December 21, 2004 > A Touch of Christmas from Around the World - Part II
A Touch of Christmas from Around the World - Part II
by Praveena Raman
This article is continued from the Dec 7th issue of the Tri-City Voice. In the last issue besides learning the history of Christmas, we visited the Kanemitsu family in Fremont and learned how it is celebrated in Hong Kong and Japan. In this issue we will continue our visits to families from Italy, Nicaragua, Poland and Sri Lanka, and learn how Christmas is celebrated in those countries and how these families celebrate it here. Click here to read the article
David Bonaccorsi grew up in Fremont and has lived here all his life. His family, having a mixed heritage, celebrated traditions from Italy (paternal side), England and Scandinavia (maternal side). Italians start Christmas celebrations nine days before Christmas with the Novena which was introduced by St. Francis of Assisi. "The emphasis of an Italian Christmas is on the Presepio or manger" says David, "and not on the Christmas tree."
The first Presepio was also introduced by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 to illustrate the birth of Christ. The Presepio is three dimensional with a triangular top and the focus is on the Holy Family. It contains figurines of the Holy Family, the three Magi, paper mountains and stable animals. David added that on Christmas Eve the youngest child in the family places the Baby Jesus in the Presepio and everyone recites prayers and sings carols in front of the manger. On Christmas Eve, Italians attend the Midnight Mass and then open presents. The Panettone (a cake with candied fruits) and lamb dishes are the specialties for Christmas. Christmas is usually a religious occasion for the Italians with the bigger celebrations occurring on Epiphany (January 6th). This is the day that the three Magi came to see Baby Jesus carrying gifts. On this day La Befana pays a visit to reward good children with gifts and gives coal to children who have been bad.
"While growing up instead of the midnight Mass, we attended the 7 a.m. Mass on Christmas Day with Dan Archer at the Holy Spirit church" says David with a smile. "I was the altar boy at that time." The Bonaccorsis also had a Presepio and a Christmas tree. Nowadays David and his family also include Filipino traditions for Christmas as his wife Teresa hails from the Philippines.
Christmas celebrations traditionally start on December 16th with Las Posadas (see related article in this issue). For the nine days before Christmas, Nicaraguans say the Novena and re-enact the birth of Christ. "Children and adults go in a procession with the Nativity and sing carols in Spanish, visiting different houses in the village," reminisces Lupita Angst, who grew up in Nicaragua. "At each house after we sang the carols people gave sweets to the children who carry bags in their hands like during Halloween here." According to Lupita, Christmas Eve dinner is a big feast in Nicaragua and it includes gallinas or chicken stuffed with fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, onions and papayas, pan dulce or sweet bread, boyos de coco, and flan or caramel custard. Sweet wine like Vermouth is also popular during Christmas. Christmas trees are not pine trees but bushes that grow there. The bushes are decorated with simple homemade ornaments according to what a family can afford. After dinner on Christmas Eve people attend a midnight Mass and then come home and open presents. Epiphany on January 6th is also a big day when Nicaraguans celebrate the feast of the three Magi.
Here in Fremont, Lupita and her husband Ernst who is from Switzerland, have celebrated Christmas incorporating traditions from both Nicaragua and Switzerland. "When our children were small we used to have Christmas trees decorated in the Swiss way on alternate years," says Lupita. "We had candles and crocheted ornaments on the tree." Lupita also loves attending the Las Posadas celebration at Mission San Jose in Fremont. "It is done so traditionally it brings back lots of good memories."
Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in Poland. Janusz Bryzek who grew up in Poland, celebrates Christmas the Polish way here in Fremont. Visiting the Bryzeks we learn of traditions followed in Poland and of the ones that they still follow with their family here.
"The main Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve," says Janusz. "There is a big dinner followed by the Polish people going to midnight Mass which marks the end of Lent. Presents are also opened on Christmas Eve before going to bed." A tradition that is similar yet different from other countries is the singing of carols. While people in countries like Italy and Nicaragua visit people's houses and sing carols during the Novena, nine days before Christmas, the Polish sing Christmas carols and visit houses from Christmas Day until the new year. "In Poland we also make a small barn for Christmas and when we sing carols we get sweets and cakes at the different houses," said Janusz.
The feast on Christmas Eve starts after the first star appears in the sky. It traditionally includes 12 different dishes made of fish, with carp being the main fish, soups, potato dishes, pastries and Makowiec, a Christmas cake made with poppy seeds. Specialties like Polish Paszeciki or baked dumplings and red beet borscht are also a part of the feast. After dinner Swiety Mikolaj or Santa Claus brings presents to the children.
The Bryzeks have retained many of the Polish traditions. They still have the traditional Christmas Eve dinner with the 12 fish dishes, Paszeciki and beet borscht. After dinner they attend midnight Mass in a Polish church and sing carols in Polish. However they do not visit their friends' houses to sing carols between Christmas and the new year.
Christians make up 10 percent of the Sri Lankan population while Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims make up the rest. There are two groups of Christians, Singhalese and Tamils, most of whom were originally either Hindus or Buddhists converted to Christianity by European missionaries like Ken Ariathurai's family. The majority of Sri Lankan Christians are Protestants with a small percentage of Catholics.
Ken Ariathurai grew up learning about the different religions and cultures in Sri Lanka. "It is a multicultural society and the whole country celebrates all the different religious festivals, be it Deepavali or Id or Christmas. We end up having a multitude of holidays," said Ken. Everyone, whether they are Christians, Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims participate in the Christmas celebrations in Sri Lanka. The whole country is lit up with lights in the shape of Christmas trees during Christmas. The houses are decorated with colored crepe paper and the Christmas tree, which does not have to be a pine tree, with strings of light.
The main festivities, religious and social, take place on Christmas Eve. People go from house to house singing Christmas carols. Depending on where they live, carols are sung either in English, Tamil or Singhalese. The carolers are invited into the houses they visit and are offered coffee or tea and slices of Christmas cake. Christmas cakes are a specialty in Sri Lanka. People start making them a month in advance, soaking the fruits or plums in brandy and then baking delicious plum cakes. Thick slices of these cakes are wrapped in wax papers and given as presents. "Christmas Eve dinner is the big festive dinner in Sri Lanka, not like here where the main feast is on Christmas Day," says Ken. "When I visited Lynnette's [Ken's wife who is American] family for Christmas the first time, I was shocked to get only a sandwich on Christmas Eve," he said. Christmas Eve dinner usually includes roasted duck or goose, lamb dishes, vegetables and puddings like caramel custard. Families pray and sing carols before eating dinner. Afterward, people go to church for a midnight Mass and then come home and open presents. Friends and families visit each other but do not necessarily exchange presents. A special Christmas tradition in Sri Lanka is the lighting of firecrackers by every household throughout the country.
The Ariathurais together with other Sri Lankan families have a big Christmas pageant every year in early December in the Tri-City area. Children reenact the birth of Jesus and families sing Christmas carols in Singhalese, Tamil and English. This is followed by a festive Christmas dinner.
Nathar Puthu Varuda Valthukkal ! Subha nath thalak Vewa! Subha Aluth Awrudhak Vewa