It’s that time of year. The leaves have fallen, the trees are bare and the air is crisp. The sound of crackling wood in the fireplace; smoke billowing out the chimney. The aisles are lined with velvety stockings, red and white candy canes and twinkling lights. ‘Tis the season! These are just some of the symbols that let you know it’s Christmastime.
But let’s face it, Christmas is not just a religious holiday any more; for many it has become more about family and giving and celebrating the season. In America, it seems that the commercialism of the sacred holiday has taken over. How many of us walked into a store after Halloween, or in some cases before, only to find Christmas decorations and gift ideas on display.
While the decorations at home may not go up until after the Thanksgiving holiday, the planning of the holiday season begins long before that. Parties, family gatherings, gift buying and meals are just some of what fills our calendars.
But not everyone’s Christmas celebration looks the same. We all vary in our traditions; they are as unique as each family. While some choose to eat turkey and pie, others celebrate with traditional meals of their ancestors. And don’t mess with someone’s tradition; it is sacred. Maybe you experienced this when you were first married. Do we open gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? What day do we have the big celebration? Who do we invite? Do we go to the church service at midnight?
Throughout the United States, Christians traditionally begin preparing for Christmas with Advent. Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas, falling anywhere between November 27 to December 3. It is a time the church prepares for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Advent wreaths with four candles adorn the churches with a new candle being lit each Sunday in anticipation of the celebration of Christmas.
While we look at the many ways people right here in the United States celebrate Christmas, many of the traditions are similar. But when one starts to look at other cultures, we see some very different ways that others celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Some of these celebrations are grounded in Christianity while others are more secular.
Travel across the globe to Italy, and you will find a tradition that was first made popular by St. Francis of Assisi back in 1223. After visiting Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, St. Francis began the tradition of a Nativity crib scene; using a crib to tell the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Today, families throughout Italy have a crib that they bring out on December 8. The figure of baby Jesus, however, is not placed in the crib until Christmas Eve.
Unlike Italy whose main religion is Roman Catholicism, only one percent of China’s population is Christian. Because of this, the holiday is primarily only celebrated in the larger cities in China. Christmas trees are not popular and are primarily found in malls. When they are on display, however, they are typically made of plastic and decorated with chains, flowers and lanterns all made of paper. One China tradition that is increasing in popularity is the distribution of apples on Christmas Eve. The tradition began due to the fact that the Chinese word for Christmas Eve means “peaceful,” and the word for apple in Mandarin is very similar to the Chinese word of “peace.”
In England, children eagerly anticipate the arrival of Father Christmas. But they don’t mail their letters to the North Pole as children in the United States do. Instead, they place their letters into the fire in their fireplace, believing that their wishes will go up the chimney—the path they, like American children, believe that Father Christmas will enter their home bestowing upon them gifts and fulfilling their wishes.
While snow is synonymous with Christmas for many in the northern hemisphere, in Australia the holiday falls during the summer months. Accordingly, much of their celebration takes place outdoors. One such celebration is called Carols by Candlelight, a time when many gather outside to sing Christmas songs and light candles in celebration.
In Sweden the eldest daughter plays a significant role in the pre-Christmas celebration. December 13, St. Lucia’s Day, marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Sweden. On that sacred day the eldest daughter rises early and dresses in a long white dress and a crown of leaves—a symbol of Santa Lucia, the Queen of Light. Singing Santa Lucia, a traditional Swedish song, she then wakes up the remaining family members and serves them coffee and specially made treats.
Karin Wehse shares that her father reminisces about one of his favorite Christmas traditions while growing up in Norway. “They would place their Christmas tree in the middle of the room and dance hand-in-hand around the tree with lit candles on the branches,” said Wehse. “It was a bit of fire hazard but he had no sad results.”
For Christians in Ethiopia, one of the oldest countries in Africa, they celebrate the sacred holiday on January 7. This is due to the fact they follow the ancient Julian calendar. In that country, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s celebration of Christ’s birth is not called Christmas but instead is referred to as Ganna. The people of Ethiopia fast the day before Ganna, rising early the next day to attend mass at 4am. Unlike many other countries that celebrate Christmas, Ganna is not marked by gift giving. Instead, the holiday focuses on religious significance of the season, with feasts and games playing a large part in their tradition. The holiday season in Ethiopia does not end with Ganna. On January 19, the Christians there engage in a three-day celebration known as Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ.
If you are in Spain, the Christmas celebration commences with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. This is the day when Christians celebrate the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of Saint Anne. In Spain there is a weeklong observance of this holy day. Places of worship and outdoor markets are decorated with evergreens. One need not look far to find musical instruments such as tambourines, castanets and miniature guitars for sale, all adding to the lively celebrations that include singing and dancing in the streets. In Spain it is also customary for children to travel to various homes singing Christmas carols or reciting Bible verses in exchange for receiving a small instrument, toy or a holiday treat.
In Israel only two percent of the population is Christian, and for that reason businesses and shops are open and ironically there is little hint of a sacred celebration in this land where Jesus was born. But in Jerusalem one need only travel to that part of the Old City known as the Christian Quarter to find holy celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ. A mere six miles away is Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth, where the streets to Manger Square are filled with tourists and security. Manger Square is outside of the Basilica of the Nativity, which is believed to be the place where Jesus was born.
In the end, no matter if it is Buon Natale, Froehliche Weihnachten, God Jul, or Merry Christmas, the meaning is still the same as Christians around the world unite to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Why December 25?
While no one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth, we celebrate it each December 25. The tradition of this date goes back to the year 336. Not long after that, Pope Julius I officially declared December 25 to be the date that Christians would celebrate the birth of the Savior.
While no one knows specifically the reason this date was chosen, there are several theories.
The Annunciation, when Mary was told she would give birth to a special baby, is celebrated on March 25. Many believe that December 25 was chosen because it is nine months after the Annunciation.
Another theory is that December 25 was chosen because the winter Solstice and the ancient pagan Roman midwinter festivals called “Saturnalia” and “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti,” which took place in December so it was already a time of celebration.
Whatever the reason December 25 was chosen, it has become a tradition worldwide and a sacred holiday for Christians.