Christmas Around the Globe

The Christmas holiday is among the world' s most widely celebrated festivals. Let' s take a look at some of our planet' s customs during this season of good cheer.

The word 'CHRISTMAS' comes from Christ' s Masse (msza chrystusowa). This is a typically English way of naming feastdays Martinmas and Candlemas are other examples. The word for 'Christmas' in Latin countries focuses on the nativity (Christ' s birth): Noel (French), Navidad (Spanish), Natale (Italian). The Greek Khristu Yena and the Polish Boże Narodzenie also refer to the nativity, whereas Germanspeaking countries use the term Weihnachten (the solemn night). Scandinavians refer to Christmas as Jul, the name of a preChristian winter feast. In English the Christmas season is also sometimes called Yuletide. In Lithuanian Christmas is Kaledos, a word that comes from the same root as the Polish kolęda (Christmas gift or carol).

CHRISTMAS GREETINGS are expressed as Frohliche Weihnachten (German), God Jul (Scandinavia), Kala Kristu Yena, (Greek), Gelukkige Kerstdagen (Dutch), Linksmu Kaledu (Lithuanian), Buon Natale (Italian), Feliz Navidad (Spanish) and Joyeux Noel (French). The American Merry Christmas has more or less replaced the traditional British Happy Christmas.

The CHRISTMAS TREE originated in Germany and went to Britain in the nineteenth century thanks to Queen Victoria' s Germanborn husband, Prince Albert. From there, it went to America, and finally spread around the globe. Today it is probably the most well recognized Christmas symbol.

The YULE LOG is an old Christmas custom shared by many nations, from Scandinavia to the Balkans. A large, decorated log was ceremoniously carried into the house. It was often christened with wine before being lighted in the fireplace. For good luck, the log was not allowed to burn out during the Christmas season, and a piece of it was kept to start the fire the following Christmas. The ashes from the Yule log were scattered in the fields and were believed to make the soil more fertile.

The CHRISTMAS CRIB, also known by its French name of creche, is a model of the nativity in Bethlehem. In southern Europe, the place of Christ' s birth is usually a grotto or cave made of paper, whereas in the north it is often a thatchedroof stable. Figures of the Holy Family, shepherds, cattle and sheep are placed inside.

CHRISTMAS CRACKERS are a typical feature of a British family Christmas. When the two ends of these small parcels are pulled, the crackers burst, giving off a bang, and a funny paper hat, a small toy and a joke written on a small piece of paper fall out.

In Denmark children receive GIFTS from Julemand (Father Christmas) on Christmas Eve, but they are brought by his little elf helpers who are more widely portrayed than the giftgiver himself. Until recently, in many countries a bearded bishop known as Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nickolaus, SaintNicolas, Święty Mikołaj) visited children on 6 December, whereas on Christmas Eve it was Christ Kindl or le Petit Noel, the Christ Child himself, that brought the gifts. Eventually, the two customs became confused and a bearded redrobed old man known as Pere Noel or der Weihnachstmann became more widespread. In Italy, a witch known as Befana brings gifts to wellbehaved children and lumps of coal to the naughty.

CHRISTMAS FOOD varies greatly from country to country, but such dishes as roast turkey, pork, goose and duck are Christmas favourites in many lands. In Catholic countries fish and other meatless dishes are often eaten on Christmas Eve. One Christmas speciality that goes under different names and has many variations is a honeyspice cake. It is known as gingerbread in the Englishspeaking world, as pain d' epice in Francophone countries, as Lebkuchen in Germany and piernik or miodownik in Poland. A truly unique Yuletide treat is Britain' s Christmas pudding. Its ingredients include figs, raisins, citrus rinds, beef suet and spices, and it is served with a rich sauce. The Ukranian and Polish kucja or kutia is a similar sticky concoction.

Compared to Polish Christmas celebrations, things in France are the wrong way round. People first attend Midnight Mass and then have a nightlong feast known as REVEILLON. Favorite foods include turkey, Strasbourg pet and boudin (black pudding), washed down with wine and champagne.

The PINATA is a Christmas game typical of Mexico and other Latin American countries. The pińata is a clay pot decorated to look like a peacock, and hung from a tree. Blindfolded children each get a single turn trying to hit it with a stick. When the pińata is hit, it shatters and the children scramble to collect sweets that fall from it to the ground.

There are many other traditions and customs connected with Christmas, and a whole book could easily be written on the subject. But more and more people are complaining that this beautiful holiday is becoming increasingly commercialized. Shopping malls and department stores try to outdo one another in attracting customers with all kinds of sales and gimmicks. They are helped by the best advertising agent ever created, Santa Claus, about whom the late Polish writer Melchior Wańkowicz once wrote:" He does not smile at children but the wallets of their parents."

In the interest of profit, however, businesses tend to promote those customs and artefacts that can easily be manufactured and sold. Although Christmas is something alien to Chinese tradition, today' s China because of its cheap and plentiful manpower has become the world' s largest producer of Christmas kitsch. 'Made in China' plastic Santas, elves, rednosed reindeer, snowmen, tree ornaments, fake holly wreaths and the like are now found in homes around the globe. The expansion of what might be called Anglocommercial Christmas is causing holiday celebrations to become boringly similar in country after country. Holland and Belgium are about the only countries that have resisted the Santa Claus invasion to some extent and preserved their own, original St Nicholas tradition. In fact, some Dutch towns have passed laws banning Santa Claus before 6 December. Although the American-style Santa has largely replaced Poland' s traditional Święty Mikołaj, the Poles have held to their Wigilia tradition with its symbolism, Christmas wafer (opłatek) and meatless foods. Perhaps it' s a good thing that this tradition is limited to this corner of Central Europe. If global business ever got hold of it, it wouldn' t be long before someone started offering opłatek in 28 different flavours: chocolate, butterscotch, almond, peppermint, toffee, maybe even peanut butter and liquorice!

Rob Strybel