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.
In Venezuela, a predominantly Catholic country, the nativity scene is far more popular than decorating with a Christmas tree or other ornaments. These may include not only the Holy Family and manger but the entire landscape of Bethlehem. There are often competitions within a town or city for the more elaborate nativity scene. It is a strict rule in Venezuela not to place the baby Jesus in the manger until midnight.
It is a tradition for the entire city of Caracas, Venezuela to roller-skate to mass on Christmas morning, the young and the old alike.
Traditional Venezuelan Christmas foods include ‘Hallacas’ – a mixture of beef, pork, chicken, capers, raisins, and olives that is wrapped in maize and plantain leaves and tied up with string into a parcel and then boiled or steamed afterwards.
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.
Christmas traditions are taken very seriously in Iceland. The whole house is cleaned, everyone gets one new article of clothing to wear, people buy the best food they can afford, decorate the house inside and out, and bake dozens of cookies.
Icelanders celebrate 13 days of Christmas. The festival begins on December 24 and ends on January 6, which is when all Christmas decorations are removed from streets and houses.
The people of Iceland enjoy a roasted pork dinner with caramelized potatoes and pickled red cabbage.
It is folklore in Iceland that there is a Yule Cat that stalks the towns and villages before Christmas and devours anyone who does not have at least one piece of new clothing.
In Ukraine, people love to sing Christmas carols in the street, and they make their way through the towns and cities.
On Christmas Eve, people of Ukraine fast all day until the first star is seen in the sky, and then they begin to feast on cabbage rolls, perogies, sauerkraut, red ‘borsch’, dumplings, whitefish, ‘bigos’ (a meat and cabbage stew), cheese cake and bread.
It is a tradition in Ukraine to decorate evergreen trees with glistening cobwebs. This is a custom that began with the tale of a poor widow who couldn’t afford to decorate her tree for Christmas, and the spiders in her home wanted to help, so they spun glistening cobwebs on Christmas Eve, so the children would have something pretty to see on Christmas morning.
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.
Would you be surprised to learn that over 90% of the people in Angola, Africa are Christians?
Stores and homes in Angola are decorated brightly for the season, and in the cities neighbouring families sometimes try to out-do each other with their elaborate displays.
Along with traditional Christmas trees, the people of Angola sometimes decorate their homes with nativity scenes, along with strings of bright lights, angel figures, and star motifs.
Bolo Rei, or ‘King Cake’ is a must at the Angolan Christmas dinner table. It is donut-shaped, and filled with dried fruit. The shape of the cake represents the crowns of the Three Wise Men: and the fruit on the surface of the cake represents the jewels on the crown. Sometimes a gift is hidden inside, and the person who gets the piece of cake with the gift is supposed to be blessed with good luck in the New Year.
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
Christmas mass is an important tradition celebrated in Lebanon, as is the traditional dance, the dabkeh, where people join hands to form a circle or and stamp along to native tunes of percussion. After the midnight mass, it is the rush home to open Christmas gifts.
Traditional Lebanese Christmas feasts include – kebbeh pie, Lebanon’s national dish made from minced meat and burghul, served in warmed yogourt sauce alongside turkey or chicken, tabouleh, hummus, nutty rice, beet and tahini salad, and lamb rotis.
One of the most sacred Christmas traditions in Lebanon is building a crèche, or a nativity ‘Crib’. Nativity scenes include Joseph, Mary, Jesus, shepherds, and kings, just like Western ones, but there are some important differences in the Lebanese nativity. In Lebanon, the nativity ‘crib’ is modeled around a cave, not a manger, and is decorated with chickpeas, broad-beans, lentils, oats, and wheat seeds that grow and sprout from a damp cotton wool in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The nativity is an important part of the home and serves as a place for family members to pray and ask for blessings.
In China, most of the large Christmas celebrations take place in the cities, and sometimes crowds will gather in festive hats to usher in the season. ‘Jingle Bells’ is a popular song, and may be heard quite often in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
A popular tradition on Christmas Eve in China, is giving the gift of apples. Many stores sell apples wrapped up in brightly colored paper. Friends and family members exchange apples on Christmas Eve because in Chinese Christmas Eve is called “Ping’an Ye” (平安夜), which means ‘peaceful evening’. The word for apple in Mandarin is “píngguǒ” (苹果) which sounds like the word for peace.
Many of the school children participate in choirs, and sing traditional Christmas carols in the local malls, much to the delight of shoppers!
Christmas is a huge celebration in many Latin American countries. Most people go to a Midnight Mass service or Missa do Galo (Mass of the Roster). After the church service, which normally ends around 1 a.m. there are bright, loud displays of fireworks across the country in towns, cities, and villages.
It’s common in Brazil to get a ’13th salary’ on the last week of the year – so in December you get twice the normal amount of pay for that month! This tradition began as a way to boost the economy around Christmas, and has been going on for decades.
Families gather together around the table and enjoy food and special Christmas treats. Christmas dinner menu includes turkey, ham, rice, vegetables and fruit dishes.
The feast may begin on Christmas Eve around 9 pm, and in some homes the meal starts at midnight, with the children being served first.
Kalanda (carol) – in Greece, 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.
Russian Orthodox Christmas takes place on January 7th ( or those following the Old Calendar it is held on the 25th of December).
It is a Russian tradition not to eat or drink on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky. The star is symbolic of the great star that led the three wise men to baby Jesus. Once the first star has appeared in the sky, the festivities begin with a Lenten meal. No meat nor dairy products are consumed and this meal is called the Holy Supper.
Most families stay home on Christmas Eve and they gather around the table to honor the coming Christ Child. A white tablecloth is draped on the table to represent Christ’s swaddling clothes and hay is displayed as a reminder of the poverty of the place where Jesus was born.
The Holy Supper consists of 12 main foods – symbolizing the 12 apostles:
Mushroom soup, Flat bread ,Chopped garlic, Honey, Baked fish
Fresh Oranges, Figs and Dates, Nuts
Kidney beans seasoned with shredded potatoes,
Boiled Potatoes , Biscuits with poppy seeds.
Perhaps of all the places in the world to be on Christmas Eve, Bethlehem would certainly be a special place to visit! A festive dinner is held at Bethlehem’s Manger Square and a broadcast of the Midnight Mass can be heard throughout the downtown. The streets are strung with Christmas lights, and Christmas music and plays are held throughout the evening.
Traditional Christmas food in Bethlehem includes lamb kebabs, pork chops, lamb cutlets, chicken steaks, kubba, grape leaves filled with rice and meat, sfiha and a selection of sweet pastries.
It’s often been said that the people of Bethlehem likely have one of the biggest celebrations, with days and nights of feasting, singing, lights, nativity plays, and the sky lit brightly with spectacular fireworks. With all of the excitement, celebrations, and festive fireworks it would be almost impossible for someone in Bethlehem to forget that it was Christmas!
Your Family Traditions
Whatever customs you and your family 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.
Share and Record Christmas Memories and 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. Make a video of some of the eldest family members, ask them questions about what Christmas was like when they were children. How is it different now?
Talk to the younger generation about your own Christmas Memories
Be sure to spend time with the children and young people in your family, and share some stories with them about your own Christmas traditions and what it was like when you were a child!
Whether your ancestors came from Ireland, Iceland, or Israel, our customs passed down through the generations are an important part of the Christmas season.
Wherever your family came from, and whatever special foods, music, decorations, and folklore are part of your celebrations this year, have a very Merry Christmas!
……and good health, happiness and prosperity in the New Year!
Member, Association of Professional Genealogists
Honorary Life Member, Lanark County Genealogical Society
Author of : “Lanark County Christmas”, “Lanark County Comfort”, “Lanark County Collection”, “Lanark County Calling”, “Lanark County Classics”, “Lanark County Connections”, “Lanark County Calendar”, “Lanark County Chronicle”, “Lanark County Kid”, & “Recipes & Recollections”
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