Buon Natale! (Good Christmas)
The Christmas season in Italy begins during the Novena (the eight days preceding Christmas) and lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th). During the Novena Italian children go from house to house, reciting Christmas passages. In return for their performance they are gifted with coins, to buy themselves some candy. In rural areas of Italy, musicians dressed as shepherds, going about playing bagpipes.
The Italian Christmas is centered around the presepio, or nativity scene. The first presepio was introduced in Italy by Saint Francis of Assisi. Similar to the role of the Christmas tree, every Italian household has their own unique presipio, some of which have been handed down through many generations. Throughout Italian towns and cities large and small presepios are displayed. Great cathedrals will often feature life size figures of people and animals.
A presepio may be placed on a ceppo, a Christmas pyramid with three or four shelves, brought out specifically for the holidays. Along with the family presepio, other decorations may include the Italian flag, pine cones, puppets, and figures of angels. Small gifts may be placed on the bottom shelf. The main day for gift giving, however, is not Christmas Eve or Day, but rather the Epiphany, when Italian children eagerly await the arrival of La Befana (her name is a variation of Ephania).
According to Italian legend, La Befana was a witch living at the time of the birth of Jesus. The three wise men (also known as the three kings) were on their way to Bethlehem, when they invited La Befana to come along. She was busy with her housework and declined. Later, once she had finished her cleaning, she set off on her broomstick with toys for the Gesú Bambino (Baby Jesus). However, she could not find the Three Kings and soon lost her way. Italian children believe that La Befana is still looking for Baby Jesus, and on the eve of the Epiphany, she flies down the chimney of each house, and leaves gifts in the children’s shoes, which are left by the fireplace, just in case Baby Jesus is there.
Italian Christmas Eve
Catholic Italians follow a strict fast 24 hours leading up to Christmas Eve. The Christmas Eve feast might feature baked eel, a variety of pasta, chicken stuffed with chestnut dressing, and a Christmas cake called a panettone.
Following dinner, parents will read aloud letters written by their children. In the letters, children wish their parents a good Christmas and promise to be well behaved in the coming year. Once the letters have been read, the father burns them in the fireplace. Candles are light around the presepio and at about nine o’clock, everyone goes to church for the traditional Christmas Eve Mass.
At noon on Christmas day, crowds of people gather in Vatican Square, in Rome, for a blessing from the Pope. Children may receive gifts on Christmas Day, from either Gesú Bambino or Babbo Natale (Father Christmas),
Originally published at Suite101 History of Christmas in Italy
All images used are from the Public Domain
All Rights Reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015
Many of the Christmas traditions in Norway originate in ancient times, based on festivals of Saturnalia and other pagan holidays. However, many more modern Norwegian Christmas rituals are based on the countries new national independence and national spirit in the face of Nazi occupation during World War II.
Julestria – The Christmas Rush
Also known as Advent, Justria refers to the weeks leading up to Christmas. Originally not celebrated by most Norwegians – mainly just the clergy- following World War II, Advent (the coming of the Lord) became mainstream. People use advent wreaths and advent calendars as a way to celebrate the impending holiday.
Christmas Eve in Norway
Just as in many other European countries, Christmas Eve is a time of great feasting and merry-making for Norwegians. During Christmas Eve day, people hang a sheaf of grain, sometimes referred to as a “bird tree,” in their front yard, to share Christmas with the local animals. By four o’clock on Christmas Eve, people are dressed in their finest and the festivities begin. People eat from the Julebord, or Christmas Buffet, dining on ribbe (pork ribs), pinnekjøh (steamed mutton ribs) or sylte (headcheese). And of course there is lutefisk, a gelatinous cod dish that people either love or hate.
On Christmas Eve, Julesvenn (similar to the Danish Julnisse) brings gifts. This tradition is a holdover from the ancient Jul feast of Viking days. December 23 is known as Lillejulaften, or Little Christmas Eve, and is when most Norwegians put up their Christmas Tree. Lucky children get to open on present on Lillejulaften.
Christmas Trees in Norway
Norway ratified its first constitution in 1814, after 400 years of Danish Rule. It became fully independent in 1905, when it left a union with Sweden. Because the Norwegian independence coincided with the rising popularity of the Christmas tree (via Germany and then Great Britain) the new Norwegian flag became a popular holiday ornament, remaining so to this day.
Christmas in Norway and World War II
Norway was occupied by the Nazis for five years during World War II. During this time the Norway flag and constitutional ribbons were outlawed. However, Norwegians found ways to declare their opposition to German rule. Christmas cards printed during the Nazi occupation featured Nisse, a Christmas gnome popular since the mid 19th Century, with the Norwegian flags and captions that read God Norsk Jul – Merry Norwegian Christmas. Despite the Nazis’ attempt at destroying the cards and forbidding printers to distribute them, many of these World War II Christmas cards still exist today, a testament to a nation’s determination to reclaim its freedom.
Bevilacqua, Michelle, Brandon Toropov. The Everything Book of Christmas. Avon:
Adams Media Corporation, 1996.
Stokker, Kathleen. Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land.
St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.
Originally Published at Suite 101.
All rights reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015
Images courtesy of Public Domain
Once upon a time I wrote for this really cool site, Suite101. I did a whole series of articles about the History of Christmas in Western Europe. Suite 101 isn’t quite so cool as it used to be, so I thought I’d showcase my articles here, instead.
The central figure of Christmas in Sweden is St. Lucia, the patron saint of Light. St. Lucia’s Day on December 13 is celebrated in all of Scandinavia, but it is on a much grander scale in Sweden. Little girls dressed in white robes and special crowns of serve the family St. Lucia buns, made at Christmastime.
The Christmas tree was traditionally put up a few days before Christmas Eve. Candles, apples, Swedish flags, small gnomes with red hats and straw ornaments are all common decorations on a Swedish Christmas tree. December 26th is a day of socializing. Children’s parties are held in the afternoon, while adults parties are held later in the evening and animals are given extra food. On the Epiphany (Twelfth Night) villagers would dress up as biblical characters and sing hymns from home to home.
Originally published at Christmas in Scandinavia
All Rights Reserved (C) Lorri Brown
Images courtesy of Public Domain
Austria has several unique Christmas customs, some imported from Protestant Germany and others evolving from Catholic communities.
In Austria, Saint Nicholas, or Santaklausen, visits children on December 4th accompanied by the devil. The pair asks the children if they have been bad or good during the year. If a child confesses to misbehaving, the devil, referred to as Knect Ruprecht, tries to strike him with a stick. However, Santaklausen sends the child running before any harm befalls him or her. When they return on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th, they reward good children with mittens or other useful gifts, as well as candy, fruits and nuts.
Christmas Eve in Austria
Christmas Eve is a family affair centered around both a Christmas tree, which is decorated by parents, and a nativity scene. Some nativity scenes feature as many as 100 pieces and are treasured family heirlooms. On Christmas Eve the Christkindle brings gifts to the children, placing them under the Christmas tree. In some parts of Austria Saint Nicholas brings gifts for the boys and Saint Lucia (more commonly associated with Swedish Christmas traditions) brings the gifts for the girls. The traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Austria is often baked carp.
Most Austrian churches hold a Midnight Mass and in olden times, peasants would come down from their mountain homes in a torch lit procession. In the Tyrol region of Austria Children would set out a pan of milk for the Christ Child and his mother. A common Christmas tradition in Austria is Turmblasen, when brass instruments are played at in a church steeple or other tower, so the music can carry to all the people of the village. Another common holiday custom in Austria is “Showing the Christ Child,” where a manger is carried from house to house by people singing Christmas Carols.
December 25th and 26th (Saint Stephen’s Day) are both legal holidays in Austria. It is a time for visiting with family and friends.
Silent Night! Holy Night! (Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!)
One of the most famous Christmas carols of all time came from Austria. Silent Night was first sung in the tiny hamlet of Obernhorf in 1818. According to legend, the church organ was broken, with no hope of repair before the Christmas Eve Mass. The local priest, Josef Mohr asked his friend, Franz Gruber, to compose a tune for a short song he had written. Gruber adapted the tune for a guitar, and viola! Silent Night was born.
In 1854 the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV heard Silent Night sung at the Imperial Church in Berlin. He immediately declared that it should be the first Christmas carol sung at all Christmas concerts in Prussia.
Early Colonial settlers included the Puritans in New England to the Dutch in New Amsterdam, and the English Anglicans and Catholics in the Mid Atlantic colonies. Each of these areas celebrated (or didn’t celebrate) Christmas in their own unique way. Out of these Colonial Christmas customs came the modern Christmas traditions we know today.
How the Puritans (almost) stole Christmas
Following the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, new religious sects sprang up in England based on the strict teachings of John Calvin and John Knox. At the same the Church of England was established, giving way to a form of Protestantism that was not as strict as the other “puritan” groups. Following the rise of Oliver Cromwell and his “roundheads” in 1642, Christmas festivities, considered a “heathen practice” were outlawed, including singing Christmas carols, nativity scenes and any other obvious attempts at celebration.
Puritans arriving in Massachusetts during the 17th Century brought this same disdain for Christmas with them. While Thanksgiving was an acceptable holiday in New England, Christmas certainly was not. In 1620, Governor William Bradford forbid any of the Pilgrims to observe the holiday. Instead, he noted that they felled trees and worked on building houses. Business as usual.
Persecution of Christmas persisted through the 17th century. Caroling, games and even mince pies, considered a vulgar holiday luxury, were all outlawed. Despite its Spartan beginnings, New England did have many people who celebrated Christmas, especially as more and more settlers began arriving from Europe through the 17th and 18th Centuries. This trend is apparent in 1686 by a repeal of a 1659 law that fined people five shillings for feasting or any other perceived merriment on December 25th. Despite People’s growing acceptance of Christmas, it wasn’t made an official holiday in New England until the 1856.
The Dutch & Sinter Klass
In 1604, the Dutch East India Company sent a group of Dutch settlers to the newly established colony of New Amsterdam (now New York City). Unlike their Puritan counterparts, the Dutch Protestants celebrated Christmas with much merriment. Especially important was Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. Saint Nicholas, nicknamed Sinter Klass, was eagerly anticipated by Dutch settlers children. He arrived via a toy laden ship from the mother country just in time for his Saint Day celebration, each year. Following the take over of New Amsterdam by the British, Sinter Klass was joined by another gift bearer, the English Father Christmas. Together they gradually melded together to form our modern day Santa Clause.
Christmas in the Mid Atlantic Colonies
Unlike their northern neighbors, settlers in the mid Atlantic colonies celebrated Christmas just as they had in Merry Old England. Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) celebrated one of the earliest Christmases in Virginia by feasting on wild game, oysters and fish. As the colonies of the mid Atlantic became more established, Christmas grew more elaborate. Colonists decorated their homes with lavish greenery, held great feasts, sang carols and played games. A traditional Yule log was burned and affluent families held Christmas balls.
Other Colonial Christmas Customs
Religious persecution in Eastern Europe during the 18th Century brought an influx of immigrants from Bohemia and Moravia, who settled in what is now Bethlehem Pennsylvania and Salem, North Carolina. These groups brought several distinct Christmas customs with them, including a Putz, or nativity scene and the introduction of the first candlelight church service.
Originally posted at Suite101 Colonial Christmas Traditions
All Rights Reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015
All images courtesy of Public Domain
Sinter Klass & Father Christmas
The legend of Saint Nicholas came to the New World with the Dutch settlers in 1624, by the Dutch East India Company. Arriving in New Amsterdam, the Dutch families continued to observe Saint Nicholas Day and a ship from the Mother Country would arrive in the city port around December 5 each year, bearing gifts for the children. After Britain gained control of New Amsterdam in 1644, renaming it New York, English settlers joined the Dutch. They brought their own Christmas gift bearer, Father Christmas. By the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the two Christmas figures had blended into an early version of Santa Claus.
German settlers in Pennsylvania brought with them their Christmas gift bearer, the Christkindl. Martin Luther introduced the Christkindl in the 16th Century as a way to combat the growing celebrations of Saint Nicholas, which he thought to be inappropriate. A pretty girl garbed in white robes and a gold halo portrayed the Christkindle, or Christ Child. She doled out gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Over time, the pronunciation of Christkindle was Americanized into Kris Kringle and became another name for Saint Nicholas. Martin Luther must not have been too happy about that.
Washington Irving & Clement Moore
According to legend, the ship carrying Dutch settlers had a figure of Saint Nicholas on the prow. He was depicted smoking a long pipe and wearing a broad brimmed hat. Washington Irving later described this image in 1809, in a satirical history of New York. He described Saint Nicholas as a chubby little man with a jolly smile, drawn by a team of reindeer. This is a far cry from the tall, thin bishop of Myra, who was the real Saint Nicholas.
Irving’s description inspired Dr. Clement Moore, who is famed for his poem Twas The Night Before Christmas, first published in 1832 Indeed, the image that Irving and Moore created is much closer to the Swedish Christmas gnome Jultometen, than the original Saint Nicholas.
Thomas Nast & Santa Claus
The modern version of Saint Nicholas is often credited to Thomas Nast, who emigrated from Bavaria to the United States when he was six years old. He brought with him the memories of Pelznickle, or Furry Nicholas, a German variant of Saint Nicholas. As a way to lift the spirits of Union soldiers during the Civil War, Nast created a patriotic picture of Saint Nicholas garbed in red, white and blue. Nast drew cartoons of Saint Nicholas, now firmly called Santa Claus, each year for Harpers Weekly from 1863 to 1886. He depicted images of Santa checking off his list of good and bad children, riding across the sky in a sleigh with his eight reindeer and filling stockings by the fireplace. Nast is also credited with saying Santa lives at the North Pole. This is may have been inspired by current events, since at the time new explorations of the North Pole were underway by explorers from Russia, Britain and Scandinavia. The modern day image of Santa was established.
Originally published at Suite101 How America Invented Santa Clause
All Rights Reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015
Images Courtesy of Public Domain
In France, Christmas goes by the name of Noël. This stems from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles,which means “the good news.” This is in reference to the gospel and spreading the word of Jesus Christ’s birth. Santa clause is called Père Noël, meaning “Father Christmas.” He is dressed in old fashioned robes trimmed with fur, and carries a sack of gifts.
Gift Giving in France
Like many countries in Western Europe, the Christmas season in France begins with Saint Nicholas’ Day, December 6th. In eastern areas of France, particularly Alsace-Lorraine, parents give children their Christmas gifts on Saint Nicholas’ Day, as opposed to Christmas Day, which is reserved for religious services and a family dinner. In other parts of France, Père Noël comes bearing gifts on Christmas Eve for the good children. He places small treats and toys in the children’s shoes, which they leave by the fireplace. Adults often wait until New Years Day to exchange gifts with one another.
French Christmas Symbols
Christmas trees can be found in France, though they are not as popular as they are in Germany, Great Britain and the United States. By far the most popular Christmas symbol in France is the nativity scene, or Christmas Crèche. Introduced by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1224, the Christmas Crèche did not really catch on in popularity until the time of the Renaissance of the 16th Century.
Many regions of France also use Santons in their Christmas decorations. Translated, santons mean little saints. The small village of Aubagne, in the Provencal region of France, is considered the world capital of santons. Santons became popular during the French Revolution, when many churches were closed and larger nativity scenes were outlawed. Along with biblical figures, santons can also represent everyday people, such as a mayor, a baker, policemen or a local priest.
French Christmas Cuisine
The traditional French Christmas dinner usually takes place after the midnight mass on Christmas eve. Called le reveillon, the main dishes of this holiday dinner vary from region to region. In Alsace, goose is served as the main dish, while in Brittany buckwheat pancakes with sour cream are a featured dish. Turkey and chestnuts are popular in Burgundy, while in Paris and Il-de-France region oysters are served. Of course, no French Christmas dinner would be complete without the traditional log shaped cake, Buche de Noel.
Twelfth Night /Epiphany
In Provencal, children would go outside during Twelfth Night (the day before the Epiphany) to meet with the three kings who were on their way to give the Baby Jesus his gifts. The children would give the three kings food for themselves and their pages. In return, the kings would give the children gifts. In honor of this occasion, another popular Christmas dessert, known as the Cake of The King, was served. Decorated with designs of stars, crown, dragons and flowers, a special bean or trinket was baked inside. Whoever got the piece with the bean was “king” for the following year. Popular up until the 19th Century, the Cake of the King still graces the holiday tables in French-speaking Quebec, where old world customs are still practiced. A similar cake, simply called Kings Cake, is served in Louisiana, to mark the start of the Mardi Gras season.
Orginally posted at Suite101 History of Christmas in France
All images used are from the Public Domain
All Rights Reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015
Feliz Navidad! (Merry Christmas)
Ever since ancient times, the Spanish have celebrated the coming of winter with a unique custom, called Hogueras. Reminiscent of the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia and the Northern European tradition of a Yuletide celebration, Spaniards celebrated the Winter Solstice by jumping over a fire, as a way to protect themselves against illness in the coming year. This was especially popular in the areas of Granada and Jaeen. As Christianity gained power during the Middle Ages, Hogueras fell by the wayside, along with many other pagan customs.
Spain has a long history intertwined with the Catholic Church. The patron saint of Spain is the Virgin Mary and tribute to her is evident throughout the holiday season. In fact, the Christmas season in Spain begins on December 8th with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in her honor. Most Roman-Catholic households have some sort of image of the Virgin Mary illuminated during the holiday season.
Christmas Eve in Spain
Christmas Eve is a time for families to celebrate. They attend the traditional Christmas Eve mass, then return home for a great feast. Much like Italian Christmas traditions, families gather around the nacimiento, or nativity scene, which plays a similar role to that of the American Christmas tree. The nacimiento is similar to the French Christmas crèche, and the German Christmas kribbe. However, in Spain the nativity scene usually includes a bull, the symbol of Spain and a stream of water, where women are poised doing laundry. Other figures, reminiscent of the French Christmas tradition of santons, may include famous torreros (bullfighters) or even well known politicians. Just as in Italy, nearly every home will have their own nativity scene, towns will display large scenes, some even using real people, and animals, just as Saint Francis of Assisi did with his depiction of the first nativity in 1224.
As is common in many parts of Western Europe, Christmas Day in Spain is a quiet affair, reserved for visiting with family and religious worship.
Spanish Christmas Cuisine
Christmas Eve dinner is the biggest meal of the year in Spain and people tend to eat more extravagantly than they normally would. Lobster and other shellfish are popular at Christmastime. A fish soup often makes up one course. Main courses might be roasted lamb or suckling pig, accompanied by assorted cheeses, pates and sweets. A popular Christmas treat in Spain is turron, which is an almond nougat candy. The meal is finished with a glass of cava, a Spanish sparkling wine, and perhaps a cup of espresso or Spanish brandy.
Twelfth Day or Epiphany
Twelfth Day, also known as the Epiphany, is th
e main day for gift giving. Children eagerly await the arrival of the Three Kings, who will bring gifts. On January 5th (the eve of the Epiphany) children fill their shoes with straw, carrots and barley for the Three King’s mules. In the morning, their shoes are filled with gifts from the Three Kings. The Epiphany is also the main day for exchanging gifts among adults, as well.
Originally posted at Suite101 History of Christmas in Spain
All Rights Reserved (C) Lorri Brown 2015
All images courtesy of Public Domain