CHRISTMAS IS UNIVERSAL!
etween 1984-1987, with the help of the Catholic newspaper, THE UNIVERSE, the author solicited personal accounts from readers from all over the world. These were all accounts of Christian Christmas of course, but they show subtle variations even within the strict confines of religious celebration. The following is a selection from those received.
VIETNAMThe first is an unusual insight into Christian Vietnam from Rev. Father Peter Dao Duc Diem. "I remember big, big parades on Christmas Eve, always with the Baby Jesus. The whole village would come out to see them and then go to Midnight Mass. During Mass we would have a special Offertory Dance, a traditional Vietnamese dance with the children in National costume.
"I sang in the choir and my favourite song was 'Dem Dong Lanh Leo', which means, 'A very cold night for Jesus'. After Mass it would be home for hot chicken soup and presents from Father Christmas.
"Every family had their own crib modelled out of thick paper and ink - ours was always made by my father."
USAt from Columbia, Missouri USA: "I loved going down to the nursery to to chop down our own Christmas Tree, and watching Macy's Christmas Day Parade on television. There were miles of ornate floats with storybook characters and of course, Santa and Mrs Claus and the elves.
"There is Christmas music in our house from dawn until the last glimmer of fire in the fireplace and for weeks up to Christmas the oven is ablaze baking homemade cookies which last for weeks afterwards....
&Christmas would not be complete without the traditional toast, eggnog and nutmeg by candlelight."
AUSTRALIAMost people would shiver with cold at the idea of eating watermelon with few clothes on, at Christmastime, but for Elspeth Costello of Queensland Australia it is the perfect way to spend Christmas:
" Our Christmas is usually spent weearing as few clothes as possible and being close to the water - though we still send each other Christmas Cards adorned with snow and stockings in front of an open fire.
"Our main school holidays begin in early December and finish in mid-January so it gives families the chance to be together for Christmas. Many a Boxing Day is spent watching the English and Australians doing battle on the cricket pitch. Sal;ads and cold meats are the favourite Christmas fare, though we can't sever all of the Christmas ties - dessert is usually hot plum pudding with custard.
"It is a time of sunshine and togetherness, of drowsy hot afternoons, barbecues and eating watermelon.
CZECHOSLOVAKIAMartha Tomsky of Prague, Czechoslovakia celebrates with a Carp supper. For those who have not tasted this fish, it is a firm meaty fish and the traditional Christmas Eve fare for several Eastern European Countries
"The Christmas Eve meal begins at dusk....while we are eating, someone will slip outside to see if 'the Baby Jesus has been '. Then they would call us, and we would stand by the door of the darkened room, and there was the Christmas Tree suddenly ablaze with light - real candles and sparklers.
"We always have carp for dinner with potato salad. On Christmas Eve, all the hospital casualty departments in Prague are full of people with carp bones stuck in their throats!
"You always buy your carp a few days before Christmas. There are fishmongers in the streets, selling the carp from enormous barrels filled with water. People usually buy them live and keep them in the bath until Christmas Eve. But my mother never bought one live, she was too scared it would jump out of her shopping bag on the way home!"
GERMANYThe next account comes from Friedel Cullingford who lived in Stuttgart, Germany. Her memory is the fragrant smell of baking...
"Christmas is a quite thoughtful festival, unlike New Year! We have no balloons or paper garlands or crackers and definitely no paper hats!
"Before Christmas my mother would bake 'Weinachts geback', which were little sugared stars, and 'Christstollen', long loaves with currants, sultanas and marzipan down the centre, which you ate sliced with butter.
"Our main celebration is on Christmas Eve, and we children would sit quietly round the Christmas Tree, waiting, enchanted for the Christchild to come. My mother would say, 'Be good, and wait for the Christchild'. It was of course an excellent way of keeping us quiet!
"Then the Christchild would appear at last..... I remember a beautiful mysterious veiled figure, all in white. It was usually my aunt or someone else in the family dressed up. When she spoke to us her voice was disguised too of course
"We always had to sing or recite a poem for the Christchild, and then we would get a plate of goodies."
INDIAAll the way from India, Michelle Misquitta send this account of Christmas in Bombay
".....Before Christmas we always hung paper lanterns and stars with electric lights inside from out balconies. In the Catholic areas there would be whole blocks of flats full of lanterns and we used to count them as we went by in the bus.
"In some places they would make a great tinsel star, three or four feet across, and hang it across the road. It is a community festival and the non-Christians join in, just as we join in the Hindu festival of Diwali in November.
"Some houses have a Crib outside, and there would be a crib judging competition to choose the best in the Parish.
" We made Christmas sweets called Kulkuls which were made from a dough made with flour, sugar, fat and eggs and rolled up. The whole family would sit around the big ball of dough, each staking out a bit of territory. On Christmas morning we took plates of sweets to our neighbours, and they would send some to us in return. Everyone had a new dress at Christmas and the tailors and dressmakers went frantic!
" Christmas dinner at our house consisted of Chicken and Pork Vindaloo, which has been marinated for days beforehand and is very rich. There would also be 'Sorpotel' - beef and liver chopped with pork into little cubes, rice and fish. All the relatives would come and bring a dish of food.
" Lunch was at Grandmothers, then usually we would go to our other grandmothers for dinner at six o'clock, and have the same thing all over again!
" There would be a family singsong, with carols and lots of old funny songs, and someone would play the guitar."
SLOVENIAANKA Zebot sent us the following very colourful account of Christmas in Slovenia.
" .....Christmas fun began on St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. We would have a big party in a parish or community hall, with a stage which had a trapdoor in it. St Nicholas would descend from the heavens, accompanied by his angels, but closely followed by the little devils rattling their chains. How I screamed! but I loved it really! The angles looked up your name in a big book of good and bad children, and called it out. I was always a troublemaker, so as soon as they heard my name the devils would start rattling their chains.
" Then St. Nicholas would say, 'Well, you've been good, but you have also been bad' and the devils would start howling, and down I would go through the trapdoor in the floor of the stage. There was a nice soft mattress waiting of course!
" We all wanted to go through the trapdoor, so it was not much of an incentive to be good. being bad was much more fun, and good or bad, we always got our presents afterwards, wrapped in red paper.
" Towards Christmas it was time to go to the woods to collect moss and Christmas roses to decorate the crib. At six o'clock on Christmas Eve all the church bells start ringing, it is a fantastic sound, especially as there is nearly always snow. Somehow bells always different and more magical when it snows.
" Our tree always had real candles and I remember one dreadful day when it caught fire. Noone was hurt but we were all so sad that there would be no tree for Christmas Eve. But my father sneaked out of the house and in no time at all another tree was there, all decorated in white and silver so that we would not be disappointed....."
AFRICAFr William Burridge sent a story as his contribution, of how his area of Africa learnt about the Birth of Christ and Christmas.
" Under the starlit sky of the African night, in a silence broken only by the sounds of the birds and animals among the trees, the people of the grass roofed huts sit round a flaming pile of sticks. It is the time when the old men tell the traditional stories of long ago.
" Once there lived in the cluster of huts, a very special being called Tara Nti. He was a real father to the clan, it was wonderful, living in the company of their god.
" There was happiness everywhere. The women's laughter floated out across the fields as they pounded maize in the hollowed out tree trunk. Tossing their long poles higher and higher just for fun.
" 'Not so high' warned Tara Nti, 'You will destroy the stars'. But the women took no notice.
" Tara Nti met with the elders, 'Tell them to stop before they damage the stars' he said. But the elders took no notice either.
" That evening the children ran round the huts to say goodnight to Tara Nti as usual. Soon they were running to the elders in tears. 'Tara Nti has gone' they cried.
" 'He's gone back to Heaven' the elders decided. " Up the steep slopes of the mountain they climbed, where the peaks touch the clouds. 'We can reach him in heaven this way' they said. But there was only emptiness.
" 'We'll find him out there on the great lake',they said, 'where heaven meets the water'. They paddled out in their canoes until their hands bled, but the further they went, the more the horizon receded.
" A great sadness descended on the huts, no Tara Nti to keep them happy; to heal the sick and comfort them when an elder died. Strife broke out, hatred, enmity, spite. Children huddled terrified in their huts as their fathers fought the neighbouring clans.
" One day the oldest of the elders called them all to a meeting. 'I have dreamt that strangers will come and bring back the peace of Tara Nti' he said.
" Generation after generation went by. One day the children went off as usual with the goats, the women to the fields and the men to mending the grass roofs. The children came running back, 'There are strange men, all white' they said.
" Everyone assembled to see these strangers, and hear what they had to say. 'We come from your Father in Heaven. He sent His Son, born in a land far away. We bring you the words he gave us. But to hear them you must live in peace and love one another.
" And that is how the people heard the word of God and the teachings of His Son, Jesus Christ, and they were happy because Tara Nti had forgiven them and returned."
HOLLANDNext we are told about Christmas in Holland and how 'Klompen' are put out for gifts.
" Christmas in Holland is sharply divided between the sublime and the ridiculous. The light hearted celebrations are kept to St Nicholas' Day, December 5th, and the 25th is a more serious time of church-going and family visits.
" On December 5th St Nicholas goes round traditionally on a white horse, with a black servant in attendance. he carries a huge sack of presents for good children, and a Birch twig to deal with the naughty ones! He wears a bishop's red robe with a gold mitre, and a long white beard, and listens down the chimney to what the children say.
" It is all very terrifying, and I remember to this day when I was six or seven and St Nicholas invaded our party and suddenly asked me to recite a verse. I blushed purple and hid behind everyone.
" In Holland we do not hang up stockings but put out 'Klompen', our wooden clogs, beside the chimney. Into the Klompen the children put a little hay and sugar for St Nicholas' horse. Sure enough in the morning both hay and sugar have gone so you know that he called.
" He leaves gingerbread cakes made in the shapes of boys and girls, sometimes over two feet high; or hearts made out of sugar and marzipan.
" At Christmastime itself the family all go to church together.
" In 1939,when all the Dutch troops were mobilised and unable to get home at Christmas, Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard had their own Christmas celebrations broadcast from the palace so that every Dutchman could take part in their Christmas."