No matter where we are living currently, our ancestors had migrated at one time or another. This can be a very exciting aspect of a multicultural society, as immigrants, anxious to learn what their new land has to offer, bring their own cultures and traditions with them.
This diversity of tradition is especially apparent during the Christmas season because it is celebrated in nearly every country and such cultural attributes travel with us, as well as the food we prepare to celebrate the holiday.
In the United States, there are strong European influences in nearly every aspect of society but the red and green colors so often used to represent Christmas actually came to us from Mexico. According to Mexican legend, a small boy once knelt at his church’s altar on Christmas Eve, ashamed that he had no gift to offer the baby Jesus. So sincere were the boy’s prayers that they evoked a miracle: The first Flower of the Holy Night, one of brilliant red and green, appeared at his feet as a sign of his tribute to Christ. The American ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett was a lover of botany who brought the Flower of the Holy Night with him from Mexico to his home in South Carolina. Becoming the flower of all Christmases, it was eventually named after him: the Poinsettia. Today, Mexicans continue to immigrate in large numbers to the US, populating much of the Southwest, and having an influence on our culture in many ways.
While Christmas is the most commonly-celebrated holiday in North America and in many other parts of the world, there are others that also have strong representation in the U.S. and abroad.
The first few Jews immigrated to the US in 1654, followed by a larger wave in 1882. The next wave, of course, came during and right after the Holocaust. As the Jewish population grew substantially during this century, Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights became more prominent, in part because of its proximity to Christmas. Also a gift giving holiday that takes place in December, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple, won back from the Greeks in 164 BCE. Families celebrating this holiday have a menorah, which consists of a candlestick that holds 9 candles. Each night, one candle is lit and gifts are exchanged.
In recent years, African Americans have been celebrating their December holiday, Kwanzaa, more zealously. Established in 1966 by an African American teacher named Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa takes place from December 26th through January 1st, and is a holiday that celebrates the history and culture of African Americans. Each day has a theme: unity/working together, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, pupose, creativity, and faith in self and ancestry. They also light candles, on a kinara, which is a candlestick holder with 7 candles in it.
Winter also plays host to Ramadan, the holiday celebrated by over one billion Muslims throughout the world who take one month to self reflect, assert their devotions with intense worship, and exercise self control through fasting. The first day of Ramadan is generally in early December, but the precise date depends on the sighting of the crescent moon, which signifies the beginning of the “Islamic month.” During the holy month, Muslims fast through the day and break the fast with “iftar” each evening.
How Christmas is Celebrated
The Irish are quite pious when it comes to celebrating Christmas, and focus much more on religious observations than on festivity. On the 24th, most everyone places an ivy adorned candle on their window sill to shed light for the holy family or other poor travelers. Traditionally, after supper and a rich pudding, food is set out and the door left unlocked as a symbol of hospitality. The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, is something like Halloween, with boys going door to door singing and requesting treats.
Chinese Christians decorate their homes with paper lanterns and they have adopted the tradition of the Christmas tree, or “trees of light” with paper chains, flowers and lanterns. It is Dun Che Lao Ren (dwyn-chuh-lau-oh-run) or “Old Man Christmas” who fills their stockings. Most Chinese are not Christians, however, and China’s main holiday is the Chinese New Year, which takes place in January. It is a time for revelry of ancestors, gifts, celebratory feasts and firecrackers.
In addition to the predominant celebrations of Hanukkah in Israel, there is much going on Christmas Day in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ. The little town’s Church of the Nativity is adorned with decorations on the 25th. On Christmas Eve a large crowd gathers on the roof to witness an annual Christmas procession led by a variety of fancy horsemen, and followed by church and government officials. The procession embarks on a journey down winding stairs, to a silver star marking the site of Christ’s birth. A cross is painted over the doors of Christian homes and manger scenes are displayed. In the village square, a lone star is placed on top of a pole.
In Peru, Christmas takes place in the summer, since their seasons are reversed. After a midnight mass on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Peruvians indulge in a feast of treats such as turkey, paneton, fruits and pecans, followed by an exchange of gifts under the tree. Little children believe in Papa Noel, but unless they’ve spent the holiday in the mountains or abroad, they’ve never seen a white Christmas, and certainly no reindeer. Many Peruvian manger scenes include the wood carved figurines made by the native Quechua Indians.
Though popular the world wide, Saint Nick is particularly revered in Russia. Legend has it that the 11th-century Prince Vladimir returned from a baptismal journey to Constantinople with tales of the saint’s miraculous feats. Sadly, the long-celebrated feast of St. Nicholas (December 6th) was put to rest with the dawn of communism. So was Babushka, the Russian and female version of Santa Clause, but she has since returned to Russian homes, along with “New Year’s trees.”