If there’s one thing modern American society does not have, it’s a meaningful connection to the past. The amount of historically ridiculous lies that are ubiquitous among us, the total fracture between the generations of families, the disdain for anything “old-fashioned”—it’s everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for innovation and progress, but only if it’s grounded in a knowledge of the past, with respect for the past’s achievements and the wisdom to overcome the past’s failings.
Christmas Candle in the Window
Putting a candle in the window to light Mary and Joseph on their way and symbolize a welcome to the holy couple who could find no place to stay on the first Christmas is not specific to Ireland, but in Ireland it has an extra layer of meaning. Under the Penal Laws persecuting Catholics, the candle was a signal to priests that they could safely come and celebrate Mass in the house.
“King Cakes” and Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night, or Epiphany (Jan. 6), which commemorates the coming of the Wise Men or three kings to visit Jesus—also, in the East, the baptism of Jesus—used to be a bigger celebration than Christmas Day in parts of the English-speaking world throughout the medieval and Tudor periods. That continued to be true even in colonial America (though the celebration definitely happened in other countries too). Martha Washington made a huge “king” cake every year, but other countries have their own variations, including a cake with a bean baked into it–whoever finds the bean is king or Lord of Misrule for the night. The Spanish king cake was a Roscón de Reyes or “twisted roll of kings,” which was “a loaf in the shape of a crown with fruit and nuts on top and filled with chocolate or whipped cream. There’s supposed to be a gold coin inside it.”
Mexican Posadas Processions
Mexico has a beautiful tradition for commemorating Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem leading up to Christ’s birth, with young people dressing in costume:
“These community celebrations take place on each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas, from December 16 to 24th.
The word posada means ‘inn’ or ‘shelter’ in Spanish. In this tradition, the Bible story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for a place to stay is re-enacted.”
Russian Christmas Traditions
In Russia, the Orthodox celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7th rather than December 25th, but the celebration does start earlier than that, as “‘Ded Moroz’ or Father Frost (analog of Santa Claus) and his granddaughter ‘Snegurochka’ or Snow Maiden visit on New Year’s Day, and they are the ones who bring the gifts!”
Christmas Parades and Masquerades in Africa
In some countries in Africa, after the Midnight Mass, instead of going to bed so Santa Claus can arrive, parties begin immediately, sometimes involving Christmas parades. In Gambia, locals make boat- or house-shaped bamboo and paper lanterns or “fanals” and light them with candles. The lantern-bearers then go dancing from house to house to collect donations.
Boxing Day used to have a very practical purpose, as servants who had to work on Christmas then had the day off on December 26 and received gifts or monetary bonuses from their employers. Boxing Day was also a day for giving donations to the poor, and had its origins in the Middle Ages.
Christmas Tree Traditions in Germany
Some German Christmas traditions you might not want to share with your three-year-old, such as Krampus, the beast-demon who punishes bad little children, but traditions surrounding our now ubiquitous Christmas tree are worth remembering. “A more recent ‘old’ Bavarian tradition is the so-called ‘Bride’s Tree,’ upon which a dozen special ornaments are hung to help ensure a better life for a married couple.”
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