While houses are draped with colored jewel tone lights, the smells of freshly baked cakes, dried fruits, and vanilla protrude from the kitchen. ItÂ’s a time of peace and remembrance, free from the strain of materialistic attributes. It's Christmas!
Christmas in Europe is a unique and distinctive holiday where people from all cultures share a diverse, yet paralleled enjoyment for legend, food, and spirit.
My great love of the Middle Ages brings me to one of my favorite countries in the world. Around the 6th century, individuals called mummers would wear masks and act out plays, which are still performed in villages today.
Father Christmas comes bearing gifts the night before Christmas dressed in his long green or red robe, filling children's stockings and pillowcases with presents. The presents are not opened until the following day, usually in the afternoon. That special day is called Boxing Day, simply for the reason that young boys go around collecting money in their clay boxes. When the boxes are full, they break them open.
The traditional meal is roasted turkey with vegetables, and dessert is typically pastries and pies prepared with dried fruits and brandy sauces. The only meal eaten the day before Christmas is Frumenty, which is a corn porridge. The recipe have evolved over the years with eggs, spices, meats, fruit, and dried plums being incorporated. This was the beginning of plum pudding.
On the eve of Christmas, a feast of nine to twelve meatless dishes is prepared including various legumes, plums, cakes, nuts and berries, and kravai (round bread with a hole in the center). The family sits on the floor which is usually covered with straw, Usually unmarried young men visit homes and sing carols of wealth and health. In return, they receive money or gifts. They would also carry long sticks called "Rkoledaris", which were used to transport the kravai.
The newly married women do all of the cooking, while the others clean and prepare the house for visitors and their celebration. The eldest man of the house and his family read the 'Our Lord's' Prayer and drink warmed plum or grape brandy to which some caramelized sugar had been added. "The luckiest person was the one who found the coin put into the loaf of bread, because it was luck bringing. After supper was over the enjoyed the festive night dedicated to Nativity."
Christmas in Sweden lasts for two entire months starting with Advent. Each Sunday before Christmas, a candle is lit on a wreath that is decorated with berries and lichens. Twelve days before Christmas Day, the oldest daughter will wear a white robe and a headdress in the shape of a wreath, adorned with candles. The daughter will serve Lussekatter and coffee to her family in bed.
On Saint Lucy's Day, or rather the Festival of Lights, there is a street procession that includes a white robed choir and handheld candles. "Some may be dressed in the same kind of white robe, but with a cone-shaped hat decorated with golden stars, called stjärngossar (star boys); some may be dressed up as "tomtenissar", carrying lanterns; and some may be dressed up as gingerbread men."
The Christmas trees are decorated with straw and glass ornaments, tinsel, and white twinkle lights. The lighting of the tree is the big event on Saint Lucy's Day, much like our lighting of the tree in Rockefeller Plaza.
The traditional Russian Christmas includes a 39 day fast until January 6th, Christmas Eve. A dinner is then prepared that consists of twelve courses representing the twelve apostles including a beef stew or Borscht, dried fruit, stuffed cabbage (my personal favorite), and fish. Similar to a Bulgarian Christmas, carols are sung while hay is spread on the floors and tables to encourage horse feed to grow in the coming year.
Babushka is a traditional Christmas figure who distributes presents to children. Her name means grandmother and the legend is told that she declined to go with the wise men to see Jesus because of the cold weather. However, she regretted not going and set off to try and catch up, filling her basket with presents. She never found Jesus, and that is why she visits each house, leaving toys for good children.
Traditionally, a Norway Christmas consists of a pine or spruce tree decorated with silver tinsel, white lights, and Norwegian flags, and in some cases, you might see some construction paper ringlets strung around the trees. The use of colored lights is hardly seen since many people believe that the white lights represent candles, which is a bit more traditional. The Christmas tree only started to make an appearance in the early 20th century in Norway. On Christmas day, before Christmas presents are opened, the family will traditionally circle and dance around the tree singing Norwegian carols.
One of my earliest memories of Christmas was the presentation of a ceramic boot that my grandmother had hand painted. She would put it outside the door when we visited for Christmas. I never knew the significance behind the boot, or even the reason why she set it outside, but I do remember my grandfather saying, "you really don't want twigs for Christmas do you?" Now I know the story behind the legend, that the spirit of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, would carry his trusty book that listed all of the actions of the year from all the naughty and nice boys and girls. If St. Nicholas filled the shoe with goodies, you knew you had been good, but if there were twigs, well better luck next year.
Aside from the legends and mystical stories, the origin of the Christmas tree is by far the most familiar to most people. In fact, Germans believe that Christmas without a fir tree is simply unimaginable. The crystal white lights and soft tranquility and splendor of the season is what is celebrated the most. Traditionally, the tree is put up 2 days before Christmas (not one day sooner); a tradition that is observed by Germans no matter where they are in the world.