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By: Zdenko Kahlina
Christmas celebrations around the world
In various parts of the world Christmas is celebrated differently, but the Christmas tree in some form or fashion is quite popular. Here I am examining differences and similarities.
I will start with the picture of my family traditional Christmas tree:
Canada and the United States – According to the University of Illinois’ web site German settlers migrated from the United States to Canada in the 1700’s. One of the many cherished Christmas traditions they took with them was the Christmas tree.
Traditional U.S. Christmas Greeting: Merry Christmas
Santa Claus lives in the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and countless elves who make toys in an enchanted workshop. On Christmas Eve, Santa is whisked through the skies in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Children across the United States hang stockings from the fireplace with the hope that Santa will fill them with treats. If they’ve misbehaved, they may receive lumps of coal, instead. Many homes are decorated with a real or artificial Christmas tree (under which additional gifts are placed), plus lights and illuminated decorations outside. On Christmas morning, children wake early, eager to unwrap the gifts Santa has left.
Christmas trees in the United States aren’t typically decorated with U.S. flags, but volunteers took that liberty with this tree at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
The main Christmas tree in the rotunda of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is 45 feet tall and decorated with ornaments representing the museum’s iconic exhibits — The Coal Mine, Take Flight, The Chick Hatchery, The Pioneer Zephyr — and more than 25,000 lights
Croatia - Traditional Croatian Christmas Greeting: Sretan Bozic
On St. Nicholas Eve (Dec. 5), Croatian children leave out freshly polished boots or shoes. Good children’s boots are filled with treats. St. Lucia Day is celebrated on Dec. 13. The female head of household plants wheat grains in a dish. By Christmas Eve, the grain has sprouted and is tied with ribbon of red, white and blue, the colors of the Croatian flag. Many Croatians abstain from meat on Christmas Eve – Badnjak – and enjoy an array of sumptuous fish dishes.
Croatians decorate their trees with intricately decorated honey-spice cookies among other ornaments.
Traditional Czech Christmas Greeting: Vesele Vanoce
In the Czech Republic, St. Nicholas Eve is celebrated Dec. 5, when the saint, accompanied by a good and bad angel, visits children, bringing gifts to those who have behaved. On Christmas Eve, families gather to enjoy a feast featuring baked carp and kuba (a barley, mushroom, onion casserole). Many Czechs fast the 24 hours before Christmas Eve. One tradition holds that those who abide by the fast may be lucky and witness a magical golden pig “dancing” on the wall!
Traditional Hungarian Christmas Greeting: Boldog Kuraskony
St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, is an important winter holiday in Hungary. Children leave their boots or shoes out to be filled with goodies — especially chocolate in red wrappings — by Mikulas (St. Nicholas). A devilish creature with a switch accompanies the saint, punishing those who have misbehaved.
The holiday season starts with Advent in Hungary. Advent wreaths can be seen in stores, schools, offices, and in almost every home. Candles are decorated with red and gold ribbons symbolizing life and brightness. Most children get Advent calendars with a small gift or candy for every day before Christmas. Christmas trees are decorated on Christmas Eve by the family who stays at home to wait for the birth of Christ.
Traditional Lithuanian Christmas Greeting: Linksmu Kaledu
Before Christmas Eve, Lithuanian homes are cleaned from top to bottom, including fresh bed linens and baths for everyone. Kucios (or the Christmas Eve feast) includes nine to 12 meatless courses. Straw is placed beneath the tablecloth to symbolize the manger where Christ was born.
Traditional Polish Christmas Greeting: Wesolych Swiat
In Poland, Christmas Eve is known as Wigilia. Early in the evening, family members share the oplatek or Christmas wafer. Poles wait for the first star to appear in the sky before sitting down to dinner. The meatless meal may be either a 12-course feast to symbolize the 12 apostles or includes seven dishes representing the seven sacraments. With full stomachs, families share the oplatek with friends and neighbors. Livestock and pets are included in the sharing because they witnessed Christ’s birth in the manger.
In Bulgaria, Christmas celebrations begin Dec. 20, a day called Ignazhden in honor of St. Ignatius, and run through Dec. 27. The season’s highlight is Christmas Eve with a feast of nine, 11, 13, or more vegetarian dishes! It is believed that the more bountiful the table, the more abundant the next harvest.
Traditional Russian Christmas Greeting: Vesyoloye Rozhdyestvo
Long ago, Russian children would dress as barn animals and sing kolyadki (carols) to neighbors, receiving treats in return. The tradition is still observed in some parts of Russia. From 1917 (the Russian Revolution) until the early 1990s, Christmas was replaced with a nonreligious winter festival. Today, Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar with Christmas taking place on Jan. 7.
Photo Closeup of Russian Christmas Tree Decorations
After the 1917 Communist revolution, the Christmas tree was banned in Russia because it was seen as a religious symbol. New Year’s Day became the most important holiday. The fir tree made a comeback in 1935 when Stalin allowed it as a centerpiece for New Year’s parties. But only recently has the tree made an appearance in the Kremlin around Christmas time
Traditional Slovak Christmas Greeting: Vesele Vianoce
For Roman Catholics, the holiday season in Slovakia begins with the first day of Advent and the feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, and continues through Three Kings Day on Jan. 6. Slovakia’s foremost celebration takes place on Christmas Eve (Vilija). The Vilija meal starts with oplatka (a wafer coated with honey and eaten with a clove of garlic). Orthodox Chrisians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.
Traditional Slovenian Christmas Greeting: Vesel (or Srecen) Bozic
On St. Nicholas Day, the saint visits children with mischievous elves (parklji) who scare those who have misbehaved during the year. Slovenian families create small pine and ribbon Advent wreaths. Each week leading up to Christmas, one blue or white candle is lit. They also bake potica, a traditional raisin nut bread enjoyed especially during the holidays.
In the past, Slovenian homes were usually decorated with boughs of evergreens and a fir tree was hung upside down from the rafters, sometimes decorated with apples, nuts and cookies. The Christmas tree as it is known today started to appear after World War I, decorated with chains, flowers and wreaths made of colored paper, apples, walnuts and hazelnuts. Straw braids decorated with beans and corn were hung up throughout the house.
Britain – Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband, put up a Christmas tree in the Windsor Castle in 1848 and soon the tradition there became widespread.
Greenland – The tree does not grow in Greenland so is imported and then decorated with candles and bright ornaments.
Guatemala – Because of the large German population residing in Guatemala the Christmas tree has become tradition here along with the “Nacimiento” or Nativity Scene. Although gifts are placed under the tree on Christmas Eve for the children, parents and adults do not exchange theirs until New Year’s Day.
Finland – From early accounts we can establish that in 1829 Helsinki nobleman; Baron Klinkowstrom had eight Christmas trees decorated in his home. The first recorded Finnish decorated outdoor Christmas tree stood in the Pietarsaari in 1905. In 1954 Helsinki donated a Christmas tree to the Belgian city of Brussels.
Brazil – In Brazil citizens are creative enough to take tiny pieces of cotton and place them on a pine tree to represent falling snow.
Ireland – Throughout December trees are purchased and decorated with brightly colored lights, tinsel and baubles. The top is usually reserved for either a star or an angel.
Sweden – Although the trees are purchased well before Christmas they are generally not taken inside until just days prior to Christmas and then the Evergreen tree is decorated with stars, sunbursts and snowflakes made from straw. The straw is thought to bring luck for good crops, and there is one other difference with the Christmas tree celebration in Sweden, according to http://www.pickyourownchristmastree.org/global.php the tree must stay up until precisely 12 days after Christmas. At this site there is a wealth of information regarding choosing and caring for your Christmas tree. This site also offers a variety of Christmas tree farms, hayrides, sleigh rides, holiday recipes, and various other winter fun.
Ukraine – Fir trees are decorated and parties enjoyed, with Christmas being a very popular time of the year. According to the book “A Christmas Treasury”2000, “every Christmas tree has a spider and a web for good luck.” The story is that long ago a poor woman had nothing to put on the tree for children. When they awoke on Christmas morning the tree glistened with spider’s webs that had turned silver in the rising sun.
Traditional Ukrainian Christmas Greeting: Chrystos Razhdayetsya
A Ukrainian Christmas Eve includes a 12-course meatless dinner with kutia (a sweet wheat pudding), borscht (soup), fish, crepes, varenyky (dumplings), holubtsi (cabbage rolls) and stewed fruit. A stalk of wheat called didukh, a symbol of the harvest and homage to ancestors, often decorates the table.
Czechoslovakia – Trees are decorated with intricately carved designs on egg shells.
Italy – Miniature carvings of the Holy family are placed in a wooden triangle. This is beautifully decorated with colored paper, gilt pine cones, candles, and miniature colored flags or pennants. Small gifts are placed on the shelves above the manger, and a star or miniature doll may be found at the peek. This wooden pyramid may be several feet high and is built in the tradition of the Christmas tree. It is called a ceppo, and in some homes each child has their own.
Germany – It is believed that long ago Martin Luther brought a fir tree into his home to celebrate Christmas when he was inspired by watching the star light shining through a fir tree. Because he found the beauty so remarkable, he cut the tree down and took it home to share with his wife. He then decorated the tree to resemble the beautiful sight he had seen in the Christmas sky.
There is another legend regarding the origination of the Christmas tree. This legend believes the Germans combined two customs which were practiced in different areas of the world. One referred to the “Paradise tree” which was decorated to resemble the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. This was a fir tree decorated with apples. The second tradition was a decorated triangular shaped frame. It was decorated with glass balls, tinsel and candle topped it.
The Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) is laden down with Christmas delights such as cookies, nuts and various gifts, along with ornaments, lights and tinsel, and generally secretly decorated by the mother.
Saudi Arabia – According to the information obtained here, Christmas trees are generally hid and Christmas, if celebrated, is celebrated in private.
Philippines – The cost of pine trees here is somewhat cost prohibitive, but handmade trees in a large array of sizes and colors are used for celebrating Christmas. Tassels are placed on the points of the tree to represent the Star of the Bethlehem. Trees are also decorated with rice paper or cellophane.
China - the Christmas tree is referred to as a “tree of light” and decorated with spangles, paper chains, flowers, and lanterns.
Japan – Here Christmas trees are highly decorated with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, lanterns, gold paper fans, miniature candles, origami swans (or a folded “bird of peace”), and wind chimes. The origami swan is exchanged as a pledge that war must never happen again.
While there are many documented traditions involving Christmas trees and the celebration of Christmas around the world it is almost certain that there are just as many undocumented traditions. Whether your family makes a trip to a Christmas tree farm and carefully selects one and brings it home to decorate or chooses to decorate an artificial one which you have carefully stored from the previous year is not as important as what is on your hearts and minds as you celebrate the birth of the Christ child this year.
Making and taking the time to decorate the tree as a family creates special family memories and traditions that can be shared with your family for years to come. If you ask each family member this year to share cherished thoughts of years gone by, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that it is not the expensive gifts but the times shared. This time of year can bring families closer together, if we do not let the commercial side of it become overwhelming.
What’s really interesting at the end is the real meaning of the 12 days of Christmas – I didn’t know that…
Have a good and healthy season.
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