Did you ever wonder where Christmas traditions came from? Different branches of Christianity celebrate Christmas on different days based on their calendars: for Catholics, it is on Dec 25, for the Armenian Apostolic Church it is on Jan 6, for the Orthodox and Copts it is on Jan 7. It may seem that the festive day began with the adoption of Christianity, but winter holidays existed even before then.
Before converting to Christianity, most people followed pagan and folk religions that honored their own winter holidays. For example, Deus Sol Invictus was a Roman celebration of the Sun God on Dec 25. To eliminate pagan traditions, the church aligned its calendar with existing festivities. This transition then resulted in a peculiar cultural overlap.
Some old traditions stuck to this day. The holly that you see decorating homes, tables, and shops comes from pagan symbols of fertility and the beginning of a new year. Evergreens were highly valued and worshiped during the winter season by the Norse and Celts. The Christmas tree tradition could sprout from this!
While some traditions unite us under one holiday, each country developed its own unique Christmas customs.
An interesting tradition popular in the US is the pickle hunt. What for? A Christmas tree ornament in the shape of a pickle is hidden in the tree, and the first to find it wins an extra gift! This tradition is considered to originate in Germany because of the Lauscha glass factory. In the 20th century, it produced hand-blown fruit and vegetable Christmas tree decorations. The Christmas pickle idea, Weihnachtsgurke in German, was taken home by American emigrants and transformed into a game.
Did you grow up hearing Santa is a jolly man who gives presents to the good kids and ‘punishes’ naughty ones with none? Austria and its neighboring countries took a different approach. Behold Krampus! He is an evil mythological being who counterbalances the sweet Christmas energy. The creature has a devilish appearance, goat horns, and a devil’s pitchfork. On Christmas Eve, people dress up as Krampus and scare the children, reminding them of the opposite force to the Christmas light.
Have you heard of arachnid decorations for Christmas? If not, the tradition
of using spiders and cobwebs on Christmas trees originates from a legend in Ukraine. The tale is about a poor widow with two children who had nothing to decorate their Christmas tree with. On Christmas Eve, the children cry themselves to sleep, knowing they will wake up to a bare tree. Touched by their sadness, the spiders living in their house take pity on the children and start to weave cobwebs to decorate the tree. When Christmas comes around, the widow and children wake to a dazzling tree with ornaments glittering in the sunlight. This beautiful legend is brought to life to this day in Ukraine and Poland; feel free to join in!
Saint Nickolas is likewise celebrated in Italy, a country of rich Catholic culture. Yet, it does not mean that other traditions lay forgotten. Italians believe in Belfana, an old hag dressed in robes that has all attributes to identify as a witch. It is said that she visits every child on Christmas Eve and puts either candy or coal in their stockings, depending on whether they behaved themselves or not. Sounds familiar, right? If you have the chance to visit Italy during the winter holidays, don’t be surprised to see shops selling stockings full of candy and a plush wicked old witch attached to it.
Christmas time is traditionally a homely, family-oriented celebration. Are you used to cooking Christmas dinner as a family? In Japan, some families acknowledge Christmas but do not celebrate it per se, some treat it as another Valentine’s day, and others pre-order food from a franchise we often see as a snack source- KFC. That’s right! Are you interested in how it all began? Takeshi Okawara, who managed the country’s very first KFC, is the founder of this unusual tradition. Okawara introduced the Party Barrel to please foreigners who missed having turkey for Christmas. His idea then grew into a national tradition called Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii (Kentucky for Christmas). Of course, Japanese KFC branches have a very different menu to the ones you may find back home as it is adjusted to Japanese tastes and cuisine. We may call it an oriental fast-food version of a Christmas dinner.
What is your Christmas movie list? Are Disney cartoons included? Sweden airs Donald Duck cartoon series from the early 1900s called “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas,” for 50 years! Swedish families take the custom of sitting down together and watching these cartoons very seriously. On Dec 24, at 3 pm, half of Sweden pauses all occupations to watch TV; regardless of age, gender, or if the Christmas dinner is ready or not. People love the show so much that at every attempt to cancel it, TV stations face a massive backlash. That is how the tradition lasted until today.
Who would have thought that the skating tradition persists even in a 22ºC (72ºF) December? Venezuela is a blend of Amerindian, Spanish, and African cultures, which were filtered down to several traditions that exist today. For instance, Venezuelans roller skate to Christmas masses!
Radames, a 3D artist at Pixomatic, remembers how “children would go skating around the church until 11 pm; after 11 pm all the families must be home to share the Christmas dinner at 12 am ([Dec] 25th).” He then points out that Christmas is more about the cuisine and sharing traditional food. Namely, “bread with ham and Hallaca.” The first dish is a loaf of bread with a twist of ham, raisins, and olives in the center while “Hallaca is more like a Mexican Tamal” but is, for Radames, “100 times more delicious.”
Enjoy your Christmas day with the people, food, and traditions you hold dear!