Posts Tagged ‘Saint Nicholas’

Christmas in France

July 25, 2014

Christmas-in-france-eiffel-tower

Christmas market in front of the Eiffel Tower

The Christmas season in France begins on December 6 with St. Nicholas Day and continues through January 6 or Epiphany. In eastern France children receive gifts of candy, fruit, and small toys from the good saint. Some of these children hit the jackpot receiving gifts on both St. Nicholas Day and Christmas day. For the religious people in France the Christmas season begins on the first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas.

Houses are given a thorough cleaning. Floors are swept. Furniture is dusted and waxed. The silver is polished to a bright sheen, and the finest china is brought out to grace the Christmas board. After that the house is filled with the glorious sounds and aromas of Christmas cooking and baking.

In nearly every house a manger scene is lovingly brought out of storage and given a place of prominence in the living room. The manger scene first appeared in Avignon between 1316 and 1334 B.C. but did not become popular until the 16th century. Legend says that ancestors of St. Francis of Assisi brought the tradition with them to France. Many families have figures that have been handed down from generation to generation and may be a hundred years old or more. These scenes may be simple scenes with just the holy family, shepherds, wise men, and a few animals; or they may be very elaborate forming a complete village with many figures called santons, little saints, representing Bible characters and villagers seen in everyday life, such as a mayor, priest, policeman, butcher, and baker. Many families purchase new santons to add to their nativity scene every year at a local store or outdoor Christmas market. Even children get involved gathering moss, stones, and twigs to be included in the scenery.

At midnight Christmas Eve adults and older children attend midnight masses at beautifully decorated churches and cathedrals where joyful choirs and peeling bells welcome Christmas Day. Younger children, instead of attending mass, are sleeping dreaming of the presents they will receive in the morning.

After midnight mass families return home or visit a restaurant to enjoy a feast known as le reveillon. The foods served for le reveillon vary according to the region. Served in many courses, the meal may include such meats as roast beef, leg of lamb, goose, chicken, turkey, duck, pheasant, quail, grouse, and baked ham. Wild boar and venison are considered delicacies for this Christmas meal. The fish course may include all kinds of fresh water fish, oysters, snails, sea urchins, shrimp, clams, mussels, and lobster. One region of France makes buckwheat cakes served with sour cream a must-have dish for their reveillon. Salads and fruit such as oranges, apples, bananas, pears, grapes, tangerines, and plums are enjoyed by celebrants as well as all kinds of bread. Cheeses of all shapes and sizes and an assortment of pates made with goose, duck, or rabbit liver which may be mixed with minced ham or pork are integrated into this extensive meal. Wait! The meal is not finished yet. There is still dessert. Boxes of chocolates, hard candies, candied fruit, and other pastries like tartes, pies, tartlets, petit fours, napoleons, éclairs grace the table accompanying the piece de resistance, the buche de Noel or Yule Log cake. This sponge cake is rolled with a chocolate butter cream filling and frosted with a brown icing. It is often marked with lines to make it look like a log. It may also be decorated with confectioners’ sugar, nuts, images of Pere Noel, roses, sugar or real, elves, or sprigs of fresh holly. Wine and/or champaign also accompanies the meal.

For more about Christmas in France and other Christmas customs please visit my website, http://www.customsofchristmas.com.

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Christmas in Italy – part 1

May 25, 2013

nativity sceneItaly enjoys a wide range of weather conditions during the Christmas season. In southern Italy Christmas is warm and sunny. In Rome, Christmas tends to be chilly and damp, almost Spring-like. In the mountain regions of northern Italy, Christmases are white with a lot of snow, ice, and cold temperatures.

Preparations for Christmas begin in December. People around Sicily also enjoy puppet shows with hand-carved puppets performing fairy tale stories and enacting legendary battle scenes. Storekeepers decorate their shops with lights and greenery. Families visit vibrant Christmas markets looking for presents, goodies, and new figures to add to the home manger scene. In the schools children put on plays, give recitals, and make decorations. People begin visiting friends and family bringing gifts, sharing good food, and visiting as many magnificent nativity displays as possible.

On December 6 many Italians celebrate the feast day of San Nicola (St. Nicholas). All along the Adriatic coast, children anxiously await the visit of the saint with his gifts and goodies he brings.

On December 13 the people of Sicily celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia (St. Lucy). Tradition says that, on the eve of her day, Lucia travels the countryside accompanied by a donkey carrying baskets loaded with gifts for those she visits. Children leave their shoes on the doorstep along with food for the donkey. Lucia then fills the shoes with presents. On the morning of St. Lucia’s day, a child, usually the oldest daughter of the family, dresses up as Lucia and serves the family breakfast in bed.

The Christmas season really starts in Italy with Christmas Novena. This is a nine-day period of spiritual preparation ending Christmas Eve marked by attending church services.

Christmas Eve is spent with family and for making final preparations for Christmas day. They may enjoy the sights and sounds of Christmas and the smells of the Christmas markets. Some Italians attend midnight Christmas Eve services at their local churches. In Cortina D’Apezzo, a town in northern Italy, families gather to watch the Alpine guides ski down the mountain carrying flaming torches.

Christmas Day arrives with the pealing of hundreds of church bells. The tradition of ringing church bells at Christmas is thought to have begun nearly 1,600 years ago by Bishop Paulinas of Nola. Families spend the day together exchanging gifts, playing games, telling stories, and feasting.

On December 26 a number of Italians celebrate St. Stephen’s Day. Once a day of religious devotion St Stephen’s Day is now spent relaxing or visiting friends and family.

As Christianity spread in Italy in times past the Christmas season was extended to January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Cities and towns host Epiphany parades, and people sing songs honoring the three kings.

The following recipe is a favorite at Christmastime in Italy.

Almond Macaroons

1 can (8 ounces) almond paste, cut in pieces
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 egg whites
Pine nuts

Combine almond paste, sugar, and egg whites in a bowl and work with a spoon until smooth. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto cookie sheets lined with unglazed paper. Top with pine nuts. Bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit about 12 minutes, or until delicately browned. Cool slightly, then remove cookies to racks to cool. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

The origin of Christmas gift giving

March 24, 2013

The first gifts given to honor the birth of the Christ child came from a group of men called wise men or magi. The Bible does not tell us how many wise men there were. Most people assume there were three because of the three gifts mentioned, but there could have been more. These gifts were expensive and reflected the wise men’s perception of Jesus’ station in life. But those gifts were not the first Christmas gifts. The first Christmas gift came from God Himself. This is the origin of Christmas gift giving: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. That whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

Gifts had been exchanged during the midwinter season for many years before Christ was born. The Romans are credited with starting the custom of giving gifts during their midwinter festivals. The first festival, Saturnalia, occurred in mid to late December. Gifts of wax candles, wax fruit, and clay dolls were exchanged between social peers. Gifts and good wishes were given to friends and family during the New Year festival Kalends.

As the Roman empire grew gift giving spread throughout Europe. As time went on the celebration of Saturnalia died out but gift giving during the New Year’s celebration continued. In many places, like England, gift giving was reserved for those within the social hierarchy. Peasants gave gifts of farm produce to their lord who then provided a Christmas feast. Nobles gave gifts to the king and queen who also gave gifts to their court. This practice occurred not on Christmas day but on New Year’s day. It was still considered to be a part of the Christmas because the Christmas season, during the medieval period lasted for twelve days. There is no record of gift giving between friends or family members during this time.

The first recorded occurrence of Christmas gift giving between family and friends comes from 16th century Germany. Children received “Christ-bundles” consisting of coins, sugarplums, nuts, apples, dolls, clothing, school books, religious books, or writing materials. Parents told their children that the Christkind, or Christ child, brought their gifts. Through the 17th and 18th centuries the tradition spread throughout Europe and England. Popular gifts included food items, warm clothing, accessories, jewelry, pens, watches, and books for children.

Eventually, by early 19th century, New Year’s gift giving was absorbed by Christmas gift giving. Partly this was due to the number of days within the Christmas season where gifts were exchanged. Some European countries honored St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, on his day by giving gifts to children, a practice that some say was started by nuns in central France who left packages of nuts, oranges, and other “good things to eat” on the doorsteps of poor families with children on St. Nicholas’s eve. Others exchanged gifts on St. Martin’s (Martinmas) eve in honor of the saint’s practice of riding through the countryside giving treats to children. And still others exchanged gifts on St. Stephen’s Day. On this day during the Middle Ages parish priests opened up church alms boxes and distributed the coins found inside to the needy. This practice grew to include boxed gifts of food, money, and clothing given by the affluent in society to those in the working class who served them in some fashion during the year. St. Stephen’s Day soon lost its identity to these gift boxes and became Boxing Day.

The custom of exchanging gifts between friends and family members became widespread during the 19th century. This was aided by the spread of the German Christmas tree as the repository for Christmas gifts and the popularity of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, as the giver of Christmas gifts.

Today people all over the world spend billions of dollars every year for Christmas gifts. For some Christmas gift giving is a bother trying to out-give one another, remembering everyone from whom a gift may be received, or facing the high cost of the Christmas season. For others Christmas gift giving is a joy a chance to express appreciation and love to others, a chance to give of oneself to those who cannot give back, and a time to honor the One whose birthday is being celebrated. Which group do you belong? I hope it is the latter.

Christmas in Australia

April 25, 2012

Christmas Down Under is quite different from Christmas in northern climes.  Australia’s Christmas customs are drawn from a unique blend of cultures, mixed with outback ingenuity, and a bit of hot weather.  While people in the northern hemisphere experience cold temperatures and dream of white Christmases, Australians celebrate a sun-and-surf Christmas.

Christmas tree on the beach

Christmas trees on the beach are a common sight on Christmas day in Australia.

The Christmas season arrives in Australia with much pomp and pageantry.  Cities and towns all over the continent welcome the season with elaborate parades.  Hundreds, even thousands, of people take part in these parades as costumed characters, bands, dancers, riders on amazing floats, and more.  Hundreds of thousands more people line the parade routes to enjoy the sights and sounds of Christmas and to welcome Santa Claus.

In 1838 the town of Hahndorf was founded by German Lutheran families who brought their German traditions with them.  On the night of December 5 the people of Hahndorf celebrate St. Nicholas Night.  Santa Claus dressed in his bishop’s apparel as St. Nicholas comes to town accompanied by two “Black Peters.”  They arrive in a candlelight parade giving treats to children along the parade route.  As St. Nicholas passes the townsfolk join the pageant which ends at a candlelight caroling service.  At the service people get to enjoy another German tradition as St. Nicholas passes out gingerbread men to the attendees.

Festivals are a big part of Australia’s Christmas season.  During the week before Christmas eve in Queensland the Christmas Lantern Festival is held.  There are parades to watch, concerts to go to, dances to participate in, and nightly fireworks displays.  Adults and children alike enjoy Christmas plays including an interactive “First Christmas” nativity scene where they can pet the animals and talk with the actors.  The highlight of the Christmas Lantern Festival is “The Night the River Sings,” a parade of decorated and lighted boats.  Commercial and private boats cruise the Brisbane River competing for prizes.

Another major festival is Darling Harbour’s 12 Days of Christmas festival in Sydney.  Once again a parade, led by people dressed as Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus, opens the festival.  Every night of the festival people take in a number of acts including acrobats, jazz musicians, barbershop quartets, actors, Christmas carolers, and rock-and-roll musicians.

Australians love to get together to sing Christmas carols.  All across the continent in many towns and cities people gather to sing carols by candlelight.  Carolers join large choirs, popular musical acts, as well as local church, school, and community groups for evenings full of good music under the calming light of dozens of candles.  The best known gathering is held in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens at a natural amphitheater called The Domain.  The Sydney Philharmonic Choir may, at times, be seen here.  This is one of the events televised throughout Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia.  Revelers going to the “carols-by-candlelight celebration” held at the Emerald Lake Park can make the trek on the Puffing Billy Carol Train.  Riders board the train in the town of Belgrade, 25 miles from Melbourne.  A shiny steam engine pulls the train to the Emerald Lake Park where people enjoy and purchase food, Christmas goodies, and decorations as well as the singing.  All proceeds from the ride benefit the William Angliss Hospital.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is a time for preparing for Christmas day.  While Christmas Eve is not a public holiday schools are closed and some offices close early.  Stores stay open so the last-minute shopper can buy all they need for the big day.  Christmas Eve church services, as well as services held on Christmas Day, are well-attended.  At St. Peter’s church in Adelaide there is even a children’s Christmas Eve service held late in the afternoon.  Carol singing is a major part of these services.

As evening turns to night children hang their stockings on the bedposts or near the fireplace.  Instead of cookies and milk, children in Australia leave chocolate cake or lamingtons, sponge cake cubes covered in chocolate icing and dried coconut, and ice-cold lemonade for Santa Claus and carrots, other vegetables, grass, and a bucket of cool water for Santa’s reindeer.

Christmas Day

Christmas Day arrives in Australia’s early summer months.  Temperatures often range from 80 degrees Fahrenheit to 100 or more degrees Fahrenheit.  In this heat it is no wonder that many Australians spend Christmas day out-of-doors at the beach or some other venue.

Upon waking up, children dive into their stockings filled with wonderful treats and other goodies.  The presents under the tree, however, are left until the parents wake.  After the tree is plundered families head to an outdoor celebration, to grandparents’ home, or to an aunt and uncle’s home for more presents and a wonderful Christmas dinner with the extended family.  The beach is a favorite place for many Christmas celebrations, but one of Australia’s many parks is also a choice place to spend the Christmas holiday.  While the beach offers swimming, music, and pick-up games of volleyball and soccer, the park offers hiking, gaming, and lots of shade from the hot summer sun.  No matter where one goes there will be some great picnicking going on.

Christmas in Germany

February 14, 2012

English: Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in...

Image via Wikipedia

Christmas celebrations in Germany start on November 11 with the celebration of St. Martin’s Day.  St. Martin’s Day remembers Martin, a Roman soldier, who, when riding through the countryside on a cold day, met a beggar asking for alms.  Martin had nothing on him to give but, noticing that the beggar was cold, took his cloak and cut it in two pieces and gave one piece to the beggar.  That night, after Christ appeared to him in a dream, Martin devoted his life to service to God.

On St. Martin’s Day children receive small gifts and eat treats, mainly currant buns.  They make homemade lanterns out of cardboard and transparent colored paper.  Some of these lanterns are quite intricate.  They hang the lanterns on long poles and march through town.  After the procession the people reenact the legend of St. Martin.

On November 30, St. Andrew’s Night is celebrated.  Young girls, before retiring for the night, may perform rituals to predict the identity of their future husbands.

About four weeks before Christmas, approximately December 1, many Germans observe the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is a time of introspection and preparation looking forward to the birthday of the Christ child.  It is observed during the four Sundays before Christmas.

On St. Barbara’s Day, December 4, early budding cherry branches are cut and put in a warm place to bloom for Christmas.

Children look forward to December 6, St. Nicholas’s Day.  St. Nicholas visits all the children of Germany along with an assistant, either Black Peter or Krampus.  St. Nicholas arrives riding a white horse not a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and is a stern man not jolly.  St. Nicholas gives gifts, candy, and treats to all the good children while Black Peter or Krampus gives switches to the naughty children.

On the 13th of December children gather and parade through town singing carols.  At the end of the parade route they perform a play about the Nativity.

On December 21, St. Thomas’s Day, the air is filled with the aroma of rich fruitcakes baking.  After all the baking is finished the people gather to dance the night away.

The big Christmas celebration begins on December 23, the Eve of the Eve.  It is said that the Virgin Mary and flights of angels fly overhead bringing advanced word of the Christ child’s birth.  On Christmas Eve, December 24, the Christmas baking is done, presents are wrapped and distributed, and the Christmas tree is decorated.  Children leave lists of gifts they wish to receive on the window sills for the Christ child, the Christmas gift giver in Germany.  The main dish for supper on December 24 is carp.  Brass bands serenade passersby with Christmas carols, and people attend midnight church services.  On Christmas day Catholic and Lutheran families attend church services.  Goose is the meal of choice, and families spend time with each other.

December 26 is St. Stephen’s Day, and December 28 is Holy Innocent’s Day.  Holy Innocent’s Day remembers the slaughter of the children of the Bethlehem area by King Herod.  On that day children pretend to swat adults with switches and are placated with small presents.

Traditional foods served on December 31, New Year’s Eve, are carp, a hot spiced punch called sylvesterabend served with pfannkuchen (doughnuts), and balbauschen, a fried cake stuffed with raisins and currants.  People also attend early evening church services.

Epiphany (January 6), also known as Twelfth Night or Festival of the Three Kings, is celebrated by eating Kings cakes.  Kings cakes are baked with a bean inside.  The one who finds the bean becomes king of the feast and is allowed to give ridiculous orders to those around him or her.

The final night of the Christmas season comes on January 13 and is known as Octave of Epiphany.  Groups of four boys each march around town singing “star songs.”  One boy carries a lighted star on a pole while the others are dressed as the three kings.  Some groups carry a crib filled with good things to leave with a needy family.

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