Post by Haley Roberts
I love learning about the traditions and cultures of other countries. At Stephanie’s Portrait Design we thought it would be fun to do some research on how other countries celebrate this time of year! Since America is a giant melting pot, many of our traditions stem from the cultures around us. Here are a few that peaked my interest this year. ( Image above of Gratz, Germany, 2007. )
About 4 years ago I traveled with my husband’s family at Christmas to Austria and Germany. It was one of the BEST Christmas of my life. In Austria and Germany they understand how to celebrate Christmas! Even the air is magical.
- Christmas Markets are a long standing tradition in both Austria and Germany. From large towns such as Munich and Salzberg to small towns and villages everyone has a market. One can find fresh breads, wreaths, hand crafted nutcrackers, smokers, pyramids, and coo-coo clocks. The buildings surrounding the market can date back to before our country was founded so you can imagine how surreal the setting is!
- The Advent is a period of preparation celebrating the birth of Christ. It begins on Sunday, four weeks before Christmas. Handmade wreaths with four candles are placed in the home. On each Sunday leading up to Christmas, a candle is lit while families read scriptures, sing and pray until at the end of the month, all candles are lit symbolizing the coming of the Christ child.
- The Lighting of The Christmas Tree occurs on Christmas Eve. All shops close by 6p.m. Christmas Eve in Austria.There are no concerts/performances, shops, bars, or movie theaters open. This is so everyone can go home, gather round the Christmas tree, sing “Silent Night” and light the candles. We actually witnessed this in Salzberg that Christmas. The city was so still, so reverent. It was filled snow, peace, and the voices of the innkeeper’s family singing around their tree.
- There is no Santa Claus as we know him in Austria. Children believe the Christ Child decorates the Christmas tree and brings them presents instead.
Click Here to discover more about Austria!
I have never been here at Christmas time, but it is on my list!
- To truly be Christmastime in France, the city must be filled with lights. As stated by the Official France Government Tourist Website “In Paris, the Champs-Elysées will be strung with 150,000 lights and a project known as “Paris Lights Paris,” will decorate 30 neighborhoods with lively effects and highly original creations.” That sounds like something I need to see!
- The yule log shaped cake tradition comes from France. Before we had electric or gas heating, a special over sized log was selected for Christmas in order to burn the entire night long. As the years passed and the actual log was no longer needed, the French found a fabulously tasty way to keep the tradition alive.
- Famous Christmas heroes or characters include Olentzero, who lives in the mountains and once a year, he provides wood to all the poor so no one will be cold on Christmas, Aunt Airie, who travels by donkey to share candy, and Christkindel, who visits well behaved children with treats. I wonder if children are better behaved in France as if they are not good, legend says that Hans Trapp will come and take away naughty children to the dark woods forever.
My brother-in-law is currently living in Moscow Russia so the customs and traditions of their Christmas holiday are of particular interest to me.
- It was not until recently in 1992, that the Christmas holiday was able to be openly observed in Russia. After the 1917 revolution, Christmas was one of the religious celebrations banned from the country.
- The Christmas Eve meal in Russia is a very large affair. Russian tradition stems from the Orthodox faith, which requires fasting prior to the Christmas eve worship service, or the first star appearing. Once the first star has appeared, the feast begins. This feast, also known as ” The Holy Supper” does not, however contain meat. All aspects of the meal are symbolic-from the table cloth to the items served. Click HERE for more specific information. It is very fascinating!
- Originally, Russians celebrated St. Nicholas, but due to the suppression of the holiday and all associated with Christmas, the new figure became Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost, the Russian Spirit of Winter. He brings gifts and presents for the New Year in January.
- The Christmas tree was banned in Russia, but one could have a New Years tree. Due to the communist regime, many could not afford ornaments so they decorated their trees with fruits and homemade decorations.
- Rather than celebrating Christmas on December 25th, Russians celebrate on January 7th. When Christmas was banned they disguised the holiday as “The New Year’s Holiday Tradition” and celebrated it in January. Today, Russians celebrate on both days, with the January Holiday as the larger of the two events.
Discover more about Russian Christmas.
Thoughts from Stephanie Adams
Isaac and I have a special place in our hearts for Brazil so we wanted to share a few traditions they enjoy. For one thing, it is summer time in Brazil, so no white Christmas for them.
One tradition in Brazil is to create a nativity scene or Presépio. The word comes from the word “presepium” which means the bed of straw that Jesus first slept in Bethlehem. The Presépio is common in northeastern Brazil (Bahia, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Maranhão, Ceará, Pernambuco, Piauí and Alagoas). The Presépio was introduced in the 17th century, in the city of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco by a Franciscan friar named Gaspar de Santo Agostinho. Today you can find presépios set up in December and displayed in churches, homes, and stores.
The people of Northern Brazil, as in Mexico, enjoy a version of the play Los Pastores or “The Shepherds.” In the Brazilian version, there are shepherdesses rather than shepherds and a gypsy who attempts to kidnap the Christ Child.
Papai Noel (Father Noel) is the gift-bringer in Brazil. According to legend, he lives in Greenland. The idea of this Santa-type character was adopted from North America in the 50’s. The commercial appeal in the late 60’s and 70’s is what made him popular. When Papai Noel arrives in Brazil, he usually wears silk clothing due to the summer heat. Read more here.
Another common tradition is amigo secreto (secret friend), where friends and family exchange names secretly at the begining of December. During the month they exchange correspondence among each other using apelidos (fake names). On Christmas, family and friends gather to reveal their secret friends and offer them a special gift.
Many families stay up on December 24th and have a feast at midnight with family and friends. Then they celebrate as fireworks light up the sky. Huge Christmas “trees” of electric lights can be seen against the night skies in major cities such as Brasilia, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro throughout the season. Fireworks displays go off to welcome the new year.
Another country whose traditions interest me is The Netherlands (Holland). They celebrate Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) Day on December 5th. Sinterklaas is said to live in Madrid, Spain and arrive by boat at a different harbour in Holland each year so as many children as possible get a chance to see him. He then leads a procession through the town, riding a white horse. Sinterklaas travels with Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who keeps a record of all the things the children do throughout the year and if the children were good, Sinterklaas will bring them presents. If they were bad, Zwarte Piet will chase them with a stick. On the night of the 5th, children leave their clogs or shoes out to be filled with presents. They also believe that if they leave hay and carrots for the horse they will be left some sweets.
There are parties as well to celebrate Sinterklaas Day. Many children at school draw a classmate’s name from a hat and surprise that person with a gift they made. The presents are often things that the person would find useful with their favorite hobby.
Christmas day is a much quieter day with church service and a family meal. And Santa Claus is called Christmas Man so he is not confused with Sinterklaas. Read more.
We hope you enjoy this holiday season and learn about or incorporate new traditions from around the world.