In the United States, Christmas is celebrated about as commercially as it is religiously. Christmas – which stands for “Christ’s mass” – is said to be the day Jesus was born. Whereas some Christian families celebrate the holiday by going to church, people of all religious backgrounds give gifts and cards to one another.
Have you ever wondered how other countries celebrate Christmas? Where and how did these holiday traditions start? Travel with me on a magical journey to delve deeper into Christmas traditions.
Oh, yeah, that guy. We all know him, right? Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man), or jolly Saint Nick. Whatever you call him, he’s a hugely popular and Christmas-themed icon, and therefore should be discussed in this paper. He rides around on a big red sleigh with his eight-to-nine magical flying reindeer, dropping gifts specially made by his massive army of slave elves into every household on the planet. Also he endorses Coca-Cola.
People often complain that Santa Claus is just an advertising vehicle. Some even go so far as to say that he was invented by the Coca-Cola company! But is that really true?
On my Google search for generic search term “santa claus”, I had to pass by about six sites (and Wikipedia) before I could find a good page or two on the history of Santa. “Santa Claus has the Village full of new fun this year!” “Follow Santa as he makes his magical journey!” “Santa’s mailing list!” No doubt at least one Internet site out there uses Santa’s name to sell merchandise. But why not? Santa’s face is public domain.
Dutch settlers brought their traditions to New York in the 1600s. Part of their traditions was Sinterklaas, a gift-giving bearded man, who was himself based on Saint Nicholas. The poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, better known as The Night Before Christmas, established many parts of the “Santa Claus mythos”. It brought us his eight flying reindeer, his outfit, and even referred to him as “a right jolly old elf”. (Maybe this makes his workshop full fo elves less like slavery and more like a regular workplace.)
Illustrator Thomas Nast drew images of Santa for Harper’s Magazine from the 1860’s to the 1880’s. He gave us Santa’s workshop in the North Pole, his naughty children list, and further defined his appearance. His appearance in these illustrations varied – though it was always red (when the picture wasn’t just black and white), it might be decorated with stars, or he might have a red beret.
Future illustrators such as Norman Rockwell would depict him as a human-sized figure (thus making the fat man squeezing down chimneys all the time implausible). Some guy called Haddon Sundblom placed Santa Claus in his Coca-Cola ads, officially changing his appearance to the jolly old man we know today. He proved to be a good marketing device for Coca-Cola so, since the character is public domain, other companies began to advertise using his name and face as well.
At his heart, Santa Claus is not an advertising vehicle. One could say Coca-Cola recreated him, but created him? Naw. Whatever you think of Santa Claus, he’s here to stay. Ho ho.
Of course, there’s places in the world where Santa Claus isn’t the focus of Christmas…
Preparation for the holiday season starts before December even begins! Foods are prepared, decorations are bought and presents are made well in advance.
The beginning of the four weeks of Advent is marked by the opening of Christmas markets. These special street markets exist all over the world, but some of the largest Christmas markets are located in Germany. Cookies, gingerbread, nutcrackers, and other various holiday accessories are sold.
Before Chrismas comes Saint Nicholas Day, or Nikolaustag, which happens on December 6th each year. Children hang boots or stockings by the fireplace. Some say St. Nicholas himself hops from house to house on his white horse Amerigo, putting items in every kid’s stocking. Others say it’s the Christkind who does this. Either way, a good child might get some tasty treats, like a chocolate letter fashioned after the first letter of his or her name, while bad children get twigs or a rod, not a lump of coal.
Huh? What? Who are those guys? We’ll find out soon enough…
The Christmas tree, or Tannenbaum, is traditionally kept in a secret place, where the children can’t find it. It might even be kept in its own fantasy room. Not until Christmas Eve are the children shown the tree, all decorated with candiees, food, tinsel, burning candles, and other various ornaments. People sing carols, open gifts, and read the story of Jesus’s birth.
Finally, Christmas Day arrives. That’s the end of the holidays, right? Well, no – December 25th AND 26th are legal holidays in Germany. The First Christmas Day is marked by a large feast with foods such as roast goose and rabbit. Other foods like red cabbage, marzipan, and christstollen – bread jam-packed with dried fruit and nuts within – are served. The Second Christmas Day is more peaceful and quiet, as opposed to the general merriment of the past.
Some Christmas traditions originated in Germany, such as the Tannenbaum, the advent calendar, and the advent wreath – a wreath decorated with candles which mark the four Sundays of Advent. Christmas in Germany is still kind of commercialized, but when it comes to holiday commercialization, you just can’t beat the US.
(Christkindl, Christkindle, multiple terms in other languages meaning “Baby/Little Jesus”, etc.)
Das Christkind, or the Christ-child, is a gift-giving figure, like Santa. He is depicted as a child with blond hair and angel wings. Originally he was intended to literally be the baby Jesus, but sometimes he’s thought of as the angel who brings gifts to Christ instead. Traditionally when he leaves someone’s house, a bell is rung, probably by someone’s mom. Sometimes there’s no bell at all, and the parents only pretend to hear it. What a ripoff.
Recently the Christkind has been facing some heated competition from his holiday competitors, including – gasp – Santa Claus. Will the figure disappear completely? Um, maybe.
I’ve kind of wondered about Saint Nicholas. Who is he? Who’s Kris Kringle? Are they all just Santa Claus in disguise? Was Nick even a real saint? And how jolly/old was he?
It turns out that yes, Saint Nicholas was a real person, and a real saint. He was the patron saint of children and sailors. He was born about 270 A.D., in what was Greek territory but is now modern-day Turkey. Both his parents died, leaving their riches to him. He used all of his money to help the poor and the needy. When he was just a young man, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra. People honor him to this day for his selflessness.
After his death in about 344 A.D., word spread about such things. A famous legend tells of a poor man and his three daughters. In those days a woman had to offer something of value to her husband-to-be – a dowry. Without any valuables a guy would want, they would have had to be sold into slavery. St. Nicholas heard about this and, at night, he is said to have tossed three purses of gold into their house, through the open window. A variation of this tells that as the sisters hung their stockings and shoes out to dry, the purses flew straight into them! Hence why we hang stockings on the fireplace.
Another story establishes him as being, in addition to a gift giver, a protector of innocents. The characters vary between tellings, but it is said that a butcher led three children into his house, chopped them up, and planned to sell their butchered remians as ham. St. Nicholas saw through this terrible act and brought the boys back to life with his prayers.
So people tell their kids that a historical figure is going to come to their house on a magic horse? Bleh! Kinda sorta. Over time, a character based on the real St. Nick was born. For the sake of clarity we’ll just call him by his Dutch name: Sinterklaas. People also call him Sint Nicolas, Goedheiligman, and just plain Sint. They say he rides from house to house on his white horse Amerigo, who steals whatever water and carrots children leave for him.
Like Santa, his color scheme is mostly red and he has a big white beard. Unlike Santa, he weras a mitre, or a cool bishop hat, and proper bishop clothing. He traditionally arrives in the Netherlands each year in November, which may or may not be comparable to Santa claus in the Macy’s Thansgiving parade. He is also said to live somewhere in Spain nowadays. Instead of elves, he has a gang of incompetent black dudes named Zwarte Piets, or Black Petes. Some say they’re black because they go down the chimney to deliver his presents, and therefore are covered in soot. Others say they’re just all black dudes.
A Secret Santa-like gift exchange started with Sinterklaas. Bigger gifts are not sent by Sint, but by friends and family. Recipients of gifts are chosen by drawing names, and their presents are hidden until the time comes to give them.
After looking at fictional holiday-related characters, it might be refreshing to look at traditions rooted in the nativity scene, or la natividad.
Christmas-related celebration begins on December 16th, and retells the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. This happens in the form of “Las Posadas” (literally “The Inns”). Two children carry replicas of Joseph and Mary riding a burro, and other people sing and follow. They approach the house assigned to that day of the Posadas and sing a traditional song. In the song, Mary and Joseph ask for lodging, but are threatened with beatings unless they leave. But when the owner of the house learns who Mary is, they are welcomed. People kneel by the nacimiento (literally “birth” but refers to the manger scene), sing, pray, and recite Ave Marias (literally “Hail Marys”).
Then it’s time for the piñata. Said to have originated with the Aztecs, or the Mayans, or maybe the spanish, the piñata has become popular in the United States, too. They might be made out of clay, but are usally paper-mâché and filled with candies and toys. When the piñata is broken – or, alternatively, when the kid next to Boberto gets hit with a stick and the parents have to break the piñata with a hammer – kids run around, grab all the dropped items, and eat until the cows come home.
On Christmas Eve, children dressed as shepherds stand by the nativity scene. They sing, and lull the new baby Jesus to sleep.
The birth of Christ is celebrated at midnight with whistles and fireworks. Families attend church and such events as the “Misa de Gallo”, or “Mass of the Rooster”. The people go home and eat such things as tamales, sweet rice, and menudo, a soup involving beet stummick.
Even with the religious happenings, Christmas itself is celebrated with an evergreen tree and Santa Claus. Hey, who knew, am I right?
December is a time of gift-giving and gift-getting, prayer and tradition, joy and merriment. Every holiday – be it Christmas, St. Nicholas Day, Hanukhah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, or even Wear Brown Shoes Day – has its own sort of magic. How do you celebrate the season?
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