It has been written that millions of Christians throughout the world have been celebrating Christmas since 336 A.D., and those proud, and colourful traditions have carried on into our present day. Each country and nationality has honoured the birth of the Christ child in many sacred and unique family celebrations and feasts during the month of December and beyond.
While I was browsing through some Christmas history I found great stories about many of these longstanding traditions, and I sincerely hope that they will create some special memories and holiday anticipation for all of you.
• The invigorating family adventure of roaming through the forest to search out, cut, and later decorate the perfect festive tree, was started by the Germans some 1,200 years ago. While many of us have turned to the artificial kind, others still maintain that great outdoor tradition, keeping their spruce well watered, and taking turns vacuuming up the needles. Many of us will recall in our youth that at our homes we made a lot of the tree decorations, including strings of popcorn, streamers from colored crepe paper or pieces of the Eaton’s catalogue, our favourite bobbles, pine and spruce cones, and on and on, but always up and out of the cat’s reach.
Over all those years, and still to this day, the favourite family treat is to place that magnificent glowing angel or cardboard star on the top of our Christmas tree, while sipping hot cocoa and nibbling chunks of spiced apples.
• Don’t worry children, there has always been a jolly old man with a white beard and a red suit who makes a quick dash (assisted by eight-reindeer power) around the world, bringing gifts to everyone’s home on the eve of Christmas, but only after you go to sleep. He has had many names over the decades, including Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Old Saint Nick, and of course Santa Claus, but he has never missed a single chimney — that is if we have been good. This ageless gent always appreciates a treat of milk and cookies on that busy night, and has occasionally been caught kissing mommy under the mistletoe.
• In nations throughout the world there are many traditions and celebrations that go on during the festive season, all followed by that scrumptious feast with all the trimmings. In England, many folks tour the city, visiting churches and homes to view the age-old and coveted nativity scene and singing carols, while others embark in fun matches of tug-o-war and push their neighbours from home to home or pub to pub in wheelbarrows.
• Norway is famous for devouring a delightful Christmas pudding that contains amongst all the delicious fruits and whatever, a single almond. During the celebration the person who finds that almond will be the next to be married. In Finland their favourite yuletide meal is made up of fish, ham, prunes, and turnips, but during the holidays they always provide extra rations for their livestock and birds!
• After church services in Spain, many dance the night away at the Joya, while Latin Americans can’t wait for social hour to knock down their piñatas. Italians usually fast the day before Christmas, then in the evening there is a massive feast called the Presario, where gifts are exchanged and they pass a crock around that is called the Urn of Fate!
In Holland they put out their wooden shoes next to the fireplace to collect gifts, while in France it is their best pair of shoes, and right here at home it has always been a huge pair of wool socks, with no holes so that the goodies won’t drop out.
The popular custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas is said to have begun in memory of the coveted gifts that the three Wise Men brought to the newly born Christ Child so many years ago in a manger in Bethlehem under a bright shining star.
Christmas on the prairies.
My good friends, Laura Wierzba and Don Graham, both Ponoka district pioneers, were recently telling me about some of their delightful Christmas memories and traditions.
For many of our pioneers, Christmas was often a lonely time, especially for young families and eligible bachelors, who had found work and new challenges, but were far from former homes and friends. For the gala festive occasion, the neighbours always took turns inviting many to their tiny farm homesteads, churches, and school concerts. There were quite often so many in attendance that the splendid meal with all the trimmings had to be served in shifts, and the dishes washed (by hand) and reused several times, always joyfully taking place in high spirits within the glow of lanterns or candle light. The Russian aristocrats in the areas used this occasion to bring out their finest China, and although desperately poor, went all out to prepare their exquisite ethnic dishes.
• Preparation for Christmas went on for weeks, with money scarce, and most everything, including the gifts and sweet baked treats, being homemade. They were challenging but joyful tasks, as mother knitted and crocheted socks, mitts, and scarves, while father carefully carved toys such as wagons, sleighs and skis, while both still had to attend to the many rigorous daily chores. A ‘few’ specialty items (such as Japanese oranges and fresh veggies and fruit) could be purchased or traded for in town, as long as the train arrived on time.
The long trip into Ponoka by wagon and team took several hours, with the only way to stay warm by cuddling up under blankets around the brick heater and lantern. The biggest question throughout the year was whether those turkeys that were hatched in the spring survive the storms, coyotes, and other hazards so that there would enough left for Christmas dinner?
The joy of Christmas today
Whatever traditions or holiday habits we celebrate today, the spirit of the festive season will always be the same as it has been for so many years. The best Christmases are all about our families, friends, and neighbours gathering together and sharing the joy, and being very thankful for all that we have been blessed with, up to now, and into the future.
Please enjoy it to the fullest!