Christmas traditions

Day 6: Around the World in 12 Days

Romanian star carol
Romanian star carol

From South Africa we head back to Europe, this time to Eastern Europe. I'm always interested to hear stories from this part of the world -- especially from people my age and older -- because memories of a time when it was illegal to celebrate the birth of Christ are not too distant. My Romanian friends tell me Christmas has come back in full force after the fall of communism and the demise of President Nicolae Ceausescu, whose atheist regime forbade any open celebration. It is only recently that most people can afford to buy gifts for each other; in times past, if there were any gifts, they were for the children. Even today, children are widely regarded as Romania's most valuable resource, and they are often the focus of celebrations.

As in many other European countries, December 6 is St. Nicholas Day, or Sfantul Nicolae, in Romania. The night before, children clean their shoes and leave them next to the door in hopes that they will be full of small presents in the morning. Tradition has it that, if it snows on Dec. 6, Mos Nicolae (Old Man Nicholas) has shaken his beard and winter can now begin.

cozonac
cozonac

December 20 in Romania is designated St. Ignatius Day, at which time, if there is one to be had, a pig is slaughtered and serves as the basis of the Christmas feast. Because life has been so difficult in Romania for so long, Christmas is seen as a time to feast more than any other period of the year. If you're going to spend money on fine food or drink, it will be at Christmas and New Year's. Practically all parts of the pig are eaten in various forms, including steaks, ribs sausages, even rind, ear, and tail. Stuffed cabbage, mashed potatoes, meatball soup can also be seen on the table, along with a cake called cozonac which my friend Lily calls a "caloric bomb."

A treasured tradition that has seen a resurgence in the last twenty years is Colinda, where groups of people go caroling from house to house singing carols and wishing others well. Many powers that be have tried to abolish Colinda over the centuries, including the church, claiming it was a devilish practice. Traditions that bring so much joy die hard, however, and Colinda lives on. These groups are sometimes all male, sometimes mixed, and sometimes rehearse weeks ahead of time. They are usually compensated with gifts of fruit, walnuts, and cakes. Children also go caroling on Christmas Eve. One popular Romanian carol is called "Christmas Star," where a decorated paper star is put on a pole and carried by one of the carolers.

Here's to a merry Christmas to all our Romanian friends, and to many more joyful and prosperous Christmases in this endearing land.

Crāciun Fericit!

Day 4: Around the World in 12 Days

Star of David with cross
Star of David with cross
xmas trees jerusalem
xmas trees jerusalem

We now leave the frozen northern extremities of Europe for the land where it all started. Not Santa, not St. Nicholas. Jesus himself. A stroll down the streets of Jerusalem or any other major Israeli city will not afford you many views of tinsel and lights or manger scenes. Even the relatively few Messianic Jews (Jews who believe in Yeshua [Jesus] as the Messiah) don't really celebrate it like most Christians in other countries. They tend to believe Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles (September or October). This does not mean Christmas is not observed. If for no other reason, the city of Jerusalem acknowledges its many expat residents by giving away free Christmas trees to internationals. My friend Norma tells me you can see them dragging the scrawny little trees through the streets. The city also provides free bus rides to Bethlehem's Manger Square, where there are carol sing-alongs and masses at the Church of St. Catherine and Church of the Nativity. Needless to say, foreigners flock to Bethlehem as well, which is wholly within Palestinian territory and almost entirely Arabic-speaking. Travelers from Jerusalem must pass through a military checkpoint. On Christmas Eve, Christmas carols can be heard at three packed out locations: the YMCA, the Lutheran Church, and Christ Church (Anglican). Even non-practicing Israelis are drawn to the joyful and reverent sounds of the music, and can be seen walking late at night from one carol service to another. At midnight, the bells of the Catholic churches resound throughout the Old City and beyond.

Although the town where Jesus grew up is now mostly Arab, Nazareth still puts on a Christmas display for the thousands of pilgrims who would otherwise be disappointed. There is a Christmas parade in early December, and lights, decorations and celebrations can be found throughout the season.

Manger Square, Bethlehem
Manger Square, Bethlehem

In the United States, it's difficult for us to imagine living in a country where those of us wanting to celebrate Christmas would be in a very small minority. From where I sit, it might actually be a welcome change to celebrate a quiet, reflective birthday of Yeshua without all the extra trappings that the holiday has accumulated over the years -- even avoiding the few celebrations put on for tourists and pilgrims.

Of course, that's easy for me to say -- I no longer have small children.  :-)

In any case, חג מולד שמח (hag molad saméa'h)!

Day 3: Around the World in 12 Days

Lucia-13.12.06
Lucia-13.12.06

We leave the balmy climes of the South Pacific and head to the long nights and short days of winter in Sweden. Because Sweden lies so far north, much of its folklore, mythology, and culture revolve around sun and light -- or the absence thereof. The winter solstice, when the days finally begin to grow longer again, falls only four days before Christmas, so the celebration of the two are often intermingled. Perhaps the most unique and cherished tradition in the Swedish Christmas season is "Lucia", or Sankta Lucia, known in English as St. Lucy and in Italian/Latin as Santa Lucia. Lucia was a third century Sicilian martyr from Syracuse, known for having brought food and aid to Christians in hiding. Her feast day is December 13 and is celebrated in a number of countries, but not always in the same fashion. In Sweden, Lucy is one of the few saints celebrated in this overwhelmingly Protestant / secular society. She is commemorated by the election of a teenage girl to represent her with a white robe and a crown of candles, leading others in a processional and the singing of carols. (The classic tune, "Santa Lucia," was written in Naples, Italy and has nothing to do with the feast of St. Lucy; the Swedes use other lyrics customized to their purposes.) It is said that the real Lucy used this crown with candles to light her way and to keep both hands free to carry provisions on her benevolent missions. In Scandinavia, tradition has it that a proper celebration of Lucia, complete with lots of candlelight, will help one make it through the long winter days until spring. (To see a video of a Lucia done right, click here.)

Tomte
Tomte

As in most other Western countries, Christmas in Sweden is the typical mixture of religious, secular, and pagan traditions. Our friend Marianne tells us that churches are the fullest on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (the first Sunday in Advent) and Christmas morning at a service called the julotta. On Christmas Eve the big feast happens, called smörgåsbord (literally "bread and butter table"), filled with much more than the name indicates: ham, meatballs, salmon, herring, and Janssons frestelse, a casserole of potatoes, onions, bread crumbs and cream. Children expect a visit either from Santa or a Nordic folkloric character called a tomte -- a creature that can best be described as a gnome or dwarf.

The Swedish name for Christmas, Jul, comes from an ancient mid-winter festival celebrated by the Nordic and Germanic tribes. With the advent of Christianity, it eventually became the name for the Christmas holiday. And so we wish you...

God Jul! (prod. gode [with a Minnesotan "o"] yule)!

Day 2: Around the World in 12 Days

IMG_1488
IMG_1488
Meke dance
Meke dance
Spear dance
Spear dance

If you're a semi-regular reader, you'll remember that my wife and I spent the Christmas holidays a year ago in New Zealand, which we featured yesterday as our starting place in this round-the-world glimpse of Christmas. Our frequent flyer miles steered us to Fiji Airways to get there, which meant a layover in Nadi, Fiji's international gateway. We left Nashville on December 23, skipped the 24th altogether due to crossing the International Date Line, and landed in Nadi early Christmas morning. The photo is the view from our hotel. It was a bit surreal strolling a white sandy beach under a gorgeous, warm sky on Christmas Day. All along the beach, we were greeted with "Bula! Merry Christmas!" by families enjoying a meal cooked in the traditional lovo, an underground hot stone oven. (Bula is the Fijian greeting, which we learned before even leaving the Los Angeles airport.) The meals often consist of garlic spice chicken, roast pork or beef, chicken, cassava (a starchy root), and dalo (a green leafy vegetable). You might also see palusami, a spiced mutton dish wrapped in leaves and cooked in coconut cream. Because the Fijians take just about any excuse to celebrate, the Christmas/New Year's celebration is a month-long affair. Like most Pacific islanders, they are very community-oriented, so starting about two weeks before Christmas, most celebrations take place not in the home but in the local community house. And like most places around the world where Christmas is celebrated, there is a mixture of Christian, pagan, and secular practices, all rolled into one festive concoction. There are carols, special church services and masses, candles, and yes, Santa Claus (the children do expect presents from Old Saint Nick on Christmas eve); but there are also traditional dances such as the meke dance by the women and the spear dance by the men.

Ever had a South Pacific Christmas? Share your experience!

Bula! Merry Christmas!

Around the World in Twelve Days

Kiwi Santa
Kiwi Santa

Today we begin a 12-day countdown to Christmas Day, featuring Christmas traditions in twelve different countries. It is so unseasonably warm here in the eastern half of the US right now that it reminds me of my childhood Christmases down under in Australia. Instead of Australia, however, we begin our round-the-world journey in New Zealand, just across the Tasman Sea from its larger neighbor. (See my first post on our recent visit to New Zealand here.) Our dear friends Neil and Jill tell us that traditionally, New Zealanders used to pretend it was winter, spraying fake snow on windows and trees and playing wintry American Christmas music. More recently, Kiwis have begun to embrace the fact that "it's summer, for goodness sake!" So rather than the traditional Christmas dinner of roast lamb with mint sauce, you'll just as likely find people barbecuing outdoors or at the beach.

Although fewer and fewer New Zealanders seem to see the primary purpose of Christmas as celebrating the birth of Christ, what Christians who do often find creative ways to breathe life into this special day for believers. Overall, the day is seen as a welcome day off to spend time with family, exchange gifts, and overeat!

Be watching tomorrow for Day 2 of our Round-the-World Christmas!