The season of cheer

Last Updated : 22 December 2018, 19:30 IST

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Lapland, Santa Clause's official home in Finland. 
Lapland, Santa Clause's official home in Finland. 
Church of the Nativity, Bhethlehem
Church of the Nativity, Bhethlehem
Christmas House in Santa Clause Village, Finland.
Christmas House in Santa Clause Village, Finland.
Nativity Scenes of Presepio, Brazil.
Nativity Scenes of Presepio, Brazil.
Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree, a gift from Norway.
Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree, a gift from Norway.

The season of snow and icicles, warmth and family fun, special food and festivities, faith, hope and prayers, presents, wrapping paper and decorated trees – Christmas is an amalgam of all these. All of us, even non-Christians, have our own traditions of keeping this festival. However, there is a lot more to it than we know!

Delving into the origins of the festival reveals a lot of history. Winter is a cold and depressing period, especially in the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere. Days grow shorter and nights longer, until the day of the winter solstice, which is usually between December 20 and 23, with 21 and 22 being the most common dates. On this day, the sun reaches its southernmost position in the sky for an instant, before reversing its route. Therefore, this is the shortest day of the year. It is significant because, after this day, light begins to return to the land.

So, it is no wonder that this time of the year was very important to our ancestors, especially those living in the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans celebrated this day and welcomed the return of light by lighting fires. Also, cattle used to be slaughtered at this time, so they would not have to be fed during winter. So this was the only time of the year when fresh meat was in plenty, so there was feasting.

The Druidic celebration Alban Arthan celebrated the death of the Old Sun and the birth of the New Sun. In Scandinavia, the festival of Juul was celebrated, and a Yule or Juul log was brought in and burnt in the honour of the god, Thor. In ancient Rome, this day was celebrated as Saturnalia to honour the agricultural god, Saturn. Revelry and debauchery was the order of the day as discipline was suspended, and mask-wearing and play-acting were enjoyed. Even wars were postponed or interrupted for this celebration. The interesting aspect was role-reversal, where masters served their slaves, and servants were allowed to insult them in return. Each household would elect a King of Misrule who would issue orders to be obeyed by all.

Another Roman holiday, Sol Invictus, meaning Invincible Sun, was celebrated on December 25, as linked to the winter solstice. It is believed that Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, must have turned this Roman culture towards Christianity and away from paganism. It was during his reign that Christmas was first celebrated on December 25.

Some of the old customs became absorbed into Christmas celebrations. The tradition of lighting the Yule log, participating in plays and pantomimes, and doing role reversals are still carried on.

These days, preparations for Christmas begin as early as the end of November. In fact, the third Friday of November is known as Black Friday, the day Christmas shopping starts. The festivity peaks on December 25, and the next day, it is business as usual. However, the traditional celebration of Christmas is something very different. The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and marks the period of expectation as the birth of Jesus is eagerly anticipated. Carols are sung to welcome the Holy Child. On December 25, Christmas Day, 12 days of celebration begins, ending on January 6, with the celebration of the Epiphany.

Catholics celebrate the days after Christmas as the feast days of saints. December 26 is St Stephen’s feast, 27 is St John the Evangelist, 29 is St Thomas Becket, and so on. December 26 is also known as Boxing Day. On this day, gifts were given to servants, postmen and errand boys as thanks for good service throughout the year. Servants traditionally served families on Christmas Day and were given the next day off to visit their families. Employers would give them a box containing gifts, bonuses and leftover food to take to their families, hence the name.

Nowadays, it is still the day of the box – the television box, that is. People watch their favourite game that day, be it cricket, football or soccer.

Jesus Christ is said to have been born in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank of Israel. There is a very simple church there, called The Church of the Nativity. Underneath the church is a cave or grotto in which Jesus is said to have been born. The spot where Jesus was born is marked with a prominent 14-pointed silver star, and visitors kneel to kiss this spot.

However, Christmas is not observed on a particular day in Bethlehem, because different denominations celebrate on different days. Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on December 25, while Syrian, Greek and Orthodox Christians celebrate on January 6, while Armenians observe the festival on January 18. So Christmas celebrations and services are held on different days and in different ways. Therefore, Christmas lasts for a long time here.

Traditionally, a giant Christmas tree is lit in the Manger Square. On Christmas Eve, a grand parade is held, led by galloping horsemen and police mounted on Arabian horses. They are followed by a man riding a black horse and carrying a cross. After him come the churchmen and government officials. The procession quietly enters the doors of the Basilica of the Nativity and puts an ancient effigy of the Holy Child in the church. Visitors can then go down deep winding stairs to a grotto where the silver star marks the site of the birth of Jesus. Midnight mass is held inside the church. Since the church is very small, and cannot hold giant crowds, it can be seen on a giant screen on Manger Square.

Another place of religious significance to Christians is the Vatican, which is the seat of the Catholic Church. Here, Christmas celebration starts with the Novena which comes 8 days before Christmas. This is a celebration by young musicians singing Christmas songs. Presepio or the Nativity scene or crib is commonly set up by every household here. Another traditional Italian decoration is the Ceppo, a pyramid structure which is designed to hold shelves full of Christmas items like gifts and candles. People in the Vatican observe a 24-hour fast before Christmas. It is broken by having a meal with the family on the festival. They light long slim candles known as Christmas tapers.

The Vatican Christmas Tree, also called St Peter’s Square Christmas tree, is the decorated tree erected annually in St Peter’s Square, directly in front of St Peter’s Basilica. Every year, a tree is donated to the Pope by a different European country or region.

On Christmas Eve, the festival is celebrated inside St Peter’s Basilica with a midnight mass and a live coverage of the Pope reciting a holiday reading from the Basilica’s central balcony. A huge television screen is set up in front of St Peter’s Square for people to see the midnight mass live. The Pope’s address and blessing is known as Urbi et Orbi, meaning, ‘to the City (of Rome) and to the World’. The Pope also greets the people in different languages.

What is Christmas without Santa Claus, right? Santa ‘lives’ in Santa Claus village located at the Arctic Circle, about 8 km north of Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland. His workshop, manned by elves, can be found here, and the Santa Claus Main Post Office, which is a real post office operated by Posti, Finland’s national postal service. Every letter sent from here gets a special Arctic Circle postmark that is unique to this place. And for your information, Santa starts his trip around the world at 7 pm on December 23.

In Finland, the land of Santa, no Christmas is complete without a stint in the sauna. After the steam bath, Finns head out to watch the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis.

The most famous Norwegian Christmas custom is the big Christmas tree Norway gives the UK every year. This tree is given as a present to say ‘Thank you’ for the help that the UK gave Norway during the Second World War. It is set up in Trafalgar Square in the middle of London every year and thousands of people come to see it when the lights are turned on.

Swedes gather around their TV sets every Christmas at 3 pm sharp to watch Donald Duck cartoons, a tradition that began in the 1960s. Families sometimes have goats made of straw to guard their Christmas tree. In the city of Gavle, a huge straw goat is built every year at the start of Advent. However, the Gavle Yule Goat ends up being burnt by vandals most of the time!

Venezuelans in Caracas make their way to church on roller skates. This is so well established that streets are closed up by 8 am to allow them safe transit.

In Ukraine, cobweb decorations are used to decorate the Christmas tree. Germans hide a pickle in their trees and reward the child that finds it. In New Zealand, the Christmas tree is not a fir, but a Pohutukawa tree which has bright crimson flowers.

Many Brazilian customs come from the Portuguese due to colonisation. So Nativity scenes called Presepio are very popular. They also have Christmas plays called ‘Os Pastores’ or the Shepherds. However, in the Brazilian version, there is also a shepherdess and a woman who tries to steal Baby Jesus. Midnight mass is called Missa do Galo (Mass of the Roster) and is attended by most people, especially Catholics. Brazilians also get a ‘13th salary’ at the end of the year, that is, they get paid twice in the month of December.

Only 1% of the Chinese population is Christian, so Christmas is celebrated only in big cities. Santa is known as ‘Sheng dan lao ren’ meaning Old Christmas man. Only a few people have a Christmas tree, and it is likely to be a plastic one, decorated with paper chains, paper flowers and paper lanterns. The irony is that most plastic Christmas trees and tree ornaments are made in China, but none are used there!

A new tradition is emerging in China, of giving apples wrapped in colourful paper on Christmas Eve, since the word for apple in Mandarin is ‘pingguo’, which sounds like the word for peace.

Lithuania has some very special customs for Christmas. Many people fast during the day, and everything in the house gets cleaned. The big meal for Christmas Eve is called Kucios and contains no meat. The table is usually spread with straw – to remind people of Jesus lying in the manger – and covered with a clean white tablecloth. Often an extra place is set, for a family member who can’t attend the feast or has died recently. Sometimes, a candle is lit to remember family members who have died.

In Egypt, only 15% of the people are Christians, and most of them belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Their Christmas is not on December 25, but on January 7, like Orthodox Christians in Russia and Serbia. During Advent, from November 25 to January 6, Coptic Orthodox Christians observe a special vegan fast, when they don’t eat any animal products. Of course, they make up for it on January 7, in a big Christmas meal. Also, in Egypt, Santa is called Baba Noel or Father Christmas!

One of the most important traditions of an Italian Christmas is the Nativity Crib Scene. This is because St Francis of Assisi used the crib to help tell the Christmas story. The city of Naples is very famous for its cribs and crib making. These cribs are known as ‘Presepe Napoletano’ meaning Neapolitan Cribs. These cribs are special because they include everyday people and objects. Naples is also home to the largest crib scene in the world with over 600 objects in it. In Naples, there is still a street of Nativity scene makers called the ‘Via San Gregorio Armeno’ where wonderful handmade crib decorations, figures and cribs may be purchased.

Christmas in India is a very special time indeed. The festive mood begins well in advance of the holiday, with the preparation of delicacies for the feasts and for sharing. Towns and cities are decorated and lighted for the occasion. People hang stars outside their homes to denote the star that led the Magi to the Holy Child. They also set up cribs or Nativity scenes outside their houses. Christmas trees are set up, and cotton wool is used as snow. On Christmas Eve, at midnight, Baby Jesus is placed in the crib, completing the scene. Figures are often handmade and painted. Carol singing is also an integral part of the season.

The tribes of Nagaland have a unique flavour of Christmas in which they combine their customs with Christmas traditions. Along with Christmas lights, stars, new clothes and firecrackers, they also perform group dances and make traditional gourmet feasts. The Sumi tribe prepares dishes with fermented soya beans, the Angami tribe prepares dishes called Moudi and Gahlo, while the Lotha tribe makes pork dishes with bamboo shoots. They also play a special game. A bamboo pole greased with pork fat is used to hang both money and meat together. Teams have to climb up the pole to claim the prize.

In Meghalaya, men and women wear their traditional attire to attend services and sing hymns. Incidentally, there is an almost 100-year-old and 150-foot-tall fir tree on the premises of All Saints Cathedral Hall in Shillong, planted by the British.

In Manipur, the Tangkhuls of Ukhrul district start their celebrations on December 24 by ceremonially slaughtering pigs before the midnight mass. The next day, there is another service at the church followed by community feasts. In Mizoram, the tradition of the Christmas sock is replaced by a traditional Mizo plate known as ‘Thlang-ra’.

No matter where you are, or which religion you belong to, Christmas has been and is a season of peace and brotherhood. And as Mary Ellen Chase said, “Christmas is not a date. It is a state of mind.”

Merry Christmas to you & yours!

Interesting facts:

The tallest tree is the one in Rio de Janeiro – it is 278-feet-tall and floats in the city’s lagoon.

The world’s biggest Christmas stocking is from Sedalia, Missouri, USA – 177-foot, 10.75-inch long, and 72-foot, 8 7/16-inch wide stocking. It weighs 820 pounds.

Published 22 December 2018, 19:30 IST

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