Christmas holiday traditions… we all have them. But why do we celebrate the way we do? Though my dad was first-generation Dutch-American, we did veer from Dutch tradition. We maintained Christmas Day with a morning church service and a big family dinner, but our gift-giving was held the Saturday evening before, not the traditional December 5th. My first and last adoration of Santa came the Christmas I was 5 years old when Santa visited my grandparents. We kids shyly sat on Santa’s lap to share our wishes. When he left, my grandmother took us to the window to watch him leave. All I saw was a car with red tail lights driving between snowbanks. At that moment, I knew there was no Santa because he didn’t have a sleigh and reindeer! Clement C. Moore would have been so disappointed in me!
Saint Nicholas has been part of traditional Christmas celebrations for centuries. The Dutch Sinterklaas is considered the origin of “Santa Claus” with Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore helping to make him who he is today. The earliest writing in America of a figure resembling our modern Santa Claus is found in Washington Irving’s satire of Dutch culture. In History of New York published in 1809, Irving writes in chapter IX: “At this early period…hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve…is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.”
Immortalized by Clement C. Moore in “’Twas The Night Before Christmas,” St. Nicholas appears on Christmas Eve, not St. Nicholas Eve of December 5th. He also takes on a new appearance as St. Nicholas was lean: “He had a broad face and a little round belly…He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…[with a] “sleigh full of Toys” [and] “eight tiny reindeer…[and] Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.” Two original reindeer names were Dunder and Blixem, later Donner and Blitzen, presumably due to the Dutch influence once again as Dunder means thunder and Blixem is lightning in Dutch. While Irving and Moore both present the gift giver as Saint Nicholas, political cartoonist Thomas Nast is the first to use the name Santa Claus in his illustrations for the January 1863 edition of Harpers Weekly.
The real St. Nicholas was a bishop in fourth-century Asia Minor. In the eleventh century, a church was built at Bari, Italy as a shrine for his bones. Many European churches were dedicated to his memory in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with December 6 set aside as St. Nicholas Day. Gifts are given on the 5th, while December 25th is celebrated as the religious day to remember Jesus’ birth.
In Netherlands, on December 5, Sinterklaas, dressed in red velvet robes and carrying a bishop’s mitre, arrives in Amsterdam by boat and rides his white horse through the streets with a great parade. Tradtionally, children set out their klompen (wooden shoes) filled with hay and carrots for St. Nicholas’ horse, finding candies and toys in their place the next morning. There are traditional Dutch Christmas treats like Speculaas (spice cookies), Boterletter (butter letter, a buttery pastry filled with almond paste), and Oliebollen (deep-fried doughnuts made with apples and raisins).
The Germans gave us the Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree. Their celebrations include the Advent calendar and wreath, with one candle being lit at the beginning of each Advent week for hope, peace, joy and love. As in Holland, shoes filled with hay are set out the evening of the 5th for St. Nicholas, the next morning children finding their gifts. Typically, the German Christmas tree is set up on Christmas Eve. The family reads the Bible story of Jesus’ birth, sings Christmas carols like O Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht (Silent Night), and opens gifts. Goose or carp is traditional Christmas Day dinner, with Stollen, a fruited yeast bread, baked as a special treat. Germany is also well known for their [formerly handblown] glass tree ornaments.
“Silent Night,” perhaps everyone’s favorite Christmas carol, was written by Father Joseph Mohr in 1816. Franz Gruber wrote guitar accompaniment for the first performance in 1818 at Mohr’s St. Nicholas parish church of Salzburg, Austria. A beautiful Austrian tradition puts emphasis on the symbol of light which God gave man in the Christ Child. Three candles are lit – one on Christmas Eve while the family gathers around singing hymns, the second on Christmas Day, and the third on New Year’s Day.
The Finnish, who believe Father Christmas lives north of the Arctic Circle in Korvatunturi (Lapland), are right at home with the reindeer. Animals are included in Christmas celebrations with farmers hanging a sheaf of wheat and/or suet on tree branches for the birds. A spruce tree is usually decorated in the home. Christmas Eve includes the tradition of eating rice porridge and plum fruit juice in the morning. After taking a sauna, the family gathers around the head of the house reading the Christmas prayer and sermon. Following church services, a traditional Christmas Day dinner includes casseroles of macaroni, rutabaga, carrots, potato, and ham or turkey.
A beautiful Irish tradition is to place lit candles in every window of the house with the front door ajar, a symbol of welcoming hospitality. Christmas for Irish Catholics lasts from Christmas Eve to the feast of Epiphany on January 6. Traditional food includes a round cake with caraway seeds, and turkey or spiced beef for Christmas dinner. The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day), is also an important holiday. Football and horse races are held along with the old tradition of “Feeding the Wren.” In memory of St. Stephen who hid in a bush from his enemies, and was betrayed by a wren, children would go from house to house collecting money for the poor carrying a wren in a cage.
To the Polish, Christmas is a time of peace, a time to remember the “real reason for Christmas.” Christmas Eve is a day of fasting, with a special meal eaten after the first star is seen. This meal is meat free, usually consisting of beet soup, mushroom ravioli, pierogi (pasta dumplings filled with cheese or potato), and fish dishes. A Christmas tree is highly decorated, and kissing under the mistletoe is common. Presents are brought by St. Nicholas, followed by a Midnight Mass.
Italy’s feast of the Immaculate Conception honoring the Virgin Mary is similar to our live nativity. The “Precipio” was made popular by St. Francis of Assisi’s use in 1223 of the nativity crib scene to tell the Christmas story. Traditionally, the miniature Italian nativity is set out on December 8, but the baby Jesus is not added until Christmas Eve. “Panettone,” a fruity sponge cake, is a favorite.
A Midnight mass for the Spanish is traditional, followed by singing of carols in the streets. Their main Christmas dinner of turkey is enjoyed Christmas Eve, with fish on Christmas Day. Children open some gifts on Christmas Day, but most are saved for Epiphany, Kings’ Day, on January 6, in memory of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to baby Jesus. “Roscon,” a roll filled with cream or chocolate, is a special treat containing a small gift.
The French also celebrate Christmas with a miniature nativity, the “Creche.” A yule log, sprinkled with red wine, is often burned in the home. Pere Noel (Father Christmas or St. Nicholas) brings gifts. The main dinner of roast turkey or goose, oysters, sausages and special wines is served after Midnight Mass. Epiphany is also celebrated by the French on January 6.
Christmas was not typically celebrated in the Soviet Union, but New Year’s was important. Christmas is now celebrated on January 7 as the Russian Orthodox church uses the old “Julian” calendar for religious days. They celebrate Advent from November 28 to January 6. Some people fast on Christmas Eve until the first star is seen. Then, porridge from wheat or rice is served with honey, poppy seeds, fruit, and walnuts. Father Frost brings gifts to children at New Year’s celebrations.
I certainly have not touched on all the ethnic holiday traditions within our communities. Just as our ancestors’ many nationalities blended into a uniquely American society, so have the old customs evolved into a “traditional” American Christmas. Growing up with a paucity of Christmas decorations, and no TV or Christmas tree until my teens, I continue to decorate simply in remembrance of the humble birth of the Christ Child. Like many of you, I’ve taken bits and pieces from here and there for our family traditions. I am partial to a nativity set, a small tree and limited decorations, occasionally hanging stockings, Christmas Eve candlelight services, singing the beloved Christmas carols, opening gifts on Christmas morning since my husband’s Dutch family did, and serving a turkey or ham dinner with traditional sweets on Christmas Day. Another family favorite is the annual Peanuts’ Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus reading from Luke 2: “…Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.” May you each enjoy your family’s treasured holiday traditions, and have a very Blessed and Merry Christmas season!
Linda Roorda writes from her home in Spencer.