Christmas Around the World

By Fred Jerant

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev’rywhere you go…”

And ev’rywhere you go, the Valley is awash in candy canes, holly and a Santa Claus in every store. We write out wish lists, put out milk’n’cookies on Christmas Eve, and rig enough lights to make Clark Griswold jealous.

But other cultures celebrate this festive holiday differently. And, as our area’s population becomes more diverse, it’s time to get acquainted with some of those practices.

Several Valley residents – with heritages and experiences that go beyond U. S. shores – shared their own observances with me.

GERMANY (Frohe Weihnachten!)

We start with Germany – a nation with deep roots in our region, and the one that gave America the tradition of the Weinachtsbaum. In fact, Easton lays claim to having the first Christmas tree in America, back in 1916.

Sandy Gillen, advertising director for the Moravian Book Shop and Gift Gallery, spent six years in Germany with her husband, then an Air Force pilot.

Gillen says that the German influence is quite visible in Bethlehem. “Our Moravian star is known as the advent star in Germany,” says. Traditionally made from folded paper, those stars are often dipped in wax and sprinkled with glitter.

And the city’s Christkindlmarkt is reminiscent of the German Weinachtsmarkt. Originally, Gillen says, these open-air holiday markets were collections of little wooden huts, where you could buy baked goods and hand-crafted ornaments.

Gillen also has Pennsylvania Dutch roots, and says “der Belsnickel” is a kind of alternative to Santa. “He’s a crotchety old man carrying a bag of treats in one hand, and a bag of switches in the other,” she says. “When Belsnickel knocks, parents let him in. He grills the kids on their behavior, and threatens the ‘bad’ ones with switches…but they all get treats from him.”

MEXICO (Feliz Navidad!)

Tony Ortiz, independent TV producer and host of RCN’s Nuestro Valle, says Christmas in his native Mexico “is much more of a religious holiday, and focuses on the baby Jesus.” Nativity sets are essential, and they are quite ornate. “When I was growing up, our set was four or five feet high, and built on several levels,” he recalls. “You never put baby Jesus in until after midnight on December 25.”

Mexico’s Christmas celebration begins on December 16, and “Las Posadas” (“the lodgings”) is a common practice. On each of nine nights, a group of neighborhood families reenact the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, and finally find “lodging” at the home of that evening’s host. Inside, the guests pray before the nativity scene; afterward, there are Christmas carols, a piñata for the children and a feast.

IRELAND (Nollaig Shona Duit!)

“Christmas Day in Ireland is a family affair,” says Neville Gardner, owner of Donegal Square in Bethlehem.  “And the Christmas feast is always turkey.” Tables are decorated with “Christmas crackers” – brightly wrapped cardboard tubes with small gifts inside.  Two adjoining diners pull on each end until it breaks with a snapping sound. Whoever holds the larger end keeps the gift.

On December 26, Ireland celebrates St. Stephen’s Day – called “Boxing Day” in the rest of the United Kingdom. “It’s a public holiday,” Gardner says, “and most businesses are closed. It’s also a day for visiting your extended family – sort of like celebrating Christmas all over again.”

And why is it called “Boxing Day?” “Long ago, churches would take money from their alms boxes and distribute it to the poor on that day,” he says. In later years, employers would reward service workers with personal boxes of money and gifts.  Today’s equivalent is a tip for your mail carrier or auto mechanic.

RUSSIA (S rozhdestvom Khristovym!)

Most Russian Christians follow Eastern Orthodox practices, including adherence to the Julian calendar (which is 13 days “later” than the Gregorian calendar). Thus, Christmas Day is notated as January 7.

Many long-standing Christmas traditions in Russia were outlawed by the Soviet regime, says Ukraine native Dr. Luba Iskold, director of the Russian studies program, and associate professor of Russian at Muhlenberg College. But they are gradually coming back.

“On Christmas Eve, families go to church and then have ‘Holy Supper,’ a large, festive meal,” Iskold says. “It features a dish called ‘kutya,’ and it’s usually made with steamed wheat, raisins, honey and nuts.” The grain is said to symbolize hope and immortality; honey ensures happiness and success.

And gifts are brought by Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”). He’s usually depicted as a tall man, dressed in red and white (or blue and white) and accompanied by his beautiful blonde granddaughter, Snegurochka (“Snow Maiden”). “The roots of these characters go back to pagan times,” Iskold says.

FRANCE (Joyeux Noël!)

One striking difference in French Christmases is the importance of the nativity scene, or crèche, says Regina Rooney. The Allentown resident taught French in the Quakertown Community School District for over 30 years and spent her college junior year in Montpellier, France.

“French crèches don’t depict just the Holy Family, shepherds and Wise Men,” she says. “Townspeople are included as well – the mayor, egg sellers, fishermen, butchers – in the form of figurines called santons.”

The tradition dates from 18th-century Provence. The santons can be a foot tall, and are decorated with real clothing. Smaller ones are just painted. They’re still made from clay, using molds that have been handed down for years.

French children also anticipate the arrival of St. Nicolas on December 6. The good saint leaves chocolates or “St. Nicolas en pain d’épices,” a gingerbread replica of himself. But watch out for Père Fouettard! The scraggly-bearded, black-dressed sidekick carries a bag of sticks for naughty children! Of course, Père Noël (“Father Christmas”) still makes his rounds on Christmas Eve.

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