Thursday, December 24, 2009

X-mas Traditions

Merry Christmas!

There's nothing worse than a person who puts a damper on Christmas traditions by agonizing over the origins of certain customs. Recently someone spouted, "Christmas trees are a pagan belief and shouldn't be practiced".
Well this person isn't entirely wrong, it indeed originated from "ancient pagans", such as the Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews to celebrate the Winter Solstice. The evergreen tree represented eternal life and the hopes for replenishment of crops for the following year.

Whatever the case, whatever the religion or traditions, mankind has always celebrated events along the year as a way to come together and take a break from the mundane matters in life.

A few traditions around the globe..

Celebrating Christmas (La Befana) begins eight days before Christmas and continues until Epiphany (January 6). The children do not believe in Santa (replaced by a flying witch) and children write letters of love to parents placing them under the dinner plates to be opened during the feast. (wow!)

I'm not certain about this one, I'll have to ask my friend later. On a few sites that have stated that they block off streets to roller skate to church service, on another site it claims people tie strings to their toes and let the string hang out the window so the rollerskaters can tug on them to wake them up. With exception of a rude awakening in the morning, it's a cool custom and a great way to start off the holidays.

Ukrainian Christmas trees commonly have an artificial spider and web as a form of decoration since it's believed to bring good luck. The traditions stems from the following legend:

"There once was a widow, who lived in a small hut. One day a pinecone dropped on the floor and it took root. Her children were excited that they would have a tree for Christmas. All summer long they made plans on how they would decorate the tree. They were very poor, so poor that they did not have anything to decorate the tree with. The widow went to bed on Christmas Eve knowing that the tree would not be decorated. Early on Christmas morning, the woman was awakened by her children. "Mother, mother wake up and see the tree it is beautiful!" The mother arose and saw that during the night a spider had spun a web around the tree. The youngest child opened the window to the first light of Christmas Day. As the shafts of the sun crept along the floor, it touched one of the threads of the spider web and instantly the web was changed into gold and silver. And from that day forward the widow never wanted for anything."

Before festivities a family takes a ritual cleansing in the form of a sauna (steam bath) before continuing the daily Christmas tree decorating and dinner. At sunset, the entire family heads over to the cemetery to pay respects to the dead with candles and singing. Hmm, it's certainly an interesting one.

Christmas (Joulud) has no connection with Christianity at all. One tradition involves bringing home authentic "Christmas straw" symbolizing the manger.. er... how exactly does that not connect to Christianity one wonders...
Interestingly enough Christmas Eve and Night are the best time when fortune telling, predicting next year's weather harvest (more like the stock market these days). Ancestors' spirits are said to visit families' houses during the holidays, a belief that was likely caused by excessive drinking. One hopes they don't get drunk in the sauna (another popular tradition).

Straw is an important symbol in many aspects of their Christmas celebrations. Between Christmas and the New Year it can be used for parts of fortune telling. Adults "draw straws" from the table to determine their future for the upcoming year, while young hopeful girls predict their future spouses.

This tradition sounds fun. Best known as "mumming", people wear an assortment of masks in the form of bears, horses, goats, haystacks, gypsies and living corpses.

United Kingdom
Christmas pudding (plum pudding). When I first heard of this I thought... what is that? It's made... what... a month before you EAT it??? Made four to five weeks before Christmas, they are traditionally made on or immediately after the Sunday "next before Advent". The day is known as "Stir-up Sunday" and involves everyone in the household giving the mixture a clockwise stir while making a wish.

Small silver coins were included in the mixture (not commonly practiced any longer since alloy coins are believed to taint the pudding) and believed to bring wealth in the upcoming year. Other tokens included a tiny wishbone (to bring good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift/never marrying), ring (for impending marriage), button (to be a bachelor). I heard it's pretty tasty, so long as one doesn't crack your teeth on any of the "surprises".

Sending red Christmas cards in Japan will not be happily received since funeral notices are customarily printed in red. Not to be confused with the red envelops stuffed with money that are traditionally given to children as gifts in the Chinese tradition... (Talk about a 180). In Japan, the art of origami is used as a form of Christmas ornaments, cranes in particular since they symbolize peace and long life. Korea has a higher percentage of Christians (around 25%) who practice both church mass and carolling during midnight until four in the morning.