A couple of years ago I was asked to write something for St. Andrew’s upcoming post-Christmas pageant, a fundraiser that benefits the St. Louis Boy’s Center. In writing up this little ditty, I came across a number of intriguing customs and details about Christmas around the world that I wanted to share with you today . . . While my family and I enjoy one more day on the beach in West Palm Beach!
‘Tis the season of Christmas,
And since the Word became Man,
Every nation and culture
Has told the story most grand.
And carolers make music[iii], heard all the world ‘round.
All gather together with joy and good will.
In the islands[vii], the most festive carols are played
With singers and dancers in bright masquerade.
In Egyptian legend, a large cherry tree[viii]
Bent low to feed the dear Lord’s family.
As they worship the wonderful Child divine.[xi]
In Russia, a miserly old woman[xii] brings
Near the City of David, a star from the east[xv]
Still beckons to you, both the greatest and least[xvi].
In China, paper lanterns all beckon and gleam,[xvii]
In Japan, feast on cakes with strawberries and cream.
Down under, Australia spells joy “barbecue”
As Saint Nick comes riding a large kangaroo.[xviii]
And here in the States, land of plenty and more,
We stop from our labors, bow down, and adore.[xix]
The Mother, so gentle; the Infant, so holy.
And as ornate Wise Men in tribute bend down,[xxii]
“O Come, All Ye Faithful,” to Bethlehem Town!
Copyright 2008 by Heidi Hess Saxton
[i] In Mexico and Belize, La Posada reenacts Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter; celebrants go from house to house carrying images of the Holy Family.
[ii] In Poland, streets are lined with stalls called “Joselki,” each carefully painted with scenes from the Christmas story and decorated with tinsel and candles. Carolers wander through towns and villages throughout Advent through Epiphany, singing carols, reciting verses, putting on “szopke” (puppet shows), or nativity scenes.
[iii] “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is the most universally popular of all Christmas songs, having been translated into 119 languages and dialects, with over 40 translations from the original Latin.
[iv] Instead of evergreens, the tree Ghanaians decorate may be a mango tree, guava tree, or cashew tree. Celebrations are joyous because Christmas falls around the time of the cocoa harvest, so people have money to spare
[v] In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives by boat, setting out December 6 from Spain. He delivers gifts on horseback. (The legend of the Christmas ship is common in countries facing the sea. The significance of the number of ships in “I Saw Three Ships” may be a passing reference to the Three Kings and their camels.)
[vi] In Northern Brazil, as in Mexico, the people enjoy a version of the folk play “Los Pastores” (“The Shepherds”). The Brazilian version features shepherdesses rather than shepherds, and a gypsy who attempts to kidnap the Christ Child.
[vii] In the Caribbean, masquerade bands play Christmas music on the streets. People wear masks and dance to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
[viii] A cherry tree legend has been depicted in hieroglyphs in Egyptian tombs. In the story, Mary and Joseph were on their way to Bethlehem when they passed a cherry tree laden with fruit. Mary asked Joseph to get her some, and the tree bowed down and offered her its fruit. (This legend also appears in Mexican mythology, and in France a similar story involves an apple tree.)
[ix] English tradition is rich with carols and other sacred music that commemorates the coming of the Christ Child. Early carols were accompanied with dancing, and many of them sung to popular dance tunes! Dr. Isaac Watts was less than five feet tall, yet he became a giant of British hymnody for penning “Joy to the World,” one of the most beloved carols of all time.
[x] According to medieval tradition, according to tradition, the “holly” is male, and the “ivy” female – the song celebrates rivalry between the sexes. An English knight invited his tenants and their wives to dine with him, then said that no man should eat “until he who is master of his wife has sung a carol.” One man timidly rose and sang a short song. Then the command was given that no woman should eat “until she who is master of her husband has sung a carol.” The song rang out throughout the castle.
[xi] In 1721 when a wealthy Irishman offered to adopt 13-year-old Charles Wesley, who wrote “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” the boy refused. It turned out to be one of the most momentous decisions of his life – the boy who was adopted in Charles’ place became an earl and grandfather of the Duke of Wellington. Wesley, who wrote over 6000 hymns and spiritual songs, became known as the “Prince of Hymn Writers.”
[xii] In Russia, instead of “Santa,” it is old “Babouschka” who brings gifts to children. Tradition says she failed to give food and shelter to the Magi, and so now she searches the countryside for the Baby Jesus. (In Italy she is known as Le Befana.)
[xiii] In Yugoslavia, on the second Sunday before Christmas children creep in and tie their mother’s feet to a chair, and she then gives them presents to set her free. Children play the same trick on their father the following week, and the children get more presents. (Unfortunately, parents don’t get to do the same to their children the week after.)
[xiv] “We Three Kings” brings to life the story of the Magi (Mt 2:1-12), which does not name or even attribute royalty to the wise men. Melchior (King of Nubia) brought gold, representing royalty; Casper (King of Chaldea) brought frankincense, representing divinity; and Balthazar (King of Tarshish) brought myrrh, representing suffering. Balthazar is generally portrayed as a black man – a tradition that is preserved at St. Peter’s, in which one of the three priests who preside at the Epiphany Festival, is always black.
[xv] In the Christian homes in Iraq, a child reads the story of the Nativity from an Arabic Bible while other family members hold lighted candles. After the story has been read, a bonfire made of dried thorns is lit and the family sings a psalm. When the fire burns down, everyone jumps over the ashes three times and makes a wish.
[xvi] The Lebanese plant chickpeas, wheat grains, beans and lentils in cotton wool, a fortnight before Christmas. They water the seeds every day and at Christmas, the sprouted shoots are used to surround the manger in nativity scenes.
[xvii] Christians light their homes with beautiful paper lanterns. Santa is “Dun Che Lao Ren.” Children hang stockings.
[xix] At the Gothic Cathedral in Seville, ten young boys in costume perform an elaborate ritual called the “dance of six.” Spanish cows receive special honor, as the Spanish believe a cow near the manger breathed on the Holy Infant to keep Him warm.
[xx] “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The Latin version (“Gloria in excelsis Deo”) was sung early in the second century – is thought to be one of the first purely Christian hymns of the early Church. The refrain may have been taken from a Latin chorale of the late medieval period.
[xxi] In France, when “The First Noel” is sung, according to tradition the verses are sung by the shepherds and the refrain by the angels. (“Noel” is a derivation of the Latin word natalis, meaning “birth.”)
[xxii] In Spain, Children leave shoes on their windowsills filled with straw, carrots and barley for the horses of the Wise Men, who reenact their journey to Bethlehem every year.