Cookies are baking, stockings are hanging and lights are twinkling. Letters for Santa are flying to the North Pole, where the jolly man is checking his list among prancing reindeer and busy little elves. And of course, wrapped presents are sending a wave of eager excitement beneath ornament-strung trees. Sounds like Christmas! These all-too-familiar images have come to define the American vision of Christmas, but they are only a tiny piece in the giant mosaic of traditions surrounding this widely celebrated Holiday. It’s the perfect time of year to follow these interwoven threads of tradition, to not only reflect on what they mean to us individually, but also how they are connected to cultures beyond our own—across oceans and across decades. From the exuberant midnight toasts in Peru to the smashing of plates in Oaxaca, Mexico, every culture brings forth a dazzling panoply of time-honored traditions, making the season all the more awe-inspiring!
CHRISTMAS IN GERMANY
Nutcrackers and Christmas trees and wreaths, oh my! These Christmas icons are so familiar in America that it can be easy to forget their true origin: Germany. Wreaths may seem to be just another “wintry” Christmas decoration, but, in fact, they are steeped in history and symbolism. Tracing back to the Lutherans in Germany in the 16th century, the evergreens used to make the wreaths symbolized Jesus’ gift of everlasting life, while the circular shape represented God. Later the wreath was adorned with candles that were lit to mark the countdown to the “coming of Jesus” (Christmas Day). Today, the wreath remains a common tradition in Germany, with families gathering to light one of the four candles each Sunday leading up to Christmas. The lighting of the first candle on the first Sunday of advent marks the beginning of the German Christmas season (usually the first Sunday in December). At this time, neighborhoods are elaborately decorated with trees, lights, nativity scenes and handcarved Nutcrackers.
Even the American folklore surrounding Santa and his elves draws heavily from German traditions. Throughout most of Germany, St. Nicholas is depicted as a white bearded Bishop, wearing a red Bishop’s gown, miter and staff. This image recalls the legend of the real St. Nicholas, who was a bishop during the 4th century in the region now known as Turkey. In the stories that existed about him, he was known as the protector of children, who anonymously bestowed gifts to them. Over time, the life of St. Nicholas came to be celebrated on December 6th every year, when he would bring presents to all the well-behaved children. To this day, German children polish their shoes and place them on their doorstep on the eve of the 6th, leaving a letter for the Saint and maybe even some carrots for his white horse. St. Nicholas’ helper, Knecht Ruprecht, meaning “Farmhand Rupert” or “Servant Rupert,” is a far cry from the American vision of happy little dancing elves. Usually portrayed as the same height as the Saint with a long white beard, Ruprecht wears either furs or straw, sometimes carrying a staff and a bag slung over his shoulder. Representing a peculiar mix of joy and Sturm und Drang, “Storm and Stress,” Ruprecht helps St. Nicholas fill the empty shoes of well-behaved children with candies and toys while the naughty children get switches. In some versions of the story, Ruprecht will even haul the naughty children off in his sack, or beat them with his bag of ashes.
In Germany, the Christmas Tree is at the heart of the celebration. In fact, the first known Christmas tree was set up in Freiburg, Germany in 1419 by the town bakers, who adorned it with nuts, fruits and baked goods for the children to eat. Germans continue this tradition every Christmas Eve, ceremoniously setting up the tree and decorating it with lights, nuts and ornaments, along with a nativity scene underneath the tree. During the evening of Christmas Eve, the figure of Santa Claus, known in Germany as Weihnachtsmann (literally, “the Christmas man”), will slip through the door (rather than the chimney) and leave presents under the tree for the children. As the evening light fades, the family will gather around the newly appointed Christmas tree, exchanging gifts and singing carols. The Christmas Eve meal is typically lighter, such as sausages and potato salad followed by midnight mass.
Since presents were unwrapped the night before, Christmas day is centered around a mighty feast. Typically the main course is roast goose or carp, served alongside apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage, and potato dumplings. Dessert is an impressive spread, including an array of spicy cookies called lebkuchen, dense fruit cakes and the famous Christmas Stollen, a yeast bread filled with raisins, nuts and candied fruit. The Christmas season concludes on January 6th (Epiphany), when the town will gather to watch local boys reenact the visit of the Three Kings to the baby Jesus.
CHRISTMAS IN SPAIN
In the not-so-distant country of Spain, Christmas festivities are quite different than in Germany. The season officially begins with The Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. People may begin to hang up lights or put up trees, but Christmas decorations are not as central to the celebration as they are in Germany or in America. Being a deeply religious Holiday in Spain, the nativity scene is considered the most important “decoration” of all.
What you may be surprised to see hidden away in this divine nativity scene is a little porcelain gnome, known as the Caganer. It’s not just any gnome though, this particular gnome is literally squatting with his pants around his ankles, caught in the act of “relieving” himself (yes, he really is shown going to the bathroom!). It may seem like absurd toilet humor, but these figurines have origins that date back as early as the 18th century. According to some traditions, these odd little gnomes serve to remind us of our humaneness (even in this divine moment, nature “calls”), while according to others, the gnomes provide good luck for harvest time.
Another seemingly strange tradition in the Catalan region of Spain is the Caga Tio, meaning “Poo Log.” Caga Tio is a wooden log that wears a red Santa-like hat with a smiley face painted on one end. Beginning on December 8th, children cover the bare end of the log with a blanket to keep him warm and feed him Turron, an almond nougat candy, and orange peel every evening until Christmas. Since the idea is to make this Santa-like figure “poo” out the Christmas presents, it’s believed that the more Caga Tio is fed, the more presents he will have to give. On Christmas morning (or sometimes Christmas Eve), the children are given a stick to help get the “back-logged” presents out of Caga Tio. After hitting the log and maybe tossing him in the fire, the children will look under the blanket that kept Caga Tio warm to find all their Christmas presents.
Known as Nochebuena (“Goodnight”), Christmas Eve is when families across Spain gather together for an extensive meal of Turkey stuffed with Truffles (the mushrooms, not the chocolates!), called Pavo Trufado de Navidad, or roast lamb, as well as lobster and other seafood dishes, cheeses and pâtés. Desserts include Turron, an almond nougat candy, Polvorón, a soft, crumbly shortbread and marzipan. At midnight on Christmas Eve the church bells will ring, calling people to the misa de gallo (“Mass of the Rooster”), which is named according to the belief that a rooster belted out when Jesus was born. Following mass, people will take to the streets carrying torches, banging on drums and tambourines and playing guitars, proclaiming the Spanish saying, “Tonight is the good night and it is not meant for sleeping” (Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no Es noche de dormir).
No, Santa does not come down the chimney, nor does he sneak in through the front door on Christmas Eve in Spain. Some children are even warned that Santa, known as “Papa Noel,” will take them away if they are bad! Outside the Catalan region, the Spanish gift-givers of Christmas are the Three Wise Men (called the Three Kings, Los Tres Reyes Magos). They bring gifts to all the children on January 6th, Three Kings Day (Epiphany), the day the Three Wise Men brought gifts to baby Jesus. The day after Christmas (“Boxing Day”), children will write letters to the Three Wise Men detailing what gifts they want. Then on the eve of Epiphany, children will set out their empty shoes to be filled with goodies, much like they do in Germany, along with gifts for the Three Kings. Forget the milk and cookies though! In Spain, the Wise Men are left a glass of cognac, a Satsuma and some walnuts. Some children may even fill their shoes with hay or carrots for the King’s camels and donkeys. After opening all of their presents Epiphany morning, the town will gather to welcome the Three Kings, who often come parading through town on floats. A special ring shaped cake decorated with candied fruits, called Roscón (or Rosca), is always eaten on Epiphany. A small trinket, usually a Jesus figurine, is baked inside the cake, and whoever finds it is crowned the King or Queen of the banquet.
CHRISTMAS IN MEXICO
From the gift bearing Three Wise Men and the grand nativity scenes to the Rosca cake, many Spanish traditions influence the lively Christmas celebrations that take place in Mexico. The Mexican Christmas season swings into full force with a nine day procession known as Las Posadas (“lodgings”), beginning the nine days before Christmas on December 16th. A tradition that began in Spain, these processions reenact Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. The procession is led by a couple dressed as Joseph and an expectant Mary, who is riding a donkey. Musicians follow behind as the parade goes door-to-door asking for “lodging,” where they will playfully be denied until they find the designated house (or church). Once they are finally invited in for lodging, there will be a party filled with carol singing, piñata bashing and lavish feasting. These processions happen every night for nine days, leading to the grand fiesta on Christmas Eve, also known as Buena Noche (“goodnight”) in Mexico.
In Oaxaca, Mexico, Las Posadas invites another tradition, the “breaking of the plates.” From December 16th through the New Year, stands are set up outside the Cathedral where people can buy buñuelos, a crispy Christmas pastry. It’s a tasty treat, especially with some chocolate syrup, but watch out for flying glass– afterwards they smash the plates on the ground! Tracing back to the pre-Colombian belief that one’s belongings should be destroyed every 52 years, this energizing tradition is meant to signify the end of the old year.
At the final Posada that takes place on Christmas Eve, there is a grand reenactment of placing the baby Jesus into the manger. The celebration is interrupted for midnight church service, but immediately after fireworks fill the sky as families return home for an elaborate dinner, enjoyed late into the night (it’s not uncommon for it to last until 3 or 4am!). Of course, traditional Christmas Eve dishes vary from region to region, but a turkey, stuffed with ground meat, olives and raisins or a chestnut dressing, is becoming more and more popular. Other dishes can include tamales, romeritos, a dish made with fresh herbs, shrimp patties and mole sauce, pozole, a rich hominy stew, and churros, a crispy, sugar-coated pastry. There is also a “Christmas Eve Salad” (ensalada de Noche Buena), made with beets, pine nuts and regional fruits, such as banana and pomegranate.
With Christmas Eve dinner lingering into the wee hours the night before, Christmas Day tends to be a little quieter in Mexico. It’s becoming more and more popular for children to open gifts from Santa Claus Christmas morning, but, traditionally, children do not receive presents until January 6th on Epiphany, known as Día de Reyes (“King’s Day”). As in Spain, the Three Wise Men are believed to be the gift givers, bringing with them toys and treats for all the good children. The ring shaped Rosca cake is also enjoyed on this day in Mexico, although whoever finds the baby Jesus hidden inside is supposed to host the Candelaria party on February 2nd, commemorating the day Jesus was taken to the temple and officially named. Some of these same Spanish influences seep even further South into Peru.
CHRISTMAS IN PERU
Although it may seem worlds away, Christmas in Peru may seem surprisingly familiar. Despite the fact that it’s summer in December there, Santa Claus can be seen at various parades and markets, donning everything from the fur-trimmed red hat and the gloves to the black boots. Christmas trees twinkle in windows, lights fill the streets and elaborate nativity scenes and retablos take center stage. Children write notes to Santa, in hopes of getting what they want Christmas Eve, the biggest night of the Holiday season in Peru.
Christmas Eve is kicked off with mass at 9pm, also known as Misa de Gallo (“Mass of the Rooster”). Afterwards, the family gathers for an extensive midnight meal. Traditionally, Christmas Eve dinner includes turkey or pork, applesauce, “white salad,” made with small pieces of baked potato, apples, raisins, pecans, pineapple and mayonnaise dressing, and a rice dish known as “Arabic Rice” (arroz arabe), made with pieces of angel hair pasta, raisins and a small amount of coca-cola (yes, the soda!). Dinner concludes with a rich cup of hot chocolate and a dense slice of Pannetone, a cake filled with nuts and candied fruits.
At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, everyone will raise a glass of champagne to joyously toast the holiday, followed by hugs all around. With the conclusion of the midnight toast, children get to open their presents from Santa, who was able to sneak in while they were gone to mass or busy eating dinner. Like many parts of the world, Christmas Day is more relaxed in Peru, a day meant for family and lots of leftovers!
For me, there is nothing more magical than realizing that people all across the world are sharing in the excitement of this holiday season, each with their own traditions traversing past and future. Christmas is not only about expanding waistlines and shrinking wallets; it’s a time to remember those we love and a time to keep inherited traditions alive, while forging our own. So tell us: what makes “this” Christmas for you?