Christmas as we know it today is a Victorian invention of the 1860s. Probably the most celebrated holiday in the world, our modern Christmas is a product of hundreds of years of both secular and religious traditions from around the globe.
St. Lucia by Carl Larsson 1908
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.
The giant Christmas goat in Gavle, Sweden, a centuries-old Scandanavian yule symbol
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.
1907 Christmas postcard
Families gather and listen to the national “Peace of Christmas
” radio broadcast. Hours are spent in the kitchen cooking and baking special treats for the festive season. In Finland the Christmas tree is set up on Christmas Eve. The Christmas festivities are preceded by a visit to the famous steam baths.
Christmas gifts may be given out before or after the dinner. The children do not hang up stockings, but Santa Claus comes in person, often accompanied by as many as half a dozen Christmas elves to distribute the presents.
The celebration of St Lucia Day (13 December) was only introduced to Finland from Sweden in 1950 but has been widely adopted by Finnish families. Additionally, a national Lucia is chosen by public vote from a short list of ten teenage girls and December 13 marks her first official appearance, wearing a long white dress and a crown of lighted candles. Following this she pays visits to Christmas gatherings, hospitals and schools to spread her message of light, hope and charity.
The main dish of the dinner is boiled codfish served snowy white and fluffy, with allspice, boiled potatoes, and cream sauce. The dried cod has been soaked for a week in a lye solution, then in clear water to soften it to the right texture. Also on the menu is roast suckling pig or a roasted fresh ham, mashed potatoes, and vegetables. After dinner the children go to bed while the older people stay up to chat with visitors and drink coffee until about midnight.
Christmas Day services in the churches begin at six in the morning. It is a day for family visits and reunions. In some parts of the country the Star Boys tour the countryside singing Christmas songs. During all these days the people keep wishing each other a “Merry Yule.” It is also customary to visit the gravesites of departed family members.
Traditional Norway Christmas Meal
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.
Since ancient times Norwegians have celebrated midwinter with parties and feasts to mark the transition from the dark winter to the light of spring and summer. However, during the 10th century King Haakon decided that the pagan custom of celebrating Jul (Yule) would be moved to 25 December and would celebrate the birth of Jesus. Over the years this has gradually moved from being a pagan festival to being a Christian festival instead. However, many of the traditions have remained.
At 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve the church bells ‘ringe in Julen‘ (ring in Christmas) throughout the country. This is the real start to Christmas celebrations. Most people attend a church and after the service they return home to eat a bowl of porridge with butter, sugar and cinnamon. Before the family sit down to eat this, the tradition is to put out a bowl of porridge for the nisse (gnome)
After the meal the indoor tree is lit and Julenissen arrives with a sack full of gifts from Santa. Julenissen is usually depicted with a long white beard and red stocking cap, wearing knee breeches, hand knitted stockings, a Norwegian sweater and a homespun jacket. This is topped by a heavy fur coat. Once all the presents have been distributed and have been opened everyone sits down for coffee and cakes.
Christmas Day starts with a church service. This is followed by the Christmas Buffet which includes such food as pork, lamb, cold meats, lutefisk, herring, trout, salmon, cheese, fruit, cloudberry cream, flat bread and cakes. This is accompanied by beer and aquavit. The Christmas season finally comes to an end on 13 January when everyone takes down their decorations and trees until December.
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.
Children leave letters on their windowsills for Christkind, a winged figure dressed in white robes and a golden crown who distributes gifts. Sometimes the letters are decorated with glue and sprinkled with sugar to make them sparkle.
Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin, Germany
Germans make beautiful gingerbread houses and cookies. The German Christmas tree pastry, Christbaumgeback, is a white dough that can be molded into shapes and baked for tree decorations. In parts of Germany, people believe that the Christ Child sends a messenger in Christmas Eve. He appears as an angel in a white robe and crown, bearing gifts. The angel is called Christkind. There is also a Christmas Eve figure called Weihnachtsmann or Christmas Man, he looks like Santa Claus and also brings gifts.
In 1828, the American minister to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, brought a red-and-green plant from Mexico to America. As its coloring seemed perfect for the new holiday, the plants, which were called poinsettias after Poinsett, began appearing in greenhouses as early as 1830. In 1870, New York stores began to sell them at Christmas. By 1900, they were a universal symbol of the holiday.
Beginning December 16th, “La Posadas” commemorates the events in the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Each night of the “Posada” a procession led by two children begins.
The children carry a small pine-decorated platform bearing replicas of Joseph and Mary riding a burro. Other members, all with lighted long slender candles, sing the “Litany of the Virgin” as they approach the door of the house assigned to the first “Posada.” Together they chant an old traditional song and awaken the residents of the house to ask for lodging for Mary. Those within the house threaten the company with beatings unless they move on. Again, the company pleads for lodging. When the owner of the house finally learns who his guests are, he jubilantly throws open the doors and bids them welcome. All kneel around the manger scene or “Nacimiento” and offer songs of welcome, Ave Marias and a prayer.
The world's first Christmas card designed by John Calcott Horsley in 1843.
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.
A lavish feast of truffle-scented roast turkey and delicious trimmings from the Burgundy countryside.
Christmas has been celebrated for nearly 1500 years in France. In France, Christmas is called Noel. This comes from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles
, which means “the good news
” and refers to the gospel.
In southern France, some people burn a log in their homes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. This stems from an ancient tradition in which farmers would use part of the log to ensure good luck for the next year’s harvest.
Whatever their behavior, hopeful French youngsters place slippers or shoes at the fireplace on Christmas Eve. That evening’s special supper called the réveillon features delicacies native to the region, including spun sugar, pâés and pastries. Spun sugar delicacies called sotelties are made to depict miniature castles, Biblical scenes, or exotic birds. Another highlight is bûche de Noël a log shaped cake with chocolate butter cream filling, brown icing and lines that resemble bark. At the stroke of midnight, the sounds of “Oh Holy Night” resound through churches and cathedrals across France.
Christmas market in Strasbourg
Children alone receive presents on December 25th. Adults wait until New Year’s Day to exchange gifts. Some small presents can be found among the branches of the French Christmas tree.
The santons or little saints made in Provence are the heart of French Noël. These simple manger figures resemble real people in detail and dress. No one is excluded all characters good and bad are created to be included in the French manger scene.
Midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica
Christmas season in Italy is traditionally celebrated December 24-January 6, or Christmas Eve through Epiphany. This follows the pagan season of celebrations that started with Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival, and ended with the Roman New Year, the Calends. However there are lots of Christmas things to see during December prior to Christmas, many starting on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.
Although Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) and giving presents on Christmas are becoming more common, the main day for gift giving is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men gave Baby Jesus their gifts. In Italy, presents are brought by La Befana, who arrives in the night to fill children’s stockings. More about Epiphany and La Befana
Nativity Scene in Siena Italy
Christmas decorations and trees are becoming more popular in Italy. Lights and decorations are often seen starting around December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, or even the end of November. The main focus of decorations continues to be the presepe, Nativity scene or creche. Almost every church has a presepe and they are often found outdoors in a piazza or public area, too.
Traditionally, a meatless dinner is eaten on Christmas eve with the family, followed by a living nativity scene and midnight mass. In parts of southern Italy a seven fishes dinner is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Traditional bonfires are often held on Christmas Eve in the main square of town, especially in mountain areas. Dinner on Christmas day is usually meat based.
Santa arriving at the beach by boat
In Australia, the holiday comes in the middle of summer and it’s not unusual for some parts of Australia to hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas day.
During the warm and sunny Australian Christmas season, beach time and outdoor barbecues are common. Traditional Christmas day celebrations include family gatherings, exchanging gifts and either a hot meal with ham, turkey, pork or seafood or barbecues.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas houses are decorated; greetings cards sent out; carols sung; Christmas trees installed in homes, schools and public places; and children delight in anticipating a visit from Santa Claus. On Christmas Day family and friends gather to exchange gifts and enjoy special Christmas food.
Many Australians spend Christmas out of doors, going to the beach for the day, or heading to camping grounds for a longer break over the Christmas holiday period. It has become traditional for international visitors who are in Sydney at Christmas time to go to Bondi Beach where up to 40,000 people visit on Christmas Day.
Blandfordia nobilis - Christmas bells
There are many native Australian plants in flower over the Christmas season. A number of these have become known as ‘Christmas plants
‘ in various parts of the country, including Christmas bells, Christmas bush and the Christmas orchid.
When Europeans first arrived in Australia they were delighted that they could pick wildflowers resembling bells and bright green foliage covered in red or white flowers to use as Christmas decorations. This was a huge contrast to the bare trees and dormant gardens they had left behind in Europe.
‘Vesele Vanoce !’
Christmas market in Prague
Christmas in the Czech Republic begins with Svatej Nikulas Day, on December 6 and ends with the visit of the Tri Kralu (Three Kings) on January 6. On December 6, Saint Nicholas descends from the sky on a golden cord, accompanied by an angel dressed in white with gifts for the good boys and girls, and a devil named Cert dressed in black, carrying a whip and rattling a chain. As soon as the children hear them coming, they rush to the table and say their prayers. Those who know their prayers are rewarded with a gift; those who do not may feel Cert’s whip!
A twenty-four hour period of strict fast concludes on Christmas Eve when the first star of the night is seen. This star represents the star of Bethlehem. The children are promised that if they fast faithfully they will see golden pigs at supper time. At the beginning of supper, the candles are lit and the pigs appear on the wall and ceiling. The flickering of the candle flames perform the trick, because at the center of the table is the young roasted pig. The supper consists of seven courses and what is left over (there are always leftovers) is fed to the pigs. An extra place is set at the table and left empty for the Christ-child.
Vánocní cukroví - decorated cookies, traditionally eaten at Christmas
The manger scene is ever present in both church and home. These nativity scenes are called Bethlehems, and setting them up is a great family pastime. Usually they are complete villages carved from wood or fashioned from bread dough and then elaborately painted. Carolers carry miniature Bethlehem scenes as they go from house to house giving concerts. After singing, they are invited into the home for a glass of wine and a piece of vanocka, a sweetbread.
Christmas Lights in Old Montreal
Canada is a country with a great number of immigrant families. Different cultural backgrounds such as French, English, German, Ukrainian, and First Nations come together as one people Canadians. Because of the many different peoples the customs of Christmas are very diverse.
Because of Canada’s strong Anglican and Catholic religious traditions, Christmas Eve is a big celebration. Many famous churches offer special services. The Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal has a 5,772 pipe organ and thousands of worshipers come on Christmas Eve to attend the service and hear the children’s choir.
The Christmas tree is native to the Canadian region. Nova Scotia is named “The Christmas Tree Province” because it produces more than 1.5 million trees each year for eastern Canada and the United States. Trees from this region are shipped as far away as Venezuela. All of the Canadian provinces together produce approximately 6 million Christmas trees every year.
Toronto Santa Claus Parade
Our Canadian Christmas tree is decorated with Chicken Bones and Barley Toys, two treats with strange names, but they have meant Christmas to children along Canada’s eastern shores for more than 100 years. Barley toys are tasty animal-shaped candies served either plain or on sticks and made from barley candy. The name barley probably comes from an old children’s game. Chicken Bones is a cinnamon flavored hard candy that is filled with chocolate and is a Christmas favorite in Canada.
Boxing Day, celebrated the day after Christmas, is an important national holiday to Canadians. Traditionally boxing day was a day delivery boys could hope to receive a gratuity from those they served. Today its main significance is a day of sales at stores. Many people use this day to exchange Christmas gifts.
St. Nicholas is important in Greece as the patron saint of sailors. According to Greek tradition, his clothes are drenched with brine, his beard drips with seawater, and his face is covered with perspiration because he has been working hard against the waves to reach sinking ships and rescue them from the angry sea. To members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as are most Greek Christians, Christmas ranks second to Easter in the roster of important holidays. Yet there are a number of unique customs associated with Christmas that are uniquely Greek.
On Christmas Eve, village children travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing kalanda, the equivalent of carols. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and little clay drums. The children are frequently rewarded with sweets and dried fruits.
A Christmas market in Athens, Greece
After 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation by adults and children alike. Pigs are slaughtered and on almost every table are loaves of christopsomo (“Christ Bread
“). This bread is made in large sweet loaves of various shapes and the crusts are engraved and frosted with symbols that in some way that reflects the family’s profession. It is served with dried figs, nuts, and honey.
Christmas morning begins with an early Mass at the Greek Orthodox Church. After the service, Greeks feast on roast turkey stuffed with chestnuts, rice, pine nuts, and a nut cookie called kourambiethes. Baklava, another sweet dessert, is made from layers of phyllo pastry, filled with almonds and cinnamon, and then soaked in lemon syrup.
In almost every home it is traditional to have a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire is suspended across the rim; from that hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the Kallikantzaroi away from the house.
There are a number of beliefs connected with the Kallikantzaroi, which are a species of goblins or spirits who appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany (January 6). These creatures are believed to emerge from the center of the earth and to slip into people’s house through the chimney. More mischievous than actually evil, the Kallikantzaroi do things like extinguish fires, ride astride people’s backs, braid horses’ tails, and sour the milk. To further repel the undesirable sprites, the hearth is kept burning day and night throughout the twelve days.
Christmas in Venezuela is a mixture of religious tradition and sheer fun. Beginning on December 16, many families erect a pesebre in their house, with not only a nativity scene, but a diorama of the entire region with mountains, hills, plains, and valleys. Often this is a work of art into which the head of the family has put many hours, and the pieces become heirlooms to be passed down from generation to generation. One custom dictates that on the first day of the new year, the figure of the Christ child must be lifted from the manger crib and placed in a standing position until the Feast of Cadelaria on February 2nd. Neighbors and friends keep watch to be sure that the tradition is strictly honored. If it is not, the figure of the holy child will be secretly stolen and held for ransom. The ransom is a party that must be given by the people who have been appointed as godparents for the holy child. When the figurine is returned to its original setting, a procession is held which may include fireworks and a band along with much singing and dancing.
In the city of Caracas, Christmas Eve is a popular time and a rather unusual custom occurs shortly after midnight. That is when one of the main streets fills with hundreds of young roller-skaters. Friends and schoolmates skate together until time for a special church service, after which the young people skate home for a breakfast featuring hallacas, a traditional Venezuelan meat pie with a cornmeal crust that is wrapped in banana leaves and boiled.
Venezuelan Pan de jamon
There may be no snow for Santa’s sled or chimneys for him to climb down in Venezuela, but artificial Christmas trees, some with artificial snow on their branches, can be adorned with colorful decorations using traditional designs and colors.
A manger scene is the primary decoration in most southern European, Central American, and South American nations. St. Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity in 1224 to help explain the birth of Jesus to his followers.