UNITED STATES CHRISTMAS TIME
Christmas is a widely celebrated festive holiday in the United States. The Christmas and holiday season begins around the end of November with a major shopping kickoff on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, though Christmas decorations and music playing in stores sometimes extend into the period between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Many schools and businesses are closed during the period between Christmas and the New Year’s Day holiday, which is a time commonly used to spend time with family, return unwanted gifts at stores, and shop after-Christmas sales. Most decorations are taken down by New Year’s or Epiphany. Other observances considered part of the season (and potentially included in non-denominational holiday greetings such as “Happy Holidays”) include Hanukkah, Yule, Epiphany, Kwanza and winter solstice celebrations.
The interior and exterior of houses are decorated during the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in the United States and Canada provide families with trees for their homes, many opting for artificial ones, but many prefer real trees. Many people that have farms make a special treat of going out in their forest and cutting down their own tree. The Christmas tree usually stands centrally in the home, decorated with ornaments, tinsel and lights, with an angel or a star symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem at the top.
Christmas Eve is popularly described as “the night before Christmas” in the poem actually titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Better known as Santa Claus, he is said to visit homes while children are sleeping during the night before Christmas morning. The fireplaces have been replaced in many homes with an electronic fireplace, but the yule log has remained a tradition. Christmas stockings are hung on the mantelpiece for Santa Claus to fill with little gifts (“stocking stuffers”). It is tradition throughout the United States for children to leave a glass of milk and plate of Christmas cookies for Santa Claus nearby.
Presents the family will exchange are wrapped and placed near the tree, including presents to be given to pets. Friends exchange wrapped presents and tell each other, “Do not open before Christmas!” Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings and occasionally guests from out of town are entertained in the home or else visited. Wrapped presents are most commonly opened on the morning of Christmas Day; however, other families choose to open all or some of their presents on Christmas Eve, depending on evolving family traditions, logistics, and the age of the children involved; for example, adults might open their presents on Christmas Eve and minor children on Christmas morning, or everyone might open their gifts on Christmas morning. Others follow the tradition of opening family-exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve night, followed by opening of the presents Santa brought on Christmas morning. Children are normally allowed to play with their new toys and games afterwards.
The traditional Christmas dinner usually features roasted turkey with stuffing (sometimes called dressing), ham or roast beef (sometimes all three) and Yorkshire puddings. Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables and cranberry sauce are served along with tonics and sherries. A variety of sweet pastry and egg nog sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg are served in the United States. Certain dishes such as casseroles and desserts are prepared with a family recipe (usually kept a secret). Fruits, nuts, cheeses and chocolates are enjoyed as snacks.
Other traditions include a special church service on the Sunday before Christmas and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Candlelight services are held earlier in the evening for families with children. A re-enactment of the Nativity of Jesus called a Nativity play is another tradition.
Christmas-related attractions, such as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, Radio City Music Hall for their Christmas Spectacular and elaborate animated department store windows in New York City are heavily visited by tourists from all over the world, as well as native New Yorkers, Christmas music can be heard in the background. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is one whose annual carol singing is well-recognized; another example is the Boys Choir can be heard singing Christmas Time is Here, a song featured in the animated television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Christmas symphony orchestra and choral presentation such as Handel’s Messiah and performances of The Nutcracker ballet are well attended. Local radio stations may temporarily switch format to play exclusively Christmas music, some going to an all-Christmas format as early as mid-October. A few television stations broadcast a Yule Log without interruption for several hours. News broadcasts and talk shows feature Christmas-themed segments, emphasizing fellowship and goodwill among neighbors. Also on television, there are a plethora of holiday themed specials and movies.
While tradition holds that the official Christmas starts on Thanksgiving with the stores ready to receive the Christmas shopper the day after Thanksgiving, unfortunately more and more in recent years many stores are starting to push things for Christmas just as children are going back to school right after Labor Day. There are even stores that open on Thanksgiving Day or that evening to get a jump on the competition. This is so wrong and really ruins the spirit of the season. Just to make extra dollars it would seem.
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.
SIGNS AND SYMBOLS
THE CHRISTMAS SEASON
Christmas is celebrated all over the world with great fervor marking the birth of Jesus Christ. The traditions differ in different parts of the world, but there are some common symbols which are closely associated with this festival.
Although we are familiar with most of these symbols, few of us actually know the significance and symbolism behind them. There are various activities that are carried out during the Christmas celebrations like preparing mouth-watering sweets, sending greetings to near and dear ones (handmade greeting add a personal touch though), spreading the good news caroling, packing and presenting gifts to kids, decorating the house and Christmas tree, reuniting and feasting with family/relatives to celebrate the birth of Christ, and much more.
Christmas Tree – The meaning of the Christmas tree can be interpreted in many ways. The most popular beliefs are that the needles of the tree point towards heaven symbolizing man’s connection with the Lord, and since it is an evergreen tree it signifies abundant life throughout the year.
Christmas Bells – Christmas bells are believed to announce the arrival of baby Jesus and mark the beginning of the holiday season. The tinkling sound of bells guide the lost sheep back to the fold, just like the Lord would guide us to walk in His ways.
Christmas Star – The Christmas star, also known as the Star of Bethlehem revealed the birth of Jesus to the three wise men and also guided them to Bethlehem. It is also used as a popular Christmas decoration.
Angels – In Greek, the word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’. According to the popular belief, the angels had an important role to play in Christmas, as they brought the news of the birth of Christ child to the shepherds.
Christmas Candles – The candle is used as a popular Christmas decoration which is said to bring light and warmth in the cold winters. Some also believe that it is customary to light a candle to represent the star of Bethlehem.
Christmas Wreaths – Just like the Christmas wreath does not have an end, it symbolizes the eternal love of the Lord. Christmas wreaths are an indispensable part of Christmas decorations. You could always purchase one from the market, but there is a different feel to the ones that you make at home. If you have the time, use your creative skills and come up with some unique wreath ideas.
Santa Claus – St. Nicholas, popularly known as Santa Claus, is a legendary figure who brings gifts for children at Christmas Eve. It is believed that he lives in the North Pole where he makes the gifts assisted by a group of elves.
Reindeer and Sleigh – “Rudolf the Red nose reindeer” – Isn’t that the first thing that comes to your mind when we think of Santa and his reindeer? Reindeer are Santa’s chosen animals to pull his royal sleigh on which he makes his journey from the North Pole and brings lots of gifts for little children. The story has it that, there are totally nine reindeer pulling the sleigh, Rudolph being their leader guiding them through foggy nights.
Snowman – The snowman is a figure carved out of snow used as a popular decoration and has become an icon of Christmas in recent times. Building a snowman could be a fun-filled activity for you and your family. So, those who live in cold countries with abundant snowfall must try building one this winter.
Poinsettia – Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations having deep red colored, star shaped leaves. Due to its shape, it is commonly associated with the star of Bethlehem. It was brought to the United States by Dr. John Poinsett, United States Ambassador to Mexico. Legend has it that a few poor children from Mexico wanted to give Jesus a gift. As they could not find any other gift, they picked up some weeds and presented it to Him. Miraculously, the bright red poinsettias bloomed out of these weeds and thus the poinsettias became an integral part of the Christmas tradition
Mistletoe – The Mistletoe is a parasitic plant believed to have life giving properties and considered as an aphrodisiac. It is also believed to provide protection against poison and evil spirits. There are also some interesting traditions about kissing under the Mistletoe. During Christmas time, a young lady standing under the Mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed. If a couple in love kisses under the Mistletoe, it is considered as a promise to marry and a long life filled with happiness.
Holly – The holly is believed to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ during crucifixion. It is a religious symbol and is used as an offering to God. It is normally used along with the wreaths and mistletoe as a decoration during Christmas.
Manger – The Manger is popular Christian Christmas symbol depicting the birth scene of the Lord. Hay, grass, figurines of baby Jesus, Mother Mary, Joseph, angels, animals, and the Three Wise Men are used to recreate the scene of Christ’s birth.
Christmas Colors – Red and green are the two main Christmas colors. The blood shed by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion is symbolized by the color red while green symbolizes the eternal life of Christ.
Snowflakes – Snowflakes are Christmas ornaments widely used in decorations and are symbolic of the cold winter season. You can add a personal touch to your Christmas decorations by making some snowflakes at home. They add a unique charm and glamor to the overall decorations.
Christmas Carols– Christmas carols are basically Christmas songs based on the Christmas theme. Carol singing is an old custom wherein people sing carols during the period before Christmas. It is a tradition loved by all and the best way to spread the Christmas spirit.
Christmas Stockings – Christmas stockings are empty socks hung by children in hope that Santa will fill it with gifts and goodies. There is a popular legend associated with this custom of hanging stockings. Supposedly one Christmas Eve Santa came across a poor family and wanted to help them out. He wanted to remain anonymous and so he dropped in a few gold coins from the chimney. The coins fell into the stockings that were hanging there to dry.
Christmas Cards and Gifts – Christmas cards and gifts are the best way to wish your loved ones. The first Christmas gifts were given by the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus, thus giving rise to the custom of exchanging gifts.
Christmas Candy Cane – They are cane shaped sticks which are traditionally striped in red and white colors. It is believed to symbolize the shepherd’s hook used to bring the lambs back to their fold. In modern times, people believe that is represents an inverted “J” of Jesus Christ.
Christmas Cookies – Christmas is incomplete without the Christmas cookies as they add sweetness to the overall celebrations. The mouth-watering cookies are carved into various shapes related to Christmas. They are also popular Christmas gifts
Wassail – Originating from the old English words “waes hael” which means “be-well” the wassail is a traditional drink toasted as symbol of best wishes and good health
Icicles – Baby Jesus had taken shelter under a pine tree. When the tree realized that it was giving shelter to the Lord, it let out tears of happiness which froze to form icicles. They are now used as a popular tree decoration during Christmas.
Christmas Seals – In 1904 a Danish postman called Einar Holboell introduced the custom of Christmas seals. More popular as Christmas stamps or Cinderella stamps, they are stickers or labels placed on the mail during the festive season, in order to raise funds for charity. Indeed a noble cause!