Merry Christmas


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European Christmas


The feast of St Nicholas marks the beginning of Christmas in Austria. The saint accompanied by the devil asks children for a list of their good and bad deeds. Good children are given sweets, toys and nuts. Gifts that are placed under the tree are opened after dinner on Christmas Eve.

Brass instruments play chorale music room church steeples, and carol singers, carrying blazing torches and a manger from house to house, gather on the church steps.

Silent Night was first sung in 1818, in the village church of Oberndorf. There is a story told of how Christmas was almost spoiled for the villagers that year.

On Christmas Eve, the priest went into the church and found that the organ was not working. The leather bellows that are used to pump the air through the pipes were full of holes. Christmas without music would not do so the priest showed the organist Franz Bauer a new Christmas hymn he had written. Franz quickly composed a tune for it that could be played on a guitar. So Oberndorf had music after all.

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In Belgium there are two santa claus figures. There is St. Nicholas and Pere Noel

St Nicholas visits those who speak the Waloon language, in fact he visits them twice. The first time is on the December 4th he does this so he can find out which children have been good and which children have been bad. If a child is good he returns on December 6th with the presents the good children deserve if they were bad they are left twigs. The good children usually received candy and toys. With the bad children he leaves the twigs inside their shoes or in small baskets that are left just inside the doorway.

Pere Noel visits those who speak french. He visits with his companion Pere Fouettard and asks about whether the children have been good or bad. If they have been good they receive chocolates and candies if they have been bad they are more likely to receive a handful of sticks.

Christmas for both gift-givers is on December 6th, the feast of St Nicholas, it is a religious occasion and is observed with services in churches and quiet family gatherings. Special cakes are baked and served during the holiday season and are a treat for children and adults.

On Christmas Eve (le réveillion de Noël), a special meal is common. It starts with a drink (apéritif) and 'nibbles', followed by a 'starter' course such as sea-food, and then stuffed turkey. The dessert is 'la bûche de Noël, ('Christmas log') - cake made with cream. Small family presents are given at Christmas too, under the tree, or in stockings near the fire-place, to be found in the morning. Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread called 'cougnou' or 'cougnolle' - the shape is supposed to be like baby Jesus. Some families will have another big meal on Christmas day.

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Christmas Eve is as important as Christmas day in Bulgaria. A special diner, consisting of at least twelve dishes is prepared. All of them are without meat and each of them represents a separate month of the year; in this way if the dishes are more that twelve the people from the house have what to eat during the whole year. The dishes consist of beans, different kinds of nuts, dried plums, cakes, and the traditional for our country Banitza. On this day the whole family gathers, eat on straw and get off the table in the same time.

In the past Christmas was celebrated differently. There were boys and non-married young men who were visiting the houses, singing songs for wealth and health for the hosts. They were rewarded with money, food and so on. They were bringing long sticks to put kravai (round breads with hole it). They were called Rkoledaris. In the houses the families gathered sitting on the ground or on dry grass and eating meatless food. There were 7 or 12 meals: wine, Rakia , sarmy and so on. There always was a huge round bread where all the cattle, the house and things like that were carved.

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Each Sunday in Advent, guests are invited to join in the lighting of the candles on the Advent crown. Adults drink a warming mixture of red wine, spices and raisins, and children drink a sweet fruit juice, like strawberry. Everybody eats small cakes of batter which have been cooked over the fire in a special pan, and dusted with icing sugar.

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Most people in Scandinavian countries honor St. Lucia (also known as St. Lucy) each year on December 13. The celebration of St. Lucia Day began in Sweden, but had spread to Denmark and Finland by the mid-19th century. In these countries, the holiday is considered the beginning of the Christmas season and, as such, is sometimes referred to as "little Yule." Traditionally, the oldest daughter in each family rises early and wakes each of her family members, dressed in a long, white gown with a red sash, and wearing a crown made of twigs with nine lighted candles. For the day, she is called "Lussi" or "Lussibruden (Lucy bride)." The family then eats breakfast in a room lighted with candles.

Any shooting or fishing done on St. Lucia Day was done by torchlight, and people brightly illuminated their homes. At night, men, women, and children would carry torches in a parade. The night would end when everyone threw their torches onto a large pile of straw, creating a huge bonfire. In Finland today, one girl is chosen to serve as the national Lucia and she is honored in a parade in which she is surrounded by torchbearers.

Light is a main theme of St. Lucia Day, as her name, which is derived from the Latin word lux, means light. Her feast day is celebrated near the shortest day of the year, when the sun's light again begins to strengthen. Lucia lived in Syracuse during the fourth century when persecution of Christians was common. Unfortunately, most of her story has been lost over the years. According to one common legend, Lucia lost her eyes while being tortured by a Diocletian for her Christian beliefs. Others say she may have plucked her own eyes out to protest the poor treatment of Christians. Lucia is the patron saint of the blind.

Christmas Eve is also a very important day. A special Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve - ham (pork), herring fish, and brown beans - and this is the time when families give presents to each other. Many people attend a church meeting early on Christmas Day.

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Finnish people believe that Father Christmas (Santa Claus) lives in the north part of Finland called Korvatunturi, north of the Arctic Circle. People from all over the world send letters to Santa Claus in Finland. (It is only fair to say that the people of Greenland say that really, Father Christmas lives in Greenland!) There is a even big tourist theme park called 'Christmas Land' in the north of Finland, near to where they say that Father Christmas lives.

Everyone cleans their houses ready for the three holy days of Christmas - Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Christmas Eve is very special, when people eat rice porridge and plum fruit juice in the morning. They will then decorate a spruce tree in the home. At mid-day, the 'peace of Christmas' is broadcast on radio and TV from the Finnish city of Turku by its Mayor. In the evening, a traditional Christmas dinner is eaten. The meal will include 'casseroles' containg macaroni, rutabaga, carrot and potato, with cooked ham or turkey. Many families will visit cemeteries and grave-yards to place a candle onto the burial graves of family members. Cemeteries are very beautiful at Christmas-time.

Many Finns visit the sauna on Christmas Eve. Families gather and listen to the national "Peace of Christmas" radio broadcast. Children receive their presents on Christmas Eve, usually with a family member dressing as Father Christmas. As children grow older, they come to realise that 'Father Christmas' is really a bigger brother, sister or family member.

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Norway is the birthplace of the Yule log. The ancient Norse used the Yule log in their celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice. "Yule" came from the Norse word hweol, meaning wheel. The Norse believed that the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and then away from the earth. Ever wonder why the family fireplace is such a central part of the typical Christmas scene? This tradition dates back to the Norse Yule log. It is probably also responsible for the popularity of log-shaped cheese, cakes, and desserts during the holidays.

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Decorating evergreen trees had always been a part of the German winter solstice tradition. The first "Christmas trees" explicitly decorated and named after the Christian holiday, appeared in Strasbourg, in Alsace in the beginning of the 17th century. After 1750, Christmas trees began showing up in other parts of Germany, and even more so after 1771, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Strasbourg and promptly included a Christmas tree is his novel, The Suffering of Young Werther. In the 1820s, the first German immigrants decorated Christmas trees in Pennsylvania. After Germany's Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, he introduced the Christmas tree tradition to England. In 1848, the first American newspaper carried a picture of a Christmas tree and the custom spread to nearly every home in just a few years.

Germans love to decorate their houses at Christmas. Many houses will have little wooden frames holding electric candles in their windows, and coloured pictures of paper or plastic which look beautiful from the outside at night. Often too, they will have an 'Adventskranz' - a wreath of leaves with four candles. (Advent - meaning 'coming' - is the 4 week period before Christmas). On each Sunday of Advent, another candle is lit. Most homes will also have little wooden 'cribs' - a small model of the stable where Jesus was born, with Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and animals.

Father Christmas - 'Der Weihnachtsmann' - brings presents in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve (December 24th), after people have been to a church meeting. The presents are then found under the Christmas tree. One person in the family will ring a bell and call everyone to come to the room. On Christmas Day, fish (carp) or goose will be cooked.

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Latvians believe that Father Christmas brings presents on each of the 12 days of Christmas starting on Christmas Eve. Usually the presents are put under the family Christmas tree. (What a good idea to spread Christmas out longer!)

The special Latvian Christmas Day meal is cooked brown peas with bacon (pork) sauce, small pies, cabbage and sausage.

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People pretend that Father Christmas brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. The presents are left under the Christmas tree or in shoes by the fireplace. A special Christmas meal of salted dry cod-fish with boiled potatoes is eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve.

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An Englishman named John Calcott Horsley helped to popularize the tradition of sending Christmas greeting cards when he began producing small cards featuring festive scenes and a pre-written holiday greeting in the late 1830s. Newly efficient post offices in England and the United States made the cards nearly overnight sensations. At about the same time, similar cards were being made by R.H. Pease, the first American card maker, in Albany, New York, and Louis Prang, a German who immigrated to America in 1850.

Celtic and Teutonic peoples had long considered mistletoe to have magic powers. It was said to have the ability to heal wounds and increase fertility. Celts hung mistletoe in their homes in order to bring themselves good luck and ward off evil spirits. During holidays in the Victorian era, the English would hang sprigs of mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways. If someone was found standing under the mistletoe, they would be kissed by someone else in the room, behavior not usually demonstrated in Victorian society.

Plum pudding is an English dish dating back to the Middle Ages. Suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts, and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are "plum," meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. It is then unwrapped, sliced like cake, and topped with cream.

Caroling also began in England. Wandering musicians would travel from town to town visiting castles and homes of the rich. In return for their performance, the musicians hoped to receive a hot meal or money.

In the United States and England, children hang stockings on their bedpost or near a fireplace on Christmas Eve, hoping that it will be filled with treats while they sleep. In Scandinavia, similar-minded children leave their shoes on the hearth. This tradition can be traced to legends about Saint Nicholas. One legend tells of three poor sisters who could not marry because they had no money for a dowry. To save them from being sold by their father, St. Nick left each of the three sisters gifts of gold coins. One went down the chimney and landed in a pair of shoes that had been left on the hearth. Another went into a window and into a pair of stockings left hanging by the fire to dry.

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In France, Christmas is always called 'Noël. Everyone has a Christmas tree, sometimes decorated in the old way with red ribbons and real white wax candles. Fir trees in the garden are often decorated too, with lights on all night.

Father Christmas is called Père Noël. The Christmas meal is an important family gathering with good meat and the best wine. Not everyone sends Christmas cards.

On Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Pere Noel. In the morning they also find that sweets, fruit, nuts and small toys have been hung on the tree.

In cathedral squares, the story of Christ's birth is re-enacted by both players and puppets.

In Southern France, a log is burned in people's homes from Christmas Eve until New Years Day. A long time ago, part of the log was used to make the wedge for the plough as good luck for the coming harvest.

The traditional Christmas is a chocolate log.

In France families used to have a Three Kings Cake with a bean hidden in it. Whoever found the bean in their slice was made King, or Queen, for the day.

In France the children go out to look for the Kings, taking gifts of hay for the camels.

Another name for this day is Twelfth Day. It is the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which used to be one long holiday. It was the last night of the Feast of Fools before the Lord of Misrule had to give up his crown and become themselves once again.

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Most homes have a manger, like cathedrals and churches. These are complete with carved figures.

During the weeke before Christmas, families gather around their manger to sing, whilst children play tambourines and dance.

Shoes are placed on balconies on the night of the 6th January in the hope that the Wise Men will fill them with gifts.

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Christmas in SwitzerlandAs you search your Christmas stocking to see if Santa Claus left you a treat of some delicious chocolate from Switzerland, you may want to reflect upon some other facets of the holiday season in the tiny Alpine county.

On December 5, which is the eve of St. Nichola´s Day, the tiny village of Kussnacht, located on the shores of Lake Lucerne, glows with the light of nearly two hundred enormous, transparent bishop´s miters worn by a group of men parading through the streets. The headpieces, some of them six feet tall, have been artistically designed, cut out of cardboard, assembled, and lit by a candle from within. Dressed in white robes, the people wearing these elaborate miters accompany St. Nicholas on his way through the village. The streets resound with the clang of heavy bells worn around the necks of muscular men, horn blowing, and the rhythm of a brass band. One can only wonder how the miter-wearing men manage to keep the wax from dripping down into their hair and how they prevent the cardboard hat from going up in flames.

The wide variety of customs in neighboring Swiss villages reflects the centuries of isolation the people endured during the winter months when the heavy snowfalls eliminated travel between mountain valleys.

On December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, school children in Glarnerland parade through the village, ringing and jingling bells of all sizes - sometimes in rhythmic unison and sometimes in wild abandon. The bells signal the villagers that a gift is expected from each household along the way. The gifts are usually some good things to eat or drink.

While this bell ringing custom is not too unusual, it doesn´t begin to compare with the children´s parade in the town of Weinfelden. On the last Thursday before Christmas, the children in the town parade through the streets with their decorated fodder beets. These fodder beets have been hollowed out and lit from within with a beeswax candle. After singing carols in the town square, the children go to their schools where they dine on wurst and bread. At the same time, adults go the local tavern or coffeehouse, and the town council holds its annual budget meeting. Presumably, the thrifty Swiss eventually scrape the candle wax from the beets so they can be added to the animal troughs.

In the village of Ziefen, several dozen young bachelors walk along a traditional route through the streets every Christmas Eve. The tallest bachelor, dons a white beard and leads the procession while carrying a sooty rag attached to the end of a long pole. Curiosity seekers leaning from their doorways and windows risk getting more than just an eyeful of the event. Quite a few onlookers end up scrubbing chimney soot from their faces. All the young bachelors wear oversized, long, dark coats and each wears a tall, black, top hat made of cardboard. Many of these hats are more then six feet high. The procession is relatively tame compared to the wild festivities it replaced from the early nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, things are relatively quiet in the village of Hallwil where seven girls, 13 or 14-years-old, act out an ancient custom. A veiled Wienechtchind (Christmas child), dressed in white, and six companions in rose-colored garments, visit village families in the evening. The Wienechtchind greets the assembled household with a silent handshake and distributes cake or cookies to the children while the other girls sing a carol. The departure of this group is also silent.

An ancient tradition in the town of Laupen, near Bern, is not only the opposite of Hallwil´s tradition - it´s totally absurd! New Year´s Eve is the time to be there if you want to see some outrageous shenanigans. The origins of the strange customs in Laupen can be traced back to the early nineteenth century.

Originally the ceremonies took place on Christmas Eve and for years the town officials tried unsuccessfully to have them outlawed. Eventually the town priest managed to have the date changed to New Year´s Eve since it involved so much noise and rowdiness.

After nightfall on December 31, the participating schoolboys, comprising three boisterous groups, meet on the hill at the local castle and proceed down to the village. In the first group are the "bell ringers", who swing or rattle large bells which can be heard for miles around. Next, the "broom men", carry long poles with bunches of juniper branches tied to the top. The third group is probably the most bizarre - the "bladder men" carry pig´s bladders filled with air. The procession stops at various locations along the route as the leader recites a rhymed farewell to the old year and wishes the crowd a happy new one. During the recitation, the broom men wave their juniper brooms over the heads of the crowd. At the end of journey, the broom men and the bladder men, all armed with inflated pig´s bladders, proceed to "beat" the onlookers, especially young ladies, until their weapons are in shreds.

One must admit that it really takes a lot of guts to stand and watch this parade. These events in Switzerland, and many more like them, provide hours of entertainment for connoisseurs of folklore, however, before anyone tries to emulate these customs, you may want to check with local authorities before you swat someone with a pig´s bladder or a sooty rag.

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