TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS DISHES
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.
Most Christmas customs in the United States have been adopted from those in the United Kingdom (though others have come from Italy, France, Scandinavia, and Germany.) Accordingly, the mainstays of the British table are also found in the United States: roast turkey (or other poultry), beef, ham, or pork; stuffing (or ‘dressing’), mashed potatoes and gravy, squash, roasted root vegetables are common. Common desserts include pumpkin pie, plum pudding or Christmas pudding and mince pies. In the South, coconut cake, pecan pie, and sweet potato pie are also common.
The centerpiece of a sit-down meal varies on the tastes of the host but can be ham, roast beef, or goose, particularly since turkey is the mainstay at dinner for the American holiday of Thanksgiving in November, around one month earlier. Regional meals offer diversity. Virginia has oysters, ham pie, and fluffy biscuits, a nod to its very English 17th century founders. The Upper Midwest includes dishes from predominantly Scandinavian backgrounds such as lutefisk and mashed rutabaga or turnip. In some rural areas, game meats like elk, opossum or quail may grace the table, often prepared with recipes that are extremely old: it is likely that similar foodstuffs graced the tables of early American settlers on their first Christmases.
An Italian American meal for Christmas Eve can be the Feast of the Seven Fishes. An Italian desert and sweets that has become popular at Christmas time is a cake enriched with candy fruits, raisins, and pine nuts called panettone as well as marzipan, zeppole, cannoli, candy fruits and fresh fruits.
Christmas in the Land of Trees: Pacific Northwest
The cool, rainy Pacific Northwest is known for several things at the holidays: salmon, apples, and Christmas trees. Salmon, which is indigenous to this region, is a popular main dish at the holidays and throughout the year. Smoked salmon is often given as a Christmas gift. Oregon and Washington produce more Christmas trees than anywhere else in the country.
Some holiday meals ideas from the Pacific Northwest: (1) Fall Salad with Cranberry Vinaigrette; (2) Dijon Garlic Salmon; (3) Butternut Squash Casserole; (4) Eggplant and Mushrooms with Wild Rice; and (5) Washington Apple Cake.
Christmas in the Sun: California
Christmas in a warm, sunny place seems like a strange idea to many people. For Southern Californians, it’s everyday life. Regional holiday food favorites: avocados, artichokes, homemade tamales, and fish tacos. Beyond the mainland United States, members in Hawaii said they celebrate Christmas by cooking Kalua Turkey and Laulaus.
Some holiday meal ideas from California include: (1) Mesclun and Mango Salad with Ginger Carrot Dressing; (2) Orange-Chili Turkey; (3) Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Shallots; (4) Brussel Sprouts and Chestnuts; and (5) Apple and Pomegranate Crisp.
Christmas in the Heartland: The Midwest
The Midwest is a melting pot of cultures, which is reflected in its varied traditions. Across the Midwest, European and Scandinavian cuisines have a strong influence on holiday food traditions. Popular recipes include lefse, stollen, lutefisk, lasagna and Polish sausage. The Midwest is the only region of the country where ham was chosen over turkey as the favorite holiday meal.
Some holiday meal ideas from the Midwest include: (1) Prime Rib Roast; (2) Candied Yams; (3) Creamed Corn; (4) Christmas Cranberry Salad; (5) Buckeye Balls; and (6) Danish Kringle.
Tex-Mex Christmas: The Southwest
American and Mexican cuisines meet in the Southwest to create the perfect marriage of holiday food traditions. Although they rarely admit it, many people actually like fruit cake. More than in any other region, 13% of South-westerners claimed they would like to receive fruit cake as a gift. Unique regional holiday foods: green chilis, blue corn muffins, and romeritos.
Some holiday meal ideas from the Midwest include: (1) Real Homemade Tamales; (2) Mexican Posole Stew; (3) Chile Relieno Casserole; (4) Mexican Rice; and (5) Creamy Carmel Flan.
Christmas Southern-style: The South
Rich with distinctive variations on traditional holiday fare, The South makes the holidays its own. A high percentage of people in the South said they prefer to cook both ham and turkey at Christmas. Pie was consistently voted the most popular holiday dessert in all regions of the country. Cookies came in second, except for in the South, where cakes took the prize. Most Southerners (63%) claim that they do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving. Only a few admit to waiting until Christmas Eve.
Some holiday meal ideas from the Midwest include: (1) Candy-Coated Pecans; (2) Honey Glazed Ham; (3) Deep-Fried Cajun Turkey; (4) Tasty Collard Greens; (5) Garlic Grits; and (6) Sweet Potato Pie.
A Traditional Christmas: Northeast
From New York to Maine, as in most of the U.S., New England traditions form the basis of the American holiday menu. According to the survey, users in the Northeast were divided over whether to serve ham or turkey at Christmas, with turkey narrowly winning out. Popular regional holiday foods: lobster, clam chowder, and mincemeat pie.
Some holiday meal ideas from the Midwest include: (1) Wassail Punch; (2) Maple Roast Turkey and Gravy; (3) Mom’s Delicious Oyster-Cornbread Dressing; (4) Stuffed Cabbage Rolls; and (5) Christmas Plum Pudding.
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.
SCANDINAVIAN CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
In much of Northern Europe Christmas is celebrated on December 24th and
is referred to as Yule, while December 25th is a relaxed day for visiting relatives.
Denmark celebrates on December 24th, which is referred to as Yule evening. An evening meal with the family consists of roast pork, roast duck or roast goose and eaten with potatoes, plenty of gravy, and red cabbage or finely chopped kale boiled in butter. Also caramelized potatoes are an important part of the Danish Christmas dinner. For dessert rice pudding is traditionally served – composed largely of whipped cream and accompanied by lashings of black cherry sauce. The rice pudding also contains chopped peeled almonds, and a single whole peeled almond. Whoever finds the whole almond will have good luck for the coming year, and the lucky finder is entitled to a small gift. After the meal is complete, the family gathers around the Christmas tree and sings Christmas songs and hymns while holding hands and dancing in circles, and may even tour the house, still holding hands and singing. When the singing is complete, traditions vary. In some traditions, the family will select one child to hand out the presents. All children take turns handing out presents in other traditions. Alternatively “Santa Claus”, appears at the door in full costume with a large sack of presents over his shoulder. He will then distribute the presents, with the assistance of any children present, to their recipients. He should be offered suitable drink to keep him warm and cheerful on his onward journey, but do not expect loquacity – utterances are normally limited to loud and hearty laughs. Meanwhile the presents are opened and this is followed by more snacks, candy, chips and, sometimes, a traditional Christmas drink called Glogg. Danes are famous for their Julefrokost, literally meaning “Christmas lunch”, which includes various traditional Danish dishes, potentially accompanied by beer and Snaps. These Julefrokoster are popular and held within families, as well as by companies and other social groups. They would traditionally have taken place leading up to Christmas, but due to time constraints and stress during the Christmas month they are commonly held during November and January as well. The family Julefrokoster however is normally held on Christmas Day and/or The Second day of Christmas (December 26th).
Another more recent Danish tradition is the concept of television Julekalendere, special Christmas-themed, advent calendar-type television programmes with a daily episode shown on each of the first 24 days of December, thus culminating on Juleaften. Several television stations produce their own, most, but not all of which are targeted at child viewers. Some of the television advent calendars become extremely popular and go on to be reprised in subsequent years.
In Denmark, Santa Claus is known as “the Yule Man” and is said to arrive in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, with presents for the children. He is assisted with his Yuletide chores by elves known as julenisser (or simply nisser/nissie), who are traditionally believed to live in attics, barns or similar places. In some traditions, to maintain the favor and protection of these nisser, children leave out saucers of milk or rice pudding or other treats for them and are delighted to find the food gone on Christmas morning.
Christmas is an extensively prepared celebration centering on the family and home, although it has a religious dimension also. The Christmas season starts from December or even in late November, when shops began advertising potential Christmas gifts. Christmas decorations and songs become more prominent as Christmas nears, and children count days to Christmas with Advent calendars. Schools and some other places have the day before Christmas Eve as a holiday, but at the latest on Christmas Eve shops close early. The main Christmas festivities are held on Christmas Eve on December 24th, while Christmas Day and the following day (“St. Stephen’s Day”) are mandatory public holidays in Finland. Schools continue holidays up to the New Year. The Declaration of Christmas Peace has been a tradition in Finland every year, except in 1939 due to the Winter War. It is a custom in many towns and cities. The most famous one of these declarations is on the Old Great Square of Turku, the former capital of Finland, at noon on Christmas Eve. It is broadcast on Finnish radio (since 1935) and television, and nowadays also in some foreign countries. The declaration ceremony begins with the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, and continues with the Declaration of Christmas Peace read from a parchment roll:
“Tomorrow, God willing, is the most gracious feast of the birth of our Lord and Savior, and therefore a general Christmas peace is hereby declared, and all persons are directed to observe this holiday with due reverence and otherwise quietly and peacefully to conduct themselves, for whosoever breaks this peace and disturbs the Christmas holiday by any unlawful or improper conduct shall be liable, under aggravating circumstances, to whatever penalty is prescribed by law and decree for each particular offence or misdemeanor. Finally, all citizens are wished a joyous Christmas holiday.”
The Ceremony ends with trumpets playing the Finnish national anthem Maamme and Porilaisten marssi, with the crowd usually singing when the band plays Maamme. Recently, there is also a declaration of Christmas peace for forest animals in many cities and municipalities, so there is no hunting during Christmas.
Finnish people clean their homes well before Christmas and prepare special treats for the festive season. A sheaf of grain, nuts and seeds are tied on a pole, which is placed in the garden for the birds to feed on. Spruce trees are cut or bought from a market and taken to homes on or a few days before Christmas Eve and are decorated. Candles are lit on the Christmas tree, which is traditionally decorated using apples and other fruit, candies, paper flags, cotton and tinsel, in addition to Christmas ornaments such as stars or baubles. Actual candles are no longer used, being replaced by incandescent or LED lamps. A star symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem is placed at the top of the tree. Just before the Christmas festivities begin, people usually take a Christmas sauna. The tradition is very old; unlike on normal days, when one would go to the sauna in the evening, on Christmas Eve it is done before sunset. This tradition is based on a pre-20th century belief that the spirits of the dead return and have a sauna at the usual sauna hours. Afterwards, they dress up in clean clothes for the Christmas dinner, which is usually served between 5pm and 7pm, or traditionally with the appearance of the first star in the sky. The most traditional dish of the Finnish Christmas dinner is Christmas Ham, roast suckling pig or a roasted fresh ham, but some may prefer alternatives like turkey. Several sorts of casseroles, like rutabaga, carrot and potato casserole are traditional, and are almost always exclusively served on Christmas. Other traditional Christmas dishes include boiled codfish (soaked beforehand in a lye solution for a week to soften it) served snowy white and fluffy, pickled herring and vegetables. Prune jam pastries, plum or mixed fruit soup, rice porridge with cinnamon, sugar and cold milk, and sweets like chocolate are popular desserts. Christmas gifts are usually exchanged after Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Day services begin early at six in the morning and people visit families and reunions are arranged on this day.
Christmas or Yule (Iceland) is a celebration starting four Sundays before the 24th (advent) and ending thirteen days later or on January 6th. Traditionally Icelanders will light four candles one each Sunday until the 24th. At 6:00 pm Church bells ring at that time and people either sit down for holiday dinner or attend mass at a church (If so they either eat before or after mass). After that they open gifts and spend the evening together. Thirteen days before December 24th, the Yule lads start arriving into the towns to give children that have behaved well small gifts in a shoe that has been placed by the window. They are told to be the sons of two trolls living in the Icelandic mountains. Each of the Yule lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk or eating the candles). Traditionally they wear wool clothing much like Icelanders did in earlier centuries but are now known for the more recognizable red and white suit.
Each home typically setup a Christmas tree indoors in the living room and many decorate it on December 23rd, but that varies. Presents are put underneath the tree. It is also a tradition in many homes to boil skate on the 23rd. The day is called Saint Thorlak Mass. During the holiday season it is traditional to bake small cookies to serve or give to guests. Most common is making thin gingerbread cookies and painting them with a different color glaze. It is also a tradition to make Leafbread which is flat thin bread that is cut out using a special tool and folding technique. These traditions are most often a family event where everyone pitches in.
The end of year is divided between two days the Old year day and the New Year’s Day. At the night of the former and morning of the latter Icelanders shoot up fireworks blowing the old year away and welcoming the new one. Thirteen days after the 24th Icelanders say goodbye to the Yule lads and other mystical creatures such as elves and trolls. There are bonfires held throughout and the elves, yule lads and Icelanders and dance together before saying goodbye for the year.
The major day of celebration in Norway is December 24th. Although it is legally a regular workday until 16:00, most stores close early. Church bells toll in the Christmas festival between 17:00 and 18:00, and many people attend the church service thereafter. In some families the Christmas story from Luke 2 will be read from the old family Bible. The main Christmas meal is served in the evening. Common main dishes include pork rib; pieces of lamb rib steamed over birch branches, and in some western areas burned sheep’s head. Many people also eat fresh, poached cod. Rice porridge is also popular (but most commonly served the day after rather than for the main Christmas dinner), an almond is often hidden in the porridge, and the person who finds it wins a treat or small gift. In some parts of Norway it is common to place porridge outside (in a barn, outhouse or even in the forest) to please “Nissen”. In many families, where the parents grew up with different traditions, two different main dishes are served to please everyone. If children are present (and they have behaved well the last year), Santa Claus pays a visit, otherwise gifts are stored under the Christmas tree. December 25th is a very quiet and relaxed day. Church services are well attended. The old tradition of a very early morning service before breakfast has been replaced in most areas by a service in the later morning. Afterward many families get together for a large festive meal. December 26th is also a day of many festivities. Cinemas, night clubs and bars are full, and there are lots of private gatherings and parties, where all kinds of traditional Christmas Cookies and sweets are enjoyed. Fatty, tasty dinners are also part of it. The time between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve is called romjul. During this time children in some parts of Norway dress up as “nisser” and go in their neighborhoods and sing Christmas carols to receive treats, much the same way as on the American Halloween. January 6th (13th day of Christmas) is the official end of Christmas.
Swedish Christmas celebrations begin with the first of Advent. Saint Lucy’s Day is the first major Christmas celebration before Christmas itself. Electric candles and glowing stars are placed in almost every window in December month in Sweden. Although December 25th is a Swedish Public holiday, December 24th is the day when Santa Clause brings the presents. Although not a public holiday, Christmas Eve is a holiday in the sense that most workplaces are closed, and those who work, for instance in shops or care homes, get extra wages as compensation. The Jultomte was originally a small invisible Christmas house gnome or dwarf from the Nordic mythology, who watched over the house and its inhabitants. An old superstition still calls for feeding the Tomte on Christmas Eve with a small bowl of porridge. If a bowl of porridge is not laid out for him somewhere in or outside the house, he will bring bad luck to everyone in the house the next year. The modern “Tomten”, nowadays is a version of Santa Claus in red cloth and white beard, except that he doesn’t enter the house through the chimney, but knocks on the door and asks “are there any nice children here?”
Christmas is an occasion celebrated with food. All Swedish families celebrate on December 24th with a Christmas table, called Christmas smorgasbord, a display of several Christmas food items. Almost all smorgasbord has Christmas ham, accompanied by other Christmas dishes, such as small meatballs, pickled herring, spareribs, small hot dogs, pork sausage, salmon, potato casserole with anchovy, and rice pudding. The Christmas smorgasbord is served with julmust and beverage like mulled wine, Christmas beer or snaps. A Scandinavian specialty is glogg (mulled and spiced wine with almonds and raisins), which is served hot in small cups. The different dishes of smorgasbord may vary throughout Sweden, from South to North. Businesses traditionally invite their employees to a smorgasbord dinner or lunch the weeks before Christmas, and people go out privately to restaurants which also customarily offer smorgasbord during December. Examples of candies and treats associated with Christmas are marzipan, toffee, knack (quite similar to butterscotch), nuts and fruits: figs, chocolate, dates and oranges decorated with cloves.
After the smorgasbord on December 24th, the presents are distributed, either by Jultomten or a family member, and usually from a sack or from under the Christmas tree where they have been lying all day or for several days. Many Swedes still adhere to the tradition that each present should have a rhyme written on the wrapping paper, to hint at the contents without revealing them. In older days a yule goat was an alternative to Jultomten, nowadays it is used as an ornament, ranging from sizes of 10 cm to huge constructions like the giant straw Christmas goat, famous for frequently being vandalized or burnt down. If one has two families to celebrate Christmas with, it is common that one of the families move their celebrations to Christmas Day or the day before Christmas Eve.
After December 24thm the Christmas celebrations have more or less come to an end. Some people attend an early morning church service on December 25th. This particular service was the main service of Christmas historically—Midnight Mass has become increasingly popular. Others attend a simpler service called Christmas Prayer in the afternoon of Christmas Eve; however, many Swedes do not attend church at all during Christmas as the country is very secular. Even so, most families do set up a Christmas Crib. On January 13th (locally known as knutdagen or tjugondag knut, English = twentieth day Christmas), 20 days after Christmas, the Christmas celebrations come to an end and all Christmas decorations are removed.
Christmas traditions in the Netherlands are almost the same as the ones in Dutch speaking parts of Belgium. The Dutch recognize two days of Christmas as public holidays in the Netherlands, calling December 25th, first Christmas day and December 26th second Christmas day. In families, it is customary to spend these days with either side of the family. In the Catholic part of the country, it used to be common to attend Christmas Eve midnight mass; this custom is still upheld, but by fewer people every year. Christmas Eve is these days a rather normal evening without any special gatherings or meals. However, the gourmetten on Christmas Day is the most celebrated Christmas tradition. People grill meat, fish or omelettes on a big pan. Some parts of the country also bake pancakes on it. The week before Christmas is important to the retail trade, because this is the biggest sales week in the country. Christmas songs are heard everywhere. People in the southern region of the Netherlands are known for their religious observance, and churches are always full on Christmas Day. The cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Eindhoven are the busiest cities in terms of entertainment on Christmas Day. The Christmas season wraps up after the New Year with Epiphany on January 6th. Children dress up as the Three Wise Men and travel in groups of three carrying lanterns, re-enacting the Epiphany and singing traditional songs for their hosts. In return they are rewarded with cakes and sweets
EASTERN EUROPEAN CHRISTMAS
Estonia – In the weeks preceding Christmas, children place a slipper in their windows and receive a piece of candy or some other sweets from visiting elves. Estonians celebrate Christmas on December 24th, which is referred to as jõululaupäev (“Christmas Saturday and is by act of Parliament a public holiday in Estonia). Each year on this day, the President of Estonia declares the Christmas Peace and attends a Christmas service. The tradition was initiated by the order of Queen Christina of Sweden in the 17th century. Estonian children are visited by “Old Man Christmas” on Christmas Eve and must sing songs or recite Christmas poems before receiving their gifts.
The evening meal typically includes pork with sauerkraut or Estonian sauerkraut, baked potatoes, white and blood sausage, potato salad with red beet, and pate. For dessert, Estonians eat gingerbread and marzipan. The most highly regarded drinks during this time have been beer and mulled wine or glogi and “glowing wine”. Estonians leave the leftover food from Christmas dinner on the table overnight, in hopes that the spirits of family, friends, and loved ones will visit and also have something to eat. It is also customary to visit graveyards and leave candles for the deceased.
Christmas is a public holiday in Albania, a nation with significant Muslim and Christian populations, and is celebrated by both Orthodox and Catholic Albanians. However, even some non-Christian Albanians celebrate them. The Albanian wish is “Gëzuar Krishtlindjet!” People go to church at midnight on December 24th or December 25th. The Christmas atmosphere is felt not only in the capital city, Tirana, but also in many other cities, the rituals and traditions are very similar to those practiced by the other European Christian nations.
Christmas in Romania is on December 25th and is generally considered the second most important religious Romanian Holiday after Easter. In Moldova, although Christmas is celebrated on December 25th as in Romania, January 7th is also recognized as an official holiday. Celebrations begin with the decoration of the Christmas tree during daytime on December 24th, and in the evening Father Christmas delivers the presents.
The singing of carols is a very important part of Romanian Christmas festivities. On the first day of Christmas, many carolers walk through the streets of the towns and villages, holding a star made of cardboard and paper on which are depicted various scenes from the Bible. Romanian tradition has the smallest children going from house to house, singing carols and reciting poems and legends during the whole Christmas season. The leader of the group carries with him a star made of wood, covered with metal foil and decorated with bells and colored ribbons. An image of the Nativity is painted on the star’s centre, and this piece of handiwork is attached to the end of a broom or other long stick.
Romanian food served during the holidays is a hearty multi-coursed meal, most of which consists of pork.
Serbia celebrates Christmas for three consecutive days, beginning with Christmas Day. The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the traditional Julian calendar, per which Christmas Day (December 25th) falls on January 7th. This day is called the first day of Christmas, and the following two are accordingly called the second, and the third day of Christmas. During this festive time, one is to greet another person with “Christ is Born,” which should be responded to with “Truly He is Born.” The Serbian name for Christmas is young or little God.
This holiday surpasses all the others celebrated by Serbs, with respect to the diversity of applied folk customs and rituals. These may vary from region to region, some of them having modern versions adapted to the contemporary way of living. The ideal environment to carry them out fully is the traditional multi-generation country household. In the morning of Christmas Eve a young, straight oak tree is selected and felled by the head of the household. A log is cut from it and is referred to as the badnjak. In the evening, the badnjak is ceremoniously put on the domestic fire that burns on the house’s fireplace called ognjište, whose hearth is without a vertical surround. The burning of the badnjak is accompanied by prayers to God so that the coming year may bring much happiness, love, luck, riches, and food. Since most houses today have no ognjište on which to burn a badnjak, it is symbolically represented by several leaved oak twigs. For the convenience of people who live in towns and cities, they can be bought at marketplaces or received in churches.
The dinner on this day is festive, copious and diverse in foods, although it is prepared in accordance with the rules of fasting. Groups of young people go from house to house of their village or neighborhood, congratulating each other, singing, and making performances; this continues through the next three days. The Serbs also take a bundle of straw into the house and spread it over the floor, and then put walnuts on it. Before the table is served for the Christmas Eve dinner, it is strewn with a thin layer of straw and covered with a white cloth. The head of household makes the Sign of the Cross, lights a candle, and censes the whole house. The family members sit down at the table, but before tucking in they all rise and a man or boy among them says a prayer, or they together sing the Troparion of the Nativity. After the dinner young people visit their friends, a group of whom may gather at the house of one of them. Christmas and other songs are sung, while the elderly narrate stories from the olden times.
On Christmas Day, the celebration is announced at dawn by church bells and by shooting. A big importance is given to the first visit a family receives that day. People expect that it will summon prosperity and well-being for their household in the ensuing year; this visit is often pre-arranged. Christmas dinner is the most celebratory meal a family has during a year. A special, festive loaf of bread is baked for this occasion. The main course is roast pork of a pig which they cook whole by rotating it impaled on a wooden spit close to an open fire. It is not a part of Serbian traditions to exchange gifts during Christmas. Gift-giving is, nevertheless, connected with the celebrations, being traditionally done on the three consecutive Sundays that immediately precede it. Children, women, and men, respectively, are the set gift-givers on these three days.
Since the early 1990s, the Serbian Orthodox Church has, together with local communities, organized public celebrations on Christmas Eve. The course of these celebrations can be typically divided into three parts: the preparation, the ritual, and the festivity. The preparation consists of going and cutting down the tree to be used as the badnjak, taking it to the church yard, and preparing drink and food for the assembled parishioners. The ritual includes Vesoers placing the badnjak on the open fire built in the church yard, blessing or consecrating the badnjak, and an appropriate program with songs and recitals. In some parishes they build the fire on which to burn the badnjak not in the church yard but at some other suitable location in their town or village. The festivity consists of getting together around the fire and socializing. Each particular celebration, however, has its own specificities which reflect traditions of the local community, and other local factors.
In Bulgaria, Christmas (The Nativity of Jesus) is celebrated on December 25th and is preceded by Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christmas Eve would be the climax of the Nativity Fast, and thus only an odd number of Lenten dishes are presented on that evening. On Christmas, however, meat dishes are already allowed and are typically served.
Among the Bulgarian Christmas traditions is boy carolers visiting the neighboring houses starting at midnight on Christmas Eve, wishing health, wealth and happiness a. Another custom is the baking of a traditional round loaf. The pita is broken into pieces by the head of the family and a piece is given to each family member, a valuable possession, and a piece for God. A coin is hidden inside the pita and whoever gets the coin, he or she will have the luck, health and prosperity in the coming year.
As in other countries, a Christmas tree is typically set up and the entire house is decorated. The local name of Santa Claus is Grandfather Christmas, with Grandfather Frost being a similar Russian-imported character lacking the Christian connotations and thus popular during the Communist rule.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, Christmas is celebrated mainly as a religious holiday. The festivities begin on St. Nicholas’s Day on December 6th or St. Lucy’s on December 13th depending on what region. St. Lucy or St. Nicholas brings children presents, and St. Nicholas is said to be accompanied by Krampus who steals away the presents of bad children. In Croatia on St. Lucy’s, families will plant wheat seeds in a bowl of shallow water, which will grow several inches by Christmas and are then tied together with a red, blue and white ribbon called trobojnica.
On Christmas Eve three candles representing the Trinity are lit and placed in the middle of the wheat, the glow symbolizes the soul of each person. On this day, the tree is decorated; the home is decked with greenery and the women already beginning to prepare the Christmas meal. They also bake special types of bread: one is round inscribed with a cross on top known as the cesnica; another is made with honey, nuts and dried fruit called the Christmas Eve Bread. In many villages, straw (which symbolizes Christ’s birth in the manger) is spread around the floors of the home for the Christmas Eve dinner. As is customary with Catholic people, meat is not consumed in Croatia, while in Slovenia is. Instead of meat in Croatia and with other food in Slovenia, salad and fish is served, many choosing to eat the Dalmatian specialty bakalar, dried cod fish. The family then sprinkles holy water on their Yule log which they light and watch. In villages, the badnjak is freshly cut that very morning by the father of the household while reciting traditional prayers. At the end of the meal, a piece of the cesnica is cut and dipped in wine and used to sprinkle on the candles to extinguish them, while reciting the “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen”.
Many families will go to a midnight mass on Christmas Eve and often another on Christmas Day. It is common for Christmas presents to be placed under the tree, to suggest that the Angel or the Baby Jesus leaves them there while others are attending midnight mass. Presents are opened after the mass. Christmas is a day of celebrating with family; a large feast is prepared and traditional foods such as stuffed cabbage, turkey, pot roast, pita and smoked meat are served, along with various desserts such as fruit, strudel, and cookies.
Slovenes are also visited by another one of their three good guys, who bring presents in December: Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus and Grandfather Frost. Families mostly celebrate New Year’s Eve at home with extended family members, friends, and sometimes neighbors. Women prepare cabbage sarma, which they will eat on January 1st to symbolize good fortune, and steak tartar, which they eat on New Year’s Eve on toast with butter. At midnight, people go outdoors to watch fireworks, while Grandfather Frost leaves presents under the tree. Epiphany on January 6th marks the end of the Christmas season.
THE MUSIC OF CHRISTMAS
Christmas music comprises a variety of genres of music normally performed or heard around the Christmas season, which tends to begin in the months leading up to the actual holiday and end in the weeks shortly thereafter. Music was an early feature of the Christmas season and its celebrations. The earliest chants litanies, and hymns were Latin works intended for use during the church liturgy, rather than popular songs. The 13th century saw the rise of the carol written in the vernacular, under the influence of Francis of Assisi.
In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Audelay, a Shropsire priest and poet, who lists 25 “caroles of Christmas”, probably sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house. Music in itself soon became one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and Christmas music includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians.
The England, Parliament prohibited the practice of singing Christmas Carols as Pagan and sinful. Like other customs associated with popular Catholic Christianity, it earned the disapproval of Protestant Puritans. Famously, Cromwell’s interregnum prohibited all celebrations of the Christmas holiday. This attempt to ban the public celebration of Christmas can also be seen in the early history of Father Christmas. The Westminster Assembly of Divines established Sunday as the only holy day in the calendar in 1644. The new liturgy produced for the English church recognized this in 1645, and so legally abolished Christmas. Its celebration was declared an offence by Parliament in 1647. There is some debate as to the effectiveness of this ban, and whether or not it was enforced in the country. Puritans generally disapproved of the celebration of Christmas—a trend which continually resurfaced in Europe and the USA through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), contained the first appearance in print of many now-classic English carols, and contributed to the mid-Victorian revival of the holiday. Singing carols in church was instituted on Christmas Eve 1880 in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, England, which is now seen in churches all over the world. The tradition of singing Christmas carols in return for alms or charity began in England in the seventeenth century after the Restoration. Town musicians or ‘waits’ were licensed to collect money in the streets in the weeks preceding Christmas, the custom spread throughout the population by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries up to the present day. Also from the seventeenth century, there was the English custom, predominantly involving women, of taking a ‘wassail bowl’ round their neighbors to solicit gifts, accompanied by carols. Despite this long history, almost all surviving Christmas carols date only from the nineteenth century onwards, with the exception of some traditional folk songs such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “As I Sat on a Sunny Bank” and “The Holly and the Ivy.”
The status of Christmas as an important feast within the church year also means there is a long tradition of music specially composed for celebrating the season. The following is a brief and non-exhaustive list of notable compositions: (1) Thomas Tallis – Mass “Puer natus est nobis“ (1554); (2) Heinrich Schutz – Weihnachthistorie (1664); (3) Marc-Antoine Charpentier – Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ (c. 1670); (4) Johann Sebastian Bach – several cantatas for Christmas to Epiphany and Christmas Oratorio (1734); and (5) George Frederic Handel – Messiah (1741).
The Messiah has become inextricably linked with the Christmas season, especially in England. This is in part due to the efforts of amateur choral societies during the nineteenth century. When it was composed, it was performed during Passiontide.
Songs which are traditional, even some without a specific religious context, are often called Christmas Carols. Each of these has a rich history, some dating back many centuries. As well as the standards we have come to know. These are known as a popular set of traditional carols that might be heard at any Christmas related event(s) and they include: (a) Angels We Have Heard on High ” (in the UK the text of “Angels from the Realms of Glory” is sung to this tune); (b) Away in a Manger; (c) Deck the Halls’ (d) Ding Dong Merrily on High; (e) The First Noël; (f) Go Tell It on the Mountain; (g) God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen; (h) Good King Wenceslas; (i) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; (j) I Saw Three Ships; (k) It Came Upon the Midnight Clear; (l) Joy to the World; (m) O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum); (n) O Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles); o) O come, O come, Emmanuel; (p) O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël); (q) O Little Town of Bethlehem; (r) Once in Royal David’s City; (s) Silent Night; (t) The Twelve Days of Christmas“; (u) “We Three Kings of Orient Are“; (v) “We Wish You a Merry Christmas“; “What Child Is This?“; and (x) “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.
Less-often heard Christmas carols include: (a) “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella“; (b) “Coventry Carol“; (c) “Gabriel’s Message“; (d) “Here We Come A-wassailing“; (e) “The Holly and the Ivy“; (f) “In Dulci Jubilo” (Good Christian Men, Rejoice); (g) “In the Bleak Midwinter“; (h) “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming“; (i) “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow“; (j) “Sussex Carol” (On Christmas Night All Christians Sing); and (k) “Wexford Carol. These songs hearken from centuries ago, the oldest (‘Wexford Carol’) originating in the 12th century. The newest came together in the mid- to late-19th century. Many began in non-English speaking countries, often with non-Christmas themes, and were later converted into English carols with English lyrics added—not always translated from the original, but newly created—sometimes as late as the early 20th century.
Popular secular Christmas songs from mid-19th century America include: Jingle Bells, Jolly Old Saint Nicholas and Up on the House Top. More recently popular Christmas songs, often Christmas songs introduced in theater, television, film, or other entertainment media, tend to be specifically about Christmas or have a wintertime theme. They are typically not overtly religious. The most popular set of these titles—heard over airwaves, on the Internet, in shopping centres and lifts, even on the street during the Christmas season—have been composed and performed from the 1930s onward. “Jingle Bells”, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”, and “Up on the House Top”, however, date from the mid-19th century. “Jingle Bells” was originally published under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857, and celebrated Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
The largest portion of these songs in some way describes or is reminiscent of Christmas traditions, how Western Christian countries tend to celebrate the holiday, i.e., with caroling, mistletoe, exchanging of presents, a Christmas tree, feasting, jingle bells, etc. Celebratory or sentimental, and nostalgic in tone, they hearken back to simpler times with memorable holiday practices—expressing the desire either to be with someone or at home for Christmas. Many titles help define the mythical aspects of modern Christmas celebration: Santa Claus bringing presents, coming down the chimney, being pulled by reindeer, etc. New mythical characters are created, defined, and popularized by these songs; Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” were both introduced by Gene Autry a year apart (1949 and 1950 respectively). Though overtly religious, and authored (at least partly) by a writer of many church hymns, no drumming child appears in any biblical account of the Christian nativity scene—this character was introduced to the tradition by Katherine K. Davis in her “The Little Drummer Boy” (written in 1941, with a popular version being released in 1958).
The winter-related songs celebrate the climatic season, with all its snow, dressing up for the cold, sleighing, etc.
Of these, the oldest songs are “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland”, both published in 1934—though some element of the song came along earlier for two titles (the source or music). Almost a dozen were released in the 1940s, the next largest group coming in the 1950s. Only two became popular in the 1960s; one each in the 1970s and 1980s. “Do They Know It’s Christmas? ” by Midge Ure and Bob Geldof is the only relatively new one on the list: “Recorded in 1984 by Band Aid—an all-star band of British musicians—this benefit single assisted famine relief efforts in Ethiopia, and sold millions of copies over the ’84 holiday season (an updated version has recently been released).”
“Christmas Time is Here”, written by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi for the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas animated TV special, was popularized by the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. Johnny Marks has three top Christmas songs, the most for any writer—”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”. By far the most recorded Christmas song is “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Beilin in Russia, with well over 500 versions in dozens of languages. Approximately half of the 25 best-selling Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers, including: (1) “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne; (2) “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard; (3) “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells; (4) “Sleigh Ride”; (5) “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”’ (6) “Silver Bells” by Jay Livingston; (7) “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” by Bob Allen; and (8) “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Walter Kent.
What is known as Christmas music today was often adopted from works initially composed for other purposes, coming to be associated with the holiday in some way. Many tunes adopted into the Christmas canon fall into the generic Winter classification, as they carry no Christmas connotation at all. Others were written to celebrate other holidays and gradually came to cover the Christmas season.