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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.