The Institute Presents: Traditions of Christmas
It's our second Christmas together here at the Institute and we wanted to continue the tradition of sharing our traditions for Christmas! Like last year, they may not be the same for everyone, but they help bring us together across Greater Europe, and that's what the Institute it all about. So from the Institute for a Greater Europe, we wish you all a Merry Christmas!
Ana Popova - Ruse, Bulgaria
Celebrating Christmas in Bulgaria is all about a miraculous process of weight gain. The traditional Christmas’ Eve dinner is made of an odd number of dishes which should not contain meet. However, drinking 45% Mulled Rakia without the consumption of any animal would not meet the standards of a true Bulgarian. Your grandmother has at least put some effort into hiding the meat in pickled cabbage leaves and has created the wonder of Sarma.
The enjoyment of this dazzling array of tastes is followed by a heart-warming tradition called Koleduvane. Christmas Carolers visit the homes and sing songs wishing health and happiness, starting their rounds on Christmas Eve. The positive power of these wishes chases away the demons, which makes the visit of these young men an especially positive experience for Bulgarian households.
The whole evening in expectation of the Koledari singers is spent with the family around the fire, where a huge block of oak or cherry tree called Badnik keeps the house warm all night long. This embodies one of our oldest Christmas traditions which have been around since pagan times and is used to tell our fortune. If the stump burns heavily and bright, the year is going to be one of much health and fertility.
Peter Merritt - Niagra Falls, Canada
The Christmas season in Canada is the happiest time of the year. The festive feelings begin early into December when many people decorate their house and front yards with flashy, colourful, and cheerful christmas celebrations in anticipation of the big day. Many children receive advent calendars from their parents, as a daily reminder that Christmas is right around the corner.
The centrepiece of the Christmas season in any house is the Christmas tree. Households decorate their Christmas trees with garland and ornaments special to them, no two Christmas trees are ever the same. As the day draws near, families gather from all across the country (and globe) and embrace each other’s company. On Christmas Eve, children are allowed to open one gift and hang up their stockings to be stuffed.
Cookies and milk are left out, in anticipation of Santa’s arrival. In the early hours of the morning on the 25th Santa Claus comes down the chimney and delivers presents to all the children. These presents are opened with great excitement on the morning of the 25th, followed by a day of eating sweets and festive foods. In the evening Christmas dinner is served. The most common Christmas meal is Turkey with ‘all the trimmings’, such as mashed potatoes, gravy, and a variety of vegetables. The day following Christmas is known as ‘Boxing Day’, it is a day where many stores have discounts and deals, so many people spend the day going from store to store to stock up on Christmas gifts for next year!
Lucia Nafziger - Cologne, Germany
In the morning of the 24th every child in Germany jumps out of bed to open the final door of their “Adventskalender”. The advent calendar plays a major role during the christmas festivities here. The excitement of receiving a small surprise everyday from the first day of December on, makes the waiting for christmas a tiny bit easier! The tradition can be traced back to the German Protestants who drew chalk marks on doors or lit candles to count the days leading up to Christmas. Next to the advent calendar we still light up candles to continue this tradition. On Christmas Eve the faces of everyone around the festively laid tables are illuminated by the four candles on the “Adventskranz”. Each one having been lit on one of the four preceding Sundays, on which we often sing carols. Not seldom however, the wreath fades into the background between enormous piles of “Plätzchen” (biscuits of various sorts) and different creations of “Lebkuchenhäuser”. The typical dinner on Christmas Eve varies between carp, mainly eaten in many Catholic families; potato salad with sausages or goose roast.
“Adventskranz” and “Plätzchen”
Timothée Albessard - Paris, France
Christmas, in France, is a long, commercial wait full of convulsing LEDs and glittering advertising for a single, short event that we never seem to get done with. Christmas, therefore, is Brexit. Yet it is a rather more seasoned one. Turkey, venison, name your own meat and you will have it slowly cooked in a thick, exquisite sauce for three hours. Such cholesterol-friendly delicacies inevitably go hand-in-hand with the Frenchiest treats: carefully chosen wines, and bubbly glasses of champagne for those who did not sign up for church. There are, after all, many kinds of holy water.
On to polemics now. Christmas dinners always go political, and it should be even more so this year with the current strikes in France (cannot blame you for calling it a pleonasm). Add some foie gras to your dinner table and the brawl is complete, when your classic, half-drunk uncle is calling you a vegetarian extremist if you dare say force-feeding geese is not your favourite cup of tea.
The only way to ease people’s minds is to start quarrelling about whether Santa Claus is to drop Christmas presents in the evening of the 24th, or in the morning of the 25th. Open up another bottle of champagne, gather the kids under the garlanded tree and pretend your grandparents’ gift is the most beautiful pair of socks you have ever received, and it surely will be a merry, merry Christmas.
Marcell Ottó Ormándy - Békéscsaba, Hungary
Christmas in Hungary is a celebration of family. Since Father Christmas, called Mikulás in Hungarian, comes on the 6th of December, we also celebrate the coming of Jesus during these 3 days. On the 24th, on Christmas Eve, also knows as the Evening of the Saint (“Szenteste”) people usually fast until the evening, and have the Christmas Dinner, families also get together to decorate pine trees. On the 25th gifts are exchanged and people sit together for the Christmas Lunch with the wider family. Hungarians get the day of the 26th off as part of the holidays, but there aren’t any habits regarding that day.
Hungarians also observe Advent, the period of waiting, by creating a circular wreath with 4 candles. The candles are lit each Sunday before Christmas, the first being the longest and the last being the shortens to make up for the time difference. The candles are all lit on Christmas Dinners and Lunches.
Abhivardhan - Allahabad, India
Allahabad, which these days, is known as Prayagraj, is popular for its Kumbh festival of Hindus and the Ganga-Jamuni culture, which an assortment of different religions and cultures. Different people from India in the North Belt live here and share a legacy since the British Raj after the Mughals and Nawabs in Lucknow. Allahabad is the centre of the North Indian Catholic Diocese and other religious institutions as well, which established a pro Indo-Western culture of Christmas here in a special way. We celebrate it no different, but we resemble it as pluralistic and one, which itself embarks a unity in diversity in our city. People here, whether Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Parsis, celebrate Christmas in their own Indian styles as they do with an International event like Kumbh at a city level like no other city in India. We have been that different and ironic over the relishing habit of regarding Christmas as a symbol of peace and diversity like Ramadan, Holi and other fests. Greetings for the same!
Adrian Waters - Rome, Italy
In Italy the Christmas festivities begin on 8th December when they celebrate the Immaculate Conception, i.e. the conception of Mary, as God absolved her of all sins when she was still in the womb according to the Roman Catholic tradition. On this day Italians put up their decorations and prepare the Christmas Tree. One notable aspect of Italian-style Christmas is the traditional model of the nativity scene, known as the presepe. It can be found in churches, in other public places and in family homes and often it depicts the town of Bethlehem in meticulous detail.
Most people associate Italy with good food. And as a matter of fact a lot of delicious food is consumed during this festivity. This includes panettone (a sweet bread with candied fruit inside), pandoro (which does not have the fruit, but it is shaped like a star and usually covered with icing sugar) and torrone (nougat). The most important meal of this festivity is on Christmas Eve when Italians cook a huge dinner, based mainly on seafood. Religious people often go to church for a mass after eating.
Shabneez Ramjane - Rose-Hill, Mauritius
Christmas in Mauritius is one of the times when Santa Claus gets to take a deep dive into a lively tropical summery island with temperatures rising to 27 or even 32 degrees at times. With tourism at its peak, hotels make sure they have special packages for tourists to experience Christmas in a very exotic and unique way.
Along with marvellous flame trees blooming, and rare tropical fruits like lychees and Dragon Eye fruits - “Longan” in creole – being readily available at this time of the year, during Christmas, you will also find shopping centres burgeoning with late night shopping, as well as street hawkers selling Christmas gifts and cards, firecrackers, clothes and miscellaneous stuff mushrooming around every corner of the street.
In Mauritius, Christmas trees are normally put up on Christmas Eve, and these vary from natural pines to artificial ones. Being a melting pot of diverse religions, ethnicities and races, Christmas celebrations differ widely. While most Mauritians would rather be enjoying the animated night life or spending time at the beach eating BBQs, dancing sega, among others, many Catholics would be attending the mass in Churches, while other families would simply be having a normal evening with a special meal, depending upon the religion and tastes, and wine, rum, whisky, and champagne. Fireworks are usually blown at midnight, and after the kids are asleep, parents would put their gifts under the Christmas Tree which the kids open the next morning on the 25th.
Diego Sánchez - Lima, Peru
Thanks to our cultural diversity, Peru hosts different traditions to receive and celebrate Christmas. Probably, the most common one shared by all cities in Peru consists of eating the famous “panetón”. Originally from Italy, this sweet and delicious bread found itself a place in most families’ tables within the capital city. Accompanied mostly with a cup of hot chocolate and butter, despite awareness of its impact on health, it represents a moment of joy to each family that reunites for Christmas’ Eve dinner (December 24th). However, apart from complementing the Eve’s dinner with a juicy and applauded turkey, including the champagne, many Limean families have started to prepare and bake a “lechón” (piglet), instead. Furthermore, a traditional Christmas in a Christian/Catholic family from Lima cannot exist without preparing a “pesebre” in their homes (Christmas Manger) that symbolises the birth of Christ. In spite of the strong religious influence of these practices, Limean families seek to have this dinner with joy and creativity, especially after the famous last hour rush on the 24th to buy presents and ingredients to make this dinner possible. Finally, this tradition cannot come to an end without the popular “recalentado” (to heat and cook all leftovers from Eve) that all families continue to share for the lunch on the 25th.
Elena Ruxandra Seniuc - Suceava, Romania
Christmas in Romania is all about visiting your relatives and eating as much as possible. These all-you-can-eat buffets are often compulsory and if you dare to engage in a never-ending food-denying process with your grandmother, I am telling you, she’ll win; no one refuses grandma’s food. Unlike Bulgaria, Romania’s Christmas food is mostly made out of pork (and sometimes there’s some rooster if you’re lucky). From Sarmale to Aspic or Cozonac (nutty sweet bread), these are all guilty of your latest weight gain. However, the star of the Christmas dinner is always the Russian/Romanian Boeuf (or Olivije) Salad. Made out of finely chopped boiled potatoes, carrots, parsnip, peas, gherkins and ham (or other meaty products), all mixed with industrial quantities of mayo, it represents the pièce de résistance of a good hospitable host. Late in the evening, the family gathers to exchange impressions and the latest family feud/gossip. The night ends with homemade sweets and cakes, a glass of wine, and watching with satisfaction the execution of the former Communist leaders, Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena, streamed on a yearly basis on national TV, hoping that some miracle will actually bring a change for the better for the future of this beautiful country.
Pablo Garfias - Catalonia, Spain
Catalonia, a region of Spain that has seen its fair share of participation in recent global news, has a rather odd tradition for Christmas; that of ‘el caganer’, or ‘the defecator’ in English. Literally, it involves a crouching figurine in people’s homemade nativity scenes, hidden amongst the different and more established characters of the three kings, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. There are likely many questions running through your head, the most probable being: ‘What? Why? When? How?’. Well, this eschatological image traces back around 200 years to somewhere between the late 18th century and beginning of the 19th century and its meaning is still debated; everyone seems to find their own meaning in this controversial albeit ironic figure in the otherwise holy scene. In the rural, agricultural communities, the caganer symbolises fertility and makes the chances of a good harvest more likely for those who choose to put them in their nativity scene. Others believe that he is meant to humble the authorities by adding humour and irony to the strict religious practice - a meaning that one might find most popular today if they were to stro
ll down Barcelona’s Saint Lucia’s Christmas market, where caganers are sold not only wearing their traditional white shirt, red trousers and red barretina (the Catalan hat), but also have the shape and faces of famous public people, whether political, cultural (yes that includes football) or religious. Adding to the ironic meaning behind el caganer is the idea that the feces were a birthday gift for Jesus “It was the only thing the little shepherd boy had to give the Baby… So it’s not at all disrespectful, it’s a great gift.” Nancy Duneuve told Rainsford. Its meaning has clearly been lost through time - or perhaps it never did have one. It might just be meant to be ridiculous, a reason to make the nativity scene more light hearted. I wouldn’t be making Catalan Christmas culture justice without at least briefly mentioning ‘el tio de nadal’, which directly translates to ‘the defecating log’ (you might be noticing a trend here). Every family and class at school gets their own log with a face drawn into the end of it, and much like the caganer, it too wears the distinctively Catalan hat, the barretina. After the feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December, kids begin to feed this log candy so that he grows fat in the days before Christmas. On Christmas day, the back-end of the log is covered with a blanket, and all of the kids grab a stick (any stick they find will do) and begin to whack the log collectively whilst chanting a traditional song with rather interesting lyrics (will be linked below). After leaving the room for a minute to give the log privacy, the kids storm back into the room and lift up the blanket that had been covering the log, only to find stacks of chocolate, turrón (a typical Spanish treat), and candy. There are more Catalan references that tie in with the eschatological, though none more during Christmas. I never did notice the caganer or the tio de nadal being so weird until it was pointed out to me that having a little defecating figurine in the nativity scene, and a log that you would feed and then whack with a stick for candy and sweets was strange at all. Evidently, it’s a tradition that flirts with the line between the serious and the silly and fun - perhaps all too telling of what Christmas should be, a practice based on something old and symbolic with a little quirk that can bring a smile and all those present a bit closer together.
Philippe Lefevre - London, United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom we take Christmas to its Capitalistic best! The stores are screaming Christmas before Halloween is even over and you can bet the lights are on in every street. There’s always one person with so many lights you worry there’s going to be a fire and enough Christmas spirit to fill a swimming pool. If you can think of a single thing a coca-cola Santa Claus can be stuck on, be assured British Stores will sell it. Carols are also a major source of enjoyment (or not) at Christmas time, with amateur choirs belting out Carols left, right and center. The noise from cities can hardly be described as festive but more abusive with the amount of Christmas music blaring out of them. Still, it is a very fun time of year. Some of my favorites I remember being forced to sing as a Child include the Twelve Days of Christmas, Silent Night, and Away in a Manger. However, if little cute songs aren’t your choice we have a host of rocking Christmas songs too, my favourite being Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade, it’s not a proper Christmas without that one.
When it comes to the day, Christmas Eve is where the food gets going. Usually there’s a family get together with a whole host of delicious “treats” that everyone manages to force down themselves. Depending on what kind of family you are, it might be food on Christmas eve Dinner or Christmas Lunch, but both are definitely just as filling. The meal is certain to include Turkey or Chicken, straight out of Charles Dickens a Christmas Carol. Following that are Brussels (With a host of Brexit memes) Sprouts, Cabbage, Roasted Vegetables and enough alcohol to pickle an elephant. Pudding (Dessert for you non-Brits) usually consists of Mince Pies and Christmas Pudding, a Sponge cake slathered in Brandy and set on Fire, and subsequently eaten without the fire.
Traditionally, the presents are opened December 25th Morning, to the screaming of little Children, where they are spoilt rotten, and the parents might just get some socks if they’re lucky. The rest of the day is spent playing silly games such as Charades, where you act out something and others have to guess, or just generally trying to be as festive as possible without alerting the police.
The Queen’s Speech is another important part of the British Tradition, depending on your Republican Sympathies. She often doles out important messages for the year ahead, and thus we are reunited as a country. The TV is often a focal-point of the celebration, with Christmas Specials of Doctor Who and various other stereotypical British shows.
Overall our Christmas is awash with Media, food and Capitalism, all gloriously mixed together with Family, making the most magical time of the year. Some might take it more religiously, some might not, but nevertheless, it’s Christmas no doubt.
Jack Lashendock - Gettysburg, United States of America
The festive time of Christmas in America is celebrated in a variety of different ways and reflects the diversity of the American people. For many, the official start of Christmas falls on the Friday directly after Thanksgiving which always occurs at the end of November; Americans spend the day getting their Christmas trees (some even chop it down themselves), decorating the interiors and exterior of their house with lights and holiday cheer, and in the evening putting ornaments and lights on the Christmas tree while listening to holiday music and drinking eggnog.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, cities and towns across the nation become more festive each day and offer local residents and tourists alike many opportunities to enjoy the season. Small businesses and restaurants are always busy around this time of year. In many cases, people send Christmas cards to their friends and family with holiday wishes and yearly updates of their family’s, children, and even pets. Astoundingly, the US government estimates that 16.6 billion cards and parcels are mailed during this season. In America, Christmas is celebrated as both a religious holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, as well as a more cultural festival devoid of overt religious meaning.
On Christmas Eve, children leave out milk and cookies for Santa Claus when he comes down the chimney and stay up past their bedtime to try and catch a glimpse his sleigh. The next morning, parents generally have trouble keeping their children in bed and in households across the nation gifts are exchanged between family members. In the afternoon, the festivities continue with a large sit-down dinner. In some households the entire extended family joins one another at the table, while in others, Christmas dinner is a smaller and more intimate meal. Traditionally, lamb or goose is the main course, with a wide variety of side dishes (such as potatoes, vegetables, and bread), and served with wine. Following dinner and dessert, many families find the evening a grand opportunity to spend time with their loved ones and playing board and card games and opening up the smaller gifts piled into Christmas stockings.