Friday, December 8, 2017

Fun Friday Facts #124: Christmas Traditions Around the World

More than 160 countries around the world celebrate Christmas – that’s a lot of elves on a lot of shelves. Kidding, I’m pretty sure only we do that. Elves on Shelves make me glad my mother raised me without Santa. I have enough problems without worrying that I’m going to be murdered in my sleep by evil toys.

If, like me, you share the opinion that the appearance of Christmas trappings in stores before Halloween is a national tragedy, then don’t go to the Philippines. There, they begin celebrating Christmas on September 1 and continue all the way to Epiphany, January 6. In fact, nowhere in the world is the Christmas season as long as it is in the Philippines. The Christmas season officially begins with a series of nine Masses delivered at dawn, starting on December 16, but carols can be heard and decorations can be seen for months beforehand. That’s what happens when you don’t have Thanksgiving.

Christmas lanterns called parols are popular.
~ Image by Keith Baconga from Wikimedia Commons

In Armenia, Christmas is celebrated on January 6, the “old Christmas” celebrated by the Amish and some Appalachians. Christmas used to be celebrated throughout the Christian world on January 6, until the Roman Catholic Church recalibrated their calendar in the late 1500s. But in Armenia, and among Armenian communities in other countries, like Ukraine, Christmas is still celebrated on the January 6, because they rejected the Gregorian calendar.

Armenians combat holiday binge-eating by fasting for the week before Christmas, eschewing meat, dairy, and eggs. Some may refrain from eating anything at all for the three days before Christmas, to purify themselves before they receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion, for you Protestants). Families break this fast with a lighter meal on Christmas Eve, before sitting down to a feast on Christmas Day.

Russia, and other Eastern Orthodox countries, also celebrate Christmas a little later than we’re used to, for similar reasons. Russians celebrate Christmas Day on January 7. Ded Moroz, or Old Man Frost, and his granddaughter, Snow Maiden, bring gifts to children on New Year’s Eve. They wear long blue robes, just like Santa before Coke rebranded him.

As we’ve previously discussed, Yule, or jól, was and presumably still is an important holiday for pagan Scandinavians. Generations of Americans have grown up with A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; Norwegians ring in Christmas with Disney’s From All of Us to All of You, or the Soviet-era film Three Nuts for Cinderella, whose popularity in Europe has been likened to that of It’s a Wonderful Life in the United States, which I assume means that everyone knows how it ends but no one has actually sat down and watched it. The main day of festivities takes place on Christmas Eve, December 24, which church services and a large family meal on the day of. In the week between December 26 and New Year’s Eve, children may dress up as Yule goats, or Julebukk, and go from house to house, singing songs in exchange for treats, like Halloween but colder and honestly probably scarier.

I think this may be a depiction thereof.

In Sweden, the first major celebration of the Christmas season is St. Lucy’s Day, in honor of a saint martyred in the third century after refusing to give up her virginity to a husband. St. Lucy was Italian, so it doesn’t really make sense that her feast day, December 13, is so widely celebrated in northern Europe, unless it was due to the Christianization of an earlier pagan practice. Her holiday on December 13 does coincide with the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year.

A St. Lucy's Day church service.
~ Image by Claudia Grunder from Wikimedia Commons

On this day, oldest daughters dress up in white, and don a crown of lighted candles such as that worn by Lucy to light her way as she carried food to persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs. Once they’ve transformed themselves into walking fire hazards, the girls usher in the Christmas season by waking their families with the song “Santa Lucia” and a breakfast of coffee and St. Lucy’s buns. 

The buns in question.