Christmas Celebrations around the Globe
By Wendy Hughes
Christmas is celebrated with a variety of customs around the globe, but some of those traditions have changed over the centuries. Most tables in the UK will have roast turkey as its centrepiece, but once the goose was the Christmas Day favourite. Its origins go back to the 16th century, when in 1588 Queen Elizabeth I was eating Michaelmas goose at Greenwich Palace she received news of the Spanish Armada’s defeat. She was so delighted that she decreed that a celebratory goose should be cooked on Christmas Day from then onwards. The goose held its place for some 200 years, until the first turkey came on the scene, although initially, it was only on the festive tables of the wealthy. Gradually turkey replaced the traditional Christmas dinner bird for the majority, but in more recent years as turkey became readily available throughout the year, the goose is regaining its popularity as the Christmas bird.
Christmas dishes vary greatly around the globe too. In Poland the traditional meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, known as the Festival of the Star. The Polish people don’t eat all day as they prepare for their special feast, which begins when the first star appears in the sky. They spread straw under the tablecloth as a reminder of the baby Jesus being placed in the manger, and thin wafers of unleavened bread are broken and blessed before the meal. There is no meat in the meal, which consists of beetroot soup, mushroom dumplings, herrings with onions, carp, followed by cheesecake. After the meal carols are sung, but they have no customs involving decorations, crackers or Christmas cards.
In Sweden the main meal is also eaten on Christmas Eve, when the family presents are distributed. The gifts are wrapped in plain white paper and sealed with red wax, with each having a message or verse written on it especially for the recipients. The meal itself is a cold buffet of ham, herrings, pork spare ribs, apples, prunes and almond paste tarts, filled with cloudberries and cream. After the meal the country people travel to church by torchlight on horse drawn sledges. Christmas Day is spent quietly with a meal of dried fish in a special white sauce which is only made once a year.
In Finland they too have the main festive meal on Christmas Eve, the preparations beginning several days beforehand with a thorough clean of the house and the installation of a tall Christmas tree on a specially embroidered mat, and the tree sprinkled with salt to provide the effect of snow. The meal itself commences with hors d’oeuvres, followed by salted cod cooked in a special sauce used only at Christmas time. Afterwards there is smoked ham with prunes and baked creamed swede. The traditional pudding is made from plain rice.
Customs vary in regions of France as in England, Wales and Scotland with most of the celebrations taking place on Christmas Day. The crib is the focal point of French decorations, and is set up on Christmas Eve with the baby Jesus being placed in the manger at the stroke of midnight, and the three wise men added later. The traditional meal starts with oysters and mussels and followed by the turkey with
chestnut stuffing. Instead of a Christmas pudding the French may have a yuletide
log of chestnut cream and chocolate.
In Italy and Spain the making of the crib is the main feature of decoration, with a lot
of Italians families having a Nativity crib in their homes. Many of the cribs are more
elaborate constructions and can be seen up the length of the passageway in hotels.
They tell Christmas story, and were made popular by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223.
The previous year he had visited Bethlehem and saw the stable where it was thought
that Jesus was born. The city of Naples is world famous for its crib making, and
these are known as ‘Presepe Napoletano,’ Neapolitan Cribs. The first crib scene in
Naples is thought to go back to 1025 and was in the Church of St. Maria del Presepe
(Saint Mary of the Crib), a long time before St. Francis of Assisi made cribs popular.
Having a crib in your own home became popular in the 16th century and is still
popular today. Cribs are traditionally displayed on the 8th December, but the figure
of the baby Jesus isn’t put into the crib until the evening/night of December 24.
Sometimes the Nativity scene is displayed in the shape of a pyramid which can be
very tall, and made of several tiers of shelves and decorated with coloured paper,
gold covered pinecones and small candles. A small star is often hung inside the top
of the pyramid/triangle. The shelves above the manger scene might also contain
fruit, candy and presents. Neapolitan cribs don’t always display the nativity scene,
but characters and figures from the Christmas story, as well as ‘every day’ people
and objects such as rivers, bridges, windmills and a host of figures, chopping down
trees, shearing sheep, women milking cows or washing clothes beside the rivers and
a host of children interspersed between these everyday activities. Naples is also
home to the largest crib scene in the world, which has over 600 objects on it! Naples
still has a street of nativity scene makers called the ‘Via San Gregorio Armeno,’ and
in this street you can buy wonderful handmade crib decorations.
On Christmas Eve, there is usually a light seafood meal served before the people
attend the Midnight Mass service. The types of fish and how they are served vary
between different regions in Italy. The most common types of fish eaten in the feast
include Baccala (salted cod), clams, calamari, sardines and eel. On their return from
Mass, if it’s cold, you might have a slice of Italian Christmas Cake called ‘Panettone’
which is a dome shaped cake filled with candied fruit with a cup of hot chocolate, or
they may have a slice of panforte, a flat spiced cake. Most popular on Christmas
Day are capelletti – a kind of ravioli stuffed with meat – roast guinea fowl, and boiled
capon with a stuffing of breadcrumbs, herbs and cheese.
Most people in Spain go to Midnight Mass or ‘La Misa Del Gallo,’ The Mass of the
Rooster, so called because a rooster is supposed to have crowed the night Jesus
was born. Most families eat their main Christmas meal on Christmas Eve before the
service, and the traditional Spanish Christmas dinner is ‘Pavo Trufado de Navidad’
which is Turkey stuffed with truffles (the mushrooms, not the chocolate ones). In
Galicia, a region in north-west Spain, surrounded by water, the most popular meal
for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is seafood. This can be all kinds of different
seafood, from shellfish, to lobster and small edible crabs. After the midnight service,
people walk through the streets carrying torches, playing guitars and beating on
tambourines and drums. One Spanish saying is ‘Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no
Es noche de dormir’ which means ‘Tonight is the good night and it is not meant for
December 28th is ‘Día de los santos inocentes’ or ‘Day of the Innocent Saints’ and is
very much like April Fool’s Day in the UK and USA. People try to trick each other into
believing silly stories and jokes. Newspapers and TV stations also run silly stories
too, and if you manage to trick someone, you can call them ‘Inocente, inocente’
which means ‘innocent, innocent’. 28th December is also the day when people
remember the babies that were killed on the orders of King Herod when he was
trying to kill the baby Jesus.
Apart from Christmas, there is another festival that is celebrated in Spain and that is
related to the Christmas Story. It is called Epiphany and is celebrated on 6th
January. In Spanish Epiphany is called ‘Fiesta de Los tres Reyes Mages, which in
English means ‘The festival of the three Magic Kings’. Epiphany celebrates the time
when the three Kings or Wise Men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Children have
some presents on Christmas Day, but most are opened at Epiphany, and the
children believe the Kings bring presents to them at Epiphany. They write letters to
the Kings on December 26th, asking for toys and presents, and on Epiphany Eve
(January 5th) they leave shoes on windowsills or balconies or under the Christmas
tree to be filled with presents. Gifts are often left by children for the Kings, a glass of
Cognac for each King, a Satsuma and some walnuts. Sometimes a bucket of water
is left for the camels that bring the Kings! If the children have been bad, the Kings
might leave pieces of coal made out of sugar in the presents!
In Slovakia, meat is not part of the Christmas Eve dinner meal, which starts with pea
or bean soup, followed by carp with potato salad. After the presents are opened,
carols are sung until midnight when families attend a church service. Christmas day
is a round of visiting friends and on to Boxing Day then they flock to festive dances.
Much further afield in Jamaica, Christmas Eve is called Grand Market Night. Shops
stay open until midnight and are crowded until they close with last minute shoppers.
As the temperature is likely to be in the mid 70s on Christmas Day, cold meat and
salads are most favoured for the traditional meal, although there is a seasonal dish
of chicken and rice and red beans.
Wherever you are in the world at Christmas it is marked with traditions and feelings