Monday, December 07, 2015

Christmas Around the World

Well, turkeys and leftovers have been consumed, the 'big parade' is over, the man in the Red Suit and his gigantic balloons having traversed the Great White Way in NYC and Black Friday and Cyber Monday have been survived. That means we are now in the full swing of the Christmas Holiday Season. I hope that you and yours are planning something special to celebrate the holidays. With that in mind, and owing to the fact that Kitchen Rap is visited by many visitors from countries around the world, I thought it only appropriate to give you all a taste of the what and how of Christmas as it is celebrated in some places around the globe.

Starting with Australia, (yes, I'm going alphabetically), Australians truly are a fun group; full of merriment, mirth and always with mischievous twinkle in their eye. They love life, live it with gusto and work hard to enjoy it. Christmas is special to the majority of Australians for it is their Summer Holiday season and students especially, are 'wrapping' up their school year. For the majority of Australian students this means Sun, Surf and Shopping!

Up until about 30 years ago, Australian Christmas celebrations were heavily influenced by their original Anglo-Celtic influences. The English style of Christmas served as the model for celebrating Christmas, right down to the traditional roast turkey and steamed pudding . Today with the huge influx of overseas migrants, Christmas celebrations are heavily influenced by the ethnicity of the families involved. Common sense is prevailing today, in terms of weather and the season. Traditional dinners have been replaced with family gatherings in back yards, (another shrimp on the Barbie?) picnics in parks, gardens and on the beach. For many, it is the occasion to be with friends and relatives, to share love and friendship and last but not least, the exchange of gifts in the traditional manner. It is also, of course, a time to enjoy and consume massive quantities of food. A typical Christmas menu could include seafood, glazed ham, cold chicken, duck or turkey, cold deli meats, pasta, salads galore, desserts of all types, fruit salad, pavlovas, ice-cream plus Christmas edibles of all varieties such as mince pies, fruitcake, shortbread, chocolates, etc.

There has been a suggestion that 'Swag Man' take over Santa's franchise Down Under!!! There is a lot of concern about Santa Claus perhaps suffering heat stroke whilst traversing the Outback. Swag Man, wears a brown Akubra, a blue singlet and long baggy shorts. He spends all winter under Uluru with his merry dingoes and then at Christmas-time, he gets in his huge four-wheel drive and sets off through the red dust to deliver his presents. At least that's how the legend is told. The first official Christmas Down Under was celebrated in 1788 at Sydney Cove by Reverend Johnson. After the service, Governor Arthur Phillips and his officers dined heartily, toasting the King of England and his family. They have yet to follow the American ritual of getting "real" Christmas trees, though some do use gum tree branches. Children are learning Christmas Carols so that they may be sung at festive occasions such as public "Carols by Candlelight" and school concerts. Christmas stockings are being hung in homes, though fireplaces are in short supply. It must also be mentioned that with all the glitter, tinsel and razzamatazz, Australians consider Christmas a time for remembering the true spiritual meaning. For most, Christmas will begin with families attending a midnight mass. After the midnight Mass, a little sleep is attempted. Usually,children in various households, wake up the family at dawn. Gifts are unwrapped and the joy of Christmas begins.

British Isles
Many of our current American ideals about the way Christmas ought to be celebrated derive from the English Victorian Christmas, such as that described in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Caroling, gifts, the feast and the wishing of good cheer to all, these are ingredients that came together to create that special Christmas atmosphere. The custom of gift giving on Christmas dates only to Victorian times. Before then it was more common to exchange gifts on New Year's Day or Twelfth Night. Santa Claus is known by British children as Father Christmas. Father Christmas, these days, is quite similar to the American Santa, but his direct ancestor is a certain pagan spirit who regularly appeared in medieval Mummer's plays. The old-fashioned Father Christmas was depicted wearing long robes with sprigs of holly in his long white hair. Children write letters to Father Christmas detailing their requests, but instead of dropping them in the mailbox, the letters are tossed into the fireplace. The draft carries the letters up the chimney, and theoretically, Father Christmas reads the smoke. Gifts are opened Christmas afternoon.

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. The coins would have fallen through the ash grate and been lost if they hadn't 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. The custom of singing carols at Christmas is also of English origin. During the middle ages, groups of serenaders called waits, would travel around from house to house singing ancient carols and spreading the holiday spirit. The word carol means: song of joy. Most of the popular old carols we sing today were written in the nineteenth century. The hanging of greens, such as holly and ivy, is a British winter tradition with origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was probably used to lift sagging winter spirits and remind the people that spring was not far away. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is descended from ancient Druid rites. The decorating of Christmas trees, though primarily a German custom, has been widely popular in England since 1841 when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle for his wife, Queen Victoria, and their children.


In Canada, from 1875 onwards, Christmas lost its essentially religious character, at least for Anglophones and the upper middle class. Little by little it became a community festival which gave rise to much family merry-making. New customs began to take root. Henceforth, the decorated Christmas tree, gifts and the Christmas reveillon (waking up) became part of family tradition.

Canadians decorate a pine tree with ornaments representing Christmas, buy or make each other presents that get wrapped in wrapping paper to be put under the tree so they can be opened on Christmas Day. Santa Claus is the person who brings the presents. On Christmas Eve, December 24th, there is usually a turkey dinner and in the middle of the night, Santa Claus is said to come down the chimney and place the presents under the tree. Then he goes back up the chimney (he is magic after all) and flies to the next house in his sleigh with nine reindeer pulling it through the air. On Christmas Day, all the presents are opened.

Noël à Québec 
Francophones, however, incorporated these new practices into their culture much later. After the First World War, increasing commercial advertising drew Francophones into the festive activities. During the 1930s, the working classes also joined this happy Christmas rush. In Quebec, which is the French-speaking part of Canada, Christmas is celebrated by putting up a big Christmas tree, sometime before Christmas. Many people also put a Christmas tree outside with colored lights. Most people eat turkey for their Christmas dinner, but in the old days, people used to eat Tourtire, a sort of stew made of a layer of meat, a layer of potatoes, a layer of onions, another layer of meat, potatoes, onions and so on. A layer of pastry goes on top to cover and then you cook it for a long time. Christmas dinner is called Reveillon and it is eaten when people come back from midnight mass, maybe at two o'clock in the morning. In Quebec the end of Christmas is called La fete du Roi (on the 6th of January). For this you make a cake which has a bean inside it. The person who gets the bean is the king (or queen).

The Christmas feast, in Denmark, is celebrated at midnight Christmas Eve. Everyone looks forward to dessert when a special rice pudding is served in which a single almond is hidden. Whoever finds the almond will have good luck for the coming year.

The jolly bringer of gifts is known as Julemanden and arrives in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, a sack over his back.

He is assisted with his Yuletide chores by elves called Juul Nisse, who are said to live in attics. Children leave out saucers of milk or rice pudding for them and are delighted to find the food gone on Christmas morning.

Nearly every French home at Christmas-time displays a Nativity scene or creche, which serves as the focus for the Christmas celebration. The creche is often peopled with little clay figures called santons or 'little saints.' An extensive tradition has evolved around these little figures, which are made by craftsmen in the south of France throughout the year. In addition to the usual Holy Family, Shepherds and Magi, the craftsmen also produce figures in the form of local dignitaries and characters. The craftsmanship involved in creating the gaily colored santons is quite astounding and the molds have been passed from generation to generation since the seventeenth century. Throughout December the figures are sold at annual Christmas fairs in Marseille and Aix.

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 Noel, 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 reveillion. Le reveillon 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 Pere Fouettard. Pere 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.

Christians in India decorate mango or banana trees at Christmas-time. Sometimes they also decorate their houses with mango leaves. In some parts of India, small clay oil-burning lamps are used as Christmas decorations; they are placed on the edges of flat roofs and on the tops of walls. Churches are decorated with poinsettias and lit with candles for the Christmas evening service.


Nollaig Shona Duit ('Happy Christmas' in Gaelic) St. Stephen's Day is celebrated in Ireland in a different way, but is similar to Boxing Day (England) in that it also has to do with the solicitation of money. Young men is extravagant dress, sometimes wearing masks, parade noisily through the streets in the Wren Boys' Procession.
They carry long pole on top of which is attached a holly bush. The bush supposedly contains a captured wren, and for whose sake the young men beg for money. The lighting of candles in Ireland also has a religious significance. Some people would light candles (or one large candle) to signify symbolic hospitality for Mary and Joseph. The candle was a way of saying there was room for Jesus' parents in these homes even if there was none in Bethlehem. Some people even set extra places at their tables as a preparation for unexpected visitors. Irish women bake a seed cake for each person in the house. They also make three puddings, one for each day of the Epiphany such as Christmas, New Year's Day and Twelfth Night.

The popularity of the Nativity scene, one of the most beloved and enduring symbols of the holiday season, originated in Italy. 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. The creation of the figures or pastori became an entire genre of folk art.

In Rome, cannons are fired from Castel St. Angelo on Christmas Eve to announce the beginning of the holiday season. A 24-hour fast ends with an elaborate Christmas feast. The main exchange of gifts takes place on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, the celebration 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. 

Christmas was introduced in Japan by the Christian missionaries and for many years, the only people who celebrated it were those who had turned to the Christian faith. But now the Christmas season in Japan is full of meaning and is almost universally observed. The idea of exchanging gifts seems to appeal strongly to the Japanese people.The tradesmen have commercialized Christmas just as our western shops have done. For several weeks before the day, the stores shout Christmas. There are decorations and wonderful displays of appropriate gifts for men, women, and children, especially children. Many western customs in observing Christmas have been adopted by the Japanese as well. Besides exchanging gifts, they eat turkey on Christmas Day and in some places, there are even community Christmas trees. They decorate their houses with evergreens and mistletoe and in some homes, Christmas carols are sung. In Japan, there is a god or priest known as Hoteiosho, who closely resembles our Santa Claus. He is always pictured as a kind old man carrying a huge pack. He is thought to have eyes in the back of his head. It is well for the children to be good when this all-seeing gentleman is about.

An editors aside: New Year's Day is the most important day of the whole calendar in Japan. On New Year's Eve the houses are cleaned thoroughly from top to bottom and are decorated for the morrow. When everything has been made clean and neat, the people of the house dress themselves in their finest clothes. Then the father of the household marches through the house, followed by all the family and drives the evil spirits out by throwing dried beans into every corner, bidding the evil spirits to withdraw and good luck to enter.

Like the other Scandinavian countries, Norway has its gift-bearing little gnome or elf. Known as Julebukk or 'Christmas Buck,' he appears as a goat-like creature. Julebukk harkens back to Viking times when pagans worshiped Thor and his goat. During pagan celebrations, a person dressed in a goatskin, carrying a goat head, would burst in upon the party and during the course of evening would 'die,' then return to life. During the early Christian era, the goat began to take the form of the devil and would appear during times of wild merry-making and jubilation. By the end of the Middle Ages, the game was forbidden by the Church and the state. In more recent times the goat has emerged in the tamer form of Julebukk. In Norway, most everyone has either a spruce or a pine tree in their living room, decorated with white lights, tinsel, Norwegian flags and other ornaments for Christmas. The children make paper baskets of shiny, colored paper and the baskets can be filled with candy or nuts. Chains made of colored paper are also very popular. Colored lighting is becoming popular, but the white lights are still the norm, as they are more like the candles they are supposed to represent. Christmas trees became common in Norway from around 1900. Norwegians are very close to the North Pole, and they strongly hope for the magic of snow for the holidays! Christmas in Norway begins with the Saint Lucia ceremony on December 13th. At the crack of dawn, the youngest daughter from each family puts on a white robe with a sash, a crown with evergreens and tall-lighted candles and accompanied by the other children, the boys dressed as star boys in long white shirts and pointed hats. They wake their parents and serve them coffee and Lucia buns, lussekatter. The custom goes back to a Christian virgin, Lucia, martyred for her beliefs at Syracuse in the fourth century. The Saint Lucia ceremony is fairly recent, but it represents the traditional thanksgiving for the return of the sun.

St. Nicholas is especially popular in Russia. The legend is that the 11th-century Prince Vladimir traveled to Constantinople to be baptized, and returned with stories of miracles performed by St. Nicholas of Myra. Since then, many Eastern Orthodox Churches have been named for the saint and to this day, Nicholas is one of the most common names for Russian boys. The feast of St. Nicholas,  December 6th was observed for many centuries, but after the Communist Revolution, the celebration of the feast was suppressed. During the communist years, St. Nicholas was transformed into Grandfather Frost. Other religious traditions were suppressed during the communist era as well. Before the revolution, a figure called Babouschka would bring gifts for the children. Like Italy's La Befana, the story is that Babouschka failed to give food and shelter to the three wise men during their journey to visit the Christ Child. According to tradition, she still roams the countryside searching for the Christ Child and visiting the homes of children during the Christmas season. Babouschka never completely disappeared, and now in the post-communist era, has returned openly. Christmas trees were also banned by the Communist regime, but people continued to trim their "New Year's" trees.

Most Christian Russians belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and it is customary to fast until after the first church service on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve dinner is meatless but festive. The most important ingredient is a special porridge called kutya. It is made of wheat berries or other grains which symbolize hope and immortality, honey and poppy seeds which ensure happiness, success, and untroubled rest. A ceremony involving the blessing of the home is frequently observed. A priest visits the home accompanied by boys carrying vessels of holy water, and a little water is sprinkled in each room. The kutya is eaten from a common dish to symbolize unity.

Christmas is a deeply religious holiday in Spain. The country's patron saint is the Virgin Mary and the Christmas season officially begins December 8th, 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 28th 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. 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.

A tinkling of a silver bell heralds the arrival of Christkindli, a white clad angel, with a face veil held in place by a jeweled crown. The tree candles are lit as she enters each house and hands out presents from the basket held by her child helpers. The week before Christmas, children dress up and visit homes with small gifts. Bell ringing has become a tradition, and each village competes with the next when calling people to midnight mass. After the service, families gather to share huge homemade doughnuts called ringli and hot chocolate.

The Chlausjagen Festival or Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated at dusk on December 6th with a procession of 'lifeltrager,' wearing gigantic illuminated lanterns in the shape of a Bishop's mitre on their heads. All throughout the holiday season, the Star Singers or Sternsingers dressed as the Three Kings parade through the streets of cities and towns singingChristmas songs. In Zurich, Santa visits in a special fairytale tram and gives the children a ride through the city, singing songs with them and sharing a basket full of sweets. The Swiss wait for the Christ child called Christkindli, to arrive with gifts for all in his reindeer-drawn sleigh.

While I could not bring you every country around the globe, I hope that you enjoyed this tour of "Christmas Around the World". My wish for you, whatever your specific holiday traditions, or wherever this celebratory time of year may find you, is that you be healthy, happy and surrounded by those you love.

Bon Appetit and Happy Holiday's