If there’s one thing modern American society does not have, it’s a meaningful connection to the past. The amount of historically ridiculous lies that are ubiquitous among us, the total fracture between the generations of families, the disdain for anything “old-fashioned”—it’s everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for innovation and progress, but only if it’s grounded in a knowledge of the past, with respect for the past’s achievements and the wisdom to overcome the past’s failings. I recently wrote an article on A Christmas Carol in which I commented that modernity has no meaningful community. One of the ways this is seen is that we have no real old or culture-specific traditions that we celebrate at holidays anymore. Each country and region used to have its Christmas legends and Christmas foods and Christmas games and practices. Now, aside from a few movies (and even I barely recognize the lists of so-called “classic” Christmas movies anymore), and having Christmas trees and Nativity scenes, we in modern America don’t remember any traditions of the past. A culture or society that has no tie to its past is in grave danger of being coopted and remade by wicked men; which, of course, is precisely what is happening now in America. Going to an event at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon recently made me realize how little I myself knew about the history of Christmas celebrations, and so I decided to do a little research and share a few of the beautiful traditions I found for celebrating Christmas from around the world.
Christmas Candle in the Window
Putting a candle in the window to light Mary and Joseph on their way and symbolize a welcome to the holy couple who could find no place to stay on the first Christmas is not specific to Ireland, but in Ireland it has an extra layer of meaning.
“A candle in the window is a special Irish Christmas symbol of welcoming. It is thought that this Irish custom dates back to the Penal times, when [M]asses had to be celebrated in secret as it was illegal to practice the Catholic religion.
The symbol of a candle lighting in the window was to show that the house welcomes Mary, Joseph and Jesus on the night that they couldn’t find shelter.
However, it also acted as a secret message to passing priests, that it was a safe house to visit and celebrate [M]ass in.”
History, theology, and culture meet in one tradition. Consider putting a candle—or, if you’re worried about the fire hazard, an electric lantern—in your window this Christmas to signify that you are ready and waiting to welcome Baby Jesus into your home.
“King Cakes” and Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, which commemorates the coming of the Wise Men or three kings to visit Jesus—also, in the East, the baptism of Jesus—used to be a bigger celebration than Christmas Day in parts of the English-speaking world throughout the medieval and Tudor periods and even in colonial America (though the celebration definitely happened in other countries too). The Twelve Days of Christmas (meaning the twelve days following Christmas and ending on Epiphany, “Twelfth Night”) used to have a religious significance back when Europe was Catholic and the famous song was actually used by Catholics in newly-Protestant England as a way to teach their children the faith when one could easily earn the death penalty for being Catholic (thus the ten lords a-leaping were the 10 Commandments, the four calling birds were the four Gospels, and so on). But some Protestants such as Anglicans and Episcopalians adopted the celebration too, and Twelfth Night continued to be a major holiday for centuries. In colonial America, it was not only associated with dances and feasting and alcoholic beverages, but also with romance, as many couple were married on Twelfth Night. George and Martha Washington were one famous couple wed on Twelfth Night.
Martha Washington and her cooks were acclaimed for their Christmas cookery, including a “hedgehog” dessert made of marzipan with almond “spines” and “nose” and “eyes” of red currants. But there was one cake she was so famous for baking that I had heard of it even when I was a teenager and knew very little about Martha Washington. “King cakes” in different variations have been popular for centuries in various countries, baked specially for Epiphany/Twelfth Night. One iteration had a bean baked somewhere in it, and whoever got the bean in his slice had good luck for the year—or was elected the king or Lord of Misrule for the day. Martha Washington did not apparently bake a bean into her Twelfth Night cake, but it sounds like quite an achievement anyway: 40 eggs, 4 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of sugar, 5 pounds of flour, and candied fruit peels and nuts. For Martha Washington, this was also an anniversary cake, because (as I said above) she and George were married on Twelfth Night.
Non-English-speaking countries had their own Epiphany traditions. In Spain, children left out their shoes with straw in them the night before, the straw being for the Wise Men’s camels. Instead of Santa Claus bringing presents, the three kings would bring presents for the children just as they did for Baby Jesus, filling the children’s shoes with presents. The Spanish king cake was a Roscón de Reyes or “twisted rolls of kings,” which was “a loaf in the shape of a crown with fruit and nuts on top and filled with chocolate or whipped cream. There’s supposed to be a gold coin inside it.” This transferred to Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico in the New World too.
Whichever version you choose, a King Cake is a great way to end the official celebration of Christmas on Epiphany!
Mexican Posadas Processions
Mexico has a beautiful tradition for commemorating Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem leading up to Christ’s birth:
“These community celebrations take place on each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas, from December 16 to 24th.
The word posada means ‘inn’ or ‘shelter’ in Spanish. In this tradition, the Bible story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for a place to stay is re-enacted. . .
The celebration begins with a procession in which the participants hold candles and sing Christmas carols. Sometimes there will be individuals who play the parts of Mary and Joseph who lead the way, or images representing them are carried. The procession will make its way to a particular home (a different one each night), where a special song (La Canción Para Pedir Posada) is sung.”
While it does take a community to make this fully possible, encouraging kids in your family to dress up as Mary and Joseph and perhaps go sing Christmas carols for relatives or friends is a lovely way of remembering the first Christmas journey!
Russian Christmas Traditions
In Russia, the Orthodox celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7th rather than December 25th, but the celebration does start earlier than that, as “‘Ded Moroz’ or Father Frost (analog of Santa Claus) and his granddaughter ‘Snegurochka’ or Snow Maiden visit on New Year’s Day, and they are the ones who bring the gifts!” One really nice tradition from Russia that non-Eastern Christians could adopt is that each of the dishes served at Christmas dinner represents one of the 12 apostles. It’s a fun way to bring religion into the celebration but in a very enjoyable, non-preachy way!
Christmas Parades and Masquerades in Africa
In some countries in Africa, after the Midnight Mass, instead of going to bed so Santa Claus can arrive, parties begin immediately, sometimes involving Christmas parades. In Gambia, locals make boat- or house-shaped bamboo and paper lanterns or “fanals” and light them with candles. The lantern-bearers then go dancing from house to house to collect donations. Masquerade parties are also a Christmas event in Gambia and Sierra Leone. Dressing up is a fun way for adults and children alike to celebrate Christmas!
Boxing Day used to have a very practical purpose, as servants who had to work on Christmas then had the day off on December 26 and received gifts or monetary bonuses from their employers. Boxing Day was also a day for giving donations to the poor, and had its origins in the Middle Ages. Boxing Day is still a holiday in Britain, Canada, and Australia. Giving money or other donations to charity on Boxing Day might be a good way to continue a Christmastime tradition of giving back to the community!
Christmas Tree Traditions in Germany
Some German Christmas traditions you might not want to share with your three-year-old, such as Krampus, the beast-demon who punishes bad little children, but traditions surrounding our now ubiquitous Christmas tree are worth remembering. Martin Luther may not have been the originator of the Christmas tree, which some say was recorded first in the 1600s, but the tradition may indeed date back to the middle of the 1500s. While we may all have Christmas trees, however, here’s one version from Bavaria that we may never have heard of before, and makes a nice decorating theme for a married couple:
“A more recent ‘old’ Bavarian tradition is the so-called ‘Bride’s Tree,’ upon which a dozen special ornaments are hung to help ensure a better life for a married couple. The 12 ornaments and their symbolic significance are: angel (God’s guidance), bird (joy), fish (Christ’s blessing), flower basket (good wishes), fruit basket (generosity), heart (true love), house (protection), pine cone (fruitfulness), rabbit (hope), rose (affection), Santa (goodwill), and teapot (hospitality). Special hand-blown glass ornaments in these forms are still produced in Bavaria.”
Enjoy the Christmas movies, flashing lights, beribboned presents, and carols this Christmas season. But also resurrect one or two older Christmas traditions and remember that of all holidays to celebrate one’s ancestors or predecessors and their practices, it’s Christmas!
(Historical reenactors at Mt. Vernon were a source for this article.)