CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS IN THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH

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CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS IN THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH

 

Christmas in Ireland is the largest celebration on the calendar in Ireland and lasts from December 24th to January 6th, although many may view December 8th as being the start of the season; although schools used to close on this day, making it a traditional Christmas shopping time, this is no longer compulsory and many stay open.   Almost the entire workforce is finished by lunchtime on Christmas Eve, or often a few days beforehand. Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day are public holidays, and many people do not return to work until after New Year’s Day. Irish people spend more and more money each year on celebrating Christmas.

It is extremely popular on Christmas Eve to go for “the Christmas drink” in the local pub, where regular punters are usually offered a Christmas drink. Many neighbors and friends attend each other’s houses for Christmas drinks and parties on the days leading up to and after Christmas Day. Although religious devotion in Ireland today is considerably less than it used to be, there are huge attendances at religious services for Christmas Day, with Midnight Mass a popular choice. Most families arrange for their deceased relatives to be prayed for at these Masses as it is a time of remembering the dead in Ireland. It is traditional to decorate graves at Christmas with a wreath made of holly and ivy. Even in the most non-devout of homes in Ireland the traditional crib takes centre stage along with the Christmas tree as part of the family’s decorations. Some people light candles to signify symbolic hospitality for Mary and Joseph. Therefore, it is usual to see a white candle, or candle set, placed in several windows around people’s homes. The candle was a way of saying there was room for Jesus’s parents in these homes even if there was none in Bethlehem. Almost the entire workforce is finished by lunchtime on Christmas Eve or often a few days beforehand. It is traditional to leave a mince pie and a bottle or a glass of Guinness for Santa Clause along with a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus, often known in Ireland simply as Santy, brings presents to children in Ireland, which are opened on Christmas morning. Family and friends also give each other gifts at Christmas. The traditional Christmas dinner consists of turkey or goose and ham with a selection of vegetables and a variety of potatoes, as potatoes still act as a staple food in Ireland despite the popularization of staples such as rice and pasta. Dessert is a very rich selection of Christmas pudding, Christmas cake, and mince pies with equally rich sauces such as brandy butter.

Christmas celebrations in Ireland finish with the celebration of Little Christmas also known as Oíche Nollaig Na mBan in Irish on January 6th. This festival, which coincides with Epiphany, is also known as Women’s Christmas in Cork & Kerry.

In the United Kingdom Christmas decorations are put up in shops and town centres from early November. Many towns and cities have a public event to mark the switching on of Christmas lights. Decorations in people’s homes are commonly put up from early December, traditionally including a Christmas tree.   Christmas decorations are traditionally left up until the evening of January 5th (the night before Epiphany) and it is considered bad luck to have Christmas decorations up after this date.

Mince pies are traditionally sold during the festive season, and are a popular food for Christmas celebrations. It is common in many UK households for children to put up advent calendars in their homes, which may either contain chocolates or Christmas scenes behind their doors. A common feature of the Christmas season is the Nativity play which is practiced in most primary and some secondary schools across the UK, this practice is becoming less common, and Christmas pantomimes may be performed instead. Midnight Mass is also celebrated by Anglicans, Catholics and other denominations and services take place in nearly all Church of England parishes on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve, presents are supposedly delivered in stockings and under the Christmas tree by Father Christmas, who previously had been something like The Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but has now become mainly conflated with Santa Claus. The two names are now used interchangeably and equally known to British people and some distinctive features still remain. Many families tell their children stories about Father Christmas and his reindeer. One tradition is to put out a plate of carrots for the reindeer and mince pies and sherry for Father Christmas to help him on his way.

The majority of families open their presents on the morning of Christmas Day, the Royal family being a notable exception, opening their gifts on Christmas Eve, following German tradition introduced by the Hanoverians. Queen Victoria as a child made note of it in her diary for Christmas Eve 1832; the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote, “After dinner…we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room…There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…” Since the first commercial Christmas card was produced in London in 1843, cards are sent in the weeks leading up to Christmas, many of which contain the English festive greeting Merry Christmas.

On Christmas Day, a public holiday in the United Kingdom, nearly the whole population has the day off to be with their family and friends, so they can gather round for a traditional Christmas Dinner, which is usually a turkey, traditionally with cranberries, parsnips, and roast potatoes, quite like the Sunday roast, and traditionally followed by a Christmas pudding. During the meal, Christmas crackers, containing toys, jokes and a paper hat are pulled. Attendance at a Christmas Day church services is less popular than it used to be with fewer than 3 million now attending a Christmas Day Church of England service.   Other traditions include carol singing, where many carols are sung by children on people’s doorsteps and by professional choirs, and sending Christmas cards. In public, there are decorations and lights in most shops, especially in town centres, and even in Indian and Chinese restaurants. Churches and cathedrals across the country hold masses, with many people going to midnight mass or a service on Christmas morning. Even though church attendance has been falling over the decades some people who do not go to church often think it is still important to go at Christmas, so Church attendance increases. Most theatres have a tradition of putting on a Christmas pantomime for children. Television is widely watched: for many television channels, Christmas Day is the most important day of the year in terms of ratings.

Christmas in Scotland is traditionally observed very quietly, because the church never placed much emphasis on the Christmas festival; although in Catholic areas people would attend Midnight Mass or early morning Mass before going to work. This tradition derives from the Church of Scotland’s origins including St Columba’s monastic tradition, under which every day is God’s day and there is none more special than another. Christmas Day was commonly a normal working day in Scotland until the 1960s, and even into the 1970s in some areas. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanaym, is by far the largest celebration in Scotland. The gift-giving, public holidays and feasting associated with mid-winter were traditionally held between December 11th and January 6th. However, since the 1960s, with increased influences from the rest of the UK and elsewhere, Christmas and its related festivities are now nearly on a par with Hogmanay and “Ne’erday”. The capital city of Edinburgh has a traditional German market from late November until Christmas Eve and on the first Sunday in Advent a nativity scene is blessed by the Cardinal Archbishop in the main square.

In Australia, as with all of the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas occurs during the height of the summer season. Christmas Day and Boxing Day (December 25th-26th) are recognized as national public holidays in Australia, and workers are therefore entitled to a day off with pay. The Australian traditions and decorations are quite similar to those of the United Kingdom and North America, and similar wintry iconography is commonplace. This means a red fur-coated Santa Claus riding a sleigh, carols such as Jingle Bells, and various snow-covered Christmas scenes on Christmas cards and decorations appear in the middle of summer. As novelties, some Australian songwriters and authors have occasionally depicted Santa in “Australian”-style clothing including an Akubra hat, with warm-weather clothing and thongs, and riding in a Ute pulled by kangaroos, but these depictions have not replaced mainstream iconography.

The traditional Christmas tree is central to Christmas decorations and strings of lights and tinsel are standard. Decorations appear in stores and on streets starting in November, and are commonplace by early December. Many homeowners decorate the exterior of their houses. Displays range from the modest to elaborate, sometimes with hundreds of lights and decorations depicting seasonal motifs such as Christmas trees, Santa Claus, reindeer, or nativity scenes. Particular regions have a tradition for elaborate displays, and attract a great amount of pedestrian and vehicular traffic during the Christmas season.

Most workplaces conduct a “Christmas Party” sometime during December, but rarely on Christmas Eve itself. As many people take their holidays between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and many workplaces completely close for that period, these parties are effectively an end of year or break-up party and frequently feature little or no reference to Christmas itself. Often they will not even be named the “Christmas Party” but called the “end of year party” or a “break-up party”.       Likewise, schools, TAFE (vocational training), and universities break for summer holidays. Schools typically end in the week before Christmas, to recommence in late January or early February. Following Christmas, many churches will change their evening meetings to a less formal format, while many hobby clubs also suspend or alter their meetings in this period. These holidays allow many to travel very significant distances to visit relatives.   The tradition of sending Christmas cards is widely practiced in Australia. The price of a Christmas postage stamp is lower than that for a standard letter; senders are required to mark the envelope “card only” when using the lower priced stamps.

On Christmas Eve, the children are told, Santa Claus visits houses placing presents for children under the Christmas tree or in stockings or sacks which are usually hung by a fireplace. In recent decades many new apartments and homes have been built without traditional combustion fireplaces, however with some innovation the tradition persists. Snacks and beverages (including liquor) may be left out for Santa to consume during his visit. The gifts are opened the next morning, on Christmas Day.     On December 25th, extended families traditionally gather for a Christmas Day Lunch similar to the traditional Christmas meal in England and America that includes decorated hams, roast turkey, roast chicken, salads and roast vegetables, accompanied by Champagne, and followed by fruit mince pies, trifle, and plum pudding with brandy butter. Christmas crackers are a feature of the meal. Candy canes are a popular confectionery in Australia in the Christmas period. More recently, as appropriate to the sometimes hot weather on the day, lighter meals featuring fish and seafood may be served, along with barbecue lunches. However, the typical roast remains popular.

Two major sporting events traditionally commence on the day after Christmas Day in Australia: the Boxing Day Test cricket test match and the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.       A popular tradition celebrated in Adelaide is the Adelaide Christmas Pageant. This parade is the largest of its kind in the world, attracting crowds of over 400,000 people. Begun in 1933, the pageant is staged in early November every year, usually on a Saturday morning, marking the start of the Christmas season. It comprises a procession of floats, bands, clowns, dancing groups, and walking performers, all culminating in the arrival of Santa Claus. At the terminus of the pageant Santa proceeds to the Magic Cave in the David Jones department store where he can be visited by children. Smaller scale pageants are also held in regional centres.

Carols by Candlelight is a tradition that started in Melbourne in 1938 and has since spread around Australia and the world. At the event people gather on Christmas Eve, usually outdoors, to sing carols by candlelight in a large-scale concert style event. The Vision Australia’s Carols by Candlelight which takes place at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne on Christmas Eve, is televised nationwide and it has become a tradition for many Australians to watch the performance.   Carols in the Domain takes place in Sydney the Saturday before Christmas.

In New Zealand Christmas Day and Boxing Day are both holidays. While Boxing Day is a standard statutory holiday, Christmas Day is one of the three-and-a-half days of the year where all but the most essential businesses and services must close. Many of New Zealand’s Christmas traditions are similar to those of Australia in that they are a mix of United Kingdom and North American traditions conducted in summer. New Zealand celebrates Christmas with mainly traditional northern hemisphere winter imagery, mixed with local imagery. The Pohutukawa is often used symbol for Christmas in New Zealand, and has become known as the New Zealand Christmas tree.   Traditional winter-styled hot roast food is served for Christmas dinner and Christmas crackers are pulled before eating. Traditional Christmas desserts of Christmas pudding, trifle, Christmas cake and mince pies are consumed, along with the traditional New Zealand dessert of pavlolova. Several Christmas themed parades are held in New Zealand. The most popular is Auckland’s Santa Parade down Queen Street. This features numerous floats and marching bands and attracts large crowds every year. It is held late November to accommodate holidaymakers and is seen as the preamble to the later festivities. The Australian tradition of Carols by Candlelight is popular in New Zealand, especially in Auckland and Christchurch, where there is usually a large outdoor carol-singing gathering known as Christmas in the park.

Kathy Kiefer

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