Armenian clergymen take part in the Sunday prayer services inside the Grotto, underneath the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AP Photo)
Christmas traditions may vary around the world, but the message remains the same
Final part on the three- part series about the history of holiday traditions.
Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad! Joyeux Noël!
Wherever you are from and in whichever language you say it, Christmas is still a time most associate with family, tradition and joyous celebration.
For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and a reflection on the nativity story — when Mary was visited by an angel, said yes to bearing the Savior and with her husband, Joseph, went to Bethlehem for the census Caesar demanded.
Jesus was then born and places in a manger in the barn with animals as witnesses.
It’s a well-known story, but having an actual date was never made clear. It wasn’t until 350 C.E. that Dec. 25 became the day for Christmas, set by Julius I, bishop of Rome.
Because this date coincided with the Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, multiple bans were put in place to keep the festivals separate from Christmas. However, unable to abolish the pagan customs, the church eventually “Christianized” many of the traditions, causing many modern Christmas traditions to be based off of original pagan customs.
The use of evergreens, candles, the Yule log, singing of carols, giving presents and having big feasts are all traditions originally used in large pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.
There are some traditions, however, that are less based on non-Christian elements. The Star of Bethlehem is mentioned in the Bible in reference to Jesus. There is also the use of an Advent Wreath.
Advent in the church is a time of preparation before Christmas. The wreath, with four candles, marks the four Sundays leading up the Christ’s birth. Another fun reminder of this preparation period is an Advent calendar, often made for kids so that they open a new door in the calendar every day and reveal chocolate as they count down the days until Christmas.
Many of the customs are consistently observed around the world, but in each country, certain traditions are more common, or perhaps not actually existent at all.
According to author Herbert H. Wernecke in his book “Christmas Customs Around the World,” northern Europe homes have the Christmas tree as the center of their celebrations, whereas southern Europe and beyond focus more on the manger scene.
But, within Europe, there are differences in how Christmas is celebrated.
In Austria, both the 25th and 26th of December are legal holidays, Wernecke wrote. Austria also has a different version of Santa Claus — Santaklausen — who shows up on Dec. 6 on a day to honor the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas. This day of St. Nick is common in many European countries.
In Belgium a big part of celebrating is the Christmas procession that winds through the streets, while in Germany, Christmas trees and toys are found everywhere, and “in no other country is the day so fully and heartily observed,” Wernecke penned.
In America, there is a mix of traditions, brought over by each family from various countries. But here, as well as abroad, it is hard not to get wrapped up in the commercialism of Christmas, stated Wernecke.
“In spite of the occasional abuse of the season, everyone may find a place in his heart and home for the Christ-child,” he wrote.
Mixing modern commercialism and traditions with the true meaning of Christmas is a delicate balance. Regardless of opinion, Christmas is still a time of fun — for children as well as adults. And although the author is unknown, the poem “For the Children or the Grownups” depicts perfectly how Christmas is a holiday meant for everyone.
There are cities named after towns in the Nativity story, Santa Claus is known under different names around the world and for different countries there are different ways of greeting others during the Christmas season.
But regardless of where in the world it is celebrated, the birth of Christ remains the meaning behind Christmas for all Christians, and it is a day of celebration and tradition.
So whether you are from Chile, Uganda or Poland, and whether you make gingerbread men, attend midnight Mass or curl up on the couch with eggnog and “A Christmas Story,” this season is a time for happy cheer and celebration.
Hope all of you have a warm and joyous Christmas.