the nativity scene while members of the company kneel and sing a litany, after which the Christ Child is lulled to sleep with the cradle song, “El Rorro” (Babe in Arms).
At midnight on Christmas Eve, dazzling fireworks, ringing bells and blowing whistles announce the birth of Christ. The bell-sounds beckon families to the Midnight Mass. Thousands flock to the churches to attend the well-known “Misa de Gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster.” It is called the “Mass of the Rooster” because it is said that the only time that a rooster crowed at midnight was on the day that Jesus was born.
The Mass over, families return home for a sumptuous Christmas dinner of traditional Mexican foods. Though the dishes vary from region to region, common foods are “tamales,” rice, rellenos, “atole” (a sweet traditional drink) and “menudo”.
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