Xmas comes a-calling – Lakshmi Palecanda

Sales here, discounts there! Surrounded as we are by commercialization, it is easy to forget the true traditions of Christmas. Like the legendary Santa Claus, let’s travel around the world to catch glimpses of this religious holiday celebrated in different places.

But firstly, is Christmas actually Jesus’s birthday? Well, no one actually knows for sure. The first recorded celebration of Christmas on this date was in 336 AD by Roman Emperor Constantine, who was the first Christian Roman Emperor. Pope Julius I, the bishop of Rome, originally proclaimed December 25 as the official celebration day for Jesus’s birthday in 350 AD, the date conveniently coinciding with the Saturnalia festival celebrated in the Roman Empire. However, the official Christmas Day holiday and celebrations are held on January 7 in countries such as Belarus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia and the Ukraine, where Orthodox Christians follow the Gregorian calendar (introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582).

When it comes to Christmas celebrations, it is the English Christmas that sets the standard throughout the world, thanks to the novelist Charles Dickens.

“… Charles Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas…” says Peter Ackroyd, Dickens’s most recent biographer. In 1988, London’s Sunday Telegraph even called him ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’. His idealised visions of snowy, blustery weather outside and family warmth — with piping hot turkey and goose to eat, hot punch and wassail to drink, and games like Blind man’s bluff to play — have showcased the English Christmas to the rest of the world.

Modern day Christmas celebrations in England started to take shape during the Victorian times. Prince Albert of Germany, who married Queen Victoria, brought to England the German tradition of setting up and decorating a fir tree indoors to serve as the Christmas tree. In today’s England, Christmas decorations start going up on December 1. Elaborate decorations and lighting are put up in famous shopping areas as Oxford Street, London. People decorate their homes with the Christmas tree and mistletoe (a parasitic plant) in order to bring good luck. It also helps people get lucky — if you caught someone under the mistletoe, you could kiss them without getting your face slapped. Children make lists of what gifts they want for Christmas and throw them into the fireplace hoping that they get swept up the chimney and reach Father Christmas. By the way, the English say ‘Happy Christmas’.

On a traditional English Christmas Eve, people go out to their favourite pubs. People with fireplaces may burn a log called the yule log. Children hang stockings on their bedposts and fireplaces hoping they will be filled with treats in the morning. On Christmas morning, children open their presents from Father Christmas and pull crackers. Crackers are short cardboard tubes wrapped in colourful paper. Two people hold each side of the paper and pull, and with a bang, out comes a colourful party hat, toy or gift, and a silly joke. This is great fun, especially for children.

Christmas fare

In England, the traditional feast consists of roast turkey or chicken, small sausages wrapped with bacon called ‘pigs in blankets’, and vegetables, especially Brussels sprouts. Desserts include mince pies, rich fruit cake and plum pudding. The plum pudding is made by tying suet (raw fat of beef or mutton), flour, sugar, raisins, nuts and spices loosely in cloth and boiling it until the ingredients are ‘plum’ or enlarged enough to fill the cloth. It is then aged and soaked in brandy. At the time of serving, it is lit, when the liquor burns with a blue flame. It is then sliced and served like cake.

They also celebrate December 26 as Boxing Day, when they have great sales at stores. In Scotland, they celebrate the end of the year, December 31, as Hogmanay, which can make even Christmas seem like a small feast. They have a tradition called ‘first footing’ — if a dark male enters a house first, it is good luck for the family.

In the United States, things are done a little differently. For one thing, they say, “Merry Christmas.” For another, Americans go overboard with their Christmas decorations, especially the lights. One of the decorations they favour is garlands for the Christmas tree, made by stringing popcorn. They also decorate their homes with Poinsettia plants, which have lovely red-and-green leaves. They also love to drink eggnog at Christmastime. This is an egg-milk punch with milk/cream, whipped eggs and some sort of alcohol.

In America, Christmas Eve is usually spent with family, watching old movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story or Home Alone, or listening to Christmas carols. By the way, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is not part of folklore, but the product of Robert L May’s imagination. He came up with the idea for marketing colouring books for the retail giant, Montgomery Ward, in 1939.

American children call Father Christmas Santa Claus, which is derived from St Nicholas. This saint was a very rich and kind bishop who used to help the poor and give secret gifts to people who needed them. Ever wonder why Santa wears red? Well, St Nicholas was a bishop, and bishops wore robes of red. Also, the American magazine Harper’s Weekly published illustrations of Santa Clause painted by a man named Thomas Nast. Of all his paintings, the one of Santa with a big red belly, an armful of toys and smoking a pipe became a hit. Since then, red is his colour! This jolly old man is supposed to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve bearing gifts to leave under the tree and fill stockings that have been hung up for that purpose.

Care for cookies?
Americans bake a lot of cookies during the season. Christmas dinner is usually ham or roast beef. Dessert is usually pie. Jewish people in the US have a custom of eating Chinese food on Christmas Day.

Speaking of Chinese, there are only a small number of Christians in China and they call Christmas ‘Sheng Dan Jieh’, which means Holy Birth Festival. They call Santa Claus ‘Christmas Old Man’ or ‘Dun Che Lao Ren’ or ‘Lan Khoong-Khoong’ — Nice Old Father. However, their lunar New Year or Spring Festival, which begins in late January or early February, is the most important celebration for the Chinese people and lasts three days. This is the time when people travel long distances to be with family.

By the way, have you ever wondered why Xmas is used interchangeably with Christmas? Though some people think that it is taking the ‘Christ’ out of Christmas, it is supposed to make it more secular, this is not so. The real reason is that in Greek, the symbol for the letter ‘Chi’ is X, and it is combined with the symbol ‘rho’ to spell Christ. That is why Xmas is used instead of Christmas.

Furthermore, in Greece, many people believe in kallikantzaroi, the goblins that cause mischief during the 12 days of Christmas. The Greek version of Santa Claus is St Vasilis, who brings a few small gifts for children. They exchange gifts on January 1, which is celebrated as St Basil’s Day.

Christopsomo, a bread made with a cross carved into the crust, is made on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, the head of the household makes the sign of cross over it, and cuts it and gives a piece to each person.

‘God Jul!’ In Sweden, Christmas is known as ‘Jul’. Here, Christmas begins on December 13 with the celebration of St Lucia Day. On this day, the eldest daughter of the house wakes up early and dresses in a long white gown and a crown made of twigs and nine lighted candles, before waking others up. For the day, she is called Lussi or Lussibruden’ (Lucy bride).

‘Jultomten’ is Santa, and ‘tomte’ is the tiny Christmas gnome who brings gifts to put under the tree. The dinner consists of a bountiful smorgasbord of dried fish, ham, etc, and for dessert, they have a special rice pudding which has an almond in it. The person who finds the almond will marry in the coming year.

While most people go to church on Christmas Eve, families in Finland visit the sauna. And Santa doesn’t have to travel too far to give them gifts, because he lives in Lapland, which is north of the Arctic Circle. The Finns go to cemeteries and leave candles in hanging lanterns around the graves of their family members. Since the dark sets in early, around 3 pm, the whole cemetery glowing in the light of the lanterns looks like a winter wonderland.

In Norway, similar customs are observed for the festival. It is also the origin of the yule log, a special big log burned in the fireplace to bring good luck to the family. This is also why many Christmas cakes, desserts and cheeses are in the shape of logs. By the way, all brooms are hidden away at this time, because legend has it that witches and evil spirits may steal them away.

Germany is where the Christmas tree or the ‘Tannenbaum’ originated. This started with decorating evergreen trees as part of the German winter solstice tradition. Earlier, fir trees were used; now it is spruce. Also, Germans hang a pickle ornament on the Christmas tree. The child who finds it first gets a small gift. Christmas (or ‘Weihnachten’) is the most important of the major holidays. Their version of Santa is known as ‘der Weihnachtsmann’ or literally ‘the Christmas man’. German children leave clogs and shoes, not socks and stockings, outside their doors for him to put their gifts in.

In Ukraine, people decorate their Christmas trees with spider webs to recreate a myth that talks about a poor woman who couldn’t afford decorations. On Christmas Eve, a spider wove a web on it, which began to glitter like gold and diamonds when the morning rays fell on it. In the Czech Republic, unmarried women perform a very unusual ritual on Christmas Eve. With their backs to the house door, they throw one of their shoes over their shoulder. If they fall with the toe pointed to the door, it means they’ll get married in the coming year and leave their parents’ house.

Children in the Netherlands are most excited on December 5 because of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is another red-suited, white-bearded man who gives gifts like Santa Claus, but who is somber, not jolly. He is surrounded by his helpers, Zwarte Pieten (Blacks Petes). Sinterklaas is purported to live in Madrid, Spain, and arrives by boat from Spain in mid-November. He comes to different ports in the Netherlands each time, so that more children have an opportunity to get gifts.

Another unique Dutch tradition is the mid-winter horn blowing. Every morning at dawn from Advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), farmers blow long horns made from the wood of elder trees while standing over a well, to announce the arrival of Christmas.

In Austria, children are extra good at this time because of the Christmas devil, Krampus, who is said to beat naughty children.

Strangely, the Catalonian (Spanish) nativity scene consists not only of baby Jesus in a manger and the three wise men, but also the figure of a shitting man, called El Caganer, squatting with a bare butt and pants around his knees in a corner.

A Japanese Christmas is very commercial, being that only a half of 1% of Japanese are Christians. It is also regarded as a very romantic time. But thanks to great marketing, the popular Christmas feast is the Chicken Dinner at KFC. It is so popular that you have to make reservations way ahead of time!

If you go to Greenland for Christmas dinner, expect to be served delicacies like mattak, whale skin with some blubber attached, or kiviak, which is raw flesh of 500 auk (small sea birds) wrapped in a sealskin and decomposed under a rock for seven months. Yum-yum!

In Caracas, Venezuela, people go to Mass in churches, on roller skates. So all roads are closed to cars on Christmas.

And of course, in the land down under, Australia, Christmas is bound to be very different because it occurs in the middle of their summer. Here beach time barbecues and outdoor concerts are the norm.

Christmas traditions vary not only from one country to another, but also from one home to another. In my home, Christmas tradition is a small reusable plastic tree with a few ornaments and a feast that always features rasam, rice, payasa and cake. What is yours?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!