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December 7, 2004 > Celebrating Christmas Around the World

Celebrating Christmas Around the World

Christmas is one of the few holidays celebrated in most countries throughout the world although with differing traditions. Christmas in Fremont is celebrated with a wonderful mixture of traditions from various countries and American traditions. Here is sampling of traditions from various countries. Enjoy your visit with the Matthew family from Britain, the Andersen family from Denmark, the Kuriakose family from India, The Mickevicius family from Lithuania, The Nethercott family from the Philippines and the Sindemark family from Sweden.

Britain
The Christmas season starts off with Advent on the 1st of December in Britain. "We have special candles for Advent which is tradition in Britain. They are plain candles with numbers from 1 through 24 marked on them. We burn them each evening from December 1st till we get to 24. I get these sent to me specially from England." says Angela Matthews with a lovely English accent. At this time Angela also starts making the Christmas pudding on Stir-up Sunday, which is the first Sunday of Advent. The pudding, which contains raisins, currants, sugar, grated carrots, grated potatoes, bread crumbs, flour, eggs, spices and suet, is always stirred from East to West in honor of the three Wise Men. Each family member gives the pudding a stir and makes a secret wish. Angela also starts baking her Christmas cakes during Advent. In Britain, gift shopping and bringing home the Christmas fir tree is done only a week before Christmas. However, the Matthews have two sessions of gift buying, an early one to send gifts to Britain and a later one for their family and friends here in Fremont. Angela mentions that in Britain during the month of December people attend Christmas plays in schools while here in Fremont "we go to see the Nutcracker Suite and also attend the Las Posadas celebration at the Mission." Pantomimes are also very popular in December. On Christmas Eve families get together and go on a family outing to a local play or a ballet and then attend the Midnight Mass. Stockings are also hung at fireplaces and Santa Claus visits homes and gives presents.

On Christmas Day the Christmas lunch is the most important part of the festivities. Presents are usually opened before lunch. As Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Britain, the Turkey is the most important part of the lunch with stuffing, Christmas pudding (on which rum is poured and the pudding is lit) and other goodies. The traditional Crackers containing a toy, paper hat and a motto or a joke are pulled open with a snap by family members. After a heavy lunch people relax and a few hours later eat some of the rich Christmas cake with tea.

The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day which also a sporting day. There are different explanations as to why December 26th is called Boxing Day. One explanation is that in medieval times, alm boxes were placed at the back of every church to collect money for the poor. These boxes were always opened on the 26th of December which is how the day derived its name. Another explanation, perhaps a more modern one, mentions that things are boxed away and tied up the day after Christmas. "However" says Angela, "the decorated Christmas trees stay up till the 12th night after Christmas, when the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in honor of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to baby Jesus". On this night the ornaments and tree decorations are packed away till the next year.

Merry Christmas!


Denmark
As in other European countries, preparation for Christmas starts on December 1st with Advent. "We have 4 candles that we burn during Advent, one each Sunday leading up to Christmas" says Birgit Andersen who moved to Fremont about six years ago. A traditional dish that is made in Denmark during Advent is the "Aebleskiver" which is like doughnut holes. Dough in poured through a special pan with 9 holes in it and fried. The fried "Ableskiver is eaten with syrup, jam, or powdered sugar. Birgit mentions that together with the "Aebleskiver," glogg - a warm alcoholic drink with raisins and almonds that tastes great on a cold day! - is also drunk on the four Advent Sundays. During Advent, people also have the Advent calendar with a present each day counting down to Christmas. St. Lucia's day is also celebrated (description is given under Sweden.)

A week before Christmas, trees are brought into the house and are decorated. Besides putting ornaments on the trees, they are also decorated with colorful Danish flags and lighted candles ( with a bucket of water kept handy). Another tradition is to sing carols and hymns in Danish around the Christmas tree. "And oh yes!, we also decorate our house with special old red and gray gnomes or Nisser" adds Birgit. In Denmark the superstition is that these middle aged cranky gnomes should be kept well fed and happy so that they do not play any mischief. These gnomes are fed with some Danish Christmas Rice Pudding. Poinsettias are also very popular decorations. However, as many modern homes do not have fireplaces stockings are not very popular.

Christmas Eve is a very important in Demark. The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is a lavish one, says Birgit. Traditional items include a duck or pork, sweet potatoes in butter, syrup and gravy and rice pudding with hot cherry sauce and a single almond in it. The person who gets the almond gets a prize. Old fashioned cookies called "pebernoelder" are also popular. After Christmas Eve dinner, people sing carols, open presents and then go to the Midnight Mass.

On Christmas day and the day after, "Smorgasbord" is in every house where pickled herrings are traditionally eaten with schnaaps and beer. The trees are kept until the Twelfth Night, a Christmas tradition followed in many countries.

Glūdelig Jul!

India
The Kuriakose family are originally from the Southern Indian State of Kerala and have lived in Fremont for more than 15 years. According to Teresa Kuriakose, preparations for Christmas in India start two months before when people make homemade wines. Sweet wines are usually made from grapes, but there are also some exotic ones made from the Cashew fruit or coconut water. A month before Christmas, preparations for making traditional fruitcakes also begin. Raisins, dates, orange peels, cashews, ginger and spices are soaked in brandy with the cakes actually made two weeks before Christmas. "I make my own fruitcakes here in Fremont" says Teresa with a smile bringing a plate of delicious homemade fruitcake and some hot tea. Eating it, I was in Nirvana! What a wonderful way to do research for an article.

In the beginning of December, at the start of Advent, fresh fir trees (which are often grown at home) are decorated. Trees are decorated both outside and inside the house with colored foil decorations. A star is hung at the entrance of the house and a nativity scene is kept in the front porch, both important Indian traditions. Stockings and Santa Claus are not traditional in India. People fast during Advent and are total vegetarians. Advent candles are lit only in the churches. "I grew up in the city of Madras" says Teresa, "We had Christmas parties that were attended by both Christians and non-Christians. That is not the case in the villages."

Caroling is done traditionally a week before Christmas. Teresa says that People sing carols in the regional languages (like Malayalam and Tamil in the South) and go from door to door. Carolers are welcomed by Christians and Non-Christians and are given money. Part of the money goes to the Church the rest was kept by the carolers. "We also go caroling in Fremont singing carols in Malayalam and English" says Teresa. "It is organized by the Malayalee Association. The money that is collected is sent to support charities in India. I will send them to your house this year" she adds with a smile. (I am looking forward to hearing some Carols sung in Malayalam, Teresa!).

The Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a very important part of Christmas for Indian Christians. Mass in the different Indian states is recited in regional languages. New clothes are specially bought for Christmas and women wear colorful silk sarees to church. After Mass, people gather in friends' houses and eat fruitcake and drink some wine. Presents, which are kept under the tree, are opened after returning home. Gifts are only given to family members and not exchanged between friends although here in Fremont, the Kuriakose family gives fruitcakes and gifts to neighbors and friends. Everyone ends up staying awake through the night. The Kuriakoses' extended families and friends get together and attend the 8:00 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve and then get together for dinner. Stockings are also now part of the Kuriakose tradition.

Breakfast on Christmas Day is also special. "In Kerala, traditionally we eat Aapam (steamed rice and coconut milk pancakes) with mutton stew." says Teresa "and lunch is also a big affair. Friends and family get together for lunch. Turkey is only made in the village where my grandmother specially grew them for Christmas. They are also not roasted as a whole but are sliced and roasted and served with boiled and fried potatoes. There is no stuffing." Other delicacies included in the lunch are dishes made of chicken, beef, vegetables, rice, pork roast, fish stew. Traditionally for dessert, caramel custard puddings are included with the fruitcake. Christmas dinner is a quiet affair.

The Christmas tree and Nativity are kept for the 12 days after Christmas and end with the celebration of the Three Kings.

Puthuvalsam Aashamsakal!

Lithuania
When Jessie Mickevicius was growing up, Lithuania was under the Soviet regime and religion was banned. However people quietly went to Church to pray. Cities and houses were not decorated during Christmas and people did not get any holiday even on Christmas Day. Christmas was celebrated very privately in people's homes.

A week before Christmas the trees were decorated very simply with glass ornaments and old hand made clip-on ornaments. Christmas Eve was a very solemn occasion and people mediated and thought about the birth of Jesus.

As people abstained from meat throughout Advent, the Christmas Eve dinner has a lot of salads, fish dishes of which salted herring is very traditional, cinnamon swirl bread and a special thin bread made with flour and water called "paplotkelis". Another specialty for Christmas Eve is little hard poppy seed buns called "slizikai" which are dropped in a drink of water, poppy seeds and honey then eaten with a spoon. Traditionally 12 different dishes are made for Christmas Eve dinner standing for the 12 apostles and an empty placement always set in case of unexpected guests. After people sit down to eat, the head of the family breaks off pieces of "paplotkelis" and gives a piece to all the people at the table. They in turn will turn to their neighbor and break off each others bread and give good wishes to each other. After dinner, carols are sung in Lithuanian and people go to Midnight Mass.

Stockings are not hung in Lithuania nor are presents exchanged. However, "Kaledir Senelis" or Christmas Grandpa would bring a present for the kids. Parents bought presents for each other and for the kids. Kids did not buy presents for the elders. This is exactly what the Mickevicius family still does here. They observe the tradition of buying just one gift for each member of the family and keep it simple. Presents are opened on Christmas morning after a festive breakfast. "Christmas lunch is the main meal in Lithuania" says Jessie "my mother always had a variety of stuffed meats, ham, potato salad, pickled cucumbers, cabbage and rye bread." Christmas trees are taken down after two weeks of the "Trys Karalias" holiday.

Linksmu Kaledu Ir Laimingu Nauju Metu!

Phillipines
Historically, Christianity was brought to Philippines by the Spanish Missionaries and hence there are a lot of similarities between the Filipino "Simbang Gabi" (see related article on Las Posadas") and Las Posadas. During the Advent season, the main celebrations are the Aguinaldo Masses which start on December 16th and last until Christmas Eve. Christmas trees are brought home at the beginning of December and kept until January 6th, the Day of the Three Kings. They are decorated with ornaments made of Capiz, wood, paper and plastic usually having religious themes.

During "Simbang Gabi," Masses take place early in the morning. Church bells ring to signal the coming of dawn and also let people know that Mass will be starting. During Mass, hymns and carols are sung traditionally in Tagalog. After Mass, traditional Filipino snacks are available to be eaten and then the procession or panuluyan start and go to a particular host re-enacting the story of the birth of Jesus. "In the Philippines, outside the church, there were usually a lot of vendors selling all these different snacks. It was so festive!" remembers Eldred Nethercott with a smile.

On Christmas Eve, huge "parol" or Star Lanterns are lit in the community and the whole neighborhood comes together to celebrate. Usually there is a community band that plays traditional Christmas music and the lights in the "parol" light up at different times forming beautiful designs and patterns.

On Christmas Eve after Midnight Mass, people eat special snacks like 'caldo" or porridge made with rice. Christmas Day lunch again is a big affair with specialties like Pancit (a noodle dish signifying long life) lumpia, ham and other meats. A special bread called "bibingka" baked on banana leaves and eaten with butter and cream cheese is also a favorite. Other favorites include "Malangit" (rice cakes) eaten with "Latik" (dried coconut milk), "Suman" (rice cake wrapped in palm leaves) eaten with "Latik", brown sugar or white sugar, "patati" or pig's feet and "lechon" or roasted pig.

Godparents play a very important part in Christmas. On Christmas Day children are taken to their Godparent's home and receive gifts from them. Every year the Nethercotts visit Eldred's godmother in Daly City and spend Christmas Eve with them. "She also happens to be my mother's sister," laughs Eldred. "So many of my family members come to her house and we celebrate together. Then on Christmas Day, we spend the day with my in-laws who are Filipinos of Dutch origin and in the evening, our godchildren come over to our house and we have a festive dinner at our house."

Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon!

(TCV Publisher Bill Marshak and I will be attending the Simbang Gabi celebration at Holy Spirit Church at 5:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve to experience a Filipino Christmas celebration. Hope to see some of the TCV readers there).

Sweden
The Christmas season starts on December 1st with Advent. During the next four weeks, four candles are lit (one each Sunday) with the candleholder traditionally decorated with moss and fake red mushrooms (like a yule log). Also on Sundays, gingerbread cookies are eaten and glogg (mulled spiced warm wine with raisins and blanched almonds) is drunk. Houses are cleaned during Advent and Christmas curtains are hung, especially in the kitchen.

December 13th is an important day for Swedes when they celebrate Santa Lucia Feast Day. Churches, schools, nursing homes, offices and even supermarkets have a Lucia procession, led by a girl chosen to be Lucia. The Lucia girl wears a white gown with a red sash and has a wreath of lit candles (either real or electric depending on the age of the girl) on her head. The procession, also includes bridesmaids, starboys and eleves. The people in the procession sing special Santa Lucia songs all by candlelight. At the end, Lucia buns (saffron buns) and glogg are offered to everyone.

Throughout December there are lots of concerts in all the Churches but they are not free. The Christmas celebration in Sweden is a mixture of Pagan and Christian beliefs. A week before Christmas balsa wood Christmas tress are bought and decorated. During Advent children get presents everyday both at home and at school.

On Christmas Eve, Jul Tomten or the Christmas elf comes to people's homes and asks if there are any good children in the house and then hands out presents. Presents are also exchanged between families and friends. Another tradition during Christmas Eve is the "Kalle Anka" (Donald Duck) where different Disney scenes are shown on T.V. including a clip from the latest Disney show. "This is so important that we fly a copy of the video to the Swedish Church in New York to be shown on Christmas Eve" Freyja says smiling. Also on Christmas Eve is the famous Swedish Smorgasbord with herring, gouda cheese, special syrup bread, potatoes, baked ham, Swedish meatballs, prince sausages, rice pudding and, of course, glogg.

People stay awake through the night and open presents and then go to Church at 7:00 a.m. At the Sindemark's they have turkey for Christmas dinner. On January 6th, Epiphany is celebrated with Church services but it is not until Jan 13th or the 20th day after Christmas that the Christmas tree dances out. There is usually a party with cookies and cakes and goody bags filled with candies for the kids.

God Jul och Gott Nyt Œr and S Rozhdestvim Kristovym.

Traditions in a few other countries:

Australia: Christmas here is in the middle of summer. A gum tree branch is used instead of the evergreen, and Santa's sleigh is pulled by eight white kangaroos. Christmas dinner is eaten outdoors and is followed by a visit to the beach or a game of cricket.

Bethlehem: The little town where Jesus is said to have been born is the site of the Church of the Nativity, which is ablaze with flags and decorations every Christmas. The Christmas Eve Parade is led by galloping horsemen and police mounted on Arabian horses followed by solitary horseman carrying a cross and sitting astride a coal-black steed. Then come the churchmen and government officials. The procession solemnly enters the doors and places an ancient effigy of the Holy Child in the church. Deep winding stairs lead to a grotto where visitors find a silver star marking the site of the birth of Jesus. Christian homes in Bethlehem are marked by a cross painted over the door and each home displays a homemade manger scene. A star is set up on a pole in the village square.

China: Beautiful paper lanterns are made and lit by a candle. The Christmas trees here are known as "Trees Of Light", and are decorated with paper lanterns, flowers, and chains.

Ganna -Ethiopian Christmas: Legend has it that the shepherds rejoiced when they learned of the birth of Christ and they waved their hooked staffs about and played Ganna. This is the origin of the game called Ganna that is traditionally played on Christmas Day (January 7 - the older date of Christmas) by all the men and boys in Ethiopia

Greece: Christmas is a big holiday for this country! These people observe a fast for 40 days, ending it with the Christmas Feast made up of roast pig and loaves of large sweet breads. These breads are decorated or engraved with symbols that reflect the family's profession. Christmas trees are not common in Greece, most homes will have a wooden bowl with basil, a cross and water. Gifts are exchanged on January 1st, St Basil's Day, and the custom here, is to replace all the water in the house with fresh water!

Italy: In Rome, cannons fired at the Castel St. Angelo on Christmas Eve let everyone know that the Holiday Season has begun. After fasting for 24 hours, the people of Rome sit down and enjoy an elaborate feast! During this meal, each person present draws a small present out of the Urn of Fate that is passed around. With the main exchange of gifts taking place on January 6th.

Poland: Christmas in Poland starts off with a 24 hour fast which begins on Christmas Eve. Once this time is over, an elaborate feast of traditional foods is offered. To signal that the 24 hours is over, all must wait until the first star in the sky is seen! The feast is a 12 course one, with each course having its own meaning. Tradition here also calls for one empty place at the table, in case a stranger should appear.

Russia: St. Nicholas is especially popular in Russia, although he was renamed Grandfather Frost during communist times. The children would receive their gifts from Babouschka, Rumor has it, that she visits all the children during the Christmas season! Christmas trees were banned during the communist times, so people started the tradition of trimming New Year's Trees! The Christmas feast is started off with a special porridge called Kutya. This porridge is made with many ingredients, each of the ingredients has a specific meaning. This porridge is eaten by all from one bowl, to symbolize unity.

 
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