Even before school let out for winter, I knew it was Christmastime by the familiar signs that filled my childhood home with cheer: the scrumptious smell of Mom’s homemade Chex mix filling the kitchen, Dad pulling boxes of ornaments out from the garage, and classic Christmas melodies playing over the stereo.
Next came the decorations. Garland trailed down the entryway staircase in regal fashion, while the tree stood triumphantly at the foyer’s center, twinkling out to the street from our home’s front window. Velvet stockings were hung from the mantle, with a low fire burning underneath.
Every night, my parents would have my sister and me open up our Advent calendar for a Bible verse and a chocolate. Beneath the glow of our Christmas tree, we would talk about God and the meaning of Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, we attended our church’s candlelight service, and the entire family would gather afterward to share food and conversation. Gifts were exchanged, as were stories and laughter. When everyone went home, my sister and I would open a single gift, typically something small like music or pajamas. We would then leave cookies and milk out for Santa before heading off to bed.
The following morning, we dined on eggnog French toast and country ham. Gifts were plentiful, joy was abundant, and everything seemed so full to all of us. Everything was as we felt it should be.
The powerful imagery I have described is all from memory now, but it is as vivid as any memory I can recall. That, to me, is the true power of tradition.
As usual as these activities were to us and our family, the Christmas event has inspired countless other treasured rituals around the world. In many instances the sacred message of the incarnation mingles with customs that were left over from ancient celebrations. This singular partnership of culture and faith makes for a fascinating menagerie of holiday customs. Below are a few examples!
Germany is the origin place of many Christmas images and traditions still observed today. The Christmas tree, for instance, was first decorated with lighted candles in the 16th century by none other than Martin Luther himself.
German Christmas also strongly emphasize the time of Advent, so Advent calendars come in an array of shapes and styles. In addition to traditional calendar layouts customary in the United States, German Advent calendars more often resemble the fir branch wreathes that adorn the front doors of American homes. One popular variation incorporates the four candles of Advent as a way to remind followers of the true spirit of Christmas.
Like for many in America, in Costa Rica the Nativity is central to Christmas celebrations. The entire family comes together to construct the scene, using native flowers and fruits to decorate the model in tropical trimming. The home is then dressed in cypress wreathes and adorned with red coffee beans and ribbons. For Costa Ricans, holidays decorations represent more than just Christmas spirit; they represent the unity of family.
With a rich culinary history, it is no surprise that France’s festivities focus foremost on faith, friends, family, and food. Their Christmas Eve parties often include the burning of cherrywood Yule logs sprinkled with red wine. No doubt its aroma is the basis of many Christmas memories, reminding French men and women of previous parties gone by. What is special about their celebrations is that, once the evening comes to a close, all food, drinks, and candles are left out on the chance that Mary and Jesus visit in the night.
Caroling is immensely popular in Greece, although it is closer to trick-or-treating than the Victorian era merry giving we are accustomed to. Here, children parade the streets with model boats and instruments, performing music in exchange for treats.
Decorations also differ from the Scandinavian evergreen that has grown popular in the mainstream. Greeks instead opt for a wooden bowl displaying a cross wrapped in basil. Every day, the bowl is filled with holy water, which the cross will be placed into. It is then removed to sprinkle holy water throughout the house so as to ward off evil spirits.
Ireland is one of my favorite countries in the entire world, which may be why I was so enamored with a tradition of theirs that I plan on implementing it into my seasonal practice: every Christmas Eve, families light a tall, thick candle in the largest window of the house and let it burn all night. Doing this is a way of letting a wandering Mary and Joseph know that they are welcome when weary. I think there is a powerful message in this tradition that is not only beautiful to behold but a special tool to teach the story of Jesus’s birth.
There are many other world cultures that have fascinating traditions in how they celebrate Christmas. While the rest of the world overindulges on carbs and sweets, Egyptians take part in a Holy Nativity fast for 43 days leading up to Christmas where they follow a strict vegan diet. In Finland, families attend the dry sauna and believe, when they leave, ancestors will cross over and fill their place. Christmas in Mexico is a deeply religious holiday. As part of the Christmas observance, traditional fiestas called Mexican posadas (inns) are held for family, friends, and neighbors. A posada is the reenactment of the Census pilgrimage to Bethlehem by Mary and Joseph in search of a room. From December 16th through December 24th, Mexican families customarily hold a posada party one evening in each of their homes.
To me, the most powerful traditions are the ones that bring us back to the true meaning of Christmas. We are richer for the diversity of our individual traditions! In a true Christmas miracle, our differences actually bring us closer together. With wide-eyed wonder, we realize that that the Christ of Christmas wraps us all in divine arms of peace and grace. As the spiritual reminds us, “he has the whole world in His hands!”.
Merry Christmas everyone!
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