Ever wonder why we bring a tree into our homes or why we adorn it with lights and tinsel? Why do we hang a stocking? How did egg nog become a beverage associated with the festive season? When did a white haired man in a red suit begin to deliver gifts to children? Why do we eat turkey and stuffing? Why do we buy gifts for each other?
There are countless traditions and customs practised throughout the world at this time of year. Most of these rituals have been passed down to us from our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. We do these things each year without thinking. Our ancestors brought their traditions with them to the new world, and their annual rites of the Christmas season became entrenched in North American culture.
What about our ancestors who did not leave their homelands, but remained in their countries of origin? How are their traditions different than the ones who came to the new world? Below, are some Christmas traditions throughout the world so we can discover where these customs originated, and how they are still practised today in your ancestral homelands, and in your own home today.
Many Irish attend a church service on Christmas Eve at 12:00, known as the ‘Midnight Mass’. This tradition goes back many generations, and is often followed by a gathering at a local pub to chat with neighbours and friends, before heading home, and waiting for ‘Santy’, as Santa Claus is known to many Irish.
After the gifts are open, many families eat a full Irish breakfast, fried bacon, sausages, eggs, black and white pudding, mushrooms and tomatoes.
Christmas Day is often spent visiting family and friends, lots of eating, a bit of drinking, and sometimes attending a church service on Christmas morning.
Black and Tan
A popular festive drink is the Black and Tan – half Guiness and half beer.
A traditional Christmas dinner in Ireland consists of roast turkey and stuffing, clove-studded baked ham, crispy goose fat potatoes, steamed Brussels sprouts, buttery sweet carrots, crispy parsnips, cranberry sauce, bread sauce, gravy.
The celebration of Christmas in Scotland has always been secondary to the festivals held in January such as Hogmanay and Robbie Burns Day, featuring the Burns Supper and the eating of the Haggis.
Around 3 p.m. each Christmas Day, many in Scotland gather around their televisions and watch the Queen’s Christmas message.
The traditional Scottish Christmas Dinner is usually roasted turkey, served with roasted potatoes, roasted parsnips, stuffing (either force-meat and/or chestnut), bacon rolls and sausages, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and peas. This is usually served with gravy, bread, sauce and cranberry jelly. Other popular main courses may include – Roast Angus Beef, Roast Pork, Roast Goose, Venison, Salmon, Chicken, Pheasant or steak pie.
Traditional Scottish Dessert – The Clootie Dumpling
A clootie dumpling is a spiced pudding with dried fruits that is wrapped in a cloth and simmered in water. It is usually sliced and served with custard.
Christmas crackers are a traditional Christmas favourite in England. They were first made in about 1845-1850 by a London sweet maker – Tom Smith. He had seen the French ‘bon bon’ sweets on a visit to Paris (almonds wrapped in pretty paper).
When he returned to London, he decided to expand on the idea, and began to create the paper rolls including a small motto or riddle in with a sweet. Many today include a paper hat, or crown, and a small toy.
The tradition of sending Christmas cards began in England in 1843. Sir Henry Cole was a senior civil servant and he had the idea of exchanging Christmas Cards with family and friends. He asked his friend John Horsley, an artist to help. They designed the first card, and sold them for 1 shilling each.
Christmas cards became much more popular when printing methods improved, and were produced in large numbers from about 1860.
The first cards usually had pictures of the Nativity scene on them. In late Victorian times, birds and snow-scenes became popular.
As early as the 13th century, medieval monks in Britain were known to drink posset, a warm ale punch with eggs and figs. A 17th century English recipe uses a heated mixture of cream, whole cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, eighteen egg yolks, eight egg whites, and one pint of wine. Eggnog is typically made from milk, eggs, sugar and flavourings, and served with cinnamon or nutmeg. While eggnog is often served chilled, it may be warmed, to serve on cold days.
Sometime in the 16th century devout Christians began the custom of bringing decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles. It is said that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Legend says he was walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. In order to recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room, and wired its branches with lighted candles.
The tradition of the Christmas Tree was brought to North America by German immigrants.
Santa Claus – Sinter Klaas (Sint Nikolaas)
The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in modern-day Turkey. He was admired for his piety and kindness and St. Nicholas became the subject of many stories. Legends say that he gave away all of his inherited wealth, and travelled the countryside helping the poor and sick.
St. Nicholas was said to help the poor anonymously, by hiding gold in their shoes or stockings, at night, while they were asleep.
St. Nicholas’s popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases, or to get married.
The name Santa Claus evolved from St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas .
The Dutch celebrate the Feast of Sinterklaas honouring the life of St. Nicholas, and although St. Nicholas is always shown wearing his bishop’s attire, the Dutch tend to see him as a kindly old man, rather than as a Catholic saint. The result is that Sinterklaas is celebrated by Dutch people of all ages and beliefs, without any real religious connotations.
The word “panettone ” comes from the Italian word “panetto“, a small loaf cake.
Italian legends tell about a banquet for the nobles organized by the Duke of Milan. The dinner was delicious but the dessert was forgotten in the oven, and when the cook finally realized it was too late, and it was dry and charred black.
Toni, a little kitchen-helper boy, told the cook that he could use the sweet cake he had made for himself in the morning. It was made of flour, butter, eggs, raisins and lime zest. The cook decided to accept the help of the little boy and the nobles loved the cake. When the Duke asked the name of it, the cook answered “ L’è ‘l pan de Toni”, meaning “the bread of Toni”.
The Nativity Scene
Since the 1020s, the most important Christmas decoration in Italy is the Nativity Scene. Naples is the home to the world’s largest nativity scene. It’s in the ‘Museo Nazionale di S. Martino’ and has 162 people, 80 animals, angels, and about 450 other smaller objects.
The Réveillon is the special feast shared with family on 24 December. It normally takes place leading up to Midnight Mass, and can even carry on after the church service is over.
The menu varies according to the region, but it is always an occasion for the family to sit down together and enjoy a variety of traditional dishes.
At the Reveillon the French indulge in luxury foods and treats. The Réveillon dinner can continue for up to six hours in some families, and it is a very sacred tradition to the French. Eating at the table for a long time is also a social custom in France, and is intended to be a magical and unforgettable moment for children too. This is the meal where everyone splurges on their normal food budgets and enjoys snails, frog’s legs, scallops, and truffles.
Typical beverages are champagne or sparkling wine, and desserts are typically a chocolate yule log – bûche de Noël
Children go from house to house singing Christmas songs, while playing a variety of small instruments, such as triangles, drums, lyres, and guitars
It is a custom for the recipient of Kalanda to gift the children with small treats, like chocolates, pastries and candy, though this can also be small gifts of money.
Kalanda’s are also sung on the eve of both New Years and Epiphany.
Christopsoma, also known as Christ’s bread, has been made in Greece at Christmas for hundreds of years. The bread is made in the shape of a circle, X, with a cross adorning it. Christopsoma is made Christmas Eve, and eaten Christmas Day.
Whatever customs you celebrate during the Christmas season it’s a great time to think back to childhood days, and perhaps revive long-forgotten traditions. What better way for a family to remember its ancestors than by learning about their Christmas celebrations and customs!
If your Christmas includes a large family gathering this year, don’t forget to take this opportunity to speak with your parents, aunts, and uncles, -and ask them about their own childhood Christmas traditions.
Encourage the younger members of the family to spend time with their elders, and learn more about their family history, and customs that they experienced in their youth.
Also, be sure to spend time with the youngest members of your family, and share some stories with them about your special Christmas customs!
Most of all, whatever special foods and traditions are part of your celebrations this year, have a very Merry Christmas!
……and good health, happiness and prosperity in the New Year!