Christmas Greetings and Customs Around the World
The custom of sending Christmas cards originated in England, a nation rich in varied traditions. Window candles attract carolers, called waits, who fill the air with Christmas music. A yule log finds its place of tradition in the hearths of some homes in England and Wales. Children hang stockings by the chimney or their bed, hoping Father Christmas will bring them gifts. Before the use of the Christmas tree, the main decoration was the kissing bough, made of evergreens, holly, and ivy. Christmas feasting includes the wassail bowl and flaming plum pudding. On Boxing Day, December 26 (St. Stephen's Day), gift boxes and alms are distributed to the needy.
The crèche (manger) occupies a place of prominence in the French home. Terra cotta figures known as santons (little saints) represent the Holy Family. Area processions include a live lamb, the symbol of the Lamb of God. The Bûche de Noel, a log-shaped cake, has become a favorite Christmas delicacy. Children leave their shoes by the fireside on Christmas Eve, hoping Père Noël (Father Christmas) or le Petit Noël (the Christ Child) will fill them with gifts before morning. Their parents attend Christmas masses at midnight and return to a late supper known as le Réveillon. On Epiphany eve, three figures are added to the crèche in celebration of the visit of the Magi.
Celebrations begin before December 6 with pageants and fairs featuring cookies, breads sausages, decorations, and toys. Many observe Christ's coming by lighting candles on an Advent wreath or opening Advent calendar windows. Decorating the Tannenbaum originated in Germany. On Heiligabend (Christmas Eve) families enjoy decorating the tree with white candles and ornaments of wood, foil, and glass. A Krippe (Nativity set) is placed under the tree. Children receive gifts from the Christkind (Christ Child). The season ends with Epiphany when the Sternsänger carol and roam the streets with star-shaped lanterns, symbolizing the Wise Men from the East.
Nollaig Shona Dhuit
On Christmas Eve, in honor of the infant Jesus, the youngest family member is chosen to light a candle in the window. The light is a welcome to any who, like Mary and Joseph, might be looking for shelter. The candle burns all night long, and wanderers who pass by are given food and money. After church services on Christmas Day, families distribute baked goods to friends and relatives. On December 26, St. Stephen's Day, children participate in a custom called "Feed the Wren." With a wren in a cage, they proceed from door to door singing carols and collecting money for charity. The season ends on January 6, which is known as "Little Christmas."
Among Italians a novena, nine days of religious preparation, precedes Christmas. On December 23 (or earlier), zampognari (bagpipers), shepherds, or costumed children go from house to house and play carols before the family presepio (manger scene). The presepio originated in Italy with St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. Before the traditional Yule log is lit on Christmas Eve, each child must recite a sermon to the Christ Child. Gift giving is reserved for the day of Epiphany, January 6. On the Twelfth Night, Befana, the old woman who foolishly refused to help the Wise Men, brings candies and distributes gifts to the children.
The Star of Bethlehem is the most popular Christmas symbol. Christmas is known as Gwiazda, or "Little Star." The first star in the Christmas Eve sky signals the end of a daylong fast of Wigilia, and celebrations begin. Before the Christmas Eve meal is served, the head of the house distributes an oplatki (peace wafer) symbolizing friendship and peace. A straw-strewn place setting is reserved for the humble Christ. Decorations include an elaborate creche and choinka (Christmas tree) decorated with straw stars, fruit, nuts, cookies, and intricately painted eggs. Often, young men carry a lighted star on a pole en route to Pasterka (Shepherd's Mass) at midnight Christmas Eve.
The Spanish Christmas blends the religious spirit of the Nativity with delights of the table, the Spanish passion for song and dance, and the universal pleasure of renewing family ties. The nacimiento (birth), belenes (Bethlehem crib) or Nativity scene is more important to the family than a Christmas tree. Christmas Eve is known as Noche buena, the "good night." After mass and a special meal, the children receive one gift – other gifts must wait for Epiphany (12 days after Christmas), since the Three Kings are the legendary gift bearers. The Kings leave gifts in shoes the family has left out.
The season begins early on December 13, St. Lucia's Day, when the eldest daughter, dressed in a white robe and wearing a wreath of greens and seven lit candles on her head, awakens her family singing "Santa Lucia" and serves them coffee, buns, and cookies. After Christmas Eve dinner, the family gathers around the Christmas tree to open gifts brought by the Jultomten (Christmas gnome), who rides on the Julbock, a goat made of straw. Christmas Day is reserved for religious observance and rest. Holiday socializing begins on December 26. On January 6, Twelfth Night, the caroling Star Boys stroll from house to house. Festivities end January 13, St. Knut's Day.