Traditional Christmas Customs from Around the World

Traditional Christmas customs do not just include feasting, giving and receiving presents, and  merrymaking. It includes the time-honored traditions that are different in different parts of the world.

Australians for example, due to their sunny climate, don't usually sit down to roast turkey and ham, as is the Christmas custom in other European and ex-colonial countries. Instead, their custom is to have seafood for their Christmas lunch, often served cold.

Christmas traditions should be kept and we should decorate our homes to the best of our ability in honor of the day. It is custom to put up a Christmas tree to mark the occasion, put swags of foliage on mantelpieces, as well as to display the various Christmas cards that we receive from friends and family through the post.

A friend once remarked, as she busied herself with some Christmas cards she was sending off to the hospitals, " I always like to tie a sprig of evergreen on each card; it looks and smells so Christmasy." And so it does.

Even a few pieces of evergreen, tacked over doorways or branching out from behind picture frames, give a room a festive, Christmas-like appearance that nothing else can, and as evergreens are so plentiful in America there are few houses that need be without their Christmas decorations.

Holly, too, with its brilliant red berries peeping cheerily forth from their shelter of prickly leaves, adds brightness to the other adornments, and when the white-berried mistletoe can also be obtained all the time-honored materials for the Christmas decorations are supplied.

Where we got some of our Christmas Customs

christmas stockingsBecause American ancestors came from many nations, Americans have a right and claim to any Christmas custom they may admire from other countries. 

From Germany we have already taken the Christmas custom of the  Christmas tree; from Belgium the Christmas stocking; Santa Claus hails from Holland, and from old England sent us the cheery greeting, Merry Christmas !

The Christmas customs of the French children where they arrange their shoes on the hearthstone on Christmas Eve for the Christ child to fill with toys or sweetmeats, is too much like our own Christmas stocking to be anything new.

However, in Sweden and Denmark their Christmas customs consist of a peculiar way of delivering Christmas presents which we might adopt to our advantage, for it would be great fun to get some of our gifts in their novel manner.

Old Christmas Customs and Traditions in Decorating the Christmas Tree

The tradition of Christmas trees dates back thousands of years.

Ancient Egyptians
worshiped evergreen trees as a symbol of eternal life and when the winter solstice arrived they would decorate their houses with greenery. During the annual winter festival of Saturnalia, in honor of Saturnus the god of agriculture, Romans hung small metal pieces and candles on trees.

Other stories tell of apples hung on evergreen trees during the Middle Ages as a symbol and celebration of the feast of Adam and Eve. The Vikings of Northern Europe and the Druids of Britain and France also decorated trees to honor their gods, hoping that this would appease the gods and result in a good harvest.

The First Christmas Tree

A Christian legend about the first Christmas tree tells how on the night of Jesus' birth all living things, including trees came to Bethlehem bearing gifts. The olive tree had olives, the palm tree had dates, and so on, but the fir tree had no gift to bring. An angel felt sad for the fir tree and so hung stars from heaven on its green branches. This is said to have delighted baby Jesus so much, it was then decided that fir trees would always be decorated to make children smile at Christmas.

German Christmas Customs and the Christmas Tree

But the tradition of bringing the Christmas tree indoors is believed to have started in Germany. One legend has it that in 1500, religious leader Martin Luther was so moved by the beauty of the starlit fit trees on Christmas Eve that he brought one inside and decorated it with candles, which he lit in honor of Christ's birth.

Another story goes that Saint Boniface, who traveled to Germany as a missionary in the 8th century, came across a sacred oak tree that was used for human sacrifices. Courageously, he cut it down. The a miracle occurred. A young fir tree sprang up between the gnarled roots of the oak tree. Saint Boniface recognized this sapling as symbolic of his Christian faith.

Who knows whether this is true or not, but we do know that the oldest record of a decorated tree comes from a 1605 diary found in Strasbourg (then part of Germany, but now part of France), which describes the tree as bulging with paper roses, apples and candles.

Victorian Christmas Customs and the Christmas Tree

The traditional Christmas custom of having a Christmas tree spread throughout Europe and was widespread by the 18th century. In 1841 Prince Albert is reputed to have introduced the Christmas tree to England - it is said that Queen Victoria's husband missed the traditions of his German homeland - and decorated it with candles, candies, fruit and gingerbread.

Modern Christmas Customs and the Christmas Tree

With the march of technology, electric lights have taken Christmas trees into the modern era. It was Edward Johnson, an associate of the inventor Thomas Edison, who first wired light bulbs and strung them around a Christmas tree.

That was in 1882. Until the turn of the century, electric Christmas lights were strictly for the wealthy as they were individually blown by hand and had to be installed by a specialist.

In 1903 came the first plug-in lights, but it wasn't until one enterprising family business began offering the novelty of colored lights that the idea really took off worldwide.

An Infographic on Christmas Customs and the History of the Christmas Tree from Medieval Times to Today

A History of Christmas Trees

Traditional Christmas Customs and Advent Calendars

Advent Calendars are a symbol of the holy season of Advent, the period of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity, or Christmas. Advent appears to have been observed since the fourth century. It traditionally began on the Sunday closest to November 30th which is the Feast Day of St. Andrew the Apostle. The following 4 Sundays are then followed from this date.

During Victorian times the Christmas custom then was to suspend an evergreen wreath with one red candle over the dining room table. Each day, starting 4 weeks before Christmas a paper star containing a Bible verse was added to the wreath, and each and each Sunday a new candle was lit. The family would gather to light the candles, read the verses, sing carols and enjoy holiday treats.

Today, Advent calendars are a fun way for excited children to count down the days until Christmas. Homemade Advent calendars are usually made from a card or poster with small doors concealing a picture or a small treat such as a chocolate, a door opening each day from December 1 through to Christmas Day.

Traditional Christmas Customs and Christmas Cards

Christmas cards are a popular way for people to keep in touch at Christmas. But they are a relatively new Christmas custom. In 1840 a businessman, Sir Henry Cole, who didn't have time to write to all his family and friends asked a local illustrator to design a card with a message on it that he could send to people. The idea took off and in 1843 around 1000 cards were produced, selling for a shilling each. These were the first mass-produced Christmas cards.

Traditional Christmas Customs and Caroling

The first Christmas carolers appear in the Bible. They are the heavenly hosts who lifted their voices to sing in the celebration of Christ's birth. As far back as the 13th century during the Medieval Ages priests and monks celebrated the birth of the Christ child with song.

Eventually, the tradition spread beyond the churches and monasteries.

In Victorian times, caroling enjoyed a renewed popularity. Victorian carolers were known as "waits" and were usually accompanied by a musical instrument. Often caroler, going from door to door were greeted with a warm cup of wassail Made with beer, wine and spices, wassail comes from an Old English word that means "be healthy!" and was used as a toast.

Traditional Christmas Customs and Sugarplums

Originally, sugarplums were whole figs, simmered in a sugar syrup until they become glazed fruit.  Later, sugarplums involved int exotic sweetmeats, a combination of fruit and nuts available only at Christmastime. Victorian children loved these sweet treats, but for excitement of course, nothing beats Christmas Crackers.

Traditional Christmas Customs and the History of Christmas Crackers

The festively wrapped cylinders contained candy and novelties such as small toys, games, hats and balloons. When pulled at each end, a cracker would burst with a bang, revealing the goodies inside.

Who invented Christmas crackers? Invented in 1840 by a London baker crackers became popular at Christmas dinner tables and were traditionally popped at the end of the main course, before dessert was served. Christmas crackers are still popular in England, and enjoyed around the world.

Traditional Christmas Customs and the History of Christmas Stockings

The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings by the fireplace may come from the legend of two poor sisters. Both longed to marry by their father was too poor to pay for their wedding dowries. One Christmas Eve, the sisters hung their stockings by the fire to dry. Intervening, Saint Nicholas himself tossed some gold coins down the chimney and into the stockings.

On Christmas Day, the sisters discovered the money - enough for both dowries - and rejoiced!

Victorian children, hoping for similar results took to hanging their stockings on the end of the bed. Parents then had the same gift-giving recipe that still works today; "Something to eat, something to read, something to play with and something they need."

Traditional Christmas Customs and Evergreen and Mistletoe

hollyDecking the halls dates back to pre-Christian times when in many parts of the world certain plants were believed to have magical power. People brought evergreen branches indoors to freshen their homes during the dark days of winter.

Holly, the most symbolic of evergreens was used to signify eternal life.

Mistletoe was considered a highly sacred plant. Because it grows high above the ground, ancient people believed mistletoe represented the link between heaven and earth.

In the British Isles, Druids collected mistletoe in November, cutting it down from trees and catching it on sheets before it hit the ground. It was then hung above doorways to symbolize peace and hospitality.

Mistletoe also represented fertility to the Druids, who originated the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. In Victorian times, it was shaped into a ball or wired to a frame to make a kissing ring. Each time a couple kissed, a berry was picked. When the branches were bare, the kissing had to stop!

Traditional Christmas Customs Around the World

Christmas Customs Around the World and Santa Claus - Who was Saint Nicholas?

The Santa Claus legend began with Saint Nicholas, the youngest bishop in Asia Minor in the 4th century who was persecuted and imprisoned by the Romans. Two centuries later, he appeared in handwritten documents as a great figure in Christian legend - so much so, that stories claim Saint Nicholas's bones were dug up 700 years after his death and moved to a more revered place in Italy. Nicholas's generosity, rescuing the destitute and robbing the rich to give to the poor, and saving sailors from shipwrecks is well documented. But the one story that seems to have stuck is the legend of him as the special saint of childhood and the giving of gifts to children.

6th December is Saint Nicholas Day - the birthday of this 4th century bishop and is a date that is celebrated in many European countries where it signals the start to the Christmas holiday season.

In some countries the St. Nicholas festivities have been absorbed into the religious and cultural celebrations surrounding 25 December, the birth of Christ.

In Australia, South Africa and the UK St. Nick is known as Santa Claus, but what about the rest of the world?

In Puerto Rico Children receive gifts from the Three Kings (we know them as the 3 Wise Men) on 6th January, the festival of Epiphany. Children put grass under their beds for the king's camels and in the morning the grass is replaced with gifts.

In the Netherlands Sinter Klaas rides a white horse and leaves gifts in the wooden clogs.

In Italy children leave a pair of their shoes by the door on the night before Epiphany, and the next morning they find them filled with small gifts and candy left behind by Babbo Natale (Father Christmas).

In Spain children leave their shoes under the Christmas tree on the night of 5th January and presents from the Three Kings appear the next morning. Santa Claus is called Papa Noel and some children receive presents both days; 24 December from Papa Noel and 6 January from the Three Kings!

Christmas Customs Around the World: The Julklapp from Sweden and Denmark

Before Christmas Day arrives all the presents intended for the Julklapp delivery must be prepared by enclosing them in a great many wrappings of various kinds, none of which should in any way suggest their contents.

If one of the presents is a pretty trinket, wrap it up in a fringed tissue paper, such as is used candy; place it in a small box, and tie the box with narrow ribbon; then do it up in common, rough brown paper, and wrap the package with strips of cloth until it is round like a ball; cover the ball with a thin layer of dough, and brown in the oven. Pin it up in a napkin, wrap in white wrapping paper and tie with a pink string.

The more incongruous the coverings, the more suitable they are for the Julklapp. You may enclose others gifts in bundles of hay, rolls of cotton or wool, and use your own imagination in choosing the inner wrappings.
It is wise to always use something soft for the outside covering, the reason for which you will understand when the manner of delivery is explained. Each package must be labeled with the name of the person for whom it is intended, and if an appropriate verse, epigram, or proverb be added it will be the cause of fresh mirth and laughter.

The Julklapp delivery can, and does, start very early Christmas morning, for the little folks, always early risers on this day, will no doubt be up before, and ready for the business of the day.

The first intimation the less enterprising members of the family will have that Christmas has dawned, will be a loud bang at the chamber door, followed by a thump of something falling on the bed or the sleeper's chest. Then springing up and opening startled eyes, from which all sleep has been thus rudely banished, one will probably discover a large bundle of something on the bed or lying on the floor close beside it.

It will be useless to rush to the door to find from whom or where this thing has come, for although a suppressed giggle may be heard outside the door just after feeling the thump, no one will be seen upon opening it, but dead silence, and nothing seen but the empty hall.

At any time during the day or evening the Julklapps may arrive and when all look toward the door, as a loud rap is heard, whiz ! Something comes through the window and lands in the middle of the room. A sharp tap at the window is followed by the opening and closing of a door, and a bundle of straw, wool, paper, or cloth, as the case may be, lands in someone's lap.

In short the Julklapps may come from any and every direction, and when one is least expecting them, and so the surprises and excitement are made to last until, weary with the fun and gaiety of the day, the tired merrymakers seek their beds on Christmas night.

If it has not been made plain enough who, or what causes the mysterious arrivals of the Julklapps we will say that the whole household join in the conspiracy, and the packages come from the hands of each of its members.

Christmas Customs Around the World - Polish Christmas Traditions

The Polish custom of searching for Christmas gifts, which have previously been hidden in various places in the house, is one the children will delight in, and one that, introduced at a Christmas party, will provoke no end of merriment and fun.

Christmas Customs Around the World - British Christmas Traditions and The Bran Pie

The bran pie is an English custom, but is quite acceptable to the American taste. It is an excellent means of distributing trifling gifts and may be new to some of you.

Use a large, deep brown dish for the pie. Put in it a gift for everyone who will be at the Christmas dinner, and cover them over thickly with bran, decorate the top by sticking a sprig of holly in the center.

After dinner have the bran pie put on the table with a spoon and plates beside it, and invite everyone to help her or himself, each spoonful bringing out whatever it touches. Comical little articles may be put into the pie, and the frequent inappropriateness of the gift to the receiver of it, often helps to create laughter.

The Bran Pie should be the secret of not more than two persons, for, like all things pertaining to Christmas gifts, the greater the surprise, the more pleasure there will be in it.

Blind Man's Stocking

The Blind Man's Stocking may also be used for small gifts, or it may hold only candy and bonbons.

Make the stocking of white or colored tissue-paper. First cut out one piece like the pattern, making the foot thirteen inches long and six inches from the sole to the top of the instep, and the leg of the stocking sixteen inches from the heel to the top ; then cut another, one inch larger all around than the first. Place the two together fold the edge of the larger over the smaller piece and paste it down all around except at the top. Fill the stocking with small gifts or sweetmeats, tie a string around the top to keep it fast, and suspend it from the center of a doorway.

Blindfold each player in turn, put a long, light stick in her hand, a bamboo cane will do, and lead her up within reach of the stocking and tell her to strike it.

When anyone succeeds in striking the stocking and a hole is torn in it, the gifts or candy will scatter all over the floor to be scrambled for by all the players. Each player should be allowed three trials at striking the stocking.

Young children are always delighted with this Christmas custom, and the older ones by no means refuse to join in the sport.

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