by Gerald Boerner
As you enter into the Christmas Eve celebration with your family and friends, I hope that this review of Christmas traditions will help focus your attention on those things that are so dear to each of us: our families, our cultural heritage, our relationship with God, and the values that have made us what we are today. Please enjoy your celebration and may your Christmas Eve and Christmas Day be sunny and bright, even though the snow may be on the ground outside and the temperatures are below freezing. GLB
“There are no strangers on Christmas Eve.”
— Adele Comandini and Edward Sutherland
“At Christmas, all roads lead home.”
— Marjorie Holmes
“Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won’t make it ‘white’.”
— Bing Crosby
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
— Charles Dickens
“They err who thinks Santa Claus comes down through the chimney; he really enters through the heart.”
— Mrs. Paul M. Ell
“Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under a tree.”
— Charlotte Carpenter
“Christmas, in its final essence, is for grown people who have forgotten what children know. Christmas is for whoever is old enough to have denied the unquenchable spirit of man.”
— Margaret Cousins
“To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.”
— Calvin Coolidge
Christmas Eve Celebration: Regional Traditions
Christmas Eve, December 24, is the day before Christmas Day, a widely celebrated holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a culturally significant celebration for most of the Western world and is widely observed as a full or partial holiday in anticipation of Christmas.
Regional traditions… Let’s look at how Christmas is observed around the world. Many traditions have emerged. Most of these reflect on the coming together of the Christian and native cultural traditions. Today, many are “secularized” to the extent that the traditions leave out the Christian traditions in the name of “political correctness” or in response to social pressures. By examining these traditions, perhaps we can rediscover the joy of the original meaning of Christmas, the birth of the Christ Child.
In Latin America, Christmas Eve, known in Spanish as La Noche Buena (English translation – the good night) and in Portuguese as Véspera de Natal (English: Christmas Eve), is celebrated by staying up until midnight. At midnight, gifts and presents are opened. Fireworks are also shot off. Fireworks are the main focus of the celebration. It is not a silent night, with families coming together exchanging presents and going to church. After Christmas the children often play with their new presents or go to church with their families.
As in Latin America, Christmas Eve is also known as Nochebuena in Spain. There are two important traditions: attending Christmas Mass, and enjoying a meal with friends and family.
There is a wide variety of typical foods one might find on plates across Spain on this particular night, and each region has its own distinct specialties. It is particularly common, however, to start the meal with a seafood dish such as prawns or salmon, followed by a bowl of hot, homemade soup. The main meal will commonly consist of roast lamb, or seafood, such as cod or shellfish. For dessert, there is quite a spread of delicacies, among them are turrón, a dessert made of honey, egg and almonds that is Arabic in origin. Seafood is very common.
Iceland and Norway
In Iceland and Norway, Yule (jul/jól) starts on the night of December 24, at 6:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. respectively. Church bells ring at that time and people either sit down for holiday dinner at home or with their family. After that they open gifts and spend the evening together. In Iceland people most often eat hamborgarahryggur and svínabógur.
Polish Oplatki (Christmas
Wafer) in a basket.
In Poland, the traditional Christmas meal is known as Wigilia ("Vigil"), and being invited to attend a Wigilia dinner with a family is considered a high honour. Before eating everyone exchanges Christmas greetings with each other by giving a piece of Christmas wafer (Opłatki), usually stamped with a religious image, such as the Nativity scene. There is a tradition of having either 7 or 12 (or its multiple) Lenten (meatless) dishes. One has to try every single dish to avoid bad luck next year. Dishes are usually fish based, with carp being very important in Poland. After dinner, children open presents from under the Christmas Tree. Later people attend Midnight Mass to solemnly celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Serbia, Republika Srpska and Montenegro
The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian, so Christmas Eve (December 24) as celebrated by the Serbs coincides with January 6 on the latter calendar. In Serbian Christmas traditions, the head of household goes in the morning into a forest to select a young, straight oak tree and fell it. A log cut from this tree, up to 2.5 meters (8.2 ft) long, is called badnjak and has an important role in the celebration. It is in the evening ceremoniously taken into the house and laid on the fire that burns on the house’s fireplace called ognjište, whose hearth is without a vertical surround. The burning of the badnjak is accompanied by prayers to God so that the coming year may bring much happiness, love, luck, riches, and food. Since most houses today have no ognjište on which to burn a badnjak, it is symbolically represented by several leaved oak twigs. For the convenience of people who live in towns and cities, they can be bought at marketplaces or received in churches.
The Serbs also take a bundle of straw into the house and spread it over the floor, and then walnuts on it. Before the table is served for the Christmas Eve dinner, it is strewn with a thin layer of straw and covered with a white cloth. The head of household makes the Sign of the Cross, lights a candle, and censes the whole house. The family members sit down at the table, but before tucking in they all rise and a man or boy among them says a prayer, or they together sing the Troparion of the Nativity. After the dinner young people visit their friends, a group of whom may gather at the house of one of them. Christmas and other songs are sung, while the elderly narrate stories from the olden times.
Since the early 1990s, the Serbian Orthodox Church has, together with local communities, organized public celebrations on Christmas Eve. The course of these celebrations can be typically divided into three parts: the preparation, the ritual, and the festivity. The preparation consists of going and cutting down the tree to be used as the badnjak, taking it to the church yard, and preparing drink and food for the assembled parishioners. The ritual includes Vespers, placing the badnjak on the open fire built in the church yard, blessing or consecrating the badnjak, and an appropriate program with songs and recitals. In some parishes they build the fire on which to burn the badnjak not in the church yard but at some other suitable location in their town or village. The festivity consists of getting together around the fire and socializing. Each particular celebration, however, has its own specificities which reflect traditions of the local community, and other local factors.
Most households circulate wrapped gifts in the two weeks before Christmas Day. In North America, gifts are most commonly opened on the morning of Christmas Day; however, families may also choose to open all or some of their presents on Christmas Eve, depending on evolving family traditions, logistics, and the age of the children involved. E.g., adults might open their presents on Christmas Eve and minor children open their presents on Christmas morning, or everyone might open their gifts on Christmas morning.
In Quebec and among many French-speaking families living in other provinces, the Réveillon is held on Christmas Eve with traditional food such as tourtière, attendance at church, and the opening of gifts. It is also common tradition throughout the United States and Canada, for children to leave a glass of milk and plate of cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve by the fireplace and a carrot for the reindeer. Similar traditions occur in Mexico, Central America including El Salvador; however, the name given is, as in Spain, Nochebuena.
In the Philippines, the predominantly Roman Catholic Christian country in Asia, Christmas Eve is usually celebrated by attending the "Rooster’s Mass" or Misa del Gallo which is celebrated hours before the clock ticks 12 A.M. signifying the arrival of Christmas Day. After attending church, Filipino families usually hold a feast named Noche Buena to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. A great variety of food is eaten during this feast, an event that usually is done with great preparation. Foods being prepared include the famous lechón, quezo de bola, hamón (Christmas ham), roast chicken (turkey did not gain much popularity in the Philippines), barbecued meats, pancit, among many others. Despite the fact that some families are poor, they still find a way to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ through eating, family time and merry-making.
It is traditional in Finland to bring
candles to the graves of loved ones
on Christmas Eve and All Saints Day.
Most of the traditions, such as Christmas dinner and gift giving, are observed on this day. Santa Claus visits homes in person, played by an older family member or a rent-a-Santa.
The Declaration of Christmas Peace has been a tradition in Finland from the Middle Ages every year, except in 1939 due to the Winter War. The declaration takes place on the Old Great Square of Turku, Finland’s official Christmas City and former capital, at noon on Christmas Eve. It is broadcast on Finnish radio (since 1935) and television, and nowadays also in some foreign countries.
The declaration ceremony begins with the hymn Jumala ompi linnamme (Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) and continues with the Declaration of Christmas Peace read from a parchment roll:
"Tomorrow, God willing, is the most gracious feast of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, and therefore a general Christmas peace is hereby declared, and all persons are directed to observe this holiday with due reverence and otherwise quietly and peacefully to conduct themselves, for whosoever breaks this peace and disturbs the Christmas holiday by any unlawful or improper conduct shall be liable, under aggravating circumstances, to whatever penalty is prescribed by law and decree for each particular offence or misdemeanour. Finally, all citizens are wished a joyous Christmas holiday."
The Ceremony ends with trumpets playing the Finnish national anthem Maamme and Porilaisten marssi, with the crowd usually singing when the band plays Maamme.
Recently, there is also a declaration of Christmas peace for forest animals in many cities and municipalities, so there is no hunting during Christmas.
In Finland people usually take a Christmas sauna. The tradition is very old. Unlike on normal days, when going to sauna is in the evening, on Christmas Eve it is before sunset. This tradition is based on a pre-20th century belief that the spirits of the dead return and have a sauna at the usual sauna hours.
In the Netherlands, Christmas Eve is gradually losing its original meaning. In older days, the Catholic part of the country, roughly half, mainly the south, used to attend mass; usually between 11:00 pm and 12:30. This custom is still upheld but by fewer people every year. Christmas Eve is these days a rather normal evening without any special gatherings or meals. The day of Christmas is another matter. That day is a special day for most families. Usually people have elaborate dinners with friends and relatives. The Dutch call December 25 Eerste Kerstdag, "first Christmas day". This day is a national holiday as is December 26, called Tweede Kerstdag, "second Christmas day". In families, it is custom to spend these days with either side of the relatives.
In Sweden, most Christmas celebrations take place on Christmas Eve, including Santa Claus’s distribution of Christmas presents. Until the 20th century, presents were instead distributed by the Yule Goat, still today used as Christmas decoration and remembered by the famous Gävle goat. Christmas dishes and meals are always served on Julbord (Christmas table), and often contain Christmas ham and the world-famous Janssons frestelse. Many families also watch Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (From All of Us to All of You), Karl Bertil Jonssons julafton, or a re-run of the Svensson, Svensson episode God Jul! (Merry Christmas) on the TV channel SVT1.
In Denmark, during Christmas Eve an elaborate dinner is eaten with the family, consisting of roast pork, roast duck, or roast goose with potatoes, red cabbage and gravy. For dessert is rice pudding with a cherry sauce, traditionally with an almond hidden inside. The lucky finder of this almond is entitled to a small gift. After the meal is complete, the family gather around the Christmas tree to sing Christmas carols and dance hand in hand around the tree. Then the children often hand out the presents which are opened immediately. This is followed by candy, chips, various nuts, clementines, and sometimes a mulled and spiced wine with almonds and raisins called Gløgg is served hot in small cups.
In the UK, Santa Claus is often called Father Christmas. In households with younger children the preparations for Father Christmas on Christmas Eve depend on individual family traditions. Sometimes the children will be involved in leaving some sustenance for Father Christmas and his reindeer. Traditionally this would have consisted of a glass of sherry or brandy and a mince pie for Father Christmas and some carrots for Rudolph. The hanging of Christmas stockings to receive presents is a much-loved tradition that is still practiced by many.Few families open their presents on Christmas Eve (the Royal family being a notable exception).
On the day itself, preparations are quickly underway for the Christmas lunch where the whole family will gather for ‘turkey and all the trimmings’ and the obligatory Christmas Crackers. Attendance at a Christmas Day church service continues to be popular. Watching the Queen’s Speech on TV is a tradition that still remains hugely important in many households’ Christmas Day typically averaging 10 million viewers on TV and 2m listeners via radio.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Christmas Eve can be found at…