As we finish up for Christmas, have you ever wondered how people celebrate Christmas around the world? We have, and we thought we would share a few Christmas traditions and customs from other countries and cultures.
So why do the majority of Christians around the world celebrate Christmas Day on 25th December? Despite many different theories on why this is the chosen date, accordingly to an early Christian tradition, Mary was told that she was expecting a very special baby on March 25th and 9 months after this date is 25th December which therefore makes this date seem correct. Also, around the 25th of December is also when the Pagan’s celebrated the Winter Solstice and also when various ancient winter festivals such as the Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti were celebrated as well as the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. But the fact that the shepherds were keeping sheep on the hills at the time of Jesus’ birth and the fact that the Star of Bethlehem was visible on the skies would suggest a Spring or Autumn date. Based on the Julien calendar, Orthodox Christians in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Russia and Serbia celebrate Christmas on 7th January because this is the date of the Epiphany (the day Jesus was identified as the son of God). But regardless of the truth, millions of people the world over celebrate Jesus’ birthday on the 25th December with a variety of country-specific traditions.
Some country’s traditions originate from the customs of the Winter Solstice and over time they have given them Christian meanings e.g. Holly, Mistletoe and even Christmas Carols!
Traditionally, Holly has a Christian connection to the crucifixion – the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore and the berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns. For this reason, in Scandinavia, Holly is known as the Christ Thorn. In pagan times, Holly was thought to be a male plant and Ivy a female plant. An old tradition from the Midlands of England says that whatever one was brought into the house first over winter, tells you whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year! But it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve!
Mistletoe, according to Norse mythology, is used as a sign of love and friendship which is where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from. This custom originated in England and originally you had to pick a berry from the sprig of Mistletoe before you could be kissed, so when all the berries were taken, there could be no more kissing! This tradition seems strange however when you consider the meaning of the word Mistletoe which is made up of two words – Mistel and Tan. Mistel means “dung” and Tan means “stick” so literally translated, it could mean Poo Stick – doesn’t exactly conjure up the same romantic connotations, does it!?
Christmas carols have stemmed from the singing of Pagan songs during the Winter Solstice as people danced round stone circles and the word “carol” means dance or a song of praise. Traditionally, carols were written and sung during all four seasons at various Pagan festivals but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas time has survived the test of time. This may be down to St Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 started Nativity Plays in Italy. People sang songs which told the story of the play and these songs travelled to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
In Scandinavia, and some other parts of northern Europe, the Winter Solstice is known as Yule and is where we get Yule Logs from. Even though nowadays Yule Logs are most commonly found on supermarket shelves, there are still some traditions in parts of Europe that use an actual tree which is burnt throughout the 12 Days of Christmas.
In the UK and other countries such as America, for most children (young and old!), Christmas is synonymous with Santa Claus. But where does Santa come from? Back in 4AD, there lived a very rich and very kind Bishop called St. Nicholas who, according to the legend, started the tradition of hanging up Christmas Stockings so they would get filled with presents. The story goes that there was a poor man with 3 daughters. Because he was poor, he couldn’t afford a dowry for any of his daughters and so, they couldn’t get married. St Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney, only for it to land in a stocking that had been hung up at the fire to dry! After some time, he did the same for the second daughter, and so, keen to find out who the mystery donator was, the poor dad sat up every night until the 3rd bag of gold came down the chimney and confronted the man. Although St. Nicholas wanted to be kept anonymous, eventually the news got out and so, whenever anyone received a mysterious gift, they assumed it was from St Nicholas! St. Nicholas dropping a bag of gold into a stocking is probably where the custom of having a tangerine or satsuma at the bottom of your Christmas stocking came from. St Nicholas died on 6th December and on this day, some countries including Holland and the Czech Republic, some people still celebrate Christmas on this day, as it’s become known as St. Nicholas Feast Day.
In the 16th century in Europe when the Puritans banned a lot of Christian folklore, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas had become very unpopular but, given the tradition, someone had to deliver presents to children at Christmas! So in the UK, St. Nicholas became ‘Father Christmas’, a character from old children’s stories; in France, he became ‘Père Nöel’; in Germany, he was the ‘Christ Kind’ and in America, he was known as ‘Kris Kringle’. Later though, Dutch settlers in America took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle became ‘Sinterklaas’ or as we now say, ‘Santa Claus’!
As language evolves and changes, the word Christmas if often shortened to Xmas but many Christians throughout the world don’t agree with this modernisation because the word Christmas originates from the Mass of Christ which is a church service that celebrates the birth of Jesus. But, no matter how you celebrate it, what you call it or where you are in the world, we would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas from everyone at Matinée!