Christmas in Europe, but where’s Santa?
Santa on the road again, reports coming in from our local offices……….!
December 2006 > Christmas is celebrated across Europe but in different ways, especially when it comes to Father Christmas. In order get to the facts on this story, our PR executives across Europe have pooled their local knowledge to give you the spin on Christmas in their country. Here is a sample of their reports.
Saint Nicholas is helped by the Infant Jesus to give presents to the children. On the morning of December 24, children wake up and start to arrange the Christmas tree. Sometimes they are told not to eat all day before the Christmas dinner in order to see “Golden piggies” on the walls. After dinner children have to leave the room where the Christmas tree is situated and wait until baby Jesus brings gifts. Parents come in to welcome baby Jesus and to thank him for all the gifts. Once his job is done, Jesus rings on a small bell (usually fixed on the tree) and disappears. When children hear the bell they may come in and enjoy their gifts.
Christmas dinner is on December 24th around 18.00 or 19.00 (roasted duck followed by risalamande (rice pudding with whipped cream served with cherry sauce) as desert. After that the Christmas tree is lit up, we dance around it and sing Christmas carols. Suddenly Julemanden (Father Christmas) turns up with a big sack full of presents for the children. After the children have received the presents they are immediately opened. Father Christmas quickly leaves the family again. Unfortunately one of the older male members of the family are usually out of the room while Father Christmas visits the family, so he never has the luck to meet Father Christmas!
It’s traditional to be with families at Christmas (Jõulud). Estonians like to visit their families from 24-26 December and do not go out with friends as much or go out drinking in the bars. On the 24th or 25th of December there is Christmas dinner; special Christmas food is pork and pickled cabbage or blood sausage. There is a Christmas tree is in every home, a tradition that dates back to Russian time when Christmas was prohibited. Presents are opened in the evening of the 24th or 25th when Santa Claus (Jõuluvana) visits. Our people are not too religious, but during Christmas more people visit church.
Young children leave their shoes by the fire on Christmas Eve for a gift from “le père Noël” while the older children and adults go to church at midnight and then return home for a late supper called “le réveillon”. Children decorate their Christmas Lists with pictures and then leave them on the windowsill overnight, weighed down with a little sugar so they won’t be missed by Father Christmas.
Christkind (the baby Jesus) comes on Christmas Eve, bringing the tree and all the presents which are opened on Christmas Eve. But the fun starts early with the coming of St Nikolaus – who very closely resembles Father Christmas/Santa Klaus – and who brings gifts for children on or during the night of 5th December. Santa Klaus is, in fact, a shortened version of the name Nikolaus.
Today 144,000 Christians are living in Israel. Most are Christian Arabs living mainly in Jerusalem and Nazareth. The land of Israel, like Rome, is a preferred tourist destination for pilgrimage trips. Throughout the years other churches and monasteries worldwide were added to these pilgrimage trips, however the importance of Israel, the land on which Jesus was born, has always remained central. The Church of the Nativity is located in the Nativity Circle in Bethlehem and is one of the sacred places for Christians. This is where the festive mass takes place annually. Pilgrims come for the mass from all over the world and it is covered by media throughout the five continents. Israel is a Jewish-dominated country and therefore Christmas is not felt when walking in the streets. But from a business perspective, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been busy because of the greetings and blessings sent by Israeli companies to their colleagues abroad.
In the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium St. Nicolaas is more popular than Santa Claus. We celebrate St. Nicolaas’ birthday on December 6th, however most celebrate it on December 5th the day before his birthday. Usually St. Nicolaas arrives two weeks before on a steamboat, loaded with gifts. 1600 years ago he was born in Myra, a Roman town in Turkey. His popularity stems from his generosity and kindness to children. In 1087, 326 years after his death, his remains were brought to Italy. He was honoured for centuries, and churches and towns were named after him. He became the patron of shippers, travellers, children, prisoners, traders, lawyers, cities (Amsterdam) and countries (Russia and Greece).
On December 6th children received gifts and presents from St. Nicolaas, an old man with a long white beard who sat on horse. Over the years his original home country of Italy became Spain. Except in the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium, St. Nicolaas has been replaced by Santa Claus. A real pity. How can such a serious, holy person as St. Nicolaas change into a big fat, jolly guy? It began with a group of Dutch colonists who lived in New Amsterdam (now New York). They had arrived with a statue of a pipe-smoking St. Nicolaas. They carried the statue along with them during Christmas celebrations. Later most Dutch-Americans were carrying St. Nicolaas dolls with them during Christmas. In 1809 the American writer Washington Irving wrote about a laughing, pipe smoking Santa Claus who sat on a carriage and was riding the firmament. This was the basis for the popular poem in 1823: ’The night before Christmas’, about St. Nick on a sled pulled by eight flying reindeer. Santa Claus is Dutch, really.
Christmas in Poland is the most awaited holiday of the year. In every house there is a specially decorated Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve when the first star appears in the sky, families sit at the table for the traditional Christmas Eve supper. There is always an additional table setting for an unexpected guest. Before the supper begins members of the family share the holy wafer, wishing each other all the best. Father Christmas, with his white beard and red suit visits on Christmas Eve and leaves presents under the Christmas tree. Sometimes he comes in person and gives the presents to children or he somehow enters the house (coming down the chimney or through the window) and puts all the gifts under the Christmas tree. He is so quick that children have never seen him doing this. After supper the presents are opened. At midnight many people go to church to attend a special Mass. On December 25 most people stay at home with their families and on the next day they pay and receive visits.
In Spain, traditionally Christmas has always been a religious time and is centred around the original story behind the birth of Christ. For example, the Three Kings bring presents (as in the story), not on Christmas but on the 6th of January. Children leave a shoe out on the night of the 5th and wake up the next day with, surprise, surprise, a present or two inside. For those boys and girls who have been naughty the year before, the Three Kings leave a lump of coal. During the afternoon of the 6th, there is usually a parade through the streets of the town with the Three Kings on floats throwing sweets to the children watching.
Christmas Day is less important than Christmas Eve, which is the main time when families get together and have dinner – usually seafood and fish. Christmas Day is more a day for spiritual reflection for the religious, and a time to recover from the previous night’s excesses for the rest of us. Other key ingredients of Spanish Christmas celebrations are cava and a local specialty known as ‘turron’ which are assorted types of sweets such as nougat, chocolate, caramel, etc. Another important date in Spain in the Christmas calendar is the 22nd when they hold the Christmas lottery draw known as ‘El Gordo’ or ‘The Big One’. Even people who don’t usually play lottery during the year will have at least one ticket, hoping their life might change for the better.
Spanish Christmas decorations are sparse, and generally orientated around the setting up of a ‘Belén’ or Nativity scene in the central part of the house, using elaborate figures for Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, etc. and natural materials from the countryside such as bark and moss. Many areas hold competitions to see who can build the biggest and most elaborate scenes (eg: with running water and flashing stars), and in some towns they have become a seasonal tourist attraction. However, as religion’s influence in society is waning with consumerism, commerce, and globalisation taking its place, the typical globally-recognised symbols of Christmas (trees, turkeys, Santas Claus, holly, snowmen, etc) are gaining ground and sadly homogenising the season.
The majority of the population in Turkey is Muslim but we are a secular country and even if we do not directly celebrate Christmas, we share this custom with our Greek Orthodox and Armenian neighbours who are a minority, especially in big cities. We have Christmas trees and exchange gifts for the new year. Islam as a religion recognizes all prophets of the monotheist religions. Therefore we celebrate the New Year and we recognize Jesus as one of the prophets. The birth place of St. Nicholas is in Turkey, near Antalya (Myra-Demre).
Father Christmas, an older man in a red suit with a white beard, comes to visit children on the night of 24th December, arriving on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He comes down the chimney, puts presents in a stocking (or rather large sock), usually at the end of the bed or under the decorated Christmas tree. Children leave a mince pie and a drink for him and carrot for his reindeer. Presents are then opened on Christmas day morning, though this may start very early!
In Rome, cannon are fired from Castel St. Angelo on Christmas Eve to announce the beginning of the holiday season. A 24-hour fast ends with an elaborate Christmas feast and small presents drawn from the Urn of Fate. The main exchange of gifts in most places in Italy however, traditionally takes place on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, and the celebration in remembrance of the Magi’s visit to Jesus. Children anxiously await a visit from “La Befana” (an old witch who flies on her broomstick) who brings gifts for the good and punishment for the bad. According to legend, the three wise men stopped during their journey and asked an old woman for food and shelter. She refused them and they continued on their way. Within a few hours the woman had a change of heart but the Magi were long gone. La Befana, which means Epiphany, still wanders the earth searching for Jesus to ask forgiveness. Throughout Italy these days, however, many people celebrate what has become the recognized Christmas celebration: with Christmas trees, stockings, and Santa Clause and his reindeer delivering presents on Christmas Day.