Merry Christmas, Joeux Noel, Frohe Weihnachten, Buon Natale, Feliz Natal, Feliz Navidad…. As said in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. This is a special time of year round the world no matter the language, the message is the same. Christmas is a time of family gatherings, gift giving, optimism for the future, peace on Earth (we can hope), great feasting and fellowship with friends and family.
History books refer to the United States as "the melting pot" where all nations and traditions blend together. Indeed, our Christmas celebrations would indicate just that. We have carols from England and trees from Germany. Santa Claus, or St. Nick. originated in Scandinavia and his arrival through the chimney to fill stockings is reminiscent of the Netherlands. His sleigh drawn by reindeer began in Switzerland, and our parades may be a carry-over from Latin processions. Of course the traditional feasting is typical of all nations. We, in turn, have fattened up the jolly old man in the red suit and blended all the traditions until he comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve, leaves gifts and stockings filled with treats and departs in a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer. The media has helped to make this a universal Christmas image. Yet each regions of the U.S. has its own peculiarity.
The greatest variety in the traditions, however, comes in the taste of Christmas feast:
- New England has Lumberjack Pie ( a mashed potato crust, filled with meats, onion and cinnamon.)
- Pennsylvania Dutch serve Sand Tarts (thin, crisp sugar cookies)
- North Carolina features Moravian Love-Feast Buns (faintly sweet bread of flour and mashed potatoes.)
- Baltimore serves Sauerkraut with their Turkey (which includes apples, onions and carrots.)
- Virginia gives us oyster and ham pie.
- Southern states have Hominy Grits Soufflé and Whiskey Cake (with one cup of 100-proof whiskey.)
- Louisiana's treat is Creole Gumbo. It can include ham, veal, chicken, shrimp, oysters and crabmeat.
- New Mexico has the Empanaditas--little beef pies with applesauce pine nuts and raisins.
- Hawaii blesses us with Turkey Teriyaki marinated and cooked over an outdoor pit.
Whatever the region, Christmas is one of the most celebrated and enjoyed holidays in the nation.
And around the world we have:
Joyeux Noel. The Christmas tree has never been particularly popular in France, and though the use of the Yule log has faded, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Nol, which means "Christmas Log." The cake, among other food in great abundance is served at the grand feast of the season, which is called le rveillon. Le rveillon is a very late supper held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The menu for the meal varies according to regional culinary tradition. In Alsace, goose is the main course, in Burgundy it is turkey with chestnuts, and the Parisians feast upon oysters and pate de foie gras.
French children receive gifts from Pere Noel who travels with his stern disciplinarian companion Pre Fouettard. Pre Fouettard reminds Pere Noel of just how each child has behaved during the past year. In some parts of France Pere Noel brings small gifts on St. Nicholas Eve (December 6) and visits again on Christmas. In other places it is le petit Jesus who brings the gifts. Generally adults wait until New Year's Day to exchange gifts.
Frohe Weihnachten …. According to legend, on Christmas Eve in Germany rivers turn to wine, animals speak to each other, tree blossoms bear fruit, mountains open up to reveal precious gems, and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea. Of course, only the pure in heart can witness this Christmas magic. All others must content themselves with traditional German celebrations, and there are plenty. As a matter of fact, there is so much celebrating that is has to begin on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day.
The Christmas tree, as we know it, originated in Germany. It has a mysterious magic for the young because they are not allowed to see it until Christmas Eve. While the children are occupied with another room (usually by Father) Mother brings out the Christmas tree and decorates it with apples, candy, nuts, cookies, cars, trains, angels, tinsel, family treasures and candles or lights. The presents are placed under the tree. Somewhere, close to the bright display are laid brilliantly decorated plates for each family member, loaded with fruits, nuts, marzipan, chocolate and biscuits. When all is ready a bell is rung as a signal for the children to enter this Christmas fantasy room. Carols are sung, sometimes sparklers are lit, the Christmas story is read and gifts are opened.
The custom of trimming and lighting a Christmas tree had its origin in pre-Christian Germany, the tree symbolizing the Garden of Eden. It was called the "Paradise Baum," or tree of Paradise. Gradually, the custom of decorating the tree with cookies, fruit and eventually candles evolved. Other countries soon adapted the custom. Charles Dickens called it "The Pretty German Toy."
Merry Christmas… From the English we get a story to explain the custom of hanging stockings from the mantelpiece. Father Christmas once dropped some gold coins while coming down the chimney. Without the stockings the coins would have fallen through the ash grate and been lost. Good thing they landed in a stocking that had been hung out to dry. Since that time children have continued to hang out stockings in hopes of finding them filled with gifts.
Feliz Natale….. Papa Noel (Father Noel) is the gift-bringer in Brazil. According to legend, he lives in Greenland. When he arrives in Brazil, he usually wears silk clothing due to the summer heat. I am not sure how he gets to Brazil as I cannot find reference to a reindeer drawn sleigh or for that matter coming by boat, but he does get there….. just not in a bulky red velvet suit.
A huge Christmas dinner, unusual in the hot summertime, includes turkey, ham, colored rice, and wonderful vegetable and fruit dishes.
Devout Catholics often attend Midnight Mass or Missa do Galo. (A galo is a rooster.) The mass has this name because the rooster announces the coming day and the Missa do Galo finishes at 1 AM on Christmas morning! On December 25th, Catholics go to church, but the masses are mostly late afternoon, because people enjoy sleeping late after the dinner (Ceia de Natal) or going to the beach.
Buon Natale….. From Italy we get the popularity of the Nativity scene, as it originated in Italy. According to legend, St. Francis of Assisi asked a man named Giovanni Vellita of the village of Greccio to create a manger scene. St. Francis performed mass in front of this early Nativity scene, which inspired awe and devotion in all who saw it. The
The main exchange of gifts takes place on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, the celebration is in remembrance of the Magi's visit to the Christ Child. Children anxiously await a visit from La Befana who brings gifts for the good and punishment for the bad. According to legend, the three wise men stopped during their journey and asked an old woman for food and shelter. She refused them and they continued on their way. Within a few hours the woman had a change of heart but the Magi were long gone. La Befana, which means Epiphany, still wonders the earth searching for the Christ Child. She is depicted in various ways: as a fairy queen, a crone, or a witch.
Feliz Navidad….. Christmas is a deeply religious holiday in Spain. The country's patron saint is the Virgin Mary and the Christmas season officially begins December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is celebrated each year in front of the great Gothic cathedral in Seville with a ceremony called los Seises or the "dance of six." Oddly, the elaborate ritual dance is now performed by not six but ten elaborately costumed boys. It is a series of precise movements and gestures and is said to be quite moving and beautiful.
Christmas Eve is known as Nochebuena or "the Good Night." It is a time for family members to gather together to rejoice and feast around the Nativity scenes that are present in nearly every home. A traditional Christmas treat is turron, a kind of almond candy.
December 28 is the feast of the Holy Innocents. Young boys of a town or village light bonfires and one of them acts as the mayor who orders townspeople to perform civic chores such as sweeping the streets. Refusal to comply results in fines which are used to pay for the celebration. (In this time of much needed revenue for governments, both local and federal, I think this is a grand idea.)
As in many European countries, the children of Spain receive gifts on the feast of the Epiphany. The Magi are particularly revered in Spain. It is believed that they travel through the countryside reenacting their journey to Bethlehem every year at this time. Children leave their shoes on the windowsills and fill them with straw, carrots, and barley for the horses of the Wise Men. Their favorite is Balthazar who rides a donkey and is the one believed to leave the gifts.
Joeux Noel, Frohe Weihnachten, Buon Natale, Feliz Natal, Feliz Navidad………. La Befana who brings both gifts and punishment, Pre Fouttard the strict disciplinarian, Papa Noel in his silk Christmas outfit. There is a common theme. Do your best, be good, celebrate family, think of others, remember the origination of the holiday, give meaningful gifts to those we love, fix our best food and share it and pray and hope for peace on Earth. Good messages all, no matter the origin.
Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for a great New Year.