What is a fête without its own customs? Christmas, flooding the hearts of millions with joy and reverence, too has its own set of traditions. However, it is the onset of an auspicious festival that is most joyful, when the family assembles and prepares for the ceremony. The spirit of Christmas comes alive when families indulge in traditions, all reverent and glad! Here are some traditions for Christmas eve adopted around the globe.
“Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.”
And thus, in Anno Domini or the year of the Lord was born the messiah of God to redeem and purge all humans off their sins, marking the beginning of an era of Christianity. Today, Christmas around the world is celebrated by Christians rejoicing the birth anniversary of Jesus Christ, the son of God. The spirit of Christmas is lionized through several customs, prayers, singing, and feasting. However, the joy reaches its peak on Christmas eve, the night before Christmas, when all and sundry gather to carry out preparations for the birthday fete of the Lord next day.
Over the years, Christmas history has urged the adoption of several traditions. Let us see what the myriad Christmas eve customs are that flood the lives of the rich and the poor alike, dissolving all boundaries of space and time.
Traditions for Christmas Eve
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la..”
Christmas decorations are all about making everything look radiant, clad in the Christmas colors of red and green, to create an atmosphere emanating warmth, joy, and universal love!
“The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir.”
It is a very common tradition to put up holly wreaths on Christmas eve as holly’s associations with Christianity dates back to the time of Jesus. As per John Then, the author of Christmas: A Collection of Christmas Lore, it was blessed to remain lush and green all through winter, when other plants actually turned a brownish tinge and often perished ‘because the holly kept secret the whereabouts of our Savior when His enemies were searching for Him’. Legend also hands down another tale according to which the original holly berries were white in color. But during crucifixion, when a holly wreath with thorns was placed on Christ’s head, the berries were imbued with a crimson hue owing to Christ’s blood. And thus, holly berries are now red in color and also became an inseparable element associated with Christ’s passion. The holly resurfaces in Christian mythology with God speaking to Moses from a flaming bush of holly and promising His people freedom from Egyptian tyranny and a restraint free life in the Promised land, while he roamed the deserts. Since the flaming bush was ablaze and yet did not incinerate, it became the evergreen symbol of eternal life with its heart-shaped foliage reminiscent of Jesus’ descent to Earth to redeem all men. Holly is now hung in the form of wreaths especially on the front door in an attempt to invite the spirit of baby Jesus to come visiting a household. It is also believed to protect people from the supposed ill influences of paganism and sorcerers.
“‘Cause Santa and Cupid
Planned exactly what you did
When you kissed me by the mistletoe above
We stood there kissin’ by the mistletoe
Tingle, tingle, tingle, tingle
Mmm and away we go, jingle, jingle
Kissin’ by a mistletoe, love came to stay
And now it’s Christmas everyday.“―Joe Williams’ ‘Kissing by the Mistletoe’
Another very common Christmas decoration component is the mistletoe. Yes, I can almost see that naughty, shy smile emerging on your face! However, mistletoe has more pagan associations rather than Christian ones. It is, therefore, seldom used in church decorations owing to its deep roots embedded in druid rituals among the Celts who firmly believed in the magical powers of the herb to render barren beings fertile and reproductively potent. It could be due to the male semen resembling the gluey, clear fluid called ‘viscin’ contained by the mistletoe. They were also believed to be an embodiment of immortality as they were crucial antidotes to some very fatal venoms thus calling it omnia sanitatem or ‘all healing’ herb. Ironically, certain mistletoe varieties themselves can prove fatal when consumed as they contain viscotoxins which are harmful for humans. This, in turn, could have given rise to the ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ custom which gained momentum in the 18th century during the Victorian era, and made it unacceptable by the church owing to its aphrodisiacal and sexual connections. In fact, the use of mistletoe was banned by Bishop Martin of Bracae in Germany circa 575 AD, who referred to it as ‘dangerous and heathen’. On the other hand, Victorian Christmas balls were said to be replete with mistletoe hangings with lots of berries. Then, when a boy and a girl kissed under the mistletoe, it was a kind of an informal but public announcement of an imminent engagement. In fact with time, this custom became such an important phenomenon that it was actually considered to bestow a prolonged or lifelong spinsterhood on a maiden who remained unkissed under the mistletoe during Christmas balls. Back then, with each kiss the boy plucked off a berry and the kissing stopped once all the berries were gone. But now, well, let’s just say some mistletoes are always booked. Even today, other than the English, a lot of European countries are yet to adopt this tradition.
While the Celts believed that mistletoe could actually ward off the evils brought along by winter and facilitate the safe and timely onset of spring, in Christian belief however, it is said that since Jesus’ cross was made from the wood of a mistletoe tree, the huge tree shriveled up and was reduced to a parasitic vine, after the son of God perished.
One belief also discourages the removal of mistletoe before Candlemas or the day on which Mary and Joseph carried their child to the shrine of Jerusalem, exactly forty days from his birth. This day is celebrated on 2nd February each year. So mistletoe should not kiss the ground anytime between it is cut off from the plant to the time when it is removed on Candlemas when all remaining Christmas embellishments are taken down. Mistletoe is said to be taken down last, as it is believed to bring the news of death if it is left hanging even after this day. Some households, however, allow the mistletoe to keep hanging for one whole year before replacing it the following Christmas eve as mistletoe is believed to protect a house from potential fire breakouts of lightning strikes.
“Long winter nights are dark, High above the hunters ride,
And wild the wind that whips the snow In the dark outside.
Yet we will not lose heart, And on the darkest night
To show that we do not forget, The yule log shall burn bright.“―Jenny Blain’s ‘Yule Log Song’
The yule log became a symbol of Christmas from the Norsemen and Vikings, who burnt yule logs to keep out the harsh cold during the coldest days of the Winter solstice. These yule logs, obtained from either ash trees and thus named ‘ashen faggots’ or red oak trees, were kept burning incessantly while the Scandinavians fêted and consumed mead during the Christmas festive season. After 12 days, the yule log fire was eliminated as warmer climatic conditions set in. However, during Candlemas a fresh long piece of yule log was chosen and dried during the warm springs, for the next solstice. This seemed to imply of the sustenance of people through another harsh and cruel climatic condition and the turning of the circle of life. This tradition died down around the 1950s, but the yule log is still lit on Christmas eve. However, as per modern-day Christmas eve traditions, one does not purchase his own pile of yule logs but borrows it from the pile of his neighbors or friends and drags it back home after embellishing it with colorful ribbons. Next, wine has to be poured generously on the log to make it feel welcome and wanted at home. The yule log has to be set ablaze with a piece of log remaining from last years debris, stored beneath the biggest bed of the household. Moreover, the flame should keep burning for the next 12 days of Christmas, until the Feast of Epiphany held on 6th January, as otherwise it spells doom on the household.
“Percy the puny poinsettia
is hanging his bloom in dismay
If they had just kept him wetta
he’d be a houseplant today
Folks liked the other plants betta
now he’s alone on the shelf
Even a plant with no uncle or aunt
shouldn’t spend Christmas Day by himself.
Then into the store on the night before Christmas
came a poor little girl who was cryin’
But when she saw Percy her eyes opened wide
and she said “Can I please make him mine?”
Now Percy the puny poinsettia
is standing beside Mr. Tree
His leaves have never been redda,
he’s as proud as a flower can be.“―Elmo and Patsy’s ‘Percy, the Puny Poinsettia’
This red flaming Mexican bloom is shaped like a star and is thus a reminiscent of the bright star that showed the path to the three Oriental kings who had come to meet baby Jesus after his birth. Poinsettias were introduced in the United States by Dr. Joel Poinsette, who happened to be the first American Ambassador in Mexico, back in 1928.
However, poinsettias started to become popular Christmas decorations not before the 19th century, probably with the popularization of the Mexican lore which talks about two impoverished children called Maria and Pablo who collected some leaves to decorate the crib in the nearby church. But as soon as they placed the leaves in the crib, miracle struck and all the foliage transformed into crimson blooms.
“He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!“―’Twas the Night Before Christmas’.
The placing of the stocking by the fireplace for Santa Claus or Father Christmas, as he is called in Britain, to come in his sleigh drawn by reindeers and place presents for them in the stockings, is an extremely popular Christmas eve tradition. However, this pot-bellied, smiling figure of Santa with a beard as white as snow, is a mythical character based on a real life philanthropist called Saint Nicolas, famous for his annual distribution of gifts to all the children who had done some good deed around the year. However, Santa leaving gifts in a stocking idea came from the fact that St. Nicolas had once helped a nobleman, struck with a sudden stroke of bad luck and losing all his money, immediately after his wife’s demise. When this man found it difficult to marry off his three daughters, due to lack of funds, St. Nicolas was greatly dismayed. So, one day he surreptitiously visited this household and saw that all four had gone to bed but the daughters placed their socks over the fire in the fireplace for drying. Struck with an idea, St. Nicolas then threw down some gold coins down the chimney, which filled up these socks and later solved all financial worries of the nobleman. Thus, with time this gave rise to the idea that Santa, who prepares gifts for children in the North Pole workshop all year, came swishing down the chimney on the night before Christmas and place presents for young ones. However, it is really the parents who do it on behalf of the rotund, generous character and, therefore, children are often discouraged to stay up late on Christmas eve as Santa supposedly never visits a child who is awake. Inspired by this, children often write special notes to Santa enlisting all their good deeds and requesting for special gifts. Some children even leave some milk and cookies for Santa to eat after his long and tiresome journey. Since the 1870s, it also became common for children to hang their stockings from the bedposts. This tradition in fact inspired a lot of popular Christmas movies for children.
This tradition is followed in a lot of places but maybe with diversions. For instance, French kids place shoes instead of stockings as in earlier days kids in France wore wooden peasant shoes. Hungarian young ones, however, leave their squeaky clean shoes near windows and doors. Dutch children even leave carrots in their footwear, for the white horse of Sinterklaas on which the old man jumps from rooftop to rooftop. Finally, Puerto Ricans encourage their children to stock leafy greens in boxes and place them under their beds for the tired camels of the three wise Oriental monarch who brought Jesus gold, myrrh, and frankincense, to teach them the virtue of sharing during Christmas.
Decking the Christmas Tree
“O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!
Thou bidst us true and faithful be,
And trust in God unchangingly.”
The Christmas tree has now become the most integral part of Christmas celebrations. Everything else seems to be adjusted in keeping with the Christmas tree. This tradition is usually attributed to Germans who believed that having an evergreen tree in the vicinity of the house implied longevity and well-being. There are indeed other tales related to St. Bonifice who seemed to have toppled over an oak tree with a single punch, in an attempt to stop bestial sacrifice during a pagan ritual, and from that very spot had risen a lush evergreen shoot symbolic of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some even say it was Martin Luther King who had popularized the practice as he was inspired to bring an oak back home for Christmas, after a nighttime stroll in an evergreen forest where the beauty of the filtered starlight through the trees mesmerized him. Slowly, many of them started to get oak trees inside their homes and decorated them with various Christmas ornaments.
Star Atop the Christmas Tree
“We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.“
And thus, the three wise men of the East, reached Jesus in Bethlehem, with their gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense, guided by the shining star which showed them the way, on their camels. These men also called the Magi were believed to arrive on the 12th night after the birth of Jesus, traveling vast expanses of desert. Thus, this eastern star is of great importance to Christians and each year a similar replica is placed at the summit of the Christmas tree as a mark of reverence to this element of nature.
“Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rime
Your evetime song, ye singers.
Ding dong! merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!“
Along with the star, the Christmas tree is usually decked to the hilt with popular elements of the season, and, of course, Christmas symbols. Snowflakes are quite popular Christmas tree decorations along with gingerbread men and women which was started by Prince Albert, the spouse of Queen Victoria, who had set up a Christmas tree in the Windsor Castle for the first time in 1841. Also miniature figures of Rudolph, the famous red-nosed reindeer, the invention of the Robert L. May, a then 34-year-old author from Montgomery ward, are also used to beautify the tree. Rudolph was created in 1939 and has been a favorite of children ever since his story was conjured and distributed among customers in the shop during Christmas sales as an advertisement tool.
Bells and lights also adorn Christmas trees. Even though the first person who bedecked his tree was an apprentice of Thomas Edison, called Edward H. Johnson, it was not before the 20th century when the brandEverReady produced Christmas tree ignites on a large scale, that proper lights were available for this purpose. Circa 1920s, a company called General Electric manufactured miniature carbon-filament bulbs on a wire with multiple sockets for Christmas lighting purposes. However, their inspiration had been the US President Grover Cleveland’s first illuminated Christmas tree, with several multi-hued lights, in the White house back in 1895. Presently, households use a lot of small trinkets and even homemade decorations to embellish their trees, including angels, reminiscent of God’s angel Gabriel who announced the coming of Jesus to Mary, snowmen, conch shells, colorful balls, and even tiny drums.
Another very common Christmas ornament is the mini plastic version of the red stripy candy cane which in itself has its own story of origin. Back in 1670, a choir instructor of the Cologne Cathedral had come up with the idea of making shepherd canes (Jesus is our shepherd and we His flock) from molten sugar, for the young choir singers who got restless and noisy owing to their long hours of practice. The man came up with the ingenious idea to use these sweetened sticks with bent heads, to tranquilize these children. Bob McCormack later got them handmade for near and dear ones in the ’20s decade, but it was not until his brother-in-law, Gregory Keller came up with an electrical device to mass produce these candies, that they became widely available. The stripes and the standard peppermint flavor were however, later additions.
“Pretty Paper, Pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents, to your darling, from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue.“
Christmas today is unfathomable without Christmas gifts as the spirit of Christmas is all about sharing and making your near and dear ones happy. So, Christmas eve traditions include wrapping all the presents and then placing them at the foot of the Christmas tree. All the gifts are usually opened on Christmas morn.
“Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head.“
The Nativity story, which narrates the story of Jesus’ birth, describes that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in a manger. This had happened as Joseph and Mary had traveled to Bethlehem to pay their taxes, but they got late and night fell. Tired from her journey and the holy baby in her womb, they started to look for a room to stay for the night but none were available. But one kind inn-keeper allowed them rest in his animal shed with all the animals around. That very night Jesus was born, and Joseph placed some straw and hay on the wooden manger or trough from which the pigs ate and made a bed for baby Jesus to lie down, wrapped in some warm swaddling cloth pieces. All the animals came together that night to keep the baby warm and rejoiced His birth. A very bright star shone that night to declare the happy arrival of the son of God, flooding all directions with light. This crib is today recreated in many churches and households with straw and miniature statues of all the characters, replete with the shepherds who visited Jesus with their sheep, after coming to know of His birth from the star along with the three wise Oriental kings.
This recreation of the crib was started by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223, in an attempt to understand how their Lord must have suffered as a newborn infant, owing to the absence of basic necessities in that meager manger, decided to ask his friend Giovanni Vellita, a landowner in Greccio to recreate a similar scene, in the moment of Jesus’ birthday. However, by the 16th Century, people started to make their own cribs at home and celebrate the birth of their Lord. Even today, people prepare cribs with wooden or cardboard boxes and place straws or dried grass on it. They then place it beside the beds of their children. Some people place only Joseph, Mary and the animals on Christmas eve and then place the statuette of baby Jesus at midnight, then the shepherds next day and so on. Prayer services are held around the crib in most churches on Christmas eve early in the evening.
“The Child is a King, the Carolers sing,
The old is passed there’s a new beginning.
Dreams of Santa, dreams of snow,
Fingers numb, faces aglow.“
On Christmas eve, at midnight all Anglican and Roman Catholic churches host a special prayer and carol singing service where the birth of Jesus is rejoiced. Performance of Nativity scene plays and choir services with Christmas songs and carols being sung by parishioners are also held by most churches during this mass. In Spain, Misa del Gallo which literally means ‘Rooster’s Mass’ is held, dedicating the event to the rooster which was the first living being to see Jesus being born.
Traditional Christmas Eve Dinner
“The grey-haired lady brought forth to the table
Glasses two and her last drop of wine
Said she, Here’s a toast to everyone’s Christmas
and especially, yours and mine.“―Paul Stookey’s “Christmas Dinner”.
Christmas eve dinners are usually and quite unsurprisingly elaborate affairs with beef roasts and turkeys and cheese fondues and what not. People even have seafood during Christmas eve suppers and experiment with various Christmas recipes. But one particular traditional Christmas dinner component since the 17th century would have to be the drink of ‘eggnog’, very strong beverage with its main constituent being beer. Other things mixed with it were egg yolk, lemon, cinnamon, and some sugar. However, the French adaptation of the ‘nog’, colloquial for ale, was adopted by the Americans some time in the 19th century, called ‘Lait de Poule‘ which also had milk as an ingredient along with the above mentioned fixings. Even today, the constituents used in the nogs are similar with milk being replaced with cream and liquor, such as sherry, rum, or brandy being used, but now the mixture is cooked over a flame and heated in order to kill certain bacteria that may otherwise thrive in the raw drink.
Eggnog, addressed as ‘rompope‘ in Mexican and which does denote eggs in a mug or cup, is a descendant of the warm English drink known as ‘posset’, and was essentially a drink for people from the higher stratum of life, as milk back then was a luxury for the poor, working classes. Posset too, was made from similar ingredients but with addition of bread pieces and oatcake crumbs.
The Mince Pie
Another, must have for Christmas eve is the mince pie filled with minced dry fruits and often also ground and shredded pieces of meat, such as ground beef. Popularized during the Tudor period in the 16th century, this sumptuously filled pie back then had an elongated shape and resembled cradles or coffins more closely. They were also heavily filled with handsome shares of minced meat. It also contained the three holy spices of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg, gifted to Christ by the three wise men, which the crusaders obtained from the holy land and had it to honor Christ on his birthday. However, nowadays mince pies are still made with the usual motley of assorted fruits, such as raisins, apricots, cherries, apples, and nuts, and often have a star on top signifying the holy Christmas star and also star-shaped poinsettias. Various superstitious notions have accumulated themselves around the mince pie which include ones which forbid cutting open a mince pie with a blade or knife of any kind, and the stirring of the mince pie filling in the anticlockwise direction while preparing it as it could spell disaster for the upcoming year. Even though at least one mince pie a day is supposed to be eaten for the 12 days of Christmas ending with the Epiphany Feast, nowadays, people even make it for Christmas eve dinner. Some people adhere to the belief that a mince pie is never supposed to be refused as it then becomes an ill omen, and if you make a wish while consuming a mince pie without saying a word, you do see the realization of your desire.
The Yule Log Cake
Since the yule log burning has also seen a discontinuation in most houses, owing to a lack of fireplaces in many city modern households and the tediousness involved with the entire practice, people opt for Bûche de Noël cakes to somehow keep the association alive, whose roots are about 1,000 years old. These cakes are generally made on brown jelly roll pans with a think luscious layer of cream, which are then rolled up to resemble a log. Chocolate cream is then splattered on top of the log and worked upon with a fork to give it the uneven texture of a tree bark. These cakes are usually decorated with holly, strawberries, and fine icing sugar.
Thus, you have all the Christmas eve traditions here along with their origination stories so that you can teach your children and the future generations the true importance of all the components associated with the spirit of Christmas and the joyful event of the birth of the Lord. Go on and celebrate Christmas with grace and love in your hearts, and you shall evolve as a person who has known the true joy of Christmas.