Holiday Traditions from Around the World
Ah yes! It’s that time of year again. You know, when you haul out all the holiday decorations, dig through recipes to bake those special treats and think about how quickly the year has passed.
In every family, there are traditions and celebrations that make our holidays special. At my house it really wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t have the annual “tilting of the Christmas tree.” Each year, my sons and I stand in amazement as their father once again puts up our Christmas tree at an angle. We’re not sure how he manages to always achieve this feat, because the tree always stands straight when they drill it at the tree lot. But this is our Christmas tradition. I fear the first time he manages to put the tree up straight. I’ll then have to search for a new family tradition: perhaps “burning the sugar cookies.”
Whether your family celebrates Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Christmas, there are many traditions and legends honored throughout the world. Here’s a glimpse of some of those.
Christmas is a Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, considered the Son of God by Christians. According to the religion, Christmas is both a holy day and a holiday because Christ’s birth brought the chance of salvation to the world. Christmas is observed on December 25. Around the world, families celebrate Christmas in their very special and unique ways.
The First Christmas Tree
The children of Germany were the first to enjoy the holiday season with Christmas trees, because the legend of the first Christmas tree originated there. One of the most exciting moments for German children is on Christmas Eve when they see their Christmas tree for the first time. The tree has already been secretly decorated by their mother. Decorating Christmas trees didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1930s.
German children anticipate Christmas coming at the beginning of December by making Advent calendars. One kind of Advent calendar is made of a fir wreath that has 24 little boxes hung from it. One box is opened each day until Christmas Eve. Some German children write letters to the Christ Child and glue sugar sprinkles to the envelopes, so they’ll glitter and catch the Christ Child’s eye. The envelopes are left on the window sill on Christmas Eve. The children wake up the next morning and hope for presents.
For seven days and nights beginning on December 26, African-American families celebrate Kwanzaa. Originally created in 1966 by San Diegan Maulana Ron Karenga, a professor of African-American studies, it is the only original African-American holiday. Kwanzaa was patterned after harvest festivals that still occur in several parts of Africa and is not a religious holiday. Instead it promotes seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
During Kwanzaa season, children may wear brightly colored clothing and share in the lighting of the mishumaa saba (candles). These seven candles, one black, three red and three green, are held in a kinara and one is lit each night until, on the last night, all seven candles are aglow. On the last night of Kwanzaa, families gather for a Kwanzaa Karamu, the feast at which they share special dishes and sip from the “unity cup” to honor their ancestors. Kwanzaa gifts are opened on the seventh day, which also is New Year’s Day.
A traditional part of Christmas in Mexico is La Posada, a Spanish word meaning “the procession.” Children dress up and perform the part of the nativity story where Mary and Joseph look for an inn to spend the night. Children are given lighted candles and carry a board that holds clay figures of Mary riding on a donkey, and Joseph. There are night posadas and the first begins December 16. They go from house to house and stop to sing outside for neighbors and friends. Their song asks for shelter for Mary and Joseph. Each time, the children are told there is no room and they must go away. On the last posada, on Christmas Eve, a little manger is added to the board; a stable and shepherds and shelter for Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus are found. Mexican families don’t exchange presents on Christmas Day. They receive their presents on January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings.
Italian families wait to celebrate Christmas on the Twelfth Night — the Epiphany. This is when the three kings arrived in Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child. On that night, children wait for the good witch, La Befana. A woman with a stern nature, she would come down the chimney, carrying a cane in one hand and bell in the other. When the children of Italy would hear a bell ring on the Eve of the Epiphany, they would hurry off to sleep before La Befana came. Instead of presents, some naughty children found pieces of charcoal or ashes in their shoes. But for the good children, presents to satisfy their dreams were there.
The children of Holland hand up their stockings for Sinter Klaas to fill. The patron saint of all children is St. Nicholas and the Dutch name for him is Sinter Klaas. The legend of St. Nicholas tells of a man who liked to do good deeds secretly. He heard of a merchant who had become so poor that he had no money to give his three daughters when they were married. So, St. Nicholas crept up on the roof of their house in the night and dropped three bags of gold down the chimney. In the morning, the sisters found the gold in the stockings they had hung up to dry. This is why we hang our stockings up by the fireplace for Sinter Klaas to fill.
In Holland, December 6 is St. Nicholas Day. On this day, Dutch children put their clogs or shoes by the fireplace, hoping that St. Nicholas will drop presents down the chimney. Some children even fill their clogs with hay and carrots for St. Nicholas’ horse.
In Sweden, December 13 is celebrated because it is the feast of St. Lucia. She is remembered throughout the country as an early follower of Jesus. In those days, Christians were sometimes treated cruelly. They met to pray to Jesus, hiding in underground caves. Lucia would secretly take them food in the night. On her head she wore a crown of candles. In this way, with both hands free to carry the food and drink, she was able to see her way in the dark. Many Swedish children begin their celebration by cooking special Lucia buns and gingersnaps on December 12. The next morning, the youngest girl in the family dresses up as St. Lucia in a long white dress and wears a crown of evergreens with candles to light her way in the darkness. She carries a tray of coffee and Lucia buns to her family while they are still in bed.
The children of France believe in Pere Noel, Father Christmas, and wait for him to bring presents on Christmas Eve. In anticipation, the children put their shoes by the fireside and hope to awaken the next morning with presents. In many French homes, a creche, a stable that has small clay figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, the three kings and animals, is used to remind everyone of the first Christmas Eve. French families sometimes burn a log of cherry wood as a Yule log.
A Japanese Christmas
Not many Japanese children are brought up as Christians, but some Christmas customs have come to Japan from other countries. Besides exchanging gifts and eating turkey on Christmas day, the Japanese decorate community Christmas trees. In Japan there is a god or priest known as Hoteiosho. He resembles what American children believe in as Santa Claus. He is always pictured as a kind old man carrying a huge pack. Children believe he has eyes in the back of his head, so they better be good.
New Year’s Day is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Japan, however. That’s when houses are cleaned thoroughly and are decorated for the next day. After everything has been made clean, the family members dress in their finest clothes. Then the father marches through the house and drives the evil spirits out. He then throws dried beans into every corner, bidding the evil spirits to withdraw and good luck to enter.
During the eight days of Hanukkah, also known as the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights, Jewish children enjoy lighting candles on the Menorah (the Hanukkah Lamp). The celebration dates back more than 2,100 years ago to when the Jewish people were ruled by Antiochus the Syrian. He drove them from their Temple in Jerusalem and ordered them to pray to the Greek gods. The Jews refused to pray to any other god, and were punished. Today, the lighted candles of the Menorah represent the Jewish struggle to pray to their own God. The spinning of the dreidel is a traditional part of Hanukkah. A dreidel is a square top, usually made out of wood and has four sides. A Hebrew letter is written on each side. The children spin the dreidel, and guess a letter before the top falls to one side. Usually nuts, candies and raisins are given as prizes. During Hanukkah’s eight-day feast, Jewish families recite blessings, tell stories and enjoy special “latke” or potato pancakes. Some families give a small gift to their children each night. The finest gift is given on the last night of Hanukkah.
This holiday season, whether you gather your family to celebrate a tradition of your ancestors, or maybe to begin anew one, I hope the joys of Christmas from throughout the world are yours. And remember, somewhere in San Diego, Calif., the annual “tilting of the Christmas tree” is taking place once again.
Claire Yezbak Fadden is an award-winning freelance writer and mother of three sons.