By Dolores Sauca Lorusso
December is full of a world of holidays to light up the season. Although customs differ among cultures, the festive traditions and nostalgia we all share for this time of year remain the same.
This season is magical as snow blankets the sidewalks and flakes dance in the streetlights. The wonderful scent of pine grabs us as we walk in the cool, crisp air with freshly fallen snow crunching beneath our boots.
The days of our youth flit across our mind’s eye as we recall building a snowman, having a good-natured snowball fight, sledding down the nearest hill, or dropping into the snow to make a snow angel. And of course, nothing was sweeter than the mug of hot chocolate and cookies waiting for you when the afternoon of frolicking in the snow was through.
Many happily await the mail during the month of December in anticipation of receiving their first holiday card to commemorate the celebrations. Greeting cards in Europe and the United States began as handmade gifts expressing fondness and were hand-delivered to the special recipient. The first known published Christmas card appeared in London in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole hired artist John Calcott Horsley to design a holiday card that he could send to his friends and acquaintances. However, the custom of sending greeting cards can be traced back to the ancient Chinese, who exchanged messages of goodwill to celebrate the New Year, and to the early Egyptians, who conveyed their greetings on papyrus scrolls.
The celebration of Christmas started in Rome during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, but it did not become a major Christian festival until the ninth century. In approximately 300 A.D., the birthday of Jesus was determined to be on December 25, and the day has been rejoiced from then to this very moment. A day of remembrance, giving, and being with family and friends, Christmas day is a significant celebration for many cultures.
Every year, more than 400 million people commemorate Christmas, making Christmas one of the biggest holidays in the United States and around the world. Today, most Americans blend religious and secular customs with their own family traditions, often incorporating food, decorations, and rituals from places they or their ancestors once called home.
In Mexican tradition, Christmas is called Navidad and is celebrated for nine days with Las Posadas; it celebrates the biblical story of the nine-day journey Joseph and Mary made to find a place for Baby Jesus to be born. The Posadas begin on December 16 and end on Christmas Eve. It is a time of a jubilant reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This Mexican Christmas tradition literally translates in English as “the inns” or “the lodgings.”
The Mexican ritual includes a pageant of kids, the “pilgrims” or peregrinos, costumed as Joseph, Mary, angels, shepherds, and the Three Wise Men. They all travel to a designated home where Las Posadas will be celebrated. Upon arrival, the hosts or “innkeepers” meet the procession at the door for an exchange of lyrics from the traditional Posada songs; at first, the host turns them away but eventually welcomes them in to take shelter.
For those of Italian heritage, the season of Christmas begins eight days before Christmas, on December 17, and lasts until Epiphany, also known as “Little Christmas,” on January 6. In Italy, the eight days before Christmas are known as Novena, they are often marked by children going door to door singing and giving recitations. The Italian pastorals honor the journey of the shepherds to the manger. On Christmas Eve, the feast of the Seven Fishes is a popular tradition for Italian families, especially those with roots in Southern Italy.
Those of Chinese descent may refer to Christmas as Sheng Dan Jieh, which means Holy Birth Festival. They decorate their homes with evergreens, posters, and bright paper chains. Families put up a Christmas tree, called a “tree of light,” and decorate it with beautiful lanterns, flowers, and red paper chains than symbolize happiness.
The first recorded Christmas tree in a home in the USA was set up in Boston in 1832 by Charles Follen, who was a German political refugee. We know about it because of his wife’s memoirs written 10 years later. There are more records of early American trees in diaries and letters from 1842 in Virginia, 1847 in Ohio, and 1851 in South Carolina and Mississippi.
For those of Dutch, German, or Ukrainian heritage, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6, and although it involves stockings and small gifts, it is separate from celebrations on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In many places, children leave letters for St. Nicholas and carrots or grass for his donkey or horse. In the morning, they find small presents under their pillows or in their shoes, stockings, or plates they have set out for him. Oranges and chocolate coins are common treats that represent St. Nick. Legend tells of Nicholas tossing gold through a window to save a young peasant girl from being sold into slavery, and the gold landed in a stocking drying by the fire. Word of St. Nick’s generosity spread, and children began hanging stockings by their fireplaces in hopes Nicholas would visit.
For many Christians, this celebration merged with the Christmas holy day and St. Nicholas would be known by different names and looks; in Western culture he became known as Santa Claus, the legendary figure to bring gifts to children overnight on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus has become one of our most beloved holiday icons, adored by young and old alike. Clement Clarke Moore, author of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” (also known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), gave us our image of Santa as dressed in fur from his head to his foot, with a beard as white as snow, and looking chubby and plump like a jolly old elf. This was in stark contrast to the Bishop St. Nick with his staff, who went to give out gifts and discipline to children.
Jewish people observe Hanukkah during an eight-day-long holiday that marks the successful Jewish rebellion over the Greeks. The focal point of celebration is a branched candelabrum called the Menorah, and most Jewish homes have more than one. Each night, one candle is lit to commemorate the rededication of the Jewish temple during the Maccabean revolt. It is a holiday centered around recommitment to God, and the miracle of a small bit of oil burning a light for more days than anyone could imagine. On this special night, gifts are often given to children, hymns are recited, games are played, and food is enjoyed.
Similar to the Menorah, during the weeklong celebration of Kwanzaa, candles are placed in a candle holder called a Kinara and lit to celebrate the principles of the holiday – unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The holiday was first celebrated in 1966 and was developed to honor African-American culture. A Kwanzaa party often includes singing, drumming, and a selection of readings such as the African pledge or parts of African history.
On St. Lucia Day, which began in Sweden on December 13 in the 1900s, it is traditional to serve a St. Lucia Crown Cake, usually a round coffee cake with seven candles placed in a circle on it. Adults traditionally drink glogg, a type of mulled wine, and coffee or lingonberry juice is often served to non-drinkers. The day marks the winter solstice and celebrates the “return of light.” St. Lucia was one of the early Christian martyrs who brought Christianity to the Nordic countries. She would carry food and water to the Christians forced to hide in the catacombs of Rome. The catacombs were dark, and Lucy needed here hands free to carry supplies. So, she wore a wreath of candles on top of her head to light the way. In her honor, today young girls may wear a crown of battery-operated candles in a wreath on their heads.
December is a world of holidays featuring many multicultural celebrations. The many cultures from around the world, represented in the United States, are steeped in their own beliefs and rituals, which make the holidays uniquely their own. What better way to learn about another culture than to share in their holiday traditions?