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'E.ncy)cloj)edia of 


& New Yea/s Celebrations 

2.nd edition 

iffustratei hy) Mar-^ Ann Stavros-Lanning 

Bncyciopedia of 


and New Year's 

ind Bdition 

li:-.".".* L 

Bncyciopedia of 


and New Yea/ s 


Over 240 Alphabetically Arranged Entries Covering 

Christmas, New Year's, and Related Days of 

Observance, Including Folk and Religious Customs, 

History, Legends, and Symbols from Around the World. 

Supplemented by a Bibliography and Lists of Christmas 

Web Sites and Associations, as well as an Index 

Tanya Gulevich 

Illustrated by Mary Ann Stavros-Lanning 


615 Griswold • Detroit, Michigan 48226 • 313-961-1340 

Helene Henderson, Copy Editor 

Bariy Puckett, Research Associate 

Allison A. Beckett and Linda Strand, Research Assistants 

Omnigraphics, Inc. 

if ;f if 

Matthew P. Barbour, Senior Vice President 
Kay Gill, Vice President — Directories 

Kevin Hayes, Operations Manager 
Leif Gruenberg, Development Manager 
David P. Bianco, Marketing Consultant 

if H- H- 

Peter E. Ruffner, Publisher 
Frederick G. Ruffner, Jr., Chairman 

Copyright © 2003 Omnigraphics, Inc. 
ISBN 0-7808-0625-5 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

Giilevich, Tanya. 

Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's celebrations : over 240 alphabetically 
arranged entries covering Christmas, New Year's, and related days of observance, 
including folk and religious customs, history, legends, and symbols from around the 
world /Tanya Gulevich ; illustrated by Mary Ann Stavros-Lanning. 
p. cm. 
Rev. ed. of: Encyclopedia of Christmas. 2000. 
Includes bibliographical references and index. 
ISBN 0-7808-0625-5 
1 . Christmas — Encyclopedias. 2. New Year — Encyclopedias. I. Gulevich, Tanya. 
Encyclopedia of Christmas. II. Title. 

GT4985.G79 2003 
394.261— dc21 


You may copy the designs and illustrations for classroom and library use free of charge and 
without special permissions. Electronic or mechanical reproduction, including photography, 
recording, or any other information storage and retrieval system for the purpose of resale is 
strictly prohibited without permission in writing from the publisher. 

The information in this publication was compiled from the sources cited and from other 
sources considered reliable. While every possible effort has been made to ensure reliability, the 
publisher wUl not assume liability for damages caused by inaccuracies in the data, and makes 
no warranty, express or implied, on the accuracy of the information contained herein. 

This book is printed on acid-free paper meeting the ANSI Z39.48 Standard. The infinity symbol 
that appears above indicates that the paper in this book meets that standard. 

Printed in the United States 


Introduction xv 

Adam and Eve Day 1 

Advent 3 

Advent Calendar 7 

Advent Candle 8 

Advent Wreath 10 

America, Christmas in Colonial 13 

America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century 19 

Amish Christmas 28 

Angels 30 

Annunciation 33 

Armenia, Christmas in 35 

'Auld Lang Syne" 37 

Australia, Christmas in 40 

Baboushka 45 

Baby 47 

Barring Out the Schoolmaster 47 

Befana 50 

Bells 52 

Berchta 56 

Bethlehem 59 

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in 64 

Birth of the Invincible Sun 69 

Black Peter 72 

Boar's Head 74 

Boxing Day 79 

Boy Bishop 82 

Brazil, Christmas in 89 

Bulgaria, Christmas in 91 

Candlemas 95 

Ceremony of Lessons and Carols 100 

Cert 101 

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" 102 

Cherry Tree 106 

Children's Letters 108 

Chrismon Tree 112 

Christingle 113 

Christkindel 114 

Christmas Ale 115 

Christmas Bonus 118 

Christmas Cakes 120 

Christmas Candles 124 

Christmas Card 126 

A Christmas Carol 132 

Christmas Carol 139 

Christmas Club 148 

Christmas Crackers 149 

Christmas Lads 151 

Christmas Markets 153 

Christmas Rose 156 

Christmas Seals 159 

Christmas Season 161 

Christmas Sheaf 163 

Christmas Symbols 164 

Christmas Tree 167 

Christmas Village 174 

Commercialism 176 

December 25 185 

Denmark, Christmas in 190 

Depression 195 

Devil's Knell 198 


Ecuador, Christmas in 201 

Eggnog 203 

Egypt, Christmas in 205 

Elves 206 

Emancipation Day 210 

England, Christmas in 213 

Epiphany 217 

Estonia, Christmas in 224 

Ethiopia, Christmas in 228 

Europe, Christmas in Medieval 230 

Farolitos 237 

Father Christmas 239 

Father Time 242 

Feast of Fools 244 

Feast of the Ass 247 

Feast of the Circumcision 248 

Firstfooting 252 

First Night 254 

Flight into Egypt 255 

Football Bowl Games 258 

France, Christmas in 261 

Frankincense 265 

Frau Gaude 267 

Gabriel 269 

Games 272 

Gaudete Sunday 275 

Germany, Christmas in 276 

Ghana, Christmas in 284 

Ghosts 286 

Gifts 289 

Gingerbread 295 

Glastonbury Thorn 298 

Gold 302 

Gospel Accounts of Christmas 303 

Gospel According to Luke 305 

Gospel According to Matthew 308 


Grandfather Frost 310 

Greece, Christmas in 312 

Greenery 315 

Guatemala, Christmas in 320 

Hanukkah 323 

Herod, King 326 

Hogmanay 328 

Holly 335 

Holy Innocents' Day 339 

Hopping John 343 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas 345 

Iceland, Christmas in 349 

India, Christmas in 354 

Iran, Christmas in 356 

Iraq, Christmas in 358 

Ireland, Christmas in 359 

Italy, Christmas in 363 

It's a Wonderful Life 366 

Ivy 371 

Jesse Tree 375 

Jesus 377 

Jesus, Year of Birth 381 

Jonkonnu 387 

Joseph 390 

Julklapp 392 

Jultomten 393 

Kalends 397 

Kallikantzari 401 

King of the Bean 404 

Kissing Bough 407 

Knecht Ruprecht 409 

Knocking Nights 414 

Kwanzaa 416 


Lamb's Wool 419 

Latvia, Christmas in 421 

Laurel 423 

Lebanon, Christmas in 424 

Lithuania, Christmas in 427 

Lord of Misrule 434 

Lovefeast 438 

Luminarias 440 

Maq^'s Thanksgiving Day Parade 443 

Madagascar, Christmas in 449 

Magi 451 

Marshall Islands, Christmas in the Republic of the 459 

Martinmas 463 

Mary, Blessed Virgin 470 

Masque 476 

Merry 479 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 480 

Messiah 482 

Mexico, Christmas in 487 

Midnight Mass 491 

Mincemeat Pie 493 

Miracle on 34th Street 498 

Misa de Gallo 501 

Mistletoe 503 

Mummers Parade 509 

Mumming 516 

Myrrh 523 

National Christmas Tree 527 

Nation's Christmas Tree 532 

Nativity Legends 534 

Nativity Play 538 

Nativity Scene 542 

New Year's Day 549 

New York City, Christmas in 556 

Nigeria, Christmas in 561 

Noel 563 


North Pole 565 

Norway, Christmas in 567 

The Nutcracker 573 

Old Christmas Day 579 

Ornaments 583 

Pantomime 591 

Paradise Tree 596 

Pastores, Los 598 

Peace of Christmas 602 

Philippines, Christmas in the 603 

Plough Monday 610 

Plum Pudding 613 

Plygain 617 

Poinsettia 618 

Poland, Christmas in 620 

Posadas, Las 624 

Puritans 627 

Putz 632 

Pyramid 635 

Reindeer 639 

Resolutions 642 

Reveillon 644 

Robin 646 

Rosemary 649 

Russia, Christmas in 651 

St. Barbara's Day 657 

St. Basil's Day 660 

St. Distaff's Day 663 

St. John's Day 665 

St. Knut's Day 667 

St. Lucy's Day 668 

St. Nicholas 674 

St. Nicholas's Day 680 

St. Stephen's Day 686 

St. Sylvester's Day 690 

St. Thomas's Day 692 

Salvation Army Kettles 697 

Santa Claus 699 

Saturnalia 711 

Shepherds 714 

Shoes 716 

Shooting in Christmas 717 

Slaves' Christmas 719 

Snow Maiden 726 

South Africa, Christmas in 728 

Spain, Christmas in 731 

Star Boys 735 

Star of Bethlehem 736 

Stir-Up Sunday 741 

Stockings 742 

Store Window Displays 744 

Sudan, Christmas in 747 

Sugarplums 748 

Syria, Christmas in 751 

Times Square, New Year's Eve in 755 

Timkat 758 

Twelfth Night 760 

Twelve Days of Christmas 767 

Up Helly Aa 776 

Urban Legends Ill 

Victorian England, Christmas in 783 

Virginia O'Hanlon 789 

Waits 793 

Wales, Christmas in 795 

Wassail 797 

Wassailing the Fruit Trees 801 

Watch Night 803 

Weihnachtsmann 807 


Wenceslas, King 808 

"White Christmas" 810 

White House, Christmas in the 814 

Wild Hunt 820 

Williamsburg, Virginia, Christmas in Colonial 822 

Winter Solstice 828 

Wrapping Paper 833 

Wreath 835 

Wren Hunt 836 

Yule 843 

Yule Goat 848 

Yule Log 850 

Yule Straw 855 

Zagmuk 859 

Appendix 1: Bibliography 863 

Appendix 2: Web Sites 887 

Appendix 3: Associations 901 

Index 907 


To my Yiayia, Evdokia, with love and admiration 


ike a river winding its way to the sea fed by countless 
tributaries, the festival we call Christmas has rolled 
down to us over the course of two millennia. It has 
taken many twists and turns on its journey across the 
rugged landscape of the ages, thereby gaining and losing a range of 
meanings, legends, customs, and symbols. It has been fed along the 
way by such sources as the Bible, pre-Christian calendar customs. 
Christian lore and tradition, and a wide range of folk practices, be- 
liefs, and symbols. The interventions and innovations of many indi- 
viduals — be they saints, kings, queens, musicians, writers, business 
men and women, manufacturers, scholars, clergy, or politicians — 
have also swelled the flow. Today, standing at the mouth of the river, 
the yearly phenomena we call Christmas roars past us each Decem- 
ber, a joyous tumult composed of all these influences. 

In western cultures the celebrations surrounding Christmas and New 
Year's have unified into a single holiday season. Hence, the second 
edition of the Encyclopedia of Christmas has expanded its coverage of 
New Year's Eve and Day. For this reason, the second edition has been 
retitled Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 

The Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations addresses 
this sprawling holiday, tracing its history back to ancient times and 
describing its observance in countries spanning six continents. The 
encyclopedia format allows the user to locate sought-for informa- 
tion quickly, or to browse. The diverse range of material presented 
offers the reader the opportunity to gain a new appreciation of the 
breadth and depth of this ancient, international festival. 



The Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations is intended 
for general audiences, including students and teachers, as well as 
interested adults. Those researching various aspects of the history 
and celebration of Christmas will find pertinent information, and 
general readers will find engaging historical narratives, descriptions, 
tales, and facts. 

Scope and Organization 

The Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations contains 247 
entries on all facets of Christmas arranged in alphabetical order. Topics 
covered include folk customs and beliefs, religious practices, symbols, 
legends, mythological and historical figures, foods, beverages, and 
major artistic and popular works associated with the celebration of 
Christmas and New Year's Eve and Day. Entries also provide infor- 
mation on related days and celebrations, such as the Annunciation, 
Candlemas, and Epiphany. Because many of the entries include ma- 
terial on a range of subjects, the reader is strongly urged to consult 
the index in order to locate all available information on any given 

The Encyclopedia traces the history of Christmas and New Year's Day 
from antiquity to the twentieth century. It contains a number of 
essays on ancient celebrations which bequeathed some of their cus- 
toms to this holiday season, such as the Roman festivals Kalends 
and Saturnalia. It also traces the origins and development of Christ- 
mas as a Christian holiday. To this end it includes essays exploring 
the controversy over the date of Jesus' birth, explaining the selection 
of December 25 as the date of the new festival, and describing the 
development of the many Christian holidays and celebrations relat- 
ed to the Nativity. 

Many essays touch on the blossoming of Christmas customs, leg- 
ends, symbols, and foods in medieval and Renaissance Europe, as 
well as the expansion of the Christmas season that took place during 
that era. Further essays outline the decline of Christmas following 
the Protestant Reformation, as well as examine its resurgence in the 
Victorian era. The Encyclopedia also covers the continuing evolution 


of the holiday in the twentieth century, noting the development of 
new symbols and customs, such as those represented by the Christ- 
mas seal and the Christmas club, as well as the growing popularity 
of Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas gift, and other 
modern Christmas customs. 

The book is international in scope, offering 39 entries dealing wholly 
or mostly with the Christmas season in other countries. These essays 
cover Christmas celebrations in European, Asian, Middle Eastern, 
African, and Latin American countries. Additional information about 
foreign Christmas customs appears throughout the volume. For ex- 
ample, there is no entry on Jamaica or the Bahamas, but the "Jonkon- 
nu" entry describes an important Jamaican and Bahamian Christmas 
custom. Therefore, readers are encouraged to use the index to locate 
all pertinent information on a geographic location, ethnic group, or 
any other subject. 

New to the Second Edition 

The second edition adds 60 new entries to the Encyclopedia. These 
entries greatly expand coverage of New Year's Eve and Day, Christmas 
in the United States, and Christmas celebrations in foreign countries. 

The Encyclopedia now offers 21 entries treating New Year's customs, 
observances, and symbols. Additional information can be found in 
Christmas-centered entries throughout the Encyclopedia and is easily 
located with the aid of the index. The expanded coverage of New 
Year's Eve and Day celebrations focuses on the western New Year's 
Day, falling seven days after Christmas on January 1. Other New Year's 
holidays — such as Chinese New Year — that are unrelated culturally, 
religiously, or calendrically to Christmas have not been covered. 

Readers interested in American Christmas and New Year's celebra- 
tions may now consult 49 entries dealing wholly or in good part 
with the customs, history, and symbols of these holidays as they are 
celebrated in the United States. For a complete listing, see United 
States of America, Christmas and New Year's Celebrations in 
the. These entries expand the historical coverage of the holiday and 
detail, for example, how American slaves celebrated Christmas as 
well as discuss the history of Christmas in the White House. They 
also survey pop culture contributions to the American holiday sea- 


son, such as football bowl games, Christmas villages, and a number 
of the nation's favorite Christmas movies and television specials. 
New entries also discuss Christmas observances in several distinc- 
tive American towns and cities such as Williamsburg, Virginia, Beth- 
lehem, Pennsylvania, and New York City. 

Seventeen new entries increase the book's coverage of Christmas in 
foreign countries. Four describe Christmas in Middle Eastern coun- 
tries, and five cover Christmas in African countries. New entries on 
Christmas in India, Australia, and the Marshall Islands shed further 
light on Asian, Pacific, and Pacific Islands Christmas celebrations. 
Several other new entries enhance the book's coverage of eastern 
European Christmas celebrations. 

Entries and References 

Entries range in length from about 100 words to well over 2,500 
words. Suggestions for further reading follow each essay. The En- 
cydopedia of Christmas and Neiu Year's Celebrations is thoroughly cross- 
referenced. Within each article words in boldfaced type and see-also 
references guide the reader to further entries containing information 
on the same or related subjects. 

Each entry is followed by one or more sources for further reading. In 
some instances, sources consulted in writing the entry were not list- 
ed after the text of the entry, especially if the work contained little 
pertinent information, was especially scholarly, difficult to obtain, or 
out of print. A full bibliography of all sources consulted appears at 
the end of the book. Though not included in the further reading 
lists. Colliers Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, Webster's New Uni- 
versal Unabridged Dictionary, Microsoft Encarta 2001 Standard En- 
cyclopedia, and the Oxford English Dictionary were freely consulted in 
the writing of a number of entries. 


Three appendices supplement the Encyclopedia: 

Appendix 1: Bibliography — Contains a complete listing of books 
and articles consulted. 


Appendix 2: Web Sites — Furnishes addresses for more than seventy 
web sites offering information on a wide variety of Christmas-relat- 
ed topics. Countless Christmas sites populate the World Wide Web. 
Those appearing in the Encyclopedia, either in further reading lists or 
this appendix, were chosen for inclusion because they were deemed 
to offer substantial information presented by reliable sources. 

Appendix 3: Associations — Lists groups whose missions relate to 
Christmas in some way. A brief summary of the group's purpose, 
available publications, and full contact information accompanies 
each listing. 


The index provides the reader with an important tool for getting the 
most out of this book. It covers customs, symbols, legends, historical 
and mythological characters, ethnic groups, musical and literary 
works, foods, beverages, religious groups and denominations, geo- 
graphical locations, keywords, alternate names, and other subjects 
mentioned in the entries. 


Several people aided me in the long process of researching and writ- 
ing this manuscript. First and foremost I would like to thank my edi- 
tor, Helene Henderson, for bringing her excellent editorial skills to 
bear on all aspects of this book. Her faith in this project has been 
much appreciated. I am also grateful to Joseph A. Lane, Katherine 
Lehman, Jane McDougle, and Judith Reuss for their feedback on 
various aspects of the manuscript. I would also like to acknowledge 
George and Elizabeth Gulevich for their unfailing enthusiasm for 
this enterprise and the editorial staff of Omnigraphics for their con- 
fidence in my work. 

The illustrations appearing in the Encyclopedia of Christmas and New 
Year's Celebrations were created using images from the following 
sources: Corel Draw; Image Club Graphics' Art Gear Visions of Christ- 
mas and Festive Occasions; and Dynamic Graphics' Artworks Series. 
You may copy the designs and illustrations for classroom and library 
use free of charge and without special permissions. Electronic or 


mechanical reproduction, including photography, recording, or any 
other information storage and retrieval system for the purpose of 
resale is strictly prohibited without permission in writing from the 


This project was reviewed by an Advisory Board comprised of librari- 
ans to assist editorial staff in assessing its usefulness and accessibili- 
ty. They evaluated the title as it developed, and their suggestions 
have proved invaluable. Any errors, however, should be attributed to 
the author and editors. The Omnigraphics editorial staff would like 
to list the Advisory Board members and thank them for their efforts. 

Gail Beaver 

Ann Arbor Huron High School Library and the 

University of Michigan School of Information and Library Studies 

Ann Arbor, Michigan 

Linda Carpino 
Detroit Public Library 
Detroit, Michigan 

Helen Gregory 

Grosse Pointe Public Library 

Grosse Pointe, Michigan 

Rosemary Orlando 

St. Clair Shores Public Library 

St. Clair Shores, Michigan 



Adam and'Eve Bay 

According to the Bible's Book of Genesis, God created the first man 
and woman and invited them to live in a heavenly place called the 
Garden of Eden. This couple, known as Adam and Eve, lived there in 
bliss until they took the advice of a serpent and disobeyed God's 
command not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and 
evil. As punishment for their disobedience, God expelled them from 
the Garden, thus compelling them to work for their living, suffer 
pain, and eventually die. Medieval Christians honored Adam and 
Eve as the father and mother of all people and commemorated their 
story on December 24, the day before Christmas. 

Eastern Christians, that is, those Christians whose traditions of belief 
and worship developed in the Middle East, eastern Europe, and 
north Africa, were the first to honor Adam and Eve as saints. Their 
cult spread from eastern lands to western Europe during the Middle 
Ages, becoming quite popular in Europe by the year 1000. Although 
the Roman Catholic Church never formally adopted the pair as 
saints, it did not oppose their veneration. 

Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Commemorating the lives of Adam and Eve on December 24 pro- 
moted comparison of Adam and Eve with Jesus and the Virgin 
Mary. Medieval theologians were fond of making such compar- 
isons, the point of which was to reveal how Jesus and Mary, through 
their obedience to God's will, rescued humanity from the conse- 
quences of Adam and Eve's disobedience. Indeed, the Bible itself 
refers to Jesus as the "second Adam" (Romans 5:14). Whereas hu- 
manity inherited biological life from the first Adam, it would imbibe 
spiritual life from Jesus, the second Adam (1 Corinthians 15: 22, 45, 
49). Some theologians took this to mean that Jesus' coming could 
restore humankind to a state of grace lost when Adam and Eve were 
exiled from Eden. In like manner, Mary would undo the effects of 
Eve's disobedience. When the angel Gabriel visited Mary and deliv- 
ered the message that she would bear a divine son, Mary replied, 
"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to 
your word" (Luke 1:38; see also Annunciation). Medieval commen- 
tators relished the fact that in Latin, Eve's name, Eva, read back- 
wards spelled Ave, meaning "hail." Ave Maria, or "Hail Mary" were 
the first words that the angel Gabriel spoke to the Virgin Mary. The 
spelling of these two short words seemed to them to symbolize 
God's plan to reverse the consequences of Eve's deed by bring a sav- 
ior into the world through the Virgin Mary. 

Medieval Christians celebrated Adam and Eve's feast day with a kind 
of mystery play referred to as the paradise play (for more on the paradise 
play, see Paradise Tree). This little folk drama retold the story of Adam 
and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It ended with the promise of the com- 
ing of a savior who would reconcile humanity with God. The paradise 
play was often staged around a single prop called a paradise tree. 
Actors adorned an evergreen tree with apples and sometimes also 
with communion wafers. Decked out in this way it served to represent 
the two mystical trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of knowledge of 
good and evil and the tree of life. Although the church officially 
banned the performance of mystery plays in the fifteenth century, the 
people of France and Germany's Rhine river region kept on decorat- 
ing paradise trees for Christmas. Some writers believe that the par- 
adise tree evolved into what we now know as the Christmas tree. 
Indeed, as late as the nineteenth century people in some parts of 
Germany customarily placed figurines representing Adam, Eve, and 


the serpent under their Christmas trees. In some sections of Bavaria, 
people still hang apples upon their evergreens at Christmas time and 
refer to the decorated trees as paradise trees. 

As the Middle Ages receded into history, so too did the western 
European feast of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve have retained a bit 
more of their ancient importance among certain Eastern Christians. 
The Greek Orthodox Church still honors Adam and Eve on the 
Sunday before Christmas. 

Further Reading 

Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. "Adam" and "Eve." In their The 

Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, 

England: Oxford University Press, 1983. 
Ryken, Leland, lames C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, III, eds. "Adam." 

In their Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity 

Press, 1998. 
Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: 

Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.. 


Christmas Lent, Little Lent, 
St. Philip's Fast, Winter Lent 

The word 'Advent" comes from the Latin word adventus, which 
means "coming" or "arrival." The Advent season serves as a period 
of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christmas. Advent calls 
Christians to reflect on both the birth of Jesus and on the Second 
Coming of Christ {see also Jesus, Year of Birth). In Western Christi- 
anity Advent begins on the Sunday closest to November 30, St. An- 
drew's Day, and lasts till December 24, thereby extending over a 
period of 22 to 28 days. In the Orthodox Church Advent begins on 
November 15. The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lu- 
theran traditions view Advent as the beginning of the Church year. 

Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

The liturgical color for Advent is purple, reflecting the repentant 
mood characteristic of early Church Advent observances. By con- 
trast, many popular customs associated with this period joyfully 
anticipate the coming of Christmas. 


In 490 A.D. Bishop Perpetuus of Tours, France, established a period of 
penance and preparation for Christmas in his diocese. He advocated 
fasting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for a forty-day period 
preceding Christmas. This fast period began on the day after Mar- 
tinmas, November 11, thereby acquiring the name "St. Martin's 
Lent" or "The Forty Days' Fast of St. Martin." The observation of a 
period of penance in preparation for Christmas gradually spread 
throughout France, and on to Spain and Germany, though it may 
have been largely restricted to monastic communities. In Spain 
groups of Christians were already fasting in preparation for Epipha- 
ny. In the early years there was little agreement regarding the dates 
and length of this pre-Christmas fast period. In some areas the fast 
began on November 11. In others, September 24, November 1, or 
December 1 might be the starting date. In 581 a.d. the Council of 
Macon ordered the laity throughout France to observe the forty-day 
period of fasting. Two hundred years later the Advent fast was 
adopted in England as well. 

Advent was not observed in Rome until the sixth century. Pope 
Gregory I (590-604 a.d.) developed much of the Roman Advent 
liturgy and shortened the period of observance from six to four 
weeks. The joyous, festive spirit with which the Romans celebrated 
Advent clashed with the somber, penitential mood established in 
Gallic observances. For a number of centuries Advent celebrations 
throughout western Europe varied in tone, length, and manner of 
observance. Sometime after 1000 a.d. Rome accepted the practice of 
fasting during Advent, which in those times meant abstaining from 
amusements, travel for purposes of recreation, and marital relations, 
as well as certain foods. In addition, no weddings were permitted 
during fast periods. 

By the thirteenth century the observance of Advent in western Eu- 
rope had stabilized. It combined the Roman tradition of a four-week 


observance, the Gallic custom of fasting, and a liturgy that mingled 
the themes of penance and joy. In recent centuries the Roman Cath- 
olic Church reduced, and eventually eliminated. Advent fasting. 

The Orthodox Church 

The Orthodox churches of eastern Europe developed different tradi- 
tions. Since the eighth century Orthodox believers have fasted in 
preparation for Christmas. Orthodox believers fast by eliminating 
meat, fish, dairy products, wine, and olive oil from their diets for a 
set period of time. A common Orthodox term for Advent is "Little 
Lent." In the Greek tradition. Advent is often called "Christmas 
Lent," a period that lasts from November 15 until the eve of Decem- 
ber 24 and is observed with fasting, prayer, and almsgiving {see also 
Greece, Christmas in). The Orthodox period of preparation before 
Christmas may also be called "St. Philip's Fast" because it begins the 
day after St. Philip's Day. Armenian Orthodox believers fast for three 
weeks out of a seven-week Advent period, which runs from Novem- 
ber 15 till January 6. Orthodoxy does not maintain a special liturgy 
for this period {see also Armenia, Christmas in). 

Folk Customs 

The folk customs of Advent reflect the anticipation and joy that 
characterize the weeks preceding Christmas in many countries. In 
many lands Nativity scenes are constructed and displayed. Advent 
may also be a favorite time of year to attend special Christmas con- 
certs and performances. Many customs connected with the season 
feature the lighting of Advent candles. Indeed, the candle has 
become a symbol of the season. Some Christians fashion and dis- 
play Jesse trees and Chrismon trees in observance of Advent. 
Others attend special church services, such as the Anglican Cere- 
mony of Lessons and Carols. The Advent wreath keeps adults 
focused on the spiritual message of Advent. The Advent calendar 
offers children a toy to help them count the days until Christmas. 
Other children's customs include writing letters to the child Jesus or 
Santa Claus {see also Children's Letters) and participating in the 
Hispanic folk play called Las Posadas, in which children and adults 
recreate the Holy Family's search for a place to spend the night in 

Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Frauentragen, or "woman carrying," is a German Advent custom 
which closely resembles Las Posadas. Children carry a picture or fig- 
urine representing the Virgin Mary to a neighborhood home. Once 
there, they sing or enact a brief scene from the Nativity story, say a 
prayer, and place the picture or figurine near the family crucifix. The 
children return for the image the following evening and carry it to a 
new home. In this way they act out Mary and Joseph's search for 
lodging in Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve the children carry Mary 
back to the church, where she takes her place in the Nativity scene. 
Musical folk plays were once a popular Advent custom in Germany. 
Known as Herbergsuchen, or "search for the inn," this folk drama also 
reenacted Mary and Joseph's search for shelter in Bethlehem. The 
play ended happily with the birth of the baby Jesus in a stable. 

In Latin America and central Europe the nine days before Christmas 
take on a special character. In Latin America many people partici- 
pate in a popular novena in honor of the Christ child. A novena is a 
series of special religious services or private devotions held on nine 
consecutive days. In Europe the nine days before Christmas were 
sometimes called the "Golden Nights," as many of the religious 
observances and popular celebrations that characterized the period 
occurred after dark. 

Further Reading 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 

Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1997. 
Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 

O'Shea, W. J. "Advent." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 1. New York: 

McGraw-Hill, 1967. 
Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald 

Wolff, 1982. 
Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. 
Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 

Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: 

Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952. 

Advent Calendar 
Web Site 

The German Embassy in Washington, D.C., offers a page describing Advent 
customs in Germany: 


Advent Calendar 

Advent calendars help children count the days between the begin- 
ning of Advent and Christmas. By furnishing a treat for each day of 
Advent, these one-page calendars help curb the impatience of coun- 
tless children in many countries who long for the arrival of Christ- 
mas Day. The history of the Advent calendar is uncertain, although 
some writers believe that it was invented in Germany around the 
turn of the twentieth century. 

Advent calendars may take many forms, but each offers a playful 
method for checking off the days between December first and twen- 
ty-fifth. In the United States one often finds the calendars printed 
onto double layers of paperboard (for a list of entries treating American 
history and customs, see United States of America, Christmas in). A 
Christmas scene with the numbers one through twenty-five incor- 
porated into the design decorates the surface of the calendar. Per- 
forations around the numbers allow children to fold back or remove 
a number each day, revealing the tiny images printed on the bottom 
layer below. These images generally depict a Christmas or Advent 

Some calendars attach chocolates or other sweets behind the fold- 
back dates on the calendar. In Germany cardboard houses may serve 
as the basis for homemade Advent calendars. Behind doors and 
windows children find edible goodies. Creative German crafters may 
even use matchboxes or walnut shells as devices for marking off the 
days of Advent and delivering tiny treats to children. The less inven- 
tive may press regular wall calendars into service by gluing candy, 
pictures, or verses to each of the December days before Christmas. 
Finally, in recent years one can find a variety of interactive Advent 
calendars posted on the World Wide Web (see Appendix 2). 

Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald 

Wolff, 1982. 
Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 


Advent Candle 

A number of different Advent customs require the lighting of can- 
dles. Some writers believe that the use of candles during Advent may 
have been adopted from the fires and lights that illuminated pre- 
Christian midwinter festivals. Before the widespread use of electric 
lighting, the twinkling candles not only served to dispel the gloom of 
the long winter nights, but also represented the hope of light and life 
to come. In Christian terms, the flame of the Advent candle repre- 
sents the coming of Jesus, "the light of the world" Qohn 8:12). 

Placing a lighted candle in the windowsill is perhaps the simplest 
Advent candle custom. In Europe during centuries past, a flickering 
candle in the window symbolized the offer of hospitality to night- 
time wayfarers. Some believed the glowing light might even attract 
the Christ child. The Irish brought with them the tradition of placing 
a lighted candle in the windowsill at Christmas time when they emi- 
grated to the United States {see also Ireland, Christmas in). In the 
late nineteenth century groups of carolers popularized the custom in 
Boston. From there the practice spread to other American cities. The 
citizens of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, keep candles in their win- 
dows at Christmas time, though they trace their tradition back to the 
town's Moravian founders (for more on Moravian Christmas customs, 
see Christingle; Lovefeast; Watch Night). Christmas time candles 
also twinkle in the windows of historic Williamsburg, Virginia. The 
custom there developed as a means of decorating historic district 

Advent Candle 

homes in a manner consistent with the town's colonial architecture 
and decor. 

In the American Southwest people decorate the exteriors of their 
homes with luminarias, candles placed in brown paper bags filled 
with sand. This custom originated in Mexico. 

Many churches hold special candle-lighting services sometime during 
Advent. Often, each person attending is given a candle {see also 
Christingle) . The lighting of these candles then becomes part of the 

Advent wreaths may be found in both home and church Advent 
observances. These wreaths contain four candles, one for each of the 
four Sundays of Advent. One is lit on the first Sunday of Advent. 
One more candle is lit on each of the following Sundays until on the 
fourth Sunday of Advent all four candles burn in unison. These four 
Advent candles may also be used without a wreath. {See also 
Christmas Candles.) 

Further Reading 

Augustine, Peg, comp. Cotne to Christmas. Nastiville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 

Ttiompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 

Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Har- 

court. Brace and World, 1952. 

Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Many Christians enhance their observance of Advent with an Ad- 
vent wreath. Although Germany's Lutheran community is credited 
with popularizing this custom sometime in the nineteenth century, 
its ultimate origins may lie in the pre-Christian practice of fashion- 
ing winter festival decorations from evergreen boughs. Whatever its 
origins, the symbols and customs connected with today's Advent 
wreath represent the spiritual significance of the Christian Advent 
season. Advent wreaths are used in both home and church obser- 

Advent wreaths are usually fashioned out of greenery and are 
meant to lie on a flat surface or to hang horizontally from the ceiling. 
Four candles are incorporated into the wreath. They symbolize eter- 
nal life, as does the circular design of the wreath {see also Christmas 
Candles). Purple candles are often found in wreaths designed for 
church use, since purple is the liturgical color of the Advent season. 
Finally, a larger white candle, known as the Christ or Christmas can- 
dle, is placed in the center of the wreath or off to one side. The white 
color of this candle coincides with the liturgical colors for Christmas 
Day, white or gold. Some churches do not follow the liturgical color 
scheme, however. 

Wreaths made for home observances employ candles of various 
shades. For example, red and white candles are often found in 
European Advent wreaths. 


Advent Wreath 

On the first Sunday of Advent, the first of the four candles in the 
wreath is Ht. On the second Sunday, the second candle joins the 
first. By the fourth Sunday in Advent all four candles glow in unison. 
Finally, on Christmas or Christmas Eve, the Christ candle flickers 
alongside the others. The ever increasing amount of light given off 
by the candles represents the spiritual illumination hoped for in the 
Advent season. The Christ candle, bigger and brighter than the rest, 
symbolizes the arrival of Jesus, "the light of the world" Qohn 8:12), 
and Christmas, the culmination of the Advent season. This lighting 
of candles at the darkest time of year may also stand for commit- 
ment to one's faith in times of darkness. In some home observances, 
family and friends pray, sing, or read spiritual texts by the light of the 
Advent wreath. An old German custom suggests adding one paper 
star to the wreath for each day in Advent. The star carries an Old 
Testament verse on one side and a New Testament verse on the 
other. Children might then be expected to memorize these verses. 

Many assign special significance to each of the four wreath candles. 
Some say they represent the four gifts of the Holy Spirit: hope, joy, 
peace, and love. Others use them to represent the themes of the 
Advent season. Thus they may signify hope, preparation, joy, love, or 
light. Still others tell the story of Jesus' birth with the candles, allow- 
ing each to stand for some of the important figures associated with 
the Nativity, such as the prophets, angels, shepherds, and the Magi. 

Further Reading 

Augustine, Peg, comp. Cotne to Christmas. Nastiville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 

Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. 

Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on the 
meaning and use of the Advent wreath in the Lutheran tradition of worship: 


America, Christmas in Colonial 


America^ cfiristmas in Colonial 

The religious upheaval known as the Reformation divided sixteenth- 
and seventeenth-century Europeans on many religious issues, in- 
cluding the celebration of Christian feast days. The European immi- 
grants who settled in the thirteen American colonies brought these 
controversies with them. Among colonial Americans, attitudes to- 
wards Christmas depended largely on religious affiliation. In general, 
Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers 
refused to celebrate the holiday. In areas of the country settled pri- 
marily by people of these religious affiliations, Christmas withered. 
By contrast, those who belonged to the Anglican (or Episcopalian), 
Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions general- 
ly approved of the holiday. Communities composed primarily of 
people from these denominations planted the seeds of Christmas in 
this country. 

The First American Christmas 

The first Christmas celebration in what was later to become the con- 
tinental United States took place in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 
(for a list of entries treating American history and customs, see United 
States of America, Christmas in). Old documents inform us that 
Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales presided over a Christ- 
mas service held at the Nombre de Dios Mission in that year. The 
Shrine of Nuestra Sefiora de la Leche now marks this location. The 
town of St. Augustine boasts of being the oldest settlement founded 
by Europeans in what is now the United States. Still, residents of 
Tallahassee, Florida, suspect that an even earlier Christmas celebra- 
tion may have been held near the site of their town. In 1539 a party 
of Spanish colonists, led by explorer Hernando de Soto (c. 1500- 
1542), camped near the place where Tallahassee now stands. Since 
the Spaniards stayed from October 1539 to March of the following 
year, some Floridians speculate that they must have celebrated 
Christmas there. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

The First Christmas in the English Colonies 

In Jamestown, Virginia, a ragged band of Englishmen huddled to- 
gether on Christmas morning in the year 1607. Although one hun- 
dred hopeful settlers had left England in order to found this, the first 
American colony, less than forty were still alive to celebrate their first 
Christmas in the New World. Their leader. Captain John Smith, was 
gone. He had left them to barter for food with the local Indians, and, 
according to legend, returned alive thanks only to the intervention 
of a young Indian woman named Pocahontas. Although the settlers 
had little food with which to rejoice, they still observed Christmas 
Day with an Anglican worship service. 

Virginia and the South 

In Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas the majority of early settlers 
were Anglicans of English descent. In the second half of the seven- 
teenth century, as their way of life grew more secure, they began to 
reproduce the festive Christmas they had known in their homeland 
{see also Williamsburg, Virginia, Christmas in Colonial). They cel- 
ebrated with feasting, drinking, dancing, card playing, horse racing, 
cock fighting, and other games. Although Anglican churches offered 
Christmas worship services, these apparently did not play a large 
role in colonial Christmas celebrations. Wealthy plantation owners 
who lived in large houses aspired to fill the Christmas season with 
lavish entertainments of all sorts. For many, this festive period lasted 
until Twelfth Night. By the eighteenth century these wealthy south- 
erners studded their holiday season with balls, fox hunts, bountiful 
feasts, and openhanded hospitality. One year guests at a Christmas 
banquet hosted by a wealthy Virginia planter named George Wash- 
ington, who later became the first president, dined sumptuously on 
the following dishes: turtle soup, oysters, crab, codfish, roast beef, 
Yorkshire pudding, venison, boiled mutton, suckling pig, smoked 
ham, roast turkey, several dishes of vegetables, biscuits, cornbread, 
various relishes, cakes, puddings, fruits, and pies. Wines, cordials, 
and a special holiday drink known as eggnog usually rounded out the 
plantation Christmas feast. Although wealthy parents might give a 
few presents to their children on Christmas or New Year's Day, this 
practice was not widespread. More common was the practice of 
making small gifts to the poor, to one's servants, or to one's slaves. 


America, Christmas in Colonial 

The less well-off could not reproduce the splendor of a plantation 
Christmas, but they could still celebrate with good food and good 
cheer. In addition, southerners of all classes saluted Christmas morn- 
ing by shooting off their guns and making all sorts of noise. Those 
who did not own muskets banged on pots and pans or lit fireworks. 
Slaves were usually given a small tip or gift and some leisure time at 
Christmas. Since they had to prepare the parties and feasts for every- 
one else, however, their workload increased in certain ways at this 
time of year. 

Southern colonists transported a number of old English Christmas 
customs to the New World including Christmas carols. Yule logs, 
kissing under the mistletoe, and decking homes with greenery. 
Southern schoolboys of this era sometimes resorted to the Old World 
custom of barring out the schoolmaster in order to gain a few days 
off at this festive time of year. 

New England 

The first bands of settlers to colonize New England were mostly 
made up of Puritans, members of a minority religious sect in Eng- 
land. They advocated a simplified style of worship and the elimina- 
tion of many religious holidays, including Christmas. Although they 
came to America in search of religious freedom, once here, the Puri- 
tan settlers established rules and laws favoring their religion above 
all others, as was the custom in Europe at the time. In Plymouth 
colony, the first European settlement in New England, Puritan lead- 
ers frowned upon Christmas from the very beginning. In 1621, one 
year after their arrival from England, Governor William Bradford dis- 
covered young men playing ball games in the streets on Christmas 
Day. He sent them back to their work, remarking in his diary that 
while he may have permitted devout home observances, he had no 
intention of allowing open revelry in the streets. In 1659 Massa- 
chusetts Bay Colony made Christmas illegal. Any person found 
observing Christmas by feasting, refraining from work, or any other 
activity was to be fined five shillings. In 1681, however, pressure 
from English political authorities forced colonists to repeal this law. 
The anti- Christmas sentiment continued, though, and most people 
went on treating Christmas like any other workday. Many Puritan 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

colonists resented the presence of the few Anglicans in their midst, 
especially if they were British officials. On Christmas Day in 1706 a 
Puritan gang menaced worshipers at the King's Chapel in Boston, 
breaking windows in protest against the Anglican worship service 
taking place inside. 

The very fact that Puritan leaders passed a law against the holiday 
suggests that some New Englanders were tempted to make merry 
on that day. Historic documents record a few instances of seven- 
teenth-century Christmas revelers and mummers being cold-shoul- 
dered by their more severe neighbors. The late seventeenth and 
eighteenth centuries witnessed a slight thawing in Puritan attitudes 
towards Christmas, as the New England colonies began to fill with 
people from a wider variety of religious backgrounds. Many still crit- 
icized drinking, gaming, flirting, feasting, and mumming as unholy 
acts of abandon that dishonored the Nativity of Christ, but some 
now accepted the idea of marking the day of Jesus' birth with religious 
devotions. Nevertheless, noted Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663- 
1728) clearly warned his congregation against secular celebrations of 
the holiday in his Christmas Day sermon of 1712: 

Can you in your conscience think that our Holy Saviour is 
honored by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by 
lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling? ... If you will yet go on 
and do Such Things, I forewarn you That the Burning Wrath 
of God will break forth among you [Christmas in Colonial and 
Early America, 1996, 12]. 

In eighteenth-century New England, Christmas services could be 
found in Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Universalist, and other church- 
es representing pro-Christmas denominations. 

New York and Pennsylvania 

New York and Pennsylvania hosted significant numbers of Dutch 
and German immigrants. Denominational differences divided many 
of these immigrants on the subject of Christmas. In general, the 
Mennonites, Brethren, and Amish rejected Christmas. The Luthe- 
rans, Reformed, and Moravians cherished the holiday and honored 
it with church services as well as folk celebrations {see also Lovefeast 


America, Christmas in Colonial 

and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in). Like their English 
counterparts in the South, the pro-Christmas communities in New 
York and Pennsylvania ate and drank their way through the Christ- 
mas holiday. In addition, both the Dutch and the Germans brought 
a rich tradition of Christmas baking to this country, including the 
making of special Christmas cookies, such as gingerbread. In fact, 
the American English word "cookie" comes from the Dutch word 
koek, meaning "cake." This in turn gave rise to the term koekje, mean- 
ing "cookie" or "little cake." 

German immigrants brought other Christmas customs with them as 
well. As early as the mid-eighteenth century Moravian communities 
in Pennsylvania were celebrating the day with Christmas pyramids. 
Other early German communities imported the beliefs and customs 
surrounding the German folk figures Christkindel and Knecht Ru- 
precht, whose gift-giving activities delighted children at Christmas 
time. Although the Germans probably also introduced the Christ- 
mas tree, no records of this custom can be found until the nine- 
teenth century. 

In addition to its large German population, Pennsylvania became 
home to many Scotch Irish and Quakers. Both the Scotch Irish, most 
of whom were Presbyterians, and the Quakers disapproved of Christ- 
mas celebrations in general. The Quakers adamantly opposed all 
raucous street revels, including those of German belsnickelers, mum- 
mers, and masqueraders of all kinds. In the nineteenth century, when 
Quakers dominated Philadelphia and Pennsylvania state govern- 
ment, they passed laws to prevent noisy merrymaking in the streets 
at Christmas time (see also America, Christmas in Nineteenth- 

The German Christmas blended lively folk customs with devout reli- 
gious observances. This combination eventually became typical of 
American Christmas celebrations. At least one researcher has con- 
cluded that increased immigration from the German-speaking coun- 
tries in the second half of the eighteenth century profoundly influ- 
enced the American Christmas. The increasing number of Germans 
permitted their balanced approach to Christmas to spread among 
the wider population and so encouraged the festival to flourish in 
the United States. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


The colonial American Christmas differed significantly from con- 
temporary American Christmas celebrations. Many religious people 
completely ignored the day. Even after the founding of the United 
States no state recognized Christmas as a legal holiday. Those peo- 
ple who celebrated it anyway did so without Santa Claus, Christ- 
mas cards, Christmas trees, and elaborate Christmas morning gift 
exchanges. Instead, the most common ways to observe the holiday 
featured feasting, drinking, dancing, playing games, and engaging in 
various forms of public revelry. Although the colonies attracted peo- 
ple from many different countries, English, German, and Dutch set- 
tlers exercised the strongest influence on early American Christmas 

Further Reading 

Barnett, James. The American Christmas. New York: Macmillan, 1954. 

Christmas in Colonial and Early America. Chicago: World Book, 1996. 

Kane, Harnett. The Southern Christmas Book. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1998. 

Lizon, Karen Helene. Colonial American Holidays and Entertainments. New 
York: Franklin Watts, 1993. 

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 

Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 

Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsyl- 
vania Folklore Society, 1959. 

Snyder, Phillip. December 25th. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. 

Young, Joanne B. Christmas in Williamsburg. New York: Holt, Rinehart and 
Winston, 1970. 



America, Christmas in Nineteenth -Century 

America^ cfiristmas in 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century American Christmas cel- 
ebrations varied considerably from region to region. These variations 
reflected religious and ethnic differences in the population. In Puri- 
tan New England, for example, many people ignored the holiday 
{see America, Christmas in Colonial). In Pennsylvania German- 
American communities reproduced a number of German Christmas 
traditions. Prosperous Southerners, especially those of Anglican 
English or French descent, hosted lavish Christmas meals and par- 
ties. All across the country many of those who celebrated Christmas 
in nineteenth-century America did so with noisy, public, and some- 
times drunken, reveling. By contrast, non-observers tried to ignore 
the noise and the festivities. They treated the day as any other work- 
day, since it was not a legal holiday in most of the century. 

During the second half of the nineteenth century, however, more and 
more people began celebrating Christmas. Regional and religious dif- 
ferences faded as new American Christmas customs emerged. These 
customs helped to transform the American Christmas into the tran- 
quil, domestic festival we know today. As the century rolled on, larg- 
er numbers of people incorporated customs and myths surrounding 
the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, and family gift exchanges into 
their Christmas celebrations. The Civil War (1861-65) served as a 
watershed in American Christmas observances, after which time the 
commercial trappings of the holiday — especially Christmas cards, 
store-bought gifts, store window displays, and wrapping paper — 
took on greater importance. 

New York and Pennsylvania 

In the early nineteenth century some New Yorkers and Pennsyl- 
vanians celebrated Christmas with mumming and other forms of 
noisy, public merrymaking. Young men of German extraction carried 
out their own variation of mumming known as "belsnickeling" (see 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Knecht Ruprecht). In Pennsylvania Dutch country, students some- 
times celebrated Christmas by barring out the schoolmaster. In 
New York brazen parties of drunk men sang, played instruments, 
and shouted in the streets on Christmas Eve, disturbing the sleep of 
more serious-minded citizens. On New Year's Day custom dictated 
that ladies stay at home to exchange New Year's greetings with a 
string of gentlemen callers, all of whom were entertained with food 
and drink. For gentlemen with a wide range of female acquain- 
tances, this custom presented yet another opportunity to consume 
large quantities of alcohol. Christmas mumming occurred in both 
New York and Pennsylvania, to the dismay of those who favored a 
more solemn observance of the season. 

In addition to those customs it shared with New York, Pennsylvania 
boasted its own highly developed noisemaking traditions during 
this era. In Philadelphia young men wandered the streets during the 
Christmas season, drinking, shooting off firecrackers, shouting, and 
sometimes fighting with one another. Some even strutted about in 
costume and were referred to as "fantasticals." Many of these cele- 
brants wandered about the downtown blowing horns on Christmas 
Eve. Those who could not lay their hands on horns added to the 
pandemonium with tin whistles, sailors' hornpipes, tin pans, hand- 
held bells, sleigh bells, or homemade instruments. In the year 1861 
these mock minstrels raised such a racket that they reduced the cen- 
ter of the city to chaos. 

The city government, dominated by those who did not celebrate 
Christmas, made two attempts to outlaw parading, masquerading, 
and horn playing on Christmas Eve, once in 1868 and again in 1881. 
The practice proved too deeply rooted to stamp out, however Even- 
tually, the city instituted the New Year's Day Mummers Parade, 
which modified these activities and channeled them into a con- 
trolled format. This popular parade continues today. {For other nine- 
teenth-century Pennsylvania customs, see Amish Christmas.) 

The South 

Southerners also celebrated Christmas by making noise. Men shot 
off guns both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Firecrackers and 
gunpowder explosions added to the din. Children without access to 


America, Christmas in Nineteenth -Century 

either of these items sometimes celebrated by popping inflated hog 
bladders, the nineteenth-century farm equivalent of a balloon. South- 
ern Christmas celebrations featured so many bangs and explosions 
that some witnesses said they rivaled Independence Day celebra- 
tions. In 1902 an article printed in a New York newspaper claimed 
that New York manufacturers had sold $1 million worth of fireworks 
to Southern buyers during the Christmas season. 

In addition to noisemaking, residents of many Southern cities also 
enjoyed dressing in costume on Christmas Eve. In some places they 
were referred to as "fantasticals," like their fellow celebrants in Penn- 
sylvania. Baltimore, Savannah, Mobile, and St. Augustine hosted ver- 
sions of this Christmas Eve masquerade. Arrayed in costumes rang- 
ing from funny to frightening, residents sallied forth to promenade 
up and down the main streets of the town. Something similar sur- 
vives today in New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebrations. Lastly, many 
residents of the former French territories, which became the states of 
Louisiana and Missouri, celebrated Christmas with French customs. 
These customs included assembling Nativity scenes, attending Mid- 
night Mass, cooking up sumptuous reveillon suppers, and hosting 
parties in honor of New Year's Eve and Twelfth Night. 

The Slaves 

The slaves developed Christmas customs of their own. In North 
Carolina some celebrated Jonkonnu. Some slaves observed an all- 
night vigil on Christmas Eve during which they sang, danced, and 
prayed. Throughout the South slaves greeted white folk on Christ- 
mas morning with the cry of "Christmas gif!" According to custom, 
the white person responded by giving them a present, either a coin 
or a gift. In addition, slaveowners often distributed presents of cloth- 
ing, shoes, blankets and other necessities to their slaves at Christmas 
time. Some slaveowners provided their slaves with extra rations of 
food at Christmas, including meat, which was something the slaves 
rarely ate during the rest of the year. Slaveowners frequently provid- 
ed ample portions of liquor as well. At many plantations slaves cele- 
brated Christmas by dressing in their best clothes, feasting, and 
dancing. At other plantations slaves worked through the Christmas 
holidays. Sometimes slaveowners withheld the privilege of celebrat- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ing Christmas from those slaves who had displeased them during 
the year. Others gave presents only to women who had borne babies 
or to the most productive workers. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass 
(1817-1895) later looked back on the customs of the plantation 
Christmas as mechanisms for controlling the slaves. He argued that 
days of drunken carousing subtly convinced some slaves that they 
were incapable of productive behavior if left to their own devices. 

After Slavery 

In the late nineteenth century African-American Christmas celebra- 
tions varied quite a bit. Some African Americans celebrated a mod- 
est Christmas, exchanging gifts of homemade food and clothing and 
attending church. Visitors to the Indiana State Museum's Freetown 
Village, a permanent, living-history exhibit, can watch a play that 
reenacts an 1870s African-American Christmas of this type. Others 
reproduced some of the old customs of the plantation Christmas. The 
children greeted any adult they could find with the cry of "Christmas 
gift!" and the adults danced, drank to excess, and refrained from work. 
African-American educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) ob- 
served these conditions in Tuskegee, Alabama, in the 1880s. As head 
of the town's newly founded school for African Americans (now 
Tuskegee University), he made it a point to teach his students to cel- 
ebrate a sober Christmas, dedicated at least in part to religious ob- 
servance and to aiding the less fortunate. 

The West 

Out on the Western frontier men celebrated Christmas by shooting 
off their guns and banging on tin pans in noisy and often drunken 
processions. In Minnesota settlers of Swedish descent attended 
Julotta services on Christmas morning {see also Christmas Carol). 
Texans celebrated with Christmas Eve balls. Throughout the South- 
west many of Hispanic descent staged Las Posadas and Los Pas- 
tores, traditional Christmas folk plays. 

Christmas Becomes a Legal Holiday 

After the Revolution the newly established American government 
revoked all British holidays. This act left the United States without 


America, Christmas in Nineteenth -Century 

any national festivals. In 1838 Louisiana was the first state to recog- 
nize Christmas as a legal holiday. One by one, the other states fol- 
lowed suit. Finally, on June 26, 1870, in recognition of the large num- 
ber of people who already observed the day. Congress declared 
Christmas to be a national holiday. 

Protestants Embrace Christmas 

Just as the states of the nation began to declare Christmas a legal 
holiday, many Protestant denominations that had previously reject- 
ed Christmas began to accept the festival. Between the years 1830 
and 1870 Christmas slowly crept into Sunday school curriculums. 
The middle of the century also witnessed the publication of new 
American Christmas hymns. A number of these, such as "O Little 
Town of Bethlehem," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and "We 
Three Kings" — all composed by clergymen — have become Christ- 
mas standards. By the end of the century Presbyterian, Baptist, 
Methodist, and Congregationalist churches were offering Christmas 
services on the Sunday nearest Christmas. Perhaps this change sig- 
nified that the passage of time had finally severed the connections 
made by many Protestants between Christmas, Roman Catholicism, 
and the religious oppression of past eras. 

AFestival of Home and Family 

The Christmas celebrations that the Protestant denominations were 
now embracing were not quite the same ones their ancestors had 
rejected. Several researchers of nineteenth-century American Christ- 
mas customs point out that as the century progressed many of the 
more boisterous elements of the festival diminished. These elements 
included mumming, belsnickeling, public drinking, and noisemak- 
ing. Americans increasingly viewed these activities as unworthy of 
the season. Instead, they began to create a tranquil celebration that 
focused on home and family ties. These changes probably encour- 
aged former non- celebrants, including many previously hostile 
Protestant denominations, to adopt the new version of the holiday. 
Several new Christmas customs helped to facilitate this transition 
to a more peaceful, domestic festival, including the Christmas tree, 
Christmas cards, the family gift exchange, and the new American 
gift bringer, Santa Claus. 


America, Christmas in Nineteenth -Century 

Christmas Trees and Gift Giving 

Most colonial Americans who observed the day did not give Christ- 
mas gifts to their children. Eighteenth- century Americans were 
more likely to give gifts to servants or to those who performed ser- 
vices for them during the year {see Boxing Day). Likewise, many 
nineteenth-century Americans resisted the idea of exchanging Christ- 
mas gifts with friends and family because they viewed Christmas 
gifts as something one gave to social inferiors. At the turn of the 
nineteenth century those who did give presents to family members 
and neighbors frequently gave simple, homemade gifts, such as 
handsewn or knitted articles of clothing, wooden toys, or home- 
made preserves. Family gift giving appears to have been somewhat 
more frequent in German-American and Dutch-American commu- 
nities. In these areas children might receive fruits, nuts, and sweets 
from Christkindel or the local belsnickelers. Some adults in these 
communities also exchanged small gifts, such as handkerchiefs, 
scarves, or hats. Of those adult Americans who exchanged gifts dur- 
ing the winter holiday season, many did so on New Year's Day rather 
than on Christmas. 

Christmas gifts started to become more common about mid- centu- 
ry. Several factors contributed to this rise in popularity. First, people 
began to adopt the German custom of installing a Christmas tree in 
their parlors as a holiday decoration. The Germans covered their 
trees with good things to eat and small gifts. Hence, the tree focused 
everyone's attention on giving and receiving. In addition, because it 
stood at the center of the household, the tree showcased the family 
gift exchange. Whereas, in the past, some parents may have stuffed a 
few sweets into their children's stockings, they now could hang lit- 
tle gifts from a tree branch. Liberated from the tight quarters of the 
Christmas stocking, the gifts parents gave to children grew in size 
and substance. Before 1880 people usually hung their unwrapped 
gifts from the tree with thread or string. After that time, wrapping 
paper and fancy decorated boxes slowly became fashionable. As 
Christmas presents grew too large or heavy to hang on the tree, 
people began to place them beneath the tree. 

Although charity had been an element of Christmas celebrations for 
centuries {see also Europe, Christmas in Medieval), it became a 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

more prominent theme of the festival during the nineteenth century. 
Some writers credit the Christmas stories of English author Charles 
Dickens (1812-1870), especially A Christmas Carol, with significantly 
increasing public interest in Christmas charity. In addition, many 
ministers preached to their congregations about giving to those less 
fortunate. The Salvation Army took this message to heart in the 
1890s, mounting a successful campaign to raise funds to provide the 
poor with bountiful Christmas dinners in large public halls. 

Santa Claus and Children's Gifts 

Santa Claus played an important role in the popularization of 
Christmas gift giving. This American folk figure became widely known 
in the second half of the nineteenth century, consolidating and 
replacing the lesser-known, ethnic gift bringers Christkindel (also 
known as Kriss Kringle), Belsnickel, and St. Nicholas. This bit of 
American folklore did not spring up from the masses of the Ameri- 
can folk, however. Literary and artistic figures, such as Clement C. 
Moore (1779-1863), the author of 'A Visit from St. Nicholas," and 
illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902), developed the myth and image 
of Santa Claus that became popular through their works. Never- 
theless, the American people quickly adopted him as their own. 
Santa delivered gifts to youngsters by visiting their homes on 
Christmas Eve. The increasing popularity of Santa Claus boosted the 
importance of gifts, especially gifts for children, in American Christ- 
mas celebrations. 

Commerce and Cards 

The decade following the Civil War witnessed a sudden rise in store- 
bought gift giving. Researchers have traced this upsurge to two com- 
plementary factors: consumer demand and commercial promotion. 
Although some people objected to the impersonality of store-bought 
gifts, others desired the new, manufactured goods. Moreover, retail- 
ers set about enticing the public into spending money on Christmas 
with such innovations as lavish store window displays, wrapping 
paper, and special advertising campaigns {see Commercialism). Stores 
began to schedule special holiday season hours to accommodate the 
seasonal increase in customers. In New York City shop doors re- 


America, Christmas in Nineteenth -Century 

mained open until midnight during the Christmas season, generat- 
ing concern in some quarters for the pHght of overworked shop 

Christmas cards achieved widespread popularity by the 1880s, about 
the time when Americans began celebrating Christmas by exchang- 
ing store-bought gifts. According to one researcher, nineteenth-cen- 
tury cards replaced more personal yet more time-consuming ways of 
sending seasonal greetings, such as writing letters and visiting {see 
also Children's Letters). The cards anchored themselves more firm- 
ly among America's Christmas customs after the turn of the twenti- 
eth century, when people began to use cards to replace cheap gifts 
for more distant friends and relatives. 


During the nineteenth century American Christmas celebrations be- 
gan to coalesce around customs that promoted symbolic exchanges 
of love and good will both between family members and in the 
wider community. These customs — the night visit of Santa Claus, 
Christmas trees, family gift exchanges, Christmas cards, and Christ- 
mas charity — still stand at the center of today's festivities. Through- 
out the nineteenth century regional differences in the celebration of 
Christmas diminished, although they never quite disappeared. The 
twentieth century would witness the further erosion of these region- 
al customs. 

Further Reading 

Barnett, James. The American Christmas. New York: Macmillan, 1954. 

Bigham, Shauna, and Robert E. May. "The Time O'AU Times? Masters, 
Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South." Journal of the Early Republic 18, 2 
(summer 1998): 263-88. 

Dipeiro, Diane. "Together at Christmas (Christmas Traditions of African- 
American Slaves)." Colonial Homes 20 (December 1, 1994): 28(2). 

Kane, Harnett. The Southern Christmas Book. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1998. 

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Afred A. Knopf, 

Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 
. "Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America." History Today 45 

(December 1995): 13-19. 

Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsyl- 
vania Folklore Society, 1959. 

Snyder, Phillip. December 25th. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 

Web Site 

Freetown Village, a living-history museum located in Indianapolis, Indiana, 
offers a brief description of the reenactment of an 1870s Christmas in a set- 
tlement of newly freed African Americans on its web site at: http://www. (click on "special events") 

Amisf} cfiristmas 

The Amish observe Christmas but do not share many mainstream, 
American Christmas customs. For example, they don't set up Christ- 
mas trees in their homes, tell their children about Santa Claus, and 
buy lots of expensive presents {see also Commercialism). Few deco- 
rate their homes in any way for the holiday, and those that send 
Christmas cards generally send them to their non-Amish friends. 
Instead, the Amish Christmas revolves around a few simple, home- 
spun pleasures. 

The Amish 

The Amish are Protestant Christians who maintain a lifestyle many 
Americans associate with centuries past. They reject most modern 
industrial and technological developments. Amish families continue 
to work their own farms without the aid of tractors or other motor- 
ized farm equipment, ride in horse-drawn buggies, and wear clothes 
popular two hundred or more years ago. The Amish came to this 
country in the eighteenth century to escape religious persecution in 
Europe. Here they found the freedom to worship as they wished and 
live in the manner they chose. Today's Amish speak English but also 


Amish Christmas 

preserve the German dialect of their ancestors. Many Amish live in 
the state of Pennsylvania, but they can also be found in Ohio and 
other Midwestern states, as well as Canada. 

The Amish faith emerged from the Protestant Reformation, a six- 
teenth-century religious reform movement that gave birth to Prot- 
estant Christianity. Like the English and American Puritans, the 
Amish initially rejected the celebration of Christmas as a non-bibli- 
cal, frivolous, and sometimes even decadent holiday. A touch of this 
attitude remains today in their restrained observance of Christmas. 

Amish Christmas Customs 

Most Amish schools prepare Christmas pageants. Since Amish chil- 
dren attend school right up till Christmas Day, the pageant is gener- 
ally set for the afternoon of December 24. Parents and other relatives 
attend and watch with pride as their young people recite poems and 
take part in skits — many of which contain moral teachings about 
Christmas charity, faith, and love — and sing Christmas carols. 
Earlier that day the children may have taken part in a gift exchange 
in which each child, having drawn a slip of paper with another 
child's name on it, brings a present for that boy or girl. 

For most Amish, Christmas morning begins with farm chores. After- 
wards the family gathers for breakfast and Christmas gifts in the 
kitchen. In nineteenth-century Amish families, parents set out plates 
on the kitchen table and piled their children's presents on top. They 
usually gave their children things like nuts, raisins, cookies, candy, 
and rag dolls and other homemade toys. Other Pennsylvania Dutch 
families also set out Christmas plates in past times. The custom of 
setting out Christmas presents on the kitchen table seems to have 
died out among other groups, however. Today Amish families ex- 
change a few useful gifts on Christmas morning. Typical gifts include 
simple toys such as skates and sleds, books, homemade candies and 
cookies, kitchenware, and household items. A large Christmas din- 
ner completes the day's activities. 

On December 26 the Amish celebrate "second Christmas." This cus- 
tom, once common in Pennsylvania Dutch country, came into being 
so that those who devoted much of December 25 to religious ob- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

servance did not miss out on all the Christmas iim. It's a popular day 
for family outings, visits, games, and other leisure activities. {For 
more on Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas customs, see America, Christ- 
mas in Nineteenth-Century; Barring Out the Schoolmaster; Beth- 
lehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in; Knecht Ruprecht.) 

Further Reading 

Ammon, Richard. An Amish Christmas. New York: Atheneum Books, 1996. 
Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pemisylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsyl- 
vania Folklore Society, 1959. 

Web Site 

'An Amish Christmas," by Brad Igou, posted on the web site of Amish 
Country News, a monthly visitors guide to Lancaster, Pennsylvania's Amish 



Images of angels adorn Nativity scenes, Christmas cards, Christ- 
mas trees, and many other Christmas displays. These popular 
Christmas symbols boast an ancient pedigree. They play a promi- 
nent role in the New Testament accounts of Jesus' birth {see also 
Gospel Accounts of Christmas; Gospel According to Luke; and 
Gospel According to Matthew). Angels also appear in many Old 
Testament stories. 

Biblical Angels 

The Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) often use the 
term malakh, meaning "messenger," to refer to the beings we call 
angels. Writing in Greek, the authors of Christian scripture called 
these beings angelos, a Greek term meaning "messenger" or "her- 
ald." This word eventually passed into the English language as 
"angel." Although the word "angelos" denoted an ordinary, human 




messenger, biblical authors selected it over another available Greek 
term, daimon, which referred to a guardian spirit. Perhaps they dis- 
carded this term because Greek lore taught that the daimon exer- 
cised both good and evil influences over people. Eventually, the 
Greek word "daimon" passed into the English language as "demon." 

The angels of biblical tradition frequently acted as messengers. In 
fact, angels served this function in both scriptural accounts of Jesus' 
birth. In Matthew's account of the Nativity an angel appeared to 
Joseph on three separate occasions. The first time the angel came to 
explain the nature of Mary's pregnancy. Later, an angel warned 
Joseph of Herod's evil intentions concerning Jesus and advised him 
to flee into Egypt {see also Flight into Egypt; Holy Innocents' Day). 
An angel returned one final time to inform Joseph of Herod's death 
and to command his return to Israel. In Luke's account of the 
Nativity, the angel Gabriel visited Mary to inform her that she 
would bear a child by the Holy Spirit. On the night of Jesus'birth an 
angel appeared to shepherds in a nearby field to announce the glo- 
rious event. Then a "multitude" of angels suddenly materialized be- 
hind the first angel, singing praises to God. 

What Angels Look Like 

With so many angels involved in orchestrating the events surround- 
ing Jesus' birth, it is no wonder that they became a symbol of the 
Christmas holiday. Today's Christmas angels frequently appear as 
winged human beings in flowing white robes with somewhat femi- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

nine faces and haloes. This image evolved over the course of two 

The very first Christian depictions of angels date back to the time of 
the Roman Empire. Early Christian paintings of angels rendered 
them as ordinary men rather than as winged, spiritual beings. Some 
artists, however, garbed their angels in white robes, resembling a 
Roman senator's toga, in order to symbolize their power and dignity. 
The first winged angels appeared in the fourth century. Some schol- 
ars believe that early Christian artists patterned the image of winged 
angels after the Greek goddess Nike, the winged, female spirit of 
victory. Others trace this image back even further to winged spirits 
associated with the religion of ancient Babylon. By the fifth century 
Christian artists from the Byzantine Empire began to depict angels 
with a disk of light, called a nimbus, behind their heads. This nim- 
bus, or halo, signifies holiness, purity, and spiritual power. 

In medieval times most western European artists portrayed angels as 
masculine in face and form. This trend reversed itself from the four- 
teenth to the sixteenth centuries. After that time, western European 
angels acquired softer, more feminine, or androgynous, looks. Some- 
times they appeared as chubby children or toddlers. Artists often 
depicted angels with harps or other musical instruments. These 
emblems signify what some consider to be the primary occupation 
of angels — praising God. 

Further Reading 

Cross, R L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian 

Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 

Efird, James M. "Angels." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. Tlte HarperCollins Bible 

Dictionary. Revised edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 

The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas. Maplewood, N.I.: Time-Life Books, 

Lang, ludith. The Angels of God. London, England: New City Press, 1997. 
Lewis, James R., and Evelyn Dorothy Oliver. Angels A to Z. Detroit, Mich.: 

Visible Ink Press, 1996. 
Ward, Theodora. Men and Angels. New York: Viking, 1969. 






Annunciation means "announcement." When spelled with a capital 
"A," the word refers to the announcement made by Gabriel, God's 
messenger angel, to the Virgin Mary, telling her that she would bear 
a son by the Holy Spirit whom she should call Jesus (Luke 1:26-28). 
By the early Middle Ages the Church had established a feast day to 
commemorate this angelic announcement. 

In the middle of the fourth century. Church officials in Rome created 
a new festival to honor the birth of Jesus. They scheduled this festi- 
val, which we now call Christmas, on December 25. Eventually 
December 25 gained widespread acceptance as the actual date on 
which Jesus had been born, implying that Mary must have become 
pregnant nine months earlier, on March 25. According to the astro- 
nomical calculations used by the ancient Romans, the spring equi- 
nox also fell on that day {see also Winter Solstice). By the eighth 
century the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 
celebrated on March 25, was firmly established in western Europe. 

As Mary's pregnancy marked the beginning of a new era for 
Christians, many medieval kingdoms also chose March 25 as the day 
on which they began their new year {see also Kalends; New Year's 
Day). In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII called for calendar reforms which 
included switching New Year's Day to January 1 {see also Old Christ- 
mas Day). Nevertheless, several centuries passed before most Euro- 
pean countries had adopted the reformed, Gregorian calendar. 

Many Christians still recognize March 25 as a religious holiday, al- 
though they have slightly different names for the observance. Ro- 
man Catholics currently refer to the feast as the "Annunciation of 
the Lord," the Orthodox know it as the "Annunciation of the Mother 
of God," and many Anglicans call it the "Annunciation of Our Lord 
to the Blessed Virgin Mary." The English also call the festival "Lady 
Day." The Feast of the Annunciation often occurs during Lent. Those 
Christians who fast during Lent, for example, Roman Catholics and 
Orthodox, are allowed to modify the fast on this day. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Over the centuries the Annunciation became a favorite scene for 
western European painters interested in depicting the life of the 
Blessed Virgin Mary. The scene also appears frequently in stained glass 
windows and other church decorations. Many famous artists have 
bequeathed us their versions of the Annunciation, including Robert 
Campin (c. 1378-1444), Fra Angelico (c. 1400-1455), Sandro Botticelli 
(1445-1510), El Greco (1451-1614), Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), 
and Adolphe -William Bouguereau (1825-1905). In these paintings 
Mary often appears to be reading or spinning when the angel arrives, 
activities which represent her piety. A container of water may sit 
beside her, or the angel may offer her lilies, both of which symbolize 
her purity. The Holy Spirit commonly takes shape as a descending 
dove or as a ray of light streaming through the window. 

Further Reading 

Auld, William Muir. Christmas Tidings. 1933. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1990. 
Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian 

Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 

The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas. Maplewood, N.J.: Time-Life Books, 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 

Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1997. 
Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 

. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London, England: Thames 

and Hudson, 1983. 
Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. 

Bethesda, Md.: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. 
Stuhlmueller, C. "Annunciation." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 1. 

New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 


Armenia, Christmas in 

Armenia^ cljristmas in 

Most Armenians celebrate Soorp Dznoont — Christmas — on January 
6. The reasons for this unusual date emerge quite literally from the 
pages of ancient history. In the fourth century Roman Catholic 
Church officials established the date of Christmas as December 25. 
Before that time the Armenians and some other Christians celebrat- 
ed the Nativity of Jesus and his baptism on the same day, January 6 
{see also Epiphany). Eventually other Christian communities accept- 
ed the Roman date for the Nativity. The Armenians, however, never 
accepted the new date for Christmas and continued to celebrate it 
on January 6. 

When Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, 
some Armenians rejected the reforms and stuck instead to the old, 
Julian calendar {see Old Christmas Day). Today Armenians living in 
the Holy Land still use the Julian calendar to determine their feast 
days. The Julian calendar is now a full thirteen days ahead of the 
Gregorian calendar. So, when these Armenians celebrate Christmas 
on January 6 according to the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calen- 
dar counts the day as January 19. In Bethlehem special services for 
Armenian Christians take place at the Church of the Nativity on 
January 19. 

New Year's Day and Christmas in Armenia 

In Armenia children receive gifts on New Year's Day. This custom 
began during the Soviet era (1917-91), when government officials 
discouraged the celebration of religious holidays such as Christmas. 
They promoted instead the celebration of New Year's, a secular holi- 
day, and tried to transfer some Christmas customs to this date. For 
example, they disapproved of Christmas gift bringers such as Ba- 
boushka, whose story includes biblical themes. Communist officials 
attempted to replace her with another popular folk figure. Grand- 
father Frost, the spirit of winter, who brings gifts to children on 
New Year's Day. Armenians still give children sweets and toys on 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

New Year's, but since the fall of the Communist government some 
people have begun to recognize the gift bringer as Father Christ- 
mas rather than Grandfather Frost. Adults also exchange gifts on 
this day. Popular presents include flowers, alcoholic beverages, and 
items made from silver. 

Armenian families prepare for Christmas by giving their homes a 
thorough cleaning. Housewives find ways to display their fancy 
needlework and spend hours in the kitchen cooking and baking. 
"Princely trout," or ishkhanatsoog, is a popular Christmas Eve dish. 
Christmas church services begin at midnight on Christmas Eve. Ac- 
cording to tradition, heralds announce the services, striding through 
the streets with stout staves, chanting, "Today is a great day of the 
feast of the birth of Jesus, Good News! O ye good Christians, come 
to the holy church." 

Church services are also held on Christmas Day, January 6. These 
services feature a ceremony known as the Blessing of the Waters, 
which commemorates Jesus' baptism. The priest uses a wand made 
from basil leaves to sprinkle water on the congregation. After church 
Armenians pay visits to friends and neighbors. A large family meal 
follows, at which close relatives, distant relatives, friends, and even 
strangers are welcome. Gifts of money and clothing are distributed 
after dinner. Then children grab handkerchiefs and band together in 
small groups that scurry up to the rooftops to sing: 

Rejoice and be glad 
Open your bag 
And fill our handkerchiefs 
Hallelujah, hallelujah. 

People who hear their cries offer them coins, nuts, and fruit. 

Further Reading 

Kasbarian, Lucine. Armenia. New York: Dillon Press, 1998. 
Terjimanian, Hagop. Feasts and Holidays of the Armenian People. Santa Moni- 
ca, Calif.: Abril Bookstore, 1996. 


"Auld Lang Syne' 


^^AuldLang Syne^ 

At many New Year's Eve parties, the song "Auld Lang Syne" is 
played or sung at midnight, as a means of saying farewell to the old 
year and greeting the new. The phrase "auld lang syne" is Scottish 
dialect for "old long ago." The song itself is attributed to Robert 
Burns (1759-1796), Scotland's most famous poet. 

Robert Bums's Restoration 

Burns scholars recognize that the poet did not write the entire song. 
They point to a letter that Burns wrote to a friend in which Burns 
admits as much. Rather, he found a fragment of an old folk ditty, 
restored it, and added new verses. In the letter. Burns paid high trib- 
ute to the anonymous writer of the brief text that he elaborated on: 

Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet 
who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the 
fire of native genius in it that in half a dozen of modern 
English Bacchanalians [Robert Bums Encyclopedia web page]. 

No one knows exactly how much of the song was written by Burns, 
but scholars believe that the poet definitely wrote what are now the 
song's third and fourth verses. 

Though Burns paired his lyrics with an already existing Scottish folk 
tune, his editor decided to publish them with a different old Scottish 
folk melody, the one we still use today. In Scotland the popularity of 
"Auld Lang Syne" grew over the years, until it displaced "Good 
Night and Joy Be Wi'You A'" as the song traditionally sung at the 
break up of a festive gathering. 

Words to the Song 

Subsequent generations of singers have made slight changes to 
Burns's original poetry. The verses to the entire song, as penned by 
Burns, follow: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Should auld acquaintance be 

And never brought to mind? 
Should auld acquaintance be 

And days o auld lang syne? 

(Standard English Translation) 

Should old acquaintances be 

And never brought to mind? 
Should old acquaintances be 

And days of old long ago? 

Chorus (repeated after each verse) 

And for auld lang syne, my jo And for old long past, my joy. 

For auld lang syne. For old long ago. 

We'll tak a cup o kindness yet. We will take a cup of kindness yet. 

For auld lang syne. For old long ago. 

And surely ye'll be your 

And surely I'll be mine! 
And we'll tak a cup o' kindness 

For auld lang syne. 

We twa hae run about the 

And pu'd the gowans fine; 
But we've wander'd mony a 

weary foot 
Sin auld lang syne 

We twa hae paidl'd i'the 

Frae mornin' sun till dine; 
But seas between us braid hae 

Sin auld lang syne. 

And there's a hand, my trusty 

And gie's a hand o thine! 

And surely you'll pay for your 

And surely I'll pay for mine! 
And we'll take a cup of kindness 

For old long ago. 

We two have run about the 

And pulled the wild daisies fine; 
But we've wandered many a 

weary foot 
Since old long ago. 

We two have paddled in the 

From morning sun till noon; 
But seas between us broad 

have roared 
Since old long ago. 

And there is a hand, my trusty 

And give me a hand of yours! 


"Auld Lang Syne" 

And we'll tak a right guid And we will take a right 

willie waught, good-will drink. 

For auld lang syne. For old long ago. 

"Auld Lang Syne" Becomes an American New Year's Song 

So how did this old Scottish tune become so well known in Ameri- 
ca? The answer lies in the power of television to publicize and pro- 
mote, hi 1943, the New Year's Eve festivities taking place in New 
York City's Times Square were televised for the first time. As view- 
ers waited for midnight to arrive, they were treated to coverage of 
Guy Lombardo's dance band, playing live at the Grill Room of the 
Roosevelt Hotel (in later years the venue changed to the Waldorf- 
Astoria Hotel). Guy Lombardo decided to close out his New Year's 
Eve performances with the tune "Auld Lang Syne." Having grown 
up in western Ontario, a region of Canada with a significant popula- 
tion of Scottish descent, he was familiar with the tune. In fact, when 
playing locally he frequently ended his performances with the song. 
Although he doubted that many Americans were familiar with "Auld 
Lang Syne," he played it anyway as a way of musically tipping his 
hat to the broadcast's corporate sponsor, Robert Burns's Fanatella 
cigars. Guy Lombardo and his dance band became a fixture on these 
New Year's Eve broadcasts, and so did the song "Auld Lang Syne." 
This yearly television exposure encouraged Americans to adopt as 
their own the custom of singing "Auld Lang Syne" to bid farewell to 
the old year. 

Further Reading 

Pool, Daniel. Christmas in NewYork. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997. 

Web Sites 

"Burns Country," a web site devoted to the promotion and enjoyment of 
the works of Robert Burns, includes the "Auld Lang Syne" entry from the 
Robert Burns Encyclopedia: 
LangSyne .5 .shtml 

The World Burns Club furnishes a history of the song "Auld Lang Syne" on 
its web site: 
what about.htm 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Australia^ cfiristmas in 

Christmas comes to Australia during that continent's summer season. 
Therefore, Australians celebrate the festival with barbecues, beach 
parties, parades and other outdoor events. In fact, many Australians 
take their summer vacations during the Christmas holiday season. 

The English brought Christmas to Australia in the late eighteenth 
century when they established the country as a colony of Great 
Britain. Australians have preserved much of their country's British 
Christmas heritage, especially carol singing, gift exchanges, Christ- 
mas trees, and the hearty, oven-roasted English Christmas dinner, 
though this last custom loses some of its appeal in the sweltering 
summer heat. Australia has adopted Santa Claus as its Christmas 
gift bringer, and many heavily sweating Santas, garbed in some vari- 
ation of the traditional red velvet suit, cap, boots and beard, can be 
found at Christmas-related events throughout the holiday season. 

Christmas Decorations 

The traditional pine Christmas tree, decorated with tinsel, orna- 
ments, and lights, is an important seasonal decoration in Australia. 
In addition to the tree, Australians have incorporated two local 
plants, the Christmas bell and the Christmas bush, into their holiday 
decorations. The Christmas bell produces green, glossy leaves and 
yellow or red bell-shaped flowers. Several different varieties of the 
Christmas bush put forth various kinds of flowers in the spring and 
summer, including one that sports white star-shaped flowers in the 
spring which drop to reveal brilliant red calyces at Christmas time. 
Some families decorate these plants with tinsel in honor of the holi- 
day. Finally, homes, schools, shops and other places of business cele- 
brate the season with displays of colored lights. 

Christmas Eve and Day 

On Christmas Eve many Australians attend carol-singing events 
known as "Carols by Candlelight." Norman Banks, a radio announc- 


Australia, Christmas in 

er from the city of Melbourne, started this tradition in 1938. It is said 
that while walking the streets on Christmas Eve of the previous year, 
he caught a glimpse of an old woman through a lighted window. 
She was sitting all alone next to her radio, holding a lighted candle 
and singing along with the Christmas carols that were being 
broadcast on the radio. The sight warmed his heart and also stirred 
him to create an event for those who found themselves alone on 
Christmas Eve. The following year he organized and broadcast 
"Carols by Candlelight," a sing-along caroling session in which par- 
ticipants held lit candles. The observance became more and more 
popular and eventually spread from Melbourne to other cities. Each 
year thousands of Australians attend these events, usually held in 
outdoor amphitheaters so that people can enjoy the balmy summer 
evening air as they listen to musical performances and sing the 
songs of the season amidst a sea of glowing candles. In addition to 
the traditional European tunes, a number of original Australian 
Christmas carols may be sung, such as "The Melbourne Carol," "Six 
White Boomers," and "The Three Drovers." 

Australian children have their own version of the Christmas stock- 
ing, which often makes its first appearance on Christmas Eve. Before 
going to bed Australian children hang pillowcases from the ends of 
their beds. Santa leaves small gifts in the pillowcase; he deposits 
larger gifts under the Christmas tree. 

Many Australian families open their presents over breakfast on 
Christmas morning. Religious people will also attend church. Later 
that afternoon many people enjoy listening to the Queen of England 
give her annual Christmas speech on the radio {see also England, 
Christmas in). 

Christmas Dinner 

Over the years Australians have come up with a number of Christ- 
mas dishes all their own. Some of these reflect the country's rugged 
colonial history. For example, a dish called "colonial goose" substi- 
tutes a stuffed leg of lamb for the more traditional English roast 
goose. "Billy can pudding" offers a simplified version of plum pud- 
ding made in a kind of tin tub used to carry water. Other colonial 
recipes include "Christmas damper," a quick Christmas bread, and 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

"drover's plum pudding," a kind of rice pudding made with raisins 
and nuts. "Father Christmas salad," a red, white, and green mixture 
of cherries, pistachio nuts, and lychees, represents another original 
Australian Christmas recipe. 

Many Australians eat their Christmas dinner out of doors, in order to 
enjoy the summer sunshine. Some barbecue or take picnics to the 
beach or other outdoor beauty spots. Others eat a cold meal at 
home, often combining salads with cold meat dishes. Still others, in 
spite of the heat, prefer an English Christmas dinner, complete with 
roasted meat, potatoes and gravy. Many families, no matter what 
they have for dinner, choose to end the meal with a hot Christmas 
pudding {see also Plum Pudding). 

Boxing Day 

December 26, Boxing Day, is a holiday in Australia. People enjoy 
sporting matches on this day (for more on the day's traditional sports, 
see St. Stephen's Day). It serves as the occasion for a number of im- 
portant events, including the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race and open- 
ing day test match held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. 

Other December Holidays 

Australia is a diverse society that hosts many different ethnic and 
religious groups. Its Jewish citizens often begin their Hanukkah cel- 
ebrations in December, and in some years the Muslim holiday of 
Ramadan falls in December. Many former citizens of Hong Kong 
have immigrated to Australia. They and their descendants often cel- 
ebrate a Taoist festival called Ta Chiu on December 27, in which they 
thank their ancestors and the deities for their protection and ask 
these spirits to bless and renew their lives. Australia's original inhab- 
itants, the Aborigines, do not observe a festival of their own at this 
time of year. In the north of the country, however, many indigenous 
Australians mark the end of their six-season year in late December. 

Christmas in July 

Some Australians tire of reinventing Christmas as a hot weather 
holiday. In recent years many have attended Christmas in July cele- 


Australia, Christmas in 

brations, where a traditional English Christmas celebration takes 
place in July. These celebrations fulfill the desires of those who long 
to celebrate Christmas by snuggling next to an open fire and partak- 
ing of a hearty English Christmas dinner on a wintry evening. 

Further Reading 

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Cana- 
da: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. 

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. 
Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. 

Hubert, Maria, comp. Christmas Around the World. Stroud, Gloucestershire, 
England: Sutton, 1998. 

McGregor, Malcolm, ed. Christmas in Australia. Milsons Point, Australia: 
Hutchinson Australia, 1990. 

Tucker, Cathy C. Christmas Worldwide. Philadelphia, Pa.: Xlibris, 2000. 

Web Sites 

The following web site, sponsored by the Australian government's Depart- 
ment of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, offers in- 
formation on Christmas celebrations in Australia: 

The Australian National Botanic Gardens sponsors a page on native plants 
associated with Christmas. Gives photos as well as text from Australian 
Native Plants by John Wrigley and Murray Fagg (1996): 




Before the Revolution of 1917, Russian children received Christmas 
gifts from Baboushka, an old woman whose story is told in a Russian 
legend. Baboushka means "grandmother" in Russian. After the Revo- 
lution the government discouraged tales about folk characters like 
Baboushka, whose story refers to religious beliefs. Instead they pro- 
moted tales about completely secular characters such as Grand- 
father Frost, who currently serves as Russia's gift bringer. With the 
fall of Russia's Communist regime in 1991, many old beliefs and 
practices have been returning, and Baboushka may, too. Baboushka 
closely resembles the traditional Italian gift bringer. La Befana. 

The Legend of Baboushka 

A long time ago an old woman lived alone in a house by the road. 
She had lived alone so long that her days and her thoughts were 
filled only with sweeping, dusting, cooking, spinning, and scrubbing. 
One evening she heard the sound of trumpets and men approach- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ing on horseback. She paused for a moment, wondering who they 
could be. Suddenly she heard a knock on her door. Upon opening it 
she discovered three noble men standing before her {see Magi). "We 
are journeying to Bethlehem to find the child who has been born a 
King," they told her. They invited Baboushka to join them. "I haven't 
finished my work," she replied "and the nights are so cold here. 
Perhaps it would be better if you came in by the fire." But the 
strangers would not delay their journey and departed into the night. 
Sitting by the fire, Baboushka began to wonder about the child and 
regret her decision to stay home. Finally she gathered a few trinkets 
from among her poor possessions and set off into the night. She 
walked and walked, inquiring everywhere for the lordly men and the 
newborn King, but she never found them. Each year on Epiphany 
Eve (or Twelfth Night) Baboushka searches Russia for the Christ 
child. She visits every house, and even if she doesn't find him, she 
still leaves trinkets for well-behaved children. 


In one version of the tale, the wise men ask Baboushka the way to 
Bethlehem and she intentionally deceives them. In another, the wise 
men ask for lodgings for the night and Baboushka refuses them. In 
yet a third the Holy Family passes by her door on their journey from 
Bethlehem to Egypt {see Flight into Egypt; Holy Innocents' Day). 
They beg hospitality from her, but she turns them away with noth- 
ing. In spite of their differences, each story concludes in the same 
way. Baboushka regrets her lack of concern, seeks out the people she 
has rejected, and eventually becomes a magical figure who travels 
the world at Christmas time bringing gifts to children. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Henderson, Yorke, et al. Parents' Magazine Christmas Holiday Book. New 

York: Parents' Magazine Press, 1972. 
Philip, Neil, ed. Christmas Fairy Tales. New York: Viking, 1996. 
Robbins, Ruth. Baboushka and the Three Kings. Berkeley, Calif.: Parnassus 

Press, 1960. 


Barring Out the Schoolmaster 


The figure of a baby is a symbol of the new year in general and New- 
Year's Day in particular. The New Year's baby often wears a sash 
draped across one shoulder. The sash bears the number of the new 
year (for example, "2003"). The New Year's baby shares its seasonal 
billing with another baby associated with the midwinter holidays, 
that is, the baby Jesus, whose birth is celebrated on Christmas Day. 

Americans adopted the New Year's baby from German immigrants. 
In Germany, the history of the baby as a New Year's symbol can be 
traced back to a fourteenth-century folk song. At least one scholar 
has identified an even earlier use of the baby as a holiday symbol. 
Theodor Gaster claims that the ancient Greeks used the baby as a 
symbol of the wine and vegetation god Dionysus during Lenaia, a 
January festival honoring his rebirth that was widely celebrated in 
Athens. {For a similar symbol, see also Russia, Christmas in.) 

Further Reading 

Gaster, Ttieodor. New Year, Its History, Customs and Superstitions. New York: 

Abelard-Schuman, 1955. 
James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1993. 


Barring Out tfie Scfioolmaster 

American youngsters take their two-week vacation at Christmas 
time for granted. In past centuries, however, teachers expected pu- 
pils to study right through the Christmas season. If the students 
dared, they resorted to an old custom called "barring out the school- 
master" in order to gain a week's leisure. Arriving early at school. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

students barricaded themselves in the classroom. This act began a 
kind of siege that could last for days. It ended when the teacher suc- 
ceeded in breaking into the classroom, or when he or she gave in to 
the students' demands. If the students managed to keep the teacher 
out for a total of three days, they were automatically considered to 
have won the standoff. 

In England, Scotland, and Ireland students staged barring-outs 
most frequently around Christmas, but they also occurred around 
Easter, Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent begins), and harvest 
time. Students often chose St. Nicholas's Day or St. Thomas's Day 
to begin their wintertime takeovers. In order to mount a successful 
barring-out, students stockpiled food, drink, and sometimes even 
weapons. Indeed, violence often erupted during the battle for control 
of the classroom. If the schoolmaster succeeded in breaking in to the 
classroom, the students were severely beaten. Therefore, the students 
defended their territory with such weapons as swords, clubs, and 
even pistols. Records indicate that shots from excited boys sometimes 
injured or killed schoolmasters and town officials. Teachers could 
restore peace and order immediately by giving in to the students' 
demands. These demands were spelled out in a treaty signed by the 
students and the teacher. The treaty always included a guarantee that 
no one taking part in the uprising would be punished. 


In Britain the custom of barring out the schoolmaster arose some- 
time in the sixteenth century. The number of schools and students 
increased greatly during that century. Due to the lack of generally 
accepted educational standards, schoolmasters ruled their class- 
rooms with complete authority. They flogged their pupils frequently, 
a practice that was considered an appropriate educational tool and 
disciplinary measure in that era. The primary goal of most barring- 
outs was a reduction in the rate and severity of whippings as well as 
the granting of a few days' vacation. The frequency of these student 
take-overs declined throughout the eighteenth century as school 
charters began to limit the authority of teachers and guarantee vaca- 
tion days. By the nineteenth century, barring-outs had nearly van- 
ished in Britain. 


Barring Out the Schoolmaster 

At some point the custom appears to have migrated to the United 
States, where it survived a bit longer in a somewhat less violent form 
(see America, Christmas in Colonial; America, Christmas in Nine- 
teenth-Century). Barring-outs were a common Christmas time oc- 
currence in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania. These mock battles 
crowned the school year, as far as the gleeful students were con- 
cerned. Thomas Mellon (1813-1908), the wealthy financier who later 
founded the Mellon Bank, fondly remembered taking part in Christ- 
mas barring-outs in his youth. Whichever side lost furnished the 
school with several bushels of apples and gallons of cider, which 
were consumed by all on the first day of vacation. Like their British 
counterparts, American students resorted to barring-outs as a way of 
securing vacation days. The custom faded in the mid-nineteenth 
century as public schooling, with its standard schedule of vacation 
days, spread throughout the country. {For more on Christmas in Penn- 
sylvania, see America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century; Amish 
Christmas; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in; Knecht Ru- 

Further Reading 

Catticart, Rex. "Festive Capers? Barring-Out ttie Schoolmaster." History To- 
day 38, 12 (December 1988): 49-53. 

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 
Company, 1976. 

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 
Press, 1996. 

Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsylva- 
nia Folklore Society, 1959. 

Baj;. See Laurel 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


La Strega, La Vecchia 

On Epiphany Eve children in Italy go to bed expecting La Befana to 
visit the house during the night. She leaves gifts for children who 
have been good during the past year and warns those who have 
misbehaved. The name "Befana" comes from the Italian word for 
Epiphany, Epiphania. La Befana may also be referred to as La Strega, 
meaning "the witch," or La Vecchia, meaning "the old woman." 
Although not much is known about the history of this figure from 
Italian legend, some authorities believe that La Befana may be relat- 
ed to Berchta, another witch-like figure who visits homes in central 
and northern Europe during the Twelve Days of Christmas and, 
especially, on Twelfth Night. La Befana also appears to be related to 
Baboushka, a Russian folk figure about whom a nearly identical tale 
is told. 

The Legend of La Befana 

There once was an old woman who lived alone by the side of the 
road. Her husband and child had died years ago. To forget her lone- 
liness, she busied herself with many household tasks. One day three 
richly dressed men stopped at her house and asked her the way to 
Bethlehem. They invited the old woman to accompany them on 
their journey to worship the Christ child who had just been born 
there. The old woman grumbled, "I'm much too busy with my daily 
chores to go with you, and besides I've never even heard of Beth- 
lehem." After the Three Kings, or Magi, had left, the old woman 
began to regret her decision. She gathered a few trinkets from 
among her simple belongings to present to the child as gifts. The she 
grabbed her broom and hurried after her visitors. The old woman 
walked and walked, but never caught up with the Three Kings and 
never found the Christ child. She didn't give up, however. Each year 
on Epiphany Eve she flies over the world on her broom searching for 
the Christ child. She checks each house where children live, diving 



down the chimney. Even when she doesn't find Him she bestows 
sweets and gifts on well-behaved children. Naughty children may 
receive ashes, coal, or a birch rod. 


Prior to Epiphany, children write letters to La Befana asking her for 
the gifts they would like to receive (see also Children's Letters). In 
some places, rag dolls representing La Befana are hung in windows 
as seasonal decorations. On Epiphany Eve children hang a stocking 
or a suit of clothes near the fireplace. During the night La Befana fills 
the stockings or the pockets of their clothes with sweets and gifts. In 
some cities it was customary for groups of young people to gather 
on Epiphany Eve and make a great deal of noise with drums and 
musical instruments to welcome La Befana. In many parts of Italy 
today, Santa Claus, or Babbo Natale, has displaced La Befana as the 
Christmas season gift bringer (see also Italy, Christmas in). 

Further Reading 

Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 

Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Italy. Chicago: World Book-ChUdcraft Inter- 
national, 1979. 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


In the United States we tend to associate bells both with emergen- 
cies and with such joyous occasions as weddings and Christmas cel- 
ebrations. This association between bells and Christmas can be 
traced back to the Middle Ages, when Church officials began to use 
bells for worship and celebration. Medieval European bell customs, 
in turn, developed out of a wide array of beliefs and practices associ- 
ated with bells in ancient times. 

Bells in the Ancient World 

People rang bells for many reasons in the ancient Mediterranean 
world, especially religious purposes. Jewish high priests hung tiny 
golden bells from the hems of their robes. The jingling bells repelled 
any evil spirits who might be lurking about the threshold of the tem- 
ple. Some evidence suggests that the ancient Greeks also used bells 
in a number of religious rituals. The ancient Romans sounded bells 
on many occasions. They rang during civic ceremonies, chimed 
alongside other musical instruments during festivals and feasts, 
announced the beginning of religious rituals, publicized the opening 
of markets and public baths, and warned the people of fires and 
other emergencies. Evidence suggests that the Romans associated 
bells with the dead and believed bells could protect them against 
evil spirits. 



Church Bells 

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, Christian leaders slowly 
began to adapt bell-ringing traditions to Christian worship. Like the 
Romans, they used bells as a means of making public announce- 
ments. Since they wanted these announcements to carry over longer 
distances, they began casting large bells in addition to the smaller 
hand-held bells known since ancient times. They mounted these 
larger bells in high places and sounded them by the pulling of ropes 
or other devices. In early medieval times monasteries began ringing 
beUs to announce the start of religious services. By the tenth century 
churches throughout Europe, from cathedrals to tiny rural chapels, 
were equipped with bells for the same purpose. 

Bell Lore 

Like their predecessors in the ancient world, these church bells were 
credited with mysterious powers. For example, folklore hinted that 
bells possessed something akin to a life force, a personality, and a 
soul. Many legends throughout Europe told of bells ringing of their 
own accord to warn the public of some upcoming disaster. Other 
legends related stories of bells that refused to sound or that ex- 
pressed their unhappiness with human actions in other ways. Nu- 
merous legends spread word of talking bells. According to folk be- 
lief, some bells sounded in tones that seemed to repeat a certain 
phrase, often praising their makers or lamenting an unjust act. Other 
bells refused to be silenced, continuing to ring on Christmas Eve 
even though buried underground or sunk in deep waters. People 
also commonly believed that church bells had the power to protect 
them from harm. Church bells were rung to ward off thunderstorms, 
frighten away witches, and halt outbreaks of disease. Folk belief sug- 
gested that the dead ascended to heaven on the sound of ringing 
church bells. 

Bell Customs 

In addition to these folk beliefs and legends, Roman Catholic cus- 
tom called for the consecration of bells used for church services. This 
mark of respect reflected the fact that bells served quite literally as 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

the voice of the church building in which they were installed. Bells 
were prepared for this ceremony, commonly known as baptizing a 
bell, by draping them in white cloth and festooning them with flow- 
ers. During these services the bells were anointed, incensed, and 
officially named in the presence of their godparents, usually the 
donors. Some old legends tell of bells that refused to sound until 
baptized. People equated the sound of ringing bells with the voice of 
a person in prayer. Therefore, they frequently inscribed brief prayers 
on the bells so that the bell might offer the prayer to heaven. Other 
popular bell inscriptions state the bell's purpose or powers, for ex- 
ample, "I call the living, I bewail the dead, I break up storms." 

Church bells were most commonly used for worship and celebra- 
tion. The big bells adopted by churches during the Middle Ages rang 
to call parishioners to religious services. They also chimed at certain 
points during the service so that those standing outside or those at 
home and at work could join in the prayers. In addition, churches 
tolled their bells to announce local deaths {see Devil's Knell). Many 
churches had four or five bells. The more important the occasion, the 
more bells rang to honor it. A high mass warranted three bells, for 
example. On the principal feast days, such as Easter and Christmas, 
four or five bells pealed together to celebrate the joyous occasion. In 
medieval England Christmas bell ringing began in Advent, with a 
loud clang coming on the first Sunday in Advent to alert parish- 
ioners that they had entered the Advent season. Many of these prac- 
tices were discontinued by Protestant churches after the Reforma- 
tion, however. 

Bells and Christmas 

Today fewer churches carry out the old Christmas tradition of bell 
ringing, and the folklore surrounding bells has been largely forgot- 
ten. Nevertheless, the public imagination still links bells with Christ- 
mas. A number of well-known Christmas poems and Christmas 
carols depict pealing or jingling bells as joyful emblems of the holi- 
day. In addition, bells appear as symbols of the holiday on many 
Christmas decorations. Finally, representatives of charitable causes 
seeking donations at Christmas time often announce their presence 
on street corners by ringing hand-held bells. {See also Salvation 
Army Kettles.) 


Encyclopedia of Christmas Bells 

Further Reading 

Auld, William Muir. Christmas Traditions. 1931. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1992. 
Bigelow, A. L. "Bells." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 2. New York: 

McGraw-Hill, 1967. 
Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 
Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London, England: 

Thames and Hudson, 1983. 
Price, Percival. Bells and Man. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 


BefsnfCRef. SeeKnechtRuprecht 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Bertha, Frau Gaude, Hertha, Holda, Holde, Holle, Perchta 

Several very similar female spirits once visited the peoples of north- 
ern Europe during the long midwinter nights. Many authors believe 
these figures to be the remnants of pagan Germanic goddesses. 
Associated with the home and hearth, spinning, children, and gift 
giving, these pagan goddesses may have been very early ancestors of 
Santa Claus. The coming of Christianity transformed these god- 
desses into minor magical figures and concentrated the season of 
their appearances during the Twelve Days of Christmas and, espe- 
cially. Twelfth Night. Throughout this transformation, the German 
goddess Berchta retained the strongest associations with the Christ- 
mas season. 

The Winter Goddess of Northern Europe 

The winter goddesses of northern Europe, known as Berchta (or 
Perchta) and Holde (or Holda, Holle), shared many characteristics 
and are sometimes spoken of as variants of the same winter god- 
dess. This sky goddess sailed the winds dressed in a mantle of snow. 
To the people of Alsace-Lorraine she sometimes appeared wearing a 
crown of fire, a trait that would later provide a tenuous connection 
to St. Lucy. In attending to the affairs of home and hearth, she acted 
as the patroness of those who spun thread, rewarding the industri- 
ous and punishing the lazy and sloppy. She also spun: not thread, 
but the fates of human beings. Motherhood and the fertility of the 
earth also concerned the goddess, who was known as a guardian of 
children and a protector of fields. Folklore often pictured the god- 
dess flying through the night accompanied by the ghosts of children 
and other supernatural creatures, often phantom dogs, goats, or 
horses. She appeared most often during the Twelve Days of Christ- 
mas. Some believed that she led the Wild Hunt, a riotous proces- 
sion of ghosts who rode across the night skies during Yule. 



Folklore Associated with Berchta 

As Christianity established itself as the dominant religion in Europe, 
the image of this goddess shrank and changed, although elements 
of her old concerns and powers remained. In Christian times, people 
in many German-speaking lands expected the ambivalent figure of 
Berchta to visit during the winter holidays. Although Berchta herself 
appeared as ugly and disheveled, she inspected barns and homes for 
cleanliness. She rewarded the neat and industrious and punished 
the lazy. 

Since Berchta was the patroness of spinners, one custom demanded 
that women cease their spinning work during the Twelve Days of 
Christmas out of respect for her {see also St. Distaff's Day). Another 
custom advised that each house consume a special food on Twelfth 
Night and leave the remains for Berchta. If a household did not offer 
food, Berchta would cut open the stomachs of the inhabitants and 
remove the contents. Although she would punish lazy or naughty 
children, Berchta rewarded well-behaved children with gifts or good 
luck, and enjoyed rocking babies' cradles when no one was looking. 
Mothers would sometimes threaten their children that if they didn't 
behave, Berchta would come for them. Her nighttime processions 
frightened those who witnessed them, but in passing she and her 
followers bestowed fertility on the fields below. The spirits and souls 
that followed in her train were called Perchten, and, in some Ger- 
man-speaking areas, the night when she was most likely to appear. 
Twelfth Night, was called Perchtennacht. Although it is difficult to 
trace the relationship of one mythological figure to another, Berchta 
may also be related to the Italian Befana and to another German 
spirit, Frau Gaude. 

Folklore Associated with Holde 

Most of the beliefs and practices associated with Berchta are also 
connected to Holde. Some differ, however. The people of northern 
Germany spoke more often of Holde than of Berchta. They often 
imagined Holde, whose name means "the kindly one," as a beautiful 
woman. When Holde shook out her feather bed in the sky, heavy 
snowfalls showered the lands below. In Christian times Holde 
acquired associations with witchcraft, and those thought to be 
witches were said to "ride with Holde." 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Another Winter Goddess, Hertha 

In pagan times, some Norse and Germanic-speaking peoples called 
their winter goddess Hertha or Bertha. This goddess shares many 
characteristics with Berchta and Holde, and may be related to them. 
Hertha was the patroness of home and hearth who visited her peo- 
ple around the time of the winter solstice. Householders decorated 
their dwellings with evergreens in order to entice her to visit {see 
Greenery). They also made flat stone altars for her and set fire to fir 
branches on top of them. It was believed that Hertha entered the 
home through the rising smoke, conferring upon the wise the ability 
to foretell the futures of those around the flames. At least one author 
suspects that Santa Claus's descent through the chimney at Christ- 
mas time echoes the descent of Hertha through the chimney smoke. 

Further Reading 

Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Motz, Lotte. "The Winter Goddess: Perchta, Holda, and Related Figures." 
Folklore 95,2 (1984): 151-61. 






Both Gospel accounts of Christmas state that Jesus was born in 
the town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian 
Authority, within the modern nation of Israel. The city of Jerusalem 
lies just five miles to the north. The town's name means "house of 
bread" in Hebrew, reflecting its location in a fertile zone of the 
Judean desert. 

The Birthplace of Jesus 

One of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, King David, was 
born in Bethlehem. Both gospel accounts of Christmas assert that 
Jesus was a descendant of David. In fact, in the Gospel according to 
Luke this ancestry indirectly caused Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. 
In Luke's account, the Romans wanted to conduct a census and 
ordered everyone to return to their ancestral home in order to be 
counted. This decree forced Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary to 
travel to Bethlehem. Shortly after they arrived, Jesus was born. The 
Gospel according to Matthew does not mention the census and 
implies instead that Jesus' parents lived in Bethlehem. Matthew's 
and Luke's claims that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem were 
especially significant to those who knew Jewish scripture, since the 
Jewish prophet Micah had declared that the Messiah would be born 
in that town (Micah 5:2). 

The Church of the Nativity 

According to early Christian tradition, Jesus had been born in one of 
the caves that local people used to shelter animals. As early as the 
second century a.d., pilgrims began to visit the cave where Jesus was 
said to have been born. The Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138 a.d.) 
constructed a shrine to the pagan god Adonis over this site. In ap- 
proximately 325 A.D., after the conversion of the Roman Empire to 
Christianity, the empress Helena (c. 248-c. 328 a.d.) had the temple 



to Adonis destroyed and built the Church of the Nativity over the 
presumed site of Jesus' birth. Almost nothing of this original church 
remains. It was severely damaged in a war that took place several 
centuries after its construction. According to legend, Persian in- 
vaders were about to destroy the church completely, when they 
noticed a mural depicting the Three Kings, or Magi, wearing Persian 
dress. Recognizing that the church in some way honored Persian 
sages of the past, the invaders spared it from total destruction. The 
great Byzantine emperor Justinian (483-565 a.d.) rebuilt the Church 
of the Nativity in the sixth century a.d. It has been repaired many 
times since then, but its basic design remains the same. The main 
door to the church, called the Door of Humility, was built so low that 
people have to bow down to enter. The original purpose of the 
design was to prevent Muslims from riding into the church on their 
horses. Because entering through this door requires one to bow 
one's head, which also serves as a gesture of reverence for this 
Christian holy site, Jews have traditionally objected to using the 
Door of Humility. 

Today the Church of the Nativity is an Eastern Orthodox shrine. The 
cave in which Jesus was born lies underneath the church. Known as 
the "Grotto of the Nativity," this underground chamber is a site of 
intense religious devotion for Christians of many different denomi- 
nations. In the nineteenth century friction arose over which denomi- 
nation would exercise the most control over the Grotto. In the midst 
of this conflict, the star marking the spot where Jesus' manger had 
lain mysteriously disappeared. Each faction accused the others of the 
theft. Some writers claim that tensions caused by the star's disap- 
pearance helped to provoke the Crimean War. The Sultan of Turkey 
eventually assisted in resolving this dispute by placing a new four- 
teen-pointed star in the Grotto. Pilgrims to Bethlehem today can 
still see this large silver star covering the spot on the floor where, 
according to legend, Mary gave birth to Jesus. The star bears an 
inscription in Latin, Hie De Virgine Maria, Jesus Christus Natus Est, 
which means, "Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary." 

Eastern Orthodox officials share the Grotto of the Nativity with 
Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox clergy. At Christmas time 
Roman Catholic clergy oversee the Nativity scene, while Orthodox 
clergy control the altar. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

In the spring of 2002, Israeli military forces invaded the West Bank 
town of Bethlehem as part of Israel's campaign to eliminate 
Palestinian terrorism. Dozens of people sought refuge in the Church 
of the Nativity, hoping that such a holy site would not be attacked. 
Among them were ordinary townspeople, Palestinian gunmen, and 
clergy members. The Israeli soldiers surrounded the church and pre- 
vented people, food, and medical supplies from entering. After a 
dramatic five-week standoff, the gunmen agreed to go into perma- 
nent exile, and the Israelis called off their soldiers. A few windows 
were damaged during the siege, but no permanent harm was done 
to the church. 

Christmas in Bethlehem 

Bethlehem attracts many Christian pilgrims, especially during the 
Christmas season. The biggest crowds gather on December 24 and 
25, when most Western Christians celebrate the Nativity. On Decem- 
ber 24 Roman Catholic priests celebrate Midnight Mass in St. Cath- 
erine's Roman Catholic Church, which lies inside the grounds of the 
Church of the Nativity. The event begins with a motorcade proces- 
sion from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, led by the Latin Patriarch of Jeru- 
salem, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in Israel. Those 
practicing Roman Catholics who have obtained advance tickets for 
the Midnight Mass crowd into St. Catherine's church. This service 
includes a procession to the Grotto of the Nativity, where the figurine 
representing the baby Jesus is placed in the Nativity scene. The throng 
that remains outside can watch a televised broadcast of the service on 
a screen set up in Manger Square. 

Other opportunities for Christmas Eve worship include an Anglican 
service held at the Greek Orthodox monastery attached to the 
Church of the Nativity and a Protestant carol service, which takes 
place at a field just outside Bethlehem. The crowd that assembles in 
the field sings Christmas carols, commemorating the evening two 
thousand years ago when a small band of shepherds received a 
miraculous announcement of Jesus' birth and witnessed a host of 
angels singing praises to God {see also Gospel According to Luke). 
No one knows the exact location of the field mentioned in the Bible. 
At least three different groups have laid claim to their own shep- 
herds' field. The Christmas Eve carol service takes place at the 



Y.M.C.A.'s field. The Orthodox Church, however, maintains its own 
shepherds' field, as does the Roman Catholic Church. 

Bethlehem hosts somewhat smaller celebrations on January 7, when 
many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas, and again on Jan- 
uary 19, when Armenian Orthodox Christians observe the holiday 
{see also Armenia, Christmas in). 

Rachel's Tomb 

Jewish and Muslim pilgrims come to Bethlehem to visit another holy 
site: the Tomb of Rachel. Rachel's death and burial are mentioned in 
the Bible (Genesis 35:20). Folk tradition declares that Rachel was 
laid to rest in Bethlehem, although biblical scholars deny that this is 
the correct site. 

Further Reading 

Baly, Denis. "Bethlehem." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The HarperCollins Bible 
Dictionary. Revised edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 

Brockman, Norbert C. Encyclopedia of Sacred Places. New York: Oxford Uni- 
versity Press, 1998. 

Christmas in the Holy Land. Chicago: World Book, 1987. 

Clynes,Tom. Wild Planet! Detroit, Mich.: Visible Ink Press, 1995. 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

Norris, Frederick W. "Bethlehem." In Everett Ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of 
Early Christianity. Volume 1. New York: Garland, 1997. 

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Betf}lef}em^ Vennsylvania^ 
cl^ristmas in 

The town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, promotes itself as America's 
"Christmas City." The city's most notable Christmas customs reflect 
the religious heritage of its founders, who were Moravian Christians 
from central Europe. 

The Moravians 

The Moravians are mainstream Protestant Christians whose denomi- 
nation was established in 1457 in what is now the Czech Republic. 
Many died during religious persecutions that took place in the seven- 
teenth century. In the eighteenth century a German nobleman. Count 
Zinzendorf, undertook the protection of the remaining Moravians and 
allowed them to settle on his land. Seeking religious freedom and the 
opportunity to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ to American 
natives, settlers, and slaves, bands of Moravians began to emigrate 
from Germany to the American colonies in the eighteenth century. 

History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 

In the mid- eighteenth century Moravians founded two towns along 
the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania. The first they named Nazareth, 
after the town where Jesus grew up. The second they called Bethle- 
hem, after the town in which Jesus was born. 

In 1741 Count Zinzendorf visited the settlement of Bethlehem and 
spent Christmas there. His approval of the colonists' proposal to name 
the town Bethlehem finalized their decision. On Christmas Eve he led 
the community in singing a German hymn which, in his eyes, helped 
to explain why the colonists had made a wise choice in naming the 
new town. The first verse of the hymn reminds listeners that: 

Not Jerusalem 

Lowly Bethlehem 

'Twas that gave us Christ to save us. 

Not Jerusalem. 


Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in 

Bethlehem's Moravian congregations still sing this hymn every Christ- 
mas Eve. 

In the early days, Bethlehem was a closed community, meaning that 
only Moravians could live there. This policy changed in 1845. In the 
late nineteenth century iron mines and foundries emerged as impor- 
tant businesses in the Lehigh Valley. In 1899, Bethlehem Steel, a 
giant of America's steel industry, was founded in the town of Beth- 
lehem. Bethlehem Steel flourished throughout most of the twentieth 
century, drawing many immigrants from various ethnic groups to 
the area. Competition from cheaply produced foreign steel began to 
affect the steel industry in the 1970s. This challenge finally resulted 
in Bethlehem Steel closing its doors in 1995. 

Christmas Candles and Lights 

In 1937 the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce began to promote the 
town's Christmas celebrations as a tourist attraction, billing Beth- 
lehem as "Christmas City U.S.A." The city's residents quickly adopted 
the campaigii, organizing a city-wide display of Christmas lights. 
Bethlehem's most distinctive lighting custom consists of placing a sin- 
gle lit candle in the windows of homes, stores, and other businesses. 
Though it can only be traced back to the late 1920s, some researchers 
claim that early Moravian immigrants brought this custom with them 
from a Moravian community in Germany. There the flame from a sin- 
gle candle left burning in the window during Advent was understood 
to sigiial a welcome for the Christ child. By 1940 this custom had 
spread far beyond Bethlehem's Moravian community to become a 
city-wide practice. For reasons of safety many today have replaced real 
candles with electric lights shaped like candles. Many people in 
Bethlehem light the candles in their windows on the first Sunday in 
Advent and keep them lit until Epiphany. 

The city also hosts an impressive outdoor lighting display. Popular 
nighttime bus tours led by guides in traditional Moravian dress fill up 
quickly during the holiday season. On nearby South Mountain a 
giant, electrically lit star beckons visitors to the Christmas city. First 
erected in 1935, the "Star of Bethlehem" has been rebuilt several 
times. This traditional, five-pointed Christmas star with extending 
rays of light measures 81 feet in height and 53 feet in width. Two 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

hundred forty-six light bulbs keep the display glowing through the 
night. In past times the city of Bethlehem only lit the star during the 
Christmas season. Since the mid-1990s, the city has kept it illumi- 
nated year-round. Indeed, the five-pointed star can be found on the 
city's official seal. There the five points stand for religion, education, 
music, industry, and recreation, five important components of the 
city's identity. 

Moravian Stars 

The Moravian star constitutes another Moravian -style Christmas dec- 
oration that can now be found throughout the town. These three- 
dimensional stars, made of paper, leaded glass, or plastic, may be illu- 
minated from within by an electric bulb. Although Moravian star- 
makers shape these ornaments with varying numbers of points, the 
most common kind of Moravian star has 26 points. Moravian stars are 
displayed in Bethlehem's homes, shops, and Moravian churches. 

Community Putzes 

Bethlehem's Moravians have also contributed the Christmas putz to 
the town's repertoire of Christmas customs. A putz is a miniature 
Nativity scene, depicting not only Jesus' birth in a manger, but also 
scenes of life in the surrounding countryside {see also Christmas 
Village). In past times members of the Moravian community vied 
with one another to see who could build the most imaginative and 
elaborate putz. Between Christmas and Epiphany they visited one 
another's homes to compare and enjoy the putzes. The custom of 
putz visiting also caught on with non-Moravians. Things started to 
get out of hand in the 1930s, when one particularly successful putz- 
building family, that of Edward Neisser, received just under 1,000 
Christmas season visitors. 

Neisser suggested that the town build a community putz for the 
public to enjoy. The Chamber of Commerce took him up on that 
suggestion in 1937. The first community putz, set up in the office of 
the Chamber of Commerce, drew 14,000 visitors and so interrupted 
the Chamber's duties that they found another location for it the fol- 
lowing year. In 1939 the community putz was built in the lobby of 
Hotel Bethlehem. Two hundred volunteers helped manage the putz 


Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in 

by reading the narration for the display and working the lights. The 
attraction drew 30,000 visitors, overwhelming the hotel. Several 
more changes of venue followed until three community putzes were 
established in local Moravian churches. 

Since the beginning, members of Bethlehem's Moravian churches 
have built and managed the community putzes. These days the 
members of Bethlehem's Central Moravian Church appoint a com- 
mittee to manage this task. The process begins with an expedition to 
the Pocono Mountains in November to gather moss. It takes volun- 
teers about a week to construct the putz. Viewing begins at the start 
of Advent. Several times a day visitors can enter the darkened audi- 
torium to view the putz, while a guide reads a narrative describing 
the scene. The lights in each section of the putz rise as the guide tells 
the story of those figures. 

Religious Services 

Bethlehem's Moravian churches hold a special kind of religious ser- 
vice, called a lovefeast, around Christmas time. In addition, Moravi- 
ans, like many other Christians, also hold special services on Christ- 
mas Eve. The Moravian Christmas Eve vigil resounds with instru- 
mental music and hymns. The hymn, "Jesus, Call Thou Me," led by 
Count Zinzendorf in 1741, is always sung, as is another favorite 
Moravian Christmas hymn called "Morning Star." Each year a spe- 
cially selected child soloist wins the honor of leading this hymn. As 
the last verse of this hymn begins, praising the Lord whose splendor 
shines in the darkness, the servers enter the darkened church carry- 
ing trays of lit beeswax candles, trimmed at the bottom with red 
paper and ribbon (see also Christingle). They are distributed to the 
congregation, and, holding glowing candles, worshipers continue to 
sing songs about God's light shining in the darkness. 


Visitors to Bethlehem also have the opportunity to hear many Christ- 
mas concerts, some featuring Moravian music. Moravians have long 
encouraged music making within their communities. The early Mora- 
vians composed thousands of musical pieces, safeguarded the biggest 
collection of music in the American colonies, and harbored amongst 
them many instrument makers. One unusual feature of the distin- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

guished Moravian musical heritage is the trombone choir, an ensem- 
ble made up entirely of tenor, bass, alto, and soprano trombones. 
Moravians brought the first trombones to this country in the mid- 
eighteenth century, where they continued to be a novelty outside 
Moravian communities until well into the nineteenth century. 

Historic District 

Although today people of many different ethnic and religious groups 
live in Bethlehem, the town's historic ties with the Moravians give it 
its most distinctive Christmas customs. In addition to these customs, 
the town maintains a fine collection of colonial and early American 
buildings, including the Sun Inn, an establishment that dates back to 
colonial times and once hosted George and Martha Washington, as 
well as other famous patriots of the American Revolution. {For more on 
Christmas in Pennsylvania, see America, Christmas in Nineteenth- 
Century; Amish Christmas; Barring Out the Schoolmaster; 
Knecht Ruprecht.) 

Further Reading 

Bethlehem's Early History. Bethlehem, Pa.: Historic Bethlehem Partnership 
Educational Services, 1999. 

Butterfield, Lee. "Christmas in the Community of the First Moravian Church, 
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.A." In Maria Hubert, comp. Christmas 
Around the World. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998. 

Kainen, Ruth Cole. America's Christmas Heritage. New York: Funk and Wag- 
nails, 1969. 

Sawyer, Edwin A. All About the Moravians. Bethlehem, Pa.: The Moravian 
Church in America, 2000. 

Sweitzer, Vangie Roby. Christmas in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, Pa.: Central Mo- 
ravian Church, 2000. 

Web Sites 

"The Putz," a page from the Moravian Church in America's web site at: 

An explanation of the Moravian Christmas putz offered by the East Hills Mo- 
ravian Church, located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: 

An official site of the Moravian Church in America that offers a variety of 
information about Moravian beliefs and practices: 


Birth of the Invincible Sun 


Bfrtl^ of tl^e Invincible Sun 

Birth of the Unconquered Sun 

In the first centuries after the death of Jesus, a new religious cult 
swept across the Roman Empire. Traditional Roman religion includ- 
ed festivals and ceremonies associated with a wide variety of gods. 
Followers of the new religion focused their devotions on one god. 
They called this god "Mithras" or "Sol" and observed his birthday on 
December 25 with a festival known as the Natalis Sol Invicti, or the 
Birth of the Invincible Sun. 

Origins of Mithraism 

The god Mithras originated in Persia. Ancient Hindu and Zoroastrian 
texts mention a minor god, Mithra or Mitra, who was associated with 
the sun, the light that falls between heaven and earth, mediation, and 
contracts. Most scholars believe that Roman soldiers encountered this 
god when stationed in the eastern part of the Empire. As their military 
assignments moved them from one region to another, they spread the 
cult of Mithras throughout the Roman world. The image of the god 
changed as the cult of Mithras developed and grew. To his Roman fol- 
lowers Mithras became the god who created the world, the god who 
would never age or die, the one who was the first and last cause of all 
things, who upheld standards of justice and truth, and who would 
bring about a just, new age that would last forever. 

Roman Sun God Worship 

Mithraism began to spread throughout the Roman Empire in the late 
first century. The religion reached the height of its popularity in the 
second through fourth centuries. The Roman Mithras still retained 
his association with the sun, an association that grew stronger rather 
than weaker over time, perhaps due to the rising popularity of the 
Roman sun god, Sol. Although Sol was only one of the group of 
gods recognized by traditional Roman religion, the Romans viewed 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Sol and Mithras as more or less the same deity. During the second 
century Sol became increasingly associated with the supremacy of 
the emperor and of the Roman Empire. One of Sol's new titles, 
invictus, or "the invincible one," may well have been borrowed from 
those titles customarily applied to the emperor. 

In 274 the Roman emperor Aurelian (c. 215-275) endorsed Sol's ris- 
ing popularity by naming the sun god the sole protector of the 
Empire. He also instituted a festival celebrating the birthday of the 
god, called "the Birth of the Invincible Sun" (also translated as "Birth 
of the Unconquered Sun"). Most scholars believe that people cele- 
brated this festival on December 25. Mithraism and the cult of Sol 
Invictus began to die out in the late fourth century and early fifth 
century as Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and 
began to gather large numbers of adherents. 

Ceremonies and Celebrations 

Very little is known about Roman Mithraism since it demanded that 
its followers keep Mithraic beliefs and practices secret from out- 
siders. Archeological investigations have revealed the basic outlines 
of the religion, however. These include some striking parallels with 
the emerging Christian faith. Members gathered together periodi- 
cally to share a common meal. New members of the religion were 
brought into the faith through a baptismal ceremony. During this 
ceremony the officiants "sealed" the new members as devotees of 
Mithras by branding them on their foreheads. The initiate was ex- 
pected to progress through seven levels of knowledge, each marked 
by its own sacrament. Finally, a blissful immortality awaited believ- 
ers after death. 

Mithraism also differed from Christianity in important ways. Only 
men could join the new cult. In fact, Roman soldiers comprised a large 
percentage of the membership. The sacrifice of a bull appears to have 
been a central ritual or mythic image in the worship of the god. 
Remains of Mithraic churches, built to resemble caves, feature wall 
paintings depicting the god Mithras slaying a bull. Sacred fires seem 
to have burned on the altars of these churches. Furthermore, astrology 
appears to have played an important part in Mithraic beliefs. 


Birth of the Invincible Sun 

Ancient records attest to the fact that horse races were held in the 
Roman Circus in honor of the sun god's birthday, but little else is 
known about how the devotees of Mithras celebrated the festival of 
his birth. According to the ancient Roman calendar, winter solstice, 
the shortest day of the year, fell on December 25. Scholars suggest 
that worshipers viewed this natural event as symbolic of the birth of 
the sun god and therefore celebrated the festival on that day. 

Mithraism and Early Christianity 

Mithraism had enough adherents in the first centuries after Jesus' 
death to provide some degree of competition for the fledgling Chris- 
tian faith. Its popularity prompted some early Christian leaders to 
preach against it. They denounced Mithraic ceremonies as mislead- 
ing parodies of Christian rituals. In spite of their opposition to the 
cult, in the middle of the fourth century Christian authorities select- 
ed December 25 as the day on which to celebrate the Nativity of 
Jesus Christ. Scholars believe that they did so largely in order to 
divert people away from competing, pagan celebrations held on or 
around that date, such as the Birth of the Invincible Sun, Saturnalia, 
and Kalends. 

Further Reading 

Fears, J. Rufus. "Sol Invictus." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of 

Religion. Volume 13. New York: Macmillan, 1987. 
Gnoli, Gherardo. "Mithraism." In Mircea Eliade, ed. Tlie Encyclopedia of 

Religion. Volume 9. New York: Macmillan, 1987. 
Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice. Wheaton, 111.: Quest Books, 1993. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1996. 
lames, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1993. 
Salzman, Michele Renee. On Roman Time. Berkeley, Calif: University of 

California Press, 1990. 
Smith, C. "Christmas and Its Cycle." In Neiu Catholic Encyclopedia. Volum.e 

3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Bfacfe Peter 

Zwarte Piet 

Children in the Netherlands receive presents on St. Nicholas's Day, 
December 6. According to old Dutch folk beliefs, each year St. Nich- 
olas and his helper, Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, sail from Spain to 
Holland in a ship loaded with presents for good children. Nowa- 
days, Black Peter not only carries St. Nicholas's sack of presents, but 
also brandishes a birch rod which he uses to discipline undeserving 
children. Truly troublesome youngsters face sterner punishment. 
Black Peter tosses them into his sack and carries them back to Spain 
with him (see also Cert; Knecht Ruprecht). 


During the Middle Ages "Black Peter" was a common nickname for 
the Devil. One tale of those times proclaimed that each year on his 
birthday, St. Nicholas kidnapped the Devil and made the evildoer 
assist him in his good works. On St. Nicholas's Eve the good saint 
and his reluctant helper flew from house to house dropping presents 
down the chimney. Somehow these gifts landed in the shoes that 
the children placed by the fire before going to bed. 

Black Peter traditionally appears as a dark-skinned man dressed in 
the costume of a sixteenth-century Spaniard. Perhaps this image of 
Black Peter developed during the sixteenth century, when the Dutch 
suffered under Spanish rule. The Dutch may have associated Spain 
with dark-skinned people since a north African ethnic group known 
as the Moors ruled parts of Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth 
centuries. An alternative explanation for Peter's darkened skin links 
it to his duties as St. Nicholas's assistant. Some speculate that Black 
Peter may have acquired a permanent coating of ashes and soot 
from scrambling down so many chimneys. Still, the most likely 
explanation for Peter's dark skin comes from old folk beliefs. 
Medieval Europeans often imagined the devil as black-skinned. 


Black Peter 

Contemporary Customs 

Each year the arrival of St. Nicholas and Black Peter is reenacted in 
Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. A great crowd gathers to 
witness the arrival of the ship bearing the saint and his helper. A 
white horse, St. Nicholas's traditional mode of transport, stands 
ready to serve the saint. The music of a brass band adds to the festive 
atmosphere. As the gift bringers descend from the ship, the crowd 
easily identifies Nicholas by his red bishop's robe and hat and the 
white beard that flows from his face to his chest. In addition to his 
embroidered jacket, puffed, knee-length pants, and feathered cap. 
Black Peter carries a bulging sack of presents, some birch rods, and a 
large red book in which he has recorded the good and bad deeds of 
Holland's children. After greetings have been exchanged with the 
mayor, the saint and his helper lead a parade to Amsterdam's central 
plaza. There the royal family officially welcomes Holland's Christ- 
mas season gift bringers. 

On St. Nicholas's Eve children may receive home visits from St. 
Nicholas and Black Peter, usually played by family members or 
friends. The pair's detailed knowledge of the children's good and 
bad deeds during the past year often astonishes the younger chil- 
dren. In recent years the increasing popularity of exchanging pre- 
sents on Christmas Day has somewhat reduced the importance of 
St. Nicholas and Black Peter in Holland's Christmas celebrations. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

]oy Tlvough the World. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: 
Cornell University Press, 1984. 

Sansom, WiUiam. A Book of Christmas. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Com- 
pany, 1968. 

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1994. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Boa/s Head 

Wild boars are large, fierce, pig-like animals with curled tusks. In the 
Middle Ages the heads of these fearsome male animals, relatives of 
the domestic pig, composed the central dish of the Christmas ban- 
quet in some parts of Europe. Queen's College at England's Oxford 
University still maintains this traditional feast. The custom has long 
since died out in most places, however. Some believe that the boar 
began its association with Christmas in pagan Scandinavia. In Scandi- 
navia today pork dishes continue as Christmas favorites, and Christ- 
mas cookies often take the shape of a pig. In Sweden the head of a 
pig, garnished with pastry, flags, and an apple between its jaws, may 
still be placed at the center of the Christmas buffet table. 


Boar's Head 


Some researchers locate the origins of the Christmas boar's head 
feast as far back as pagan times. They note that both the pagan 
Scandinavians and Celts not only relished the boar's meat, but also 
gave the animal a respected place in their mythology. Among the 
Germanic peoples the boar was associated with the dead. The 
Scandinavians and Celts cast fearsome images of the boar onto their 
war helmets. The Scandinavians imagined that the souls of fallen 
warriors lived on in a heaven where they feasted on wild boar every 
day. The meat was provided by a magical animal that was slaugh- 
tered, eaten, and appeared anew and alive daily. Among the ancient 
Scandinavians, the boar also served as the companion animal to the 
god Frey. Frey represented many things, among them sunlight, 
peace, prosperity, and fertility. The pagan Scandinavians sometimes 
described the course of the sun across the sky as Frey riding the 
heavens on his shining, golden boar. 

An ancient Scandinavian saga, or poem, describes the sacrifice of a 
wild boar as an important component of the ancient Yule festival. 
The worshipers dedicated this sacrifice to Frey. So holy was the sac- 
rificial boar that warriors swore oaths over its body. Since Frey was 
the patron of fertility, some interpret this as a rite designed to in- 
crease crop yields and herds in the coming spring. 

While some writers believe that a seasonal taste for the pork can be 
traced back to these pagan practices, others point out that Novem- 
ber and December served as the traditional months for the slaughter 
of pigs in pre-industrial times. At this point in the year pigs were 
consuming the last of the forest's free pig feed: acorns and beech- 
nuts. Small farmers either had to find more feed, let the pigs go hun- 
gry, or slaughter them. According to these authors, this seasonal 
cycle may provide the true explanation for the boar's place at the 
Christmas feast. 


In medieval England, the boar's head graced the tables of the pros- 
perous at Christmas time as well as on other feast days. Preparing 
and serving this robust dish required the combined efforts of many 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

people. The beleaguered cook might spend more than a week skin- 
ning, soaking, salting, preserving, and finally cooking this awkward 
piece of meat. In the final stages the cook garnished the boar's head 
with rosemary and inserted an apple, orange, or lemon in its mouth. 
In rich and noble houses much ceremony surrounded the presenta- 
tion of this dish. The steward brought the boar's head into the hall 
on a special platter, accompanied by minstrels. Other servants, and 
sometimes even the huntsmen who killed the beast, participated in 
the procession into the hall, adding to the spectacle. Wild boar were 
known as formidable prey, which may have bestowed additional 
glamour on this dish. Sometime in the twelfth century, however, 
the wild boar became extinct in England. Its demise left the domes- 
ticated pig to take over this Christmas duty. While the traditional 
boar's head feast entertained the wealthy at Christmas time, ordi- 
nary folks often made do with beef, goose, or Christmas pies. 

In the mid-seventeenth century a new religious sect called the Puri- 
tans rose to power in England. The Puritans disapproved of many 
aspects of traditional English Christmas celebrations, including the 
lusty feasting and drinking. During their reign they succeeded in 
curtailing and, in some cases, even outlawing many of these prac- 
tices. After the Puritan campaign against Christmas subsided, the 
boar's head never again regained its widespread popularity among 
the wealthy as the main dish for the Christmas feast. 

Queen's College 

In spite of the disappearance of the boar's head among the general 
population, this traditional feast was maintained at Oxford Univer- 
sity's Queen's College. Each year at Christmas time the boar's head 
dinner takes place in the college's dining hall. This tradition began in 
the fourteenth century, shortly after the founding of the college. The 
process begins in the kitchen, where the chef garnishes the boar's 
head with bay {see Laurel) and rosemary, tucks an orange into its 
mouth, and places it on a silver platter. Four men carry this dish into 
the dining hall, preceded by a solo singer and followed by the col- 
lege choir. The soloist and choir sing the "Boar's Head Carol" as they 
process into the hall, pausing for the soloist to sing each verse. 
Finally the boar's head is set upon the high table. The provost then 


Boar's Head 

removes the orange and offers it to the lead singer, and distributes 
the rosemary and bay among the choir and guests. 

The tune and words to the "Boar's Head Carol" have changed over 
time. A version popular in the early seventeenth century describes 
the killing of the boar as a beneficial act that not only prevents him 
from ruining crops, but also provides tasty meat for the assembled 
company. The more recent version of the carol, with its Latin refrain, 
focuses on the feast at hand and gives thanks to God: 

Solo: The boar's head in hand bear I 

Bedecked with bays and rosemary 

I pray you, my masters, be merry 

Quot estis in convivio (So many as are in the feast) 

Chorus: Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes domino 

(The boar's head I bring, giving praises to God) 

Solo: The boar's head as I understand. 
Is the rarest dish in all this land. 
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland 
Let us servire cantico (serve with a song) 

Chorus: Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes domino 

Solo: Our steward hath provided this 
hi honor of the King of bliss 
Which, on this day to be served is 
In reginensi atrio (the Queen's hall) 

Chorus: Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes domino 
[Duncan, 1992, 186-87] 

The denizens of Queen's College invented an amusing story by way 
of offering an explanation for their traditional Christmas dinner. On 
a winter's day hundreds of years ago a student named Copcot went 
walkirig in the nearby Shotover woods. He carried with him a vol- 
ume of Aristotle, which he had been striving in vain to comprehend. 
Suddenly a boar sprang out of the underbrush and charged toward 
him. Copcot thrust the book down the boar's throat, crying out in 
Latin, "Graecum est!" (approximately, "it's Greek to me!"). The boar 
choked to death on this undigestible work. Since Copcot could ill 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

afford to lose a book, he chopped off the boar's head, retrieved his 
Aristotle, and carried both back to the college. The college feasted on 
Copcot's trophy, and a tradition was born. 

Further Reading 

Crippen, Tfiomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 

Micli.: Omnigrapfiics, 1990. 
Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Duncan, Edmondstoune. The Story of the Carol. 1911. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 
Gelling, Peter, and Hilda ElUs Davidson. The Chariot of the Sun and Other 

Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age. New York: Frederick A. 

Praeger, 1969. 
Guerber, H. A. Myths of Northern Lands. 1895. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Sing- 
ing Tree Press, 1970. 
Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, 

Mass.: Little, Brown, and Company, 1961. 
Henderson, Yorke, et al. Parent's Magazine's Christmas Holiday Book. New 

York: Parents' Magazine Press, 1972. 
Hole, Christina. Christmas and Its Customs. New York: M. Barrows and 

Company, 1958. 
Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. 
Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New 

York: Macmillan, 1979. 



Boxing Day 




The boxing which takes place on Boxing Day has nothing to do with 
the prize-fighting ring. Christmas boxing originated in England, 
where the word "boxing" refers to the distribution of small gifts of 
money. Boxing Day, which falls on December 26, is a holiday in Eng- 
land, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Bahamas {see Jonkonnu), 
and other nations with past or present ties to the United Kingdom. 

Origins and Development 

Some writers believe that boxing can be traced back to the Middle 
Ages. They note that parish priests of that era customarily opened 
up the church alms-box on December 26, St. Stephen's Day. Then 
the priests distributed the coins it contained to the needy. Perhaps 
this custom attached itself to St. Stephen's Day because the saint's 
role in the Christian community of which he was a member was to 
ensure the fair distribution of goods. In any case, this practice gave 
rise to the use of the term "box" to denote a small gift of money or a 
gratuity. In Scotland these tips were called "handsels" and were 
given on Handsel Monday, that is, the first Monday of the new year. 

By the early seventeenth century, the Church's St. Stephen's Day tra- 
dition had inspired working people to adopt the custom of saving 
whatever tips they had been given throughout the year in clay boxes 
which they broke open on December 26. By the late seventeenth 
century they began to solicit tips from all those who had enjoyed 
their services during the year. They collected the last of these 
"boxes" on December 26, after which they broke open these con- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

tainers and used the money to buy Christmas treats. In the nine- 
teenth century many bought tickets to pantomime shows, which in 
those days usually opened on December 26. By the nineteenth cen- 
tury the custom of boxing had so colored the character of the day 
that many people began refer to December 26 as Boxing Day rather 
than St. Stephen's Day. Parliament declared Boxing Day a public 
holiday in 1871. 


By the eighteenth century middle- and upper-middle-class people 
were complaining about the increasing numbers of tradesmen who 
petitioned them for Christmas boxes. By mid-century some families 
were paying up to thirty pounds in these annual tips. Naturally, 
one's employees and domestic servants received some extra finan- 
cial consideration at Christmas time. In addition to one's own work- 
ers, however, a small horde of neighborhood service providers might 
turn up at one's door on the twenty-sixth of December asking for a 
Christmas box. These included dustmen, lamplighters, postmen, 
errand-runners, watchmen, bell ringers, chimneysweeps, sextons 
(church custodians), turncocks (men who maintained the water 
pipes), and others. What's more, shop assistants, tradesmen, and 
their apprentices often expected a Christmas box from their cus- 
tomers. In 1710, English author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote, 
"By the Lord Harry, I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. 
The rogues of the coffee-house have raised their tax, every one giv- 
ing a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many half- 
crowns to great men's porters" (Hutton, 1996, 23). 


At one point, the citizens of Buckinghamshire, England, raised the 
practice of boxing to new heights. Residents of some villages in the 
region claimed the right to a free meal at the local rectory on St. 
Stephen's Day. Since the rectors had to pay for the meal out of their 
own pockets, they naturally began to resist this custom, know as 
"Stephening." It is told that one year a rector from the village of 
Drayton Beauchamp locked himself in the rectory on December 26 
and refused to let the housekeeper answer the many knocks at the 


Boxing Day 

door. In this manner he thought to escape doling out the free meal 
of bread, cheese, and ale demanded by the town's residents. When 
the townspeople realized what was going on, however, they broke 
into the building and helped themselves to a meal that completely 
emptied his larders. In 1834 the Charity Commission, finding no 
legal or traditional entitlement to this yearly looting, put an end to 
the custom. 


By the late nineteenth century Christmas boxing began to diminish. 
This decline continued into the twentieth century, and, slowly, the 
Christmas box disappeared from the ranks of English seasonal cus- 
toms. The English still give a few tips at Christmas time, but they are 
no longer specifically associated with Boxing Day. In fact, some peo- 
ple now think of Boxing Day as the day to throw out the boxes their 
Christmas gifts came in. 

Further Reading 

Chambers, Robert. "December 26 — Christmas-Boxes." In his TJie Book of 

Dfli/s. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Hadfield, Miles, and lohn Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, 

Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. 
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 

Company, 1976. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1996. 
MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 

Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 
Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: TapHnger, 1977. 
Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: 

Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Boy Bf sl^op 

Bairn Bishop, St. Nicholas Bishop 

In the Middle Ages the Christmas season offered a special delight 
to a few lucky boys. On December 28, Holy Innocents' Day, reli- 
gious communities, cathedrals, colleges, schools, and parish church- 
es throughout Europe permitted an ordinary choirboy to take over 
the role of the local bishop. Known as the boy bishop, these kings- 
for-a-day were enormously popular with the people, in spite of the 
reservations of some Church authorities. They wore episcopal robes 
and rings especially made for boys, led processions, officiated at ser- 
vices, preached sermons, made visitations, and received gifts. What's 
more, the administrators of local cathedrals were sometimes expect- 
ed to entertain the boy bishop and his entourage in a manner befit- 
ting their assumed rank. These festivities came to an end around the 
sixteenth century, when Church and state officials finally prohibited 
boy bishops. In some areas, however, the custom lingered on. One 
French diocese supported a boy bishop until 1721. In recent years 
some English cathedrals have revived the medieval custom of spon- 
soring a boy bishop at Christmas time. 


During medieval times custom permitted the low-ranking church 
staff, such as deacons, sub-deacons, and choirboys, to engage in a 
number of boisterous celebrations and mock religious services dur- 
ing the days that followed Christmas. They included the reign of the 
boy bishop on Innocents' Day. These frolics were sometimes referred 
to collectively as the Feast of Fools. Some experts believe that these 
customs may have evolved out of the topsy-turvy festivities that 
characterized the Roman winter feast of Saturnalia. During Satur- 
nalia, things were not always as they seemed. Men masqueraded as 
women or animals, and mock kings were selected to preside over 
feasts. Some authors believe that the habit of celebrating midwinter 
with playful role reversals may have persisted into medieval times. 


Boy Bishop 

inspiring the creation of the boy bishop. The chosen boy was also 
known as the "bairn bishop/' bairn being an archaic word for child. 

Historians are still trying to piece together the origins of this custom. 
Some believe that the boy bishop was originally associated with St. 
Nicholas's Day, December 6. They suspect that the boy bishop's 
reign shifted to Holy Innocents' Day over time. These writers point 
out that St. Nicholas was a bishop in his lifetime and became the 
patron saint of children after his death. Therefore, they reason, it 
makes sense for the custom of the boy bishop to have developed 
around the celebrations held in St. Nicholas's honor. Indeed, in 
some areas of England the boy bishop ruled on St. Nicholas's Day 
and was known as the "St. Nicholas Bishop." Furthermore, even 
though most cathedrals held the ceremonies associated with the boy 
bishop on Innocents' Day, many held elections for the boy bishop on 
St. Nicholas's Day. Some researchers have concluded that the boy 
bishop held office from St. Nicholas's Day to Holy Innocents' Day. 
During this time he enjoyed many of the privileges of a real bishop 
and attended to many of the responsibilities. Other writers point out 
that Innocents' Day also provided an appropriate occasion on which 
to elevate a boy to the role of bishop, since it commemorated the 
martyrdom of Bethlehem's male children. 

The earliest known historical record of a boy bishop comes from 
what is now Switzerland. It tells us that in 911 a.d. King Conrad I 
and the bishop of Constance visited the monastery of St. Gall and 
attended a service presided over by the boy bishop and his choirboy 
attendants. The king entertained himself during the service by roll- 
ing apples into the aisles in an attempt to distract the children from 
their solemn duties. Apparently, the children demonstrated more 
dignity than did the king, since none stooped to pick up these 
tempting sweets. 


Various customs surrounding the boy bishop reveal that this role 
reversal not only enjoyed popular support, but also received some 
degree of support from the Church. The institutions that sponsored 
boy bishops kept vestments specially made for them. These vest- 
ments were as luxurious and expensive as those made for real bish- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ops. One old document describes a boy bishop's miter as being 
made of white silk, covered with ilowers embroidered in silver and 
gold threads and ornamented with precious stones. 


The reign of the boy bishop began on the eve of Holy Innocents' Day 
in most places. At England's Salisbury Cathedral the choirboys, 
dressed in the silk robes of archdeacons and canons (clerical staff) 
and led by the regally clad boy bishop, began their procession 
towards the altar near the end of vespers, the evening prayer service, 
on December 27. The boy bishop censed the altar, after which the 
canons rose from their chairs and went to the places vacated by the 
choir. The choirboys then assumed the seats normally occupied by 
the clergy. This seating arrangement persisted until vespers on the 
following day. Moreover, during that time the canons took over the 
choirboys' duties at services, such as carrying the book, candles, and 
incense. The boy bishop presided over all services until vespers on 
Holy Innocents' Day. Most researchers believe he was not permitted 
to say mass, although at York and Winchester cathedrals it appears 
that he may have done so. On Innocents' Day the boy bishop led a 
procession through the streets, blessing the people as he went. The 
procession, along with his Innocents' Day sermon, formed the high- 
lights of his brief career. Only a few of these sermons have survived 
to the present time, and all show clear signs of having been written 
by adults. In their tone and choice of topic, they range from humor- 
ous to tedious. In one sermon the boy bishop, referring to the choir- 
boys and other children present, quipped, "It is not so long since I 
was one of them myself" (Miles, 1990, 307). 


In addition to his clerical duties, the boy bishop was expected to pay 
visits to churches, monasteries, and dignitaries throughout his dio- 
cese. The boy bishop and his entourage carried out this duty with 
zest, riding out in full regalia to receive the kind of respect, courte- 
sies, gifts, feasts, and entertainments that would normally be offered 
to a real bishop. Many boys found that it took several days to execute 
this responsibility properly. Indeed, in 1396 the boy bishop of Eng- 


Boy Bishop 

land's York Cathedral finally concluded his round of visitations on 
Candlemas. He collected more than eight pounds over the course 
of these visits. Of course, he did pay out a large portion of that sum 
in meeting the expenses of his entourage, which included a preach- 
er, a steward, two singers, two attendants, and all their horses. 

In general, people seem to have been amused by the boy bishop and 
welcomed his visits. In wealthy households the Lord of Misrule 
arranged food, drink, and gifts for the boy bishop and his entourage. 
It appears that, in return, the boys often entertained the household 
with songs or speeches. England's Queen Mary (1516-1558) is said to 
have received the boy bishop of St. Paul's Cathedral, who entertained 
her with a song. Since many churches, schools, and religious com- 
munities sponsored boy bishops, however, any one diocese might 
contain a small but highly active squad of miniature Christmas bish- 
ops, whose trails were sure to overlap. Thus, especially wealthy and 
high-ranking households and institutions sometimes received visits 
by more than one boy bishop during the Christmas season. 


In spite of the costs and potential inconvenience this custom pre- 
sented to ordinary people, most did not complain. Church authori- 
ties, though, led periodic campaigns to curtail the activities of the 
boy bishop and his court of choristers. These sporadic crusades ap- 
pear to have been triggered either by the boys' unruly behavior or by 
disruptions caused by onlookers. In England the dean of St. Paul's 
Cathedral limited the rights of the boy bishop to demand either ser- 
vice by or entertainment from the canons in 1263. Similar limitations 
were enacted at Salisbury in 1319. In addition, however, Salisbury 
officials warned that anyone who shoved the boys or blocked their 
rightful activities risked excommunication. In 1443 authorities from 
Salisbury Cathedral penned a decree restricting the choristers from 
disrespectful behavior. 

Tradition gave the choirboys the right to elect the boy bishop with- 
out interference from adults. Perhaps fearing that things could get 
out of hand, authorities at various English cathedrals slowly chipped 
away at this tradition. In 1263 officials at St. Paul's Cathedral elimi- 
nated this privilege entirely, claiming it for themselves. Authorities at 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

York Cathedral proceeded more slowly, announcing qualifications 
for the post of boy bishop in 1367. They stipulated that the choir must 
choose a boy from among those with the longest and most exem- 
plary records of service to the Cathedral. The boy also must possess 
both good looks and an acceptable singing voice. At Salisbury Ca- 
thedral the takeover attempt backfired. The choirboys revolted when 
the precentor (choral minister) attempted to curtail their free election 
of the boy bishop in 1449. The dean quickly convened a meeting of 
the canons, who upheld the choristers' right to choose the boy bish- 
op without outside interference. 


After its introduction in the tenth century, the custom of sponsoring 
boy bishops at Christmas time spread throughout Europe, becoming 
a common practice by the thirteenth century. Although known in 
many lands, boy bishops were especially popular in England, France, 
and Germany. The custom fell out of favor in the fifteenth century, 
an era of religious turmoil in which many old practices were ques- 
tioned or eliminated {see also Puritans). In England King Henry VIII 
issued a proclamation forbidding the boy bishop in 1541. His 
lengthy edict demonstrates the changing attitudes of the time: 

Whereas heretofore dyvers and many superstitions and 
chyldysh observances have been used, and yet to this day are 
observed and kept, and in many and sundry parts of this 
realm, as upon Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine, Saint Cle- 
ment, the Holy Innocents, and such like, children be stranglie 
decked and apparayled to counterfeit priestes, bishoppes, 
and women, and so be ledde with songes and daunces from 
house to house, blessing the people and gatheryng of money; 
and boyes do singe masse and preache in the pulpitt, with 
suche other unfittinge and inconvenient usages, rather to the 
deryson than any true glory of God, or honor of his sayntes: 
The Kynges Maiestie therefore, myndinge nothinge so moche 
as to advance the true glory of God without vaine supersti- 
tion, wylleth and commanded that from henceforth all such 
superstitious observations be left and clerely extinguished 
throwout his realmes and dominions, for asmuch as the 


Boy Bishop 

same doth resemble rather the unlawfull superstition of gen- 
tilitie, than the pure and sincere reHgion of Christe [Mac- 
kenzie, 1987, 15]. 


In recent years the boy bishop has sprung back to life in England. A 
few churches, among them Hereford Cathedral, have reinstituted 
some of the ceremonies and customs surrounding the boy bishop. 
On December sixth the boy bishop presides over an elaborate ser- 
vice at Hereford Cathedral. Dressed as a real bishop, the chosen boy 
walks at the head of a formal procession, gives the sermon, and 
leads the prayers and blessings. At one point in the service the real 
bishop of Hereford rises and offers the boy bishop his seat. Con- 
temporary boy bishop ceremonies are observed on St. Nicholas's 
Day. In this way, they neither conflict with nor find themselves over- 
shadowed by the celebrations and ceremonies already clustered 
around Christmas Day. 

Further Reading 

Chambers, Robert. "December 6 — The Boy Bishop: Eton Montem." In his 

The Book of Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1990. 
Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. 

London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. 
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 

Company, 1976. 
Howard, Alexander. Endless Cavalcade. London, England: Arthur Baker, 

Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, England: 

Oxford University Press, 1994. 
. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 

Mackenzie, Neil. "Boy into Bishop." History Today 37, 12 (December 1987): 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Pimlott, ]. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.].: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 


Brazil, Christmas in 


Brazil^ cfiristmas in 

Due to Brazil's location in the Southern Hemisphere, its people cele- 
brate a summertime, rather than a wintertime, Christmas {see also 
Winter Solstice). The Brazilian Christmas season lasts from mid- 
December to January 6. Contemporary Brazilian Christmas customs 
reflect the influence of European and North American Christmas 

Papai Noel, the Three Kings, and Gifts 

Brazilians inherited the Latin Christmas tradition of distributing pre- 
sents to children on Three Kings Day, or Epiphany. During the sec- 
ond half of the twentieth century, however, Santa Claus became 
increasingly popular in Brazil. Nowadays, children may receive pre- 
sents from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, as well as additional treats 
from the Three Kings, or Magi, on Epiphany. Children from poor 
families may receive clothes and shoes as Christmas presents, where- 
as children from richer families may receive toys and other less 
essential items. Adult family members and friends also exchange 
Christmas gifts. On the eve of Epiphany children leave their shoes 
beside the window or outside the front door. In the morning they 
find them filled with candy. 

In spite of the summer heat Santa Claus, or Papai Noel as he called in 
Brazilian Portuguese, visits Brazil in his red and white fur-trimmed 
suit and hat, black boots, and long, white beard. The Brazilians have 
improvised somewhat on the Santa Claus myth. For example, Santa 
enters and leaves homes by the front door rather than the chimney. 
This makes sense to Brazilians since few homes in that tropical coun- 
try have fireplaces and chimneys. Moreover, Papai Noel travels to 
Brazil in a helicopter rather than a sled drawn by flying reindeer. His 
official arrival in Brazil takes place in mid-December when he touch- 
es down in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium amidst a roaring 
crowd. These "Santa Claus arrival" events may be staged in other 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

large cities as well. Brazilian children, like their American counter- 
parts, hope to spot Papai Noel at one of their town's busy shopping 
centers in the days before Christmas. 

Visits and Christmas Dinner 

Christmas dinner provides a very special occasion for families and 
friends to visit. Brazilians eat Christmas dinner late in the evening 
on Christmas Eve. The meal often features roast turkey with farofa 
stuffing, which is made out of toasted manioc flour, onions, garlic, 
turkey livers and gizzards, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and bacon. 
Other popular Christmas dishes include dried cod, an assortment of 
fruit, and a dessert called rabanada, which resembles French toast. 
Champagne, wine, and fruit punch often accompany the meal. Most 
families dine around 10 or 11 p.m. Afterwards many attend the 
Missa do Galo, or Midnight Mass {see also Misa de Gallo). These 
services may be held in Roman Catholic churches or on outdoor 
stages set up for the occasion. In recent years some people have 
begun to stay home to watch the television broadcast of the pope's 
celebration of Midnight Mass in Rome. 

Christmas Trees and Nativity Scenes 

Many Brazilians decorate their homes with a Christmas tree. In 
southern Brazil parents often take on the job of decorating the tree 
themselves. On Christmas Eve they lock themselves in the parlor 
until the tree has been studded with glowing candles and garlanded 
with ornaments, such as metallic balls, figurines, and poinsettia 
blossoms. The magical sight of the decorated tree delights the chil- 
dren when they are finally allowed to enter the room. In spite of the 
popularity of the Christmas tree, the Nativity scene remains the 
focus of home decoration and celebration in most of Brazil. Nativity 
scenes, or presepios, also appear in churches and town squares. 
Children usually participate in setting up the Nativity scene, adding 
toys, fruit, or foliage to the family's collection of figurines. In the 
south families may wait until the day before Christmas to set up the 
Nativity scene. In other areas they may begin constructing the 
presepio in mid-December. 


Bulgaria, Christmas in 

Cards, Charity, Plays 

Brazilians have adopted the custom of sending Christmas greetings 
in the form of Christmas cards. Until recently, many of these cards 
reproduced the winter scenes commonly found on European and 
North American Christmas cards. Now Brazilians may opt for cards 
depicting the sunny scenes more typical of December weather in 
Brazil. In Brazil Christmas is also a time for charitable giving. 
Churches hold many fund-raising events during the Christmas 
season. They usually donate the proceeds to poor families who need 
financial assistance in order to celebrate Christmas. Another Bra- 
zilian custom calls for the presentation of Nativity plays during the 
season. Most of these plays treat religious themes. Folk plays treat- 
ing rural life and lore may also be presented during this time. These 
folk plays often include songs and dances. The most popular of 
these is called Bumba-meu-Boi, or "Beating My Ox." The story re- 
volves around a bull that is killed and then brought back to life. 

Further Reading 

Brazil. Danbury, Conn.: Grolier Educational, 1997. 

Christmas in Brazil. Chicago: World Book, 1991. 

Milne, Jean. Fiesta Time in Latin America. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 

Wakefield, Charito Calvachi. Navidad Latino americana, Latin American 

Christmas. Lancaster, Pa.: Latin American Creations Publishing, 1997. 

Bulgaria^ cfiristmas in 

Christianity is the predominant faith in the eastern European nation 
of Bulgaria, though the country also hosts a sizeable Muslim minori- 
ty (13 percent). Most Bulgarians who profess the Christian faith are 
Orthodox. Like other Orthodox Christians around the world, they 
fast during Advent, the period of spiritual preparation that precedes 
the Christmas festival. For the strictly observant, this means avoiding 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

wine, meat, and dairy products for the duration of the fast, which 
ends on December 25. 

Christmas Season 

Bulgarians consider that the Christmas season begins on Decem- 
ber 20, a day they call Ignazhden. A Bulgarian folk belief teaches that 
Mary, Jesus' mother, experienced her first contractions on this day. 
Christmas Day festivities begin on December 24 and extend through 
December 26. These festivities include special religious observances 
and frolics that resemble those of Carnival. In addition, bands of 
boys or young men, known as koledari, wander through the streets, 
stopping at homes to sing Christmas carols, dance, and offer bless- 
ings. People give them fruit, bread, and other treats as a means of 
thanking them for their efforts. Traditional koledari wear colorful 
folk costumes and carry beautifully carved oaken staves. 

Christmas Dinner 

Many Bulgarian Christmas customs pertain to the Christmas dinner. 
This should be a sumptuous meal, so as to attract abundance in the 
new year. The woman of the house bakes a special loaf of bread, 
which the head of the household breaks into pieces, giving one to 
each family member and saving some for the family's animals. In 
some areas people observe the tradition of burning incense over the 
dinner table and over the farm animals. One Bulgarian Christmas 
tradition requires whoever serves the Christmas pie to set aside the 
first piece for "Grandpa Vassil." This fictional character stands for any 
wayfarer, while the custom itself reminds diners that this night above 
all others is one on which to welcome strangers to share their feast. 

New Year's Eve and Day 

Bulgarian folk tradition assigns the burning of the Yule log to New 
Year's Eve. An old folk custom dictated that the hearth first be 
cleaned with a broom made from juniper. At sunset on New Year's 
Eve the oldest male in the household lights the Yule log. If it burns 
through the night, the family can hope for wealth and fertility in the 
year to come. 


Bulgaria, Christmas in 

Bands of male carolers roam the streets on New Year's Eve as well as 
at Christmas time. These carolers, called sourvakari, carry wands made 
of dogwood branches. They lightly slap people on the back with 
these wands, wishing them long life, good health, and abundance. 
Groups of boys may repeat this custom on New Year's Day. In 
exchange for this blessing people offer the boys coins, fruit, or candy. 

New Year's Day is celebrated with a large meal, which acts as a 
charm to ensure a prosperous new year. The bread traditionally served 
with this meal is decorated with emblems representing vines and 
bee hives. Banitza, a kind of cheese pastry, is a popular New Year's 
dish. On this occasion bakers place cornel (dogwood) buds inside 
the pastry. These buds symbolize good luck and good health for 
family members and livestock. 

Grandfather Frost, the Russian gift bringer, visits Bulgaria on New 
Year's Day. This custom may have been imported during the recent 
period in which Bulgaria was ruled by the Russian-led Union of 
Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) 

Further Reading 

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. 

Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. 
Resnick, Abraham. Bulgaria. Enchantment of the World. Chicago: Children's 

Press, 1995. 
Stavreva, Kirilka. Bulgaria. Cultures of the World. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Marshall 

Cavendish, 1997. 

Web Site 

"Wonderland Bulgaria," a web site maintained by Iliana Rakilovska, Irina 
Simeonova, Maria Nankova, and Kamen Minchev, furnishes information 
on the history, population, folklore, and geography of Bulgaria. For infor- 
mation on Bulgarian folk festivals, see: 



least of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 

Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, 

The Meeting of the Lord 

The Gospel according to Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary 
brought the baby Jesus to the temple six weeks after his birth (Luke 
2:22-24). Once there they observed the Jewish ceremony by which 
firstborn sons were presented to God. Furthermore, Mary fulfilled 
the purification rites, which Jewish law required women to undergo 
forty days after the birth of a son. Another very sigiiificant event 
occurred while the Holy Family was at the temple. Simeon and 
Anna, a holy man and a prophetess, recognized the infant as the 
Messiah. Simeon declared that the child would be "a light that will 
bring revelation to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32). The Christian feast of 
Candlemas commemorates all these events. It is celebrated on Feb- 
ruary 2, forty days after Christmas. Candlemas gets its name from a 
number of candle-related customs connected with the feast. By the 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Middle Ages the blessing of candles, the distribution of blessed can- 
dles among parishioners, and candlelit processions had all established 
themselves as common elements in western European Candlemas 


The earliest known description of the feast comes from late fourth- 
century Jerusalem. This early celebration consisted of a solemn pro- 
cession followed by a sermon and mass. The description named the 
feast simply "the fortieth day after Epiphany." Since at that time 
Jerusalem Christians were celebrating both Epiphany and the Na- 
tivity on January 6, the festival fell on the fourteenth of February {see 
also December 25). From Jerusalem the new festival spread through- 
out the East. The Greeks called it Hypapante Kyriou, or "The Meeting 
of the Lord," a name that reflected their emphasis on the meeting 
between Simeon, Anna, and the infant Jesus. The feast began to 
appear in the West in the seventh and eighth centuries. Westerners 
celebrated it on February 2, since by that time Rome had assigned 
the celebration of the Nativity to December 25. Roman officials 
called the feast the "Purification of Mary," reflecting their emphasis 
on Mary's fulfillment of Jewish law. 

Several centuries passed before western European Candlemas ob- 
servances consolidated around a distinctive set of traditions. Candles 
were used in the services as early as the mid-fifth century in Jeru- 
salem. Nevertheless, Pope Sergius I (687-701 a.d.) is generally cred- 
ited with ordering the first candlelit processions to accompany 
church services in Rome. In what is now France, the blessing of can- 
dles developed during the Carolingian Empire, near the close of the 
eighth century. By the eleventh century the blessing of candles, the 
distribution of blessed candles, and candlelit processions had be- 
come widespread elements in the western European observance of 
Candlemas. The feast got its English name. Candlemas, meaning 
quite literally "candle mass," from these customs. Since the eigh- 
teenth century the representatives of various religious communities 
have offered the pope large, decorated candles on Candlemas. 

Contemporary Candlemas services generally emphasize Christ as 
the Light of the World. In addition, the officiant often blesses and 



distributes beeswax candles. In some traditions parishioners bring 
candles from home to be blessed during the service. In past times 
Candlemas processions filed out into the churchyard and past the 
graves of the departed. Contemporary Candlemas processions, how- 
ever, usually remain within the church. 

Some researchers suggest that Christians simply adopted Candle- 
mas and its customs from pagan celebrations held at the same time 
of year. On February 1 the pagan Celts celebrated Imbolc, a festival 
associated with the return of the spring goddess Bride (later, St. 
Bridget). In some areas sacred fires and candles burned through the 
night in honor of Bride's return. In ancient Rome people observed 
purification rites throughout the month of February, which included 
a procession through the city with lit candles. In addition, they cele- 
brated the return of their spring goddess, Ceres, on February first. 
Pagans in other Mediterranean cultures also welcomed the return of 
a spring deity. Many of these observances featured fire rituals and 
torchlit processions. 

While some writers believe that these pagan practices gave rise to 
the observance of Candlemas and its customs, most contemporary 
scholars doubt that these pagan rituals exerted strong influence on 
medieval Christians. The doubters point out that these pagan fire 
ceremonies had died out by the time candles became part of the 
Christian festival. They also claim a specifically Christian symbolism 
for the Candlemas tapers. The candles recall the words of Simeon 
who proclaimed that Jesus would become "a light" unto the 

Christmas Customs 

Jesus' presentation in the temple and Mary's fulfillment of the rites 
of purification mark the end of the series of events associated with 
Jesus' birth in the Gospels. In a similar vein, many old European 
Christmas customs were practiced until Candlemas. For example, in 
some areas Nativity scenes were taken apart and put away on 
Candlemas. In other areas Christmas greenery — such as rose- 
mary, laurel, mistletoe, holly, and ivy — and other seasonal deco- 
rations were finally removed on Candlemas. The English poet 
Robert Herrick (1591-1674) summarized Devonshire folk customs 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

and beliefs concerning the removal of such decorations in the fol- 
lowing poem: 

Candlemas Eve Carol 

Down with rosemary, and so 

Down with bays and mistletoe; 

Down with the holly, ivy, all 

Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas hall. 

That so the superstitious find 

No one least branch there left behind; 

For look, how many leaves there be 

Neglected there, maids, trust to me. 

So many goblins you shall see [Urlin, 1992, 30]. 

In another verse Herrick informs us that the Yule log was kindled 
one last time on Candlemas and then stored till the following year. 
Herrick implies that Candlemas concludes the Christmas season 
with the following lines: 

End now the White Loafe and the Pye 

And let all sports with Christmas dye [Miles, 1990, 353]. 

Herrick's sentiments echo the lyrics of a fifteenth-century English 
Christmas carol, which exclaims, "Syng we Yole tyl Candlemas" 
(Sing we Yule till Candlemas). 

Further Reading 

Chambers, Robert. "February 2 — Candlemass." In his The Book of Days. 
Volume 1. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Cowie, L. W., and lohn Selwyn Gummer. The Christian Calendar. Spring- 
field, Mass.: C. and G. Merriam Company, 1974. 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 
Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1997. 

Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Oxford, 
England: Basil Black we 11, 1991. 

lames, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1993. 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 



Metford, J. C.J. The Christian Year. London, England: Than\es and Hudson, 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Slin\, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. 
Smith, C. "Candlemas." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 3. New York: 

McGraw-Hill, 1967. 
Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 

Toon, Peter. "Candle; Candlemas." In J. D. Douglas, ed. TJie Neiu Inter- 
national Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised edition. Grand Rapids, 

Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978. 
Urlin, Ethel. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 
Weiser, Francis X. The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: 

Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952. 


For candle customs associated with the celebration of Christmas, see 
Advent Candle; Advent Wreath; Candlemas; Christingle; Christ- 
mas Candles; Christmas Symbols; Denmark, Christmas in; Faro- 
litos; Ireland, Christmas in; Plygain; Pyramid; St. Lucy's Day; 

Candy Cane, see urban Legends 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Ceremony of Lessons and Carols 

On the afternoon of December 24 a special Christmas service takes 
place at Cambridge University's King's College Chapel. Known as 
the "Ceremony of Lessons and Carols," this service features nine 
Bible readings accompanied by nine Christmas carols or other ap- 
propriate musical works. The King's College service, first broadcast 
in 1928, helped to popularize this special Christmas observance. To- 
day many churches in England, the United States, and around the 
world hold their own versions of this ceremony. 

An Anglican bishop, Edward W. Benson, who later was archbishop 
of Canterbury, devised the first Ceremony of Nine Lessons and 
Carols. Benson is said to have modeled the new carol service on 
medieval vigil services. Benson presented the first Ceremony of Les- 
sons and Carols on Christmas Eve in 1880. The service took place in 
the wooden shed that served as the cathedral in Truro, England. The 
Bible lessons were read by a wide spectrum of church officers, be- 
ginning with a chorister and ending with the bishop. 

The service quickly began to spread to other congregations. Eric 
Milner- White, dean of King's College Chapel, introduced the service 
there in 1918. The Order of Service was revised in 1919, and the 
song "Once in Royal David's City" established as the opening hymn. 
The King's College service is still broadcast every year on the radio 
(except in the year 1930), and in recent years it has also been aired 
on television. 

The Ceremony of Lessons and Carols has spread far beyond its 
native land. Churches all over the world now offer their version of 
the service during Advent. The standard format calls for a series of 
alternating Bible readings and carols, bracketed by opening and 
closing prayers. Although the choice of lessons and carols may vary, 
the heart of the service remains the same. The series of readings 
describes the unfolding of God's love for humanity from a biblical 
perspective. The carols enhance the beauty of the service by treating 
the same subject in music. 


Further Reading 

Howard, Alexander. Endless Cavalcade. London, England: Arthur Baker, 1964. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by Cambridge University's King College Chapel offers in- 
formation on their famous Ceremony of Lessons and Carols service: 


Folk beliefs assign St. Nicholas the role of Christmas gift bringer in 
Czechoslovakia. According to Czechoslovakian folklore, two oddly 
matched companions aid the good saint in his labors. On December 
sixth, St. Nicholas's Day, Nicholas descends from heaven on a 
golden rope accompanied by an angel dressed in white and a demon 
known as a cert. The cert wears black clothing and carries a whip 
and chain. He frightens naughty children, reminding them of the 
punishment in store for them if they don't mend their ways. {See also 
Black Peter.) 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Foley, Daniel J. Christmas the Worid Over. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 

Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New 

York: Macmillan, 1979. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

^^A CJ^arfie Brown cfiristmas^^ 

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" charmed millions of Americans when 
it made its debut in 1965. This animated television special weaves a 
story around the Christmas-time antics of the characters from Charles 
Schulz's (1922-2000) popular cartoon-strip "Peanuts." While the 
other kids look forward to Christmas and enjoy winter- time activi- 
ties, like skating, Charlie Brown alone feels anxious and depressed 
{see Depression). He consults Lucy, who fancies herself an amateur 
psychiatrist. She advises him to "get involved" with something and 
makes him the director of the school Christmas play. His involve- 
ment ends when the other kids laugh at the straggly Christmas tree 
he brings back to adorn the stage. Then Linus, quoting from the 
Bible, reminds the kids what Christmas is all about {see Gospel Ac- 
counts of Christmas). Afterwards Charlie Brown takes his Christ- 
mas tree home. The other kids change their minds about the tree 
and help Charlie Brown decorate it. 

Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" 

Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" was one of the most successful comic 
strips of all time. More than 300 million people worldwide followed 
the strip, which was translated into 20 different languages. Schulz's 
pint-sized characters approach life with a unique combination of 
wisdom, innocence, anxiety, and hip self-assurance that attracts both 
adult and juvenile readers. People who knew Charles Schulz find 
many similarities between the cartoonist and his main character, the 
worried and hapless Charlie Brown. Yet Schulz was able to translate 
his nervousness into an appealing art form, which in turn brought 
him millions of fans and millions of dollars. Among the many hon- 
ors given to the cartoonist include his mention in the 1984 Guinness 
Book of World Records when the 2,000th newspaper subscribed to his 
strip, and his induction into the Cartoonist Hall of Fame in 1986. In 
1990 the French government named him a "Commander of Arts and 


"K Charlie Brown Christmas" 

On December 14, 1999, Schulz, who was battling cancer, reluctantly 
announced his retirement to the world. One of the last honors re- 
ceived by this long-time resident of Santa Rosa, California, was 
given to him by the California state legislature, which declared Fe- 
bruary 13, 2000 "Charles Schulz Day." On this day the last "Peanuts" 
strip was scheduled to run in newspapers across the country and 
around the world. Schulz died in his sleep on February 12, just hours 
before a saddened public enjoyed his final strip. In May of 2000 the 
Congress of the United States posthumously awarded him the Medal 
of Honor. 

The Making of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" 

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" began life as a twinkle in the eye of 
producer Lee Mendelson. He, Schulz, and animator Bill Melendez 
had worked together a couple of years earlier on a documentary of 
Schulz and his cartoon characters. When Mendelson discovered that 
Coca Cola was looking for a Christmas special and was interested in 
the Peanuts characters, he assured them of both his and Schulz's 
interest in the project. Then Mendelson rushed to Schulz's house to 
inform him of the idea and convince him that it was a good one. 
Luckily, Schulz readily agreed to work on the project, and together 
the two of them came up with an outline for the show. The outline 
specified that the story would contain a school play, winter-time fun 
and games, a reading from the Bible, and a combination of jazz and 
traditional Christmas music. Coca Cola liked the outline, and pro- 
duction immediately began on the show. 

Mendelson right away invited Bill Melendez to take charge of the 
animation. The three men met to develop the story. Mendelson con- 
tributed the idea of structuring some of the action around a Christ- 
mas tree, an inspiration he took from Hans Christian Andersen's 
short story "The Fir Tree." Schulz qualified the concept, by insisting 
that the tree be a "Charlie Brown" type of tree. The work progressed 
with Schulz masterminding the dialogue and situations, while Me- 
lendez translated them into an animated cartoon. 

The three men were eager to hire jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, whom 
they had worked with before on the Schulz documentary. They 
wanted to reuse the "Linus and Lucy" theme developed by Guaraldi 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

several years ago as well as give him an opportunity to create new 
music. Guaraldi signed on and production went into iiill swing. The 
animators produced 10,000 drawings for the half-hour show. Pass- 
ing them by the camera at the rate of 12 per second made the car- 
toon characters appear to move. 

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" broke new ground in several ways. By 
having one of the characters recite the biblical narrative of Jesus' 
birth, it introduced a moment of serious religious contemplation into 
a cartoon aimed at children. Although Mendelson was doubtful, 
Schulz, a quietly religious man, insisted that his Christmas show 
contain a religious theme. In addition, the three men decided to hire 
child actors to dub in the cartoon characters' voices. Up till that time, 
adult actors had typically filled in all the voices in animated car- 
toons, even those of child characters. Finally, the jazz piano music 
provided by Vince Guaraldi delighted both adults and children, who 
previously had been accustomed to cartoons accompanied by simple 
jingles rather than serious music. 

Reactions to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" 

The crew finished work on the show one week before it was sched- 
uled to air on television. Top CBS executives screened the special 
shortly before it was televised. Disappointed by what they consid- 
ered its slow pace, they assured Mendelson that although they 
would air the program, they wouldn't be interested in any further 
Charlie Brown shows. 

This assessment crushed Mendelson, Schulz, and Melendez. Hope 
revived when the special received a good pre-broadcast review in 
Time magazine. On December 9, 1965, the show was broadcast na- 
tionwide. Ratings proved it to be a hit with the American public, and 
ranked it as the second-most popular show on television during its 
time-slot. Several months later the three men received an Emmy 
Award for Best Network Animated Special. "A Charlie Brown Christ- 
mas" also received a Peabody Award for excellence in family pro- 
gramming. Rerun in the years that followed, the show continued to 
receive high ratings. 


"K Charlie Brown Christmas" 

Charles Schulz went on to create 45 animated television specials 
based on his famous cartoon- strip characters. "A Charlie Brown 
Christmas," his first, remained his favorite. Vince Guaraldi's album 
of music from the show, entitled "A Charlie Brown Christmas," went 
platinum (sold over 1,000,000 copies). Later released as a CD, it con- 
tinues to be a best-selling Christmas album. 

Further Reading 

Johnson, Rheta Grimsley. Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz. Kansas 

City, Mo.: Andrews and McMeel, 1995. 
Mendelson, Lee. A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition. New 

York: HarperCollins, 2000. 

Web Site 

The Charles M. Schulz Museum, located in Santa Rosa, California, offers a 
web site with information on Schulz and his achievements: 




Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cf}err\) Tree 

Legend, song, and custom link the cherry tree to the Christmas 
season. In all three the cherry tree performs unusual feats in re- 
sponse to the power of God or the magic of the season. 


An old Christian legend, first recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of 
Pseudo-Matthew, makes the cherry tree the subject of one of the 
infant Jesus' first miracles. The original Latin text containing the tale 
dates back to the eighth or ninth century. This version of the story 
tells of an event that occurred shortly after Jesus' birth. Joseph, Mary, 
and the infant Jesus were traveling in the desert. The couple spied a 
palm tree and went to rest under its shadow. Joseph worried about 
how they were going to find water. Mary expressed a wish for the 
dates she saw hanging high above them. Joseph scolded his wife for 
asking for something so far out of his reach. Then the baby Jesus 
spoke to the tree, ordering it to bend down so his mother could gath- 
er the fruit. The tree obeyed. Jesus also commanded an underground 
spring to surface so they could drink and fill their water bags. 

As the tale passed from one teller to another, many variations oc- 
curred. In later versions of the story the incident takes place before 
Jesus is born. Moreover, as the tale became popular in Europe, the 
tree which Jesus commands to bow down changes to species more 
familiar to Europeans. In Britain, the newer versions of the story fea- 
tured a cherry tree. In these later interpretations of the tale, Joseph 
and his pregnant wife are walking by some cherry trees laden with 
ripe fruit. Mary asks Joseph to pick some cherries for her. He refuses 
in a rude manner, with the implication that he still questions the ori- 
gins of her mysterious pregnancy. Jesus, from inside the womb, then 
commands the cherry tree to bow down so his mother can pick fruit. 
Joseph stands by sheepishly and observes this miracle. The earliest 
recorded version of this story in the English language appeared in a 
fifteenth-century miracle play. Eventually this popular tale was set to 


Cherry Tree 

music in the Christmas song known as "The Cherry Tree Carol" {see 
also Christmas Carol). 


In medieval Europe a miracle play concerning the expulsion of Adam 
and Eve from the Garden of Eden was often performed around 
Christmas time. The play featured one central prop, the paradise 
tree. Apples hung from its branches as a symbol of Eve's act of dis- 
obedience, but some also added cherries as a symbol of Mary. 

According to an old custom, Germans, Czechs, Austrians, Poles, and 
other central and eastern Europeans begin Barbara branches on 
December 4, St. Barbara's Day. A branch is broken off a cherry tree 
and kept in a pot of water near the stove. This premature warmth 
encourages the branch to blossom. Old folklore suggests that if the 
buds blossom on Christmas Eve, the girl who tended the branch will 
find a good husband within the year. Others interpret the Christmas 
flowers as signs that good fortune will visit the household in the 
coming year. This old custom has regained some popularity among 
Western Christians. Instead of cherry branches, some people use 
apple, plum, almond, forsythia, jasmine, or horse chestnut branches. 

Further Reading 

Coffin, Tristram P. Tlie Book of Christmas Folklore. New York: Seabury Press, 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 

Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

c{)\[drens Letters 

The urge to send greetings at Christmas time seizes people of all 
ages. Businesses prepare hundreds of thank -you notes for their cus- 
tomers. Adults salute family and friends with Christmas cards. 
Even children get in on the act by sending letters to the child Jesus 
and to Santa Claus. 

Letters to the Child Jesus 

An old Austrian custom encouraged children to write letters to the 
child Jesus on the night before St. Nicholas's Day. These letters 
contained lists of things the children wanted for Christmas. The 
youngsters placed the letters on the windowsill before going to bed. 
When the children discovered that the letters had disappeared 


Children's Letters 

overnight, their parents assured them that St. Nicholas had taken 
the letters back to heaven to deliver to the child Jesus. In that way 
the Christ child knew what to bring the children on Christmas Eve 
(see also Christkindel). In some South American countries old cus- 
toms suggested that children leave their letters for the child Jesus in 
front of the crib contained in the family Nativity scene. They did so 
between December 16 and 24, the days on which the Hispanic folk 
play called Las Posadas was being enacted. Older family members 
explained the disappearance of the letters by hinting that angels 
delivered them to heaven. 

Letters to Santa Claus 

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries children in many lands 
adopted Santa Claus as the Christmas gift bringer. In the 1880s 
American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) gave Santa Claus an 
address, the North Pole. Soon afterwards American children began 
writing letters to Santa Claus, hoping to guide him in his choice of 
gifts for them. Since 1929 the United States Postal Service has been 
trying to answer these letters. Each year postal employees and com- 
munity volunteers read and respond to the letters. Some volunteers, 
touched by the earnest requests of underprivileged tots, find ways of 
sending the children some of the requested gifts. 

In 1997 postal workers all over the country reported the first decline 
ever in the numbers of letters sent to Santa Claus at Christmas time. 
Some postal divisions noticed a steep seventy-percent drop in these 
letters. No one knows why so many kids all at once lost interest in 
writing letters to Santa. Perhaps they suddenly discovered e-mail. In 
any case, the Postal Service hired actress Maureen O'Hara, who 
starred in the 1947 Hollywood Christmas film. Miracle on 34th 
Street, to head a campaign publicizing the volunteer program dedi- 
cated to answering these letters and encouraging children to contin- 
ue sending letters to Santa. 

While American children believe that Santa dwells at the North 
Pole, Finnish children know that he lives in Korvatunturi, in the far 
north of Finland. Korvatunturi means "Ear Mountain," so it is the 
perfect abode for a man whose primary job is listening to and fulfill- 
ing children's wishes. Since the 1950s the post office in the small 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

northern town of Rovaniemi has been handling Santa's mail. Ap- 
parently, the Finnish belief that Santa resides at Korvatunturi has 
spread. These days Rovaniemi receives about 500,000 letters to Santa 
each year from children in 160 countries. The Finns also make an 
attempt to answer these letters. To reach Santa Claus via the Finnish 
postal service, write him at Santa Claus' Main Post Office, 96930 
Arctic Circle, Finland. In 1997 even children who didn't initiate con- 
tact with Santa could receive an unsolicited letter from him. To make 
this happen, an adult needs to send the child's name and address in 
block letters, along with four international reply coupons (available 
at your local post office) to the address above. Please note that the 
Finnish Santa is fluent in twelve languages and needs to know 
which of these to respond in. 

Some Icelanders wish to popularize the idea that Santa Claus lives 
in Iceland. At one point the government-run Iceland Board of 
Tourism answered the thousands of children's letters to Santa that 
arrived in Iceland. After funding cuts decimated this program a pri- 
vate foundation stepped in to answer these letters. For a fee of $4.95 
(U.S. dollars), an organization called North Pole, Inc. — whose mail- 
ing address is P.O. Box 358-121, Reykjavik, Iceland — will send your 
child a return letter from Santa, along with a little story, photos of 
Santa Claus at home, and a diploma with the child's name on it. 

Other far northern nations, such as Sweden, Greenland, and Cana- 
da also claim to be the home of Santa Claus. Sweden receives tens 
of thousands of children's letters to Santa Claus each year. The Swe- 
dish post office makes every effort to answer these letters. 

Letters to Other Gift Bringers 

In England children send letters to Father Christmas listing the 
gifts they would like to receive for Christmas. English children 
developed a clever way of delivering these letters. They toss the let- 
ters into the fireplace, relying on the flames to transform them into a 
kind of magical smoke that wafts up the chimney and across Eng- 
land to Father Christmas. In Italy children write letters to La Befana 
requesting that she bring them certain toys and treats when she vis- 
its their home on Epiphany eve. Spanish children write similar let- 
ters to the Wise Men, or Magi, in the weeks before Epiphany. French 


Children's Letters 

children send letters to Pere Noel, hoping to influence the gifts he 
brings them on Christmas Eve. 

Seals and Stamps 

At the turn of the twentieth century a number of charitable organi- 
zations hit on a way to use the flood of Christmas mail to raise some 
badly needed revenue. They began to sell Christmas seals which 
could be used to decorate envelopes and packages. In the 1960s the 
U.S. Postal Service chimed in by producing special Christmas stamps 
during the holiday season. Unlike the seals, the stamps function as 
valid postage. They add a further decorative note to holiday season 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Schmelz, Abigail. "Xmas Dreams Dashed as Santa Letters Go Unopened." 

Reuters (December 19, 1996). 
Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1990. 

Web Site 

For more information on North Pole, Inc., the Icelandic organization that 
sends out return letters to children who write to Santa Glaus in Iceland, 
visit their web site at: 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cfirismon Tree 

The Chrismon tree adapts the traditional Christmas tree to more 
strictly Christian uses. It consists of an evergreen tree decorated with 
traditional Christian symbols of Jesus. In fact, the word "Chrismon" 
resulted from the combination of two words, "Christ" and "mono- 
gram." Originally, only monograms of Christ decorated the tree. As 
churches and families adopted the custom, however, they began to 
create new symbols of Christ to adorn their trees. Only the colors 
white and gold appear on these ornaments. These are the liturgical 
colors for Christmas Day. White represents Jesus' purity and perfec- 
tion, while gold stands for his majesty and glory. White lights may 
further embellish the tree, reminding viewers that Jesus is "the light 
of the world" Qohn 8:12). 

Further Reading 

Augustine, Peg, comp. Come to Christmas. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 





Christingle is the name of a special Protestant Christmas Eve service 
popular in England. The word also refers to the decorated candles 
distributed to children at this service. Christingle candles can be 
traced back to the Moravians, a group of Protestant Christians whose 
denomination was founded in the fifteenth century in what is now 
the Czech Republic (for more on the Moravians, see Bethlehem, Penn- 
sylvania, Christmas in; Lovefeast). 

Moravians have long distributed beeswax candles, trimmed with red 
paper or ribbon, to worshipers at their Christmas Eve services. As the 
congregation sings hymns they hold up their flickering candles, 
symbolizing the Christ child or the Christ light. Moravians brought 
this custom with them to England, where the German Christkindel 
(Christ child) became "Christingle." 

As the years went by, the design of the candle changed and acquired 
new symbolism. Children attending today's Christingle services re- 
ceive an orange into which a candle, festooned with red and white 
ribbons and paper, has been inserted. Raisins, nuts, candies, and other 
sweets, skewered onto toothpicks, surround the candle. While the 
candle still stands for Christ, the orange is said to represent the 
world. The sweets may symbolize the sweetness that comes from 
following Christ or the bounty of the earth, and the red and white 
paper represents the blood of Christ and its power to purify. {For a 
similar custom, see Wales, Christmas in.) 

Christingle services and candles can also be found in Labrador, 
Canada, and other places where English Moravians sent missionar- 
ies. Instead of an orange, the people of Labrador insert their Christ- 
ingle candles into an apple. In England the Christingle service and 
candles have spread beyond Moravian churches, becoming popular 
with other Protestants as well. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Web Sites 

The Moravian Church in America offers a page on the Christingle at: 

The Royal School of Church Music, a non-profit organization dedicated to 
promoting all styles of church music in all denominations, offers informa- 
tion on Christingle services at: 


Christ Child, Christkind, Kriss Kringle 

In parts of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria the Christkindel or 
Christkind brings children their Christmas gifts. Christkindel means 
"Christ child" in German. Some people understand the Christ Child 
to be the child Jesus; others view the Christ Child as an angel, who 
appears as a young girl with golden wings, long blond hair, and flow- 
ing robes. 

In past times a rather threatening spirit known as Hans Trapp accom- 
panied the Christ Child in some German-speaking regions. Hans 
Trapp dressed in furs and carried a rod, making it his duty to punish 
children who had behaved badly {see also Knecht Ruprecht). The 
Christ Child generally intervened on the naughty child's behalf, how- 

The Christ Child became a German gift bringer around the seven- 
teenth century. During the Reformation, Protestant reformers wanted 
to teach children that all blessings come directly from God. Rather 
than let children continue to believe that St. Nicholas brought their 
gifts, they introduced the concept of the Christkindel. Nuremberg, 
Germany's famous Christmas market, which displays hundreds of 
gift items each year, adopted the name "Christ Child Market" in the 
seventeenth century. 

German immigrants brought the notion of the Christkindel with 
them to the United States. Over time the customs and lore connect- 


Christmas Ale 

ed with Christkindel faded and the word itself changed to "Kriss 
Kringle." The growing popularity of Santa Claus in the United 
States eventually eclipsed any remaining notion of the Christ Child, 
and Kriss Kringle became simply another name for Santa. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. Tlie Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New 

York: Macmillan, 1979. 

cfiristmas Ale 

Christmas Beer, Yule Ale 

In recent years a growing number of small American breweries have 
marketed special Christmas ales during the holiday season. These 
companies have revived the ancient northern European tradition of 
celebrating the midwinter holidays with specially brewed beers. 

Yule Ale 

A number of experts believe that the pagan Scandinavians celebrated 
their midwinter Yule festival by brewing and drinking special beers. 
Norse mythology taught that the god Odin instructed humans in the 
brewing of alcoholic beverages. The people drank to Odin during 
Yule. They may have been invoking him either as the patron of ale or 
as the lord of the dead, since they honored the spirits of the deceased 
during Yule. Some researchers believe that the ancient Scandinavians 
also raised their glasses to other gods during the festival, including 
Frey, the fertility god. 

The connection between the Yule season and drinking remained 
strong as Scandinavia adopted Christianity in the Middle Ages. 
"Drinking Yule" became a standard phrase referring to the celebra- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

tion of the holiday {see also Wassail). In Norway medieval law mod- 
ified the ancient practice of toasting the gods when drinking Yule 
ale. It stipulated that Christmas beer should be blessed in the name 
of Christ and Mary for peace and a good harvest. What's more, 
medieval law required every household to bless and drink Yule beer. 
Norwegians usually drank their Christmas ale out of special cups, 
sometimes reserving ancient drinking horns for this purpose. 

Seasonal Ales 

In Norway the tradition of brewing and blessing special beers for 
Christmas flourished until the nineteenth century. Tradition dictated 
that all Christmas baking, slaughtering, and brewing be finished by 
St. Thomas's Day, December 21. For this reason Norwegian folk 
tradition dubbed him "St. Thomas the Brewer." In past times Nor- 
wegians visited each other on St. Thomas's Day in order to sample 
one another's Christmas ale. 

In Germany beer-makers developed and maintained a tradition of 
brewing special seasonal ales. Perhaps the most well known were 
those served for the fall harvest festivals. German beer drinkers still 
anticipate the arrival of these slightly stronger and darker beers, 
named Oktoberfest or Marzenbiers, each autumn. German brewers 
also craft distinctive beers for the Christmas season, as well as for 
spring and summer. 

Church Ales 

In the Middle Ages northern Europeans drank quite a lot of beer. 
Beer's popularity may have sprung in part from the fact that, due to 
poor sanitary conditions, fermented alcoholic beverages were less 
likely than water to transmit diseases. The climate in much of north- 
ern Europe will not support wine grapes very well, so the people of 
the north specialized in beer-making. 

In medieval times most monasteries brewed their own beer. In fact, 
monastic brews were considered among the best in medieval Eu- 
rope. In the late Middle Ages parish churches in England began to 
ferment beers to be sold to the public on feast days. These events, 
called church ales, raised money for church supplies, repairs, and 


Christmas Ale 

improvements. The most important church ale of the year occurred 
at Whitsuntide (Pentecost and the week that follows). Other impor- 
tant church ales took place at Easter, May Day, Christmas, and vari- 
ous patron saints' days. These party-like events featured the con- 
sumption of ample quantities of food and drink, along with dancing, 
game playing, and other forms of revelry. They died out in most 
places by the eighteenth century, succumbing to long-standing op- 
position by those who objected to the boisterous behavior that oc- 
curred at these church events. 

Christmas Ale 

The northern European preference for celebrating the Christmas sea- 
son with specially brewed ales emerged from all of the above tradi- 
tions. Midwinter brews tended to be darker, spicier, and slightly more 
alcoholic than other beers, which made them a special treat. With the 
rise of industrial breweries, however, handcrafted seasonal beers all 
but vanished. In the United States seasonal beers disappeared after 
World War II. In 1975 a tiny San Francisco firm, the Anchor Brewing 
Company, reintroduced American beer drinkers to Christmas ale. 
Their success inspired many other small breweries to follow suit. 

Further Reading 

Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Nonuay. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum 

Forlag, 1970. 
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 

Company, 1976. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, England: 

Oxford University Press, 1994. 
Rhodes, Christine, ed. Encyclopedia of Beer. New York: Henry Holt and 

Company, 1995. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


cfiristmas Bonus 

As Christmas approaches, many American workers look forward to 
receiving a Christmas bonus, usually a lump sum of money added to 
their December paycheck. This Christmas gift from employer to 
employee may have been inspired by English Boxing Day customs. 
Although the Christmas bonus began as a voluntary gift, it evolved 
into an expected increase in one's December salary. 

By the late nineteenth century many American employers had adopt- 
ed the custom of distributing Christmas bonuses among their work- 
ers. These personalized exchanges often took place at office Christ- 
mas parties, another new, late nineteenth-century custom. The boss 


Christmas Bonus 

himself usually presented each worker with their presents or money. 
Often the employer tied the gift to the employee's performance dur- 
ing the year. 

Christmas bonuses became increasingly common throughout the 
last decades of the nineteenth century, but between 1900 and 1920, 
these kinds of personalized exchanges all but disappeared. Labor 
unions, which grew in numbers and in influence during this period, 
began to bring the issue of the Christmas bonus to the bargaining 
table. Unionists argued that workers depended on these bonuses 
and needed to know in advance approximately how much they 
would receive. They objected to the nineteenth- century practice 
whereby the bonuses were distributed according to the whims of 
managers and bosses. As the twentieth century rolled on, their argu- 
ments prevailed. Christmas bonuses were increasingly calculated 
according to agreed-upon formulas. These formulas often took into 
account such things as salary level and years of service. 

In recent years the number of companies giving Christmas bonuses 
has declined. Some firms have switched to year-round incentive 
programs that reward effective employees. Others provide employ- 
ees with a lavish Christmas party or a day off in lieu of a bonus. 
According to the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, D.C., 
about nine percent of companies with 1,000 or more workers dis- 
tributed Christmas bonuses in 1999. Workers in small companies 
were luckier, with about 25 percent of their employers offering mod- 
est cash bonuses at Christmas time. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. Tlie Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

Ostrowski, Jeff. "Companies Moving Away From Christmas Bonuses, Study 
Finds." The Palm Beach Post (December 24, 1999): ID. 

Waits, William. The Modern Christmas in America. New York: New York Uni- 
versity Press, 1993. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cfiristmas Cakes 

Christmas Breads, Yule Bread, Yule Cakes 

Bread is a staple food in European cuisine. Since medieval times Eu- 
ropean cooks have enriched this everyday food for the Christmas 
table. These early cooks began a tradition that continues to this day. 
People from many different nations still celebrate Christmas with a 
variety of rich breads and cakes. 

European Christmas Breads and Cakes 

The cuisine of medieval Europe did not feature a strong distinction 
between breads and cakes. For festive occasions bakers produced 
special breads we might consider akin to cake. As medieval cooks 
sharpened their understanding of various leavening agents, a dis- 
tinction between bread and cake slowly began to emerge. Early 
Christmas cakes reflect this blurring of culinary categories. One early 


Christmas Cakes 

recipe for ginger cake mixed dry bread crumbs with spices and 
honey. The pasty dough resulting from this process was molded into 
various decorative shapes. Cakes featuring spices and honey were 
among the earliest European Christmas baked goods. Their descen- 
dants, often having evolved into cookies, populate contemporary 
Christmas celebrations. They include our own familiar gingerbread, 
northern Europe's peppernuts (Pfeffemusse), Germany's Lebkuchen 
and Springerle, and Holland's speculaas. Cooks of past eras also en- 
riched breads and cakes by adding extra fats, dried and candied 
fruits, and nuts. The traditional holiday fare of many European na- 
tions still include breads of this sort. Examples include Italian panet- 
tone, German Stollen, Swedish saffransbrod, Norwegian /w/e/ca/ce, and 
Greek Christopsomo. 

Yule Doughs 

In the Middle Ages people celebrated Christmas with Yule doius, or 
"Yule doughs." These pastries, shaped like animals or people, fre- 
quently the baby Jesus, constituted a special holiday treat. Nine- 
teenth-century English and American bakers revived this old cus- 
tom, calling their creations "Yule dollies." They often shaped them 
like young girls or dolls, and decorated them with icing, colored 
illustrations (glued onto the cookies with eggwhite), feathers, or 
other adornments. Typically, these decorated cookies served as orna- 
ments for the newly popular Christmas tree. Today's Christmas 
bakers still shape and decorate gingerbread "men" in similar ways. 

Scandinavian Cakes and Customs 

A number of European Christmas customs grew up around the spe- 
cial cakes and breads of the season. A Swedish document dating 
from the middle of the sixteenth century notes that at Christmas time 
bakers concocted a special Christmas loaf about the length, width, 
and height of a five-year-old child. The writer continues by noting 
that people gave this kind of bread away to friends and even to 
strangers as an act of Christmas charity. The Scandinavians rolled 
other Christmas loaves, of smaller dimensions, into symbolic shapes 
such as a cross, a boar, or a goat {see also Boar's Head; Yule Goat; St. 
Lucy's Day). Certain superstitions attached themselves to these spe- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cial Christmas loaves. According to one belief, a family should not 
finish their Christmas cake until Epiphany. Another decreed that the 
family guard the cake untouched until Candlemas. One Norwegian 
custom suggested that the Christmas loaves be prepared from grain 
gleaned from the straw left over in the fields after harvest. 

Twelfth Night and Christmas Cakes 

For many centuries the English, French, Dutch, and German peoples 
celebrated Twelfth Night by eating cakes. In France the custom can 
be traced as far back as the thirteenth century. The cakes provided 
more than a fitting end for a holiday meal, however. A bean, pea, or 
tiny china doll was baked inside the cake. The diner whose slice of 
cake contained the object was hailed as King of the Bean. This 
"king" ruled over the remainder of the feast. Sometimes the baker 
also dropped a pea inside the cake batter. The woman who found 
the pea in her slice of cake reigned as queen alongside the king. A 
French custom suggested that the hosts of the Twelfth Night feast 
reserve the first piece of the cake for God and the second for the 
Virgin Mary. These slices were offered to the first poor person who 
came to the house. 

By the eighteenth century English bakers had elevated Twelfth Night 
cakes into virtual pieces of art. They molded these enormous cakes 
into a variety of elaborate shapes and covered them with fanciful 
decorations made out of icing. For example, a baker might construct 
a cake that resembled a fortress, complete with flying flags and post- 
ed sentinels. Some were so heavy, they required two men to carry 
them. Bakeries displayed these examples of the confectioner's art in 
shop windows. 

The celebration of Twelfth Night declined in the mid-nineteenth 
century. As a result of fading interest in the holiday, the Twelfth 
Night cake was drawn into the orbit of the more powerful midwin- 
ter holiday, Christmas. During this transition the cake shrank in size. 
Oddly enough, the custom of secreting charms within the Twelfth 
Night cake transferred itself to another Christmas dessert, plum 
pudding. Thereafter, the Christmas cake functioned solely as a 
homemade dessert. 


Christmas Cakes 

Greek New Year Bread 

In Greece the custom of inserting a special charm into holiday 
bread or cake attached itself to New Year's Eve celebrations instead 
of to Christmas or Epiphany. In Greece a special cake or bread known 
as vasilopita, or St. Basil's bread, appears on the table on New Year's 
Eve. The bread and cake are named after St. Basil the Great (c. 329- 
379), whose feast day Orthodox Christians observe on January 1. 
Housewives bake a coin into the vasilopita. Whoever finds the coin 
in their serving will attract good luck in the coming year. Some fami- 
lies observe a special ceremony when cutting and distributing the 
holiday bread. The head of the family blesses the bread and makes 
the sign of the cross over it. The bread is sliced and the first piece 
offered to Christ, the second to the Virgin Mary, the third to St. Basil, 
and the fourth to the poor. The next piece goes to the head of the 
family. The rest of the family receive their pieces according to age, 
the eldest first. 

Further Reading 

Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. 

London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. 
Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Nonuay. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum 

Forlag, 1970. 
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 

Company, 1976. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Poole, Shona Crawford. The Christmas Cookbook. New York: Atheneum, 

Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Be- 

thesda, Md.: Attica Press, 1993. 
Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook. New York: HarperPerennial, 




Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


cl^ristmas Candles 

Yule Candle 

In past centuries families throughout the British Isles, Ireland, 
France, Denmark, and Scandinavia observed Christmas by lighting 
especially large candles. Home Christmas celebrations took place in 
the glow of these enormous tapers. Some families lit the candles on 
Christmas Eve, in which case custom called for the candle to burn 
until morning. Others lit their candles on Christmas morning and 
kept them burning throughout the day. Large candles of this sort 
were also used in Christmas church services {see also Christingle). 

People interpreted the meaning of these Christmas candles in sever- 
al different ways. Many believed the large candle served as a natural 
symbol for the coming of Jesus Christ, "the light of the world." 
Others said it represented the Star of Bethlehem. Many folk beliefs 
suggest that people commonly viewed the home Christmas candle 
as representing the family's future in some way. In some parts of 
England people varied this custom by using many regular-sized 
candles instead of one extra-large one. In nineteenth-century England 
many grocers and chandlers (candlemakers) presented their regular 
customers with the gift of a large candle at Christmas. In parts of 


Christmas Candles 

Denmark people lit two candles, one representing the male head of 
the household, the other the female household head. Whichever 
burned out first was said to foretell which of them would die first. 
Scottish folklore claimed that if the Christmas candle burned out 
before midnight the family would soon experience some kind of 
calamity. Scandinavian tradition agreed that bad luck would surely 
visit any family whose Yule candle burned out during the holy night, 
possibly the death of a family member. While the flame burned, 
however, many Scandinavians believed that the light of the Yule 
candle conferred a blessing on all it touched. Families brought good 
things to eat and drink, money, clothing, and other desirable goods 
within the circle of candlelight in the hopes that they would be 
blessed with more of these things in the coming year. 

Some peoples believed that the remains of the candle retained their 
power to bless and protect even after Christmas had passed. In 
Sweden people rubbed the stub of their Yule candle against their 
plows or used it to make the sign of the cross over their animals. In 
other parts of Scandinavia people fed the candle stub to their barn- 
yard fowl or saved it as a charm against thunder and lightning. {See 
also Advent Candle.) 

In Estonia, Germany, and Lithuania people light candles at family 
gravesites on Christmas Eve. This practice may be linked to old folk 
beliefs concerning the return of the dead at Christmas time {see also 
Ghosts; /or another Christmas Eve candle custom, see Australia, Christ- 
mas in). 

Further Reading 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Norway. Oslo, Norway: lohan Grundt Tanum 
Forlag, 1970. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: TapUnger, 1977. 

Pimlott, ]. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cfiristmas Card 

Historians credit the English with the invention and popularization of 
the Christmas card during the early years of the Victorian era {see also 
Victorian England, Christmas in). By the 1860s an entire industry 
had grown up around the design and production of Christmas cards 
in England. This industry soon spread to other countries. Throughout 
the twentieth century ever-increasing numbers of people embraced 
the Christmas card, making the practice of sending greeting cards one 
of the Christmas season's most popular customs. 

Possible Origins 

Researchers speculate that a number of pre-existing customs in- 
spired the creation of the first Christmas card. New Year's cards, for 
example, date back to the early years of European printing. The old- 
est surviving New Year's card was printed in 1466. Apparently, these 
cards never became very popular. Many surviving examples depict 
the boy Jesus in the company of flowers and birds. These cards be- 
gan to disappear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, per- 
haps due to religious ideas popularized during the Reformation {see 
also Puritans). In the late eighteenth century the development of a 
new printing process called lithography corresponded with an 
increase in the production of New Year's cards. 

Valentine cards probably exercised more influence on the look of the 
new Christmas cards than did New Year's cards. Valentine cards 
were already popular in the early nineteenth century when the very 
first Christmas cards were printed. Some early producers of Christ- 


Christmas Card 

mas cards used desigiis very similar to those they printed on Valen- 
tine cards. Nowadays, these romantic Christmas card desigiis, brim- 
ming with leaves, flowers, and lace, seem unsuited to the Christmas 

Even before the advent of the Christmas card, some people sent 
Christmas or New Year's letters {see also Children's Letters). As 
early as the 1730s English writer Alexander Pope (1688-1744) re- 
marked upon the frequency with which the English sent seasonal 
greetings and good wishes to friends around Christmas time. Even- 
tually the Christmas card replaced the Christmas or New Year's let- 
ter. This change dismayed those who preferred a more substantial 
greeting than could be conveyed in the brief sentiment printed on 
the cards. 

The First Christmas Card 

The first Christmas card was designed by Englishman J. C. Horsley 
(1817-1903) in 1843. Three separate images adorn the front of the 
card. A large center drawing depicts a family gathered around a 
table, wine glasses in hand. One woman gives a small child a sip of 
wine, a detail which caused temperance advocates to object. A 
smaller side panel depicts a well-dressed woman draping a cloak 
around a poor woman and child. The other side panel depicts the 
distribution of food among the poor. The producer of this card print- 
ed about 1,000 copies and sold them for one shilling each. 

Early English Christmas Cards 

The new custom did not catch on right away. It took two decades for 
the Christmas card to establish itself as an annual institution in 
England. The advent of the penny post, begun in 1840, provided an 
inexpensive means of posting the cards, which undoubtedly permit- 
ted the custom of sending Christmas cards to spread. Before that 
time, not only had postal rates been higher, but also the post office 
charged the postage to the addressee rather than to the sender. The 
public responded enthusiastically to the new postal system. Between 
1840 and 1845 the number of letters sent in Great Britain nearly 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

The first Christmas cards were modeled after Victorian visiting cards 
and so did not fold in any way. These small rectangles of pasteboard, 
about the size of an index card, were printed on one side only. The 
decorated side bore a lithographed or etched drawing, a greeting, and 
blank space for the names of both the sender and the addressee. By 
the 1870s manufacturers had started producing larger cards and fold- 
ed cards. Some of the early folded cards were designed to open out 
like cupboard doors; others fell into accordion folds. 

Trick cards also originated in the 1870s. Their clever designs delight- 
ed Victorians. Pulling a paper lever on the face of a card, for example, 
might add to or subtract something from the design or change it 
completely. Pop-up cards also tickled Victorian fancies. Some clever- 
ly designed cards contained hidden images that appeared only if 
viewed from a certain angle or in a certain light. 

Victorian Christmas Cards in Their Heyday 

By the 1880s Victorian Christmas cards reflected the ornate taste of 
the age. Designers embellished the images printed on the cards with 
a variety of materials, including paper lace, real lace, shells, seaweed, 
dried grass, flowers, silk, velvet, chenille, tinsel, celluloid, crewel work, 
metal plates, and small sachets of scented powders. They frosted sur- 
faces with powdered glass or aluminum. For a finishing touch they 
embossed or scalloped the edges of their cards, or even finished them 
with lace, cords, ribbons, or silk. 

Some of the most common images found on Victorian Christmas 
cards are still familiar symbols of the holiday to us today. These 
include holly, ivy, mistletoe, and, to a lesser extent, robins, wrens, 
winter landscapes, and Christmas feasts and parties. Other images 
that adorned their cards seem less central to the festival. For example, 
flowers, shrubs, and trees, often in great profusion, served as perhaps 
the most popular subjects portrayed on the Victorian Christmas card. 
Due to the abundance of flowers and leaves, these cards often appear 
to depict a summer, rather than a winter, scene. Many other cards 
carried images of children, often at play. Some of these children seem 
to be unnaturally angelic lads and lasses, others clearly pranksters. 
Animals, often portrayed carrying out human activities and some- 
times wearing human clothing as well, provided another popular 
subject for the Victorian Christmas card. 


Christmas Card 

Victorians also enjoyed Christmas cards that featured new inven- 
tions, such as the bicycle, the steamship, and the motorcar. Other 
Victorian Christmas card subjects strike modern viewers as some- 
what inappropriate images with which to represent Christmas. For 
example, portraits of beautiful girls and women appeared frequently 
on Victorian Christmas cards. Some of these women and girls ap- 
pear partially nude or clad only in gauzy robes, startling modern 
sensibilities conditioned to approach the Christmas card as some- 
thing devoid of sensuality. 

The dead robin constitutes another curious Victorian preference in 
Christmas card decoration. During the 1880s many of the cards fea- 
turing robins depicted a dead bird lying in the snow. Perhaps the 
Victorian fondness for images and stories that evoked pity and other 
tender emotions can explain this rather bizarre motif. 

Early American Christmas Cards 

Although the first American Christmas card dates back to the 1850s, 
the American Christmas card industry did not take off until the 
1870s. Historians credit a German immigrant named Louis Prang 
with bringing this industry to full flower. In 1875 his print shop intro- 
duced a line of visiting cards that included a Christmas greeting. An 
appreciative public snapped up his entire stock. Prang expanded his 
line of Christmas cards in the years that followed. At first his designs 
resembled those of the early Victorian cards from England. Embel- 
lished with flowers, leaves, butterflies and birds, the printed images 
evoked springtime rather than illustrating the Christmas sentiments 
that accompanied them. Soon, however. Prang's workshop began to 
turn out cards decorated with recognizable Christmas symbols, 
such as holly, ivy, and poinsettias. As these designs became more 
complex, the cards grew in size, eventually measuring about seven 
by ten inches. The American public loved Prang's novelties. Many 
foreign buyers also admired and collected Prang's cards. 

Several factors contributed to Prang's extraordinary success. A print- 
er by trade. Prang combined expert printing skills, innovative lithog- 
raphy techniques, and clever marketing ploys to catch the public's 
attention. But Prang was more than a savvy salesman. He passion- 
ately believed that mass-produced images could introduce fine art to 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

those who would never otherwise be exposed to it. Prang's studio 
developed a reputation for high artistic standards. 

In 1880 he instituted a yearly competition for the best Christmas 
card design. Prang put his money where his mouth was. He award- 
ed $1,000 to the first-place winner and $500 to the second-place 
winner. He also gave $300 and $200 prizes. Prang called on well- 
known figures in the American art world to serve as judges, includ- 
ing stained-glass artist Louis C. Tiffany (1848-1933), painter Samuel 
Colman (1832-1920), and architect Richard M. Hunt (1827-1895). 
Prang also let the public vote on which designs they preferred, and 
winners of the "Public Prizes" received the same hefty cash awards 
as those contestants whose work was selected by the panel of artists. 
Although Prang's competition lasted only a few years, during its day 
it was considered one of the highlights of the New York art season. 
Prang's dissatisfaction with the quality of the works presented at his 
competitions caused him to switch tactics after a few years and com- 
mission well-known artists to submit designs. 

Unlike his competitors in Victorian England, Prang rejected trick 
cards and scorned fancy embellishments of lace and other materials 
as vulgar. During the 1870s and 1880s Christmas cards printed in 
continental Europe began to infiltrate British and American markets. 
Prang left the Christmas card business in the 1890s, when his sales 
figures began to falter. 

Increasing Popularity 

In spite of his enthusiasm for popularizing refined art. Prang's ex- 
pensive Christmas cards circulated primarily among the well-to-do. 
During the 1890s and 1900s the majority of American Christmas gift 
givers exchanged flimsy knickknacks with their friends. By the sec- 
ond decade of the twentieth century, though, Americans turned 
towards cards as a tasteful and inexpensive alternative for the useless 
trinkets everyone gave and, apparently, no one wanted. The new, 
inexpensive Christmas cards quickly grew in popularity, especially 
during World War I. 

Today, American greeting card manufacturers sell more cards for 
Christmas than any other holiday. In 2001 the nation's Greeting Card 


Christmas Card 

Association projected sales of 2 billion Christmas cards. These cards 
account for just over 60 percent of the industry's total sales. Indeed, it 
has been estimated that over 75 percent of all Americans send greet- 
ing cards at Christmas time. 

Further Reading 

Buday, George. The History of the Christmas Card. 1954. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 

Comfort, David. jMSt Say Noel! New York: Fireside Books, 1995. 

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. 

Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 

The Time-Life Book of Christmas. New York: Prentice Hall, 1987. 

Waits, William. The Modern Christmas in America. New York: New York Uni- 
versity Press, 1993. 

Web Sites 

A site sponsored by the Greeting Card Association: 

A site sponsored contains pages that offer images and text 
descriptions ofVictorian Christmas cards: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

A cfiristmas Carol 

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), is perhaps the 
best-known and best-loved Christmas story of all time. Some writ- 
ers even credit the tale with changing the way nineteenth-century 
Britons and Americans celebrated Christmas. A Christmas Carol tells 
the story of a greedy, rich, Christmas-hating old man named Ebe- 
nezer Scrooge. One Christmas Eve Scrooge receives a visit from 
three spirits. These spirits — the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost 
of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come — 
show him scenes from his past, present, and future. This supernatur- 
al experience transforms him into a joyous, generous soul who cher- 
ishes Christmas above all other times of year. 

Life and Times of Charles Dickens 

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, just outside Ports- 
mouth, England. The second of seven children, Charles was brought 
up in a lower-middle-class household plagued by his father's ten- 
dency to fall into debt. In 1821 the Dickens family moved to London 
where the young Charles witnessed firsthand the poverty and de- 
spair of the city's slums. In 1824, Charles's father was sent to Mar- 
shalsea Prison for failure to pay off a debt. The entire family moved 
into the prison, except Charles who, at the age of twelve, went to 
work in a blacking (shoe polish) factory. Although he was not treat- 
ed cruelly, the young Charles worked twelve hours a day and felt 
deeply shamed by his family's situation. Several months later 
Charles's father inherited a small sum of money, which permitted 
him to pay the debt and leave prison. Although Charles's mother 
wanted her son to continue working at the blacking factory, Charles's 
father insisted that he receive some kind of education. Even after he 
became a successful novelist, Dickens's resented his mother for her 
willingness to send him back to a life of drudgery. 

In 1827 Charles began his adult career as a solicitor's clerk. Shortly 
thereafter, he mastered shorthand and became a reporter. In 1833 he 


A Christmas Carol 

began to submit sketches and stories to newspapers and magazines 
under his pen name, "Boz." In a few years he acquired a wide read- 
ership. By 1837 Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers, both pub- 
lished serially, had brought him fame and financial security. He went 
on to become one of Victorian England's most prolific and best- 
loved authors. Dickens never forgot his early brushes with poverty, 
however, and throughout his life he wielded both his voice and his 
pen against his society's harsh treatment of the poor. His works of 
fiction offered middle-class readers disturbing glimpses inside nine- 
teenth-century workhouses (prison-like institutions meting out hard 
labor to the destitute), painted moving portraits of those confined to 
debtors' prisons, and sketched the often-desperate plight of the 
working poor. 

The Writing of A Christmas Carol 

In an indirect way Dickens's concern for the poor brought him the 
inspiration needed to write A Christmas Carol. In September of 1843, 
at the invitation of Miss Angela Burdett Coutts, a wealthy philan- 
thropist and a friend of Dickens, he toured one of London's Ragged 
Schools. Funded by private charity, these schools sought to educate 
some of the city's poorest children. The visit moved him deeply. 
Several weeks later he traveled to Manchester to speak at a fund- 
raising event for the Athenaeum, an organization dedicated to edu- 
cating workers, where he addressed the link between poverty and 
ignorance. While in Manchester, the idea of transforming his im- 
pressions of the Ragged School into a work of fiction planted itself in 
his imagination. In October he plunged into a new story called A 
Christmas Carol. To be sure, financial as well as social concerns moti- 
vated Dickens to undertake this new project. Sales of his latest 
novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, were floundering. Dickens felt sure that a 
story like the Carol would appeal to readers at Christmas time and 
thus generate needed cash. 

Dickens blazed through the writing of the Carol, completing the 
manuscript in only six weeks. The project seized hold of him, inspir- 
ing him to work from morning until late at night. He passed some of 
these nights striding as many as fifteen or twenty miles through the 
shadowy, still London streets, meditating on the story. In a letter to a 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

friend he confessed that the work so charged his emotions, he found 
himself alternately laughing and weeping. 

Dickens financed the publication of the slim little book himself, 
insisting on illustrations and a quality binding. It arrived in book- 
stores on December 19, 1843. Dickens complained that booksellers 
seemed uninterested in promoting the story. Nevertheless, the entire 
first printing, 6,000 copies, sold out in five days. After subtracting 
what it had cost him to produce the book, though, Dickens earned 
very little from its first printing. Still, Dickens celebrated Christmas 
merrily that year, exclaiming in a letter to a friend that he had rarely 
experienced a Christmas season so full of dining, dancing, theater- 
going, party games, and good cheer. He even attended a children's 
party where he entertained the assembled company with magic 
tricks, to all appearances dumping the raw ingredients of a plum 
pudding into a friend's hat and pulling out the finished product. 

Public Readings 

By March of 1844, three months after its first printing, A Christmas 
Carol was in its sixth edition. Enthusiastic letters poured in from an 
appreciative public. Some readers told Dickens that they kept the 
book on a little shelf all by itself, others that they read it aloud to 
their families. In 1853 Dickens himself began a series of public read- 
ings of the work that would last the rest of his life. 

As the public readings became more frequent, Dickens developed 
them into polished performances. It took him three hours to read 
through A Christmas Carol as printed, so he began to edit his own 
little copy of the book, eliminating dialogue and description that he 
felt could be cut without damaging the tale. He reduced the story to 
two hours, added some stage directions, and memorized the entire 
text. The public readings thus became recitations. Just in case his 
memory failed him, he kept a copy of the book with him on stage. 

Dickens performed his first public reading of the Carol in December 
of 1853 as a benefit for the Birmingham and Midland Institute. More 
than two thousand people attended. Charities soon besieged the 
author with requests that he perform a reading on their behalf. 
Dickens complied with some of these requests, but also began a 


A Christmas Carol 

series of public readings for which he sold tickets. These readings 
generated a tidy second income for the author. Dickens incorporated 
parts of his other works in these public readings as well. A Christmas 
Carol, however, remained one of the most popular and most often 
requested works in his repertoire. 

In 1865 Dickens performed a series of public readings in the United 
States. He opened in Boston with a reading of A Christmas Carol. 
The ticket line stretched half a mile in length on the night before the 
box office opened. Although the tickets sold for $2 apiece, scalpers 
priced tickets to the sold-out performance as high as $26 each. Many 
prominent American literary figures attended this reading. Dickens 
continued on to Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington, 
D.C. In New York five thousand people stood in line on a bitterly 
cold night waiting for the chance to buy a ticket in the morning. In 
Washington Dickens received an invitation to meet President 
Andrew Johnson. 

In the spring of 1870 Dickens struggled to complete a series of 
scheduled readings. During intermissions he staggered backstage to 
lie on a sofa while concerned doctors checked his vital signs. After 
completing the March 15 reading of A Christmas Carol, he returned to 
the stage for a final round of applause and announced, with tears on 
his face, that the audience had just witnessed his last public perfor- 
mance. He died three months later, on June 9, 1870, and was buried 
in Westminster Abbey alongside the composer George Frideric Han- 
del, another great contributor to the artistic legacy of Christmas (see 
also Messiah) . 

The Carol as a Ghost Story 

Contemporary readers tend to approach A Christmas Carol as a tale 
about the holiday, thus overlooking the fact that it is also a ghost 
story. In Dickens's day, English tradition called for the telling of 
ghost stories at Christmas time. Dickens conceived A Christmas 
Carol as an exemplary addition to this genre. He draws our attention 
to the ghostly aspect of the tale in its full title, which reads A 
Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. The preface 
continues the ghost theme in a humorous vein: "I have endeavoured 
in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea which shall 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, 
with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, 
and no one wish to lay it." Dickens urged his readers to approach 
the tale as a classic English ghost story. In fact, he advised the public 
to read the Carol out loud, in a cold room by candlelight. 

The Carol as Personal History 

Dickens's Carol is more than a simple ghost story, however. It con- 
tains a clear moral message about the perils of selfishness, both for 
the individual and for society. Readers familiar with Dickens's con- 
sistent admiration of humility, simplicity, and familial warmth, as 
expressed in his many works of fiction, may be surprised to learn 
that in a letter to a friend Dickens admitted that he based the char- 
acter of Scrooge on the worst aspects of his own personality. Perhaps 
because of his own childhood hardships, Dickens sometimes ob- 
sessed about the benefits of wealth and the need to make money. In 
addition, unlike Scrooge's clerk, the poor but noble Bob Cratchit, 
Dickens was neither affectionate nor attentive as a husband and 

Dickens plucked several other elements of the Carol story out of his 
own life experience. The Cratchit home resembled the house that 
Dickens lived in when his family first moved to London. Like 
Scrooge, Dickens had an elder sister named Frances, whom he 
called Fanny. Dickens's own younger brother, known to the family 
as "Tiny Fred," and his nephew, a sickly, disabled boy, inspired the 
creation of Tiny Tim. Dickens's experience at the Ragged Schools 
and the Manchester Athenaeum materialized as Ignorance and 
Want, the two starving children who cling to the legs of the Ghost of 
Christmas Present. The Spirit cautions Scrooge, and by extension his 
Victorian audience, to "Beware them both, and all of their degree, 
but most of all beware this boy [Ignorance], for on his brow I see 
that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." 

The Carol as Christmas Philosophy 

In A Christmas Carol Dickens insists that the Christmas holiday offers 
a solution to the problems of selfishness and greed. As the story clos- 
es, the narrator assures us that Scrooge became a kind, humble, and 


A Christmas Carol 

generous person as a result of his experience with the Spirits. A 
Christmas Carol suggests that Christmas has the potential to awaken 
all our hearts and thus to transform society. Scrooge's young 
nephew understands the power of Christmas to renew and trans- 
form, and early in the story explains that Christmas time is 

a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only 
I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and 
women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, 
and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow- 
passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound 
on other journeys. And therefore, . . . though it has never put a 
scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that is has done me 
good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it! 

Dickens himself was not an overtly religious man. Nevertheless, the 
Christmas philosophy outlined in A Christmas Carol promotes a sec- 
ular observance of the festival in keeping with the religious spirit of 
the holiday. Given Dickens's indifference towards religion, it is 
somewhat ironic that this approach to the holiday helped to heal the 
centuries-old breach between those religious sects that celebrated 
Christmas and those that condemned it {see America, Christmas in 
Colonial; Puritans). In its day, however, some critics condemned 
the Carol for purporting to discuss the subject of Christmas with few 
references to the birth of Jesus. This omission may well reflect 
Dickens's dislike of the Church, which he found sadly out of touch 
with the social problems of his day. 

Other Christmas Works 

Although A Christmas Carol became Dickens's best-known treatise 
on the subject of Christmas, the holiday figures prominently in other 
writings as well. He wrote a number of short stories concerning 
Christmas, including "The Chimes," "The Cricket on the Hearth," 
"The Battle of Life," "The Haunted Man," "The Holly Tree," "The 
Seven Poor Travellers," "The Poor Relation's Story," and "The 
Haunted House." In addition. The Pickwick Papers contains a delight- 
ful depiction of Christmas festivities at a large house in the country. 
American author Washington Irving's (1783-1859) earlier depiction 
of Christmas celebrations in an English manor house may well have 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

inspired this passage. Indeed, regarding his love of Irving's books, 
Dickens once confessed, "I don't go upstairs two nights out of seven 
without taking Washington Irving under my arm." The Pickwick 
Papers also contains the story of a grumpy, old sexton (church custo- 
dian) visited by ghosts on Christmas Eve. Dickens expanded and 
improved upon this plot idea in A Christmas Carol. 

Dickens's portrayal of Christmas as a season of good cheer among 
family and friends and good will towards the less fortunate came to 
represent the ideal version of the holiday for many nineteenth-cen- 
tury Britons and Americans {see also America, Christmas in Nine- 
teenth-Century; Victorian England, Christmas in). These ideals 
still color contemporary Christmas celebrations, perhaps explaining 
the Carol's enduring popularity. Indeed, public readings, stage adap- 
tations, and screen versions of this classic Christmas tale continue to 
delight audiences each year at Christmas time. 

Further Reading 

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens, A to Z. New York: Facts on File, 1998. 

Dickens, Charles. The Christmas Books. Oxford, England: Oxford University 
Press, 1960. 

Hallinan, Tim. A Christmas Carol Christmas Book. New York: International 
Business Machines Corporation, 1984. 

MacKenzie, Norman, and leanne MacKenzie. Dickens, A Life. Oxford, 
England: Oxford University Press, 1979. 

Pimlott, ]. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.I.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 

Priestly, ]. B. Charles Dickens and His World. New York: Charles Scribner's 
Sons, 1961. 

Sammon, Paul. The Christmas Carol Trivia Book. New York: Citadel Press, 

Stapleton, Michael, comp. The Cambridge Guide to English Literature. Cam- 
bridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the Dickens Project at the University of California con- 
tains information about A Christmas Carol: dick- 
ens/dea/ACC/ACC. index.html 


Christmas Carol 


cfiristmas Carol 

Noel, Villancico 

Over the centuries Christmas has inspired countless songs. Which of 
the many pieces of vocal music written for Christmas qualify as true 
Christmas carols? Most writers assume Christmas carols to be those 
songs about Christmas whose tune and lyrics are widely known and 
whose popularity is maintained primarily through folk traditions 
rather than commercial promotions. By this definition, the fine 
Christmas works written by classical composers are not true Christ- 
mas carols, since they are musically quite complex and known to rel- 
atively small numbers of people. The fact that people sing carols for 
enjoyment and entertainment also figures in their definition. This 
criterion might exclude a number of lesser-known church hymns, 
since people usually sing them only during church services. In addi- 
tion, most carols take as their subject matter the legends, customs, or 
religious celebration of Christmas. Therefore, some people would 
not include popular songs such as "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa 
Claus," or even the hit song "White Christmas" in a collection of 
carols, since these songs achieved popularity through commercial 
mechanisms and do not address traditional Christmas themes or 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

religious celebration. Others might quarrel with these criteria, argu- 
ing that the subject matter of these songs and the manner in which 
they achieved popularity simply reflect the commercial interests and 
cultural outlook of the twentieth century. 

Why are these traditional Christmas songs called "carols," anyway? 
Some scholars trace the English word "carol" all the way back to the 
ancient Greek word coros. In ancient Greek drama the coros, or 
"chorus," appeared from time to time during the play singing com- 
mentaries on the plot and often dancing as well. By the late Middle 
Ages, the word "carol" had come to mean singing and dancing in a 
circle, as children do when singing "Ring Around the Rosy." In the 
Middle Ages people caroled on many different occasions. By the six- 
teenth century, however, this musical genre had acquired a special 
association with the Christmas season, while its earlier association 
with dance was fading away. Already a large number of Christmas 
carols circulated throughout Europe. A number of these, such as the 
English "I Saw Three Ships" and the German "Lo, How a Rose E'er 
Blooming," are still sung today. 

Earliest Christmas Songs 

The earliest recorded Christmas carol was the one that the angels 
sang to the shepherds when announcing Jesus' birth {see Gospel 
According to Luke): 

Glory to God in the highest. 

And on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased! 

(Luke 2:14). 

Latin hymn writers provided the first Christmas songs sung by the 
early Christians. "Veni, redemptor gentium" (Redeemer of the Na- 
tions Come), written by St. Ambrose, archbishop of Milan (339-397), 
is the earliest surviving example of these works. Others include "A 
Solis Ortus Cardine" (From East to West, From Shore to Shore) by 
Sedulius (fifth century) and works by the Spanish poet Frudentius 
(348-after 405). These early Christmas hymns were written by monks 
or other religious scholars for use in worship. They tend to approach 
Christmas from a theological perspective and emphasize the role of 
the Nativity in humankind's salvation. 


Christmas Carol 

Medieval Christmas Carols 

In the late Middle Ages a new spirit slowly infused the poetry and 
songs written about Christmas. Artists began to describe the people 
and events of the Nativity and react to them in emotional terms. 
Some credit St. Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182-1226) with instilling a 
new spirit of simplicity and joy in worship, thereby indirectly bring- 
ing about these changes {see also Nativity Scene). Some even be- 
lieve that he wrote Christmas carols. If he did, none have survived. 
The work of one of his followers, the Franciscan mystic Jacapone da 
Todi (1228-1306), exemplifies the impact of these new attitudes 
towards the Nativity. His songs depict the Christmas miracle in 
homely images, such as that of the Virgin cradling and nursing her 
child. Whereas earlier church hymns had been written in Latin, a 
language known only by scholars, da Todi composed joyful songs in 
Italian so that ordinary people could sing them. These innovations 
gave birth to the Christmas carol as we know it. 

The Golden Age 

The creativity unleashed in the late Middle Ages revealed itself in an 
outpouring of Christmas songs over the next several centuries. By the 
fourteenth century Christmas carols in vernacular languages were 
sprouting up all over Europe. In Germany carol writers blossomed 
under the liberating influence of mystics like Meister Eckehart (1260?- 
1327). Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century German carol writers be- 
queathed us such treasures as "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," "In 
Dulci JubHo" (Good Christian Men Rejoice), and "Joseph, Lieber 
Joseph Mein." 

In late medieval England the mystery or miracle plays performed 
around Christmas time inspired the composition of a number of car- 
ols {see also Nativity Play). "The Coventry Carol," for example, ac- 
companied the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, a Christmas 
play produced annually by that guild. In the fifteenth and sixteenth 
centuries Christmas carols and verses flowed from the pens of 
English writers. This epoch gave birth to such well-loved songs as 
"The First Nowell" {see also Noel) and "God Rest You Merry, Gen- 
tlemen." In fact, the earliest surviving collection of English Christmas 
carols dates from this period and bears the following inscription: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

I pray you, sirrus, boothe moore and lase. 

Sing these caroles in Cristemas [Miles, 1992, 27]. 

These English carols played a central role in another English Christ- 
mas custom, wassailing {see Wassail). Indeed, a number of traditional 
English and Welsh carols treat secular Christmas customs, such as 
feasting, drinking, and seasonal decorations. Examples include "The 
Boar's Head Carol," first printed in 1521, and others more difficult to 
assign dates to, such as "The Holly and the Ivy," "Deck the Halls," and 
various wassailing songs {see also Boar's Head). In medieval and 
Renaissance England people viewed merrymaking as an integral part 
of the celebration of the Nativity. As one English carol writer put it: 

Make we myrth 

For Christes byrth [Pimlott, 1978, 16]. 

Further south in France, carol writing blossomed in the sixteenth 
and seventeenth centuries. Although a number of French Christmas 
carols, or noels, appeared in the fifteenth century, the real surge in 
the composition and spread of these songs occurred in the following 
century. Many songwriters of this era placed the singer in the posi- 
tion of one of the original pilgrims to Bethlehem. The songs de- 
scribe the singer's journey and the people met along the way, who 
typically turn out to be from neighboring villages. The singer identi- 
fies the other pilgrims by their behavior and appearance, which usu- 
ally exemplifies the negative reputation that their town has acquired 
in the eyes of its neighbors. By contrast, the seventeenth-century 
Frovengal carol, "Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella," sweetly urges 
villagers to pay reverence to the sleeping Christ child. Perhaps its 
gentler tone contributes to the song's continuing appeal. 

In Spain carol writing flourished in the sixteenth and early seven- 
teenth centuries. Unlike the satirical carols popular in France, these 
Spanish carols, or villancicos, convey both tenderness and reverence. 
The following verses from an old Spanish carol exemplify these sen- 

In a porch, full of cobwebs 
Between the mule and the ox 
The Savior of souls is born. . . . 


Christmas Carol 

In the porch at Bethlehem 

Are star, sun, and moon 

The Virgin and St. Joseph 

And the Child who lies in the cradle. 

In Bethlehem they touch fire 
From the porch the flame issues 
It is a star of heaven 
Which has fallen into the straw. . . . 

To the new-born child all bring a gift 

I am little and have nothing 

I bring him my heart [Miles, 1992, 66-67]. 

The Reformation and Beyond 

The change in religious beliefs and attitudes associated with the 
Reformation checked the creation of carols in many areas of north- 
ern Europe, especially Britain. In England the Puritans' rise to power 
in the mid-seventeenth century corresponded with a drop-off in the 
writing of carols. Nevertheless, the common people continued to 
sing the old carols and so kept many of them alive. Sterner religious 
authorities gained control in Scotland. In the late sixteenth century 
these authorities forbade many old Christmas pastimes altogether, 
including carol singing. In Germany the Reformation also inhibited 
carol writers, although at the same time it inspired the creation of 
some fine Christmas hymns. In France the Reformation had little 
effect on Christmas music. Instead, the change of attitudes that ac- 
companied the revolution of 1789 hushed the singing of noels and 
discouraged their composition. 

The spirit of the Reformation infused many of the Christmas songs 
written in the centuries that followed with the flavor of church 
hymns. Indeed, many of the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nine- 
teenth-century carols familiar to us today were written expressly for 
church use or by members of the clergy. Examples include "Joy to the 
World," written by the famous English hymn writer Isaac Watts in 
1692, and "O Come All Ye Faithful" penned by another religious 
Englishman, John Francis Wade, in 1742. An anonymous French 
composer gave us "Angels We Have Heard on High" in the mid- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

eighteenth century. Fellow Frenchman Adolphe Charles Adam of- 
fered "O Holy Night" in the following century. English hymn writer 
James Montgomery wrote the words to "Angels from the Realms of 
Glory" in 1816, which were later paired with a tune composed by 
Henry Smart. 

In the early 1800s an Austrian priest and his organist composed 
"Silent Night." Its enduring popularity notwithstanding, "Silent 
Night" came into the world as the slap-dash creation of a single 
evening: Christmas Eve, 1818. Finding himself without a functioning 
organ for the Christmas Eve service. Father Josef Mohr scribbled 
down some verse and asked his organist Franz Gruber to quickly 
score it for voices so that the choir could sing it for that evening's 
Midnight Mass. The song circulated for many years among Austrian 
folk singers and eventually acquired international popularity before 
its authorship was traced back to Mohr and Gruber. 

The Nineteenth-Century Revival 

The Christmas carol appeared to be dying out in early nineteenth- 
century England. Observers of English folk customs lamented that 
only a scattered handful of old people knew and sang the traditional 
songs. By mid-century the institution of the waits (bands of night- 
time carolers) was collapsing. English folklorists predicted the immi- 
nent demise of the Christmas carol. These alarm bells inspired the 
collection and publication of several volumes of English Christmas 
carols in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The publication of 
these collections coincided with the budding Victorian interest in the 
celebration of Christmas {see Victorian England, Christmas in). 
Soon the flagging tradition of the Christmas carol gained new mo- 
mentum among the middle classes. By the 1870s churches began to 
incorporate these almost forgotten Christmas songs into their holi- 
day services. In 1880 an Anglican bishop first devised the Ceremony 
of Nine Lessons and Carols, a special Christmas service blending 
Bible readings with carol singing. 

The nineteenth century not only hosted a revival of the Christmas 
carol in Europe, but also witnessed a burst of new interest in the 
genre in the United States. Americans were just beginning to accept 
Christmas as a public and religious holiday in the mid-nineteenth 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

century after centuries of opposition by Puritans and other religious 
denominations {see America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century). 
As if making up for lost time, a number of American clergymen 
made significant contributions to our Christmas carol heritage in 
this era. A Unitarian minister named Edmund Sears composed "It 
Came Upon a Midnight Clear" in 1849. Two Episcopalian clergymen 
soon added their contributions to the American repertoire. The Re- 
verend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., authored "We Three Kings of Orient 
Are" in 1857, and the Reverend Phillips Brooks presented "O Little 
Town of Bethlehem" in 1865. 

Carol Services and Ceremonies 

A number of carol services and ceremonies predate the nineteenth- 
century English Ceremony of Lessons and Carols. Historical evi- 
dence suggests that the Welsh attended yearly Plygain services at 
least as far back as the seventeenth century. Las Posadas, an His- 
panic folk play commemorating Mary and Joseph's search for shel- 
ter in Bethlehem, also dates back hundreds of years. Other Christ- 
mas carol ceremonies include the Scandinavian Julotta service and 
the contemporary American Christmas pageant. Julotta, a church 
service consisting mostly of carol singing, takes place early on 
Christmas morning in churches glowing with the light of hundreds 
of candles. The Australian "Carols by Candlelight" represents a 
twentieth-century addition to the world's carol ceremonies. Radio 
announcer Norman Banks organized and broadcast the first com- 
munity carol-sing in Melbourne in the late 1930s. An appreciative 
public turned the event into a yearly tradition. Decades later the 
event flourishes, drawing tens of thousands of people together to 
sing the traditional songs of the season by candlelight {see also Aus- 
tralia, Christmas in). 

Twentieth-Century America 

Throughout the month of December contemporary Americans ab- 
sorb Christmas carols in a variety of formats, from Christmas con- 
certs to church services to radio and television specials to mall 
Muzak. The diversity of songs included in these programs reflects 
our rich historical and ethnic heritage. In addition to a variety of old 


Christmas Carol 

European carols and the nineteenth-century Anglo-American addi- 
tions mentioned above, the American carol repertoire includes a 
number of African-American folk songs. These include the beloved 
nineteenth-century spirituals "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Mary 
Had a Baby," and "Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow." 

Twentieth-century composers have unleashed legions of new Christ- 
mas songs. Unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts, however, 
relatively few of these new songs are religious in subject matter. 
Exceptions include the haunting ballad "I Wonder as I Wander" and 
the simple, reverent "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Many of the more 
familiar tunes, however, adopt a more secular approach to the cele- 
bration of Christmas. Some of these songs include "Rudolf the Red- 
Nosed Reindeer," "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "Frosty the 
Snowman," "Silver Bells," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Winter 
Wonderland," and "White Christmas." These songs reflect twentieth- 
century Americans' renewed interest in the secular joys of the season 
and the delights it brings to children. 

Further Reading 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Dearmer, Percy, R. Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw. The Oxford Book of 

Carols. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1965. 
Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Duncan, Edmondstoune. The Story of the Carol. 1911. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 
Emurian, Ernest K. Stories of Christmas Carols. Revised edition. Boston, 

Mass.: W. A. Wilde Company, 1967. 
Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, 

Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1996. 
Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 
Palmer, Geoffrey, and Noel Lloyd. A Year of Festivals. London, England: 

Frederick Warne, 1972. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 

Studwell, William E. The Christmas Carol Reader. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth 
Press, 1995. 

. Christmas Carols: A Reference Guide. New York: Garland Publishing, 


cl)Yhtmas ciuh 

In the United States many banks and credit unions offer their cus- 
tomers the opportunity to save money for Christmas by opening a 
special "Christmas club" savings account. Account holders make 
small but regular deposits throughout the year. In early November 
the bank sends the customer a check for the total amount saved. 
These savings then finance the purchase of Christmas gifts and 
other seasonal expenditures. 

A shoe factory owner from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, devised the first 
Christmas club for his workers in the year 1905. In 1910 a salesman 
named Herbert F. RawU got wind of the idea and began to promote 
the clubs to banks. The opportunity for personal profit fired RawU's 
enthusiasm for the project. As a ledger salesman, RawU not only 
sold banks on the idea of sponsoring Christmas club accounts, but 
also provided them with the special forms needed to keep track of 
the transactions. Both banks and bank customers eagerly embraced 
the new accounts. In two years the dynamic Rawll had convinced 
more than 800 banks to offer the special accounts. By the mid- 
1920s, about 8,000 banks offered Christmas club accounts to their 

The new Christmas clubs flourished because they fulfilled the needs 
of financial institutions and consumers. In the early twentieth centu- 
ry manufactured items all but replaced the homemade gifts that had 
characterized American Christmas giving in the nineteenth century 
{see also Commercialism). The clubs provided consumers a mecha- 
nism through which they could accumulate enough money to buy 
and to give ready-made Christmas gifts. In the meantime banks 


Christmas Crackers 

were searching for ways to attract new customers, especially lower- 
and middle-income people who had previously avoided putting 
their money in banks. The new accounts succeeded in bringing in 
these new customers. Moreover, they helped overcome the popular- 
ly held image of banks as snobby, coldhearted institutions that 
served only the well-to-do. 

Today many Americans still rely on Christmas clubs to fund their 
Christmas purchases. The conditions placed on these accounts vary 
from bank to bank. Consumers interested in opening a Christmas 
club account should compare interest rates, penalties for early with- 
drawal, minimum payments, fees, and balance requirements. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Waits, William B. Tlte Modern Christmas in America. New York: New York 

University Press, 1993. 

Cl^rfstmas Crackers 

In Great Britain Christmas crackers are a common holiday party 
favor. Wrapped in colored paper, these cardboard tubes contain a 
fortune (or motto) and a small toy. When pulled from both ends, 
they burst open with a popping noise. 

Christmas crackers present us with one of the few Christmas cus- 
toms whose origins are definitely known. They were invented in the 
mid-nineteenth century by an English confectioner named Thomas 
Smith. Smith visited Paris in 1844. He brought home with him the 
idea of marketing a bonbon wrapped in a bit of tissue paper, similar 
to those he had seen in Paris shop windows. Sales were slow, espe- 
cially after Christmas, so Smith came up with the idea of adding a 
motto. This helped, but more was needed. Soon he hit upon a way 
of getting the crackers to open with a small bang. Smith marketed 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

his novelty as a Christmas amusement in 1846, hoping to cash in on 
the growing Christmas market {see a/so Victorian England, Christ- 
mas in). Smith's Christmas cracker caught on with the public, even- 
tually giving rise to a new British Christmas tradition. 

The name as well as the contents of Smith's invention have changed 
over time. In the early days Smith called his novelty a "cosaque" 
rather than a cracker. This name probably refers to the Cossacks, a 
people from southern Russia who were feared soldiers and famed 
horseback riders. According to nineteenth-century advertisements. 
Smith's crackers contained such things as paper hats, night-caps, 
masks, puzzles, games, toys, hair dye, flowers, perfume, Japanese 
trinkets, tiny harps, and toys of a scientific bent. Today's crackers typ- 
ically hold paper hats, whistles, and a variety of inexpensive plastic 
toys. Nineteenth-century cracker mottoes hoped to amuse or inspire 
the recipient with a few lines of light verse. Since those times mot- 
toes have shifted towards jokes, riddles, and puns. 

Tom Smith's cracker company has survived till this day, although it 
now faces competition from several other firms. In spite of this com- 
petition. Smith's company turns out about 38 million crackers each 
year. The firm sells most of these in the United Kingdom, but ships 
about fifteen percent abroad. In an effort to boost off-season sales, 
the company has introduced new designs suitable for other holi- 
days, including Halloween and the Fourth of July, and such special 
occasions as weddings and children's birthday parties. 

Further Reading 

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 

Sansom, William. A Book of Christmas. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Com- 
pany, 1968. 

Street, Ed. "Tom Smith's Novelty — The English Christmas Cracker." The 
World and 111, 12 (December 1, 1996): 190-95. 


Christmas Lads 


cfiristmas Drama 

For Christmas customs that include an element of playacting, see 
Black Peter; "A Charlie Brown Christmas"; Christmas Carol, A; 
Feast of the Ass; Hoia the Grinch Stole Christmas; Jonkonnu; 
Knecht Ruprecht; Masque; Miracle on 34th Street; Mumming; 
Nativity Play; Nativity Scene; The Nutcracker; Pantomime; Para- 
dise Tree; Pastores; Plough Monday; Poland, Christmas in; Posa- 
das; Star Boys; "White Christmas"; Yule Goat 

cfiristmas Lads 

Christmas Boys, Jola-Sveinar, Yuletide Lads 

In Iceland thirteen leprechaun-like creatures known as the Jola- 
Sveinar, or Christmas Lads, visit homes during the Christmas sea- 
son. An old Icelandic legend tells us that they are the sons of a giant 
female troll named Gryla. The first lad arrives on the thirteenth day 
before Christmas. Another comes on the following day. This contin- 
ues until the household hosts all thirteen boys on Christmas Eve. 
One boy departs on Christmas day and another on the following 
day, until the last withdraws on the twelfth day after Christmas, or 
Epiphany. In some older versions of this folklore, there are only 
nine Christmas Lads. 

The early tales of the Christmas Lads painted them as fearsome 
creatures. Their mother, Gryla, was reputed to eat misbehaving chil- 
dren; her offspring inherited the same appetite for troublemakers. 
Adults used to remind children that the Christmas Lads waited for 
them in the winter time darkness in order to frighten the youngsters 
into good behavior. This custom inspired so much trauma that in 
1746 the government denounced it. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Both the character and the appearance of the Christmas Lads 
changed over the years. The first record of the Lads dates back to the 
seventeenth century, when a man named Stephan Olafsson wrote a 
poem about the ogre Gryla, her husband Leppaludi, and her sons, 
the malicious Yule Boys. At this time Icelanders pictured the Lads as 
gigantic, lumbering trolls. By the nineteenth century, however, they 
looked more like peasant farmers. Instead of eating children, these 
oafish Lads vexed householders during their visits. They stole sau- 
sages, candles, and the family's best grain. One might leave a room 
neat and clean only to find it askew upon returning. After Christmas 
they attempted to steal away with the household's naughty children. 
In the twentieth century they shrank even further in size and began 
to resemble miniature Santas. Like Santa Glaus, they now leave 
gifts of candy for good children, who leave their shoes on the win- 
dowsills in the days before Christmas to receive this reward. 

The names and numbers of Christmas Lads varied over the years. 
Earlier records account for only nine Lads. In 1864, however, a writer 
named Jon Arnason named and described thirteen Christmas Lads. 
He called them Candle-Beggar (or Candle-Scrounger), Gully-Gawk, 
Hem-Blower, Shorty (also known as Stump), Meat Hook, Spoon- 
Licker (or Ladle-Licker), Sheep-Cot Clod (also known as Fence- 
post), Skyr-Gobbler (Skyr is a kind of Icelandic yogurt), Pot-Scraper 
(or Pot-Licker), Sausage-Swiper, Bowl-Licker, Window-Peeper, and 
Door-Sniffer (or Keyhole Sniffer). The fact that there were thirteen 
of them meant that the first would arrive on the eve of St. Lucy's 
Day, December 13, and last would come on Christmas Eve. It also 
meant that the house would host these elf-like creatures throughout 
the Twelve Days of Christmas, since the last Lad would depart on 
Epiphany. The names given these creatures by Arnason describe 
their favorite activities and gives an idea of the kind of mischief that 
nineteenth-century Icelanders attributed to them. Arnason's flight of 
imagination took root with the Icelandic people, who today general- 
ly recognize the same thirteen Christmas Lads. 

Further Reading 

Lehane, Brendan. The Book of Christmas. Chicago: Time-Life Books, 1986. 
MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 


Christmas Markets 

Osmond, Stephen. "Long Night of Dreams: Midwinter Celebrations in 
Iceland." The World and 1 11, 1 0anuary 1996): 206 (12). 

Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977. 

Simpson, Jacqueline. Icelandic Folktales and Legends. Berkeley, Calif.: Univer- 
sity of California Press, 1972. 

CJ^ristmas Markets 

In such European countries as Germany, Belgium, Austria, Holland, 
Spain, Sweden, and Italy, special outdoor Christmas markets flour- 
ish during the Christmas season. Local merchants construct stalls 
in an open square or plaza and decorate them with Christmas sym- 
bols and themes. Goods for sale typically include handmade Christ- 
mas crafts and specialty foods. Christmas music, dramas, and other 
entertainments add to the holiday atmosphere. Christmas markets 
allow shoppers to buy unique gifts while enjoying this special sea- 
sonal environment. 

Christmas Markets in Germany 

Germany's markets are especially famous. While strolling through 
the market German shoppers may sample a wide range of food- 
stuffs, such as smoked sausages, roasted chestnuts, roast chicken, 
candy, waffles, Viennese almonds, toffee apples and chocolate-dip- 
ped fruit, as well as various regional specialties. Many shoppers sip 
hot mulled wine as they saunter from booth to booth. Christmas 
music, holiday plays, and visits from St. Nicholas offer additional 
distractions from the cold. Gifts and decorations typically available at 
German markets include Christmas trees, straw stars, gold foil 
ornaments, wooden figurines, nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, a 
variety of simple toys, candles, candleholders, nuts, cookies, post- 
cards, chocolates, and StoUen, a special Christmas bread enriched 
with dried fruit {see also Christmas Cake). 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Major Christmas markets entertain the public each year in Berlin, 
Cologne, Dresden, Frankiiirt, Hamburg, Hanover, Magdeburg, Mun- 
ich, and Nuremberg. Some of these markets began as specialty mar- 
kets and have since expanded into general fairs. The Munich market 
originally sold only Nativity scenes, while in its early days the 
Dresden market specialized in Stollen. Germany's markets run 
throughout the Advent season. 

Germany's two oldest markets are held in Munich and Nuremberg. 
Nuremberg's "Christ Child Market" started in the seventeenth centu- 
ry in order to fill the new demand for Christmas presents. In the six- 
teenth century Germany's Protestant reformer Martin Luther began 
the custom of giving gifts to children at Christmas, attributing them 
to the Christ child {see also Christkindel). Not only did the Nurem- 
berg market adopt "Christ Child" as its name, but it also selected a 
youngster to dress as the Christ child and distribute gifts to children 
attending the market. This custom continues today. Each year the 
market opens on the Friday closest to St. Barbara's Day, December 
4, and runs until Christmas Eve. Regional specialties from the 
Nuremberg market include gold foil angels, wooden toys, honey 
cakes (Lebkuchen), and prune people {Zwetschgenmdnnla) , figurines 
made out of dried prunes. 

Christmas Markets in Sweden 

In December visitors to Stockholm, Sweden, will find a Christmas 
market located in Gamla Stan, or Old Town. Another market, set up 
in Skansen Park, specializes in traditional Swedish handicrafts and 
food products. People interested in art and design often stop off at 
Konstfack, where the Art School of Stockholm hosts a Christmas 
market featuring the work of its students. 

Liseburg Park, in the city of Gothenburg, holds a fabulous Christmas 
market each year. Decorated Christmas trees and millions of twin- 
kling Christmas lights ornament the park for the holiday season. 
Singing choirs, booths selling traditional Swedish Christmas foods, 
and an ice skating rink provide additional holiday atmosphere. The 
park also serves as the site of the crowning of Gothenburg's Lucia 
{see also St. Lucy's Day). 


Christmas Markets 

Christmas Markets in Italy 

In Italy Christmas markets bring a carnival atmosphere to many 
main plazas during the weeks before Christmas. Italian markets fea- 
ture Nativity scene figurines, ornaments, decorations, toys, clothing, 
gift items, flowers, candy, balloons, fresh fish, snacks, specialty foods, 
and musical entertainment. The cities of Milan, Venice, Florence, 
Palermo, and Rome hold yearly Christmas markets, as do many 
smaller towns and cities throughout Italy. 

Christmas Markets in Belgium 

Christmas markets also enrich the holiday season in towns and 
cities throughout Belgium. Many Belgians favor the "European Christ- 
mas Market," held for several days around December 8 in Brussels. 
The stalls at this market display goods from every member state of 
the European Union, and from many others besides. The Christmas 
market at Liege lasts longer, however: it continues until New Year's 

Further Reading 

Christmas in Germany. Lincoln wood, 111.: Passport Books, 1995. 
Christmas in Italy. Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1979. 
Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 

Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1997. 
Russ, lennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald 

Wolff, 1982. 

Web Sites 

A site sponsored by the German Information Center in New York and the 
German Embassy in Washington, D.C., contains a page on the Christ Child 
Market: (Search "Christmas market") 

The November/December 2001 Newsletter of the Scandinavia Tourism 
Board of North America offers information on holiday celebrations in Den- 
mark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden at: http://www.goscandinavia. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cfiristmas Rose 

Black Hellebore, Snow Rose, Winter Rose 

This five-petalled rose blooms around Christmas time and so acquired 
the popular names "Christmas rose," "winter rose," and "snow rose." 
Although at first glance the flowers appear to be white, the petals 
also carry a faint hint of pink. Botanists have identified the plant as a 
member of the buttercup family and have named it Helleborus niger. 
This Latin designation translates to "Black Hellebore," a name which 
refers to the plant's distinctive black roots. In the nineteenth century 
the Christmas rose was widely cultivated in England for sale during 
the Christmas season. This practice faded in the twentieth century. 
The French, however, still enjoy decorating their holiday tables with 
bouquets of Christmas roses. In Germany the rose continues to serve 
as a Christmas symbol. 

The Legend ofMadelon 

The following folktale explains not only the origins of the Christmas 
rose, but also its association with the season. On a winter's night 
long ago a poor shepherd girl named Madelon beheld a strange 
procession approaching the field where she kept watch over her 
sheep. It was the Magi on their way to Bethlehem. Madelon gazed 
in awe at the rich gifts the Wise Men brought with them for the 
Christ child and began to cry with shame. "I cannot give even a sin- 
gle flower," she thought, "since the fields are covered with snow." 
Suddenly an angel appeared and asked the girl the reason for her 
tears. When Madelon explained, the angel gestured towards the 
road to Bethlehem. Beautiful white roses spilled across the path. 
Madelon gathered an armful of the gleaming flowers and joyfully 
followed the Magi. When she arrived at the manger Mary kindly 
bade her enter and offer her gift. As the fingers of the infant Jesus 
brushed against the petals, they took on the pink glow we still see 
today in the Christmas rose. 


Christmas Rose 

A Swedish Tale 

A Swedish legend explains the origins of the Christmas rose in a dif- 
ferent way. Once upon a time a beautiful garden flourished in the 
middle of the Goinge forest each Christmas Eve. Flowers sprang up 
from the ground, trees bore leaves and fruit, birds sang, and butter- 
flies rippled through the air. One year a kindly abbot and a suspicious 
monk who had heard rumors about the Christmas paradise set out to 
find the place. After roaming through the cold, dark, barren forest 
they finally stumbled across the garden. Even after seeing it with his 
own eyes, the doubting monk still refused to believe in the miracle. 
Instead, he decided that it was an illusion created by the Devil. At 
that moment the magic garden vanished and never came back. Only 
the Christmas rose remained, to remind us of the miracle garden. 

In another version of the story a poor family forced to live out in the 
middle of the woods discovered the Christmas garden. They enjoyed 
the miracle for many years before telling the abbot of its existence. 
When they led the abbot and his monk to the place, the monk's dis- 
belief caused the garden to disappear forever. As it faded away the 
abbot clutched the flowers at his feet and managed to save a single 
bulb. The plant which grew from the bulb produced beautiful white 
flowers the following year at Christmas time. They called this re- 
minder of the miracle garden the Christmas rose. 

A French Legend 

The French offer yet another tale explaining the origin of the 
Christmas rose. A long time ago a slow-witted young man named 
Nicaise lived in a village near the French town of Rouen. The parish 
priest, his guardian, assigned him the task of ringing the church 
bells. One Christmas Eve, after receiving a scolding from the priest 
for his foolishness, Nicaise climbed the bell tower to ring the bells 
for Midnight Mass. After completing his task, he fell asleep there. 
In his dream one of the gargoyles that decorated the rainspouts of 
the old stone church came to life. The gargoyle boasted that he was 
the Devil in disguise and began to flatter the lonely and rejected boy. 
The gargoyle told Nicaise that he liked him very much and offered to 
grant him three wishes. Nicaise happily accepted the Devil's offer, 
wishing for intelligence, wealth, and a beautiful wife. As an after- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

thought, he also asked for some flowers to decorate the church for 
Christmas, but the Devil angrily refused this last request. Then the 
Devil informed Nicaise that he must pay a price for the granting of 
the three wishes. "Exactly one year from now," the gargoyle leered, 
"I will return and take away your soul as payment. Your only hope of 
escaping this fate is to make flowers bloom in the winter snow." 

In the year that followed Nicaise enjoyed being wealthy, smart, and 
married to a beautiful woman. But as Christmas drew near, he began 
to fear the return of the Devil. On Christmas Eve he confessed his 
fears to the priest, who was horrified at what Nicaise had done. The 
two knelt before the altar, fervently praying for divine help. As mid- 
night approached, Nicaise prepared himself to climb the bell tower 
and ring the Midnight Mass bells one more time before being car- 
ried off by the gargoyle devil. At that moment a group of children 
burst through the church doors excited by what they had found out- 
side — flowers growing in the snow. The Christ child had answered 
their prayers by sending the Christmas rose. {See also France, Christ- 
mas in.) 

Further Reading 

Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, 

Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. 
Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Lagerlof, Selma. The Legend of the Christmas Rose. New York: Holiday 

House, 1990. 
Ross, Corinne Madden. Christmas in France. Chicago: World Book, 1988. 


Christmas Seals 


cf^ristmas Seals 

Many people embellish the Christmas cards, letters, and packages 
they send during the holiday season with special, decorative stamps 
called Christmas seals. Although the seals have no value as postage, 
the money collected in return for them supports various charitable 
causes. A Danish postmaster came up with the idea for Christmas 
seals around the turn of the twentieth century. Since then, they have 
spread to dozens of countries around the world, including the 
United States. 

Danish postmaster Einar HolboU designed the first mass-produced 
Christmas seals in 1904. The post office sold four million of the dec- 
orative stamps that year, giving birth to a new Danish Christmas tra- 
dition. Jacob Riis, an emigrant to the United States, publicized the 
success of Denmark's Christmas seals in an American magazine 
article. In 1907 Emily Bissel, a Red Cross worker, adopted the idea of 
selling Christmas seals as a way of raising money for the Red Cross 
in Wilmington, Delaware. Her success led other organizations to 
issue Christmas seals the following year, and soon the idea spread 
across the country. In 1919 the National Tuberculosis Association, 
which later became the American Lung Association, cornered the 
market on Christmas seals, becoming the sole issuer of the decora- 
tive Christmas stamps in the United States. Today the seals earn mil- 
lions of dollars a year for the American Lung Association. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Ross, Corinne. Christmas hi Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977. 


Christmas Season 


cfiristmas Season 

How long is the Christmas season? The answer varies from place to 
place and from age to age. In the United States today, the Christmas 
season is often equated with the shopping and gift-return season. In 
other times and places, calendar customs or related observances 
opened and closed the Christmas season. 

In past eras Europeans began their Christmas season on a variety of 
dates on which Christmas-related events and observances took 
place. In medieval and Renaissance times the English sometimes 
selected a local Lord of Misrule, a kind of clown who presided over 
Christmas festivities, as early as Halloween or All Saints' Day (No- 
vember 1). The first day of Advent, which occurs on the Sunday clos- 
est to November 30, also served as an important date with regard to 
the European Christmas season. In some parts of Europe the 
Christmas season began on December 6, St. Nicholas's Day. In Swe- 
den the season stiU begins with St. Lucy's Day on December 13. 

For many centuries the Twelve Days of Christmas stood at the 
heart of the European Christmas season. The Twelve Days begin on 
December 25 and last until Twelfth Night. This period includes a 
number of other observances such as St. Stephen's Day, St. John's 
Day, Holy Innocents' Day, the Feast of the Circumcision, and 
New Year's Day. 

Virtually no one ended their seasonal celebration on December 26, 
the day after Christmas. Even today, Americans extend the Christmas 
season through New Year's Day. In the past, however, many Eu- 
ropeans assumed that Christmas ended on Epiphany, January 6. An 
old English folk custom sent farm laborers back to work on Plough 
Monday, the Monday after the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Women 
resumed their labors on St. Distaff's Day, January 7. Scandinavian 
folk beliefs taught that the Christmas season ended on January 12, 
the twentieth day of Christmas, which the Swedes and Norwegians 
celebrate as St. Knut's Day. In Scotland's Shetland Islands, however. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Christmas lasted until Old Twenty-Fourth night, which was marked 
by a festival called Up Helly Aa {see also Old Christmas Day). In 
past centuries some English Christmas customs, such as decorating 
homes with greenery, extended as late as Candlemas, February 2. 
In other areas of Europe people finally dismantled their Nativity 
scenes on Candlemas. 

In Latin America, eastern Europe, and the Middle East different 
dates and observances may mark the beginning and the end of the 
Christmas season. In Syria the Christmas season opens with St. 
Barbara's Day on December 4. In a few Latin American countries 
the Christmas season begins on December 8 with the Feast of the 
Immaculate Conception. In the Philippines and some parts of Latin 
America, the holiday season begins on December 16 with a Christ- 
mas novena (a series of special religious services or private devotions 
offered on nine consecutive days; see also Misa de Gallo; Posadas, 
Las). In Russia Orthodox Christians still schedule their feast days 
according to the old, Julian calendar {see Old Christmas Day). There- 
fore, they celebrate Christmas on January 7, as do Orthodox Ethiopi- 
ans {see also Ethiopia, Christmas in). Orthodox Armenians living in 
the Holy Land who follow the Julian calendar celebrate Epiphany 
and Christmas together on January 19 {see also Armenia, Christmas 

In recent years commercial interests have defined the Christmas 
season for many Americans. In the early twentieth century retailers 
promoted the idea that the Christmas shopping season begins on 
the day after Thanksgiving. These days, however, retailers may bom- 
bard consumers with Christmas merchandise and promotions as 
early as October. 

Further Reading 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 


Christmas Sheaf 



Cl^rfstmas Sl^eaf 

One old Scandinavian Christmas custom is for the birds . . . Hterally. 
Many Nordic famihes offer food to the birds at Christmas time. The 
traditional offering consists of a sheaf of grain placed on a pole, 
fence, or rooftop. Those who do not have access to cereal stalks may 
substitute a plate of grain, bread, or seeds. Scandinavians call the 
bundle of grain stalks a "Christmas sheaf." They place it outside on 
Christmas Eve or Christmas morning in order to include the birds in 
the feasting that is taking place inside the home. 

Several other Scandinavian customs encourage the kind treatment 
of animals at Christmas time. Tradition dictates that farmers give 
horses and cows extra helpings of food. In Norway hunters with- 
draw snares and traps during the Christmas season. Some believe 
that these customs, including the feeding of birds at Christmas time, 
arose as a way of spreading the spirit of kindness and plenty that 
infuses human celebrations of Christmas throughout the animal 
kingdom. Others argue that the Christmas sheaf originally worked 
as a kind of magic rite. They believe the sheaf may have served as a 
sacrifice to pre-Christian fertility spirits or as a charm to keep the 
birds from harming the coming year's crops. In any case, contempo- 
rary Scandinavians delight in the eager pecking and joyous chatter 
of the birds who find the sheaf on Christmas morning. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Foley, Daniel J. The Christmas Tree. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Company, 

Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Noiway. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum 

Forlag, 1970. 
Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cf^ristmas Symbols 

Over the centuries many Christmas symbols have emerged from the 
lore, legends, and customs surrounding Christmas. The more famil- 
iar of these symbols include Christmas trees, stars {see Star of 
Bethlehem), Nativity scenes. Advent calendars, candy canes {see 
Urban Legends), angels, bells, cherry trees, Christmas cards, 
farolitos, holly, ivy, gifts, mistletoe, poinsettias, plum pudding, 
reindeer, robins, and wreaths. Folk figures such as Santa Claus, 
La Befana, Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, the Jultomten, 
the Snow Maiden, the Weihnachtsmann, and the Yule goat also 
serve as symbols of the holiday. 

Lost and Lesser-Known Christmas Symbols 

In addition to the well-known Christmas symbols listed above, a 
number of archaic and lesser-known images have also emerged out 
of Christmas folklore. An ox and an ass, often pictured standing 
alongside the infant Jesus, also appear occasionally as symbols of 


Christmas Symbols 

the hoHday. Although neither of the Gospel accounts of Christmas 
mentions these animals, Christmas folklore assigned them a place at 
Jesus'birth as early as the Middle Ages {see Nativity Legends). Their 
connection to the Nativity can be traced back to a verse from the 
Book of Isaiah, which states, "An ox knows its owner and a donkey 
its master's stall" (Isaiah 1:3). Many Christians took this verse as a 
reference to the birth of Jesus in a stable {see Gospel According to 
Luke). Hence, they imagined that an ox and an ass witnessed and 
recognized the holy birth. 

Before the advent of gas and electric lighting, candles and fires of all 
sorts illuminated the long, dark nights of the Christmas season and 
gave rise to many Christmas customs {see Advent Candle; Advent 
Wreath; Christmas Candles; Luminarias; Martinmas; St. Lucy's 
Day; Up Helly Aa; and Yule Log). The Yule log and the Christmas 
candle may at one time have served as familiar Christmas symbols, 
although these customs have since declined. Today we still associate 
the Christmas season with fires and lights, usually Christmas tree 
lights, holiday display lights, and the small blazes that warm our 
home fireplaces {see also Ornaments). 

The Christmas ship represents an archaic Christmas symbol which 
has fallen out of general usage and understanding. Several medieval 
Christmas carols describe Christmas as a ship bearing spiritual aid 
to us from afar. One sixteenth- century carol describes the Christmas 
ship in the following fashion: 

There came a ship far sailing then, 

St. Michael was the steersman 

St. John sat in the horn; 

Our Lord harped, our Lady sang. 

And all the bells of heaven rang 

On Christmas in the morn [Crippen, 1990, 156]. 

The words of another song depict Jesus on a ship sailing towards 
earth to be born into human flesh. Thus "anchored" into our exis- 
tence, he sacrifices himself for our salvation. Another old song, "I 
Saw Three Ships," still circulates among carol singers today. This fif- 
teenth-century song also depicts Christ and Mary on board the 
Christmas ship as it sails into Bethlehem on Christmas morning. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Some scholars think that another early version of this carol placed 
the Three Kings, or Magi, on board the ships that sail towards 
Bethlehem. Although the inland town of Bethlehem does not have a 
harbor, this detail did not seem to bother the lyricists of the medieval 

An old carol of German origin still sung today, "Lo, How a Rose E'er 
Blooming," presents the rose as a symbol of the birth of Jesus. The 
lyrics of the song refer back to the Old Testament prophecy that 
declares, "there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a 
branch shall grow out of his roots" (Isaiah 11:1). Many Christians 
take this phrase as a reference to the coming of Jesus. The song 
extends this horticultural imagery by declaring of Jesus' birth, "Lo, 
how a rose e'er blooming from Jesse's lineage hath sprung." During 
the Middle Ages the rose also represented the Virgin Mary, an image 
to which the song also makes reference. Although it is not a familiar 
holiday image to many Americans, the Germans still use the rose as 
a Christmas symbol {see also Christmas Rose). 

Further Reading 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanaclc. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Studwell, William E. The Christmas Carol Reader. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth 

Press, 1995. 


Christmas Tree 


cfiristmas Tree 

The Christmas tree originally hails from Germany. Today, it is a rec- 
ognized symbol of the holiday in many parts of the globe. The earli- 
est historical reference to decorated Christmas trees in German 
homes dates back to the sixteenth century {see also Christmas 
Village; Ornaments). Several theories concerning the beginning of 
the Christmas tree custom, however, suggest that its origins lie 
much further in the past. 


A number of legends offer fanciful explanations for the origins of the 
Christmas tree. According to one, St. Boniface (c. 675-754) began the 
custom in the eighth century. One Christmas Eve this English mis- 
sionary to the German-speaking peoples came across some pagans 
preparing a human sacrifice before an oak tree. He struck the oak 
tree a single blow with his axe, which felled the tree. Duly impressed 
by this miraculous feat, the people abandoned their old ways and 
embraced Christianity. The saint pointed to a small fir tree laying 
among the ruins of the oak and told them to take that as the symbol 
of their new faith and of the birth of the Christ child. 

Legends dating back to tenth-century Europe tell of trees that mys- 
teriously burst into bloom on Christmas Eve {see also Glastonbury 
Thorn). Some writers suggest that this myth inspired people to 
bring decorated trees into their homes at Christmas time. A German 
legend elaborates on this theme. According to this tale, a humble 
woodcutter heard a knock on his door one freezing winter night. 
Upon opening it he discovered a shivering, poor child. The wood- 
cutter and his wife offered the child hospitality for the night, feeding 
him and offering him their own warm bed close to the fire. The next 
morning the grateful child appeared before them, radiant and beau- 
tiful. Awareness dawned in them that their guest was in fact the 
Christ child {see also Christkindel). Before departing the Christ child 
gave them a twig from a fir tree, declaring that it would blossom for 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

them year after year. Unable to imagine how this could occur, they 
tossed the twig away. Nevertheless, it grew into a beautiiiil fir tree, 
which suddenly blossomed with golden apples and silver nuts. The 
miraculous blooms appeared each year at Christmas time. 

Another Christian legend attributes the Christmas tree to Martin 
Luther (1483-1546). One Christmas Eve the great religious reformer 
found himself walking through the woods. The beauty of the stars 
shining through the branches of the fir trees deeply moved him. He 
cut down a small tree, brought it home with him, and covered it with 
lit candles, explaining to his family that its light and beauty repre- 
sented Christ, the light of the world. Although this legend helped to 
increase the popularity of the Christmas tree it should be pointed 
out that the earliest known document describing a Christmas tree lit 
with candles was written about a century after Luther's death. 


No one can confirm the exact origin of the Christmas tree. Some 
writers base their explanation of the Christmas tree on the theory 
that in ancient times the pagan peoples of northern Europe revered 
trees. They propose that the venerable pagan symbol of the tree sur- 
vived the transition to Christianity by attaching itself to the Christian 
midwinter holiday, Christmas. Little solid historical evidence exists 
to support this viewpoint, however. Others believe that the ancient 
Roman custom of decorating homes and temples with greenery 
during Kalends survived for centuries, eventually inspiring the peo- 
ple of the north to decorate their homes with small evergreen trees 
at that time of year. Still others view the Christmas pyramid as the 
ancestor of the Christmas tree. 

Finally, a number of researchers disagree with all of these argu- 
ments. They point out that the earliest historical records of decorated 
trees being used to celebrate Christmas come from the Middle Ages. 
Fir trees decorated with apples served as the central prop for the 
paradise play, a kind of folk religious drama often performed on 
December 24 {see also Nativity Play). These props were called par- 
adise trees, and some researchers believe they were the forerunners 
of the Christmas tree. The plays eventually fell out of favor with 
Church officials and the populace. Nevertheless, some writers be- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

lieve that people from parts of France and Germany retained the 
custom of celebrating Christmas with a decorated tree, which even- 
tually became known as a Christmas tree. 

Early History 

The earliest historical reference to Christmas trees as such dates back 
to sixteenth-century Germany. In 1561 an ordinance posted in Alsace 
declared that each burgher was allowed only one Christmas tree and 
that his tree could be no more than "eight shoes" in height. Ap- 
parently the custom of bringing a living tree into the home at Christ- 
mas time was so popular that deforestation was already become 
something of a problem. In 1605 a traveler to the city of Strasbourg 
described the German custom of bringing a fir tree into the drawing 
room at Christmas time and decorating it with apples, wafers, paper 
roses, gilt, and sugar ornaments. Documents from the same century 
also record objections to the Christmas tree custom on the part of 
religious reformers, who argued that it detracted from the spiritual 
significance of the holiday. On the whole, however, the Christmas- 
tree-loving Germans appear to have ignored these objections. 

The Christmas pyramid found favor with many German families dur- 
ing the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some German families 
preferred to decorate a pyramid rather than a Christmas tree. Other 
families had both in their parlors. Still other families preferred to cen- 
ter home celebrations around a Nativity scene. For the most part, 
the Nativity scene held sway in southern Germany, where Catholics 
were more numerous. The tree dominated in northern Germany, 
where more Protestants lived. By the nineteenth century the increas- 
ing appeal of the Christmas tree contributed to the decline of the 
Christmas pyramid. 

During the nineteenth century the Christmas tree became increas- 
ingly popular in all parts of Germany, but also spread to other coun- 
tries. Around 1840 the English monarch Queen Victoria and her 
German-born consort Prince Albert celebrated Christmas with a 
decorated tree. Although the Christmas tree was known in England 
before that time, this stamp of royal approval transformed the tree 
into a fashionable, new addition to the English Christmas. In like 
manner, the German-born Princess Helene of Mecklenberg started 


Christmas Tree 

a Christmas tree trend in France in 1837 by celebrating her first 
Christmas in that country with a decorated tree. Many Scandina- 
vians adopted the Christmas tree in the mid-nineteenth century, as 
did many Americans, Russians, and other northern Europeans. 
Southern Europeans, for the most part, stuck with their traditional 
Nativity scenes. Indeed, the Nativity scene remains the focus of 
home Christmas celebrations in much of southern Europe. 

The Christmas Tree Comes to America 

Some writers claim that Hessian soldiers who fought on behalf of 
the British in the American Revolution erected the first Christmas 
trees on American soil. No solid historical evidence exists to back up 
this claim, however. Several contemporary folklorists instead claim 
that German immigrants, such as those of the Pennsylvania Dutch 
country, brought the custom with them to the United States. Oc- 
casional references to the novelty of a decorated Christmas tree are 
scattered throughout newspapers on the East Coast from the early 
1800s. In fact, the trees were considered so exotic that some organi- 
zations set them up and then charged people money in order to 
view them. 

By the 1840s the Christmas tree was widely known in the United 
States. Publication of Kriss Kringle's Christmas Tree in 1845, a chil- 
dren's book about the custom, helped to popularize the holiday tree. 
The first American Christmas trees were only a few feet tall and 
were displayed on tables, following the German fashion. As the size 
of the tree grew to accommodate an ever-increasing load of orna- 
ments, Americans moved the tree to a stand on the floor. Many of 
these early American ornaments were in fact Christmas gifts and 
treats. These might include gingerbread and other cookies, pretzels, 
apples, lemons, oranges, raisins, nuts, figs, sugarplums, strings of 
cranberries or popcorn, candy, dolls, books, thimbles, scissors, mit- 
tens, stockings, shoes, paper roses, glass balls, and ornaments made 
of egg shells or cotton. 

Families gradually began to exchange heavier, more substantial gifts. 
Before 1880 people usually hung their unwrapped gifts from the tree 
with thread or string. After that time, wrapping paper and fancy 
decorated boxes started to become fashionable. As Christmas pre- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

sents grew too large or heavy to hang on the tree, people began to 
place them beneath the tree. 

The Christmas Tree Becomes an American Institution 

During the second half of the nineteenth century the Christmas tree 
cast its roots deep into American Christmas celebrations. Its presence 
undermined the role of the Christmas stocking as a receptacle for 
gifts in many homes. Christmas trees began to sprout up in school 
holiday celebrations. They even worked their way into churches, in 
spite of some initial opposition to what was perceived as a suspi- 
ciously heathen custom. Mark Carr, a logger from New York's Cat- 
skill Mountains, created the first Christmas tree lot in 1851. For the 
price of one dollar he rented a sidewalk in New York City and sold 
cut trees to city dwellers. His business appeared to be so profitable 
that the owner of the sidewalk increased his rent to $100 the follow- 
ing year. In 1856 Franklin Fierce became the first American presi- 
dent to celebrate Christmas in the White House with a decorated 
tree. As the tree became a familiar and cherished part of American 
Christmas celebrations, people began to make fancy ribbon and lace 
ornaments as well as to collect store-bought ornaments for their 
trees. Unlike the gifts and treats which had covered their trees in 
past years, these ornaments could be saved and reused the following 

One writer estimates that by the turn of the twentieth century, about 
one in five American homes displayed a decorated tree at Christmas 
time. Many of those who could not afford to set up a tree in their 
homes still enjoyed community or church trees. Fresident Theodore 
Roosevelt expressed early ecological concerns about the national 
consumption of evergreen trees at Christmas time. Around the year 
1900 he discontinued the use of Christmas trees in the White House. 
His sons, however, unable to resist the lure of a decorated Christmas 
tree, smuggled an evergreen into one of their bedrooms. Roosevelt 
eventually changed his position on Christmas trees after one of his 
advisors assured him that America's forests could survive the yearly 

In the following decades Christmas trees appeared in more and 
more American homes. In the year 2000, 79 percent of U.S. homes 


Christmas Tree 

displayed a Christmas tree during the hoHday season. About 31 per- 
cent of American homeowners bought real Christmas trees, while 49 
percent of homeowners relied instead upon artificial trees (and two 
percent of homes contained both a real and an artificial tree). Christ- 
mas tree growers harvest and seU about 33 million real trees annually. 

Symbolic Trees 

The Christmas tree has become a potent sjnnbol of peace and good- 
will. This symbolism underlies the ceremonies surrounding many 
public Christmas trees. President Woodrow Wilson presided over the 
first National Christmas Tree ceremony on Christmas Eve in 1913. 
Although Wilson established the ceremony near the Capitol Building, 
President Calvin Coolidge moved the national Christmas tree to the 
vicinity of the White House. In 1923 he led the first ceremonial light- 
ing of the national Christmas tree. This yearly ceremony has contin- 
ued ever since, with the exception of the years between 1942 and 
1945, when wartime blackouts prohibited the festive, outdoor lights. 
After the Korean War, a Christmas "pageant of peace" was attached 
to the lighting of the national Christmas tree, which entailed re- 
scheduling the lighting ceremony to a date before Christmas Eve {see 
also Nation's Christmas Tree). 

The English, too, have a kind of national tree. Each year since 1947 
the citizens of Norway have donated an immense evergreen tree to 
the people of the United Kingdom in gratitude for British aid during 
World War II. This tree towers over London's Trafalgar Square during 
the Christmas season. 

Further Reading 

Comfort, David. jMSf Say Noel! New York: Fireside Books, 1995. 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. Tlie Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Foley, Daniel ]. The Christmas Tree. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 1960. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Russ, Jennifer. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald 

Wolff, 1982. 
Snyder, Phillip V. The Christmas Tree Book. New York: Viking Press, 1976. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New 
York: Macmillan, 1979. 

Web Sites 

A site sponsored by the National Park Service on the National Christmas 

The National Christmas Tree Association, a group that represents growers, 
offers facts and figures concerning real Christmas trees at their web site: 

cfiristmas Village 

Christmas garden, Christmas yard 

For many centuries people have delighted in constructing miniature 
landscapes for Christmas. The Nativity scene, a life-sized or minia- 
ture depiction of the scene of Jesus' birth, dates back to the thirteenth 
century. In the eighteenth century some central Europeans enjoyed 
creating miniature village scenes — called Christmas gardens — which 
they set up under their Christmas trees. The Moravians brought 
this tradition with them to America, and from it developed their own 
custom of Christmas putz building. The putz included a Nativity 
scene within a complicated town and country landscape. The idea of 
creating a miniature world underneath the Christmas tree soon 
spread beyond the German-American communities that imported it 
to this country. It survives to this day, though nowadays most people 
buy the figurines and buildings from gift shops rather than make 
them at home. 

Christmas Gardens and Yards 

In the nineteenth century many Americans placed a miniature fence 
around their Christmas trees {see also America, Christmas in Nine- 
teenth-Century). This fence enclosed an area sometimes referred to 


Christmas Village 

as a Christmas garden or Christmas yard. Inside the fenced area fam- 
ilies arranged small figurines of people or animals, along with vari- 
ous toys. Magazine articles taught children how to make miniature 
houses out of cardboard to complement these scenes. Adults also 
worked on the little settlements. Home crafters created a wide vari- 
ety of scenes, including vignettes of circus life, Indian villages, clus- 
ters of young people skating on frozen lakes, charming gardens, 
prosperous farms, and snug log cabins. 

By the 1890s manufacturers supplied the public with a steady stream 
of ready-made miniature cardboard buildings and figures, as well as 
fences to mark off the magical territory of the Christmas garden. In 
the 1920s Germany exported large numbers of Christmas village sets 
to the U.S. and Canada. In the 1930s Japan added to the supply. 
During the 1920s and 1930s the buildings came with cellophane 
windows, designed to permit the consumer to illuminate them from 
within with an electric light bulb. While some people placed the little 
homes and shops below their tree, others hung them from the tree 
as Christmas ornaments, or filled them with candy. In the 1940s 
and 1950s, toy train sets became extremely popular Christmas gifts 
for boys. The train sets, too — with all their accessories — furthered 
the tradition of setting up a world in miniature beneath the tree. 

In 1976 a company called Department 56 introduced a series of 
miniature ceramic figures and buildings that formed a set called 
"Snow Village." Snow Village depicts a small Midwestern town dur- 
ing the Christmas season. These products became very popular in 
just a few years. Soon the company began to branch out, offering 
buyers a Dickens Village (modeled on Charles Dickens's classic tale 
A Christmas Carol), Christmas in the City (based on New York City 
Christmas scenes), a New England Village, an Alpine Village, a Beth- 
lehem Village, and a North Pole Village featuring Santa Claus. By 
1996 Department 56 was earning $126 million a year in profits. 
Naturally, other companies tried to cash in on the lucrative trade in 
Christmas villages. Target Stores developed a Christmas Village 
based on the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. Kmart came up with its 
own Christmas town and Mervyns of California starting selling 
replicas of the California missions — historic California church com- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

pounds dating back to the time when California was part of Spain 
and Mexico. Collecting and displaying miniature villages of this 
kind at Christmas time has become a popular American Christmas 
custom in recent decades. 

Further Reading 

Marling, Karal Ann. Merry Christmas! Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univer- 
sity Press, 2000. 

Web Sites 

Department 56's web site offers a brief history of the company and its prod- 

"Christmas Villages," a page from the Christmas Traditions in France and 
Canada exhibit sponsored by the Virtual Museum of Canada: http://www. 

•nit , 


Over the past century Americans have turned Christmas into a very 
expensive holiday. Richard Feinberg, professor of consumer sciences 
and retailing at Purdue University, estimated that Christmas-related 
expenses would cost Americans $800 billion in the year 2002. In fact, 
these Christmas purchases account for just under twenty percent of 
all retail goods sold in the United States each year and up to fifty 
percent of retailers'yearly profits. 

Americans spend time as well as money on maintaining their Christ- 
mas shopping habits. According to one survey, 97 percent of Ameri- 
cans buy Christmas presents. Nevertheless, only 28 percent of those 
who bought presents said that they enjoyed Christmas shopping 
very much. In spite of widespread ambivalence about the task, the 
average American household buys and wraps thirty Christmas gifts 
each year. About 62 percent of all American women begin this time- 
consuming enterprise before Thanksgiving. Men outnumber women 



in the ranks of those who dislike Christmas shopping, so it is not 
surprising that they are much more likely to dawdle over this task. 

Although retailers may relish this yearly orgy of consumption, other 
groups denounce it. Some women complain that the pressure of 
shopping for and wrapping a heap of Christmas gifts exhausts them, 
especially when added to the extra cooking, entertaining, and deco- 
rating that takes place around Christmas time (see also Depression). 
Others protest that the yearly tidal wave of spending has all but 
drowned the religious or spiritual meaning of the holiday. Still oth- 
ers worry about the waste of environmental resources. They point 
out that our current Christmas consumption habits produce five 
million extra tons of garbage between Thanksgiving, the kick-off of 
the Christmas shopping season, and Christmas Day. Indeed, in 1994 
the American Greetings Company sold 1.7 billion linear feet of 
Christmas wrapping paper, enough to circle the globe 12 times. 
Finally, many Americans may simply be spending more they can 
afford to on maintaining their material Christmas celebrations. For 
example, one survey has shown that it takes the average American 
four months to pay off all their holiday purchases. How did Ameri- 
cans come to celebrate Christmas with such a greedy grab for world- 
ly goods? 

Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Christmas was not a 
very important holiday in this country. In fact, in many states it was 
not even a legal holiday (see also Colonial America, Christmas in). 
In the early part of the nineteenth century Americans who celebrat- 
ed Christmas sometimes gave gifts to the poor and to servants, fol- 
lowing old European Christmas customs (see Boxing Day; Twelve 
Days of Christmas). Christmas gifts were not all that common, and 
most Christmas expenditures went instead towards food and drink. 
Presents to friends and family, often distributed on New Year's Day 
instead of Christmas, usually consisted of inexpensive, homemade 
items, such as wooden toys, handmade articles of clothing, or home- 
made foods. The well-to-do might buy fancier New Year gifts for 
friends and family members, such as jewelry, watches, pens, pin 
cushions, gloves, and snuff boxes. 



American Christmas celebrations changed significantly during the 
second half of the nineteenth century, however. The holiday became 
more popular as Puritan objections to Christmas faded, and the cus- 
toms of Christmas-celebrating emigrant groups, such as the Germans 
and Irish, blended with those of more liberal Anglo-Americans. 
Americans adopted the Christmas tree, and Santa Claus emerged 
as a uniquely American Christmas gift bringer. Christmas gifts became 
increasingly common, although many still preferred to give home- 
made rather than store-bought items (see also Ornaments). 

Commercial Influence on Christmas 

In the decade following the Civil War, American retailers began to 
cash in on the increasing popularity of Christmas. After 1870, news- 
paper advertisements promoting products as potential Christmas 
gifts appeared in New York and Philadelphia papers with increasing 
frequency. In 1874 Macy's department store in New York promoted 
the purchase of Christmas gifts to passersby with a magnificent store 
window display featuring $10,000 worth of imported dolls. Other 
department stores soon followed suit with lavish Christmas displays. 

Some Americans still felt that store-bought goods seemed too im- 
personal and too commercial to give as Christmas gifts. Retailers, 
manufacturers, and advertisers employed several devices to break 
down this resistance to manufactured goods. Retailers began to 
package Christmas purchases in special Christmas wrapping paper 
as a way of increasing the festivity of store-bought items. The special 
wrapping paper lifted the item out the realm of ordinary purchases 
and identified it specifically as a Christmas gift. Manufacturers chimed 
in by shipping all sorts of ordinary goods in special Christmas pack- 
aging. Advertisers ran campaigns suggesting that mass-produced 
items, such as handkerchiefs, umbrellas, and socks made "ideal" 
Christmas presents. 

In the early twentieth century retailers and advertisers sent Santa 
Claus to work for them. He appeared in many an advertisement, 
endorsing all manner of ordinary household items as perfect Christ- 
mas gifts. Moreover, around 1900 he began to appear at department 
stores and on street corners in business districts throughout the 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

country. These hired Santas attracted customers to stores and col- 
lected donations for charitable causes. 

As Christmas sales increased, retailers began to rely upon them for a 
high percentage of their yearly revenues. In order to lengthen this 
very profitable time of year, some stores began to promote the idea 
that the Christmas shopping season began on the day after Thanks- 
giving. In 1920 Gimbel's department store of Philadelphia spon- 
sored the first Thanksgiving parade. The parade alerted Philadel- 
phians to the start of the Christmas shopping season and quite nat- 
urally featured the American Christmas gift bringer, Santa Claus. 
Hudson's department store in Detroit and Macy's in New York soon 
adopted this festive advertising gimmick, planning their first Thanks- 
giving parades in 1924. So profitable was the Christmas shopping 
season that retailers lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt to prolong 
it from three weeks to four weeks. In 1939, after a decade of slow 
sales caused by the Depression, the head of Ohio's Federated 
Department Stores caught Roosevelt's ear with the argument that a 
longer Christmas shopping season would boost Christmas sales. 
Roosevelt acted on this advice, shifting the date of Thanksgiving 
from November 30 to November 23. In 1941 Congress changed the 
date of Thanksgiving again, decreeing that it fall on the fourth Thurs- 
day in November. A four- week Christmas shopping season was thus 
firmly established. 

Changing Consumer Preferences 

Shifts in the American economy also aided retailers in the quest for 
Christmas customers. As America shifted from an agricultural to an 
industrial economy in the late nineteenth century, many people lost 
both the leisure and the necessary raw materials to make home- 
made gifts. They turned instead to the marketplace for their Christ- 
mas presents. Furthermore, most Americans seemed to find the new 
industrially manufactured items highly desirable, and many now 
had the cash to buy them. The great shift from homemade to manu- 
factured Christmas gifts took place between 1880 and 1920. After 
1920 Americans relied almost exclusively on store-bought Christmas 



Before 1910 people who purchased Christmas gifts often gave cheap, 
decorative items, such as ceramic knickknacks, to friends and family. 
These frivolous novelty gifts fell out of favor in the early twentieth 
century. People began to send Christmas cards to their friends, dis- 
tant relatives, and business associates in lieu of these gimmick gifts. 
Family members and close friends received gifts that were more use- 
ful, though more expensive, than the old gimcracks had been. These 
included such items as tools and household appliances. 

By the late 1920s buyers' preferences began to shift again, this time 
towards luxury items such as jewelry and fine clothing. The home- 
made Christmas gifts of the mid-nineteenth century had satisfied 
people's basic needs. Now, consumers were expected to familiarize 
themselves with the tastes, and discover the secret desires, of each 
person for whom they bought gifts. In order to aid shoppers in this 
stressful mental exercise, retailers came up with a new idea: gift cer- 

Financing Christmas 

The increasing commercialization of Christmas affected American 
saving and spending habits. By the early twentieth century many 
employers offered their workers a special Christmas bonus. This 
token addition to their regular wages helped workers to participate 
in the new, materialist Christmas. As this participation still strained 
the budgets of many working people, Christmas clubs sprang up to 
help them save money throughout the year in order to finance a 
December spending spree. 


America's Christmas spending habits were established during the 
early twentieth century. As the United States became an affluent 
nation, Americans began to celebrate Christmas by spending large 
sums of money. Some point out, however, that America's Christmas 
consumption habits merely reflect her year-round consumption 
habits, which are extravagant by world standards. The average citi- 
zen of Vietnam earned $360 in 2000. Compare that with the $1,161 
the average American family planned to spend on Christmas gifts 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

alone in the same year. Other affluent nations also celebrate materi- 
ally extravagant Christmases. For most Japanese, Christmas is nei- 
ther a traditional folk holiday nor a religious holiday, yet they spent 
$7.5 billion for Christmas presents in 1993. 

Many people have grown dissatisfied with the materialistic customs 
that characterize contemporary Christmas celebrations. In a 2002 
survey, over seventy percent of Americans questioned said that they 
would like to reduce their Christmas spending and gift giving. Re- 
ligious organizations, consumer advocates, and groups within the 
voluntary simplicity movement are supporting their followers in this 

Further Reading 

Barnett, James H. The American Christmas. New York: Macmillan, 1954. 
Belk, Russell. "Materialism and the Making of the Modern American 

Christmas." In Daniel Miller, ed. Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford, England: 

Clarendon Press, 1993. 
Comfort, David. Just Say Noel! New York: Fireside Books, 1995. 
Evergreen Alliance. The First Green Christmas. San Francisco, Calif.: Halo 

Books, 1990. 
McKibben, Bill. Hundred Dollar Holiday. New York: Simon and Schuster, 

Robinson, lo, and lean Coppock Staeheli. Unplug the Christmas Machine. 

New York: William Morrow and Company, 1982. 
St. lames, Elaine. Simplify Your Christmas. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews 

McMeel Publishing, 1998. 
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American 

Holidays. Princeton, N.I.: Princeton University Press, 1995. 
Tyson, Ann Scott. "Christmas Without Shopping." Christian Science Monitor 

(Thursday, December 11, 1997): 1. 
Waits, William. The Modern Christmas in America. New York: New York Uni- 
versity Press, 1993. 

Web Sites 

A site sponsored by Alternatives, a Christian non-profit group advocating 
simpler living and less wasteful holiday celebrations: http://www.simple 



A site sponsored by the Center for a New American Dream, a non-proiit 
organization in Takoma Park, Md., dedicated to reducing consumption, 
entiancing quality of Ufe, and protecting the environment, contains the 
pamphlet "Simplify the IHiolidays": 


December 2.5 

The earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. In fact, the first 
Christian calendar listing December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity 
was compiled in 336 a.d. Since neither of the two biblical accounts of 
the Nativity — found in the Gospel according to Luke and the 
Gospel according to Matthew — gives the date of Jesus' birth, how 
did December 25 come to be the date on which Christians celebrate 
Christmas? {See also Gospel Accounts of Christmas; Jesus, Year of 

Birthdays in the Ancient World 

In the ancient world various pagan peoples celebrated the birthdays 
of gods and important individuals. In fact, many pagan myths 
explained the miraculous births of the gods. This association with 
paganism caused some early Christian thinkers to oppose the cele- 
bration of birthdays on principle. For example, in his commentary 
on the Gospel of Matthew, the Christian teacher and writer Origen 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

(c. 185-c. 254) argued that Christians should not observe birthdays 
since scripture depicts only wrongdoers like the pharaohs and Herod 
celebrating their birthdays. 

Selection of December 25 

By the fourth century, however. Christian leaders had overcome 
their reluctance to honor the birthday of Jesus Christ. Now they had 
to decide upon a date for the new feast. The first mention of Christ- 
mas observances taking place on December 25 occurs in the Philo- 
calian calendar, a Church document written in 336 a.d. Some schol- 
ars believe that Christian authorities scheduled the Feast of the Na- 
tivity for December 25 in order to draw people away from the pagan 
festivals celebrated on or around that date. The madcap revels asso- 
ciated with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia ended on December 
23, just two days earlier. On January first the Romans observed 
Kalends, their new year festival. Finally, on December 25 devotees 
of Mithras and Sol celebrated the Birth of the Invincible Sun. 

According to the calendar used by the ancient Romans, the winter 
solstice fell on December 25, making it a perfect day on which to 
commemorate the rebirth of the sun. The cult of the sun god was 
especially popular with the Romans between the second and the 
fourth centuries, a time when Christianity was struggling to estab- 
lish itself as a legitimate faith. By selecting December 25 as the date 
for the new Feast of the Nativity, Christian leaders probably hoped 
to convince sun god worshipers to celebrate the birth of Jesus rather 
than the birth of the sun. 

Some early Christian thinkers offered other, more convoluted expla- 
nations for the choice of December 25. They based these explana- 
tions not only on their interpretations of scripture, but also on 
Christian lore and then-popular beliefs concerning the significance 
of round numbers. According to one scholar. Church leaders tried to 
figure out the date of Jesus' birth from the date traditionally given for 
his death, March 25. Since they wanted to come up with a round 
number for Jesus' age at death, they assumed he was also conceived 
on March 25. Therefore, he must have been born nine months later 
on December 25. 


December 25 

Other Christian thinkers drew parallels between Christ and the sun 
based on Bible passages that describe the Messiah as "the sun of 
righteousness" (Malachi 4:2) and "the light of the world" Qohn 
8:12). According to this line of thought, Jesus' incarnation represent- 
ed a new creation, as when God created the world. According to the 
Book of Genesis, God's first act was to create light, an act that sepa- 
rated light from darkness. Therefore, they reasoned, God must have 
created the world at the time of the spring equinox, when the world 
is separated into two equal halves of light and darkness. Since Jesus 
himself stood for the new creation, Jesus must also have been con- 
ceived at the time of the spring equinox (see also Annunciation). 
According to the Julian calendar then in use, spring equinox fell on 
March 25. Allowing for a nine-month gestation period, Jesus would 
then have been born on December 25. 

The solar symbolism attached to Jesus in this explanation concluded 
with his birth on the winter solstice, the date when the sun "re- 
turns" and the days begin to lengthen. By equating Jesus with the 
sun. Christian leaders adopted and yet subtly undermined the logic 
of sun god worshipers. For example, one early Christian writer thun- 
dered, "They [the pagans] call December twenty-fifth the Birthday of 
the Unconquered: Who is indeed so unconquered as our Lord? ... or, 
if they say that it is the birthday of the sun: He is the Sun of Justice." 

Division of Christmas and Epiphany 

The introduction of Christmas as a separate feast clashed with the 
way in which many churches had been celebrating Epiphany. The 
first Epiphany celebrations occurred in second-century Egypt. The 
feast spread to other Christian communities during the next two 
hundred years, although considerable variation existed between 
these scattered celebrations. This holiday might commemorate any 
of the four, recognized occasions on which Jesus' divinity revealed 
itself to those around him: his birth, the adoration of the Magi, his 
baptism, and the miracle at the wedding in Cana. After creating a 
separate holiday to honor Jesus' birth, the Roman Church shifted the 
focus of its Epiphany celebrations to the adoration of the Magi. 
When the Eastern Churches finally accepted Christmas, they used 
the holiday to honor both Jesus' birth and the adoration of the Magi. 
Afterwards, their Epiphany celebrations focused on Jesus' baptism. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Spread of the New Feast 

Sometime around the year 350 Pope Julius (d. 352) or Pope Liberius 
(d. 366) officially adopted December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity. 
After Church leaders established the holiday in Rome, they attempt- 
ed to convince the churches in the eastern part of the empire to 
accept this feast. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-c. 398) introduced 
the festival in Constantinople in 379. In 386 St. John Chrysostom 
preached to Christians in Antioch, advising them to accept the festi- 
val on this date, in spite of the fact that some still preferred to cele- 
brate the Nativity on January 6. Most of the Eastern Churches accept- 
ed the new feast in the years between 380 and 430 a.d. Jerusalem 
Christians did not accept the new festival until the middle of the 
sixth century. The Armenians never accepted the new festival. Today, 
the Armenian Orthodox Church still celebrates the Nativity of Christ 
on January 6, Epiphany. Those Armenian Orthodox congregations in 
the Holy Land that still use the Julian calendar celebrate the festival 
on January 19 {see Armenia, Christmas in; Old Christmas Day). 

Origins of the Word "Christmas" 

Since Latin was the official language of the Roman Church, its leaders 
called the new festival commemorating Jesus' birth Dies Natalis 
Domini, or the "Birthday of the Lord." The more formal name for the 
holiday was Festum Nativitatis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, or the "Feast 
of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ." Our English word for the 
festival, "Christmas," didn't evolve until centuries later. The term ap- 
pears in documents from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, written 
in Old English as Christes maesse, which means "Christ's Mass." Eng- 
lish speakers soon formed a contraction out of the two words. The 
name of the festival passed through many forms in the centuries that 
followed, including kryst-masse, cristmasse, crystmasse, Chrysmas, and 
Cristmas. The term "Christmas" came into the English language 
sometime between the late sixteenth and late seventeenth centuries. 

In casual writing, the word Christmas sometimes appears as 
"Xmas." Some people dislike the informality of this abbreviation and 
the fact that it removes the word "Christ" from the word Christmas. 
Others find it less objectionable. They point out that the "x" may be 
said to stand for the Greek letter "X" (chi), which is the first letter in 
the Greek word for Christ. 


December 25 
Further Reading 

Baldovin, John R "Christmas." In Mircea Eliade, ed. TJie Encyclopedia of 

Religion. Volume 3. New York: Macn\illan, 1987. 
Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian 

Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1983. 
Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1993. 
Metford, J. C. J. The ChristianYear. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 

Smith, C. "Christmas and Its Cycle." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 

3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 
Stander, Hendrik F. "Christmas." In Everett Ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of 

Early Christianity. Volumie 1. New York: Garland, 1997. 
Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Denmark^ cf^ristmas in 

The people of Denmark enjoy a Christmas season full of good food 
and good cheer. At least one Danish Christmas custom, Christmas 
seals, has become popular in the United States and other countries. 

Christmas Countdown 

Danes use Advent calendars and calendar candles to help them 
count the days until Christmas. Danish calendar candles display a 
series of numbers down one side. These numbers represent the dates 
between the beginning of Advent and Christmas Day. The candle is 
lit each day until the number representing that day melts away. 
Advent wreaths are also popular in Denmark. 

Christmas Symbols and Decorations 

As Christmas draws near, Danish people adorn both their homes and 
the city streets with a variety of Christmas symbols and decora- 


Denmark, Christmas in 

tions. The most popular Christmas symbol in Denmark is the red 
heart. It represents the love that infuses Danish Christmas celebra- 
tions. The Danish flag is another popular Christmas image. The flag 
displays a white cross on a red background. Red and white serve as 
Denmark's Christmas colors. One often sees the popular Christmas 
heart woven out of strips of red and white paper. Moreover, many 
Danes light up the dark December afternoons and evenings with 
flickering red and white Christmas candles. Danes also fashion 
many Christmas decorations from greenery, especially mistletoe 
and holly, which is called Kristdom, or "Christ thorn." 

The nisse or Julnisse is another popular Christmas image (see also 
Christmas Lads; Jultomten). According to Danish folklore, the 
nisser are small, elf-like creatures who live in dark, quiet corners of 
homes and barns. They possess certain magical powers, which they 
can use to create annoying household mishaps. Around Christmas 
time the Julnisser, or "Christmas" nisser, become active. House- 
holders must appease them with a bowl of porridge on Christmas 
Eve or they will pull pranks on family members. 


In the weeks before Christmas Danish families give their homes a 
thorough cleaning. The cleaning prepares them to receive the many 
visitors who are likely to be entertained during the Christmas sea- 
son. Christmas baking also begins early. Not only must there be 
enough holiday treats to satisfy family members, but also guests 
must be entertained with the special holiday dainties. Favorite 
Danish Christmas cookies include spicy, brown sugar, almond cook- 
ies called brune kager, deep-fried butter cookies called kleiner, and 
hard spice cookies called pebbernedder. Julekage, Christmas coffee 
cake, is another popular treat, along with vanillekranse, vanilla butter 
cookies shaped like wreaths. 

In past times well-to-do Danish families often gifted their servants 
with a plate of Christmas cookies. The servants not only enjoyed the 
cookies but treasured the plates, which were nicer than their own. In 
the nineteenth century Danish plate makers began to issue special 
blue-and-white plates painted with holiday designs and numbered 
by year. Today people collect these plates. Another Danish Christmas 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

custom achieved worldwide popularity. Around the turn of the 
twentieth century a Danish postmaster invented the Christmas seal 
as a way of raising money for charity. Today people in many coun- 
tries decorate their Christmas cards, packages, and letters with 
Christmas seals. 

The Danish people adopted the German custom of decorating their 
homes with a Christmas tree in the nineteenth century. Many 
Danish families sit down together and make their own Christmas 
ornaments out of colored paper and paste. Typical designs include 
garlands of Danish flags, hearts, nisser, stars, drums, bells, and 
cones, which are filled with sweets and nuts. Christmas crackers 
may also be hung on the tree. 

Christmas Parties 

Many companies, unions, and other organizations give Christmas 
parties during the month of December. Office parties often take the 
form of sumptuous Friday lunches that last all afternoon. Family 
members also attend these events. Some researchers believe these 
parties are the modern-day equivalent of community Christmas par- 
ties, called Jultraefests, or "Christmas tree parties," that used to take 
place in Danish villages and towns. 

Christmas Eve 

The Danes enjoy Juleaften, or "Christmas Eve," so much that they 
begin preparing for it the day before, on lille Juleaften, or "Little 
Christmas Eve." On Little Christmas Eve they take care of last- 
minute chores and errands and begin cooking Christmas dinner, 
which is served on Christmas Eve. On December 24 many Danes 
leave a Christmas sheaf outside so that the birds may also enjoy a 
special Christmas meal. All over Denmark church bells chime at 4:00 
p.m. on Christmas Eve. Shops and offices close, and people scurry 

For many families, Christmas Eve festivities begin with candlelight 
church services. Afterwards people return home to an elaborate 
Christmas dinner. Before sitting down to eat, many families set a 
flickering candle in the window. The candle signals an offer of hos- 


Denmark, Christmas in 

pitality to any lonely or hungry person who passes by {see also 
Advent Candle). Popular main dishes include roast goose and roast 
pork. Roasted potatoes, cabbage, and cucumber salad often appear 
as side dishes. In the old days, many housewives presented a kind of 
rice pudding as a first course. Nowadays, the rice pudding serves as 
a dessert. The cook hides an almond in each batch of pudding. 
Whoever finds the almond in their serving gets a special little gift, 
usually some chocolate or marzipan. 

After dinner the family gathers around the Christmas tree. Ac- 
cording to one old tradition, the parents shut themselves in the par- 
lor alone on Christmas Eve to decorate the tree and light the candles 
that cover it. Thus, the youngsters got their first view of the lit and 
decorated tree on Christmas Eve. While fewer families observe this 
old tradition today, many Danes still light their trees with candles 
rather than electric lights. Usually an older family member slips into 
the parlor alone to light the candles. When everything is ready, the 
rest of the family enters. They join hands around the tree and sing 
Christmas carols. Afterwards the family opens their gifts. In fami- 
lies with small children, the father may leave the room briefly and 
the Danish gift bringer, Julemand, may put in a brief appearance. 
Julemand is supposed to look and act much like Santa Claus, 
although few children miss his resemblance to their father during 
these home visits. Danish families open their presents one by one 
and everyone admires each gift. They also save the Christmas cards 
they receive in the days before Christmas and open them after the 
gifts on Christmas Eve. 

Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day 

On Christmas Day people visit with friends and family members. 
Around midday most households serve a kolde bord, or "cold table." 
Everyone makes open-face sandwiches from this buffet of cold 
meats, bread, spreads, cheese, and appetizers. Hosts and guest toast 
one another with small glasses of aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor. 
December 26 is also a holiday in Denmark. The Danes call it "Se- 
cond Christmas Day" and often spend it visiting relatives whom 
they missed on Christmas Day. Theatergoing is another popular 
activity, and many theaters begin showing a new play on this date. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

New Year's Eve and Epiphany 

Holiday merrymaking continues on New Year's Eve. Many Danes 
go to parties on New Year's Eve or entertain guests at home. In the 
early part of the evening the Queen makes her annual New Year's 
speech to the nation. Many Danes tune in for this annual event. The 
Danes play practical jokes on one another for New Year's Eve. Wise 
people pull their belongings into the house. If not, the next morning 
they might find their bicycle on someone's rooftop or their garden 
tools gone missing. Noisemaking is another old New Year's Eve cus- 
tom. In the old days farmers shot off guns to usher in the new year 
{see also Shooting in Christmas). 

Nowadays, most Danes have found safer ways to raise a din on the 
last evening of the year. In Copenhagen, people gather together at 
the town square on New Year's Eve to sing and to listen to the city 
hall clock ring in the new year. Danes also celebrate the new year 
with fireworks. 

The Christmas season ends on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve. 
Remaining Christmas trees are taken down on this day and orna- 
ments stored for the next year. Some families light three candles on 
Epiphany Eve, which stand for the three Wise Men, or Magi, who 
visited the baby Jesus. 

Further Reading 

Fertig, Terry. Christmas in Denmark. Chicago: World Book, 1986. 
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1990. 





For many people the Christmas blues lurk right below the festive 
reds and greens of the holiday season. According to one national 
poll, about twenty-five percent of all Americans confessed to feeling 
sad around Christmas time. 

Unrealistic Expectations 

Our culture bombards us with the message that the Christmas sea- 
son is the happiest time of year, a time for festive parties, loving 
family get-togethers, lavish gift giving, and constant good cheer. 
These high emotional, social, and material expectations set us up to 
be disappointed. Many people find it difficult to fulfill the cultural 
ideal of non-stop Christmas conviviality. This ideal may easily defeat 
people with difficult family situations, those who lost a loved one 
during a previous holiday season, the socially isolated, and those 
estranged or far away from their families. This failure to meet cultur- 
al expectations, along with the belief that "everyone else is having a 
good time," can result in depression. 

High material expectations for the holiday may pose similar prob- 
lems, especially for those on limited budgets {see also Commer- 
cialism). So great are the pressures to buy that some people bring 
financial hardship on themselves by spending more then they can 
really afford on holiday preparations and gifts. The resulting stress 
may open the door to depression. 

Even those who can afford to participate fully in the gift giving, dec- 
orating, cooking, eating, drinking, and partygoing may sink into hol- 
iday season sadness, however. Stress and exhaustion brought on by 
an endless whirl of activities as well as overindulgence in food and 
drink also contribute to feelings of depression. Women may be par- 
ticularly prone to this syndrome, as our culture assigns them the pri- 
mary responsibility for shopping, cooking, decorating, and creating 
"special" family celebrations. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Therapists advise those with a tendency to suffer from this form of 
Christmas season sadness to discard their unrealistic expectations of 
the holidays. Often these spring from childhood nostalgia and 
romantic images promoted in the media rather than from a realistic 
assessment of one's own wishes, needs, limitations, and personal 
circumstances. In spite of our dreams of instant holiday happiness, 
these limitations and circumstances seldom vanish underneath the 
tinsel and colored lights of the Christmas season. Moreover, the 
stress of holiday preparations, travel, and family visits may aggravate 
whatever tensions exist in any of these areas. To avoid resentments 
bred by overwork, psychologists suggest that those saddled with 
organizing and hosting holiday celebrations delegate responsibilities 
to others. 

Psychologists point out that family tensions that simmer below the 
surface during the rest of the year very often boil over when the 
family gathers together for the holidays. Although many people feel 
that family fights "ruin" holiday get-togethers, it may be more realis- 
tic to assume that if family members quarrel during the rest of the 
year, they will quarrel on Christmas. 

Psychologists also recommend giving oneself, others, and the occa- 
sion permission to be less than perfect. They remind us that al- 
though the dynamic of family get-togethers often encourages every- 
one to assume old family roles, we may choose otherwise. Although 
we may make these choices for ourselves, psychologists counsel us 
to avoid using Christmas celebrations as a forum for changing family 
relationships. They point out, for example, that challenging Auntie 
May about her drinking is likely to lead to a confrontation, and that 
attempting to squeeze a year's worth of "quality time" with family 
members into a single holiday is doomed to failure. 

Those who have experienced the loss of a loved one in the past year 
need to accept their current mental, emotional, and physical limits 
and openly acknowledge that this year's celebrations will be differ- 
ent. Counselors also recommend that those who grieve take time to 
evaluate which social obligations, family traditions, and religious ob- 
servances will comfort and strengthen them, and which could over- 



whelm them. They also suggest that mourners seek the company of 
comforting people and make occasions to talk about their loved one. 
It may be best to plan provisionally and be prepared to alter arrange- 
ments as necessary to suit one's needs. 

Christmas Suicides 

It is widely believed that the rate of suicides increases during the 
holiday period. Although many Americans admit to feeling sad dur- 
ing the holiday season, studies reveal that the suicide rate does not 
increase around Christmas time. 

Winter Weather 

The winter weather itself plunges some people into depression. 
S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder, causes its sufferers to become 
depressed during the dark days of winter that coincide with the holi- 
day season in the Northern Hemisphere. Christmas, New Year's Day, 
Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and Kwanzaa all cluster around the time 
of the winter solstice. At this time of year, the days are short, the sun- 
light weak, the skies often overcast, and the nights long. People suffer- 
ing from S.A.D. react strongly to the lack of light, falling into states of 
lethargy and depression that last for months. Other symptoms may 
include increased appetite, an excessive desire for sleep, irritability, 
anxiety, decreasing self-esteem, and difficulty concentrating. 

Experts estimate that about six percent of all Americans exhibit 
symptoms of full-blown S.A.D. About fourteen percent suffer from a 
milder version of these symptoms known informally as the "winter 
blues." Some psychologists claim that among S.A.D. patients, women 
outnumber men by a four-to-one ratio. Others point out, however, 
that these figures may be somewhat skewed since men have more 
difficulty than do women in admitting to mood-related problems. 

In the Northern Hemisphere the incidence of S.A.D. increases as 
one travels northward because the northern latitudes enjoy fewer 
winter daylight hours. Researchers have discovered that about 28 
percent of the population of Fairbanks, Alaska, suffers to some 
degree from S.A.D. The city of Tromso, Norway, lies 200 miles south 
of the Arctic Circle. There the sun sets in November and inhabitants 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

endure midwinter darkness until day breaks again in late January. 
The people of Tromso refer to this period as the m0rketiden, or 
"murky time." Each year the morketiden ushers in an increase in the 
incidence of physical and mental illness, domestic violence, alco- 
holism and other forms of drug abuse, arrests, suicides, and poor 
school performance. Like the inhabitants of many other towns in 
northern Norway, the people of Tromso observe a joyous yearly fes- 
tival, "Sun Day," on the day the sun returns. 

If you suspect you may be suffering from S.A.D., seek professional 
diagnosis and treatment. Many people affected by S.A.D. have found 
relief in light therapy treatments, medication, changes in diet, or 
other lifestyle alterations. 

Further Reading 

Marano, Hara Estroff. "Surviving Holiday Hell." Psychology Today 31, 6 

(November-December 1998): 32-36. 
Peters, Celeste A. Don't Be SAD. Calgary, Canada: Script Publishing, 1994. 
Robinson, Jo, and Jean Coppock Staeheli. Unplug the Christmas Machine. 

New York: William Morrow and Company, 1982. 
Rosenthal, Norman E. Winter Blues. New York: Guilford Press, 1993. 
Smith, Harold Ivan. A Decembered Grief: Living with Loss While Others Are 

Celebrating. Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1999. 
Whybrow, Peter, and Robert Bahr. The Hibernation Response. New York: 

Arbor House, William Morrow, 1988. 

Dei/iPs Knell 

Devil's Funeral, Old Lad's Passing Bell 

According to an old European custom, local deaths were announced 
by the ringing of church bells. In England this sound was known as 
a "death knell." Since old English and Irish folk beliefs asserted that 
the Devil died when Jesus was born, some towns developed a tradi- 
tion of ringing the church bells near midnight on Christmas Eve to 


Devil's Knell 

announce the Devil's demise. In England the custom was called 
tolling or ringing "the Devil's knell" or "the Old Lad's Passing Bell." 
In Ireland the Christmas Eve bell ringing became known as the 
"Devil's Funeral." 

Although religious officials forbade this custom after the Refor- 
mation, the practice survived in the English town of Dewsbury in 
Yorkshire. The Dewsbury tradition dates back to the mid-thirteenth 
century. It was briefly discontinued in the early 1800s and then rein- 
stated. Local officials interrupted the practice again in 1940, since 
during World War II bell ringing was forbidden except as an an- 
nouncement of invasion. The inhabitants of Dewsbury revived their 
bell-ringing tradition in 1948. According to custom, a team of local 
residents rings a certain bell in the Dewsbury parish church once for 
every year that has passed since Christ's birth. The bell ringing begins 
at eleven p.m. on Christmas Eve and is timed to end at midnight. The 
custom prevents the Devil from infiltrating the parish during the 
coming year, according to folk beliefs. 

An old legend explains the history of the Devil's knell bell and hints 
at another origin for the Christmas Eve bell-ringing custom. Long 
ago a local man of means, named Thomas de Soothill, murdered a 
young man in his service. As penance for his crime he donated a 
large bell to the Dewsbury church. He requested that the bell toll 
every year on Christmas Eve as a reminder of his sin. Until recently, 
the Dewsbury bell was called "Black Tom of Soothill" in reference to 
this legend. 

Further Reading 

Foley, Daniel J. Christmas the World Over. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 

Hole, Christina. British Calendar Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 

Company, 1976. 
Howard, Alexander. Endless Cavalcade. London, England: Arthur Baker, 

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Yearbook of English Festivals. 1954. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1993. 


'Ecuador^ cfiristmas in 

In Ecuador Christmas begins with Advent, a season rich in customs 
and celebrations. As Christmas draws near, town officials close off 
certain streets in order to make space for street vendors selling 
Christmas sweets and trinkets. Many people begin collecting toys, 
used clothes, and candy to give to poorer families so that their chil- 
dren will also have Christmas presents to open. 


Employees eagerly await the customary Christmas party, as well as 
the Christmas bonus, or agninaldo, which employers are legally 
required to give to workers. Parades of people dressed as Mary, 
Joseph, the shepherds, and the Three Kings {see also Magi) file 
through workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. People without 
costumes follow, carrying candles and singing Christmas carols. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Religious Observances 

A nine-day Christmas novena (a series of special prayer services 
offered on nine consecutive days) begins on December 16 and lasts 
until December 24. These sessions of prayer and song offer occasions 
for family and friends to spend the evening at one another's homes. 
In addition. Nativity scenes appear in churches, homes, schools, and 
workplaces at this time. Some of these locations sponsor competi- 
tions for the best Nativity scene. Many families also add a Christ- 
mas tree to their home decorations. 

Christmas Eve 

Churches hold Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but many people 
prefer to spend the evening at home with loved ones. Ecuadorian 
folklore asserts that Jesus was born at the stroke of midnight, and 
many people choose to spend this special hour at home with family 
{see also Misa de Gallo). Those assembled at home count down the 
last moments before midnight, and, on the stroke of twelve, ex- 
change hugs with all present. In the past families sat down to a large 
meal just after midnight {see also Reveillon). Nowadays, however, 
many dine some time before midnight. A traditional Christmas din- 
ner might offer roast chicken, stuffed turkey, or roast pork. Pristinos, 
or molasses pastries, usually complete the meal. Many also serve 
canelazo, a sweet hot beverage made by heating water, sugar, cinna- 
mon, cloves, and liquor together. Traditionally, Ecuadorians open 
their Christmas gifts after dinner on Christmas Eve. 

Ecuador's most spectacular parade, the Pase del Nino Viajero, takes 
place in the city of Cuenca on the morning of December 24. Partici- 
pants ride in cars, trucks, or on donkeys, each decorated with em- 
blems of abundance. These emblems range from paper money to 
bunches of fruit to bottles of liquor and roasted meats. Bands of folk 
musicians as well as biblically costumed children round out the pro- 

Holy Innocents' Day and Epiphany 

The festivities continue on December 28, Holy Innocents' Day. 
People celebrate with costume parties and practical jokes. These jokes. 



called inocentadas, usually revolve around prank phone calls or fake 
candies. Costumed pranksters may parade openly down the main 
streets of towns and cities. The Christmas season ends with Epiph- 
any on January 6. 

Further Reading 

Clynes,Tom. Wild Planet! Detroit, Micli.: Visible Ink Press, 1995. 
Wakefield, Charito Calvachi. Navidad Latinoamericana, Latin American 
Christmas. Lancaster, Pa.: Latin American Creations Publishing, 1997. 


Many Americans celebrate the Christmas season by imbibing a 
curious mixture of beaten eggs, spirits, and spices known as eggnog. 
This drink dates back to the colonial era. In those days, people some- 
times called rum "grog." This fact leads some to believe that eggnog's 
original name was "egg and grog," which was later shortened into 
"eggnog." In spite of its American credentials, eggnog resembles a 
number of traditional northern European Christmas specialties, in- 
cluding the English lamb's wool and syllabub, the Dutch advocaat, 
and the Norwegian eggedosis. All of these recipes blend beaten eggs 
with wine, ale, or spirits. Lamb's wool may also contain cream or 
milk. American eggiiog recipes usually call for some combination of 
beaten eggs, brandy, cream, sugar, and nutmeg. 

Eggnog has been enlivening American Christmas festivities for several 
centuries. George Washington's Christmas guests might well have 
staggered home after one cup too many of his favorite eggnog prepa- 
ration. His recipe requires one quart of cream, one quart of milk, one 
dozen eggs, one pint of brandy, one-half pint of rye, one-quarter pint 
of rum, and one-quarter pint of sherry {see also America, Christmas 
in Colonial). First Lady Dolley Madison entertained her guests with 
cinnamon eggnog, one of her Christmas specialties (for more on 
American presidents, see White House, Christmas in). 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

In 1826 cadets at the prestigious West Point Military Academy risked 
their careers for a taste of the traditional midwinter cheer. They staged 
a secretive eggnog party in direct disobedience of Superintendent 
Thayer's order that the academy observe a dry Christmas season. 
Designated cadets snuck the contraband ingredients past the sentries. 
On Christmas Eve they blackened the windows in their barracks, 
posted guards to warn of the approach of officers, and began the fes- 
tivities. Officials somehow stumbled upon the scene at 4:30 a.m. The 
encounter between the drunken students and the outraged officers 
resulted in a bloody melee that left one cadet charged with attempted 
murder. The so-called "Eggnog Riot" eventually led to the voluntary 
resignation of six cadets and the court martial of nineteen of their fel- 
lows. Eleven of these were dismissed from the academy. Since seventy 
young men took part in the escapade, one might conclude that most 
got off easy. Many of these cadets hailed from prominent American 
families. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of 
America, was one of them. As punishment for his participation in the 
eggnog conspiracy, school authorities arrested him and confined him 
to his quarters until February of the following year {see also America, 
Christmas in Nineteenth-Century). 

In the late twentieth century fewer and fewer Americans seem will- 
ing to abandon themselves to the full-fledged eggnog experience. 
New low-fat and non-alcoholic versions of the old Christmas fa- 
vorite sprout up every year, reflecting contemporary health concerns. 
The following old-fashioned eggnog recipe offers us a glimpse of the 
uninhibited pleasures of past eras: 

Whisk together six eggs and two cups of sugar until flufiy and 
light. Continue stirring while slowly adding one quart of bour- 
bon whiskey and one cup of rum. Slowly add four cups of milk, 
four cups half-and-half, and one cup heavy cream stirring all 
the while. Add grated nutmeg as desired. Chill and serve. 

Further Reading 

Sansom, William. The Book of Christmas. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Com- 
pany, 1968. 

Snyder, Phillip. December 25th. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. 

Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New 
York: Macmillan, 1979. 


Egypt, Christmas in 

^SSPh C^n'stwifls in 

Members of the ancient Coptic Orthodox branch of the Christian 
faith make up about seven percent of Egypt's population. They cele- 
brate Christmas on January 7 {see also Old Christmas Day). The 
Coptic Orthodox Church encourages believers to fast for some or all 
of Advent as a means of preparing themselves for the celebration of 
the Nativity. In Egypt Coptic Christians fast by refraining from eat- 
ing during the daylight hours and by abstaining from meat, eggs, 
and dairy products during the fasting period. On Christmas Eve the 
faithful attend midnight services held in Coptic churches. The most 
famous of these services takes place in St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo 
and is presided over by the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. 
The families return home afterwards to break their fast and distrib- 
ute gifts and new clothes to their children. Egypt's Coptic Christians 
also bake a special cookie, called kahk, in the shape of a cross as a 
Christmas treat. Egyptian Muslims use the same recipe for the cook- 
ies they bake for Id-al-Fitr, an important Muslim feast that breaks 
the month-long fast of Ramadan. 

In January of 2003, Christmas Qanuary 7) was observed as a national 
holiday in Egypt. This was the first time in the history of modern 
Egypt that a Christian holy day was formally recognized by the gov- 
ernment. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a presidential 
decree authorizing the observance, making it the nation's eighteenth 
legal holiday. 

Further Reading 

Abbas, JaUan. Festivals of Egypt. Cairo, Egypt: Hoopoe Books, 1995. 
Associated Press. "Egypt Makes Christmas a National Holiday." Neiu York 
Times Qanuary 6, 2003). 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 



Contemporary Christmas lore suggests that Santa Glaus lives at the 
North Pole, accompanied by a band of elves. These elves staff 
Santa's workshop, manufacturing the millions of toys Santa brings 
to children at Christmas time. What exactly are elves and how did 
they become associated with Santa Claus and the celebration of 

Elves and Fairies 

Folk descriptions of a magical and mostly invisible race of beings can 
be found in the lore of peoples from all parts of the globe. This belief 
was particularly common among the peoples of Europe and Asia. In 
Europe these beings were known by many names. Folklorists often 
refer to them as "fairies," a common English term for these crea- 
tures. Some trace belief in fairies back to the ancient Romans and 
their legends about the deities known as the "Three Fates." Indeed, 
some folklorists locate the origins of the English word "fairy" in the 
Latin word for "fate," /atom. Eventually, the Three Fates evolved into 
spirits known as fata in Italian and fada in Spanish. These beings 
hovered about babies at the time of their births, bestowing upon 



them strengths, weaknesses, and destinies. In French-speaking 
areas, however, these magical creatures were called fee, a word some 
experts link to the Old French verb for "enchant," /eer. The English 
adopted the French term for these creatures, translating it as "fay," 
or later, "fairy." 

Ireland and the British Isles were particularly rich in fairy folklore. A 
multitude of names arose for these magical beings. The Irish knew 
them as the Side, or "people of the hills"; the Welsh called them 
Tylwyth Teg, the "fair family"; and the Scottish talked of two distinct 
groups — the Seelie (blessed) Court and the Unseelie (unblessed) 
Court. Other names for them included the Little People, the Good 
Folk, the Gentry, Puck, Robin Goodfellow, pixies, and brownies. 
English speakers might also have referred to these beings as elves. 
The word "elf" came into English from the Nordic and Teutonic lan- 
guages, apparently arriving in England when Scandinavian peoples 
invaded in the Middle Ages. The beings known to the English as 
fairies were called alfar in Scandinavia, a word that evokes moun- 
tains and water. The English incorporated this word into their own 
language as "elf." 

Fairy folklore taught that, although these magical creatures inhabit- 
ed the natural world all around us, they often chose to remain invisi- 
ble. When visible, they frequently appeared in human form. They 
could, however, take the shape of a flower, a flame, a bird, a jewel, a 
woodland animal, or any other element of the natural world. Folk 
beliefs advised people to tread warily if they sensed that these magi- 
cal and unpredictable creatures were about. On the one hand, elves 
and fairies often used their powers to aid humans, for example, by 
providing gifts of food or toys for children, or by breaking evil en- 
chantments. On the other hand, if provoked they could just as easily 
harm humans. They sometimes stole human children, ruined crops, 
and caused household accidents. 

European Christmas Elves 

The folklore of many European countries warned that spirits of all 
kinds were particularly active during the Twelve Days of Christ- 
mas. British folklore cautioned that fairies and the Will O'the Wisp 
haunted these long, dark nights. The famous English playwright Wi- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

lliam Shakespeare (1564-1616) disagreed, however. The following 
lines from the play Hamlet voice his dissenting opinion: 

Some say, that ever 'gainst that season comes 
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated. 
The bird of dawning singeth all night long: 
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad; 
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike. 
Nor fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm; 
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time. 

The Scandinavians did not share Shakespeare's sentiments. Their 
lore reminded them that the arrival of the Christmas season awak- 
ened the Jultomten (also known as the Julnissen, Julenissen, or 
Joulutonttuja). Every homestead hosted at least one of these elf-like 
creatures. They slept and hid in dark corners for most of the year, but 
became bold and merry around Christmas time. In fact, they 
expected householders to provide them with good cheer on 
Christmas Eve. If the family neglected to leave out an offering of 
food before going to bed, the Jultomten might curdle the milk or 
cause other household mishaps. In Sweden, Norway, and Finland 
these elves eventually evolved into Christmas gift bringers, a role 
they still carry out today. In Iceland prankster elves known as the 
Christmas Lads vex householders at Christmas time. 

American Christmas Elves 

These European traditions may have influenced the creation of the 
American Santa Claus, his workshop, and his elven helpers. This 
vision of Santa's world was constructed in large part by two men 
over a century ago: classics professor Clement C. Moore (1779-1863) 
and illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902). In the early nineteenth 
century Moore, a professor at General Theological Seminary, scrib- 
bled down a little Christmas poem for children. Titled "A Visit From 
St. Nicholas," it described the nocturnal activities of the Christmas 
gift bringer who would later be known as Santa Claus. This descrip- 
tion depicted Santa Claus as a "jolly old elf" who arrives in a "minia- 
ture sleigh." Moore's vision of Santa Claus, which had already begun 
to shape the American public's image of Santa Claus, was further 
refined by those who followed. Although Thomas Nast was not the 



first writer or illustrator to place Santa in the company of a band of 
elves, he was the most influential. In the late nineteenth century 
Nast published a series of cartoons that elaborated on the image of 
Santa Claus established by Moore. Nast enlarged Santa to human 
size and gave him a home, the North Pole. He retained the connec- 
tion between Santa Claus and elves, however, by depicting them as 
Santa's labor force. 

Whereas the elves of traditional European folklore whiled away the 
hours dancing in moonlit meadows and sleeping under the stairs, 
Santa's elves busied themselves in his workshop all year round. 
Clearly Nast's elves emerged from the imagination of an industrial 
age, unlike their older, European counterparts. Nevertheless, the fact 
that both Nast and Moore included references to elves in their cre- 
ations may well reflect the influence of northern European folklore 
associating Christmas time with the activities of elves. The American 
people may have embraced yet another element of European elf lore 
in their Christmas celebrations. The American custom of leaving a 
snack of cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve closely 
resembles the Scandinavian practice of placating the Jultomten. In 
any case, Nast's vision of Santa and his North Pole workshop gained 
widespread acceptance in the United States. As Santa Claus became 
an international folk figure, so, too, did Santa's helpers and year- 
long companions, the North Pole elves. 

Further Reading 

Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. New York: Pantheon Books, 

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 
Company, 1976. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 

Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

• • 

'Emanapatwn Bay 

Christmas was a mixed blessing for many African Americans during 
slavery times. On the one hand, many plantation slaves received gifts, 
time off, extra food rations, and visiting privileges {see Slaves' 
Christmas). On the other hand, they dreaded the coming of the new 
year, when the holidays ended and some slave masters announced 
which slaves would be sold off or sent to work on neighboring planta- 
tions that year, thereby breaking up families and friends. 

First Celebrations 

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) signed 
the Emancipation Proclamation into law, turning the day from one 
of sorrow into one of great joy. The proclamation granted immediate 
freedom to most slaves in the American South. Lincoln, occupied 
with the New Year's Day reception (or levee) that nineteenth-cen- 
tury presidents hosted on January 1, did not sign the document until 
that afternoon {see also White House, Christmas in). African Ameri- 
cans in Washington, D.C., snatched up copies of the evening news- 
papers containing the full text of the proclamation as soon as they 
were printed. Shouts of joy went up as the proclamation was read 
aloud to the congregation gathered at Washington, D.C.'s Israel Bethel 
Church. Spontaneous celebrations soon broke out all over the city 
and lasted until the small hours of the morning, punctuated for some 
time by the booming of the Navy Yard cannons. 

In Boston, a city known for its abolitionist sympathies, a program of 
celebration had been prepared some time in advance (Lincoln hav- 
ing announced his intention to sign the Emancipation Proclamation 
100 days earlier). The city's music hall hosted a gala event that after- 
noon, at which the orchestra played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In 
addition, well-known poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) recit- 
ed his "Boston Hymn," written specially for this event. Other noted 
literary and political figures also attended the celebration, including 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), Oliver Wendell Holmes 


Emancipation Day 

(1841-1935), John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), Edward Everett 
Hale (1822-1909), Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908), Harriet Beecher 
Stowe (1811-1896), and Josiah Quincy (1772-1864). Another gather- 
ing took place that evening at Tremont Temple. The crowd cheered 
wildly when it was announced that the text of the Emancipation 
Proclamation was coming in over the telegraph wires. African-Ameri- 
can author William Wells Brown (1815-1880) and orator Frederick 
Douglass (1817-1895) were in attendance there. 

Annual Celebrations 

Not everyone received the news of emancipation on January 1. 
African Americans in Texas had to wait till June 19, 1865, when 
United States General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston. There 
he issued General Order number three, announcing the news of the 
Emancipation Proclamation and freeing the slaves in accordance 
with the now two-and-a-half-year-old law. 

African Americans in east Texas, western Louisiana, southwestern 
Arkansas, and southern Oklahoma memorialized June 19, the joyous 
day of their liberation, by turning it into an annual holiday called 
Juneteenth. African Americans in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, 
South Carolina, Virginia, New York City, and Boston continued to cel- 
ebrate the anniversary of their independence on January 1, Eman- 
cipation Day. 

Early observances of Emancipation Day were modeled after Watch 
Night celebrations. Some African-American communities continue 
to commemorate January 1 as Emancipation Day. Typical proceed- 
ings revolve around church services that include a reading of the 
Emancipation Proclamation, sermons, prayers, and the singing of 
spirituals as well the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known infor- 
mally as the African-American national anthem. 

Further Reading 

Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. Garden City, N.Y.: 
Doubleday, 1963. 

Taylor, Charles A. Juneteenth. Madison, Wis.: Praxis, 1995. 

Wiggins, Williams H. Freedom! African-American Emancipation Celebra- 
tions. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1987. 


England, Christmas in 


'England^ cfiristmas in 

The EngHsh Christmas has gone through a number of striking trans- 
formations in its nearly two-thousand-year history {see also Europe, 
Christmas in Medieval; Myrrh; Puritans; Twelve Days of Christ- 
mas; Victorian England, Christmas in). Current English Christmas 
celebrations bear some resemblance to American celebrations. This 
resemblance is partly due to the fact that English settlers brought 
many of their Christmas customs to America during colonial times 
{see also America, Christmas in Colonial). The fact that the British 
and American peoples have adopted similar Christmas customs since 
that time may be even more significant in explaining the resemblance. 

Like many Americans, the English celebrate the holiday with a 
Christmas tree, gifts, and Christmas carols. Over the centuries the 
English developed a large stock of Christmas carols. Many of these 
songs, such as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Joy to the World," and 
"God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," have also established themselves 
in the American carol repertoire. Caroling, a popular Christmas cus- 
tom in England, keeps these songs in circulation. Another popular 
custom in both countries, sending Christmas cards, began in Eng- 
land in the nineteenth century. The English decorate their homes 
with greenery for the Christmas season. Old traditions promote 
holly, ivy, and mistletoe as the most appropriate plants for this 
purpose, but other green branches may also be used. After nightfall 
brilliant light displays illuminate the main avenues of many towns 
and cities {see also Ornaments). 

Father Christmas 

In England children expect Father Christmas to bring them their 
gifts. Children write letters to Father Christmas explaining what kind 
of Christmas gifts they would like to receive {see also Children's 
Letters). Instead of mailing them, they burn them in the fireplace, 
relying on magic to float their words up the chimney and across 
England to the ears of Father Christmas. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Christmas Eve 

Christmas carols ring out all across England on December 24. For 
those who prefer to stay at home, British television and radio stations 
broadcast many musical performances. At King's College Chapel in 
Cambridge, lines form early for seats at the famous Ceremony of 
Lessons and Carols service. 

Christmas Day 

Children dash to the fireplace on Christmas morning to retrieve 
their now-full Christmas stockings. Many homes also keep a Christ- 
mas tree, underneath which family members will find another heap 
of gifts. Unwrapping these gifts is one of the highlights of Christmas 
Day. Other highlights include sitting down to a large, festive meal 
and listening to the Queen's speech. Each year British television 
broadcasts the Queen's Christmas greeting to her subjects. King 
George V began this Christmas tradition in 1932. Other popular 
Christmas Day activities include attending Christmas morning church 
services and playing parlor games. Indeed, Christmas game playing 
is a very old tradition in England. 

Christmas dinner in England may feature roast goose, roast turkey, 
or roast beef. Potatoes, gravy, and vegetables usually accompany the 
main dish. Plum pudding, the traditional Christmas dessert, crowns 
the meal in many English households. Since the pudding contains a 
coin, and perhaps other good-luck tokens as well, diners must bite 
gently in order to avoid breaking their teeth. A kind of party favor 
known as a Christmas cracker adds a playful note to the holiday 
meal. Wassail, a traditional holiday punch, may follow the repast. 

Boxing Day 

The day after Christmas is also a holiday in England. It is called 
Boxing Day, although in the past it was known as St. Stephen's 
Day. Many families go to the theater to see a pantomime on this 
day. Fox hunting is another traditional Boxing Day activity. The Eng- 
lish also enjoy other sporting events, such as soccer matches and car 
races, on this day. The wren hunt, a custom once practiced in England 
on St. Stephen's Day, still survives in Ireland. 


England, Christmas in 

Regional Customs 

In past times people in some regions of England saluted their fruit 
trees with song and ale in honor of Christmas. This custom, known 
as wassailing the apple trees, still continues in a few places {see 
Wassailing the Fruit Trees). In the medieval era the well-to-do 
feasted on wild boar for Christmas. Today, an elaborate boar's head 
dinner survives at Oxford's Queen's College. An old Christmas Eve 
custom called ringing the Devil's knell, persists in the town of 
Dewsbury in Yorkshire. This practice sprang up around the folk 
belief that the Devil dies each year at the moment when Christ is 
born. The church bells still toll on Christmas Eve in Dewsbury, 
announcing the Devil's demise. On New Year's Eve many people in 
northern England welcome firstfooters. A firstfooter, the first per- 
son to cross one's threshold after the start of the new year, sets the 
household's luck for the coming year. 

Lesser-Known Days and Customs 

In pre-industrial England, numerous minor days of observance stud- 
ded the Christmas season calendar. These included Stir-Up Sun- 
day, St. Thomas's Day, St. Stephen's Day, Holy Innocents' Day, St. 
Distaff's Day, Twelfth Night, and Plough Monday. More impor- 
tant holidays, like Epiphany and Candlemas, were also celebrated. 
What's more, after 1752, when England adopted the Gregorian cal- 
endar reform, some people continued to honor the previous date for 
Christmas, giving rise to the observance of Old Christmas Day. 
Most of these minor holy days and holidays faded away during the 
nineteenth century, as the English calendar was reorganized around 
the industrial work week. 

Though many of the customs associated with these days have faded 
as well, some weathered the transition. For instance, the town of 
Glastonbury still awaits the blooming of the Glastonbury thorn on 
or near Old Christmas Day. 

Extinct Customs 

Throughout their long history the English have adopted and invent- 
ed many distinctive Christmas customs. They have also discarded a 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

number of customs over the years. One such discarded custom, 
electing a Lord of Misrule to preside over Christmas festivities, fell 
out of favor in the seventeenth century. While the Lord of Misrule 
ruled over towns, schools, courts, and noble households, the boy 
bishop supervised the revelry taking place in church circles. The boy 
bishop did not outlast the Middle Ages, although this custom has 
been revived in a few churches. The boys who lived in the centuries 
that followed found another Christmas time sport: barring out the 
schoolmaster. If successful in keeping their teacher from entering 
the classroom in the days before Christmas, they won themselves a 
couple days of vacation from school. 

Another old English Christmas custom, mumming, gave ordinary 
people license to disguise themselves in old clothes, mask their faces 
with burnt cork, and roam about the town engaging in horseplay. 
Around the time of the Renaissance, the wealthy developed their 
own version of this custom. They began to celebrate the Christmas 
season with masques, elaborate costumed balls that included danc- 
ing and perhaps a bit of playacting as well. 

Although masques themselves began to die out as a form of Christ- 
mas entertainment in the late seventeenth century, the English con- 
tinued to celebrate Twelfth Night with costume balls and playacting 
until the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century many 
English families decorated their homes with a kissing bough for the 
Christmas season. Anyone passing beneath this spherical bunch of 
greenery could be claimed for a kiss. The kissing bough did not sur- 
vive the transition to the twentieth century. Neither did the waits. 
These semi-official bands of musicians used to wander the streets 
during the Christmas season, singing for food, drink, and tips. They 
disbanded during the nineteenth century, when people began to 
view their activities less as a seasonal entertainment and more as an 
annoyance. {For more on extinct Christmas season entertainments, see 
Games; Ghosts.) 

Further Reading 

Crippen, Tfiomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1996. 



Mclnnes, Celia. An English Christmas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Patterson, Lillie. Christinas in Britain and Scandinavia. Champaign, lU.: Gar- 
rard Publishing Company, 1970. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 

Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Britain. Chicago: World Book, 1978. 


Blessing of the Waters Day, 

Dia de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day), 

Feast of Baptism, Feast of Jordan, Feast of Lights, 

Feast of the Three Kings, Fete des Rois, 

Le Jour de Rois (Kings' Day), Night of Destiny, 

Old Christmas Day, Perchtennacht, Theophania, 

Timkat, Twelfth Day, Twelfth Night 

Epiphany is a Christian feast day celebrated on January 6. The holiday 
commemorates the revelation of Jesus' divinity to those around him. 
In Western Christianity, the observance of Epiphany focuses on the 
adoration of the Magi. In Eastern Christianity the holiday empha- 
sizes Jesus' baptism. Over the centuries European folklore has as- 
signed numerous legends and customs to Epiphany, some of which 
bear little direct relationship to the life of Jesus. In many countries 
Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. 

The Meaning of Epiphany 

The word "epiphany" comes from the Greek term epiphaneia, mean- 
ing "manifestation," "appearance," or "showing forth." In the ancient 
world, the term designated occasions on which visiting kings or em- 
perors appeared before the people. The writers of the Gospels used 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

this term to describe occasions on which Jesus' divinity revealed itself 
to those around him. Ancient writers applied another Greek word, 
theophaneia, or "theophany," to the appearance of a god before 
human beings. Early Christians also used the word theophany in ref- 
erence to their Epiphany celebrations. This usage continued in the 
Greek world, where today the Greek Orthodox Church refers to 
Epiphany as Theophania. Moreover, Eastern Orthodox Christians 
sometimes call Epiphany the "Feast of Lights." This name reflects 
their belief that baptism confers spiritual illumination. 

The History of Epiphany 

Early Christians were celebrating Epiphany before they began to 
observe Christmas. The first celebrations of Epiphany occurred in 
second-century Egypt. Like Christmas, the date chosen for Epipha- 
ny has no firm historical or scriptural grounding. Some scholars 
believe that January 6 was selected by the earliest celebrants in order 
to upstage a winter solstice festival held in honor of an Egyptian 
sun god on that date. Indeed, according to one ancient Egyptian cal- 
endar, winter solstice fell on January 6. Some ancient Egyptians rec- 
ognized that day as the birthday of the Egyptian god Osiris. Other 
sacred events held on that day include a festival commemorating the 
birth of the god Aeon from his virgin mother, Kore. 

From the second century onward, scattered celebrations of Epiphany 
occurred among various groups of Christians, although no consen- 
sus emerged as to what events the holiday commemorated. Chris- 
tian liturgy identifies four instances in which Jesus' divine nature 
manifested itself on earth: at his birth, at the adoration of the Magi, 
at his baptism, and when he changed water into wine at the wed- 
ding in Cana. Early Epiphany celebrations honored any one or more 
of these events. By the third century most Eastern Christians were cel- 
ebrating Epiphany. By the late fourth century most Western Christians 
had also adopted the feast. Eastern and Western celebrations evolved 
around different themes, however. When the Western Church desig- 
nated December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity in the mid-fourth 
century. Western Epiphany celebrations consolidated around the 
revelation of Jesus' divinity to the Magi. When the Eastern Church 
embraced Christmas, between 380 and 430 A.D., Christmas absorbed 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

the celebration of both the Nativity and the adoration of the Magi. 
Thus, Eastern Epiphany observances remained dedicated to the 
commemoration of Jesus' baptism. 

In the Middle Ages, popular western European Epiphany celebra- 
tions focused on the Magi's journey. People began to refer to the 
Magi as kings and saints and to Epiphany as the "Feast of the Three 
Kings." Festivities of the day included Nativity plays, many of 
which featured the story of the Three Kings. Another boisterous 
medieval ceremony, the Feast of Fools, was also sometimes per- 
formed in churches on Epiphany. 

In 1336 the city of Milan, Italy, hosted a splendid procession and play 
to commemorate the Feast of the Three Kings. Three men, sumptu- 
ously dressed as kings and surrounded by an entire retinue of cos- 
tumed pages, body guards, and attendants, paraded through the city 
streets following a gold star which hung before them {see also Star of 
Bethlehem). At one juncture, they encountered King tiered and his 
scribes. The Wise Men asked where Jesus was to be born, and King 
Herod, after consulting the scribes, answered "Bethlehem." The kings 
and their followers continued on to St. Eustorgius Church, bearing 
their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh ceremoniously before 
them. The crowd spilled into the church, preceded by trumpeters, 
horn players, donkeys, apes, and other animals. To one side of the 
high altar awaited Mary and the Christ child, in a manger complete 
with ox and ass. Although we might consider this noisy and colorful 
Epiphany celebration unseemly, medieval Europeans enjoyed this 
mixture of ceremony, carnival, and religion. 

In Spanish-speaking countries today, Epiphany retains this strong 
association with the Magi and is called Dia de los Tres Reyes, or Three 
Kings Day. The French call the holiday Lejour de Rois or Fete des Rois: 
Kings' Day or the Feast of the Kings {see also France, Christmas in). 
The British sometimes refer to the holiday as Twelfth Day, and the 
evening before as Twelfth Night, since it occurs twelve days after 
Christmas. Twelfth Day marks the end of the Christmas season, also 
known as Twelfthtide or the Twelve Days of Christmas. Since late 
medieval times the British had enjoyed feasts and masquerades on 
Twelfth Night, but these celebrations have declined since the nine- 
teenth century. 



Folklore and Customs 

In Italy and Spanish-speaking countries, children receive gifts on 
Epiphany rather than on Christmas. Eurthermore, in Spanish-speak- 
ing countries, the Three Kings, Los Reyes Magos, deliver the presents 
rather than Santa Claus. On Epiphany Eve children leave a shoe on 
their doorstep or balcony, along with some straw for the Magi's 
camels. In the morning they find that the grateful Wise Men have 
filled their shoes with treats. In Italy La Befana, an old woman from 
an Italian legend, distributes presents on Epiphany. La Befana was too 
busy to aid the Magi on their journey to worship the newborn Jesus. 
As a punishment for her lack of piety, she now wanders the world 
during the Christmas season bringing gifts to children. In Russian 
folklore, a woman named Baboushka plays a similar role. Berchta (or 
Perchta), a more fearsome female figure, appears on Epiphany Eve in 
Germany and Austria. She punishes wrongdoers and rewards well- 
behaved children. In these countries Epiphany is also known as 
Perchtennacht. In Syria and Lebanon Epiphany may be called "The 
Night of Destiny" {Lailat al-Qadr), a name it shares with a Muslim 
holiday. In these lands the Christmas gift bringer is a mule or a camel. 

In Sweden, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, and Poland, groups of 
costumed children known as the star boys parade through the 
streets of town singing songs or performing plays about the Three 
Kings on Epiphany Eve. 

An old German tradition encourages people to bring salt, water, 
chalk and incense to church on Epiphany Eve to be blessed. Upon 
returning home, they sprinkle the blessed water over their fields, 
animals, and homes, and cook with the salt. They burn the incense 
and waft the smoke throughout their homes as a defense against 
evil spirits. In both Germany and Austria, the initials CMB — which 
stand for the names attributed to the Three Kings in legend, Caspar, 
Melchior, and Balthasar — may be written over doorways with 
blessed chalk in order to protect the house. 

In many European countries, such as France, Austria, Germany, and 
England, festive meals were once planned for Epiphany featuring a 
special cake. A coin, pea, bean, or tiny china doll was baked inside 
the cake, and the person who found the object in their slice was 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

considered "king" or "queen" of the feast {see also King of the Bean; 
Twelfth Night). In England, tradition reserves the unwelcome chore 
of removing and storing Christmas decorations for Twelfth Day. 

Religious Customs 

In both Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, water is blessed on 
Epiphany and distributed to the faithful for use in home religious 
observances. Among Orthodox Christians, Epiphany is also known 
as Blessing of the Waters Day. In past centuries priests blessed 
Egypt's Nile River. Both Christians and Muslims would then immerse 
themselves in the now holy waters, often driving their animals into 
the river as well to share in the blessing. In Palestine, the River Jordan 
was blessed. Thousands of worshipers then submerged themselves 
up to three times in the holy currents. Many Orthodox parishes ob- 
serve similar Epiphany rites today. For example, the congregation 
may walk to a nearby river or other body of water which the priest 
then blesses. In some parts of the world, congregants joyfully im- 
merse themselves in the blessed water. Another popular Orthodox 
observance involves tossing a crucifix into the water. The first to 
retrieve the cross is often thought to acquire good luck for the com- 
ing year. 

The blessing of homes is a Roman Catholic ritual connected with 
Epiphany. The pastor blesses each room of the house using holy 
water and incense, and recites special prayers. Then he writes the 
year and the initials CMB inside the door with blessed chalk. In the 
year 1999, for example, he would write 19 CMB 99. Orthodox priests 
also bless homes on Epiphany. 

Epiphany is not only a Christian feast day, but may also be consid- 
ered a season of the Christian year encompassing the period be- 
tween January 6 and the beginning of Lent. The length of this period 
varies in accordance with the day on which Easter falls each year. 

Further Reading 

Bassett, Paul M. "Epiphany." In Everett Ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of Early 
Christianity. Volume 1. New York: Garland, 1997. 

Bellenir, Karen, ed. Religious Holidays and Calendars: An Encyclopedic Hand- 
book. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. 



Chambers, Robert. "January 6 — Twelfth-Day." In his The Book of Days. 

Volume 1. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Gwynne, Walker. The Christian Year: Its Purpose and History. 1917. Reprint. 

Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 

Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1997. 
James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1993. 
McArthur, A. Allan. The Evolution of the Christian Year. Greenwich, Conn.: 

Seabury Press, 1953. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. 
Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Be- 

thesda, Md.: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. 
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. 46 Days of Christmas. New York: Coward-McCann, 

Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 

Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 
Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: 

Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, contains 
an article by the Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald: 
articles/article 71 1 3 .asp 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

'Estonia^ cfiristmas in 

Estonians trace some of their Christmas customs back to a pre-Chris- 
tian midwinter festival called Yule. The Estonian word for Christ- 
mas, /ou/ud, comes from the Scandinavian word Jul, which in turn is 
related to the English word Yule. Estonian folklorists believe that 
before Christianity came to Estonia, people celebrated this midwin- 
ter festival at the time of the winter solstice. Early Christmas cele- 
brations lasted about seventeen days, from St. Thomas's Day, De- 
cember 21, to Epiphany, January 6. In coastal areas people ended 
their celebrations on January 7, which they observed as St. Knut's 
Day. During this festive period people feasted on special foods and 
refrained from certain kinds of work. Today most ethnic Estonians 
are Protestant Christians (Lutherans), but the country also hosts a 
sizeable minority of Orthodox and other Christians. 


Like their counterparts in Germany and the Nordic countries, most 
Estonians observe Advent — a four- week period of spiritual prepara- 
tion that precedes Christmas — with Advent calendars and Advent 
candles. The weeks before Christmas may also be filled with house- 
cleaning, cooking, decorating, and shopping. 

Christmas straw is an important seasonal decoration in Estonia {see 
also Yule Straw). In past times families strewed their floors with 
straw, which became a playground for the children. The straw re- 
minded family members of Jesus' birth in a stable. In some places 
people twisted the straw into crowns. Folklorists believe that this 
custom came to Estonia from Finland. The custom of fashioning 
Christmas crowns from straw nearly died out in the twentieth cen- 
tury, but was revived in the 1970s. 

The Christmas tree is another prominent Christmas decoration in 
Estonia. Estonians prefer fir trees, but when fir is not available they 
will also use pine. Christmas trees became popular in the nineteenth 


Estonia, Christmas in 

century, when Estonians adopted the custom from Germans Hving 
in the Baltic Sea area. Some writers claim, however, that Estonian 
Christmas trees can be traced back to the year 1441, when one stood 
in front of the town hall in Tallinn, Estonia's capital. 

St. Thomas's Day 

St. Thomas's Day, December 21, is considered the real start of the 
Christmas season. Old traditions dictate that householders com- 
plete the brewing of their Christmas ale on this day. The men of the 
household usually took charge of this chore. Folklore recommended 
that they attend to the brewing in the dead of night, in order to 
avoid the possible ruin that a neighbor's evil eye could wreak on the 
brew. People drank so much beer at Christmas time that Estonians 
nicknamed the season "the beer holidays." Householders readied 
large quantities of beer by St. Thomas's Day, because tradition re- 
quired that no further beer be brewed until Epiphany. Certain forms 
of work were prohibited from St. Thomas's Day until the end of 
Christmas season. Some say that noisy forms of work, such as dri- 
ving horses, spinning, and grinding, disturbed the spirits, who were 
particularly active during this time {see also Ghosts). 

Christmas Eve 

The president of Estonia maintains a centuries-old ceremony by 
declaring the Peace of Christmas each year on the afternoon of 
December 24. In the seventeenth century Queen Kristina of Sweden 
introduced this custom to Estonia. 

Christmas Eve is the high point of the Christmas season. Estonians 
begin their celebrations by taking a sauna. Then they attend a Christ- 
mas Eve service. Sometimes parents give children new shoes and 
clothing to wear to this service as a kind of early Christmas gift. The 
traditional Christmas Eve meal consists of a large number of dishes, 
anywhere between seven and twelve. Sausage, brawn (boiled pork 
leg), pig's head, or some other form of pork is usually served {see also 
Boar's Head). Other popular dishes include sauerkraut, pate, potato 
and beet salad, a special bread called "Christmas Barrow," ginger- 
bread, and beer. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Folk tradition insisted that many poweriiil supernatural forces are 
active on this evening, which made it a potent time for fortune- 
telling, a traditional Christmas Eve activity. An abundance of food on 
Christmas Eve signified that the house would enjoy plenty of food in 
the year to come. Another superstition advised that, having eaten 
seven different dishes on Christmas Eve, the men of the household 
would gain the strength of seven men. The dead were thought to 
return to their old homes on Christmas Eve {see also Ghosts). 
Estonians left the remains of the Christmas Eve dinner on the table 
all night, in case the spirits wanted to refresh themselves. Estonian 
folklore also recommended that the fire be kept going all night. 

From Christmas Day to New Year's Eve 

Estonian tradition calls for families to spend a quiet Christmas Day 
at home. In past times people spent the day enjoying the company 
of family members, singing religious music, and reading the Bible. 
Parties and visits were left until the following day. The first visitor to 
the house, both at Christmas and on New Year's Eve, determined 
the household's luck {see also Firstfooting). If the first visitor was a 
woman, the household could expect a run of bad luck. Estonians tra- 
ditionally celebrated Christmas through December 27, St. John's 
Day. The remaining days in the year were viewed as "half-holidays," 
in which people did some work, but also spent time celebrating with 
friends and neighbors. 

Christmas under Soviet Rule 

The Russian-led U.S.S.R. (United Soviet Socialist Republics) occu- 
pied and ruled Estonia from 1940 to 1991. The Soviet government 
forbade religious holidays and tried to persuade the Estonian people 
to transfer their Christmas festivities to New Year's Day, a secular 
holiday. Although most people had to go to work on Christmas Day, 
many continued to attend Christmas Eve religious services. As a 
means of protesting the government's political ideology and its re- 
pressive stance towards religion, people also began to observe the 
day by visiting their relatives' graves and leaving lit candles there 
after the Christmas Eve service. 


Estonia, Christmas in 

Christmas since Independence 

After the fall of the Soviet government, the newly independent 
Estonian people reinstated Christmas as a national holiday. In recent 
years Estonian Christmas celebrations have been influenced by those 
of the Scandinavian countries. The most popular of the recently 
imported customs seems to be that of the office party, often called 
"little Christmas" or "pre-Christmas" in Estonia. These festive gath- 
erings take place in the first part of December, and usually feature 
mulled wine, along with a tasty array of food and drinks. Some 
young people now leave their shoes out on a windowsill in the 
weeks before Christmas and wait for the elves to come fill them 
with treats, a task usually undertaken instead by their parents. 

Further Reading 

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Cana- 
da: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. 

Web Site 

"Christmas Customs in Estonia," an article posted on the web by Estonia's 
Ministry of Foreign Affairs at: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Etl^fopfa^ cfiristmas in 

Ganna, Genna, Leddat 

In spite of Ethiopia's ancient Christian heritage, Christmas, or Led- 
dat, is not a very important holiday there. In fact, most people call 
the holiday Ganna or Genna after a ball game by the same name 
which by custom is played only once a year, on Christmas afternoon. 
About forty percent of Ethiopians are Christians, forty-five percent 
are Muslim, and the remaining fifteen percent are split among sev- 
eral different religions. Most Ethiopian Christians belong to the Ethi- 
opian Orthodox Church, which adheres to a different church calen- 
dar than that commonly found in the West {see also Old Christmas 
Day). Therefore, Ethiopians celebrate Genna Day on January 7. 
More elaborate celebrations take place twelve days later, on Timkat, 
or Epiphany. 

Ethiopia embraced Christianity in the early fourth century, long 
before Christianity had taken root throughout Europe. During the 
thirteenth century King Lalibela ordered the construction of magnifi- 
cent churches carved out of solid rock in a town that now bears his 
name. Contemporary Ethiopian Christmas observances include pil- 
grimages to these churches. Thousands make the journey to Lali- 
bela each year, though it may mean walking for days, weeks, or 
even months. Those gathered there on Christmas morning share a 
meal. Then, church services are held at Beta Mariam, one of the 
underground churches, whose name means "House of Mary" {see 
also Mary). During the lengthy service a cross is passed through the 
crowd for worshipers to kiss. 

Ethiopian Christmas celebrations also include processions in which 
revered icons (religious images used in prayer and worship) are 
removed from churches and carried through the streets. In addition, 
many participate in an all-night vigil on Christmas Eve. A meal of 
beans and bread sustains worshipers through a night of singing, 
dancing, and praying. Christmas Day services include religious 


Ethiopia, Christmas in 

dances. Percussionists playing drums, prayer sticks, and an instru- 
ment known as the tsenatsel, or sistrum, create a rhythm for the 

As a rule, Ethiopians do not exchange gifts at Christmas. Young chil- 
dren may receive simple presents from their parents, however. Boys 
and young men look forward to Christmas because of the opportuni- 
ty to participate in the yearly genna match. These popular events 
crown many peoples' Christmas celebrations. Genna, played with 
bent wooden bats and wooden or leather balls, resembles hockey. 
The opposing teams compete fiercely, and serious injuries sometimes 
result. In spite of the verbal and physical aggression that takes place, 
the players enjoy the game enough to continue playing until dusk. 

Further Reading 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 

Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1997. 
Levine, Donald N. Wax and Gold. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 

Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 
Naythons, Matthew. Christmas Around the World. San Francisco, Calif.: 

Collins San Francisco, 1996. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the Ethiopia Tourism Commission: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

'Europe^ cfiristmas in Medieval 

Medieval Europeans celebrated Christmas without Santa Claus, 
Christmas trees, and Christmas morning gift exchanges. Not only 
would we fail to spot these familiar elements of contemporary Christ- 
mas celebrations if transported back in time to medieval Europe, but 
we would also witness a number of extinct Christmas customs now 
strange to us. Nevertheless, the Christmas season and a few of its 
enduring customs first took shape during this era. 

Christmas Season 

In the fourth century Church authorities chose December 25 as the 
date on which Christians would celebrate the Nativity. They placed 
Christmas near two important Roman feasts. Saturnalia (December 
17 to 23) and Kalends Qanuary 1 to 5). Moreover, they scheduled it 
on the same day as the Birth of the Invincible Sun, a festival dedi- 
cated to the sun god. This meant that the major Christian feasts of 
Christmas and Epiphany Qanuary 6) opened and closed a thirteen- 
day period during which many recent converts were already accus- 
tomed to celebrate. 

Eventually, the Church decided to accept this inclination to celebrate 
a midwinter festival rather than fight it. In 567 the Council of Tours 
declared the days that fall between Christmas and Epiphany to be a 
festal tide. This decision expanded Christmas into a Church season 
stretching from December 25 to January 5. This Church season be- 
came known as "Christmastide," but ordinary folk called it the Twelve 
Days of Christmas. 

As Christianity became more firmly rooted in Europe, political lead- 
ers declared the Twelve Days to be legal holidays. Near the end of 
the ninth century King Alfred the Great of England (849-899) man- 
dated that his subjects observe the Twelve Days of Christmas, out- 
lawing all legal proceedings, work, and fighting during that time. 
The Norwegian King Haakon the Good (d. c. 961) established the 


Europe, Christmas in Medieval 

Christian observance of the festival in Norway in the middle of the 
tenth century. 


Medieval Europeans celebrated throughout the Twelve Days of Christ- 
mas. They might attend religious services or watch mystery plays that 
retold biblical stories pertinent to the season {see Feast of the Ass; 
Nativity Plays). In addition, the well-to-do made music, played 
games, danced, told stories, hunted, jousted, and feasted. In late 
medieval times the elite of some European countries began to cele- 
brate the season with roving, costumed events known as masques. 
In a more homemade version of this custom, ordinary folk dressed as 
mummers or received a band of mummers into their home or tav- 
ern. In England peasants who worked on large estates rested from 
their customary chores during the Twelve Days. Moreover, they par- 
took of a communal feast provided to them by the lord of the estate, 
offering him in return a gift of farm produce. In England Christmas 
festivities ended on Plough Monday, when farm laborers went back 
to work. 

Christmas Feasts in Medieval Europe 

In the late Middle Ages, the typical English Christmas dinner proba- 
bly included roast meat, chicken, or wild fowl, white bread (a 
medieval luxury), and ale or cider. The rich, of course, fared some- 
what better. When the Bishop of Hereford hosted a Christmas feast 
for his household and 41 guests in the year 1289, his kitchens sizzled 
with a wide variety of roasted meats. The bishop's hard-working 
chefs butchered and cooked two oxen, four pigs, four deer, two 
calves, sixty fowls, eight partridges, and two geese. In addition, they 
brewed beer, baked bread, and prepared cheese for all. The assem- 
bled company washed down their meal with forty gallons of red 
wine and four gallons of white wine, as well as an "unscored" 
amount of beer. 

A wide variety of what we might consider unusual fowl could ap- 
pear on a medieval Christmas menu, such as swans and peacocks. 
The chefs of the well-to-do strove to present these beautiful birds in 
artful ways. For example, they might decorate the roasted carcass. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

often enclosed in pastry, with the bird's plucked feathers and place a 
lighted wick in the bird's beak. In addition to peacock and swan, 
medieval diners also relished heron, crane, bittern, plover, snipe, and 
woodcock. Chefs searching for a make-ahead dish that would resist 
spoilage often created large fruit, meat, and butter pies for the 
Christmas table. These pies later evolved into the dish we know as 
mincemeat pie. 

The wealthy and noble often served wild boar for Christmas, com- 
manding their pages to bring the roasted boar's head to the table 
with great ceremony. Indeed, boar's flesh (known as "brawn"), as 
well as pork were favorite Christmas meats. The English often ac- 
companied these roasted meats with Christmas ale and wassail. 
Lastly, like their counterparts in the rest of Europe, medieval Britons 
celebrated throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. The largest 
and most festive meal was often served on Twelfth Night, or on 

The French also celebrated the Christmas season with lavish feasts 
and openhanded hospitality. Castle doors were thrown open and 
wayfarers welcomed to feast at the lord and lady's table. When poor 
folk appeared at the door they were given food and, sometimes, 
clothing as well. Like their English counterparts, cooks in French 
castles served swan, peacock, and, occasionally, even stork to their 
guests. These guests might number into the hundreds. After they 
had sated their appetites, the guests could relax and enjoy entertain- 
ments provided by storytellers, jugglers, dancers, magicians, or trav- 
eling musicians. {See also France, Christmas in.) 

Famous English Christmas Feasts 

In the Middle Ages English monarchs sometimes threw Christmas 
feasts of legendary proportions. Often these feasts doubled as affairs 
of state, with the king hosting foreign dignitaries, local nobility, visit- 
ing knights, and other important guests. The assembled company 
might easily number well into the hundreds; some records declare 
the thousands. Moreover, this legion of hungry guests might stay for 
some or all of the Twelve Days of Christmas. 

Knowing the scale of these dinner parties helps to put some of the 


Europe, Christmas in Medieval 

royal menus in perspective. For example, in 1213 King John of En- 
gland (1167-1216) provided his guests with one of the largest and 
most sumptuous Christmas banquets on record. The shopping list 
for this gargantuan feast included 200 pigs, 1,000 hens, 15,000 her- 
rings, 10,000 salt eels, scores of pheasants, partridges and other 
birds, 27 hogsheads of wine, 100 pounds of almonds, 50 pounds of 
pepper, and 2 pounds of saffron, as well as other spices. At some 
point in the preparations the cooks feared they were running short 
and sent for an additional 2,000 hens and 200 head of pork. King 
Henry III (1207-1272) is reported to have entertained 1,000 noble- 
men and knights at York one Christmas. His cooks slaughtered 600 
oxen for the feasts, and accompanied the resulting roast beef with 
salmon pie, roast peacock, and wine. 

Needless to say, with such long guest lists, royal cooks could prepare 
quite a wide variety of dishes for the Christmas feast. Although most 
of the surviving menus seem to focus on roast meat and fowl. King 
Henry V (1387-1422) treated his court one year to a diverse Christ- 
mas banquet featuring a wide variety of seafood in addition to the 
traditional brawn and mustard. The assembled company sampled 
herbed pike, powdered lamprey, jelly colored with flowers, salmon, 
bream, roach, conger, halibut, crayfish, sturgeon, lobster, whelks, 
porpoise, carp, tench, perch, turbot, and more. Altogether the king's 
cooks prepared over forty species of freshwater fish. Afterwards the 
royal chefs presented the king's guests with a dessert of marchpane 
(a forerunner of marzipan). 

Adapting Pagan Customs 

Many researchers believe that medieval Christmas celebrations 
absorbed a number of pre-existing pagan customs. Church policy 
itself may have had something to do with this. In the early Middle 
Ages missionaries found many recent converts unwilling to give up 
elements of their former celebrations. In the year 601 Pope Gregory 
the Great wrote a letter to St. Augustine, missionary to Britain, 
advising him on how to deal with this problem. The letter reveals 
that missionaries were often encouraged to suggest a Christian sig- 
nificance to old pagan customs, rather than try to abolish them. Pope 
Gregory reasoned that: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

. . . because they [the Anglo-Saxons] are wont to slay many 
oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put 
in the place of this, so that on the day of the dedication of 
the churches, or the nativities of the holy martyrs whose 
relics are placed there, they may make for themselves taber- 
nacles of branches of trees around those churches which 
have been changed from heathen temples, and may cele- 
brate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them 
now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but to the praise of God 
kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the 
Giver of all for their abundance; so that while some outward 
joys are retained for them, they may more readily respond to 
inward joys. For from obdurate minds it is undoubtedly 
impossible to cut off everything at once, because he who 
strives to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or 
steps and not by leaps [Miles, 1990, 179]. 

Indeed, the ancient custom of decking homes with greenery may 
have infiltrated medieval Christmas celebrations in just this manner. 
According to some writers, the roots of this custom lie in the Roman 
practice of celebrating their midwinter festivals by decorating homes 
and temples with greenery. Moreover, the Romans celebrated Satur- 
nalia by electing a mock king to preside over the customary feasts. 
Many mock kings sprouted up during the medieval Christmas sea- 
son, perhaps as echoes of this ancient custom. They included the 
Bishop of Fools, who presided over the Feast of Fools, the King of 
the Bean, the Lord of Misrule, and the boy bishop. The old pagan 
beliefs of the north may also have contributed a few items to medi- 
eval Christmas lore. Some writers suspect that Berchta, the female 
spirit that haunted the Twelve Days of Christmas in German-speak- 
ing lands, may have evolved from an old Germanic goddess. They 
attribute the same origin to the band of spirits known as the Wild 
tiunt. Finally, medieval Germans honored Christmas by burning a 
Yule log, another custom that may date back to ancient times. 

Creating Christian Customs 

On the other hand, a good number of medieval Christmas customs 
grew out of Church practices or Christian folklore and legends. For 


Europe, Christmas in Medieval 

example, the customs and festivities associated with the many saints' 
days scattered throughout the Christmas season blossomed during 
the Middle Ages. So did the observance of Advent, Epiphany, the 
Feast of the Circumcision, and Midnight Mass. Nativity plays, the 
Nativity scene, and Christmas carols also became popular during 
this era. The paradise tree, a possible forerunner of the Christmas 
tree, accompanied one of these medieval Nativity plays. 

Surviving Medieval Customs 

Many of these medieval customs and observances have now faded 
away. Nevertheless, we still celebrate Christmas by feasting, resting, 
decking our homes and churches with greenery, and partaking in 
popular forms of entertainment. Christmas carols remain with us, as 
do Nativity plays, although we know them today as Christmas 
pageants or as the IHhspanic folk dramas of Las Posadas and Los 

Further Reading 

Chambers, E. K. The Medieval Stage. Volumes 1 and 2. Oxford, England: 
Clarendon Press, 1903. 

Tlie Glory and Pageantry of Christmas. Maplewood, N.J.: Time-Life Books, 

Hutton, Ronald. TJie Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 
Press, 1996. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: TapHnger, 1977. 

Murray, Alexander "Medieval Christmas." History Today 36, 12 (December 
1986): 31-39. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 




In the American Southwest glowing paper sacks decorate the outlines 
of buildings, patios, walkways, and plazas at night during the Christ- 
mas season. These ornamental lights are called farolitos (pronounced 
fah-roh-LEE-tohs), meaning "little lanterns" in Spanish. 

Farolitos are made with brown paper lunch bags, votive candles, and 
sand. To make one for yourself, turn over the rim of a brown paper 
bag to form a cuff. This helps to keep the bag open. Next pour several 
inches of sand into the bag. The sand weighs the bag down and 
anchors the candle. Place the bag outdoors at night, push a votive 
candle into the sand, and light the wick. The candlelight shining 
through the brown paper gives off a mellow, golden glow in the 

Although farolitos came to the Southwest from Mexico, their histori- 
cal roots can be traced all the way back to China. Spanish merchants 
made this link possible. From the early sixteenth to the early nine- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

teenth centuries Spain held both Mexico and the Philippines as 
colonies. Trade relations linked the Philippines with China. These 
links gave Spanish merchants access to Chinese goods, which they 
began to export to other places. Chinese paper lanterns, imported 
from the Philippines to Mexico by Spanish traders, proved popular 
in the New World. The Mexicans used them for many kinds of cele- 
brations, including Christmas. 

By the early nineteenth century the lanterns had spread north to ter- 
ritories now considered part of the United States. Unfortunately, the 
delicate paper that surrounded the lantern frame quickly perished in 
the rough conditions to which they were exposed. Frontier settlers 
soon hit upon a cheaper and sturdier alternative. They began to 
make lanterns with plain brown wrapping paper made available to 
them by recently increased trade along the Santa Fe Trail. The new 
farolitos not only proved hardier but also cast an amber glow that 
favored the warm colors characteristic of southwestern architecture 
and landscapes. Today these beautiful lights constitute an important 
Christmas symbol in the American Southwest. 

In some areas of the Southwest farolitos are known as Luminarias. 
In other areas the two customs remain distinct. In northern New 
Mexico, for example, the word "luminarias" refers to small Christ- 
mas season bonfires while the decorative brown paper lanterns are 
known as farolitos. 

Further Reading 

Christmas in the American Southwest. Chicago: World Book, 1996. 
Ribera Ortega, Pedro. Christmas in Old Santa Fe. Second edition. Santa Fe, 
N.M.: Sunstone Press, 1973. 


Father Christmas 


Fatl^er cfiristmas 

Christmas, King Christmas, Sir Christmas 

Father Christmas is an EngHsh folk figure who personified the Christ- 
mas season for centuries. Unlike Santa Claus, Father Christmas 
originally did not distribute gifts. Instead, he represented the mirth, 
generosity, and abundance associated with the celebration of Christ- 
mas. Father Christmas has also been called King Christmas, Sir 
Christmas, or simply "Christmas." 

Early History 

Some English folklorists trace Father Christmas back to the late 
Middle Ages; others believe he originated at a later date. Renaissance 
masquers (maskers) sometimes enjoyed impersonating this symbol 
of the season. The famous English writer Ben Jonson (1572-1637) 
chose Father Christmas as the main character in his masque, Christ- 
mas His Masque (1616). Moreover, Father Christmas often served as 
the narrator in English mummers' plays. He typically entered with a 
speech like the following: 

In comes I, Father Christmas 
Welcome or welcome not. 
I hope old Father Christmas 
Will never be forgot. 


Father Christmas always took on the form of an adult male. Some 
portrayed him as hale and hearty, while others depicted him as gray 
and wizened. These contrasting images may reflect the influence 
that other important folk figures, namely. Father Time and the 
Roman god Saturn, had upon the invention of Father Christmas. 
According to the ancient Romans, abundance, equality, and convivi- 
ality marked the lives of Saturn's subjects while the god reigned on 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

earth. The Romans revived these ideals during Saturnalia, the mid- 
winter festival held in his honor. In later times these qualities became 
synonymous with the Christmas season. Eventually they took shape 
in the image of a large, robust man nicknamed Father Christmas. 
Popular images of Father Christmas usually showed him wearing a 
red or green robe with fur trimming and a crown of holly, ivy, or 

In his famous story A Christmas Carol, the English writer Charles 
Dickens (1812-1870) presented his readers with a spirit who calls 
himself "the Ghost of Christmas Present." This ghost, however, 
strongly resembles Father Christmas. Dickens made the association 
more obvious by surrounding the ghost with emblems of Christmas 

The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it 
looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright 
gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistle- 
toe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mir- 
rors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went 
roaring up the chimney. . . . Heaped up upon the floor, to 
form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, 
brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of 
sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, 
red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, lus- 
cious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of 
punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious 
steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, 
glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not un- 
like Plenty's horn. ... It was clothed in one simple deep 
green robe or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment 
hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was 
bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any arti- 
fice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the gar- 
ment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other cover- 
ing than a holly wreath set here and there with shining ici- 
cles. Its dark brown curls were long and free: free as its 
genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, 
its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. 


Father Christmas 

While Dickens favored the robust version of Father Christmas, oth- 
ers preferred to imagine him as a venerable old man. The elderly 
Father Christmas peered out at the world from behind a thick grey 
or white beard. Except for the fact that he did not carry a scythe, this 
robed and hooded figure closely resembled conventional images of 
Father Time. This association between Father Christmas and Father 
Time may well have sprung up because of Christmas' place on the 
calendar. Scheduled just before the close of the old year and the 
beginning of the new, the arrival of the holiday tends to call atten- 
tion to the passing of time. 

Recent History 

During the nineteenth century the imported American Santa Claus 
began to appear in England. Unlike Father Christmas, Santa Claus 
brought gifts to children rather than personifying the Christmas sea- 
son. Moreover, he was vaguely related to the old, European St. Nicho- 
las {see also St. Nicholas's Day). As Santa Claus became popular in 
England, his identity began to merge with that of Father Christmas. 
Eventually, Santa Claus all but erased the identity of Father Christ- 
mas as a separate and distinct folk figure. Father Christmas retained 
only his name, while his image and activities all but mirrored those 
of Santa Claus. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

Hutton, Ronald. Tlie Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 
Press, 1996. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 

Siefker, Phyllis. Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland 
and Company, 1997. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Vatfier Time 

Two old men with white beards have come to symbolize the holiday 
season. The first, Santa Claus, visits homes on Christmas Eve {see 
also Father Christmas; Weihnachtsmann). The second. Father Time, 
appears on New Year's Eve. Father Time, a folk figure that personi- 
fies time, represents the passing of the old year. He is usually depict- 
ed as an old man with a long white beard. Frequently he carries an 
hourglass, representing the passage of time, and a scythe (an old 
farm tool used to cut down ripe wheat), reminding us that all living 
creatures must die and all things come to an end. On occasion he 
will be depicted with wings, which stand for the idea that time pass- 
es very quickly. As the saying goes, "time flies." 

Folklorists believe that Father Time may have evolved from an anci- 
ent Greek god called Kronos (also spelled Cronos or Chronos). In- 


Father Time 

deed, chronos is the Greek word for "time." The association between 
Kronos and time, however, does not seem to have existed in the 
ancient world but rather seems to have sprung up in later ages, due 
to the similarity between the god's name and the word for time. 
Kronos was sometimes depicted in Greek art with a curved imple- 
ment in his hand, resembling a sickle. 

At one time the god Kronos ruled the heavens and earth. He gained 
this position by displacing his father, Uranus, whom he castrated 
with an instrument similar to a sickle. After defeating his father Kro- 
nos married his sister, Rhea, and began to have children by her. He 
learned, however, that in the future one of his own children would 
displace him. In an attempt to avoid this fate he swallowed his chil- 
dren as soon as they were born. His wife managed to hide the last of 
her children, Zeus, from her husband and thus Zeus lived to adult- 
hood. As predicted, Zeus eventually challenged his father's rule and 
overcame his father in battle. Zeus forced Kronos to cough up the 
children he had swallowed and so Zeus regained his brothers and 
sisters: Hestia, Demeter, Hades, Hera, and Poseidon. 

When the Romans heard these tales they decided that Zeus was the 
god they knew as Jupiter, while Kronos was another name for their 
deity Saturn. According to Roman legend, when Jupiter defeated 
Saturn in battle, Saturn left Rome and retreated to Italy. There he 
brought about an era of peace, plenty and equality that lived on in 
legend long after it had ended on earth. The Romans celebrated the 
joys of this golden age in the midwinter festival called Saturnalia. 

Further Reading 

Barnett, Mary. Gods and Myths of Ancient Greece. New York: Smithmark, 

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston, Mass.: Little Brown and Company, 1942. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mytholo- 
gy, and Legend. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper and Row, 1984. 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Feast of Foofs 

In the Middle Ages lower clerics in France, Germany, Bohemia, and 
England celebrated the Christmas season by holding mock reli- 
gious ceremonies that made fun of their usual solemn duties. These 
lower clerics held low-ranking positions at local churches that in- 
volved assisting the priest in his duties or playing a minor role in 
religious services. Their burlesque rites were known as "The Feast of 
Fools" and were observed on a variety of days throughout the sea- 
son. The deacons led the revelry on December 26, St. Stephen's 
Day, the sub-priests (or vicars) on December 27, St. John's Day, the 
choirboys on December 28, Holy Innocents' Day, and the sub-dea- 
cons on January 1, the Feast of the Circumcision. The name "Feast 
of Fools" was most often given to the rites led by the sub-deacons 
on January 1. Indeed, these were accounted by some to be the most 
riotous of all these mock ceremonies. 


Some scholars trace the roots of the Feast of Fools back to Kalends, 
the Roman new year celebration that lived on for centuries after the 
fall of the Empire. Other writers point to similarities between the 
Feast of Fools and some of the customs surrounding Saturnalia. By 
the twelfth century the Feast of Fools had emerged in full force. It first 
established itself as an observance of the sub-deacons, but soon 
expanded to encompass other lower clerics. It appears to have been 
more popular in France than in any other European country. By the 
end of the twelfth century Parisians were treated to the spectacle sev- 
eral times over during the Christmas season, as the deacons (St. 
Stephen's Day) sub-priests (St. John's Day), choirboys (Holy Inno- 
cents' Day), and sub-deacons (Feast of the Circumcision, Epiphany, or 
the Octave of Epiphany) all had a go at leading the mock rites. 

Historical documents record several centuries of complaints regis- 
tered by priests, bishops, and other high-ranking Church officials 
who, in spite of their authority, seemed unable to stop the raucous 


Feast of Fools 

revelry. Not only did lower clerics relish their festival, but townsfolk 
also enjoyed the outrageous spectacle. In 1435 the Council of Basle 
forbade the Feast of Fools. Nevertheless, the lower clergy clung to 
their yearly spree for another 150 years. Clerics from the cathedral of 
Amiens, France, continued to celebrate the Feast of Fools until 1721. 


Participants in the Feast of Fools reversed all customary rules of 
proper church behavior. Instead of presiding over religious services 
with dignity, seriousness, and reverence, they brought the coarse, 
lusty, irreverent behavior of the carnival to church. After their wild 
mass, they often roamed the streets in an equally wild, mock reli- 
gious procession. In some places merrymakers chose a bishop or 
archbishop of fools to preside over the celebration. As insignia of his 
newfound rank he wore a bishop's miter and carried a bishop's staff. 
Clerical participants in the follies often dressed in street clothing, 
including women's clothing, masks, garlands of greenery, or even in 
fools' costumes. 

Our knowledge of these mock ceremonies comes mostly from the 
writings of higher clergy who disapproved of the revels. According to 
one irate cleric who observed the proceedings in mid-fifteenth-centu- 
ry France: 

Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and mon- 
strous visages at the hours of the office. They dance in the 
choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels. They sing 
wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the 
altar while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play at dice 
there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old 
shoes. They run and leap through the church, without a 
blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town 
and its theatres in shabby traps and carts, and rouse the 
laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous per- 
formances, with indecent gesture and verses scurrilous and 
unchaste [Miles, 1990, 304]. 

In a similar observance called the Feast of the Ass, a donkey carrying 
a young woman was led into church and made to stand near the 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

altar. This act may have been meant to represent the flight of Mary, 
Joseph, and the baby Jesus into Egypt shortly after Jesus' birth {see 
also Flight into Egypt). Nevertheless, the revelers took the opportu- 
nity to sing the praises of the ass in Latin and to require the officiant 
to end the mass by braying three times like a donkey. The congrega- 
tion responded in kind. 

In enacting these rites, those of lesser status in the Church tem- 
porarily usurped the roles of higher-ups, performing unflattering 
impersonations of priests, bishops, and archbishops. In this respect 
the Feast of Fools resembled other Christmas season rites that 
authorized similar, temporary inversions of power and status. These 
include the festivities surrounding the boy bishop, the Lord of Mis- 
rule, barring out the schoolmaster. Holy Innocents' Day, Satur- 
nalia, and Twelfth Night. 

Further Reading 

Chambers, E. K. The Mediaeval Stage. Volume 1. Oxford England: Clarendon 
Press, 1903. 

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 
Press, 1996. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 

Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New 
York: Macmillan, 1979. 


Feast of the Ass 


Feast of tl^e Ass 

In the Middle Ages, people in some parts of France commemorated 
the Bioly Family's Flight into Egypt with a celebration called the 
Feast of the Ass. Not only did Christian legends place an ass in the 
stable where Jesus was born, but also medieval people imagined 
Mary and the baby Jesus riding on an ass led by Joseph as they 
plodded towards their Egyptian exile. Later, a donkey would carry 
the adult Jesus into the city of Jerusalem on the week before his 
death, an event celebrated on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before 
Easter (John 12:14-15). The ceremonies associated with the Feast of 
the Ass honored all the donkeys who played roles in these and other 
well-known Christian stories. They took place on January 14. 

The festivities featured a procession in which a young girl with a 
baby rode through the city streets on an ass while people sang a silly 
song honoring the creature: 

Orientis partibus 
Adventavit asinus, 
Fucher et fortissimos, 
Sarcinis aptissimus. 
Hez, Sir asne, hez! 

From Oriental country came 

A lordly ass of highest fame. 

So beautiful, so strong and trim. 

No burden was too great for him. 

Hail, Sir Donkey, hail (Weiser, 1952, 127). 

The ass was then led into a church where religious services took 
place. Like the Feast of Fools, these ceremonies tended to get out of 
hand. The topsy-turvy ambience of medieval Christmas celebrations 
encouraged high-spirited excesses that gradually turned the event 
into a burlesque {see also Europe, Christmas in Medieval). Particu- 
larly raucous celebrations took place in the town of Beauvais. After 
the procession, the ass entered the church, where it was lavished 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

with food and drink. At the same time, the clergy conducted a kind 
of parody of the evening prayer service, which ended with everyone 
braying like an ass as they danced around the befuddled creature. 
Afterwards actors presented humorous folk plays outside the church 
doors. The last event of the day was a Midnight Mass, which the 
priest brought to a close by braying three times. 

These hijinks caused the Roman Catholic Church to officially suppress 
the Feast of the Ass in the fifteenth century. It lingered for many years 
after that in some places, however. 

Further Reading 

Goldwasser, Maria Julia. "Carnival." In Mircea Eliade, ed. Encyclopedia of 
Religion.Yolume 3. New York: Macmillan, 1987. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. San Francisco, CaHf.: Harper and Row, 1984. 

Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: 
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952. 

Feast of tl^e Circumcision 

Circumcision of Jesus, Feast of the Circumcision and the 

Name of Jesus, Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, 

Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 

Octave of the Birth of Our Lord, Solemnity of Mary 

The Gospel according to Luke (2:21) reports that eight days after 
Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary named him and had him circum- 
cised. In doing so, they conformed to an old Jewish custom whereby 
all male infants are circumcised as a sign of the eternal covenant 
between God and the Jewish people. The Feast of the Circumcision, 
observed on January 1, commemorates the Holy Family's compli- 
ance with this custom. It also celebrates the naming of Jesus and, in 
the Roman Catholic Church, Mary's role as the Mother of God. 


Feast of the Circumcision 


The Feast of the Circumcision received official recognition rather 
late. Luke's account clearly states that Jesus was circumcised eight 
days after his birth. After Church authorities established the celebra- 
tion of Christmas on December 25, the obvious date for the re- 
membrance of the Circumcision would be January 1, which falls 
eight days after the celebration of the Nativity. 

In the first few centuries after Christ's birth, however, the vast pagan 
population of the Roman world was still celebrating Kalends, their 
new year festival, on that date. Numerous early Christian leaders dis- 
approved of the riotous pagan new year celebrations and urged their 
Christian followers to observe the day with thoughtfulness, fasting, 
and sobriety instead. In the fourth century a.d., one such leader, a 
monk named Almacius (or Telemachus) stormed into a crowded 
Roman stadium on January 1 crying, "Cease from the superstition of 
idols and polluted sacrifices. Today is the octave of the Lord!" Some 
report that the enraged crowd stoned the earnest monk to death; 
others state that the assembled gladiators dispatched him. 

This attitude of vehement opposition to the celebrations already tak- 
ing place on January 1 may explain the reluctance of Church officials 
to establish a Christian celebration on that day. In an effort to coun- 
teract the still-popular festivities surrounding Kalends, the second 
provincial Council of Tours (567 a.d.) ordered Christians to fast and 
do penance during the first few days of the new year. 

Nevertheless, over the course of the next several centuries, January 1 
became a feast day throughout the Christian world. Around the sev- 
enth century the Roman Catholic Church introduced a new obser- 
vance called the "Octave of the Birth of Our Lord" on January 1. In 
the language of the Church, an "octave" is an eight-day period that 
includes any great Church festival and the seven days that follow it. 
Thus, this name signaled that the new observance was to serve as a 
completion of the Christmas feast. Before that time, however. 
Christians from Gaul had observed the day as the "Circumcision of 
Jesus," a name reflecting their emphasis on Jesus' compliance with 
the Jewish tradition of circumcision. This idea spread from Gaul to 
Spain, and, eventually, to Rome. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

The Eastern Churches began to observe January 1 as a commemora- 
tion of the circumcision in the eighth century. In the ninth century 
the Roman Church began to blend its original emphasis on the 
completion of the octave of Christmas with a commemoration of the 
Circumcision. Before long the Roman Church incorporated yet an- 
other theme into its celebrations. Many observed the feast primarily 
by expressing gratitude and devotion to Mary, the mother of God. 
Indeed, some historians recognize the festival as the earliest Catho- 
lic feast dedicated to Mary. Eventually, it became the most important 
Marian feast in the Roman Church. 

The Feast of the Circumcision falls in the middle of the Twelve Days 
of Christmas. During the Middle Ages bursts of revelry punctuated 
this twelve-day period. In spite of the efforts of the early Church to 
diminish the customary carousing associated with the Roman new 
year, a new form of riotous display developed around Church cele- 
brations on January 1. From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, 
lower clergy in many parts of Europe took part in the Feast of Fools 
on that date. Scandalized authorities managed to eradicate this 
observance in most areas by the sixteenth century, although it lin- 
gered in France until the eighteenth century. 

Contemporary Observance 

The various Christian denominations that observe the feast empha- 
size different aspects of the events surrounding Jesus' circumcision. 
In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church changed the name of the obser- 
vance to the "Solemnity of Mary," a name that reflects their empha- 
sis on Mary's role as mother of the Savior. Orthodox Christians con- 
tinue to observe the day as the "Feast of the Circumcision of Our 
Lord." Episcopalians call the festival the "Feast of the Holy Name of 
Our Lord Jesus Christ." They emphasize the significance of Jesus' 
name, given to Mary by Gabriel — the angel of the Annunciation 
— which means literally "God saves" or "God helps." Lutherans 
compromise by calling the festival the "Feast of the Circumcision 
and the Name of Jesus." {See also New Year's Day). 

Further Reading 

Bellenir, Karen, ed. Religious Holidays and Calendars. Second edition. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. 


Feast of the Circumcision 

Cross, R L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian 

Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1983. 
Foley, R. L. "Circumcision of Our Lord." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. 

Volume 3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 
Harper, Howard. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Holy Days in the United States. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic 

Conference, 1984. 
Metford, J. C.J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 

Urlin, Ethel. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 
Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: 

Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952. 


For Christmas customs involving the use of fire and bonfires, see 
Estonia, Christmas in; Guatemala, Christmas in; Hogmanay; 
Iceland, Christmas in; Luminarias; Martinmas; Up Helly Aa; 
Williamsburg, Virginia, Christmas in Colonial; Yule; Yule Log; 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


In many parts of Europe old superstitions held that the first person 
to cross one's threshold after the start of the new year determined 
the household's luck for the coming year {see also Estonia, Christ- 
mas in; Germany, Christmas in; Greece, Christmas in; Ireland, 
Christmas in; Italy, Christmas in; New Year's Day). That person 
was called the "firstfooter." People with certain physical characteris- 
tics were deemed lucky firstfooters. In most places people welcomed 
dark-haired men as desirable firstfooters whose visit would confer 
luck on the entire household. By contrast, women and fair-haired or 
red-headed men were often deemed unlucky firstfooters whose visit 
hastened the coming of unfortunate events. 

Scotland and England 

The folklore of Scotland and England contains many references to 
firstfooters. The earliest historical records of firstfooting in Britain 
date back to the eighteenth century. Although found in many places 
throughout Britain, the custom appears to have been most strongly 
upheld in lowlands Scotland and northern England. There people 
awaited firstfooters in the early morning hours of January first. In 
many places custom dictated that firstfooters offer householders 
small gifts of food, spirits, fuel, and money as symbols of prosperity 
in the coming year. In some places the firstfooter delivered a sprig of 
greenery; in others salt was included in the lucky offerings. Usually 
the firstfooter exchanged warm greetings with family members 
upon entering the house, but in some locales he or she said nothing 
until stirring the fire or adding more fuel to it. Householders in 
return treated the firstfooter to food and drink and sometimes 
money, too. Some found this hospitality quite tempting. In Edin- 
burgh, youth with the required physical characteristics sometimes 
fought one another for the opportunity to go firstfooting in the 
wealthier neighborhoods, where the rewards given to desirable first- 
footers were greatest. 



Although many communities favored dark-haired men as firstfoot- 
ers, other communities preferred women, children, fair-headed men, 
or even red-headed men. If the required characteristics occurred in- 
frequently within the community, some locales actually searched out 
and hired a firstfooter to make these midnight calls. In addition to 
gender and hair color, several other physical characteristics disposed 
people favorably or unfavorably to a firstfooter. In many places peo- 
ple preferred a young, healthy, and good-looking firstfooter. Ac- 
cording to popular beliefs, the flat-footed, lame, sickly, or cross-eyed 
brought bad luck with them. In some places, people whose eye- 
brows met were considered unlucky. If one's household happened to 
be jinxed by the untimely arrival of an unlucky firstfooter, folklore 
provided a number of remedies. In areas where people placed a lot 
of store in firstfooting, however, women and other people who 
would be unwelcome as firstfooters were careful to delay any new 
year visits until after their neighbors had all received a firstfooter. 

Similar superstitions applied to first encounters on the road after the 
start of the new year. Some deemed it lucky if the first person one 
met was a child, or if one's first encounter was with an oxcart. 
Meeting a beggar, sexton (church custodian), or gravedigger fore- 
shadowed unpleasantness to come. Many thought it especially lucky 
to meet someone whose arms were full, and unlucky to come across 
someone who wasn't carrying anything. 

Further Reading 

Gaster, Theodor. New Year, Its History, Customs, and Superstitions. New York: 

Abelard-Schuman, 1955. 
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 

Company, 1976. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1996. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

First Nfgl^t 

First Night is the name of an alternative New Year's Eve celebration 
begun in Boston in the year 1976. The organizers of this event pro- 
moted the festivities as an alcohol-free, family-oriented New Year's 
celebration. Its success prompted an organization called "First Night 
International" to trademark the phrase "First Night," so that all cities 
that wish to organize a festival by that name must first join the orga- 
nization and pay a fee. The First Night idea has caught on, and now 
over 150 American cities host these festivities on December 31. First 
Night celebrations have also spread to a number of locations in 
Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. 

First Night festivals feature a variety of acts, events, and demonstra- 
tions showcasing the visual and performing arts. Festival organizers 
draw primarily on local artists and entertainers. Cities generally stage 
First Night festivals in a central location and the atmosphere may 
resemble that of a street fair. Although some open-air entertainment 
is available to everyone, people who wish to attend events scheduled 
for indoor venues generally have to buy a pass (usually in the form of 
a button they wear on their clothing) which entitles them to attend all 
the events. 

One of the stated goals of First Night International is to wean peo- 
ple away from more boisterous, alcohol-laden New Year's Eve cele- 
brations. Their efforts may be viewed as the latest twist on a cam- 
paign to reform the midwinter holidays that dates back to the time 
of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation {see Puritans). Over 
the centuries various Protestant religious groups have criticized the 
rowdy and often drunken celebrations that characterize many tradi- 
tional New Year's Eve celebrations. They tried instead to promote the 
idea that New Year's Eve is an occasion for serious reflection on 
one's past, prayer for the future, renewal of one's commitment to 
serve God, and the setting of personal goals for the coming year {see 
Resolutions; Watch Night). The objectives of First Night Interna- 
tional are somewhat less lofty. Beyond decreasing alcohol consump- 


Flight into Egypt 

tion on New Year's Eve, they aim to promote a sense of community, 
provide family- oriented entertainment, deepen public appreciation 
for the arts, and bring new life to downtown areas. 

Further Reading 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 
Celebrations of the World Dictionai-y. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1997. 

Web Site 

First Night^^ International posts a web site at the following address: 


Fffgl^t into Egypt 

The Gospel according to Matthew tells that soon after Jesus was 
born. King Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the town's 
male infants (see Holy Innocents' Day). An angel warned Joseph of 
Herod's evil plot and told him to escape with his family to Egypt. 
The Holy Family obeyed the angel's command and departed. This 
event, called the Flight into Egypt, has been depicted by many artists 
over the centuries, including Giotto (c. 1267-1337), Titian (1488 or 
1490-1576), Albrecht Diirer (1471-1528), and Nicolas Foussin (1594- 
1665). It is commemorated in Orthodox churches on December 26 
— or January 8 in churches that still use the Julian calendar — in a 
service referred to as the Synaxis of the Theotokos {for more on the 
Julian calendar, see Old Christmas Day). Synaxis means "meeting" 
and Theotokos, a title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary, means "God 
bearer." In the Middle Ages, some western Europeans, particularly 
the French, remembered the Flight into Egypt with a festival called 
the Feast of the Ass. 

When King Herod died, the angel returned again, notifying Joseph 
that it was safe for him to return with his family to Judea. When 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Joseph learned that Herod's brutal son, Archelaus, had inherited his 
father's throne, he decided not to return to Bethlehem, and instead 
moved his family to Nazareth. 


What happened to the Holy Family on this perilous journey into 
Egypt? The Bible doesn't say. Perhaps because of this omission, leg- 
ends and lore soon sprouted up around the event. According to one 
tale, Herod's soldiers knew the Holy Family had escaped and so 
pursued them. As Mary, Joseph, and Jesus passed some peasants 
sowing wheat, Mary said to them, "If anyone should ask if we have 
been here, tell them that we indeed passed by while you were sow- 
ing this field of wheat." Miraculously, the wheat sprouted and grew 
tall overnight. When Herod's soldiers inquired of the peasants and 
learned that their prey had passed through the region at the time the 
wheat was planted, they figured that the Holy Family was many 
days ahead of them and so lost heart and returned to Judea. 

An ancient document known as the Arabic Infancy Gospel records 
another near escape. In this story, the Holy Family is held up by ban- 
dits on their way to Egypt. One of the highwaymen, however, feels a 
special sympathy for the fugitives and refuses to rob them. In fact, he 
tries to convince the other robber to let them go. The other refuses 
until the first robber agrees to pay him a girdle and forty coins. The 
kind-hearted thief does so and the other reluctantly allows the pris- 
oners to depart. The baby Jesus predicts that he and the bandits will 
die on the same day in the same place. Sure enough, according to 
the Arabic Infancy Gospel, these men turn out to be the two thieves, 
the one remorseful and the other not, who were crucified alongside 
Jesus about thirty years later (Luke 23:93-43). 

Another tale, this one from a document called the Apocryphal Gos- 
pel of Pseudo-Matthew, finds Joseph losing faith as the family 
trudges through the desert. They stop underneath a date palm tree 
where Joseph frets about how to find water. Mary asks her husband 
to pick her some dates. Joseph scolds her for requesting something 
so far out of his reach. The infant Jesus, however, speaks to the tree, 
commanding it to bow down so Mary can gather fruit. The tree re- 
sponds. Then Jesus orders an underground spring to break through 


Flight into Egypt 

to the surface so that they can drink and fill their water bags. As this 
tale spread through Europe, people changed the date tree to a cher- 
ry tree and changed the timing of the event so that it takes place 
before Jesus was born. 

Aiiother legend concerning trees reports that the Holy Family passed 
through a forest on their long journey to Egypt. Every tree except the 
aspen bowed in reverence as they passed. Irritated by this lack of 
respect the baby Jesus then cursed the tree, which is why its leaves 
tremble in the wind till this day. 

Another plant that paid respect to the Holy Family on the Flight into 
Egypt is the Rose of Jericho. It sprang up wherever they passed. It is 
sometimes called Mary's Rose. 

One final tale popular in the Middle Ages proclaims that the Holy 
Family encountered a gypsy woman on the road to Egypt. She ex- 
tended her well-wishes to the Holy Family and, noticing Mary's 
fatigue especially, she took them to a place where they could rest 
and offered straw for their donkey. She then proceeded to recount 
Mary's past history. Afterwards she read Jesus' palm and accurately 
foretold the major events of his life, including the crucifixion. Then 
she begged for alms, but not in the usual manner. Knowing the true 
identity of the child, the gypsy woman asked for the gift of genuine 
repentance and life everlasting. 

Further Reading 

Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 2002. 

Hackwood, Frederick W. Christ Lore. 1902. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Gale 
Research, 1969. 

Jameson, Anna. Legends of the Madonna. 1890. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper and Row, 1984. 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

VootballBowl Games 

Many Americans enjoy watching college football games on New 
Year's Day. This tradition dates back to the early years of the twenti- 
eth century, when the first of these "bowl" games, the Rose Bowl, 
got its start. 

The Rose Bowl Game and the Tournament of Roses 

The Rose Bowl, which takes place in Pasadena, California, began as 
one component of a yearly festival called the Tournament of Roses. 
Members of the local Valley Hunt Club started this festival in 1890 as 
a means of celebrating and publicizing Pasadena's wonderful winter 
climate and its abundance of winter- time fruit and flowers. The day's 
entertainments included a parade of flower-bedecked carriages, tug- 
of-war contests, foot races, and polo matches. The festival quickly 
became a hit — so much so that in 1895 the Valley Hunt Club turned 
the event's organization and management over to a new, volunteer 
group, the Tournament of Roses Association. 

In 1902 Tournament officials decided that a collegiate sporting event 
might attract even more people to their festival. Festival organizers 
set up an "east versus west" football match, pitting the University of 
Michigan against California's Stanford University. The game took 
place in Tournament Park, which sat about 1,000 people. To the 
amazement of festival organizers, 8,500 spectators came and jostled 
one another for those seats. The fans expressed more enthusiasm for 
the game than did the players. By the third quarter Michigan led 49 
to 0. R. S. Fisher, captain of the thoroughly pummeled Stanford play- 
ers, approached Hugh White, the captain of the Michigan team, and 
tendered Stanford's surrender, reportedly saying, "If you are willing, 
we are ready to quit." Michigan accepted this admission of defeat 
and the game ended. 

After this poor showing, festival organizers agreed to cancel the 
football game as part of the Tournament of Roses. Chariot races 


Football Bowl Games 

instead amused the sports-loving public. Eventually these were 
deemed too dangerous, and football returned to the Tournament of 
Roses in 1916. Once again, huge crowds overwhelmed the venue. In 
1920 festival organizers decided to build a new football stadium in 
order to better accommodate fans. Modeled after Yale University's 
then state-of-the-art football stadium, the Yale Bowl, Pasadena's 
new stadium was dubbed the "Rose Bowl." The first game in the 
new Rose Bowl Stadium took place on January 1, 1923. 

The popularity of this contest grew with each passing decade. In 
1927, the Rose Bowl Game became the first sports match to be 
broadcast on transcontinental radio. In 1952 NBC covered the Rose 
Bowl, making it the first college football game ever to be shown on 
national television. In addition, since 1947 sell-out crowds have 
jammed the Rose Bowl's bleachers to watch the game. In that year 
Tournament organizers signed an agreement with the Big Ten and 
Pacific Coast football conferences (the latter would eventually be- 
come the Pacific Ten Conference). The Rose Bowl henceforth pitted 
the top team in each of these conferences against each other. 

The Tournament of Roses parade has also grown over the years. 
Today it includes marching bands, equestrians, motorized floats, a 
celebrity grand marshal, and a local beauty queen dubbed the Rose 
Queen, who presides over the parade and game. Each year the 
Tournament of Roses Association selects a theme for the parade. 
Flower- covered floats express this theme. Parade rules dictate that 
the entire surface of the float's exterior be covered with flowers or 
other plant parts, such as leaves, seeds, or bark. Work begins on the 
construction of the floats shortly after the previous year's festival 
comes to a close. 

Other New Year's Day Bowl Games 

The success of the Rose Bowl Game prompted the creation of addi- 
tional bowl games in other parts of the country. In 1933 two promi- 
nent Miami citizens organized a New Year's Day football game as 
one element of a new civic event called the Palm Festival. In 1935 
this game became the Orange Bowl and was played in the newly 
constructed Orange Bowl Stadium. In 1996 the contest shifted to the 
Pro Player Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

In 1990 the Orange Bowl's official name changed to the FedEx 
Orange Bowl, thus providing additional advertising for its major cor- 
porate sponsor. Federal Express. In recent years, as the importance of 
corporate funding has grown, many bowl games have added the 
names of their primary corporate sponsors in their official titles {see 
also Commercialism). 

Other New Year's Day Bowl Games include the Southwest Bell 
Cotton Bowl, played in Dallas, Texas. Flayed in Cotton Bowl Sta- 
dium, the match currently pits a team from the Big 12 against a team 
from the Southeastern Conference. 

The Nokia Sugar Bowl makes its home in New Orleans, Louisiana. 
Begun in 1935, the game took place in Tulane University's football 
stadium. In 1975, the Sugar Bowl moved to the Superdome. 

A relative late-comer, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl started in 1971. Played 
in Sun Devil Stadium on the grounds of Arizona State University, 
the Fiesta Bowl was originally scheduled for late December, but 
moved to January 1, or sometimes a neighboring date, in 1981. 

Bowl Championship Series 

In 1998 the Bowl Championship Series was established to determine 
the top-ranking team in college football by pitting the number one 
and number two ranked teams in the nation against each other. This 
event does not have a permanent home but rather rotates between 
the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Fiesta Bowl. 

Further Reading 

Crump, WilUam D. The Christmas Encyclopedia. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 

Michaelson, Herb, and Dave Newhouse. Rose Bowl Football Since 1902. New 

York: Stein and Day, 1977. 
Whittingham, Richard. Rites of Autumn. New York: Free Press, 2001. 

Web Site 

The Tournament of Roses Association maintains its own web site with 
detailed information on the parade and football game: 


France, Christmas in 


Vrance^ cfiristmas in 

The story of the Christ child's birth, as represented in Nativity 
scenes, retold in folk plays, and commemorated in religious services 
plays a large role in French Christmas celebrations. As one might 
expect, so, too, does fine food. 

St. Nicholas's Day 

French children eagerly await St. Nicholas's Day, December 6. In 
honor of the generous saint, adults often give children gifts of candy 
and other treats. Since St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Lorraine, 
the people of that province celebrate his feast day with processions. 
These processions include men dressed as the saint in long robes, 
bishop's hats, and crosses. Pere Fouttard, or "Father Whipper," usually 
follows behind Nicholas. The children recognize Fere Fouttard by his 
dirty, dark robe, greasy, grey beard, and whip. While St. Nicholas 
rewards children who have been good, Pere Fouttard punishes chil- 
dren who have misbehaved {see also Black Peter; Knecht Ruprecht). 

Pere Noel 

In France children receive their Christmas gifts from Pere Noel, or 
"Father Christmas." French folklore depicts Pere Noel as a solemn 
old man with a white beard. He wears a long, hooded, red robe 
trimmed with white fur. He resembles England's Father Christmas 
and Germany's Weihnachtsmann. In the weeks before Christmas 
many French children write letters to Pere Noel describing the gifts 
they would like to receive {see also Children's Letters). They mail 
these letters to the North Pole. 


As Christmas day draws near, many people give their homes a thor- 
ough cleaning. Silver may be polished and fine china brought out of 
storage for the sumptuous Christmas Eve feast called reveillon. Fam- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ilies shop for Christmas trees and flowers to decorate the table. The 
French put all kinds of flowers to this purpose, including poinsettias, 
but a special favorite is the Christmas rose. The French also enjoy 
decorating their homes with mistletoe. Another shopping trip may 
be made to pick up a new figurine for their Nativity scene, which the 
French call a creche, meaning "crib." Shops and markets throughout 
France display a wide variety of these engaging, lifelike figures in the 
weeks preceding Christmas. As a special Christmas treat the family 
may go to see a Nativity play. All over France local theatrical groups 
present these plays, which retell French Nativity legends. The French 
call these pastoral tales pastorales {see also Pastores, Los). 

Most French families decorate their Christmas trees a few days be- 
fore Christmas. French Christmas ornaments come in a wide vari- 
ety of shapes and sizes. The fish, once a new year's symbol signifying 
long life, has become a popular shape for tree ornaments. Although 
Christmas trees have become popular, the Nativity scene remains the 
most important Christmas decoration in France. Churches through- 
out France display Nativity scenes in the weeks before Christmas. 
French families begin to assemble their Nativity scenes a few days 
before Christmas. Children especially enjoy this task and may bring 
home twigs, moss, and rocks to make the setting look more lifelike. 
Each day the figurines representing the Three Kings move closer to 
the stable where the Holy Family has taken shelter {see Magi). In 
past times Yule logs were popular throughout France. Nowadays 
the Yule log survives in the form of a popular Christmas dessert 
called a biiche de Noel, or "Christmas log." Bakers mold this creme- 
filled cake into the shape of log. 

Christmas Eve 

Many French families serve a light snack at dinner time on Christ- 
mas Eve. This tides the family over until the more formal meal, 
which they call reveillon, meaning "awakening." This meal will not 
take place until the middle of the night. Family members pass the 
evening together singing Christmas carols and telling Christmas 
stories. In addition, the women of the household may spend many 
hours in the kitchen preparing the Christmas Eve feast. Children 
place their shoes near the fireplace, underneath the Christmas tree. 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

or near the Nativity scene. In the middle of the night the magical 
Pere Noel will come and fill them with sweets and toys. Late in the 
evening someone, often the youngest child, completes the Nativity 
scene by placing the baby Jesus figurine into the manger. As mid- 
night approaches small children are tucked into bed and the rest of 
the family prepares to go to Midnight Mass. 

After returning from church French families finally sit down to their 
Christmas Eve banquet. This meal may consist of up to fifteen cours- 
es. After passing several hours dining together the family settles 
down to watch the children open Christmas presents. Families with 
small children may wait until Christmas morning to open presents, 
however. As a rule, only children receive presents on Christmas. 
Adults exchange gifts with one another on New Year's Day. 

Regional Customs 

Located in southern France, the region of Provence boasts a number 
of distinctive Christmas customs. The region is well known for its 
santons, Nativity scene figurines. In Provence santon makers have 
sold their wares at Christmas fairs since the early nineteenth centu- 
ry. For generations these artisans have trained their children in the 
traditional techniques for making the clay figurines. A number of 
Provengal villages sponsor living Nativity scenes and costumed pro- 
cessions of shepherds, angels, kings, and pilgrims on Christmas 
Eve. These candlelight processions begin about an hour before mid- 
night and wend their way to the local church, where participants pay 
their respects to the Holy Family and attend Midnight Mass. 

Christmas cuisine also varies across France. Families in Provence 
often serve lobster as a first course for reveillon. Roast pheasant or 
roast lamb often follow. Bread, cheese, green salad, pate, and wine 
round out the meal. Provengal custom suggests that hostesses serve 
thirteen desserts for reveillon, one for Jesus and each of the twelve 
apostles. Some combination of fresh, glazed, and dried fruit, marzi- 
pan, candies, and cakes are usually served. In the snowy French Alps 
a simpler reveillon meal may be offered, featuring such sturdy dishes 
as hot broth with noodles and boiled beef. In Brittany, on France's 
northern coast, buckwheat crepes are served with heavy cream. 



New Year and Epiphany 

Adults exchange gifts on New Year's Day. The French word for new 
year's gift, etrenne, comes from the Latin word strenae, which also 
means "new year's gift." The ancient Romans offered these gifts to 
one another at their new year festival. Kalends. The Christmas sea- 
son in France closes on January 6 with Fete des Rois, Three King's 
Day, or Epiphany. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Ross, Corinne. Christmas in France. Chicago: World Book, 1988. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and Canadian Heritage: 



The sap of the frankincense tree {Boswellia carteri or Boswellia thu- 
rifera) dries into hard, yellowish brown lumps of gum resin known 
as frankincense. In biblical times frankincense was prized as the very 
best kind of incense. It was one of the gifts that the Magi presented 
to the baby Jesus. 

The English word "frankincense" comes from the Old French words 
franc encens, meaning pure or high-quality incense. Although it was 
most commonly used as incense in ancient times, frankincense was 
also prescribed as a medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments. 
Many ancient peoples, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Per- 
sians, Jews, and Babylonians, burned incense in home and temple 
worship. The rising fumes from burning incense may have offered 
worshipers a visual image of prayers ascending to heaven. Scholars 
speculate that this imagery explains the widespread use of incense 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

in worship. Frankincense is mentioned numerous times in the Old 
Testament and was one of the four components of the sacred 
incense burned by the Jewish priests in the Sanctuary. Because of its 
close relationship with worship, the Magi's gift of frankincense has 
traditionally been interpreted as a recognition of Jesus' divinity. 
Another interpretation suggests that it predicts Jesus' future role as a 
high priest. 

In ancient times, Arabia supplied the Mediterranean and Asia with 
most of their myrrh and frankincense. These products were so high- 
ly valued and so difficult to obtain outside of Arabia that they be- 
came a luxury affordable only by the rich. Thus, the Magi's valuable 
gift of frankincense may also have signified their recognition of 
Jesus' great worth. 

Until the mid-1 700s tradition dictated that the British monarch offer 
a gift of frankincense, gold, and myrrh at the Chapel Royal on 
Epiphany. Heralds and knights of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath 
accompanied the King on this reenactment of the Magi's pilgrimage. 
Under the unstable King George III (1760-1820) the procession was 
abandoned, although the monarch's gift of gold, frankincense, and 
myrrh is still sent to the Chapel Royal by proxy. A similar royal offer- 
ing was at one time customary in Spain. 

Today frankincense trees can be found in Arabia, Ethiopia, Somalia, 
and India. Frankincense is still primarily used as incense. Frankin- 
cense is a component of the incense burned in Roman Catholic and 
Orthodox church services. It may also be found in other scented 
products, such as soap. 

Further Reading 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
De Hoghton, Charles. "Incense." In Richard Cavendish, ed. Man, Myth and 

Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural. Volume 8. New York: 

Marshall Cavendish, 1970. 
Groom, Nigel. Frankincense and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade. 

London, England: Longman, 1981. 
Peattie, Donald Culross. "Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh." Saturday Evening 

Post 264, 6 (November 1992): 56. 


Frau Gaude 


Vrau Gaude 

Gaue, Gode, Wode 

According to old folk beliefs, Frau Gaude, followed by her pack of 
phantom dogs, once haunted the streets of German-speaking Eu- 
rope during the Twelve Days of Christmas. If she found a house 
with an open door, she would send in one of her dogs, which the 
householders would find impossible to drive away. If they killed the 
dog, it would turn into a stone. Regardless of where the family left 
the stone, it would always return to their house at night as a whim- 
pering dog, bringing them bad luck throughout the year. 

In some regions, Frau Gaude led the Wild Hunt, a riotous proces- 
sion of ghosts and spirits who rode across the stormy night skies 
during Yule. Frau Gaude may be a variant of Berchta, a pagan win- 
ter goddess who faded into a kind of minor bogey in later times. 
Other names for Frau Gaude include Gaue, Gode, and Wode. 

Further Reading 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 



The Bible names only one of the angels who appear in connection 
with Jesus' birth. The Gospel according to Luke states that the 
angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary to tell her that 
she would bear a son whom she should name Jesus (Luke 1:26-35). 
Christians call this event the Annunciation. 

Gabriel in the Bible 

Who is Gabriel and why was he sent to bear such important news? 
Religious scholars often begin a discussion of the angel by analyzing 
the meaning of his name. Some say it means "God is my warrior"; 
others translate it as "man of God." Still others believe it should be 
translated as "power of God" or "hero of God." Gabriel is one of 
only two angels mentioned by name in the Hebrew scriptures, or 
Old Testament (the other is Michael). In the Book of Daniel, Gabriel 
helps Daniel interpret his visions and informs him of God's plan for 
the end of time (Daniel 8-12). Gabriel returns again in the New 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Testament, or Christian scriptures. In the Gospel according to Luke 
he appears to Zechariah to tell him that he and his wife will con- 
ceive a child, John, who will serve as the forerunner to Jesus Christ 
(Luke 1:11-20). Shortly afterwards Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary to 
announce her forthcoming pregnancy (Luke 1:26-38). Thus the Bible 
tends to cast Gabriel as God's herald. Because he frequently brings 
news of God's doings to human beings, he is sometimes referred to 
as the Angel of Revelation. 

Gabriel in Christian Art 

In the Gospel according to Luke Gabriel identifies himself as some- 
one who "stand[s] in the presence of God" (Luke 1:19). This has led 
many Christians to conclude that he is one of the few high-ranking 
angels known as archangels. Over the centuries Christian artists 
have portrayed Gabriel as a solemn, male figure wearing beautiful 
robes. In earlier works of art Gabriel often carries a scepter. In more 
recent works he holds a lily, a symbol of the purity and goodness of 
the Virgin Mary. 

Jewish and Muslim Beliefs 

Jewish lore assigns Gabriel many different jobs. The Book of Enoch 
portrays him as an overseer of the Garden of Eden {see also Adam 
and Eve Day). Other apocryphal texts and legends have shown him 
as one of the four angels who stand round the throne of God, a par- 
ticipant in the destruction of Sodom and the army of Sennacherib, 
and one of those who prayed for the world at the time of the Great 
Flood. Muslims, too, honor the angel Gabriel, whom they know as 
Jibril. They believe him to be the angel who dictated the Qur'an — 
the holy book of Islam — to the prophet Muhammad. 

Christian Lore 

Christian lore not only places Gabriel at the scene of Jesus' birth but 
also at the scene leading up to Jesus' death. Perhaps because of his 
biblical role as a herald. Christian legends have suggested that Ga- 
briel was the unnamed angel that brought the good news of Jesus' 
birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-12). Another folk belief places 



Gabriel in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prayed and waited 
for the men who would come to arrest him and condemn him to 
death. Both of these tales emphasize Gabriel's role as the angel of 
mercy. Michael, by contrast, functions as the angel of judgment. (In 
Jewish lore these roles are reversed, with Michael serving as the 
angel of mercy while Gabriel acts as the angel of judgment.) 


In 1951 Pope Pius XII gave Gabriel a new role to play, modernizing his 
ancient task as a transmitter of messages. He declared Gabriel to be 
the patron saint of all those who work in the field of telecommunica- 
tions. Gabriel also serves as the traditional patron of messengers, 
diplomats, clergy members, postal workers, and stamp collectors. 

Further Reading 

Davidson, Gustav. A Dictionary of Angels. New York: Free Press, 1967. 

Fallon, T. L. "Gabriel, Archangel." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vohime 6. 
New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 

Godwin, Malcom. Angels: An Endangered Species. New York: Simon and 
Schuster, 1990. 

Pope, Hugh. "St. Gabriel the Archangel." In Charles B. Hervermann, ed. 
Catholic Encyclopedia. Nashville, Tenn.: T. Nelson, 1913. Available on the 
Worldwide Web at: 

Strauss, Mark L. "Gabriel." In David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Dic- 
tionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: WUiam B. Eerdmans Publishing 
Company, 2000. 

Web Site 

"Gabriel the Archangel," a page available through Catholic Forum, a web 
site affiliated with Liturgical Publications of St. Louis, at: http://www.catho 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


In the days before radio, television, video machines, and computers, 
people entertained one another during the long winter evenings of 
the Christmas season. They told stories, danced, sang songs, or 
played games. In the twentieth century, as people began to rely on 
ready-made forms of entertainment provided by the mass media, 
many of these games died out or became children's pastimes. 

Late Medieval and Renaissance England 

In late medieval and Renaissance England people played a wide 
variety of games at Christmas time. Outdoor amusements included 
group games and athletic matches in such sports as archery and tilt- 
ing. One group game. Prisoner's Base, proved so popular in the time 
of King Edward III (1312-1377) that players clogged the street lead- 
ing to Westminster Palace. This congestion caused the king to pro- 
hibit the playing of Prisoner's Base near the palace. 

During this era the English also enjoyed a variety of parlor games at 
Christmas time, including Blind Man's Bluff, Leap Frog, Loggats 
(similar to Nine Pins) and Hot Cockles. In Hot Cockles each player 
in turn is blindfolded. The blindfolded player puts his hands behind 
his back, palms up. One of the other players hits the hands of the 
blindfolded player. The blindfolded player must guess which of the 
other players has hit him. If he does so correctly, he may penalize the 
player whom he "caught." Those who preferred a greater mental test 
might retire to a game of chess, while the physically agile might 
challenge each other to tennis or skittles. 

The English also enjoyed playing cards and gambling at Christmas 
time, especially with dice. During the reign of the Tudor kings, work- 
ing people may have found greater pleasure in these games than the 
well-to-do, since they were prohibited by law from playing games 
except at Christmas time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries 
the Puritans condemned those who celebrated Christmas by play- 
ing games and gambling. 



Victorian England 

Parlor games remained popular Christmas entertainments through- 
out the nineteenth century. Victorians favored such games as Snap- 
dragon, Forfeits, Hoop and Hide (Hide and Seek), Charades, Blind 
Man's Bluff, Queen of Sheba (a variation on Blind Man's Bluff), and 
Hunt the Slipper (see also Victorian England, Christmas in). 

In Snapdragon players gathered around a bowl of currants (a raisin- 
like dried fruit) covered with spirits. A lighted match was dropped 
into the bowl, setting fire to the alcohol. Players challenged one an- 
other to grab a flaming currant out of the bowl and pop it into their 
mouths, thus extinguishing the flames. A bit of light verse describes 
the fearful delights of this game: 

Here he comes with flaming bowl. 
Don't he mean to take his toll. 

Snip! Snap! Dragon! 
Take care you don't take too much. 
Be not greedy in your clutch. 

Snip! Snap! Dragon! 
With his blue and lapping tongue 
Many of you will be stung. 

Snip! Snap! Dragon! 
For he snaps at all that comes 
Snatching at his feast of plums. 

Snip! Snap! Dragon! 
But Old Christmas makes him come. 
Though he looks so fee! fa! fum! 

Snip! Snap! Dragon! 
Don't 'ee fear him, be but bold — 
Out he goes, his flames are cold. 

Snip! Snap! Dragon! [Chambers, 1990, 2: 738] 

Players heightened the effect of the glowing, blue flames by extin- 
guishing all other lights in the room except that cast by the burning 

In Hunt the Slipper players formed a circle around one person. They 
held their hands behind their backs and passed a slipper around the 
outside of the circle. The person in the center of the circle had to 
guess who was in possession of the slipper at any given moment. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

A number of other English Christmas games have now disappeared 
so completely that only their picturesque names remain behind. 
Folklorists cannot now say how they were played. These forgotten 
games include Shoeing the Wild Mare, Steal the White Loaf, Post 
and Pair, Feed the Dove, Puss-in-the-Corner, and The Parson Has 
Lost His Cloak. Before a Christmas party broke up for the evening, 
the sleepy guests might play one last, quaintly named game called 
Yawning for a Cheshire Cheese. The players sat in a circle and 
yawned at one another. Whoever produced the longest, most open- 
mouthed, and loudest yawn won a Cheshire cheese. 

Other Countries 

Some traditional Christmas games are for children. In many nations 
Advent calendars amuse children with a kind of counting game in 
the weeks before Christmas. Children in Mexico often play games 
with pifiatas at holiday season parties. In Iran youngsters play egg- 
tapping games at Christmas time. 

Most Christmas games, however, involve adults and younger peo- 
ple. In a number of different countries sporting matches, games of 
chance, or fortune -telling games are associated with one or more 
days of the Christmas season. In past times Swedes used to play 
games with Christmas gifts, which they call Julklapp, on December 
24. On St. Stephen's Day both Swedes and Norwegians used to race 
horses {see Norway, Christmas in). Ethiopians celebrate Christmas 
Day by playing ganna, a sport that resembles hockey {see Ethiopia, 
Christmas in). In the United States, many people enjoy watching 
football bowl games on New Year's Day. In Lithuania people 
entertain themselves on Christmas Eve with fortune-telling games. 
People in many countries celebrate New Year's Eve by playing games 
of chance, especially card games. Colonial Americans and Euro- 
peans of past centuries enjoyed card games and a kind of charade 
involving the King of the Bean on Twelfth Night. 

Further Reading 

Chambers, Robert. "December 24 — Christmas Games: Snapdragon." In his 
The Book of Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 


Gaudete Sunday 

Miall, Antony, and Peter Miall. The Victorian Christmas Book. New York: 
Pantheon Books, 1978. 

Muir, Frank. Christinas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. 77:e Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Heights, N.J.: Humani- 
ties Press, 1978. 

Gaudete Sunday 

In the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion the 
third Sunday in Advent is sometimes called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete 
means "rejoice" in Latin. This name comes from the first line of the 
iritroit (opening prayer) for the third Sunday in Advent, which encour- 
ages parishioners to "rejoice in the Lord always." Although Advent 
ushers in a period of penance and spiritual preparation, Gaudete 
Sunday introduces the theme of joy. The lighter mood is reflected in 
the change in liturgical colors, from the purple of the Advent season to 
the rose color adopted for Gaudete Sunday. In addition, on Gaudete 
Sunday parishioners may decorate the church with flowers, and the 
organ, usually silent during Advent, may be played. 

Further Reading 

Metford, ]. C]. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Germany^ cf^ristmas in 

German Christmas celebrations braid together a rich heritage of folk, 
food, and religious customs. Many of these customs have spread to 
other parts of the globe. Indeed, the Christmas tree, which emerged 
in Germany several centuries ago, has become a nearly universal 
symbol of the holiday. German Christmas customs and traditions 
have probably exerted more influence on mainstream American 
Christmas celebrations than those of any other ethnic group. 


In Germany Advent is called Lichtwochen, which means "light weeks." 
The Germans observe Advent with Advent wreaths and Advent 
calendars. These two customs, German in origin, have spread far be- 
yond Germany. Carol singing is another popular Advent and Christ- 
mas custom. One of the world's most popular Christmas carols, 
"Silent Night," was originally composed in German by an Austrian 
priest and his organist. Other internationally known carols of Ger- 
man origin include "In Dulci Jubilo" (also known as "Good Christian 
Men Rejoice"), "Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming," and "O Christmas 
Tree, O Christmas Tree." Germany's famous Christmas markets 
offer another way to prepare for Christmas. Traditional German 
Christmas foods, crafts, and gifts can be found at their many, busy 
stalls. The famous Nuremberg market opens on the Friday closest to 
St. Barbara's Day, December 4, although most Christmas markets 
are open throughout Advent. 

Frauentragen, or "woman carrying," an old German Advent custom 
still practiced in some areas, closely resembles the Hispanic folk play 
Las Posadas. Children carry a picture or figurine representing the 
Virgin Mary to a neighborhood home. Once there they sing or enact 
a brief scene from the Nativity story, say a prayer, and place the pic- 
ture or figurine near the family crucifix. The children return for the 
image the following evening and carry it to a new home. In this way 
they act out Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem. 


Germany, Christmas in 


WSBm ' m n i 

On Christmas Eve the children carry Mary back to the church, where 
she takes her place in the Nativity scene. 

Special Days Within Advent 

In past eras various customs and superstitions attached themselves 
to the saints' days and other special days that fell during Advent. St. 
Andrew's night, November 30, presented young girls with the op- 
portunity to use folk magic to foresee their marital futures. One old 
superstition advised girls to wait up until midnight and throw a slip- 
per at the door. If the slipper landed with the toe pointing out the 
door, they would be leaving their parents' home for their husband's 
home in the next year. St. Thomas's Day, December 21, provided 
another opportunity for young women to exercise various fortune- 
telling charms. In past years St. Thomas's night was also known as 
spinning night. Young women stayed up late into the night spinning 
thread that might be sold to help pay for Christmas expenses. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

On St. Barbara's Day, an old folk tradition recommended cutting 
branches from cherry trees and placing them in vases of water near 
the fire. If timed correctly these branches, known as "Barbara branch- 
es," would bloom on Christmas or Christmas Eve. 

St. Nicholas's Day, December 6, offers children a preview of Christ- 
mas pleasures to come. On St. Nicholas's Eve youngsters leave a 
shoe or a boot by the fireplace, window, or bedroom door. The next 
morning they find it filled with sweet treats. Although St. Nicholas 
usually disburses presents, German folklore warns that he will some- 
times leave poorly behaved children a stick as a warning of punish- 
ment to come. St. Nicholas's assistant, Knecht Ruprecht, usually 
performs the unpleasant task of disciplining naughty children. 

The Knocking Nights — the last three Thursday nights in Advent — 
constitute a different sort of Christmas season observance. In some 
regions of Germany folk tradition encourages people to take to the 
streets making loud noises and wearing frightening masks on these 
nights. Folk rites designed to ward away evil spirits and influences 
were also practiced on these days. 

Christmas Decorations 

Besides Advent calendars and wreaths, home decorations in Ger- 
many include red candles, pine twigs, and candlesticks. One region- 
al folk custom encourages families to display candlesticks shaped 
like miners and angels in their windows at Christmas time. Families 
display one miner for each boy child in the house and one angel for 
each girl child. The Christmas pyramid is another traditional Ger- 
man Christmas decoration. Some researchers believe that this pyra- 
midal arrangement of shelves served as the forerunner to the Christ- 
mas tree. Many German families display a Nativity scene in their 
homes. This is especially popular in Roman Catholic areas. Bavarian 
craftsman have a reputation for producing marvelous Nativity scenes 
out of carved wood. Many fine Christmas cribs are produced by Ger- 
man artisans and sold at Christmas markets. The most famous Ger- 
man Christmas decoration, however, is the Christmas tree. In the last 
several hundred years the Christmas tree has spread throughout the 
world, and today is recognized as a nearly universal symbol of the 


Germany, Christmas in 

Christmas Baking 

The Germans are famous for their Christmas baking, and, indeed, a 
German Christmas is filled with many delectable treats. Christstollen, 
also called Chrisbrot, Stutenbrot, or Striezl, constitutes Germany's most 
famous Christmas cake or bread. To make it bakers enhance a sweet 
yeast dough with dried fruits, various fruit peels, almonds, and spices. 
After baking they apply a coating of sugar icing. Baumkuchen, or "tree 
cake," serves as another special Christmas or Advent treat. The log- 
shaped cake is prepared in such a way that each slice is imprinted 
with concentric circles resembling tree rings. Gingerbread is anoth- 
er German Christmas favorite. The Germans not only shape it into 
cookies, but also into gingerbread houses. Other well-known German 
Christmas cookies include Lebkuchen, Pfejfemusse, and Springerle. The 
German baker may also produce other Christmas treats from Ger- 
many's storehouse of cookie recipes, including vanilla rings, cinna- 
mon stars, various kinds of nut cookies, spice cookies, macaroons, 
marzipan, and more. 

Gift Bringers 

In addition to St. Nicholas, a number of other Christmas gift bringers 
visit Germany each year. The Christkindel, or "Christ Child" usually 
brings gifts to children in southern Germany. In the north the Weih- 
nachtsmann, or "Christmas man" typically delivers the gifts. 

Christmas Eve and Day 

In Germany Christmas Eve is known as Heilige Abend, or "holy 
night." Throughout Germany many offices and stores close by noon 
and people scurry home to make last-minute preparations. Luth- 
erans often attend church services on the afternoon of the twenty- 
fourth, while German Roman Catholics wait until Midnight Mass. 
Many people visit family gravesites on Christmas Eve. In some areas 
they leave lighted candles on the graves. In rural areas farmers pay 
their respects to the family farm animals by making sure they are fed 
before the Christmas tree is lit. This custom honors the folk belief 
that farm animals were among the first to welcome the baby Jesus 
into the world, since he was born in a stable. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Some German families decorate their Christmas trees on the after- 
noon of December 24. Mother and father may do so behind closed 
doors, allowing the children their first view of the illuminated tree 
after sunset. Some German families still light their trees with can- 
dles, although others now prefer electric lights as a safer option. In 
addition to store-bought ornaments German families festoon their 
Christmas trees with cookies and candies. Families often read the 
Christmas story aloud by the light of the Christmas tree candles and 
sing their favorite carols before settling down to open gifts. In some 
families parents give children sparklers to hold while they stand 
around the tree and sing. 

Today Germans display their Christmas presents under the tree or 
near the Nativity scene. In the past, however, some gifts were tossed 
through an open window or door and were known as Julklapp, or 
"Christmas knocks." Gift givers wrapped these boxes in many dif- 
ferent layers, with a different name attached to each layer. Part of the 
fun lay in finding out who the gift was really for. 

Many different dishes appear on Christmas Eve menus in Germany. 
In past times, carp was standard fare on Christmas Eve, in keeping 
with the Roman Catholic tradition of fasting on December 24. In 
Roman Catholic areas of Germany people may still prepare a meat- 
less meal for Christmas Eve. Sweetened rice pudding, a dish which 
still finds favor with some Scandinavians, once served as another 
traditional Christmas dish in Germany {see also Denmark, Christ- 
mas in; Norway, Christmas in). 

In Germany Christmas Day is sometimes referred as the "First Day 
of Christmas," der erste Weihnachtstag. Germans typically spend the 
day at home with their families or visit relatives. The main meal of 
the day usually features roast goose. 

The Twelve Days of Christmas 

The rest of the Twelve Days of Christmas fall between Christmas 
and Epiphany. In past times many superstitions attached them- 
selves to this time of year. Many people believed that the Wild 
Hunt, a band of fierce spirits, rode abroad on these nights. Berchta, 
a witch-like figure, was also said to wander through German-speak- 


Germany, Christmas in 

ing lands at this time of year. Many of the old folk customs associat- 
ed with the Twelve Days offered protection from these roaming 
phantoms. For example, Germans often burned incense as a means 
of frightening off evil spirits. The Twelve Days were sometimes called 
the "Smoke Nights" in reference to this custom. Loud noises were 
believed to ward off evil creatures as well, and many noisemaking 
customs attached themselves to this season. According to folk tradi- 
tion, wearing frightening masks and costumes also put evil influ- 
ences to flight, and in some areas people went from house to house 
in such garb. In Bavaria women refrained from spinning, baking, 
washing, and cleaning during the Twelve Days of Christmas, believ- 
ing it unlucky. For this reason the period became known as the 
"Twelve Quiet Days." 

The magic of the Twelve Days also extended to fortune-telling. One 
folk belief cautioned that events that occurred during these twelve 
days set the pattern for the twelve months to come. For example, 
rain on the second day of Christmas meant that much rain would 
fall during February, the second month of the year. Folklore advised 
young girls to harness the magical properties of the twelve days to 
see their own futures. They could choose from a number of spells 
and charms designed to foretell whether or not they would marry in 
the coming year, and to reveal the identity of their future husbands. 
For example, the sparks of a fire lit on New Year's Eve might spell 
out their future husband's name, or the entire peel from an apple, 
tossed over one shoulder might fall in such a pattern as to give a 
clue to the boy's identity. These charms were especially popular on 
New Year's Eve. 

St. Stephen's Day 

Germans celebrate St. Stephen's Day, December 26, in much the 
same way they celebrate Christmas, with family visits. In the evening 
many Germans enjoy dining out and attending the theater. Since St. 
Stephen is the patron saint of horses, many old St. Stephen's Day 
customs involve these animals. In rural areas, farmers still ride their 
horses in processions to be blessed. Moreover, horse trainers and 
breeders often sponsor equestrian processions on this day. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

New Year's Eve 

New Year's Eve is also known as Silvester Abend, or Sylvester's Eve, in 
recognition of the fact that December 31 is St. Sylvester's Day. 
Germans celebrate New Year's Eve with parties, fortune-telling, and 
practical jokes. Traditional party foods include carp, herring salad, 
hot wine punch, and champagne. Bleigiessen, or molten lead pour- 
ing, is a traditional method of fortune-telling on New Year's Eve. A 
partygoer drops a spoonful of molten lead into water and lets it 
harden. The shape it takes will foretell something about what that 
person will be doing in the coming year. Many luck charms and 
superstitions have also attached themselves to New Year's Eve. One 
folk belief warns that spilling salt on New Year's Eve brings bad luck. 
By contrast, coming into contact with a pig, chimney soot, or a chim- 
neysweep on New Year's Eve brings good luck. Sometimes a 
thoughtful party host will bring both a live pig and a chimneysweep 
to his New Year's party as a way of offering good luck to his guests. 
Another superstition advises that the sight of a young, dark-haired 
man soon after the start of the new year brings good luck {see also 

In the days following Christmas many shops sell joke goods. These 
include things like sugar cubes that have a spider inside them, or 
chocolates filled with mustard instead of candy. The Germans cele- 
brate the new year by playing these kinds of jokes on one another. 
Noisemaking is another important New Year's custom. Fireworks 
explode at midnight, and in some villages, horn players "blow in" 
the new year from the local church tower. In other regions people 
shoot off guns or even small cannons in honor of the new year {see 
Shooting in Christmas). 


Epiphany, January 6, is called Dreikonigstag, or "Three Kings' Day" in 
Germany. In past times many people celebrated Twelfth Night, or 
Epiphany Eve, as the end of the Christmas season. Some Germans 
still follow this old custom, electing a King of the Bean and Queen 
of the Bean to preside over Twelfth Night or Epiphany parties. 
Another old Epiphany custom, the caroling of the star boys, or star 
singers, also survives in contemporary Germany. Nowadays these 


Germany, Christmas in 

costumed lads, dressed as the Three Kings, or Magi, may collect 
coins for charitable causes rather than treats for themselves. 

The blessing of homes with incense, holy water, and the initials of 
the Three Kings is a religious custom connected with Epiphany. The 
Germans use the initials CMB to represent the Three Kings, which 
come from the names most associated with the Magi in folklore: 
Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These initials are printed over the 
front door in chalk, surrounded by the numbers representing the 
year. Thus, in 1999 the inscription would read 19 CMB 99. 

Two final Christmas customs take place in German homes on 
Epiphany. Many German families add the figures representing the 
Three Kings to their Nativity scenes on this day. In addition, Christ- 
mas trees are taken down, and children are permitted to eat the 
treats that have been used as decorations. 

Further Reading 

Christmas in Germany. Second edition. Lincolnwood, 111.: Passport Books, 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 

Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 
Russ, lennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald 

Wolff, 1982. 

Web Sites 

The German Embassy in Washington, D.C., maintains a number of pages 
describing German Christmas foods and customs on its web site. Go to the 
site listed below, click on "search," and enter the word "Christmas": 

A site sponsored by German instructor Robert ]. Shea, Missouri: 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Gl)ana^ cl)r\stmas m 

In Ghana traditional Christmas observances revolve around large 
family gatherings, feasts, singing, and church services. About forty 
percent of Ghanaians are Christians. The rest are followers of tradi- 
tional African religions or Muslims. In recent years Christmas com- 
mercialism has crept into west African countries such as Ghana. In 
richer, urban areas people have begun to celebrate the holiday with 
decorated Christmas trees, electric Christmas lights, Santa Claus, 
Christmas cards, and gift exchanges. Even some non-Christians 
take part in this commercial Christmas. Yet most Ghanaian Christi- 
ans, especially outside the cities, still celebrate the holiday in the tra- 
ditional fashion. 

Before Christmas 

Many churches blossom with flowers and palm branches during 
Advent. As Christmas approaches, some congregations decorate a 
tree on the church grounds in honor of the coming holiday. In the 
last few days before Christmas jam-packed buses, trucks, cars, and 
boats criss-cross the country, ferrying people back to their ancestral 
towns and villages. Christmas carols blare from radios, loudspeak- 
ers, and televisions all over Ghana during this season. 

Christmas Eve 

On Christmas Eve families gather for a special dinner, often consisting 
of chicken stew or dishes made from rice and goat meat. Then they 
head off to church services that usually include a Nativity play or 
Christmas pageant performed by the congregation's youth. After 
church, people greet one another and exchange good wishes for the 
holiday. Processions form and ramble joyfully through the streets, led 
by bands of musicians. Children dash about shouting, "Egbona hee, 
egogo vol", "Christ is coming, he is near!" Fireworks may also take 
place on Christmas Eve. 


Ghana, Christmas in 

Christmas Day 

On Christmas Day festivities begin quite early, sometime before 
dawn, as groups of carolers go door to door singing songs. House- 
holders typically offer small presents to the singers, who stand for the 
band of angels that brought the good news of Jesus' birth to the 
shepherds. Caroling of the same sort may also take place on Christ- 
mas Eve. Christmas Day church services are scheduled for mid-morn- 
ing. They feature the retelling of the Nativity story and the singing of 
many hymns and carols in local languages. After the service is over, 
children collect candies and other sweet treats said to have come from 
Father Christmas. Some also receive a book, new clothes, or shoes as 
Christmas presents. People greet each other, saying "Afishapa," which 
means "Merry Christmas and Happy NewYear." 

Christmas celebrations continue through the day as families, friends, 
and neighbors gather for feasts and dances. Typical foods eaten at 
Christmas time include peanut soup, fufu (a paste made from mashed 
yams), okra soup, and some kind of meat, such as chicken, goat, 
sheep, beef, or pork. Brightly colored paper ornaments pinned up 
throughout the house set a cheery mood for the festivities. Many 
Ghanaian families also festoon a tree growing in their courtyard with 
paper ornaments. Often mango, guava, or cashew trees serve this 
purpose. Other families will bring a single tree branch into the house 
and decorate it with lights and ornaments. 

In Ghana many people observe the libation ceremony, a traditional 
folk ritual, at Christmas time. In this ritual people drink from a cup 
and then pour some of its contents on the ground as a symbolic 
offering to their ancestors. 

After Christmas 

Ghanaian Christmas celebrations traditionally last for eight days. 
Caroling children visit homes during this time, hoping that house- 
holders will reward their musical efforts with small gifts. The chil- 
dren often sing original songs or play homemade instruments. 

Further Reading 

Gonza, Sam. "Reclaiming the True Meaning of Christmas." All Africa News 
Service, Nairobi, Kenya (December 21, 1998). 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. 

Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1999. 
Sullivan, Tim. "The Modern, Material Christmas Makes Headway in West 

Africa." Associated Press Online (December 21, 1998). 
Tucker, Cathy C. Christmas Worldwide. Philadelphia, Pa.: XUbris, 2000. 

Web Sites 

The following page, posted by the Rev. Peter E. Adotey Addo, a writer and 
United Methodist minister born in Ghana, describes Christmas celebra- 
tions in his native country: 

For a short story by the Rev. Peter Addo describing a boy's Christmas in 
Ghana, see: http://www.southerncrossreview.Org/3/fireedit.html 


Spirits of many kinds haunt the Christmas folklore of northern 
Europe. Some folklorists believe that in ancient times the Germanic 
and Scandinavian peoples associated the midwinter Yule festival 
with the return of the dead. Old tales tell of a band of ghosts called 
the Wild Hunt that charged through the nighttime sky during the 
Twelve Days of Christmas. In Norway, Estonia, Latvia, and Lith- 
uania old folk beliefs concerning the Christmas time visits of the 
dead linger on. In the German region of Bavaria, some people be- 
lieve that restless spirits walk abroad during the Knocking Nights, 
the Thursday nights in Advent. In Estonia, Germany, and Lithuania 
some people visit family graves on Christmas Eve, leaving behind lit 
candles {see also Christmas Candles). 

In the German-speaking lands Berchta, too, wandered through the 
long, dark evenings. Elves peeked out from behind trees and be- 
neath footstools in many countries. In others, trolls lumbered and 
witches flitted through the darkness. In Scandinavia the Jultomten 
appeared each year at Christmas time. In Iceland the closely related 
Christmas Lads played pranks on householders. Far to the south 
the kallikantzari vexed Greek families. 



In England as well, certain folk beliefs warned that ghosts and other 
supernatural creatures lurked in the long shadows of the Twelve 


One old English tradition called for the telling of ghost stories at 
Christmas time. Perhaps this custom developed out of ancient be- 
liefs concerning the return of the dead during the Yule festival. In- 
deed, in the eighth century St. Bede (c. 672-735), a scholarly English 
monk, wrote that the Anglo-Saxon people left food on their tables 
overnight during the Christmas season so that visiting spirits could 
partake of the feast. In spite of these yearly visits, it took the English 
Christmas ghost another millennia to achieve notoriety. One man, 
English author Charles Dickens, brought this to pass. His Christmas 
ghost story, A Christmas Carol, became perhaps the most well known 
and best-loved Christmas tale of the nineteenth and twentieth cen- 

Contemporary readers tend to experience A Christmas Carol as a 
story about the meaning of Christmas. Nevertheless, Dickens also 
intended his readers to approach A Christmas Carol as a ghost story. 
He draws our attention to the ghostly aspect of the tale in its full 
title, which reads A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of 
Christmas. The preface continues the ghost theme in a humorous 
vein: "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the 
Ghost of an Idea which shall not put my readers out of humour with 
themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it 
haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it." Finally, 
Dickens urged his audience to read the Carol out loud, in a cold 
room by candlelight. Dickens so enjoyed ghost stories that he wrote 
a number of them over the years, including several more Christmas 
ghost stories, such as "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sex- 
ton," "The Haunted Man," "The Haunted House," and "A Christmas 

Further Reading 

Cramer, Kathryn, and David G. Hartwell. Christmas Ghosts. New York: 
Arbor House, 1987. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Dickens, Charles. The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens. Peter Rain- 
ing, ed. New York: Franklin Watts, 1983. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Gift Brmgers 

For descriptions of Christmas gift bringers from around the world, 
see Baboushka; Befana; Berchta; Black Peter; Camel {see Lebanon, 
Christmas in; Syria, Christmas in); Cert; Christkindel; Christ- 
mas Lads; Father Christmas; Grandfather Frost; Julemand {see 
Denmark, Christmas in); Jultomten; Knecht Ruprecht; Magi; 
Fere Noel {see France, Christmas in); St. Basil's Day; St. Nicholas; 
Santa Claus; Snow Maiden; Star Man {see Poland, Christmas in); 
Weihnachtsmann;Yule Goat 




Europeans have exchanged midwinter gifts with one another since 
ancient times. Until relatively recently, however, most of these gifts 
traded hands around New Year's Day rather than on Christmas 
Day. As Christmas became an increasingly important holiday, people 
began to exchange gifts on Christmas rather than on New Year's Day 
{see also America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century; Victorian 
England, Christmas in). 

Roman Gifts 

Historians trace midwinter gift giving back to the ancient Romans. 
The Romans bestowed gifts and good wishes on friends and family 
during Kalends, their new year festival. The oldest and, thus, per- 
haps the most "traditional" of these gifts were small twigs from the 
groves of the goddess Strenia. Later, the Romans added cakes and 
honey (symbolizing a "sweet" new year), and coins (symbolizing 
wealth) to the roster of traditional new year gifts. The Romans called 
these gifts strenae after Strenia. The modern French word for new 
year's gift, etrenne, echoes this old Latin name. In addition to ex- 
changing gifts with friends and family, many Romans offered gifts 
and vota, wishes for prosperity, to the emperor. The Romans also 
gave one another gifts for Saturnalia, a winter festival occurring 
about a week before Kalends. Traditional Saturnalia gifts included 
wax candles called cerei, wax fruit, and clay dolls called sigiiillaria. 
These gifts, too, expressed the good will of the sender. 

Medieval Gifts 

The Roman custom of exchanging midwinter gifts appears to have 
spread throughout Europe and to have survived well into the Mid- 
dle Ages. In medieval England, however, people gave these New 
Year's gifts to those immediately above and below them in the social 
hierarchy. For example, peasants who worked on landed estates 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

brought gifts of farm produce to the local lord during the Twelve 
Days of Christmas. Custom dictated that the lord respond by invit- 
ing them to a Christmas feast. The nobility brought gifts to the king 
or queen. The monarch in turn gave gifts to the members of his or 
her court. These gifts did not necessarily express affection but rather 
acknowledged one's place in a system of social rank. Perhaps more 
personal kinds of gift exchanges also took place. If so, historical 
records fail to mention them. 

In England the New Year's gift flourished during the fifteenth and 
sixteenth centuries. Some abuses did occur, however. In 1419 the 
City of London restricted its law officers from demanding New 
Year's gifts from the public. Apparently, sergeants and other officers 
had been promising cooks, brewers, and bakers that they would 
overlook past or future offenses in exchange for a gift of their wares. 

Royal Gifts 

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) relished her New Year's gifts. Court 
records indicate that the queen received silk and satin garments 
(once, a sea-green silk petticoat), jewelry and personal items made 
from precious metals (for example, a jeweled toothpick), perfume, 
cakes, pies, and preserved fruits. Her gentlewomen offered her 
embroidered cushions, handkerchiefs, pillows, and articles of cloth- 
ing. In return Elizabeth bestowed gifts of silver and gold on her 
courtiers. The custom of presenting gifts to the monarch faded away 
in the eighteenth century. 

Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Gifts 

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the English began 
to give New Year's gifts to family and friends. Popular gifts included 
oranges, gingerbread, rosemary, wine, marzipan, gloves, stockings, 
and other articles of clothing, jewelry, and objects made of metals, 
such as snuff boxes, tea urns, pens, and watches. Children sometimes 
received little bound books, often texts of religious instruction. By the 
early nineteenth century, for reasons which remain unclear, the New 
Year's gift finally appeared to be dying out. Instead of disappearing 
completely, however, the expanding Christmas holiday revived and 
absorbed the ancient custom of midwinter gift giving. 



Saint Nicholas's Day Gifts 

In addition to New Year's Day, some medieval Europeans also gave 
gifts on St. Nicholas's Day. The St. Nicholas's Day gift differed 
slightly from the New Year's gift. On the saint's day adults gave gifts 
to youngsters as a way of honoring the patron saint of children {see 
also St. Nicholas). Some researchers think that the custom of giving 
gifts to children on St. Nicholas's Day started as early as the twelfth 
century. At that time nuns from central France started to leave gifts 
on the doorsteps of poor families with children on St. Nicholas's 
Eve. These packages contained nuts and oranges and other good 
things to eat. Some researchers believe that ordinary people adopted 
the custom, spreading it from France to other parts of northern 
Europe. Other writers suppose that the folklore surrounding St. 
Martin may have inspired the traditions that turned St. Nicholas into 
a gift giver. In past centuries St. Martin, another bishop saint, was 
said to ride through the countryside delivering treats to children on 
the eve of his feast day (see also Martinmas). 

Boxing Day Gifts 

Boxing Day, or St. Stephen's Day, provided another occasion for 
midwinter gift giving in England. Many writers believe that the 
English custom called "boxing" can be traced back to the Middle 
Ages. In that era parish priests customarily opened up the church 
alms-box on December 26, St. Stephen's Day. Then they distributed 
the coins it contained to the needy. This practice gave rise to the use 
of the term "box" to denote a small gift of money or a gratuity. 

By the early seventeenth century the Church's St. Stephen's Day tra- 
dition had inspired working people to adopt the custom of saving 
whatever tips they had been given throughout the year in clay boxes 
which they broke open on December 26. By the late seventeenth 
century they began to solicit tips from all those who had enjoyed 
their services during the year. They collected the last of these 
"boxes" on December 26, after which they broke open these con- 
tainers and used the money to buy Christmas treats. By the nine- 
teenth century the custom of boxing had so colored the character of 
the day that many people began to refer to December 26 as Boxing 
Day rather than St. Stephen's Day. Like medieval New Year's gifts. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Christmas boxes took place in the context of unequal social relation- 
ships. Rather than express personal affection, Christmas boxes per- 
mitted the well-to-do to express appreciation for services rendered 
to them. The custom also presented working people with an oppor- 
tunity to collect a little extra cash around the holidays. 

German Christmas Gifts 

The earliest historical records of Christmas gift giving come from 
Germany. As early as the sixteenth century some German children 
received "Christ-bundles" at Christmas time. These bundles con- 
tained an assortment of small gifts, such as coins, sugarplums, nuts, 
apples, dolls, clothing, lesson books, religious books, or writing ma- 
terials. Some scholars suggest that the traditional Christmas bundle 
contained at least five things: a coin, an article of clothing, a toy, 
something tasty to eat, and a pencil box or other scholastic item. 
Parents also included a small stick in these bundles, which some 
writers have interpreted as a reminder that chastisement still awaited 
those who misbehaved. Parents told their children that the Haus- 
Christ had brought them their gifts {see also Christkindel). Two other 
German customs encouraged the preparation of simple gifts for the 
family. The Christmas tree and the Christmas pyramid, decorated 
with edible treats, such as nuts, apples, cookies, and candy, provided 
everyone with holiday sweets. 

The Christ Child, also brought Christmas gifts to children in six- 
teenth-century Norway. Children left a plate or a bowl in an obvi- 
ous place so that the visiting Christ Child could leave them a pre- 
sent. Moreover, in Norway, Christmas gift exchanges among friends 
and adult family members began as early as the sixteenth century. 


Another old tradition of Christmas gift giving comes from Sweden. 
The Swedes called these gifts Julklapp, which means "Christmas 
knock." This name comes from an old Swedish custom whereby 
Christmas gift givers would knock on doors, toss in their gift, and run 
away. Recipients then tried to guess who had delivered the gifts. In 
addition, Julklapp usually arrived in some form of trick packaging. 
These surprise gifts added a dash of humor to the Christmas season. 



Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, and Gifts 

The custom of exchanging Christmas gifts among friends and family 
became widespread during the nineteenth century. In this same era 
Europeans and Americans began to adopt the German Christmas 
tree. At the same time Santa Claus became a popular mythological 
figure associated with Christmas in the United States. Both of these 
innovations encouraged the growth of Christmas gift giving — the 
tree by providing a beautiful location to display the gifts, and Santa 
Claus by serving as a new Christmas gift bringer. Unlike the medie- 
val New Year's gift, or the English Christmas box, the nineteenth- 
century Christmas gift circulated between family and friends and 
expressed the affection of the sender. 

Although charity had for centuries been a theme of Christmas cele- 
brations, it became increasingly important in the nineteenth century. 
Charitable gifts linked Christmas gift giving with the spiritual cele- 
bration of the holiday. Finally, in the twentieth century many Ameri- 
can companies adopted the custom of distributing Christmas bo- 
nuses to their workers at Christmas time. Reminiscent of the Eng- 
lish Christmas box, these gifts of cash rewarded employees for their 
hard work in the past year. 


The midwinter gift has passed through many transformations in its 
two-thousand-year history. These gifts served different purposes in 
different times and places. They might symbolize good wishes for 
the coming year, affirm one's social rank, generate fun and excite- 
ment, redistribute wealth from richer to poorer, demonstrate affec- 
tion, or serve as a means of honoring the spiritual significance of the 
holiday. The gifts themselves have changed along with their signifi- 
cance. The sweaters, neckties, and toys of today's American Christ- 
mas seem far removed from the twigs that the Romans exchanged 
with one another in honor of Kalends. Finally, several midwinter 
holidays developed gift-giving traditions over the centuries, the 
most recent being Christmas. In spite of its relatively short history 
the Christmas gift has become a central element of contemporary 
Christmas celebrations {see also Commercialism). 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Further Reading 

Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Norway. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum 

Forlag, 1970. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, England: 

Oxford University Press, 1994. 
. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 
Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American 

Holidays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. 
Waits, William B. The Modern Christmas in America. New York: New York 

University Press, 1993. 





The term "gingerbread" encompasses a variety of sweet, spicy cook- 
ies, cakes, and breads. These foods originated in medieval Europe at 
a time when ginger was an especially popular spice. Europeans have 
celebrated special occasions with gingerbread for centuries. From an 
earlier association with medieval fairs, gingerbread evolved into a 
favorite Christmas treat. 

Uses and Recipes 

The ancient Romans greatly esteemed ginger for both its culinary 
uses and curative powers. They used it to flavor sauces as well as to 
treat upset stomachs and to induce bowel movements. Roman 
traders bartered with Asian merchants to acquire this useful root. 
After the fall of the Roman Empire the trade routes established and 
maintained by the Romans dissolved, making ginger hard to get in 
Europe. In medieval times spice merchants charged high prices for 
ginger. Well-to-do medieval Europeans paid these prices, because 
they prized the relatively rare root. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Medieval cooks had discovered that ginger lent a preservative effect 
to pastries and breads. Some of the early recipes for these sweet, 
spice breads seem a bit crude by modern standards. One simply rec- 
ommended mixing dry bread crumbs with spices and honey. Another 
combined bread crumbs with cinnamon, aniseseed, ginger, licorice, 
and red wine. Cooks molded the pasty dough resulting from these 
recipes into various decorative shapes {see also Christmas Cake). This 
kind of gingerbread survived until the seventeenth century, when a 
more cake-like gingerbread, composed of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, 
molasses, ginger, cinnamon, and chopped fruits, began to replace it. 
"White gingerbread," which mixed ginger with marzipan, also be- 
came popular around this time. Bakers often pressed this kind of 
gingerbread into molds and then covered it in gilt. 

Fairs and Bakers 

At the close of the eleventh century gingerbread flourished through- 
out northern Europe. Gingerbread vendors sold their goods at fairs 
across England, Germany, France, and Holland. These fairs served 
as traveling, medieval shopping malls providing people with oppor- 
tunities for commerce as well as entertainment. In England ginger- 
bread was such a popular fairground treat that people began to refer 
to gingerbread cookies or pastries as "fairings." In addition, ginger- 
bread became such a common item at many fairs that people began 
to call these commercial gatherings "gingerbread fairs." Several 
English gingerbread fairs survived into the twentieth century. 

Many gingerbread vendors cut their cookies into fanciful shapes, 
some associated with the time of year, others purely decorative. For 
example, gingerbread sold at spring fairs might be cut into the shape 
of a flower. Other popular shapes included windmills, kings, queens, 
and various animals. Gingerbread sellers delighted in decorating 
their creations both by cutting them into exquisitely detailed shapes 
and by adding fancy embellishments. By the eighteenth century gin- 
gerbread makers had developed their art to such an extent that 
English speakers adopted the term "gingerbread work" to refer to 
fancy, carved, wooden trim on colonial seaport houses or to the gild- 
ed, carved prows of ships. 



German Traditions 

In German-speaking lands shaped and decorated gingerbreads 
appeared at autumn fairs and Christmas markets. In fact, the gin- 
gerbread of contemporary American Christmas celebrations proba- 
bly came down to us from old German traditions. German cooks 
often cut their gingerbread dough into the shape of gingerbread 
men and houses which they baked, cooled, and decorated. The tra- 
ditional German gingerbread house plays a prominent role in the 
famous German fairy tale, "Hansel and Gretel." The witch featured 
in this story built and lived in a house made out of gingerbread dec- 
orated with candy and icing. This tasty exterior tempted children, 
such as Hansel and Gretel, to venture inside. The Scandinavians also 
create miniature houses from gingerbread at Christmas time. In the 
United States gingerbread men are the more common Christmas 
treat. Sometimes these cookies briefly serve as ornaments for the 
Christmas tree before they are eaten. 

Further Reading 

Stellingwerf, Steven. The Gingerbread Book. New York: Rizzoli International 

Publications, 1991. 
Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain. Chicago: Academy Chicago 

Publishers, 1991. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Glastonbury Tj^orn 

The tale of the Glastonbury Thorn has woven itself around some of 
the most romantic legends ever to have emerged from the British 
Isles. The thorn takes its name from Glastonbury, England, a location 
that has hosted many legendary characters and mystical events over 
the centuries. In the Middle Ages monks from Glastonbury Abbey 
claimed to have discovered King Arthur's remains buried in their 
cemetery. Indeed, Celtic mythology identifies Glastonbury as "Ava- 
lon," the enchanted island from which came Arthur's famous sword, 
Excalibur, and to which the fatally wounded king was carried by fairy 
queens. Moreover, Christian legends proclaim that Joseph of Arima- 
thea came to Glastonbury in the first century a.d. According to these 
tales, Joseph brought with him the Holy Grail, a sacred relic sought by 
many of King Arthur's knights centuries later. Subsequent stories add 
that Joseph established the Glastonbury Thorn, a mysterious bush 
that blooms when most others are barren — at Christmas time. 

Life and Legends of Joseph ofArimathea 

The Gospels identify Joseph of Arimathea as a "good and upright 
man," a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court) who dis- 
agreed with their decision to turn Jesus over to the Roman authori- 
ties (Luke 23:50-52). After Jesus' death, Joseph asked Pilate for per- 
mission to remove the body for burial. With Pilate's consent, Joseph 
took Jesus' body from the cross, wrapped it in linen, and sealed it in 
the tomb. 

Later legends added to this sparse biblical account of Joseph's deeds. 
By the Middle Ages Joseph had become both an important saint and 
an acclaimed hero. Legends declared that Joseph ofArimathea was 
the first keeper of the Holy Grail, the vessel Jesus used in the Last 
Supper. The tales added that Joseph used the chalice to collect the 
blood that dripped from Christ's wounds. 

Years after Jesus' death Joseph journeyed to Britain as a Christian 
missionary, bringing the Grail with him (many legends give 63 a.d. 


Glastonbury Thorn 

as the year of his arrival). A few tales also state that Joseph carried a 
staff made of hawthorn wood from the Holy Land. Some say it was 
Christmas Eve when Joseph's ship finally pulled in to the harbor at 
Glastonbury. Joseph and his companions disembarked and began 
the climb up steep Wearyall Hill. Finally, cold and tired, the old man 
thrust his staff into the ground in despair. To his amazement it not 
only rooted itself, but burst into leaf and bloom. Joseph perceived 
this miracle as divine confirmation of his faith and his mission of 
evangelization. Thereafter, the hawthorn bush bloomed every year at 
Christmas, distinguishing itself from native English hawthorns. Jo- 
seph's miraculous tree became known as the Glastonbury Thorn. 

Although no solid historical evidence exists to support this tale of 
Joseph's journey to England, a winter-blooming hawthorn tree did 
flourish in Glastonbury for many years. Descendants of this plant 
have been identified as Crataegus mongyna biflora, a species of haw- 
thorn native to the Middle East. 

The History of the Glastonbury Thorn 

The earliest appearance of the Glastonbury Thorn in written records 
dates back to an account of the life of Joseph of Arimathea written in 
the early 1500s. By the early 1600s firsthand descriptions of Glaston- 
bury's hawthorn noted that the plant was suffering from the many 
carvings made in its trunk and the many cuttings taken from its 
branches. One Sir William Brereton, after carving his initials in the 
tree and collecting several branches for his own keeping, thought fit 
to criticize the people of Glastonbury for neglecting to care for the 
tree! The Glastonbury thorn reached its yearly peak of popularity 
around Christmas time, when crowds assembled to witness the 
tree's miraculous blooming. 

Many believed that the buds and flowers had healing powers. These 
beliefs and customs eventually aroused the ire of the increasingly 
vocal Puritans, who scorned what they saw as evidence of popular 
belief in magic and superstition. It is said that during the reign of 
Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the tree met its fate at the hands of an irate 
Puritan who assaulted it with an axe. After he had destroyed half of 
the enormous tree, a splinter flew into his eye, blinding him in some 
versions of the tale and killing him in others. Having avenged itself, 
the tree lingered another thirty years before finally succumbing to 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

this fatal attack. Other accounts of the tree's demise differ. One sim- 
ply states that the tree was demolished in 1653 during England's Civil 

Nevertheless, by this time a number of cuttings from the original 
plant flourished in Glastonbury and other locations. They continued 
to bloom on or around Christmas until the calendar reform of 1752, 
when Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar {see also Old 
Christmas Day). As a consequence the nation leaped forward elev- 
en days overnight. Many ordinary people resisted this change. In 
fact, some explained their allegiance to the old calendar by pointing 
to the unchanged blooming habits of the Glastonbury Thorn. Two 
clippings from a 1753 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine illustrate 
this sentiment: 

Quainton in Buckinghamshire, December 24, 1752. Above 2,000 
people came here last night, with lanthorns and candles, to 
view a black thorn which grows in the neighbourhood, and 
which was remembered (this year only) to be a slip from the 
famous Glastonbury Thorne, that it always budded on the 
24th, was full blown the next day, and went all off at night; 
but the people, finding no appearance of a bud, 'twas agreed 
by all, that 25 December, N.S. [new style], could not be the 
right Christmas Day, and accordingly, refused to go to 
Church and treating their friends on that day, as usual; at 
length the affair became so serious that the ministers of the 
neighbouring villages, in order to appease the people, thought 
it prudent to give notice that the old Christmas Day should 
be kept in as holy as before [Muir, 1977, 102-3]. 

Glastonbury. A vast concourse of people attended the noted 
thorns on Christmas Eve, New Stile; but, to their great disap- 
pointment, there was no appearance of its blowing, which 
made them watch it narrowly on the 5th of Jan., the Christ- 
mas Day, Old Style, which it blow'd as usual [Coffin, 1973, 58]. 

The Glastonbury Thorn in the United States 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the once-renowned abbey at 
Glastonbury lay in ruins {see also Mincemeat Pie). Stanley Austin, son 


Glastonbury Thorn 

of England's reigning poet laureate, owned the abbey property. (The 
abbey has since passed into the hands of the Church of England.) In 
1901, when Austin heard of the plans to build the National Cathedral 
in Washington, D.C., he sent a clipping of the Glastonbury Thorn to 
the bishop of Washington, the Right Rev. Henry Yates Satterlee. He 
also sent a sufficient quantity of stones from the ruined abbey to buUd 
a bishop's chair in the new American cathedral. Bishop Satterlee saw 
the English plant established on the Cathedral grounds, where it does 
occasionally bloom on Christmas Day. 

Christmas at Glastonbury 

A descendent of the old tree lives on in Glastonbury today. Each 
year on Old Christmas Eve, January 5, the keepers of Holy Thorn 
clip a branch of the tree and send it to the reigning monarch. The 
sprig serves both as a symbol of respect and as a public affirmation 
of the town's Christian heritage. This custom dates back about four 
hundred years. 

Further Reading 

Coffin, Tristram P. The Book of Christmas Folklore. New York: Seabury Press, 

Foley, Daniel J. The Christmas Tree. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Company, 

Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, 
Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. 

Howard, Alexander Endless Cavalcade. London, England: Arthur Baker, 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 

Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London, England: 
Thames and Hudson, 1983. 

Muir, Frank. Christinas Customs and Traditions. New York: TapHnger, 1977. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by Britannia Internet Magazine, contains an article by his- 
torian Geoffrey Ashe, "Magical Glastonbury": 
history/ glastonl .html 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


No other metal is named as frequently in the Bible as gold. The Bible 
most often refers to gold as a form of worldly wealth, but gold also 
serves as a symbol of spiritual wealth. In biblical times, gold was 
rarer than today. For the most part, only kings or the very wealthy 
possessed it. Gold was one of the three gifts that the Magi offered to 
the baby Jesus. Therefore, the Magi's gift of gold is most often inter- 
preted as recognition of Jesus' kingship or his spiritual authority. 

Until the mid-1 700s tradition dictated that the British monarch offer 
gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh at the Chapel Royal on 
Epiphany. Heralds and knights of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath 
accompanied the king on his royal pilgrimage. Under the unstable 
King George III (1760-1820) the procession was abandoned, al- 
though the monarch's gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is still 
sent to the Chapel Royal by proxy. A similar royal offering was at one 
time customary in Spain. 

Gold has been considered rare, valuable, and beautiful throughout 
history. In addition to its beauty and brightness, gold has some 
unusual properties. It is nearly indestructible, and yet it is also the 
most malleable of metals. A single ounce of gold can be beaten into 
a sheet of gold leaf that measures approximately 200 feet on each 
side. Gold does not tarnish or corrode, and is extremely resistant to 
wear. Finally, it is often found in a nearly pure state. These qualities 
enhance its value, versatility, and mystery. 

Further Reading 

Coughenour, Robert A. "Gold." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. HarperCollins 
Bible Dictionary. Revised edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFran- 
cisco, 1996. 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Peattie, Donald Culross. "Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh." Saturday Eve- 
ning Post 264, 6 (November 1992): 56. 


Gospel Accounts of Christmas 


Gospel Accounts of CJ^ristmas 

The Christian Bible provides two accounts of the birth of Jesus. One 
account appears in the first two chapters of the Gospel according 
to Matthew, and the other in the first two chapters of the Gospel 
according to Luke {see also Jesus, Year of Birth). A quick review of 
these accounts reveals a number of broad similarities as well as 
some striking differences. 


Jesus' parents, Joseph and Mary, figure in both accounts. Both Mat- 
thew and Luke assert that Joseph was a descendant of the Old 
Testament hero, David. They also agree that Mary was a virgin when 
she became pregnant with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. An 
angel appears in order to explain the nature of Mary's pregnancy, 
according to both writers. Both accounts affirm that Jesus was born 
in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great. Finally, Mat- 
thew and Luke both tell of strangers called by God to witness and 
worship the birth of the Savior. 


If probed more closely, a few of these similarities turn out to be only 
partial, however. Both Matthew and Luke state that Joseph is a 
descendant of David, but Matthew takes Joseph's lineage back to 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Abraham, while Luke takes it all the way back to Adam. Moreover, 
Matthew includes five women in Jesus' genealogy, while Luke men- 
tions no women at all. In Luke the angel Gabriel, who explains the 
nature of Mary's pregnancy, appears to Mary herself, while in Mat- 
thew the angel appears to Joseph. Although both writers agree that 
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Matthew implies that Jesus' family 
lived in Bethlehem, while Luke states that Jesus' parents lived in 
Nazareth and came to Bethlehem only to comply with a Roman cen- 
sus. While Luke's account describes the events that took place on 
the night of Jesus' birth, Matthew's account leaves vague the issue of 
whether Jesus was a newborn infant or already a toddler on the 
night when the Magi arrived to worship him. 

Some elements of Matthew's story have no parallel whatever in 
Luke's account. Matthew tells of learned men called the Magi who 
bring Jesus expensive gifts fit for a king. They find him by following 
a star which suddenly appeared in the heavens to signal his birth 
{see Star of Bethlehem). Moreover, in Matthew's account the Magi 
inadvertently alert Herod to the existence of the newborn king. As a 
result, Herod sends soldiers to kill all of Bethlehem's male infants 
{see Holy Innocents' Day). Finally, an angel visits Joseph warning 
him of Herod's intentions and telling him to escape with his family 
into Egypt {see Flight into Egypt). After Herod's death the family 
returns from Egypt, but decides to settle in Galilee, far from Herod's 
brutal successor. 

Turning now to Luke's account of Jesus' birth, we can identify a 
number of elements that don't appear in Matthew's Gospel. Ac- 
cording to Luke, humble shepherds, rather than noble Magi, wit- 
ness Jesus' birth. Moreover, the shepherds learn of the Savior's birth 
from an angel instead of by studying the stars. In Luke's story Mary 
and Joseph must search for lodging because they don't live in 
Bethlehem. The innkeepers cannot accommodate them, so they end 
up spending the night in a stable, where Mary gives birth to Jesus. 


Scholars have attributed much significance to both the similarities 
and the differences contained in these accounts. Although these dif- 
ferences may perplex researchers, they do not appear to have inhib- 


Gospel According to Luke 

ited the representation of Jesus' birth in folklore. Around Christmas 
time Nativity scenes, store window displays, and Christmas pag- 
eants present us with colorful images of Jesus' birth {see also Nativity 
Play). Often these scenes mix together shepherds, wise men, stars, 
angels, animals, and other figures. These happy scenes suggest that 
Matthew's and Luke's accounts of Jesus' birth have merged together 
to form a single story in the popular imagination. 

Further Reading 

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New updated edition. New 

York: Doubleday, 1993. 
Horsley, Rictiard A. The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in 

Social Context. New York: Crossroads, 1989. 
Porter, J. R. The Illustrated Guide to the Bible. New York: Oxford University 

Press, 1995. 

Gospel Accordingto Luke 

The third book of the Christian Bible, the Gospel according to Luke, 
offers an account of the events surrounding Jesus' birth. This ac- 
count, which appears in chapter two, verses one through twenty, has 
been reprinted below. It begins with the Roman emperor's call for an 
enrollment, which today we would call a census. Another, slightly 
different version of the events surrounding Jesus' birth may be found 
in the Gospel according to Matthew {see also Angels; Bethlehem; 
Gabriel; Gospel Accounts of Christmas; Jesus, Year of Birth; 
Joseph; Mary; Shepherds). 

The Birth of Jesus According to Luke: 

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that 
all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enroll- 
ment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to 
be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up 


• '' inn 

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W¥l ^^ 1 

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Gospel According to Luke 

from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city 
of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the 
house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his 
betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, 
the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to 
her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, 
and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for 
them in the inn. 

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, 
keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the 
Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone 
around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel 
said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good 
news of great joy which will come to all the people; for to 
you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is 
Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find 
the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a 
manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multi- 
tude of the heavenly host praising God and saying. 

Glory to God in the highest 
and on earth peace among men with whom he is 

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the 
shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem 
and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has 
made known to us." And they went with haste, and found 
Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when 
they saw it they made known the saying which had been 
told them concerning this child; and all who heard it won- 
dered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all 
these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shep- 
herds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had 
heard and seen, as it had been told them. [Taken from The 
Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version. New York: Thomas 
Nelson and Sons, 1953.] 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Gospel Accordingto Mattl)ew 

The first book of the Christian bible, the Gospel according to 
Matthew, offers an account of the events surrounding Jesus' birth. 
This account, which appears in chapter two, verses one through eigh- 
teen, has been reprinted below. Another, slightly different version of 
these events may be found in the Gospel according to Luke {see also 
Bethlehem; Flight into Egypt; Gospel Accounts of Christmas; 
Herod; Jesus, Year of Birth; Joseph; Magi; Mary; Star of Beth- 

The Birth of Jesus According to Matthew: 

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days 
of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to 
Jerusalem, saying "where is he who has been born king of 
the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have 
come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he 
was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all 
the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of 
them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In 
Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 

And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah 

are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; 

for from you shall come a ruler 

who will govern my people Israel." 

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascer- 
tained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent 
them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the 
child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I 
too may come and worship him." When they had heard the 
king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had 
seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over 
the place where the child was. When they saw the star they 


Gospel According to Matthew 

rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house 
they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down 
and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they 
offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And 
being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they 
departed to their own country by another way. 

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord 
appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "I^se, take the child 
and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there till I 
tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy 
him." And he rose and took the child and his mother by 
night, and departed to Egypt and remained there until the 
death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken 
by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son." 

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the 
wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the 
male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were 
two years old or under, according to the time which he had 
ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was 
spoken by the prophet in Jeremiah: 

A voice was heard in Ramah, 
wailing and loud lamentation, 
Rachel weeping for her children; 
she refused to be consoled, 
because they were no more. 

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared 
in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Rise, take the child 
and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who 
sought the child's life are dead." And he rose and took the 
child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But 
when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of 
his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned 
in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he 
went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spo- 
ken by the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a 
Nazarene." [Taken from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard 
Version. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1953.] 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Grandfat()er Frost 

Dyed Moroz 

During the era of Communist rule (1917-91), Grandfather Frost be- 
came Russia's official winter season gift bringer. Known in Russian 
as Dyed Moroz, Grandfather Frost symbolizes the piercing cold of 
Russia's winters. Accompanied by his grandchild, the Snow Maid- 
en, he travels across Russia bringing gifts to children on New Year's 


Grandfather Frost existed long before the Communists came to 
power. In those days, however, he brought his gifts on Christmas 
Eve rather than on New Year's Eve. Grandfather Frost probably 
evolved from rural folk beliefs about a spirit known as "the Frost." 
Country folk did not have an image of what the Frost looked like, 
but they well knew his rigid and aloof personality. In the nineteenth 
century, rural people did not dress up like the Frost and did not 
believe that he brought Christmas gifts. Instead they left gifts of food 
for the Frost, hoping to satisfy his hunger so that his icy touch would 
not whither their crops. 

By the nineteenth century, a very different image of the Frost had 
developed in the cities. There, the winter spirit acquired a kindly 
name, "Grandfather Frost," as well as a kindly reputation. Urban 
folktales cast Grandfather Frost as a bringer of gifts to well-behaved 
children at Christmas time. Unlike some of his harsher counterparts 
in western Europe, Grandfather Frost ignored rather than threat- 
ened poorly behaved children {see also Befana; Berchta; Black 
Peter; Cert; Jultomten; Knecht Ruprecht; St. Nicholas's Day). 
City dwellers pictured Grandfather Frost as an old man with a long 
white beard who wore a red hat and long, red robe edged with white 
fur. Their tales told that he lived deep in the forest and rode about 
on his sleigh. 


Grandfather Frost 

Before the Communists came to power, Russian children might 
receive gifts from Grandfather Frost at Christmas or from Baboushka 
on Epiphany Eve. A Russian folktale tells how Baboushka rejected 
the Magi's invitation to accompany them on their journey to worship 
the newborn Jesus. She has wandered the world ever since, bringing 
gifts to children on Epiphany Eve. The religious content of Baboush- 
ka's story made Communist leaders uneasy, since they opposed reli- 
gion and the celebration of religious holidays on principle. To counter- 
act this story the government promoted the idea that Grandfather 
Frost alone brought children their presents. Moreover, they changed 
the date of his arrival from Christmas Eve, a religious holiday, to New 
Year's Eve, a secular holiday. Grandfather Frost survived the transition 
to a democratic, capitalist form of government in the 1990s, but now 
he faces competition from a new. Western import: Santa Glaus. 


Some say that Grandfather Frost makes his home in Veliki Ustyug, a 
town about 500 miles northeast of Moscow. Nevertheless, during the 
holiday season he makes many public appearances in other towns 
and cities. He usually wears a full white beard, dresses in a long red, 
white, or blue robe, and supports himself with a staff. In this eye- 
catching garb he may be glimpsed at department stores or at public 
events. For a fee, parents can hire Grandfather Frost and the Snow 
Maiden to come to their homes as a special treat for the children. 
More than a thousand Grandfather Frosts crisscross Moscow on New 
Year's Eve, performing this service for children and parents. 

Further Reading 

Christmas in Russia. Chicago: World Book, 1992. 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 

Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 
Naythons, Matthew. Christmas Around the World. San Francisco, Calif.: 

Collins San Francisco, 1996. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Greece^ Cl^rf stmas in 

The Greek Christmas season contains three distinct hoHdays: 
Christmas, St. Basil's Day (or New Year's Day), and Epiphany. In 
spite of the festivities that surround it, Christmas is a much less 
important holiday than is Easter for the Greeks. 


In Greece devout Orthodox Christians prepare for Christmas with 
"Christmas Lent," a fast lasting from November 15 to December 24 
{see also Advent). During this period those who observe the fast eat 
no meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, olive oil, or wine. The less obser- 
vant may participate in a shortened fast period, beginning a week 
before Christmas. 


On December 24 young people go door to door in small groups 
singing Christmas carols. Called Kalanda, these songs tell the story 
of the birth of Christ. The singers accompany the carols with music 
made from folk instruments such as harmonicas, drums, and trian- 
gles. Many also carry a small, hollow ship made from cardboard, 
wood, or metal {see also Christmas Symbols). Householders toss 
sweets or coins inside the ship in return for the carolers' serenade. In 
Greece the ship is said to represent St. Basil, who sails to Greece to 
bring presents to children on St. Basil's Day. 

Christmas Dinner 

In Greece some families eat Christmas dinner after church services 
on Christmas Eve. Other families wait until Christmas Day. The 
meal begins with the head of the family blessing the Christmas loaf 
and making the sign of the cross over it. This bread is called Christ- 
opsomo, or "Christ's bread." Christopsomo consists of rich, sweet- 
ened bread dough studded with nuts and, perhaps, also dried fruit. 


Greece, Christmas in 

The dough is shaped into a large, round loaf, sprinkled with sesame 
seeds and decorated with a dough cross. Each person at the table 
receives a piece of the blessed bread and the meal begins. Greek 
families often serve roast pork for Christmas dinner. 

Name-Day Celebrations 

Greeks celebrate name-days with greater festivity than they do birth- 
days. One's name-day occurs on the feast day of the saint or holy fig- 
ure after whom one was named. According to this custom, Greeks 
not only celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day, but 
also may honor people who share related names. The English vari- 
ants of some of these names include Christopher, Christine, Em- 
manuel, and Emmanuela. 


Although the Greeks celebrate Christmas with joy, old superstitions 
warn that trouble may not be far behind. According to Greek folk- 
lore, pesky demons known as the kallikantzari roam the earth dur- 
ing the Twelve Days of Christmas. These imps pull mischievous 
pranks, often while keeping out of sight. Luckily for the Greeks, the 
holy rites performed by the priests on Epiphany chase them back 
into their underground dens for another year. 

St. Basil's Day 

The Greeks open their holiday gifts on January 1 rather than on 
Christmas. Since January 1 is observed as St. Basil's Day in Greece, 
children view St. Basil as the Christmas gift bringer. Other St. Basil's 
Day customs include sharing a special loaf of bread called vasilopita, 
or "St. Basil's Bread." Often this takes place at midnight on New 
Year's Eve, but it may also take place on the following day. Some 
families observe a special ceremony when cutting and distributing 
the holiday bread. The head of the family blesses the bread and 
makes the sign of the cross over it. The bread is sliced, and the first 
piece is offered to Christ, the second to the Virgin Mary, the third to 
St. Basil, and the fourth to the poor. The next piece goes to the head 
of the family. The rest of the family receive their pieces according to 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

age, the eldest first. The bread contains a small token, such as a coin. 
Whoever finds the token in their slice of bread will have good luck in 
the coming year {see also Christmas Cake; King of the Bean). 

Greek folklore teaches that the first person to enter the house in the 
new year symbolizes the fortunes of the household {see also First- 
footing). Some Greeks prefer a healthy, strong person to enter first, 
others prefer an icon (a religious image) to enter first, held in some- 
one's outstretched arms. Householders often welcome the first per- 
son to cross their threshold in the new year with sweets and coins. 


Epiphany closes the Christmas season in Greece. Church services 
include the blessing of water. These services may take place out- 
doors, alongside natural bodies of water. They may also take place 
inside churches into which a large vessel of water has been brought. 
Parishioners receive small bottles of holy water to take home with 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Be- 

thesda, Md.: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. 
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1990. 





Christmas trees, wreaths, and other seasonal decorations made out 
of greenery ornament our homes, streets, and churches at Christmas 
time. Ancient peoples also celebrated winter festivals with decora- 
tions of greenery. Over the centuries Christmas appears to have 
absorbed some of these ancient customs. 

Ancient Beliefs and Customs 

Evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, laurel (or bay), yew, 
fir, spruce, and pine stay green all year round (see also Rosemary). 
For many ancient peoples, this special property converted these 
plants into seasonal symbols of the promise of new life or eternal 
life. Holly, ivy, and mistletoe may have been especially revered, since 
they not only stay green in winter, but also bear fruit during this 
harsh season. The pagan peoples of northern Europe garlanded 
their homes with greenery during their winter festival. Yule. Perhaps 
they wished to honor and imitate the triumph of these living greens 
over the cold and darkness of winter. Further south, the Romans 
also decorated their homes with greenery during their winter festi- 
vals. Saturnalia and Kalends. In addition, friends exchanged sprigs 
of holly as tokens of good will and good wishes for the upcoming 
new year (see also New Year's Day). 

Christianity and Winter Greenery 

For hundreds of years. Christian officials waged a campaign against 
the old pagan European practices. Tertullian, a third-century Chris- 
tian writer, admonished those followers of the new religion, Chris- 
tianity, who practiced these old customs. He thundered: "Let those 
who have no Light burn their (pagan) lamps daily. Let those who 
face the fire of hell affix laurels to their door-posts. . . . You are a light 
of the world, a tree ever green; if you have renounced the pagan 
temple, make not your home such a temple!" A sixth- century 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Church council (the Second Council of Braga) forbade Christians the 
use of green boughs in home decoration. This edict implies that 
many Christians were still adorning their homes with greenery at 
that time. 

In southern Europe such criticism extinguished this practice, but fur- 
ther north — especially in Germany and England — it continued. 
In medieval and Renaissance times, many English songs still depict- 
ed holly and ivy as special plants associated with the winter season. 
These songs may indicate that earlier beliefs about winter greenery 
dimmed but never completely died out, in spite of Church opposi- 

Unable to completely destroy this custom, the Church eventually set 
about reinterpreting these seasonal symbols. Christian legends 
developed over time, explaining the connection between these ever- 
greens and the Christmas season {see also Nativity Legends). 
Laurel, for example, represented the triumph of Jesus Christ. Holly 
became a symbol of the Virgin Mary's love for God. Its spiky leaves 
and blood-red berries also served to remind Christians that Jesus 
would end his days wearing a crown of thorns. 

Not only did the use of greenery persist in seasonal home decora- 
tions but the practice also crept into church decorations. One six- 
teenth-century observer of English customs commented that parish- 
ioners bedecked both home and church with ivy, holly, bay and 
other greenery at Christmas time. Some authorities claim that 
mistletoe was seldom adopted for English church decorations, how- 
ever, due to its strong associations with the pagan past. One notable 
exception to this trend occurred at York Cathedral during medieval 
times. A branch of mistletoe was placed on the high altar on 
Christmas Eve, signaling a general pardon for all wrongdoers for as 
long as it remained there. 

The Green Branch as a Symbol 

For many centuries green branches symbolized hospitality or the rec- 
onciliation of differences. During the Middle Ages messengers, nego- 
tiators, and heralds carried them in times of battle to signify their 
peaceful intentions. Taverns and inns hung green boughs, especially 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ivy, above their doors in lieu of printed signs. Even after literacy spread 
and lettered signs came into common use, many pubs retained related 
names, such as The Ivy Bush or The Greenwood Tree. 

Christmas Greenery 

Many English folk beliefs suggested that the evergreens most closely 
connected with Christmas possessed subtle powers. Holly offered 
protection against witches, and rosemary against evil spirits. Ivy 
granted good luck to women, while holly bestowed good luck on 
men. Special customs developed in order to harness the beneficial 
powers of these plants and deflect the harmful ones. For instance, 
some believed that winter greenery should not be brought into the 
house before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day lest it carry ill luck 
with it. From Christmas to Epiphany, however, garlands of greenery 
inside the home might bring good luck. According to others, a mis- 
chievous wood sprite hid behind each sprig of greenery carried into 
the house for decoration. During the Twelve Days of Christmas 
these sprites kept their peace, but afterwards they might begin to vex 
the occupants of the household with their pranks {see also Elves). 

In some parts of England, people dismantled their decorative green- 
ery on Twelfth Day. In other parts of the country, the ornaments 
were left until Candlemas. The seventeenth-century English poet 
Robert Herrick reminded others of the importance of removing win- 
ter greenery by Candlemas with these lines, "For look how many 
leaves there be / Neglected there maids trust to me / So many gob- 
lins you shall see." In many cases, folk beliefs cautioned that the 
withered greens should not simply be tossed away when taken 
down, but disposed of ceremoniously. Some believed that they 
should be burned. Others thought that burning them drew bad luck 
and that feeding them to cattle might preserve their good luck. Still 
others felt that they should simply be left to decay on their own. 
Sometimes a sprig of holly or mistletoe was saved for the following 
year. These sprigs might be used to light the fire under the next 
year's Christmas pudding {see Plum Pudding). 

Although seasonal decorations of greenery have festooned centuries 
of Christmas celebrations, the style and components of these deco- 
rations have changed over time. In Britain, the custom of hanging up 



a bit of mistletoe, often in the form of a kissing bough, reached the 
height of its popularity in the eighteenth century and began to fall 
from favor in the nineteenth. The nineteenth century saw other 
changes in British Christmas decorations as well. Before that time 
the English trimmed their homes with laurel, rosemary, ivy, holly, 
box, and yew. In the nineteenth century holly rose from the ranks to 
become the favorite plant of English Christmas decorations, replac- 
ing, to some extent, the wider variety of winter greenery used. 
Finally, the British and the Americans adopted the German custom 
of bringing a Christmas tree into their homes in the nineteenth 
century. Today the Christmas tree reigns supreme over all other 
forms of Christmas greenery and has become a widely recognized 
symbol of the holiday. 

Further Reading 

Auld, William Muir. Christmas Traditions. 1931. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1992. 

Baker, Margaret. Christmas Customs and Folklore. Aylesbury, Bucks, England: 
Shire Publications, 1968. 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Drury, Susan. "Customs and Beliefs Associated with Christmas Evergreens." 
fo/Wore 98, 2 (1987): 194-99. 

Hole, Christina. Christmas and Its Customs. New York: M. Barrows and 
Company, 1958. 

Segall, Barbara. The Holly and the Toy. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1991. 

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Guatemala^ cfiristmas in 

Guatemalan Christmas celebrations combine Spanish and German 
customs. Native American iniluences may also be seen in Guate- 
malan Christmas foods and decorations. 

Fires and Housecleaning 

In Guatemala the Devil runs wild during the first week or so of 
Advent. In highland villages and towns local men in devil costumes 
appear on the streets and pursue children, who flee from the strange 
figures. The Devil's reign ends on December 7 with a folk ritual 
known as La Quema del Diablo, or "The Burning of the Devil." People 
rummage through their homes for things that they no longer want 
or deem useless. They pile these objects together in front of their 
houses, scatter some firecrackers on top of the heap, and set fire to it. 
This act not only chases away the Devil, but also symbolizes the 
housecleaning of the heart done in preparation for the coming of the 
infant Jesus. Other Christmas season preparations also touch on 
the theme of housecleaning. For example, many repair and paint 
their homes at this time of year. 


Due to the influence of Guatemala's large German community, 
many people have adopted the Christmas tree as one of their sea- 
sonal decorations. Since it is illegal to cut down trees in Guatemala, 
however, many people create Christmas trees out of tree branches. 
As Christmas nears, vendors line the streets and plazas offering 
these trees and many other colorful Christmas trinkets for sale. 


On December 16 Las Posadas begins. In this nine-day ritual, people 
reenact Mary and Joseph's search for shelter in Bethlehem. Las 
Posadas concludes on Christmas Eve with a large party for all who 
have participated in the event. 


Guatemala, Christmas in 

Christmas Eve and Day 

Many Guatemalans choose to spend December 24 at home with 
their families. Others participate in public festivities. In the city of 
Antigua the clanging of church bells at midday kicks off the Christ- 
mas Eve celebrations. As the afternoon wears on, the air begins to 
ring with the sound of firecrackers and other explosives. Men wear- 
ing the traditional costumes and oversized pasteboard heads of the 
gigantes and cabezudos ("giants" and "big-heads") march through the 
main streets accompanied by folk musicians. In the evening perform- 
ers dressed as bulls with fireworks strapped to their backs entertain 
the crowds. When the fuses are lit these men, called toritos ("little 
bulls"), charge through the streets like their namesakes. A formal fire- 
works display follows. At night a procession wends its way towards 
the cathedral for the celebration of Midnight Mass. 

Traditionally, Guatemalans waited until after Midnight Mass to 
enjoy their Christmas dinner, although nowadays some people dine 
earlier. Children open their presents on Christmas Eve after dinner. 
Parents and other adults generally wait until New Year's Day to ex- 
change gifts. A traditional Christmas dinner includes tamales, bundles 
of corn dough wrapped around a filling of meat and sauce, and 
ponche, or "punch," a sweet made from plums, raisins, dates, brown 
sugar, and liquor. According to folk beliefs, Jesus was born at the 
stroke of twelve on Christmas Eve {see also Misa de Gallo). There- 
fore, fireworks explode at midnight, commemorating the moment of 
the holy birth. On Christmas Day fireworks and celebrations begin 
again at noon. 

Further Reading 

Clynes,Tom. Wild Planet! Detroit, Mich.: Visible Ink Press, 1995. 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 

Wakefield, Charito Calvachi. Navidad Latinoamericana, Latin American Christ- 
mas. Lancaster, Pa.: Latin American Creations Publishing, 1997. 




Feast of Dedication, Feast of Lights 

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that is unrelated to Christmas. Be- 
cause it often falls in the month of December, however, some people 
have mistakenly assumed that Hanukkah is the "Jewish Christmas." 
In spite of the difference between the two holidays, many American 
Jewish families have adapted certain Christmas customs, such as 
cards and gifts for children, for Hanukkah celebrations. 

What Is Hanukkah? 

The Hebrew word Hanukkah means "dedication." The holiday is also 
known as the Feast of Dedication or the Feast of Lights. Hanukkah 
commemorates an historical event, the Jewish victory in 162 B.C. over 
the Syrians in the Maccabean War. At this time Judea was part of the 
Syrian empire, in which Greek culture predominated. Some Jews 
began to adopt Greek ways of life and thought. A small group of 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Jews, led by the Maccabee family, resisted this process of assimila- 
tion by taking up arms against the Syrian political authorities. After 
their victory, they cleansed and rededicated the Jewish temple in 
Jerusalem, which their opponents had occupied and used to offer 
sacrifices to pagan gods. One record states that those present at the 
dedication witnessed a miracle. A small amount of oil, enough to 
keep the temple lamp lit for one day, lasted a full eight days. 

Today's Hanukkah celebrations often downplay the military history 
behind the festival. Instead, they emphasize the rededication of the 
temple in Jerusalem, the victory over religious persecution, and the 
survival of Judaism. The celebrations last for eight days. They feature 
a special candleholder, known as a menorah, with room for nine can- 
dles. The middle candle, the shamash, or "server," is used to light the 



other eight. On the first evening of Hanukkah one candle is Ht and 
special prayers are said. On the second evening two candles are lit, 
and so on. The rest of the evening is spent singing songs, playing 
games, telling Hanukkah stories, and enjoying special holiday foods. 

Hanukkah and Christmas 

Because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar rather than the 
solar year, the date of Hanukkah moves about on our calendar. The 
first day of Hanukkah falls on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish 
month of Kislev, which means that it can fall anywhere between 
November 25 and December 26. In the United States this proximity 
to Christmas has affected the way in which Hanukkah is celebrated. 
Originally a minor holiday, Hanukkah has assumed greater impor- 
tance in the Jewish calendar in order to counter the pervasive pres- 
ence of Christmas themes and images in the general culture. The old 
custom of distributing Hanukkah gelt (coins) to children has been 
expanded to include gifts as well. Many Jewish parents give their 
children one present for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. In 
addition, some people now exchange Hanukkah cards with Jewish 
friends and family members. 

In recent years American presidents have added Hanukkah-related 
activities to their round of holiday duties. In 1979 Jimmy Carter 
became the first president to participate in a menorah-lighting cere- 
mony {see also White House, Christmas in the). 

Further Reading 

Edidin, Ben M.Jewish Holidays and Festivals. 1940. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1993. 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 
Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1997. 

Strassfeld, Michael. The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary. New 
York: HarperCollins, 1993. 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Herod^ King 

According to the Bible Jesus was born in the land of Judea. The 
Gospel according to Matthew tells us that King Herod ruled Judea 
at the time of Jesus' birth. Historians cannot confirm the treacherous 
deeds attributed to Herod in Matthew's Nativity story. Nevertheless, 
these barbarities resemble the kinds of brutal acts historians know 
him to have committed. 

Herod in the Gospel of Matthew 

In chapter two of Matthew we learn that Magi from the east have 
arrived in Jerusalem. They inquire about the birthplace of the new- 
born king of the Jews whose Nativity has been foretold by the rising 


Herod, King 

of a miraculous star {see also Jesus, Year of Birth; Star of Bethle- 
hem). Herod is disturbed by their questions, seeing in the coming of 
a great Jewish leader only a potential rival for power. Herod assem- 
bles the Jewish priests and scribes, and finds out that prophecy dic- 
tates that the Messiah will be born in the town of Bethlehem. He 
passes this news on to the Magi, requesting that they first go to 
Bethlehem and find the child, and then report back to Jerusalem. 
The Magi journey on to Bethlehem, identify Jesus as the newborn 
king, and pay him homage. A dream warns them that Herod intends 
to kill the child they identify as the king of the Jews so they return to 
their own countries without going back to Jerusalem. Herod is furi- 
ous with their failure to return and orders soldiers to kill all the male 
children in the town of Bethlehem under the age of two. In the 
meantime, however, an angel warns Joseph, Jesus' father, of Herod's 
bloody plan. The angel instructs Joseph and his family to flee into 
Egypt {see Flight into Egypt). Herod's massacre of Bethlehem's male 
children is commemorated on Holy Innocents' Day, December 28. 

The Historical Herod 

Herod was the family name of a line of kings who ruled Judea at the 
time of Jesus' birth. Although they were kings in Judea, they were not 
themselves of Jewish descent. They were Idumeans, a people from 
outside the land of Judea, many of whom had been forced to convert 
to Judaism. Some commentators note that Matthew's account of his 
meeting with the Magi demonstrates Herod's unfamUiarity with Jew- 
ish teachings; in order to answer the Magi's questions, he had to con- 
sult those who knew Jewish scripture. The Herod who ruled at the 
time of Jesus' birth was known as Herod the Great (73 B.C. to 4 B.C.). 

Herod the Great became King of Judea in 40 B.C. He rose to power 
by collaborating with the Roman conquerors of Judea. King Herod 
was hated and feared by his Jewish subjects. He ruthlessly crushed 
all political opposition, going so far as to execute a wife and several 
sons whom he suspected might be plotting against him. He impov- 
erished the people with oppressive taxes in order to fund numerous 
building projects and other lavish expenditures. Finally, he ordered 
that a number of well-known Jews be executed on the day of his 
death in order to ensure that the people would actually mourn on 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

that day. Although no historical evidence exists for the massacre of 
Bethlehem's children reported by Matthew, the act is not inconsis- 
tent with the record of Herod's known deeds. 

Herod's Sons 

After the death of Herod the Great, the Romans divided his former 
kingdom among his remaining sons. Herod Archelaus became ruler 
of Judea, and Herod Antipas ruler of Galilee. The Gospel of Matthew 
states that after Herod the Great's death, an angel told Joseph that it 
was safe to return to Israel. When Joseph discovered that the brutal 
Archelaus had become king of Judea he was too afraid to return 
there, so he moved his family to Galilee. Thus, the King Herod that 
interviewed Jesus shortly before his crucifixion (Luke 23) was Herod 
Antipas, ruler of Galilee. 

Further Reading 

Garcia-Treto, Francisco O. "Herod." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The Harper 

Collins Bible Dictionary. Revised edition. San Francisco, CaUf.: HarperSan- 

Francisco, 1996. 
Henderson, Yorke, et al. Parents' Magazine Christmas Holiday Book. New 

York: Parents' Magazine Press, 1972. 
Horsley, Richard A. The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in 

Social Context. New York: Crossroad, 1989. 


The people of Scotland refer to their New Year's Eve celebrations as 
Hogmanay. For centuries New Year's Eve was the most important 
midwinter holiday in Scotland, far outstripping Christmas in its 
importance. Even though Christmas gained a good deal of populari- 
ty in the late twentieth century, the Scots still celebrate a festive new 
year that attracts many visitors to their country. 




In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement, the Protestant 
Reformation, blossomed in northern Europe. In Scotland John Knox 
(1513-1572), leader of the Scottish Reformation and founder of the 
Presbyterian Church, opposed all church festivals, as did many of the 
new Protestant religious leaders. In England and Scotland, a certain 
group of Protestants known as the Puritans came into political pow- 
er during the seventeenth century. In their attempt to reform British 
society they tried to abolish its Christmas celebrations, which they 
viewed as a disgrace to the Christian religion. After the Puritans fell 
from power the English returned to many of their old Christmas 
customs. The people of Scotland, however, took many of the Puritan 
criticisms of Christmas to heart and never really revived their old 
Christmas celebrations. Instead, New Year's Day became the main 
midwinter holiday. In fact, Christmas didn't become a legal holiday 
again until the second half of the twentieth century. 

Daft Days 

In Scotland the days surrounding Christmas and New Year's were 
once called the "daft days" {see also Twelve Days of Christmas). In- 
deed, the University of Glasgow holds an annual all-night ball on 
the last Friday of the Christmas term, which is called the "Daft Ball." 
Some reserve the "Daft Days" as a name for the last day of the old 
year and the first day of the new year, in reference to the lively cus- 
toms and sometimes zany behavior that characterize Scottish New 
Year celebrations. 

Origins of the Word "Hogmanay" 

The most popular name for the New Year's festival in Scotland, 
however, is Hogmanay. No one can explain for certain the origins of 
this word. Linguists suspect that it evolved from the old French 
term, aguillaneuf, which means New Year's gift, the last day of the 
year, or the celebration at which New Year's gifts are exchanged. A 
related Spanish word, aguilnaldo, means Christmas tip. New Year's 
gift, or, in Latin America, "Christmas carol" {see also Boxing Day). 

Many more colorful, but less plausible, origins have been advanced 
over the years. One early explanation suggested that the word came 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

from the Greek phrase, hagia mana, meaning "holy month." Since it 
is a bit difficult to explain how the Scots, in the far north of Europe, 
came to be so influenced by a Greek phrase, another scholar pro- 
posed that Hogmanay comes from an old Saxon phrase, halig-mo- 
nath, meaning "holy month." The difficulty with this theory is that 
according to the Anglo-Saxon scholar, St. Bede (6737-735), the Saxon 
holy month fell in September. 

Yet another far-fetched theory attributes both Hogmanay and the 
nonsense word "trololay," which often follows it in song and verse, 
to a French couplet: 

Homme est ne 
Trois rois allois. 

It means, "A man is born, three kings are come." Little evidence 
exists to support the idea that the Scots used or were influenced by 
this phrase, however. 

While some strive to find a Christian meaning for the word, others 
search for pagan roots. One writer bases his explanation for the 
phrase on the contention that the ancient Scots worshipped the Scan- 
dinavian sun god Thor at the Yule festival that took place around this 
time of year. He continues by suggesting that they named all sorts of 
feasts "oels" (or "ales") and that they called the cup of remembrance 
drunk at the Yule festival "minne." Thus Hogmanay Trololay could 
have come from an old Scots phrase like. 

Thor oel, oell 

which he translates as, "Remember your sacrifices; The feast of Thor, 
the Feast!" The problem, again, seems to be finding evidence to sup- 
port such a claim. Along these same lines, some have suggested that 
the French word aguillaneuf comes from the phrase au gui Van neuf, 
"to the mistletoe the new year," again linking Hogmanay to pagan 
celebrations. Nevertheless, most scholars reject this explanation of 
the word. 

Visits and Treats 

Gift giving, as well as good-luck charms, figured prominently in tra- 
ditional Scottish New Year celebrations. In past eras children used to 



go door to door asking neighbors to give them their Hogmanay, 
which in this context meant gifts of cheese and oat cakes. They 
chanted old folk rhymes, such as: 

Get up good wife and shake your feathers 
And dinna think that we are beggars. 
For we are guisers come out to play 
Get up and gie's our hogmanay. 

This rhyme usually accompanied the recitation of a bit of a mum- 
mer's play (see also Mumming). Another rhyme works on the listen- 
er's sympathy as a means of soliciting a treat: 

Ma feet's cauld 
Ma shoon's thin, 
Gies ma cakes 
An' let me rin. 

In some places groups of boys called the Gillean Callaig, or Hog- 
manay Lads, went from door to door carrying sticks, a sack, and an 
old hide. They recited an old Gaelic folk verse at each house they 
visited while they used their switches and sticks to beat the animal 
hide. Then they circled the dwelling place, taking care to move in the 
same direction as the sun. Householders were then expected to 
invite the boys in for a treat. Some people added another twist to the 
custom by bringing the boys inside, singeing a bit of the hide, and 
wafting the smoke over each family member. All who inhaled the 
pungent fumes of this purification ritual were supposed to enjoy 
good health in the coming year, while the boys received a bit of ban- 
nock (a coarse oatmeal cake) to take away in their sack. This custom 
died out in the early twentieth century. 


Scottish folklore teaches that the firstfooter, the first person to set 
foot over the threshold after midnight, determines the household's 
luck in the new year. Lucky firstfooters possess certain physical qual- 
ities. In most regions, a dark-haired, healthy, adult male is consid- 
ered the luckiest firstfooter. In some places local lore even specifies 
that he not be flat-footed. Rather than leave the luck of the house- 
hold to fate, some families arrange for a person with the lucky char- 
acteristics to visit them just after midnight. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Firstfooters often bring gifts of food, drink, fuel, or money to the 
homes they visit. These are considered lucky gifts that help to attract 
the same goods to the household throughout the year. Some people 
follow a tradition whereby family members remain silent until the 
firstfooter enters, places his gifts of food and drink on the table, stirs 
up the fire, and wishes the household and all its members well. 

Other Superstitions 

Traditional folk beliefs warned that the conditions prevailing in the 
home on New Year's Eve would be likely to persist throughout the 
coming year. Therefore, people prepared for New Year's Eve by pay- 
ing off their debts, returning borrowed items, tuning musical instru- 
ments, washing and mending clothes, sheets and blankets, polishing 
silver and metal goods, winding clocks, cleaning their fireplaces, and 
emptying out the ashes. Since superstitions warned that stray dogs 
were portents of evil to come, people often chased away any strays 
lingering about their homestead. 

Other beliefs advised people to collect the "cream of the well," or 
the "flower of the well." This water, contained in the first bucket to 
be drawn from the well after midnight on New Year's Eve, was said 
to be especially sweet and pure. In some places people competed to 
be the first person to draw it from the well and to gain the luck it 
was said to impart. People not only drank this water for their health, 
but also saved some with which to bless their homes and barns. 

Many Scots also enacted purification rituals — known as saining — 
on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. These rituals involved censing 
house, barn, family members, and animals with smoke, often juniper 
smoke. Another common good-luck ritual consisted of opening the 
door at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve to let the old year 
out and the new one in. Many people accompanied this action by 
ringing bells and banging on pots and pans. The noise chased away 
any evil spirits or influences lurking about the house. 

On the island of Orkney, local lore boasts that Stane O'Quoybune, a 
4,000-year-old, 12-foot-tall standing stone, walks down to Board- 
house Loch in the early hours of New Year's morning to drink its icy 
water. Few stay up past midnight to watch for the event, however. 



since local lore also insists that those who see the stone move will 
die in the year to come. 


The Scots also celebrate the new year by indulging in special foods. 
One traditional drink, called a het pint, resembles wassail. It is made 
by mixing ale, spirits, sugar, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, and 
other spices. Aiiother New Year's Eve concoction, athole brose, is made 
from oatmeal, cream, honey, and whiskey. Scotch whiskey or tea may 
also be served. Somen — oat and bran gruel sweetened with honey or 
molasses and spiked with whiskey — constitutes a special dish con- 
nected with the holiday. Other New Year's foods include oatcakes, 
cheese, shortbread, black bun (a cake made with dried fruit, almonds, 
spices, and spirits), and ankersocks (gingerbread made with rye.) 


Today many Scots celebrate Hogmanay with parties. These may take 
place in people's homes, in pubs, or on the streets. In 1993 the city of 
Edinburgh began its open-air Hogmanay Festival. It has become the 
largest New Year's Eve party in Europe and it attracts many foreign 
visitors. This festival has become so popular that the city had to issue 
passes limiting the number of those who can attend the events to 
about 180,000. The celebration takes place over the course of three 
days and includes pop, rock, and folk concerts, dances, street parties, 
and a torchlight procession ending in a bonfire. 

Noise and Song 

At midnight on New Year's Eve Scots link arms with the people sur- 
rounding them and sing "Auld Lang Syne." This song, whose title 
means, "Days of Long Ago," is credited to Scotland's most famous 
poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). Much noisemaking also takes place 
at midnight, especially the firing of guns. 

Torches, Dancing, and Sports 

People all over Scotland celebrate the new year with torchlit proces- 
sions {see also Up Helly Aa). These usually take place on December 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

30. People often observe New Year's Eve by attending ceilidhs (pro- 
nounced kay-lees), dance parties featuring Scottish bagpiping and 
other kinds of Celtic music. New Year's Day is frequently marked by a 
variety of sporting events, including traditional Highland activities 
such as wrestling, tossing the caber (throwing a long pole) and put- 
ting the stone (throwing a heavy disk). Other popular sports include 
shinty, a game similar to hockey, and curling, a game which involves 
moving a puck over ice. Group walks are another common New Year's 
Day activity. 

Further Reading 

Edwards, Gillian. Hogmanay and Tiffany, The Names of Feasts and Fasts. 

London, England: Geoffrey Bles, 1970. 
Gaster, Theodor. New Year, Its History, Customs, and Superstitions. New York: 

Abelard-Schuman, 1955. 
Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of 

World Holidays.Volume 4. Detroit, Mich.: UXL, 2000. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1996. 
Livingstone, Sheila. Scottish Festivals. Edinburgh, Scotland: BirUnn, Ltd., 

Mackie, Albert. Scottish Pageantry. London, England: Hutchinson, 1967. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Tober, Bruce. "Hogmanay." British Heritage 20, 1 (December 1998-January 

1999): 46-50. 

Web Site 

The city of Edinburgh, Scotland, has posted a web site on its Hogmanay 
Festival at: 




Holly springs up all around us at Christmas time. It ornaments to- 
day's Christmas cards, wreaths, wrapping paper, and other Christ- 
mas decorations. Although holly serves as a very contemporary 
symbol of the season, folklorists trace holly's association with Christ- 
mas back to ancient times. 

Ancient Beliefs and Customs 

Evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy, and pine, stay green all year 
round. For many ancient peoples, this special property converted 
these plants into seasonal reminders of the promise of rebirth or 
eternal life. Many writers believe that the pagan peoples of northern 
Europe decorated their homes with greenery during their winter 
festival. Yule. Perhaps they wished to honor and imitate holly's tri- 
umph over the dark and the cold, for the plant not only remains 
green during the winter but also bears bright red fruit during this 
harsh season. Further south, the Romans also decorated their homes 
with greenery during their winter festival. Saturnalia. In addition, 
friends exchanged sprigs of holly and other evergreens as tokens of 
friendship and good wishes for the upcoming new year. 

Christianity and the Significance of Holly 

Some folklorists think that holly and ivy represented the male and 
female principles in nature to the pagan peoples of northern Europe. 
These old beliefs may have lingered on in song and folklore long 
after Christianity conquered the northern lands. A good number of 
English songs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance depict a rival- 
ry between holly and ivy in which holly represents masculinity and 
ivy, femininity. In early Christian times, the Church resisted the pa- 
gan European custom of making seasonal decorations out of winter 
greenery. The sixth-century second Council of Braga forbade Chris- 
tians the use of green boughs in home decoration. 



As time went on, however, Christianity adopted the holly and ivy of 
pagan winter celebrations, molding their significance to fit Christian 
beliefs. One authority states that early northern European Christians 
interpreted holly as a symbol of the Virgin Mary's love for God. Its 
spiky leaves and blood-red berries also served to remind Christians 
that Jesus would end his days wearing a crown of thorns. The words 
to the Christmas carol titled "The Holly and the Ivy" illustrate simi- 
lar Christian reinterpretations of these seasonal symbols. After the 
older beliefs about the plant had faded, some Christian authorities 
suspected that the word "holly" must be related to the word "holy," 
a belief that would support their interpretations of its connection 
with the Christmas season. They were mistaken. The modern En- 
glish word "holly" comes from the older terms for the plant — hollin, 
holin, and holme — and before that, from the Anglo-Saxon word for 
holly, holegn. 

Folklore and Customs 

Old British folklore attributed a variety of special powers to holly. In 
medieval times, practitioners of folk medicine used holly to treat 
many conditions, including fever, rheumatism, gout, and asthma. 
(Holly berries are poisonous, however.) Picking holly on Christmas 
Day could enhance its medicinal properties. In addition, holly ward- 
ed off evil spirits. A medieval traveler who had lost his way might 
shelter under a holly tree for protection against unseen dangers. 
Placed on doors and around windowsills, hoUy's spiny leaves would 
snag any evil spirit that tried to enter the house. One custom advised 
unmarried women to place a sprig of holly beside their beds on 
Christmas Eve as protection against witches or goblins. A sprig of 
holly inside the house might also shield the householders from fire 
and storms. Holly that had been used in church decorations was 
believed to be especially powerful. It could confer luck, peace, or hap- 
piness, according to English folk beliefs, and protect against lightning, 
according to German folk beliefs. 

Traces of the old association with masculinity and the battle of the 
sexes lingered on in holly lore. English folklore deemed prickly holly 
"male" and non-prickly holly "female." (Holly plants are indeed 
sexed, but the sex difference does not manifest itself in this way). If 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

male holly was brought into the house first, the husband would rule 
during the upcoming year, and if female holly entered first, the wife 
would rule. Several hundred years ago, English folk custom still con- 
nected competing figures known as the "holly boy" and the "ivy 
girl" with a number of wintertime observances. During this same 
period, the Welsh observed "Holming Day" on December 26 with 
another customary battle of the sexes in which men hit women's 
bare arms with holly branches {see also St. Stephen's Day). Accord- 
ing to folk belief, holly dealt good luck to men, while ivy granted 
good luck to women. 

Careless dealings with holly could turn good luck into bad, however. 
Some believed that cutting holly at any other time than Christmas 
brought bad luck. Bringing holly into the house for Christmas deco- 
rations also required special care. Some thought it unlucky to bring it 
in before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The withered greens must 
also be disposed of respectfully. Some believed that they should be 
burned. Others thought that burning them drew bad luck and that 
feeding them to cattle might preserve good luck. Still others felt they 
should simply be left to decay on their own. Sometimes a sprig of 
holly was saved for the following year, when it was used to light the 
fire under the next year's Christmas pudding {see also Plum Pud- 

Holly, often alongside its mate, ivy, served as an important Christmas 
symbol during the nineteenth century. The Victorians wove it into 
kissing boughs, greenery swags, and other seasonal home adorn- 
ments, and embellished many a Christmas card with its image. Today, 
some Americans still hang a wreath of holly on their front doors at 
Christmas. In Britain many people place similar wreaths on the graves 
of the family dead at this time of year. In addition, holly continues to 
trim contemporary holiday decorations, symbolizing for many the 
mirth of the season. The old yet still popular Christmas carol, "Deck 
the Halls," expresses this connection between holly and revelry. 

Further Reading 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 
Segall, Barbara. The Holly and the Ivy. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1991. 


Holy Innocents' Day 


Holy Innocents^ Bay 

Childermas, Feast of the Holy Innocents, Innocents' Day 

In chapter two of the Gospel according to Matthew, the birth of 
Jesus is followed by a massacre from which the Holy Family narrow- 
ly escapes. An angel warns Jesus' father Joseph that King Herod in- 
tends to kill the child, whom the Magi have identified as the new- 
born king of the Jews. The angel instructs Joseph to flee with his fam- 
ily into Egypt {see Flight into Egypt). Herod's soldiers arrive in Beth- 
lehem after the Holy Family has departed. They slaughter all the 
male children in the town and surrounding region who are under 
two years of age. This event is known as "the slaughter of the 
Innocents." Holy Innocents' Day, observed on December 28, mourns 
this act of cruelty. 

Church History 

Three Christian festivals follow in close succession upon Christmas. 
St. Stephen's Day occurs on December 26, St. John's Day on De- 
cember 27, and Holy Innocent's Day on December 28. These com- 
memorative days were established in western Europe by the late 
fifth century. The individuals they honor share two things in com- 
mon. Stephen, John, and the Innocents all lived during the time of 
Jesus and were martyred for him. In addition, Stephen, John, and the 
Innocents represent all possible combinations of the distinction 
between martyrs of will and martyrs of deed. The children slaugh- 
tered at King Herod's orders in Bethlehem did not choose their fate, 
but suffered it nonetheless, and so were considered martyrs in deed. 
St. John willingly risked death in his defense of the Christian faith, 
but did not suffer death, and so was considered a martyr of will. St. 
Stephen risked and suffered death for his faith, and thus became a 
martyr of will and of deed. 

Around the year 1000, Holy Innocent's Day acquired a new name. 
The English began to refer to the observance as "Childermas," a 
contraction of childem (an archaic form of the word "children") and 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

"mass." In the past, if Innocents' Day fell on a Sunday, the liturgical 
color was red, signifying martyrdom. If the feast fell on any other day 
of the week, the liturgical color was purple, signifying penitence. 
This difference reflected the doubt of some early theologians con- 
cerning the fate of the children's souls. Although they had died in 
Christ's place and so might be considered martyrs, they had not 
been baptized. In 1960 the Roman Catholic Church eliminated this 
variation in liturgical colors, assigning the red of martyrdom to all 
observances of the feast. 

Folk Customs 

Many of the customs associated with Holy Innocents' Day assign a 
special role to children. Moreover, a number of Innocents' Day cus- 
toms encourage activities that reverse power and authority between 
the older and younger generations. Centuries ago in England, boy 
bishops held sway in some churches on Childermas {see also Feast 
of Fools). On December 28 the boy bishop was expected to deliver a 
public sermon before stepping down from office. In medieval times 
boy bishops could also be found in Germany and France. Another 
old English custom encouraged older family members to swat younger 
ones with switches on Childermas. Although one writer suggests that 
the practice served to remind young people of the sufferings of Beth- 
lehem's Innocents, most folklorists view this practice as a remnant of 
an old, pre-Christian custom intended to drive out evil spirits, ill 
health, or other harmful forces. 

Innocents' Day whipping customs were also popular at one time in 
central Europe. In some areas groups of children marched from house 
to house whipping girls and women with twigs and branches. A folk 
verse which accompanied this practice reveals that it was viewed as a 
means of imparting health, fertility, abundance, and good luck: 

Many years of healthy life, 

Happy girl, happy wife: 

Many children, hale and strong. 

Nothing harmful, nothing wrong. 

Much to drink and more to eat; 

Now we beg a kindly treat [Weiser, 1952, 133]. 


Holy Innocents' Day 

Childermas customs in some regions of Germany permitted children 
to strike anyone they passed with their whips of twigs and branches. 
The children demanded coins in exchange for this service, which was 
known as "whipping with fresh greens." In Hungary boys and men 
whipped women and girls with switches in order to endow them 
with health and beauty. In Yugoslavia mothers switched children, 
hoping to promote their health and strength. Afterwards the chil- 
dren circulated through the neighborhood, smacking adults with 
switches and receiving treats and coins in exchange. 

In Belgium children seized control of the house on December 28. 
Early in the morning the children would collect all the keys in the 
house. Later, when any adult ventured into a room or closet for 
which they had the key, the child would lock him or her in. In order 
to gain their release the adults promised the child a treat, such as 
money, candy, fruit, or a toy. The children referred to these ransomed 
adults as their "sugar uncle" or "sugar aunt." In Austria old folk tra- 
ditions also allowed children to play tricks on their parents on Holy 
Innocents' Day and to usurp their parents' authority by sitting in 
their chairs. 

This playful, topsy-turvy spirit also runs through Innocent's Day cus- 
toms in Mexico, Ecuador, and other Latin countries {see also Spain, 
Christmas in). Mexicans celebrate the day in much the same way 
we celebrate April Fools' Day — by playing practical jokes on one 
another. The one who gets fooled is referred to as an "innocent." 


Another, more ominous theme also runs through the lore and cus- 
toms associated with Innocents' Day, however. Because the feast 
commemorates such a despicable deed, it came to be viewed as an 
extremely unlucky day, according to old European folk beliefs. Any 
undertaking begun on Childermas was bound to fail, according to 
these superstitions. The Irish called December 28 "the cross day of 
the year" for that reason. Those who married on that day ran espe- 
cially high risks of future misery. According to some sources. King 
Louis XI of France (ruled 1461-83) absolutely refused to conduct or 
discuss affairs of state on Holy Innocents' Day. It is also believed that 
the English monarch Edward IV (ruled 1461-70, 1471-83) postponed 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

his own coronation ceremony, originally scheduled for December 
28, for fear of tagging his reign with bad luck. 

Further Reading 

Chambers, Robert. "December 28 — Innocents' Day." In his The Book of 
Dfli/s. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Cowie, L. W., and John Selwyn Gummer The Christian Calendar. Spring- 
field, Mass.: G. and C. Merriam Company, 1974. 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 
Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1997. 

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 
Company, 1976. 

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 
Press, 1996. 

Joyce, E. J. "Innocents, Holy." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 7. New 
York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Urlin, Ethel. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 

Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: 
Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952. 



Hopping John 


Hopping] ot)n 

Hopping John is a traditional New Year's Day food in the American 
South. The dish consists of black-eyed peas and rice, seasoned with 
onions, a bit of pork, and some salt and pepper. It developed among 
rice plantation slaves in South Carolina and eventually spread to the 
surrounding black and white communities. Recipes for hopping John 
appear in cookbooks written by white Southerners as early as the 
latter half of the nineteenth century {see also Slaves' Christmas; 
America, Christmas in Nineteenth -Century). 

Cookbook author Karen Hess speculates that in making hopping 
John slaves were recreating the familiar dishes of their African up- 
bringing. This kind of dish, a rice and bean pilaf, can be found 
throughout the rice-growing regions of Asia and Africa. Hess believes 
the name "hopping John" in fact derives from the Malay word kach- 
ang, referring to a certain type of bean, and the Hindi word bhat, 
which means cooked rice. 

Food writer John Thorne suggests another origin for hopping John. 
He suspects that Caribbean slaves first invented the dish and brought 
it with them to the United States. He proposes that the name "hop- 
ping John" comes from the French word used by these Caribbean 
slaves to describe the beans that make up the mainstay of the dish: 
pais a pigeon, or pigeon peas. When English speakers were told that 
the dish consisted of pois a pigeon, pronounced in the Creole dialect 
as "pwaah-peeJON," they might easily have dubbed the dish "hop- 
ping John." African slaves brought pigeon peas with them to the 
Caribbean, where they thrived. Pigeon peas never really took root in 
the United States, where other types of beans and peas have 
replaced them in dishes like hopping John. 

Over the years ordinary people have come up with a variety of 
imaginative explanations for the dish's unusual name. One such 
explanation suggested that the name of the dish went along with a 
peculiar custom requiring children to hop around the dining room 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

table before it was served. Another wraps a bit of a folktale around 
the name, proposing that there once was a man named John who 
loved the dish so much that he always came "a-hopping" when his 
wife set it on the table. 

No one knows exactly how hopping John — originally the humble 
fare of slaves and poor folk — became attached to New Year's Day, or 
why consuming it on this date brings good luck. Folk wisdom sug- 
gests that by "eating poor" on New Year's Day, one becomes a mag- 
net for rich foods during the rest of the year. An old, southern folk 
rhyme confirms this theory: 

Those black-eyed peas are lucky 

When et on New Year's Day; 

You'll always have sweet 'taters. 

And possum come your way [Kane, 1998, 155]. 

Other superstitions have also attached themselves to the dish. For 
example, some say that on New Year's Day hopping John should 
always be served with a side dish of greens so as to attract green- 
backs, that is, paper money. Still others believe that the luck-bring- 
ing effects of the dish can be enhanced by adding side dishes of 
sweet potatoes and cornbread. 

Further Reading 

Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen. Columbia, S.C.: University of South 

Carolina Press, 1992. 
Kane, Harnett T. The Southern Christmas Book. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1998. 
Selbert, Pamela. "A Good Start?: Southerners Ring In a Lucky New Year 

with Hopping John." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (December 16, 1994): 1. 
Thorne, John. Serious Pig. New York: North Point Press, 1996. 

Web Site 

"The Story of Hopping John," posted by noted food writer John Thorne on 
his web site at: 


Holo the Grinch Stole Christmas 

How tl)e Grmcl) Stole cfiristmas 

Acclaimed children's writer Dr. Seuss, born Theodor Geisel, published 
How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1957. This story tells how the 
grumpy Grinch tries to prevent the sweet-tempered citizens of Who- 
ville from celebrating Christmas. He steals the trappings of Christ- 
mas — the Christmas trees, decorations, gifts, and special foods — 
but discovers that he cannot steal the spirit of Christmas. This realiza- 
tion transforms the Grinch, who then returns the stolen loot. 

Book, Cartoon, and Movie 

In Dr. Seuss's Christmas story, the spirit of Christmas converts a 
Scrooge-like main character into a joyful soul. Viewed in this light. 
Dr. Seuss's story might be seen as a children's cartoon version of 
Dickens's classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. Its immense appeal 
to children led to its being transformed into an animated television 
special in 1966. Geisel adapted the script from his book, while direc- 
tor and animator Chuck Jones turned Dr. Seuss's drawings into 
moving cartoon characters. Actor Boris Karloff, famous for his roles 
in horror films, dubbed in the voice of the Grinch. The show proved 
an immediate hit, and was rerun year after year. In 1971 Geisel 
received a Peabody Award for his work on the animated version of 
How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In the years to come, further Grinch 
television specials brought him two Emmy Awards — Halloween Is 
Grinch Night (1977) and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat (1982). 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas — both the book and the cartoon — 
imprinted itself in the minds of millions of American youth. So 
much so that in the year 2000 Universal Studios, hoping to cash in 
on the phenomenon, released a live-action movie version of the 
story entitled Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Directed by 
Ron Howard, the film featured Jim Carrey in the title role. Realizing 
that the story told in the short book would have to be expanded if it 
were to become a full-length movie, Howard began adding scenes 
that developed the characters. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

The designers labored to take Dr. Seuss's two-dimensional drawings 
and recreate a three-dimensional Seussian world for the movie set. 
Rather than duplicate the exact look of Dr. Seuss's Grinch book, they 
decided that the sets would reproduce a blend of environments 
depicted in the books. Dr. Seuss's fantastical settings, buildings, and 
furniture, often drawn without right angles or much regard for the 
laws of physics, proved a great challenge to the design team. Make- 
up artist Rick Baker faced an equally difficult challenge, that of turn- 
ing Jim Carrey into the Grinch and scores of other actors into the 
Whos of Whoville. Each morning before filming began, Carrey en- 
dured a three-and-a-half-hour makeup session, which included ap- 
plying makeup over three foam rubber facial pieces as well as insert- 
ing false teeth and yellow contact lenses. 

In the end the effort proved worth the trouble. Dr. Seuss's How the 
Grinch Stole Christmas won an Academy Award for Best Makeup and 
was nominated for two additional awards — Best Art Direction-Set 
Decoration and Best Costume Design. 

Dr. Seuss 

Dr. Seuss was the pen name of Theodor Geisel (1904-1991). His love 
for doodling and drawing expressed itself at an early age. It contin- 
ued throughout his formal education at Dartmouth College and 
Oxford University. Never a particularly dedicated student, he lost 
patience with the obscurity of advanced academic study while at- 
tending Oxford and returned to the United States, where he began 
to make his living as a cartoonist. As the years went by, Geisel be- 
came increasingly fascinated with language and rhyme, and began 
to work on wedding his rhymes to drawings. Some years later he 
prepared his first manuscript for a children's book, eventually titled 
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Twenty- seven different 
publishers rejected it. As Geisel walked the streets of New York, 
looking for the 28th publisher, he ran into an old college friend, 
Marshall McClintock, who had just become the children's book edi- 
tor for Vanguard Press. McClintock gave him the break he needed. 
Vanguard Press published Geisel's book in 1937. 

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, written in verse, was a 
success. Though Dr. Seuss's next books were written in prose, he 


Holo the Grinch Stole Christmas 

eventually returned to the rhyme schemes for which he became 

Over 200 million copies of Dr. Seuss's books have been published in 
20 different languages. The enormous popularity of these stories pro- 
pelled Dr. Seuss and his books into the role of cultural icons. He liked 
to think of himself as the man who had single-handedly rid Ameri- 
can classrooms of the boring "see Dick run" style of early reader. In 
1985 the senior class of Princeton University paid a humorous tribute 
to his role in forming generations of young readers, when they stood 
in unison and recited the entire text of Green Eggs and Ham as Seuss 
mounted the stage to receive an honorary doctorate. 

Further Reading 

Fensch, Thomas. The Man Who Was Dr. Seuss. The Woodlands, Tex.: New 

Century Books, 2000. 
Lipschultz, Andy. How the Grinch Stole Hollywood. New York: Random 

House, 2000. 
Seuss, Theodor Geisel. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. New York: Random 

House, 1957. 

Web Site 

The web site for the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, locat- 
ed in the author's hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, offers a brief 
biography of Geisel, images of previously unpublished art work, and a list- 
ing of local Seuss-related events: 


Iceland^ cfiristmas in 

The first Europeans settled in Iceland in the ninth century. They 
were from Scandinavia and the Celtic lands, and some researchers 
believe that they brought with them a midwinter festival called Yule. 
They also imported a rich collection of stories, beliefs, and folklore 
concerning elves, fairies, trolls and other unseen, magical peoples. 
In the year 1000, Iceland adopted Christianity. This religion called for 
a new, midwinter holiday called Christmas. Over the years the be- 
liefs and practices associated with Christmas began to eclipse those 
associated with the earlier pagan feast. Nevertheless, old folk beliefs 
continued to link this time of year with supernatural creatures and 
various kinds of heightened paranormal activity {see also Ghosts). 

Past Preparations 

In past times, Icelanders busied themselves in the week before 
Christmas preparing for the holiday. Women made candles, baked. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cooked, washed clothes, and knit stockings and mittens. The folk- 
lore of Iceland abounds in tales of hard-hearted bosses who worked 
their domestic servants so far into the night during this week that 
they had to place sticks between their eyelids to keep them propped 
open. For this reason, Icelanders dubbed the week preceding Christ- 
mas "Stick Week." Snacks eaten during this week were named "stick 
bites." Those who did their share of the work received at least one 
article of woolen clothing as a Christmas present. 

According to Icelandic folklore, the Christmas cat would pursue those 
who had nothing new to wear on Christmas. This fearsome creature 
was the pet of Gryla, the ogress who spawned the Christmas Lads. 
Presumably, fear of falling prey to this hungry, magical cat motivated 
people to work hard in preparing for the Christmas festival. 

St. Thorlak's Day 

Icelanders observe December 23 as St. Thorlak's Day. St. Thorlak — 
an Icelandic monk, as well as the bishop of Skaholt — won fame for 
his efforts to reform the church, but was murdered in 1193. Accord- 
ing to tradition, intensive preparations for the coming Christmas 
festival took place on this day. People washed clothes, prepared the 
Christmas feast, and cleaned their homes. Stores stayed open late 
and people did their Christmas shopping. Today many people mark 
the day by consuming a simple meal in the evening, often skate 
hash, a dish similar to the Norwegian lutefisk {see also Norway, Christ- 
mas in). In addition, many people wait until St. Thorlak's Day to de- 
corate their Christmas tree. 

Christmas Eve and Day 

Icelanders begin their Christmas celebrations on Christmas Eve. Many 
people attend Christmas church services on this day. A large festive 
meal is prepared for 6 p.m., when Icelanders consider Christmas to 
begin. Traditional Christmas dishes include hangikjot (smoked meat), 
halibut, dried fish, sausages, an Icelandic bird called rock ptarmigan, 
laufabraud (leaf-bread, a type of cookie) and a kind of rice pudding. 
The rice pudding contains a single almond. Whoever finds the al- 
mond in their serving of pudding gets an extra gift. Nowadays many 
imported foods are available in addition to the traditional Icelandic 


Iceland, Christmas in 

Christmas fare. In past times custom frowned on the consumption of 
alcohol at Christmas time, though nowadays people may lubricate 
their festivities with Christmas ale or other alcoholic beverages. 

Families open their presents after dinner on Christmas Eve. When 
this has been completed some families join hands around the Christ- 
mas tree and sing Christmas carols. Icelandic television stations 
shut down between 5 and 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, affirming the 
high value that Icelanders place on having this time together with 
their families. 

On Christmas Day people stay at home with their families, go visit- 
ing, attend parties, and continue to enjoy special Christmas foods. 

Gift Bringers 

The people of Iceland invented their own unique Christmas gift 
bringers called the Christmas Lads. In past centuries Icelanders imag- 
ined this band of thirteen brothers as fearsome trolls. Over the years 
they shrank in stature and their appetite for troublemaking dimin- 
ished. Nowadays images of the Christmas Lads often depict them as 
elf-like beings, dressed in a manner that resembles Santa Claus. The 
first Lad arrives thirteen days before Christmas. Another comes on the 
following day and so on, until the household hosts all thirteen elves 
on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day the first elf leaves. One leaves 
each day thereafter, until the last Lad departs on Epiphany. 

Some Icelanders wish to popularize the idea that Santa Claus lives 
in Iceland. At one point the government-run Iceland Board of Tour- 
ism answered the thousands of children's letters to Santa that ar- 
rived in Iceland. After funding cuts decimated this program a private 
foundation stepped in to answer these letters. 


In past centuries, each member of an Icelandic household received 
an article of woolen clothing as a Christmas gift. In the twentieth 
century Icelanders began to give each other more and different gifts. 
For example, candles, books, and packs of playing cards became 
popular gifts. In the second half of the twentieth century a new cus- 
tom evolved. Children place a shoe on the windowsill in the weeks 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

that precede Christmas. If they have been good, the Christmas Lads 
will fill the shoe with candy. If not, they might leave a potato there 
instead. Researchers believe that this custom was imported from 
Germany some time around the 1920s. 


Burning candles have long served as important Christmas decora- 
tions in Iceland. This makes sense in a land that sees only about four 
hours of daylight around Christmas time {see also Winter Solstice). 
Many Icelanders also decorate their homes with Advent wreaths, a 
custom most likely adopted from Denmark. Trees are relatively 
scarce in Iceland and most people would never dream of cutting one 
down merely to use it for a week or two as a Christmas decoration. 
As a result, the Christmas tree didn't become popular until the sec- 
ond half of the twentieth century, when imported spruce trees be- 
came available. Before that time, however, some people constructed 
homemade artificial trees out of colorful sacks and poles. 

New Year's Eve 

Icelanders celebrate New Year's Eve with fireworks, bonfires, and "elf 
dances." The bonfires can be traced back to the eighteenth century, 
when they began as a means of getting rid of holiday trash. Icelanders 
continue to enjoy dressing up as elves, trolls, or imps on New Year's 
Eve. This custom reflects a long-standing belief that magical creatures 
are out in force on this evening. 

According to Icelandic folklore, all manner of supernatural events may 
occur on New Year's Eve. The dead may rise from their graves, animals 
may speak, and seals may transform themselves briefly into human 
beings. What's more, elves are believed to be especially active on 
Christmas and New Year's Eve. Until recently many people left at least 
one light burning on these nights as a way of welcoming the elves. 

According to Icelandic folklore, elves move their homes on New 
Year's Eve. This same lore taught that those who catch the elves in 
the middle of their move might gain an elvish blessing for good luck 
and wealth. To this end, it recommended that those who dared risk an 
encounter with these magical beings sit at a crossroads on New Year's 


Iceland, Christmas in 

Eve. If an elf traveling on either road wanted to get by, he or she 
would try to lure the human to move with promises of money, trea- 
sure, food, and other tempting things. Those who stood their ground 
and spoke no word until morning would gain all the promised trea- 
sures. On the other hand, if their mood turned sour, the elves could 
wish ill fortune on the humans who had interrupted their journey. 

In past times many people offered the elves hospitality on New Year's 
Eve by performing special house cleanings and leaving food and lights 
burning in an out-of-the-way nook or corner. Some walked about 
their house three times and announced a welcome to the elves, 
promising them safe usage of the premises for the evening. 

Another bit of old lore claimed that frost that drifted into the house 
through an open pantry window on this night was especially sweet 
and that it brought with it the promise of abundance. The only diffi- 
culty was that in order to collect this "pantry drift," a housewife had 
to stay awake all night in a dark pantry with the window open to the 
stern cold of an Icelandic winter night, while the drift slowly collect- 
ed in a pot on the floor. Once this task was completed, a design 
made up of crosses was traced over the pot, which prevented the 
prosperity from escaping. No statistics exist to tell us how many 
women took up this icy challenge. 

Twelfth Night and Epiphany 

The last of the Christmas Lads departs on Epiphany. People hold par- 
ties on this day to mark the end of the Christmas season, and some 
people costume themselves as one of the Christmas Lads or their troll 
parents. In addition, Icelanders often mark the day with bonfires into 
which they throw the trash that has accumulated over the holidays. 

Further Reading 

Bowler, Gerry. Tlie World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Cana- 
da: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. 

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. 
Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. 

Osmond, Stephen. "Long Night of Dreams: Midwinter Celebrations in Ice- 
land." The World and 1 11, 1 (lanuaiy 1996): 206(12). 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

India^ cfiristmas in 

Christians make up just over two percent of the population in India. 
Nevertheless, Christmas is a national holiday and many Indians who 
are not Christian still observe some of its folk customs. These in- 
clude the lighting of many oil lamps along the perimeter of one's 
courtyard or the edge of one's roof. Indian Christians borrowed 
these lamp-lighting customs from a Hindu holiday known as De- 
wali. The task of filling and lighting the lamps often falls to children. 
Some families also paint Christmas symbols and images on the 
walls of their whitewashed homes with powdered dyes. These pic- 
tures may include the Star of Bethlehem, the Magi, or shepherds. 
The cooking and sharing of special foods is another widespread 
Christmas custom, although the dishes may vary from place to 
place. Gift giving and carol singing also take place in many Indian 
communities at Christmas time {see also Christmas Carol). 


Christians in Bengal focus their anticipation on Christmas Day church 
services. Boys and men gather regularly to practice the music for the 
Christmas program. Women clean the home. This cleaning includes 
giving the walls a fresh coat of whitewash or clay, and decorating the 
house with marigolds, leaves, and brightly colored paper. Girls make 
decorations for the church, such as paper chains and chains of mari- 

On Christmas Eve boys and young men gather at the church, fes- 
tooning it with palm branches, wreaths, garlands of marigolds, and 
paper chains. Then they set up a Christmas tree just outside the 
building. Afterwards they go caroling. 

On Christmas Day Bengali Christians enjoy special foods, such as 
fruitcake, dates, oranges, raisins, coconut-filled rice cakes, fried rice, 
and meat with curry sauce. Children often deliver plates of these 
special Christmas foods to their friends. 


India, Christmas in 

Worshipers, decked out in new clothes if possible, pack Christmas 
Day church services. Services generally include a sermon and choral 
music. After the conclusion of the service the congregation crowds 
around the Christmas tree for the distribution of gifts. Poorer mem- 
bers of the congregation can expect gifts of new clothes, and chil- 
dren receive trinkets from the Sunday school. 

Many Santals live in the state of Bengal. These tribal people cele- 
brate Christmas for five days. Girls dance up and down the streets 
and sing songs. Boys also take to the streets, entertaining the public 
by playing instruments. Onlookers often treat the boys and girls to 
fried rice and tea after their performances. 


In the southwestern state of Kerala many Christians belong to East- 
ern churches, like the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Coptic 
Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Abyssinian Church. 
Others are Roman Catholic. The Eastern churches observe some- 
what different rites than those observed by Western Christians, that 
is, Roman Catholics and Protestants. For example, those belonging 
to the Syriac Orthodox Church observe Advent by fasting. For the 
four weeks preceding Christmas they abstain from eating meat, fish, 
and milk products. 

In the last week before Christmas, many Christian children in Kerala 
spend an evening singing Christmas carols from door to door. They 
carry with them candle-lit lanterns hanging from the ends of poles 
(for a similar custom, see Star Boys). These beacons, raised aloft, cast 
a warm glow on the band of roving musicians who visit the homes 
of those who work at the church schools. Many decorate the out- 
sides of their homes with oil lamps during this week. 

People gather at churches on Christmas Eve, where celebrations be- 
gin, accompanied by ringing bells, exploding firecrackers, and pipe 
and drum music. They go home after the services, but gather again 
at around three in the morning for religious processions honoring 
the birth of Jesus. Worshipers carry crosses, torches, flags, lit candles, 
and richly decorated ceremonial umbrellas. Priests in formal robes 
also march in the procession. They chant religious verses in the 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Syriac language, covered by canopies held aloft on poles by devout 
believers. The processions end at the church. Then everyone files 
inside for a Christmas morning service that concludes at dawn. 

On Christmas Day people leave off fasting and celebrate with rich 
and delicious foods, including meat curry and bread made with rice 
flour and coconut paste. Visits to the homes of relatives also take 

Further Reading 

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. 
Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. 

Tucker, Cathy C. Christmas Worldwide. Philadelphia, Pa.: Xlibris, 2000. 

Wernecke, Herbert H. Celebrating Christmas Around the World. 1962. Re- 
print. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1999. 

Web Site 

Kerala Journal has posted "A Boy's Easter, and Christmas too," an essay by 
Thomas Palakeel, a professor of English literature at Bradley University. It 
describes a boy's Christmas in Kerala, India: 

Iran^ cf^ristmas in 

Ninety-nine percent of the citizens of Iran, or Persia, are Muslims. 
Christians, members of the Bahai faith, Jews, and others make up the 
remaining one percent. The very small number of Christians means 
that Christmas celebrations in Iran generally revolve around quiet 
church and home observances. Nevertheless, in the capital city of 
Tehran, shops located in the Armenian quarter of the city display 
Nativity scenes in their windows as the holiday draws near and 
Christian families shop for the upcoming festival {see also Armenia, 
Christmas in). Many Iranian Christians are of Armenian and Assyri- 
an descent. Most are members of some branch of the Eastern Church, 


Iran, Christmas in 

which is composed of Christians whose traditions of worship devel- 
oped in the Middle East, eastern Europe and north Africa. Eastern 
Christians fast during Advent. Iranian Christians call this period of 
spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas time the 
"Little Fast." This name distinguishes it from the Easter festival's 
Lenten fast, which they call the "Great Fast." 

On Christmas Eve Iranian churches hold special services, which 
usually include a Nativity play that retells the story of Jesus' birth. 
Iranians end their Christmas fast with the bread and wine taken dur- 
ing the rite of Holy Communion (Eucharist) at this service. Church 
services also take place on Christmas Day. 

Iranian Christians have incorporated two western Christmas tradi- 
tions into their celebrations: the Christmas tree and the gift giver 
Baba Noel, a Middle Eastern version of Father Christmas or Santa 
Claus. On Christmas Day children delight in opening the presents 
they discover under the tree. In past times most children received 
one modest, homemade gift — often new clothing — slipped gently 
under their pillow. Delighted with this practical gift, they paraded 
about in their new clothes all week long. Now they scamper to the 
tree on Christmas morning to find a number of gifts waiting for them. 
Adult family members also give one another presents. In addition, 
friends and family visit one another on Christmas Day. Visiting chil- 
dren are offered packets of sweets. Iranian children sometimes cele- 
brate Christmas with egg-tapping games similar to those played by 
children around the world at Easter time. 

Iranian Christians traditionally enjoy a kind of chicken stew, called 
harisa, for their Christmas dinner, as well as a pastry dessert called 
kada. Iranian Christians sometimes refer to the festival as the "Little 
Feast." This name distinguishes it as a holiday of less importance 
than Easter, which is known as the "Great Feast." 

Though today their numbers are few. Christians of Assyrian, Arme- 
nian, and Chaldean descent have lived in Iran since the fourth and 
fifth centuries. The country's association with Christmas dates back 
even further, however. Some writers believe that the Magi, the wise 
men who brought the infant Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and 
myrrh, came from this ancient land. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Further Reading 

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Cana- 
da: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. 

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. 
Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1999. 

Wernecke, Herbert H. Celebrating Christmas Around the World. 1962. Re- 
print. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1999. 

Iraq^ cfiristmas in 

The vast majority of Iraqis are Muslims. Christians make up less than 
five percent of the population of this Middle Eastern nation. The ma- 
jority of them embrace some form of Eastern Christianity, that is, tra- 
ditions of Christian worship and belief that developed in the Middle 
East, north Africa, and eastern Europe. Some come from minority eth- 
nic groups, such as the Assyrians and Chaldeans, and represent rem- 
nants of ancient Christian communities. Iraqi Christians belong to 
many different denominations, including the Syrian, Greek, and Ar- 
menian Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Coptic Church, the As- 
syrian (or Nestorian) Church, and the Chaldean Church. A few West- 
ern Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants, live in Iraq as 

Christmas observances among the many Christian denominations 
vary. Yet everyone goes to religious services on Christmas Eve or Day. 
Iraqi Christians also celebrate the holiday by sharing a sumptuous 
dinner with family members and friends. Moreover, they exchange 
gifts said to come from the Iraqi gift bringer, Baba Noel — an adapta- 
tion of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Offering holiday hospitali- 
ty to friends and neighbors is an Iraqi Christmas tradition. In the capi- 
tal city of Baghdad, people visit one another's homes in the week 
between Christmas and New Year's Day, giving and receiving lavish 
welcomes. In the countryside village residents may sit down together 
to a communal Christmas meal, often featuring roast lamb. 


Ireland, Christmas in 

Many Iraqis celebrate Christmas by putting up a Christmas tree in 
their home. This custom is not limited to Christians, however. Many 
Muslims, too, have embraced this tradition as a means of enjoying a 
bit of holiday fun and as a way of decorating their home for the new 

Further Reading 

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Cana- 
da: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. 

Kaplow, Larry. "Holidays Are Muted in Iraq: But Muslims, Christians Share 
Their Celebrations, and Baba Noel Will Visit Many Homes Despite Bleak 
Economy and Recent U.S. Air Strikes." The Atlanta Journal and Constitu- 
tion (December 24, 1998): A08. 

Wernecke, Herbert H. Celebrating Christmas Around the World. 1962. Re- 
print. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1999. 

Ireland^ CJ^ristmas m 

In Ireland families prepare for Christmas by baking cakes and buy- 
ing candles. The roads and bus stations are crowded on Christmas 
Eve as people journey home to spend Christmas with their families. 

Christmas Preparations 

Women bake the Christmas cake as early as October or November. 
This rich caramel cake, studded with dried fruits and nuts and fortified 
with brandy, mellows and improves as it ages. Most people living in 
Ireland are Roman Catholics, and many observe special devotions 
during Advent, a four-week period of spiritual preparation before 
Christmas. In addition, many people give their homes a thorough 
cleaning and write their Christmas cards in the weeks before Christ- 
mas. As Christmas Day draws near, people begin shopping for food 
and gifts. Nowadays this may include buying a Christmas tree, an 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

imported Christmas custom which became popular in recent years. 
The Irish also preserve the more traditional Nativity scene. Many 
families set up their Nativity scene a few days before Christmas. 

Christmas Candles 

On Christmas Eve most Irish families place a lighted candle in the 
front window. The largest front window gets the largest candle, a 
white, red, green, or blue candle as much as two feet tall. Many fami- 
lies illuminate all the windows in their homes with Christmas can- 
dles. In past eras most families fashioned holders for these candles 
out of turnips. Today many people buy candleholders for this purpose. 

One old tradition suggests that the youngest child in the house 
named Mary light the candles. Many families walk about their neigh- 
borhood on Christmas Eve, admiring the sight of so many illuminat- 
ed windows. Legend has it that this custom began hundreds of years 
ago, at a time when Ireland's stern, English Protestant rulers forbade 
priests to celebrate the Catholic mass. People placed lighted candles 
in windows as a signal to Catholic clergy that priests would be wel- 
come to say mass in their home. 

Another legend attributes the practice to an old folk belief. Accord- 
ing to this belief, each year on Christmas Eve Mary and Joseph 
once again roam the earth, reenacting their search for shelter in 
Bethlehem. A lighted candle acts as a beacon, drawing the Holy 
Family to homes where they will be warmly welcomed. Irish immi- 
grants brought the tradition of placing a lighted candle in the win- 
dow at Christmas time to other countries, including the United 

Christmas Eve in Times Past 

In past eras the Irish observed December 24 as a fast day, eating no 
food except a meatless meal in the evening. They spent Christmas 
Eve at home, telling stories and singing songs. Many believed spirits 
walked abroad on Christmas Eve and deemed it wiser not to venture 
outdoors after dark. At about an hour before midnight, church bells 
all over Ireland began to ring. This tolling, known as the "Devil's 
funeral" or the Devil's knell, announced the death of the Devil, who 


Ireland, Christmas in 

was believed to expire annually on Christmas Eve with the birth of 
Jesus Christ. On Christmas morning many people attended a very 
early church service, known as "First Light" mass. 

Christmas Eve Today 

Today many people still sit down to a meatless meal on Christmas 
Eve, often some combination offish, potatoes, and vegetables. Some 
people also observe an old custom whereby the man of house pre- 
pares the potato soup for the family in a ceremonial way. Irish chil- 
dren customarily hang up their Christmas stockings on Christmas 
Eve. In recent years it has become popular to attend Midnight Mass 
later that evening. Before going to bed some families put more wood 
on the fire, place some food on the table, and make sure the candles 
in the windowsills are still lit. Some may also leave a door unlocked, 
another symbolic gesture welcoming the Holy Family to enter and 
refresh themselves. 

Christmas Day 

The Irish like to spend Christmas Day with their immediate family. 
The day's events revolve around Christmas dinner, the most festive 
meal of the year. Before sitting down to their own dinner, many fam- 
ilies send hot meals or foodstuffs to less fortunate people living 
nearby. The Irish view these acts of charity as central to the celebra- 
tion of Christmas. In past times a traditional Irish Christmas dinner 
usually featured spiced, boiled beef. Nowadays many families prefer 
roast turkey or goose. The meal closes with the long-awaited Christ- 
mas cake and, often, plum pudding as well. 

St. Stephen's Day 

December 26, St. Stephen's Day, is a national holiday in Ireland. 
The wren hunt and forms of mumming, such as mummers' plays, 
entertain many people on that day. The wren hunters often con- 
tribute part of their earnings to fund the St. Stephen's Day dances 
popular throughout Ireland on the evening of December 26. Other 
traditional St. Stephen's Day pastimes include sporting events, espe- 
cially steeplechasing and fox hunting. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

New Year's Day 

In past times New Year's Day wasn't much celebrated in Ireland. 
On New Year's Eve, however, many people employed folk charms to 
ward off hunger in the coming year. Some recommended eating a 
big meal on New Year's Eve to set a pattern of consumption for the 
new year. Others suggested knocking a loaf of bread or a cake 
against house or barn doors, and reciting a bit of verse that wel- 
comed happiness and plenty and rejected hunger and want. First- 
footing, another old New Year's custom, is still practiced in Ireland. 
In recent years the government made New Year's Day a holiday. 
Now, more and more people celebrate New Year's Eve by staying up 
late, drinking, and going to parties. 


Epiphany, which falls on January 6, is the last day of the Christmas 
season in Ireland. Epiphany is also called Twelfth Night, "Little 
Christmas," or even "Women's Christmas." This last name reflects 
the old custom of serving a light dinner on Epiphany, featuring sher- 
ry and dainties, foods thought to be particularly appealing to wo- 
men. Many people put three candles in their windows on Epiphany, 
one for each of the Three Kings, or Magi. The figurines representing 
the Three Kings finally arrive in Irish Nativity scenes on this day. The 
next day Christmas decorations are removed and stored until the 
following Christmas season. 

Further Reading 

Moran, Rena. Christmas in Ireland. Chicago: World Book, 1995. 


Italy, Christmas in 



Italy^ cfiristmas in 

Italians favor the Nativity scene above all other Christmas decora- 
tions. As Christmas approaches, they appear in churches, homes, 
shops, and public places of all kinds. These images of the Holy 
Family illustrate two important themes in Italian Christmas celebra- 
tions: religious observance and family togetherness. 

Christmas Markets 

As the Christmas season draws near, families began to frequent the 
Christmas markets that spring up in cities and towns across Italy. 
Here they find all manner of Christmas merchandise, including 
sweets and other foods, flowers, Christmas decorations, clothes, toys, 
and more. Balloon sellers, musicians, and other entertainers amuse 
shoppers as they wander through the stalls. 

Pre-Christmas Celebrations and Observances 

Along Italy's Adriatic coast many people celebrate St. Nicholas's 
Day on December 6. Religious processions are held and adults give 
sweets to children. The remains of this fourth-century saint now rest 
in the cathedral in Bari, Italy {see also St. Nicholas). 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Sicilians celebrate St. Lucy's Day on December 13. Children leave 
their shoes outdoors hoping that the saint will fill them with treats 
during the night. 

In some Italian cities, such as Rome, the unlikely sound of bagpipes 
announces that Christmas is near. Following an old custom, shep- 
herds from the surrounding mountainous areas visit the cities with 
their bagpipes around mid-December. Called zampognari, they make 
music in the markets, in front of churches, and alongside Nativity 
scenes. In the past they would sometimes go door to door, playing in 
front of the family's Nativity scene in exchange for tips. 

Between December 16 and December 24 many Italians participate in 
Christmas novenas, special prayer services held on nine consecutive 
days. The novenas end with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. 

Nativity Scenes and Ceppos 

Many writers believe that St. Francis (c. 1181-1226), born in Assisi, 
Italy, created the first Nativity scene. According to legend, he staged 
a living Nativity scene in 1224 in a cave near the Italian village of 
Greccio. Francis hoped that the scene would impress viewers with 
the wonder of Christ's birth. The custom quickly caught on. Today, 
Italians still cherish their Nativity scenes. Churches and homes 
throughout Italy display these scenes in the weeks before Christmas. 
In some Italian villages, people create living Nativity scenes on 
Christmas Eve. Costumed villagers and visitors make a pilgrimage to 
the life-sized stable, where a living Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus 
await them. Nativity scenes are so popular in Italy that they may 
even be found in gas stations, city squares, airports, post offices, rail- 
way stations, and shop windows. Italians place the baby Jesus fig- 
urine in his crib on Christmas Eve. The Three Kings, or Magi, often 
do not reach the manger until Epiphany. 

Although the Nativity scene is the focus of home Christmas decora- 
tions in Italy, many families also construct a ceppo, or Christmas 
pyramid. Ceppo means "log" in Italian, and some researchers be- 
lieve that it acquired that name because it replaced the once-popular 
Yule log. This pyramidal arrangement of shelves may be used to dis- 
play Christmas symbols, sweets, cards, candles, and small gifts. 


Italy, Christmas in 

Christmas Eve 

Many Italians begin Christmas Eve with a sumptuous meal. The meal 
is all the more satisfying for those who follow the Roman Catholic 
custom of fasting on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, the Christmas Eve 
meal is meatless, although many delicious seafood, grain, and veg- 
etable courses may be served. Eel is a favorite main course for this 
meal. As midnight draws near, many Italians leaves their homes to 
attend Midnight Mass. One lucky group will be able to attend mass 
at St. Peter's Church in the Vatican, where the pope himself conducts 
the service. Television stations all over the world broadcast this ser- 
vice live from the Vatican. 

Christmas Day 

Italians usually spend Christmas Day enjoying the company of their 
families. The Italians eat Christmas dinner at midday on December 
25. In Italy the menu varies from region to region. Both roast turkey 
and ham are popular main courses, and a bowl of lentils with sau- 
sage is often served as a side dish. In addition, many Italians serve 
panettone, a sweet Christmas bread originally from Milan, as a Christ- 
mas dessert {see also Christmas Cake). Amaretti, almond cookies, 
cannoli, tubes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and can- 
died fruit, and strufoli, fried dough balls, often appear on the dessert 
table. Sometimes children write letters to their parents, which they 
place next to their father's plate. The letters usually offer an apology 
for past misbehavior and a promise of better behavior to come. The 
letters also provide the children an opportunity to show off their 

New Year 

Italian folklore teaches that the first person one encounters after 
midnight on New Year's Eve determines one's luck for the year to 
come {see also Firstfooting). The luckiest person to encounter is a 
young, healthy man. Meeting a priest means you will attend a funer- 
al, perhaps your own, whereas meeting a child means you may die 
young. If the first person you encounter is a woman, you will have 
bad luck in the coming year. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


La Befana, the traditional Italian gift bringer, arrives on January 6, 
Epiphany. Many children write letters to La Befana in the weeks pre- 
ceding Epiphany, describing the kind of gifts they would like to receive 
{see also Children's Letters). On Epiphany Eve they leave their stock- 
ings by the fire, and the next morning they find them filled with pre- 
sents. Many young people celebrate Epiphany by gathering in the 
streets and welcoming Epiphany and La Befana with horn blasts and 
other forms of noisemaking. In some parts of Italy Santa Claus now 
competes with La Befana for the affections of Italian children. 

In some Italian cities people give gifts to traffic policemen on Epiph- 
any. As the day wears on, mounds of presents, such as fruit baskets, 
wine, and food, pile up around the stands from which they direct 
traffic. This practical custom probably offers those who practice it the 
hope that small traffic infractions will be ignored in the coming year. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Italy. Chicago: World Book-Childcraft Inter- 
national, 1979. 

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 
Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Its a WoH^erfuf Life 

Many Americans view the 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life, directed by 
Frank Capra, as the definitive American Christmas story. Some even 
call it the American version of Charles Dickens's classic Christmas 
tale, A Christmas Carol. The movie tells the story of a responsible but 
ambitious young man, George Bailey, who never realizes his dream of 
leaving his hometown for adventure and a big career. Aware of how 


It's a Wonderful Life 

his departure will hurt the fortunes of others, he decides instead to 
stay home in order to serve his family and his community. The story 
begins on a Christmas Eve after World War II, when a crisis enters 
George's life and causes him to reconsider the value of all he's done. 
The final, happy ending celebrates the worth of George's achieve- 
ments and the importance of friendship. 

The Greatest Gift 

Frank Capra based his movie on a short story called "The Greatest 
Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern. The main character, George Pratt, 
despairs over the boredom and triviality of his life. On Christmas Eve 
he decides to commit suicide by throwing himself over the edge of a 
bridge. Suddenly a man whom he didn't realize was there begins to 
talk to him. George tells this stranger that he wishes he had never 
been born. The stranger, an angel, grants this wish. George returns to 
town and visits his family and place of business, finding things and 
people changed for the worse. He comes back to the bridge and begs 
the angel for the opportunity to live again. The angel restores every- 
thing as it was, and George returns home, realizing that any life, no 
matter how seemingly unimportant, is a great gift. 

Stern penned the brief story in 1938. Unable to find a publisher, he 
printed up 200 copies of the story as a 24-page pamphlet and sent 
them to his friends at Christmas time in 1943. His agent Shirley 
Collier thought the story would make a good film. She convinced 
Stern to let her try to sell the story to a Hollywood studio. In 1944 
RKO Pictures bought the film rights to "The Greatest Gift." In that 
same year Good Housekeeping magazine published the short story 
under the title "The Man Who Never Was." RKO thought the story 
would provide a suitable lead role for Cary Grant, but was not satis- 
fied with the ideas their screenwriters came up with for turning the 
short story into a movie script. 

The Story Becomes a Script 

In 1945 director Frank Capra, just back from his World War II stint in 
the armed services, bought the screen rights to Stern's story from 
RKO. His first concern was to flesh out the brief and thinly devel- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

oped original story. Capra worked on developing the material him- 
self, but also hired screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Good- 
rich to come up with a script. In the end, the film lists Hackett, 
Goodrich, and Capra as the authors of the screenplay, and notes that 
additional scenes were added by Jo Swerling. 

Capra loved the new, expanded story. He thought the plot's explo- 
ration of the dark themes of despair and contemplated suicide as 
well as the uplifting themes of love and service to others would be 
perfect for his first postwar movie. 

The Script Becomes a Film 

As Hackett and Goodrich worked on the script, Capra sought the 
needed actors. He wanted, and got, Jimmy Stewart to play the lead 
role of George Bailey. Jean Arthur, his first choice to play the role of 
Mary Bailey, turned him down, however. He considered several more 
actresses for the part, including Olivia De Havilland, before offering 
the role to Donna Reed, who accepted. Capra, a meticulous planner, 
thought as deeply about the casting of the film's small roles as he 
did its starring roles. When he had finally assembled the perfect cast, 
he was ready to begin making the movie. 

The film's original budget totaled $1,700,000, but the final cost came 
in at over $3,000,000. A good portion of this money went to building 
sets and creating special effects. Set designers recreated several sec- 
tions of Bedford Falls, the town in which the action takes place, at 
RKO's Encino Ranch. Covering four acres of land, this was among 
the longest sets that had yet been created for a movie filmed in the 
United States. The Main Street set stretched three blocks in length 
and included 75 buildings and shops. The center of the street was 
lined with 20 real oak trees, uprooted elsewhere and replanted on 
the set. The special effects crew labored for three weeks in order to 
produce the snowstorm that takes place on the night that George 
Bailey decides to commit suicide. In the process they devised a new 
way of generating artificial snow, for which they were given a 
Certificate of Honorable Mention at the 1947 Academy Awards. 
Although the beautifully filmed wintertime scenes convinced movie 
viewers, the thermometer on the set registered temperatures in the 
80s and 90s on the day they were shot. 


It's a Wonderful Life 

It's a Wonderful Life 

The film was released on December 20, 1946. It was not a box office 
hit, nor did it inspire an unbroken string of rave reviews. Some com- 
mentators think that the film's unusual blend of romance, comedy, 
and dark emotional drama may have confused viewers, thereby con- 
tributing to a less than stunning box office return. Moreover, some of 
America's most prestigious periodicals panned the movie as cloying- 
ly sentimental and unrealistic. Nevertheless, the film charmed scores 
of other reviewers, and perhaps more importantly, thousands of 
fans. In addition, it won five Academy Award nominations: Best 
Actor, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. 
Though It's a Wonderful Life did not receive any Academy Awards, 
Capra did take home a "Golden Globe" award for best director of 
the year from the Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association. 

It's a Wonderful Life was the first movie Capra made with Liberty 
Films, an independent studio formed by Frank Capra, George Ste- 
vens, William Wyler, and Sam Briskin after World War II. Financial 
difficulties soon downed the fledgling company, however. Capra and 
his partners sold it to Paramount Pictures in 1947, and along with it, 
the right to any future profits garnered by It's a Wonderful Life. The 
film languished under Paramount's care, and when its original copy- 
right ran out in 1974, no one bothered to renew it. At this point tele- 
vision stations all over the country began to show It's a Wonderful 
Life at Christmas time, because they didn't have to pay for it. These 
showings revived the interest of older fans and introduced new 
audiences to the film. This once-forgotten film has now become a 
beloved Hollywood classic. 

Looking Back 

Many movie viewers can imagine no one else but Jimmy Stewart in 
the role of George Bailey. Although Stewart made over 75 films. It's a 
Wonderful Life remained his favorite. Moreover, he received more fan 
mail about that movie than any other he ever made. 

Donna Reed recalled working harder for Capra than she had for any 
other director. Still, she later described her days on the set as fun and 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Most of the cast and crew fondly remember their participation in It's 
a Wonderful Life. The same cannot be said of music director Dimitri 
Tiomkin. Tiomkin had chosen "Ode to Joy" as the song for the last 
scene in the movie. Capra overruled him and substituted "Auld 
Lang Syne" instead. He also cut some of the tunes Tiomkin had 
written specially for the film and replaced them with music written 
by other composers. Furious, Tiomkin never worked with Capra 
again. Screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich, too, grew to dislike Cap- 
ra, who they felt did not respect their contribution to the film. 

Though he made scores of movies over his lifetime, Capra loved It's 
a Wonderful Life best of all his creations. He explained his preference 
in the following way: 

It's a Wonderful Life sums up my philosophy of filmmaking. 
First, to exalt the worth of the individual. Second, to champi- 
on man — plead his causes, protest any degradation of his 
dignity, spirit, or divinity. And third, to dramatize the viability 
of the individual — as in the theme of the film itself. 

I wanted It's a Wonderful Life to say what Walt Whitman said 
to every man, woman, and babe in the world: "The sum of 
all known reverences I add up in you, whoever you are. ..." I 
wanted it to reflect the compelling words of Fra Giovanni of 
nearly five centuries ago: "The gloom of the world is but a 
shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is a radiance 
and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we 
have only to look. I beseech you to look." . . . For myself, I can 
only say ... it was my kind of film for my kind of people 
[Basinger, 1986, ix]. 

Further Reading 

Basinger, Jeanine. The It's a Wonderful Life Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 

Cahill, Marie. It's A Wonderful Life: A Hollywood Classic. New York: Smith- 
mark, 1993. 

Hawkins, Jimmy. It's a Wonderful Life: The Fiftieth Anniversary Scrapbook. 
Philadelphia, Penn.: Courage Books, 1996. 

McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon 
and Schuster, 1992. 



Munby, Jonathan. "A Hollywood Carol's Wonderful Life." In Mark Connelly 
ed. Christmas at the Movies. New York: I. B. Tauris and Company 2000. 

Scherele, Victor, and William Turner Levy. The Films of Frank Capra. Secau- 
cus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1977. 

Stern, Philip Van Doren. The Greatest Gift. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996. 


From the Christmas tree to the kissing bough, decorations made 
of greenery have adorned our Christmas celebrations for centuries. 
Of all the evergreens used to represent the season, ivy's connection 
to Christmas is perhaps the most obscure. Known to botanists as 
Hedera helix, ivy has enjoyed a long association with the Christmas 
season and, before that, with various pagan myths and celebrations. 

Ancient Beliefs and Customs 

Evergreen plants, such as ivy, holly, and pine, stay green all year 
round. For many ancient peoples, this special property converted 
these plants into reminders of the promise of rebirth and eternal life. 
The pagan peoples of northern Europe decorated their homes with 
evergreens such as ivy for their winter festival. Yule. Perhaps they 
wished to honor and imitate ivy's triumph over the cold and dark- 
ness, for the plant not only remains green during winter but also 
bears fruit during this harsh season. The ancient Egyptians associat- 
ed ivy with Osiris, a god who died and was resurrected. To the 
Greeks ivy symbolized Dionysus, the god of wine. The Greeks told a 
legend that explained this connection. A nymph had once danced 
herself to death at the feet of Dionysus in a frenzy of adoration. In 
recognition of her devotion the god changed her body into the ivy 
plant, which casts an adoring embrace around all it encounters. 

Further to the south, the ancient Romans also decorated their homes 
with greenery during their winter festival. Saturnalia. In addition, 
they exchanged branches of ivy, holly, and other evergreen plants as 
symbols of their good wishes for the upcoming new year. Ivy also 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

became the symbol of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. Wine sellers 
in ancient Rome sometimes used ivy as a symbol of their trade. A 
bush or bunch of evergreens, usually ivy or box, tied to the end of a 
pole was a generally recognized symbol of a wineshop. Pliny the 
Elder, a famous scholar of ancient Rome, believed that consuming 
ivy berries before drinking wine or ivy leaves with one's wine could 
prevent drunkenness. Modern researchers, however, have discov- 
ered ivy to be toxic when ingested in large enough quantities. 

Medieval Beliefs and Customs 

As literacy was uncommon in the Middle Ages, people continued to 
use ivy and images of ivy or other greenery to signify a tavern or 
wineshop. In Britain the decorated pole used by the Romans became 
known as an alepole or an alestake. Long after lettered signs re- 
placed these old icons, many British taverns retained related names, 
such as The Ivy Bush or The Greenwood Tree. Ivy not only repre- 
sented wine, but also was believed to cure drunkenness. Likewise, 
imbibing from a bowl of ivy wood was thought to cancel out the 
effects of alcohol. 

Some folklorists believe that holly and ivy represented the male and 
female principles in nature to pagan peoples of northern Europe, 
and that these early beliefs lingered on in the songs and folklore of 
later eras. Many medieval and Renaissance songs and Christmas 
carols tell of a rivalry between holly and ivy, in which holly repre- 
sents masculinity, and ivy femininity. 

In early Christian times, the Church resisted the pagan custom of 
making seasonal decorations out of greenery. The sixth-century sec- 
ond Council of Braga forbade Christians the use of green boughs in 
home decoration. As time went on, however, Christianity adopted 
the holly and ivy of pagan winter celebrations, bending their signifi- 
cance to Christian ends. The clinging ivy plant became a reminder of 
the soul's dependence on God. The words to the Christmas carol 
"The Holly and the Ivy" depict another Christian reinterpretation of 
these seasonal symbols. Due to its continuing association with 
drunkenness, however, some Christians thought it disrespectful to 
incorporate ivy into Christmas decorations. 



Later Beliefs and Customs 

Many diverse, and sometimes conflicting, beliefs and customs con- 
cerning ivy have been recorded during the last two centuries. 
Because it often grew in cemeteries, ivy acquired an association with 
death. Some people believed it was therefore unlucky to bring ivy 
plants indoors. Its persistent association with drunkenness also 
fueled this belief, especially in continental Europe. Nevertheless, be- 
cause of its decorative potential, ivy became a favorite houseplant in 
the Victorian age {see also Victorian England, Christmas in). 

In the "language of flowers" (a set of meanings attributed to flowers 
and plants which became popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth 
centuries), the encircling vines of the ivy plant represented fidelity 
and undying love. Many attributed magical properties to the plant, 
especially the ability to reveal the identity of future mates. In 
England an ivy leaf dropped into a dish of water on New Year's Eve, 
covered and left until Twelfth Night, could reveal one's own fortune 
for the upcoming year. If the leaf remained green, one would enjoy 
good health, but if the leaf spotted, illness threatened. Overall dete- 
rioration of the leaf signaled death. 

Traces of the old association with femininity and the battle of the 
sexes echo through the folklore associated with ivy. According to 
some, holly dealt good luck to men, while ivy bestowed good luck to 
women. As late as several hundred years ago, English folk customs 
still connected competing figures known as the "holly boy" and the 
"ivy girl" with a number of wintertime observances. Ivy, often along- 
side holly, continued as a symbol of Christmas festivities during the 
nineteenth century. The Victorians wove it into kissing boughs, 
greenery swags, and other seasonal adornments, and embellished 
many a Christmas card with its image. 

Although less popular than in Victorian times, ivy has gently en- 
twined itself around the edges of contemporary Christmas celebra- 
tions. Images of this ancient seasonal favorite still trim our Christ- 
mas cards, wrapping paper, and other holiday decorations. 

Further Reading 

Segall, Barbara. The Holly and the Ivy. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1991. 


1^^^=<i^ ^ ^ 

Jesse Tree 

The Jesse tree gets its name from a prediction made by the Old Testa- 
ment prophet Isaiah describing the rise of a great, new Jewish leader 
as "a branch" growing "from the stock of Jesse" (Isaiah 11:1). In refer- 
ence to this prophecy, medieval artists frequently painted portraits of 
Jesus and his ancestors on the limbs of a tree, with Jesus at its crown 
and Jesse at its root. This image was called a "Jesse tree." The identity 
of Jesus' ancestors played an important role in establishing his identi- 
ty as the Messiah. In recognition of this fact, both Gospel Nativity 
stories included an account of Jesus' genealogy. Chapter one of the 
Gospel according to Matthew, which directly precedes Matthew's 
account of Christ's birth, begins by listing Jesus' ancestors. The Gos- 
pel according to Luke (3:23-38) offers a slightly different account of 
Jesus' ancestry {see also Gospel Accounts of Christmas). 

The Jesse tree has long served as a symbol of Jesus' ancestry in 
Christian art. In recent times, however, people have begun to use the 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

image of the Jesse tree to adapt the modern Christmas tree to 
specifically Christian ends. Ornaments representing events in the 
lives of Jesus' ancestors are hung on an evergreen tree or tree branch. 
Some people add symbols for other biblical figures and events as 
well. For example, Moses may be represented by stone tablets, David 
by a six-pointed star, Jonah by a whale, and Judith by a sword. 
Decorated this way, the evergreen becomes a living Jesse tree. 

Further Reading 

Augustine, Peg, comp. Come to Christmas. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 

Metcalfe, Edna. The Trees of Christmas. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 






Christians view Jesus of Nazareth as the founder of their faith. He 
spent his adult life as a spiritual teacher and healer who moved from 
place to place, teaching people about God. In one Bible passage 
Jesus describes himself as "anointed" by God to "preach good news 
to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives and recovering of 
sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed," and "to 
proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19). Christian 
scripture also describes Jesus as the Son of God whose sacrificial 
death renewed humanity's relationship with God and conferred the 
forgiveness of sins. 

The Easter festival commemorates the life, death, and resurrection of 
the adult Jesus. The Christmas festival, by contrast, celebrates his 
coming into the world. Theologians call this event the Incarnation, a 
word that literally means "to be made flesh." 

The Incarnation 

"Incarnation" refers to the idea that Jesus was both human and 
divine, and that in him God came to earth in human form. The joy 
and hope inspired by this event has found a multitude of expres- 
sions in the world's Christmas celebrations. 

In the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to 
Luke, the accounts given of Jesus' birth state that his mother, Mary, 
conceived Jesus by the power of God's Holy Spirit while still a virgin. 
Thus Jesus was both human and divine, an idea also expressed in 
two of his biblical titles, "Son of God" and "Son of Man." 

Commentators have remarked that the stories of Jesus' birth reveal 
something of the nature of the Christian God. The stories show that 
God is not distant and unmoved by human suffering, but rather 
cares about particular people in particular places and so enters into 
the world to effect good. Indeed, Mary is directed by the angel 
Gabriel to name her son Jesus, which means "God saves" or "God 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

heals." Christian scripture expresses Jesus' care for his followers by 
describing him as a shepherd. 

In recent years, some theologians have begun to question traditional 
views of the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth. They point out that 
"son of God" was a title that the ancient Hebrews gave to people 
who played a special role in bringing God's help to humanity. The 
title did not imply divine identity, but rather service rendered to God. 
These thinkers suggest that the Christian notion of a divine Son of 
God came about after Jesus' death, as people struggled to understand 
the nature of Jesus' spiritual authority and to define his identity. The 
Virgin Birth has similarly been questioned. Some theologians today 
accord it greater symbolic than literal significance, suggesting that the 
story of the Virgin Birth was invented to symbolize Jesus' divine ori- 
gins to a first-century audience. Others interpret Mar/s virginity as a 
symbolic representation of her spiritual wholeness. 

Jesus the Christ 

Jesus' followers also gave him the title "Christ," which comes from 
the Greek word for "anointed." Among the ancient Jews high reli- 
gious leaders underwent a ceremony in which they were anointed 
with oil. Jesus' followers viewed him as the one chosen and anointed 
by heaven to reconcile humanity with God and so came to call him 
Jesus Christ. 

Jesus' Birth According to John 

Although most people refer to the accounts of Jesus' birth given in 
Matthew and Luke as the Bible's two Infancy Narratives, the Gospel 
according to John offers another, more philosophical account of 
Jesus' coming into the world. It, too, emphasizes Jesus' divine nature 
and explains that God came into the world through Jesus that 
humans might come to know God. In this poetical passage Jesus' 
divine essence is referred to as "the Word" and as "light": 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, 
and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; 
all things were made through him, and without him was not 
anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life 



was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and 
the darkness has not overcome it. 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He 
came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all 
might believe through him. He was not the light, but came 
to bear witness to the light. 

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into 
the world. He was in the world, and the world was made 
through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his 
own home, and his own people received him not. But to all 
who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power 
to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor 
of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of 
grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the 
only Son from the Father [John 1:1-14]. 

Creeds and Councils 

John's passage concerning Jesus' birth raises theological issues not 
addressed in the other two Gospel accounts. Several hundred years 
after the birth of Jesus, theologians were still debating the exact 
nature of Jesus' identity and the mechanics of how he came into 
being and into the world. Christian leaders decided that they needed 
to settle these debates once and for all. So they held councils in 
which they hammered out a general consensus on these matters, 
creating in the process various creeds and doctrines of the church. 
Especially important were the Nicene Creed, formulated at the Coun- 
cil of Nicea in 325, and the doctrines that came out of the Council of 
Chalcedon in 451. 

The Festival of Jesus' Birth 

The holiday devoted to the celebration of Jesus' birth, which we call 
Christmas, dates back to the year 336. It was set for December 25, 
an already important date in the ancient world. Centuries later. 
Christians would become concerned with establishing the year of 
Jesus' birth, which had not been recorded in scripture or other early 
Christian writings (see Jesus, Year of Birth). 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

The debate over when Jesus was born continues to this day, as does 
discussion concerning the appropriate way in which to celebrate 
Jesus' birth. Five hundred years ago, the Puritans objected to cele- 
brations that revolved around eating, drinking, masquerading, and 
game playing. More recently some Americans have begun to ques- 
tion the degree of commercialism that has invaded the festival. 
Some feel, like the Puritans of old, that contemporary American 
Christmas celebrations have become so divorced from the story of 
Jesus' birth that the holiday is more a secular than a religious one. 
Many are searching for ways to link the spiritual teachings contained 
in the story of Jesus' birth to their own Christmas celebrations. 
Indeed many devotional books advise Christians of various denomi- 
nations on how to prepare their own heart and spirit to receive the 
Christ Child {see also Advent). Some who do not identify them- 
selves as Christians are looking for ways to celebrate the holiday's 
secular themes and its universal spiritual themes, while disregarding 
specific Christian doctrines. These themes include generosity and 
gift giving, the celebration of birth and new life, the joys of winter, 
and the return of the sun {see also Winter Solstice). 

Further Reading 

Brown, Raymond E. An Adult Christ at Christmas. CoUegeville, Minn.: Litur- 
gical Press, 1988. 

. The Birth of the Messiah. Updated edition. New York: Doubleday, 


Burns, Charlene P. E. Divine Becoming. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 

Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. "Incarnation, the." In their The Ox- 
ford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, 
England: Oxford University Press, 1983. 

Gregg, D. Larry. "Incarnation." In David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Bible 
Dictionary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Com- 
pany, 2000. 

Hick, John. The Metaphor of God Incarnate. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John 
Knox Press, 1993. 

Horsley, Richard A. The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in So- 
cial Context. New York: Crossroad, 1989. 

Maier, Paul L. In the Fullness of Time. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1991. 


Jesus, Year of Birth 

Matera, Frank J. "Incarnation." In Paul J. Aclitemeier, ed. The HarperCollins 

Bible Dictionary. Revised edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancis- 

co, 1996. 
Raya, Joseph. Abundance of Love. West Newton, Mass.: Educational Service 

Department, Melkite Greek Catholic Diocese of Newton, 1989. 
Weis, E. A. "Incarnation." In New Catholic Encyclopedia.Volume 7. New York: 

McGraw-Hill, 1967. 

JesHS^ Year of BiVtl^ 

Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25. A quick look 
at the bibHcal accounts of the Nativity, however, reveals the fact that 
neither story mentions the year or the date of Jesus' birth {see also 
Gospel According to Matthew; Gospel According to Luke; and 
Gospel Accounts of Christmas). Over the centuries many scholars 
have tried to match details given in the two Gospel accounts of the 
Nativity with known historical events in order to establish the year 
and date of Jesus' birth. Although debate continues, most scholars 
now believe that Jesus was born sometime between 7 and 4 B.C. 

The Date 

The biblical accounts of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem provide only one 
clue as to the date of this event. Luke's Nativity story mentions 
shepherds who were spending the night with their flocks in the 
fields. In those days shepherds might well have spent the night with 
their flocks during the spring lambing season in order to aid the 
newborn lambs and their mothers. Historians believe that it is much 
less likely that shepherds would be sleeping in the fields with their 
flocks during the winter. This detail from Luke's account would 
seem to suggest that Jesus was born sometime in the spring. Never- 
theless, the first celebrations of the Nativity took place in January. 
During the second and third centuries, a number of Christian com- 
munities began to commemorate Jesus' birth on January 6 as part of 
their Epiphany celebrations. In the middle of the fourth century. 


1»MM!Mga^li P ^.tM!ga[i3J. 

Jesus, Year of Birth 

Church officials in Rome established a separate festival to honor the 
Nativity. They chose to celebrate this festival on December 25, and 
successfully promoted it throughout the Christian world. 

The Year 

The scriptural accounts of the Nativity offer more, but somewhat 
conflicting, clues to those searching for the year of Jesus' birth. They 
agree in one regard, though. Both Luke's and Matthew's Nativity 
stories assert that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the 
Great, king of Judea (73 B.C.-4 B.C.). The Gospel of Matthew offers an 
additional clue, implying that Herod died not long after Jesus' birth. 
Most historians agree that Herod died in the year 4 B.C., since arche- 
ological evidence points to the fact that his successors began their 
reigns in that year. Taken together these indications suggest that 
Jesus was born sometime between 7 and 4 B.C. Luke also mentions 
that Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman emperor Caesar 
Augustus (63 B.C. -14 a.d.). Augustus ruled the Roman Empire from 
around 42 B.C. to 14 a.d., so this information fits with the assump- 
tion that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, possi- 
bly near the time of Herod's death. 

A closer look at Luke's account of the Nativity complicates matters, 
however. Luke declares that Jesus' birth coincided with a Roman 
census called for by Emperor Augustus and administered locally by 
Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Historians know that Quirinius 
became governor of Syria in 6 a.d. Furthermore, they confirm that 
he conducted a census of Judea around 6-7 a.d. This information fits 
with the claim that Jesus was born in the days of Caesar Augustus, 
but contradicts the claim that he was born during the reign of Herod 
the Great, who presumably died in 4 B.C. 

Although scholars have put forward a number of ingenious proposals 
to reconcile the date of Quirinius's census with the date of Herod's 
death, most researchers agree that Luke must have erred when he 
wrote that Jesus was born during the time of the census. Some 
scholars suggest that Luke may have included the story of the cen- 
sus as a way of locating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, since Jewish 
scripture claimed that the Messiah would be born there. Historians 
who find Luke's description of the Roman census somewhat uncon- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

vincing tend to support this view. They argue that a Roman census 
would not require people to return to their ancestral homeplaces, 
since the Romans were interested in where people lived, not where 
their ancestors came from. 

The Gospel of Luke provides another clue to the year of Jesus' birth 
in a later passage describing the beginning of Jesus' ministry. In 
chapter three Luke informs us that Jesus was about thirty years old 
in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 
B.C. -37 A.D.; Luke 3:1, 23). The fifteenth year of Tiberius's reign 
occurred between the years 27 to 28 a.d. This data fits well with the 
proposal that Jesus was born sometime between 7 and 4 B.C., but 
conflicts with a birth date of 6 to 7 a.d. 

The Star 

The Gospel of Matthew offers one final bit of information some 
scholars have used to determine the year of Jesus' birth. According to 
Matthew, the rising of an unusual star heralded the birth of Jesus. 
Many ancient peoples studied the night skies and recorded any 
unusual occurrences. A number of scholars have studied these an- 
cient records in an attempt to identify possible candidates for the 
Christmas star and so determine the year of Christ's birth {see also 
Star of Bethlehem). 

Most of these scholars identify the triple conjunction of 7 B.C. as the 
most likely candidate for the Christmas star, but recently some writ- 
ers have switched their allegiance to the triple conjunction of 3-2 B.C. 

In order to reconcile a Christmas star that appeared in 3-2 B.C. with 
the claim that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, 
they reject the idea that Herod died in 4 B.C. They argue instead that 
Herod died in 1 B.C. They point to the writings of the ancient Jewish 
historian Josephus to back up their claim. According to Josephus, in 
the year Herod died a lunar eclipse preceded Passover. Josephus also 
recorded a number of events that took place between the eclipse 
and Herod's death. In the year 4 B.C. ancient astronomers indeed 
recorded the occurrence of a partial lunar eclipse one month before 
the Jewish holiday of Passover. In the year 1 B.C., however, a full 
lunar eclipse occurred three months before Passover. Some scholars 


Jesus, Year of Birth 

argue that Josephus was referring to this ecHpse, reasoning that the 
full eclipse was the more dramatic event and therefore more likely to 
have impressed historians. Furthermore, because the 1 B.C. eclipse 
occurred approximately three months before Passover, there was 
time for all the events that Josephus claimed happened between the 
eclipse and Herod's demise to play out. This line of reasoning leads 
to the conclusion that Jesus was born in the years 3 to 2 B.C. 

Continuing Controversy 

To date scholars have not been able to reconcile every detail in 
Matthew's and Luke's Nativity stories with known historical events 
in a way that everyone can agree on. Debates over the correct date 
and year of Jesus' birth are nothing new. They can be traced as far 
back as the third century. In addition, some modern scholars now 
believe that Matthew and Luke intended their Nativity stories to 
serve as spiritually, rather than historically, accurate accounts of 
Jesus' birth. If so, the attempt to correlate the details reported in 
these stories with historically documented events is somewhat un- 
likely to provide us with the correct year and date of Jesus' birth. 

B.C. and A.D. 

Although scholars cannot agree on the year of Jesus' birth, our cal- 
endar system assumes that Jesus was born in the year 1 B.C. It 
divides recorded history into two eras, labeled "b.c." and "a.d." b.c. 
stands for "before Christ" and a.d. stands for Anno Domini, a Latin 
phrase that means "in the year of the Lord." This method of reckon- 
ing was devised in the early sixth century by a monk named Dion- 
ysus Exiguus (c. 500-c. 560). At that time people still relied upon the 
old Roman system for numbering years. This system reckoned the 
year in which Diocletian (c. 245-c. 313) was proclaimed emperor of 
Rome, 284 a.d., as year one. This methodology distressed Dionysus, 
who declared that Christians should no longer perpetuate a calen- 
dar system associated with Diocletian since he was a noted persecu- 
tor of Christians. Instead, he proposed that the birth of Jesus serve as 
the landmark event from which to date the dawn of a new era. 
Dionysus accepted the then- established date of Christmas, Decem- 
ber 25, and the Roman date for the beginning of the new year. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

January 1. He calculated the year of Jesus' birth to the best of his abili- 
ties and declared that year to be 1 B.C. Dionysus then proclaimed that 
the new. Christian era began seven days later on January 1, 1 a.d. 

St. Bede (c. 672-735), a scholarly Anglo-Saxon monk, began the 
practice of dating historical events from the birth of Christ, and other 
writers followed his lead. This system of reckoning time gained near 
universal acceptance over the centuries. In recent years, however, 
people who object to the Christian bias implicit in this system have 
replaced the initials B.C. with "b.c.e.," which stands for "before com- 
mon era." Accordingly, the initials a.d. are replaced with "c.E.," 
which stands for "common era." 

Further Reading 

Achtemeier, Paul J., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Revised edition. 

San Francisco, Calif: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. 
Begley, Sharon. "The Christmas Star — Or Was it Planets?" Newsweek 118, 

27 (December 30, 1991): 54. 
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New updated edition. New 

York: Doubleday, 1993. 
Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian 

Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1983. 
Keck, Leander, ed. New Interpreter's Bible: Luke, John. Volume IX. Nashville, 

Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1996. 
Krupp, E. C. Beyond the Blue Horizon. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. 
Mosley, lohn. The Christmas Star. Los Angeles, Calif.: Griffith Observatory, 

Porter, ]. R. The Illustrated Guide to the Bible. New York: Oxford University 

Press, 1995. 






John Canoe, John Kooner, Junkanoo 

At the beginning of the eighteenth century a new Christmas custom 
arose in the British West Indies. Called Jonkonnu, this Caribbean 
Christmas celebration blended African and English masquerade and 
mumming traditions. At one time Jonkonnu celebrations spread as 
far as the southern United States. The festival survives today in 
Jamaica, the Bahamas, Belize, St. Kitts-Nevis, Guyana, and Bermuda. 

Jonkonnu in Jamaica 

The origins of Jonkonnu reflect Jamaica's colonial history. The British 
seized control of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1660 and established a 
colonial outpost there. Although some African slaves already lived 
on the island, in the late seventeenth century the English colonists 
began to import slaves from west Africa in great numbers to work 
on their sugar plantations. The English colonists brought many cul- 
tural traditions with them to Jamaica, including the celebration of 
Christmas with music, dancing, masquerades, and mumming. The 
African slaves retained their own music, dance, and masquerade tra- 
ditions, for which they, too, sought an outlet. These two cultural 
streams flowed together in Jamaican Christmas celebrations, giving 
rise to Jonkonnu. 

Jamaican Jonkonnu celebrations take place on December 26 {see also 
St. Stephen's Day). Most of the Jonkonnu performers are male. 
Bands of dancers prepare homemade costumes that identify them as 
specific characters associated with the festival masquerade. Some of 
these characters, such as "cowhead," clearly reflect African imagery. 
Others, like "the king" and "the queen," show remnants of British 
influence. Small bands of musicians accompany these dancers as 
they briefly parade to some public location. The bands are composed 
of both African instruments, like the gumbay drum, and European 
instruments, such as the fife. The dancing that takes place when the 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

group arrives at the chosen site also illustrates this Afro-European 
cultural blend. The participants combine African dance movements 
with old European dance steps, such those from the quadrille. 
African cultural influences appear to dominate Jonkonnu dancing, 
probably because Jamaicans of African descent developed and kept 
the custom alive over the centuries. 

No one knows for sure where the name "Jonkonnu" comes from. 
Some say it refers to an early eighteenth-century west African king, 
John Canoe. Others believe it represents a sloppy English pronuncia- 
tion of a French phrase, gens inconnu, meaning "unknown people." 
They suggest that early observers gave that name to the ritual 
because they could not recognize the masked and costumed dancers. 

Jonkonnu in the Caribbean 

As Jonkonnu spread throughout the Caribbean, the people of differ- 
ent islands varied the costumes, parades, dances, festival name, and 
festival date. Belize dancers call their tradition "John Canoe" and 
perform it on Christmas and December 26, Boxing Day. In the 
Bahamas the festival is called "Junkanoo" and is celebrated between 
December 26 and January 1, New Year's Day. Bahamians use strips 
of colored paper to create dazzling costumes for Junkanoo. Today, 
with government sponsorship of the parade and costume competi- 
tion, the elaborate costumes worn by top competitors resemble 
those of Trinidad's fabulous Carnival celebrations. 

Jonkonnu in the United States 

During slavery times American blacks in North Carolina also carried 
out the Jonkonnu ritual at Christmas time. They called the custom 
"John Kooner" and spoke of going "John Canoeing" or "John Kun- 
ering" on Christmas morning. Like their Caribbean counterparts, 
most participants in American Jonkonnu celebrations were men. 
They prepared homemade costumes embellished with strips of col- 
orful cloth and also wore masks, some of which sported horns. Thus 
garbed, and armed with simple musical instruments such as drums, 
triangles, violins, and Jew's harps, they made their way across town. 
The masqueraders stopped at the houses of the well-to-do, sang 
and danced for the occupants, and asked for money in return. They 



also entertained the people they met on their way. Some reports 
depict plantation slaves celebrating Jonkonnu on the grounds of the 
estate. The plantation owners enjoyed the music, dancing, and mas- 
querading, and often rewarded the participants with small gifts, 
such as coins or scarves. Some slaveowners convinced themselves 
that the happiness the slaves enjoyed during this yearly festival justi- 
fied the institution of slavery. 

The nineteenth- century American version of Jonkonnu strongly 
resembles the Christmas mumming practices common in England 
at the time. Nevertheless, the custom probably arrived in the United 
States via Jamaica and the Bahamas. In past centuries, much trade 
from these areas entered the United States through the port town of 
Wilmington, North Carolina. Caribbean slaves familiar with Jonkon- 
nu probably passed the custom on to American blacks via this trade 
route. After the Civil War African Americans began to abandon Jon- 
konnu. Oddly enough, as the tradition declined among African 
Americans, white youths began to adopt it. They called the seasonal 
masquerade "coonering" and kept it going from the 1890s until it 
finally died out in the early 1900s. {See also America, Christmas in 

Further Reading 

Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin, eds. The Folklore of American 

Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1987. 
Kane, Harnett T. The Southern Christmas Book. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: 

Omnigraphics, 1998. 
Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 

Nunly, John W., and Judith Bettleheim, eds. Caribbean Festival Arts. Seattle, 

Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1988. 
Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 


Web Site 

The Bahamas Tourism Office provides information on Jonkonnu at: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Jesus' earthly father was a man named Joseph. The Bible implies 
that he made his living as a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). In the Gos- 
pel accounts of Christmas Joseph emerges as a righteous man of 
faith who dutifully observes the rituals of his religion. 

Joseph plays a relatively large role in the story of Jesus' birth recorded 
in the Gospel according to Matthew (chapters 1 and 2). When he 
finds out that his betrothed wife, Mary, is pregnant, he decides that 
he will follow Jewish law by breaking his engagement to her. Instead 
of doing so publicly, however, he looks for some way to call it off qui- 
etly. Many commentators have read his desire not to inflict unneces- 
sary shame upon Mary as a sign of Joseph's righteousness. Then an 
angel visits Joseph, informing him that Mary is pregnant by God's 
Holy Spirit and asking that he take her as his wife. Joseph demon- 
strates his faith and trust in God by continuing his engagement to 
Mary and eventually marrying her. In Matthew's account the angel 
appears once more to Joseph after Jesus' birth. The angel warns him to 
leave Bethlehem immediately, as Herod is planning to kill all the 
town's male babies in an effort to rid himself of the "newborn King of 
the Jews" {see Holy Innocents' Day). Once again, Joseph places his 
trust in the angel's message and hurries his family away to Egypt. 

Joseph plays a much smaller role in the story of Jesus' birth reported 
in the Gospel according to Luke. In this account, the angel appears 
to Mary with the message of Jesus' divine father. Yet in this version, 
too, Joseph trusts the divine message and continues his engagement 
with Mary. Luke says nothing of the Flight into Egypt. Instead, he 
mentions Jesus' circumcision and naming ceremony, which took 
place eight days after Jesus' birth, according to Jewish law {see Feast 
of the Circumcision). Once again, Joseph is portrayed as a pious 
man who carefully observes the teachings of his religion. 

Joseph does not appear in the gospel accounts of Jesus' adult life. 
This has led many commentators to assume that Joseph died before 



Jesus became an adult. Many Christian artists have portrayed Joseph 
as an old man in accordance with this interpretation. 

As the centuries rolled by. Christians became more and more inter- 
ested in Joseph. Perhaps because the Bible has so little to say about 
him, an apocryphal, or legendary, literature sprang up, adding iiir- 
ther detail to his life and personality. In Roman Catholicism, he be- 
came the patron saint of workers, fathers, and happy deaths, as well 
as the patron saint of Canada, Mexico, Russia, Peru, Korea, Bel- 
gium, Vietnam, Austria, and Bohemia. 

Feast Days 

Western Christians began to observe March 19 as St. Joseph's Day in 
the Middle Ages. Researchers have yet to unearth the reason for the 
selection of that particular date. Orthodox and other Eastern Christi- 
ans honor St. Joseph on the first Sunday after Christmas. In 1955 
Pope Pius XII declared May 1 to be St. Joseph the Worker's Day, in 
an effort to add religious overtones to workers' celebrations that took 
place in various communist countries on that date. 

Christmas Customs 

Joseph, along with his wife Mary and the baby Jesus, are the central 
characters in most Nativity scenes. Nativity plays, including the 
Hispanic folk play called Las Posadas, accord him an important role. 
He is also mentioned in a number of Christmas carols, such as 
"Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine" and the "Cherry Tree Carol." 

Further Reading 

Coats, George W., and Paul J. Achtemeier. "Joseph." In Paul J. Achtemeier, 
ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Revised edition. San Francisco, 
CaUf.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. 

Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. "St. Joseph." In their The Oxford Dic- 
tionary of the Christian Church. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: 
Oxford University Press, 1983. 

Filas, F. L. "Joseph, St." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 7. New York: 
McGraw-HiU, 1967. 

. "loseph St., Devotion to." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 7. 

New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Saints. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 

Yang, Seung Ai. "Joseph." In David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Bible Dic- 
tionary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 


Julklapp is the Swedish term for a Christmas gift. The term "Julk- 
lapp" literally means "Christmas knock." This name comes from an 
old Swedish custom whereby Christmas gift givers would knock on 
doors, toss in their gift, and run away. These mysterious packages 
might also be delivered by the Yule goat. 

In previous eras, Scandinavians exchanged important gifts on New 
Year's Day. They treated Christmas Eve as an occasion only for small 
or token gifts. In Sweden these small gifts, or Julklapp, became vehi- 
cles for seasonal fun and games. The gift giver tried to keep his or her 
identity a secret by hurrying away. Nevertheless, givers often wrote a 
dedication on the wrapping paper, which could offer clues to their 
identity. These dedications teased recipients in a few lines of rhyming 
verse. Sometimes gift givers hid the real gift inside something of lesser 
value. For example, they might insert a gold ring inside a small cake. 



At other times they confounded recipients with trick packaging. A 
series of boxes might be wrapped one inside the next. The final box 
might contain directions to the location of the actual present. The 
more time people spent on figuring out the puzzles presented by the 
Julklapp, the more successful the gift was considered to be. 

The Swedes still refer to Christmas presents as Julklapp. Even though 
most of the old customs surrounding the gifts have disappeared, they 
still enjoy sending rhymed verse along with their Christmas gifts. The 
rhymes usually needle the recipient about some past action or char- 
acter flaw. Sometimes they take the form of a riddle about the gift 
itself. The good humor generated by these rhymes is an integral part 
of the Christmas gift. {See also St. Nicholas's Day.) 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977. 




Joulutonttuja, Julenissen, Julnissen 

In Sweden, Christmas gifts are brought by the Jultomten. The word 
Jultomten combines the Swedish word for Christmas, Jul, with the 
word tomten, which means household fairy or elf. The Jultomten is 
often depicted as a portly gnome with a white beard and a pointed 
red cap. During most of the year this creature hides under the stair- 
case, in the attic, or in any other dark corner of the house. The 
Jultomten emerges on Christmas Eve, tucking small gifts into un- 
likely locations about the house. Capricious by nature, the Jultomten 
may reward or punish householders depending on his mood. Old 
customs suggest that the family leave small offerings of porridge and 
mUk, or even liquor and tobacco, about the house to appease him. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

1)^ 'i^- 

Each family or neighborhood may elect a member to dress up as the 
Jultomten. After assuming a disguise that will hopefully hide his or 
her identity from the children, the Jultomten knocks on the door with 
a sack of presents. When the door opens the Jultomten asks, "Are 
there any good children here?" and distributes presents accordingly. 

Denmark, Norway, and Finland 

In Denmark these Christmas elves are known as Julnissen, and in 
Norway as Julenissen. Although similar to the Jultomten in appear- 
ance, the Danish Julnissen does not distribute gifts. Instead, he lurks 
about the dark corners of the house, perhaps assuring himself that 
the family cares properly for the homestead. The Norwegian Jule- 
nissen takes after his Swedish cousin and does bring gifts. These 
Danish and Norwegian sprites become more active during the dark 
midwinter season. Like the Jultomten, they, too, must be placated 
with porridge on Christmas Eve if the householders wish to escape 
their pranks. Finland also has its version of the Christmas gnomes, 
called the Joulutonttuja. Unlike the other Scandinavian Christmas 
gnomes, the Joulutonttuja are cheerful, helpful creatures. They watch 
children to find out what they'd like as presents and help Santa 
make these gifts in his workshop. 




In ancient times Scandinavian householders thought that the spirits 
of the land's past inhabitants lingered on, jealously watching over 
their old domain. During Yule, when the dead were believed to 
return, the thoughtful, and perhaps fearful, made offerings of food 
and drink to these ghosts. Folk belief gradually transformed these 
spirits into the Scandinavian household fairies known as nissen or 
tomten. These peevish elves guarded household and barn. When 
unsatisfied with the family's behavior, they punished them with 
small pranks, like making the milk go sour. 

The figure of the Jultomten developed in the late 1800s. Before that 
time the Yule goat brought Swedish families their Christmas pre- 
sents. The traditional Swedish tomten, or household sprite, is not 
associated with any particular season. By contrast, the Jultomten not 
only appears around Christmas time, but also delivers presents. The 
importation of German Christmas decorations in the late nineteenth 
century, featuring the gift- giving St. Nicholas, may have suggested 
the assignment of this function to the Jultomten. The English gift 
giver Father Christmas may also have influenced this shift. Some 
writers suggest that the Scandinavian Jultomten, Julnissen, and Joulu- 
tonttuja, in turn, inspired the invention of the helpful elves who 
became Santa Claus's assistants in the frozen North Pole. 

Further Reading 

Cagner, Ewert, comp. Swedish Christmas. New York: Henry Holt and Com- 
pany, 1959. 
Christmas in Denmark. Chicago: World Book, 1986. 
Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: (CUck on "Language," "English," "History, culture, 
geography, recreation," then scroU down to "Christmas in Norway.") 




Kalends, the Roman new year festival, began on January 1 and last- 
ed until January 5. The Romans celebrated Kalends in much the 
same way they did Saturnalia. Early Christian writers condemned 
the carousing crowds. Nevertheless, some of the customs associated 
with Kalends were eventually absorbed into the celebration of 

In 45 B.C. the Roman emperor Julius Caesar introduced a new calen- 
dar (called the Julian calendar) which shifted the date of the Roman 
new year from March 25 to January 1. The Romans called the festival 
that began on this day "kalends" (or "calends"). They also used this 
word to refer to the first day of each month. On this day Roman offi- 
cials posted the calendar for each month. The English word "calen- 
dar" comes from the old Latin term "kalends." 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


The Romans celebrated Kalends by decorating their homes and 
temples with lights and greenery. They exchanged gifts with one 
another as well. A sprig of greenery taken from the groves dedicated 
to the goddess Strenia was considered a very traditional gift. Later 
the Romans added cakes and honey (symbolizing a "sweet" new 
year), and coins (symbolizing wealth) to the roster of traditional new 
year gifts. The Romans called these gifts strenae, after Strenia. This 
Latin word finds echo in the modern French word for new year's 
gift, etrenne. In addition to exchanging gifts with friends and family, 
many Romans offered gifts and vota, wishes for prosperity, to the 
emperor. The mad emperor Caligula (12 A.D.-41 a.d.) went so far as 
to require these gifts and good wishes, and stood outside the palace 
to collect them in person. 

Other Kalends customs included fortune -telling and informal mas- 
querades in which men cavorted through the streets dressed as ani- 
mals or as women. Their bold and sometimes rude antics entertained 
some onlookers and outraged others. Some researchers trace the ori- 
gins of mumming back to this Kalends custom. During the Kalends 
festival slaves enjoyed time off and even sat down with their masters 
to play dice. Feasting, drinking, and merrymaking rounded out the 
festival. Certain superstitions also attached themselves to the holiday. 
The Romans believed bad luck would follow any who lent fire or iron 
to a neighbor at this time. 

Kalend's Eve celebrations resembled our own New Year's Eve festiv- 
ities. A fourth-century Greek scholar named Libanius (314-393 a.d.) 
wrote that almost everyone stayed up on Kalend's Eve to usher in 
the new year with drinking, singing, and revelry. Instead of spending 
the evening at home, crowds of people roamed through the streets, 
returning to their houses near daybreak to sleep off the night's over- 
indulgence. Coins were distributed among the people on the first 
day of the new year. Indeed, all Kalends gift giving took place on the 
first of January. On January second most people stayed at home and 
played dice. Races entertained the populace on the third of January. 
Kalends festivities wound down on the fourth of January and finally 
came to a close on the fifth. 



Similarity to Christmas 

Libanius left future generations a lengthy description of the attitudes 
and activities that characterized the celebration of the Roman new 
year. This description reveals many striking similarities between Kal- 
ends and contemporary Christmas celebrations: 

The festival of Kalends ... is celebrated everywhere as far as 
the limits of the Roman Empire extend. . . . Everywhere may 
be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abun- 
dance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the 
houses of the poor better food than usual is put upon the 
table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the 
whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling 
up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant. He who erst- 
while was accustomed and preferred to live poorly, now at 
this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow. . . . 
People are not only generous towards themselves, but also 
towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself 
out on all sides. . . . The highroads and footpaths are covered 
with whole processions of laden men and beasts. ... As the 
thousand flowers which burst forth everywhere are the 
adornment of Spring, so are the thousand presents poured 
out on all sides, the decoration of the Kalends feast. It may 
justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year. . . . The 
Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and 
allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoy- 
ment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds 
of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the 
stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, so far as possible, 
to breath the air of freedom. . . . Another great quality of the 
festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their 
money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands 
[Miles, 1990, 168-69]. 

Christian Opposition 

Many of the customs and attitudes associated with Kalends and 
Saturnalia gradually attached themselves to the celebration of Christ- 
mas. Ironically, this transfer took place in spite of the overwhelming 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

rejection of these holidays and their customs by Christian officials. 
For centuries Christian authorities condemned the drunkenness, 
disorder, fortune-telling, gambling, and masquerading associated 
with the celebration of Kalends. Nevertheless, these customs proved 
remarkably difficult to stamp out, even after Christianity became the 
dominant religion and Christmas an important winter holiday. One 
researcher has counted at least forty separate Church documents 
containing official denunciations of the kinds of midwinter mas- 
querades associated with Kalends. These documents range from the 
fourth to the eleventh centuries and come from authorities in many 
European lands as well as north Africa and the Near East. 

Church officials urged their followers to abandon riotous pagan 
practices and instead to observe the day with thoughtfulness and 
sobriety. In 567 the second provincial Council of Tours tried to coun- 
teract the still popular festivities surrounding Kalends by ordering 
Christians to fast and do penance during the first few days of the 
new year. In the seventh century Church officials made a new effort 
to reclaim the day from pagan celebrations. They introduced a new 
Christian holy day, the Feast of the Circumcision, to be celebrated 
on January 1. By the time Kalends finally withered away, however, 
the peoples of Europe had already transferred many of its customs 
to the Christmas season. 

Further Reading 

Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. 

London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 





Callicantzari, KaUikantzaroi 

According to traditional Greek folklore, the kallikantzari rampaged 
across Greece during the Twelve Days of Christmas. These di- 
minutive demons spent the rest of the year deep inside the earth 
gnawing at the tree that supports the world. The tree renewed itself 
each year during the season of Christ's birth. Thus thwarted, the 
enraged kallikantzari swarmed up to the surface of the earth to be- 
devil humanity. The holy ceremonies occurring on Epiphany drove 
them back underground. Belief in the kallikantzari was especially 
strong in the region of Mt. Parnassos. 


Reports concerning the appearance of these demons varied. Accord- 
ing to some, the kallikantzari appeared half human and half animal. 
Many claimed to have caught a glimpse of long, curved talons, red 
eyes, hairy bodies, or donkey's ears. Others told frightening tales of 
tiny imps who rode astride lame or deformed chickens. 


According to Greek folklore, the kallikantzari knew many ways of 
vexing human beings. Some reports said that they entered homes by 
the door or the chimney, relieved themselves in any open containers 
of food and drink, upset furniture, and extinguished the fire. Others 
credited them with direct attacks on human beings. For example, 
they hopped on peoples' backs and drove them to dance until they 
collapsed. The presence of the kallikantzari during the Twelve Days 
of Christmas posed special problems for expectant mothers. Chil- 
dren born at this time of year ran the risk of becoming kallikantzari 
themselves. From sunset to dawn the demons roamed the country- 
side looking for opportunities to harass humanity. They tended to 
retreat into hiding places at daybreak, however. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Just as traditional beliefs warned of the dangers presented by the 
kallikantzari, they also offered methods for warding off these at- 
tacks. Keeping a fire burning in the hearth during the Twelve Days of 
Christmas prevented the demons from entering the home through 
the chimney. In addition, the kallikantzari found the smell of burn- 
ing shoes, salt, wild asparagus, or other substances that produced a 
foul smoke especially repugnant. Of course, so did human beings. 
Greek folklore apparently did not address the subject of whether 
this method of repelling the kallikantzari also repelled family, friends, 
and neighbors. Traditional lore also recommended hanging a pig's 
jaw bone by the door as a method of preventing the kallikantzari 
from crossing the threshold. To protect babies born during the Twelve 
Days of Christmas from becoming kallikantzari, mothers wrapped 
their infants in garlic or straw, or scorched their toes in the fire. 

The religious ceremonies associated with Epiphany offered the most 
effective method of driving off the malicious pranksters. According 
to Greek custom, priests visited homes on Epiphany, filling them with 
the scent of burning incense and sprinkling them with holy water. 
Greek folklore insisted that the kallikantzari fled before this on- 
slaught of holiness, retreating to their underground lair until the fol- 
lowing Christmas. 


According to various European folk traditions, demons, spirits, and 
magical creatures of all kinds roamed the earth during the Twelve 
Days of Christmas. Some of these demons served as the unlikely 
companions of St. Nicholas {see also St. Nicholas's Day). The good 
saint somehow tamed the Czechoslovakian cert, the Dutch Black 
Peter, and the German Knecht Ruprecht. Yet many other supernat- 
ural creatures still wandered freely through the dark nights. In some 
parts of northern Europe traditional lore asserted that werewolves, 
bears, or trolls prowled for victims during the Twelve Days of Christ- 
mas. Legends from some countries warned that the fearsome spirits 
known as the Wild Hunt raced across the night skies at this time of 
year. German lore cautioned that the supernatural figure known as 
Berchta toured the countryside with her entourage during these 



cold, dark days. Often, Frau Gaude, too, appeared to German vil- 
lagers at this time of year. Other folklore told of frolicking elves and 
fairies, such as the Swedish Jultomten and the Icelandic Christmas 

Further Reading 

Arrowsmitfi, Nancy, and George Moorse. A Field Guide to the Little People. 

New York: Pocket Books, 1977. 
Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday 1979. 
MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 

Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

King of tf^e Bean 

Bean King, Epiphany King 

A long succession of mock kings have ruled over winter holiday 
merrymaking in Europe. In ancient times they presided over feasts 
held in honor of the Roman festival of Saturnalia {see also Zag- 
muk). In the Middle Ages the boy bishop and the Lord of Misrule 
directed certain Christmas festivities {see also Feast of Fools). Twelfth 
Night celebrations, however, came under the special supervision of 
another mock ruler: the King of the Bean. 

In past centuries the English, French, Spanish, German, and Dutch 
celebrated Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, with a feast. The Twelfth 
Night cake not only provided dessert, but also helped to facilitate an 
old custom {see also Christmas Cake). While preparing the cake the 
cook dropped a bean, coin or other small object into the batter. The 
man who found this object in his slice of cake was declared "King of 
the Bean." If a woman received the bean, she became queen and 
appointed a man as king. 

The king presided over the rest of the evening's activities. In some 
areas the king chose his own queen. In others, a pea was also added 
to the cake batter and the woman who found the pea in her serving 
of cake enacted the role of "queen." Everyone else became a mem- 
ber of the royal court. At some parties the courtiers carried out their 
role by announcing the mock ruler's every action. Cries of "the king 
drinks" or "the king coughs" cued others to follow suit. The mock 
rulers might also give silly commands that the court was expected to 
carry out. The French saying, il a trouve la feve au gateau, which 
means "he found the bean in the cake," comes from this Twelfth 
Night custom and means "he's had some good luck." 


Christmas season mock kings sprouted up regularly in the courts 
of medieval Europe. Records indicate that in late medieval France 


King of the Bean 

these kings were selected by a kind of edible lottery. All candidates 
received a piece of a special cake into which a bean had been baked. 
Whoever found the bean in their slice of cake became the king of 
the feast. The title conferred upon these mock monarchs, "Bean 
King" or "King of the Bean/' referred back to this custom. It may 
also have alluded to their lack of real power. In the sixteenth century, 
ordinary Dutch and German households celebrated Twelfth Night 
by baking a coin into a cake and acknowledging whoever received 
the coin in their slice of cake as king of the feast. In the next century, 
this Twelfth Night custom spread to England, France, and Spain. 

The following poem by English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) 
describes a seventeenth-century English Twelfth Night feast. These 
lines capture the merriment surrounding the selection of the bean 
king and bean queen: 

Now, now the mirth comes 

With the cake full of plums, 
here bean's the king of sport here; 

Beside we must know. 

The pea also 
Must reveal as queen in the court here. 

Begin then to choose 

This night as ye use. 
Who shall for the present delight here 

Be a king by the lot. 

And who shall not 
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here. 

Which known, let us make 

Joy- sops with the cake; 
And let not a man then be seen here. 

Who unurg'd will not drink. 

To the base from the brink, 
A health to the king and the queen here [MUes, 1990, 338]. 

The English added an innovation of their own to the Twelfth Night 
feast. In 1669 English diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) described 
his enjoyment of a new custom whereby Twelfth Night merrymakers 
drew slips of paper from a hat on which were written the names of 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

characters found at the bean king's court. They were expected to 
impersonate this character for the rest of the evening. In this way 
everyone present at the celebration, not just the king and queen, got 
into the act. 

The King of the Bean continued to preside over English Twelfth 
Night celebrations until the nineteenth century. In this era people 
began to substitute metallic objects for the bean and pea embedded 
in earlier Twelfth Night cakes. These objects stood for future fortunes 
rather than for characters. For example, a ring might foretell mar- 
riage, and a thimble spinsterhood. The importance of Twelfth Night 
declined throughout the nineteenth century. Rather than fade into 
oblivion, however, this fortune-telling custom transferred itself to 
Christmas. The tokens found a new home inside the plum pudding 
so popular at English Christmas dinners. By the end of the nine- 
teenth century the English had all but abandoned the Twelfth Night 
king. The custom of baking a bean into the Twelfth Night cake sur- 
vived into the twentieth century in the southern French region of 
Provence. In Germany the bean king and his cake still appear at 
Epiphany celebrations. 

Further Reading 

Chambers, Robert. "lanuary 6 — Twelfth-Day." In his The Book of Days. 

Volume 1. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Hadfield, Miles, and lohn Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, 

Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. 
Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. 

London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. 
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 

Company, 1976. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1996. 
MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 

Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 



Kissing Bough 



Kissing Ball, Kissing Bunch, Kissing Ring 

During the nineteenth century a kissing bough hung from the door- 
way, ceiHng, or chandeHer of many EngHsh homes at Christmas 
time. FamiHes fashioned this homemade decoration by winding 
Christmas greenery around a circular wire frame. Sometimes a 
spherical frame was formed by placing one hoop inside another. 
Householders often embellished this basic design with ribbons, 
apples, oranges, colored paper, candles, and other ornaments. 

The most important element in the kissing bough was mistletoe. 
Mistletoe might cover the frame or, if only a small quantity was 
available, a bunch of mistletoe might hang from the center of the 
frame. By the time the kissing bough became popular in the late 
eighteenth century, the English had already adopted the custom of 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

stealing kisses from those who passed by, or stood beneath, a sprig 
of mistletoe. Placed where guests and family members were certain 
to walk under it, the kissing bough provided an opportunity to exer- 
cise this custom. In the nineteenth century the English began to dec- 
orate their homes with Christmas trees. As the tree became the 
focal point of English Christmas decorations, the kissing bough de- 
clined in popularity. 

Further Reading 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, 
Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. 

Harrowven, Jean. Origin of Festivals and Feasts. London, England: Kaye and 
Ward, 1980. 

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 
Company, 1976. 

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 
Press, 1996. 

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 


Knecht Ruprecht 



Aschenklas, Belsnickel, BuUerklas, Butz, Hans Muff, 

Hans Trapp, Klaubauf, Krampus, Pelz Nicholas, 

Pulterklas, Ru-Klas, Schimmelreiter 

According to old European folklore, a variety of frightening figures 
lurk in the long, dark nights of the Christmas season. They range 
from the ghostly personnel of the Wild Hunt to mysterious wan- 
derers such as Berchta and Frau Gaude. Many folklorists interpret 
these figures as remnants of old pagan spirits that blended into the 
emerging Christian folklore of the Christmas season. The folklore 
associated with St. Nicholas's Day offers a clear example of this 
dynamic. St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor, 
became the Christmas time gift bringer in much of northern and 
central Europe. According to folklore, however, this clearly Christian 
figure travels about with a variety of somewhat sinister companions. 
In Czechoslovakia, a demon called a cert accompanies the good 
Nicholas. In Holland the devilish Black Peter aids Nicholas in his 
virtuous work. And in the German-speaking lands scruffy Knecht 
Ruprecht trails behind St. Nicholas, meting out punishment to 
naughty children. Some folklorists trace Knecht Ruprecht's roots 
back to ancient times. 

Ruprecht's Many Names 

St. Nicholas's German helper goes by many different names. In 
Austria and some areas of Germany, many children know him as 
Knecht Ruprecht, which means "Knight" Ruprecht or "Servant" Ru- 
precht. Some Austrian tales name him as Krampus or Bartel, while 
German folklore also records the names Hans Muff, Butz, Hans Trapp, 
Krampus, Klaubauf, BuUerklas, Pulterklas, and Schimmelreiter. Some of 
the names assigned to this bogeyman reveal that somewhere along 
the line his identity merged with that of St. Nicholas. Some know 
him as Ru-Klas, or "Rough Nicholas," while others identify him as 
Pelz Nicholas, or "Fur Nicholas." Still others call him Aschenklas, or 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

"Ash Nicholas." In some areas a figure known as Pelzmartin, or "Fur 
Martin," blended the identity of St. Martin with the Christmas sea- 
son bogey {see also Martinmas). The Pennsylvania Dutch brought 
Pelz Nicholas with them to America when they began to settle in 
Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. There the name "Pelz Nich- 
olas" eventually slurred into Belsnickel (sometimes written as "Bell- 
snickle," "Bellschniggle," or "Pelznichol"; see also America, Christ- 
mas in Colonial). 


The appearance and activities of these folk figures vary in a number 
of details, but a rough composite image does emerge. Knecht Ru- 
precht startles onlookers with his menacing demeanor and unkempt 
appearance. He wears clothing made of rags, straw, or furs, and 
often adds a soot-blackened face, beard, or a frightening mask. In 
past times he sometimes sported devil's horns. In addition, he car- 
ries one or more of the tools of his trade: a whip, stick, bell, or sack. 
The bell warns of his approach. He cows all children into good be- 
havior and punishes badly behaved children with his whip or stick. 
The sack contains treats for well-behaved children and items that 
serve as symbolic warnings to wrongdoers that their misbehavior 
has not gone unnoticed. 

According to folklore St. Nicholas and his companion visit homes on 
St. Nicholas's Eve, often entering through the chimney. They leave 
treats, such as nuts, fruit, and cookies for good children, and ashes, 
birch rods, or other warnings for naughty ones. In some areas the pair 
make their rounds on Christmas Eve instead of St. Nicholas's Eve. 

For the most part, Knecht Ruprecht and his various aliases tag along 
behind St. Nicholas, serving as an ever-present reminder of the fate 
awaiting the poorly behaved. Although most often found serving St. 
Nicholas, in the past Knecht Ruprecht has also accompanied other 
saintly figures, such as St. Peter and St. Martin {see also Martinmas). 
In some areas of Germany he followed the Christkindel, or "Christ 
Child," on his gift-bringing journey. In other areas, however, this 
Christmas bogey appears to have struck out on his own. Belsnickel 
seems to have emigrated to America's Pennsylvania Dutch country 
without a companion saint. 


Knecht Ruprecht 


Few historical records mention Knecht Ruprecht or his counterparts. 
A seventeenth-century document notes the appearance of Knecht 
Ruprecht in a Christmas procession in Nuremberg, Germany. In 
addition, nineteenth- and early twentieth- century folklorists ob- 
served that people dressed as Ruprecht, St. Nicholas, and St. Martin 
visited homes during the Christmas season in Germany. Still, the 
lack of historical records has not prevented folklorists from guessing 
about Ruprecht's origins. Many believe that Ruprecht in all his guis- 
es represents some remnant of a pagan spirit or deity. One writer 
suspects that Ruprecht evolved from the Teutonic god Odin. An- 
other proposes that Ruprecht represents a relatively modern inter- 
pretation of the "wild man," an ancient, archetypal figure represent- 
ing the forces of nature. She suggests that as Christianity spread 
throughout Europe, Christian authorities campaigned against folk 
representations of the wild man, likening him to the Devil. After 
many centuries his role in folk celebrations dwindled to that of the 
scruffy servant who follows behind the Christmas season saints. 

European Customs 

Until the early part of the twentieth century, men dressed as Knecht 
Ruprecht and St. Nicholas visited homes on St. Nicholas's Eve in 
German-speaking lands. St. Nicholas quizzed the children on their 
behavior, their prayers, and their lessons, while Ruprecht posed 
threateningly in the background. In some areas the Christmas bogey 
worked alone and arrived on other dates during the Christmas sea- 
son, such as Christmas Eve. Although Knecht Ruprecht's looks and 
manners often intimidated, his brash and erratic behavior enter- 
tained. Children still prepare for his visit by leaving their shoes by 
the fireplace, on the doorstep, or in some other place where the gift 
bringer was sure to notice them. In the morning well-behaved chil- 
dren find their shoes filled with treats, while those whose behavior 
needs improvement find birch rods, ashes, or other warnings. 

Belsnickeling in the United States 

In the early years of the United States people from different coun- 
tries adopted elements of each other's lore and traditions, giving rise 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

to new customs. By the nineteenth century the English custom of 
mumming had grafted itself onto the Pennsylvania Dutch figure of 
the Belsnickel to create the custom of belsnickeling. 

Groups of young men or single individuals dressed themselves in 
rags, overcoats, or furs, and hid their faces behind beards, hats, or 
masks, or covered them with soot. They carried whips, bells, and sacks 
as they marched from house to house. After gaining entrance to a 
neighbor's home they entertained the householders with their comic 
antics and horseplay while family members tried to guess their iden- 
tities. In return for their visit the belsnickelers expected to receive 
hospitality in the form of food and drink. The belsnickelers took nuts 
and sweets out of their pockets and tossed them onto the floor, 
cracking their whips over the heads of any children bold enough to 
retrieve them. Sometimes they also pulled pranks on their neighbors 
under the cover of their disguise. 

Although Belsnickel was originally associated with St. Nicholas's 
Day, Pennsylvania belsnickelers shifted the dates of their activities 
closer to Christmas, visiting their neighbors in masquerade on the 
dark nights between Christmas and New Year's Day. Belsnickelers 
also plied their trade in Canada's Nova Scotia province. 


Christmas season masquerading met with some resistance by the 
more subdued groups who made up Pennsylvania's population. In 
the eighteenth century, Quakers in Philadelphia vigorously opposed 
this custom. Court records indicate that some masqueraders were 
brought before juries for their unruly behavior. In the early nine- 
teenth century the Pennsylvania House of Representatives formally 
outlawed Christmas season masquerading. Those who dared to 
flaunt this edict faced fines of between $50 and $1,000, and prison 
sentences of up to three months. A Philadelphia ordinance forbade 
Christmas Eve masquerading and noisemaking in 1881. Never- 
theless, belsnickelers continued their seasonal activities in rural 
areas settled by people of Germanic descent who were friendly to 
the custom. 


Knecht Ruprecht 


Belsnickeling died out in the early twentieth century, about the time 
when authorities ceased to oppose it. In 1901 Philadelphia issued its 
first permit for a New Year's Day mummers' parade. This parade 
developed out of the mumming and noisemaking traditions of a 
variety of Philadelphia's immigrant groups, among them the Ger- 
man-American tradition of belsnickeling. Philadelphia's New Year's 
Day Mummers Parade continues to this day. Today's parade, howev- 
er, revolves around a competition between highly organized groups 
wearing elaborate and expensive costumes. {For more on Christmas 
in Pennsylvania, see America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century; 
Amish Christmas; Barring Out the Schoolmaster; Bethlehem, 
Pennsylvania, Christmas in). 

Further Reading 

Barrick, Mac E. German-American Folklore. Little Rock, Ark.: August House, 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigrapfdcs, 1990. 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald 
Wolff, 1982. 

Sansom, William. A Book of Christmas. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Com- 
pany, 1968. 

Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsyl- 
vania Folklore Society, 1959. 

Siefker, Phyllis. Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland 
and Company, 1997. 

Thonger, Richard. A Calendar of German Customs. London, England: Os- 
wald Wolff, 1966. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the Philadelphia Recreation Department on the Mum- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Anklopfniichte, Klopfelnachte, Klopfelnachte, 

In past times, German folk beliefs alleged that evil spirits and witch- 
es accomplished many acts of mischief on Thursday nights during 
Advent. This belief may have faded, but the German Knocking 
Nights remain. Klopfelnachte, or "Knocking Nights," takes place on 
one or all of the last three Thursday nights during Advent. In parts of 
Upper and Lower Bavaria and rural zones of south Germany, 
groups of costumed children parade through the streets of town on 
these nights, ringing cowbells, cracking whips, rattling tin cans, and 
tossing pebbles against windows {see also Mumming). They march 
from house to house knocking on doors, reciting rhymes, and asking 
for gifts in return. Sometimes this request takes the form of shoving 
a pitchfork through the open doorway and singing a song that prais- 
es the householders. Family members then place a gift, such as an 
item of food, on one of the tines of the pitchfork. 

In other cases, the knockers toss a small present in through the open 
door and dash away, leaving the occupants to guess the sender's 
identity. These anonymous gifts, called Klopfelscheit, resemble the 
Julklapp tossed through open doors and windows in Scandinavia. 
The noisemaking element of this traditional celebration finds echo 
in numerous other European Christmas customs. 

Further Reading 

Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald 
Wolff, 1982. 

Sansom, William. A Book of Christmas. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Com- 
pany, 1968. 

Thonger, Richard. A Calendar of German Customs. London, England: Os- 
wald Wolff, 1966. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that is unrelated to Christ- 
mas. Nevertheless, its founder. Dr. Maulana Karenga, a University of 
California at Los Angeles professor from Nigeria, placed the seven- 
day holiday between Christmas and New Year's Day. He did so in 
order to provide an African-American alternative to Christmas, which 
he viewed as a European holiday. He also wanted to make Kwanzaa 
easy to celebrate by placing it during a week when many people were 
already celebrating and had time off from work or school. Kwanzaa 
begins on December 26 and lasts until January 1. 

Dr. Karenga hoped that the new holiday, based on principles and 
symbols associated with African harvest festivals, would provide an 
ethnic celebration all African Americans could observe, regardless of 
religious affiliation. He also sought to create a holiday that empha- 
sized communal and spiritual values, rather than the materialism he 
found rampant in American Christmas celebrations {see also Com- 

Karenga created the word "Kwanzaa" from the Swahili phrase 
matunda ya kzvanza, which means "first fruits." Many African first 
fruits celebrations, or harvest festivals, last between seven and nine 
days. Accordingly, Karenga decided to have the new American festi- 
val continue for seven days. He added the extra "a" to the Swahili 
word kzvanza so that the name of the new holiday, Kwanzaa, would 
contain seven letters. 

Karenga selected seven principles from among the values most 
commonly held in high esteem by the peoples of Africa and honored 
in their harvest celebrations. One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa 
is celebrated on each of the seven days of the festival. The seven 
principles include umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), 
ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative eco- 
nomics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). Kwan- 
zaa celebrations also feature a seven-branched candleholder called a 



kinara. The kinara holds red, green, and black candles — colors sym- 
bolic of African identity. One candle is lit on each of the seven 
nights. On December 31 celebrants participate in a communal feast. 
On January 1, the last day of the festival, modest gifts are ex- 

Since its founding in 1966 Kwanzaa has steadily grown in populari- 
ty. One researcher has estimated that over 18 million Americans 
observe Kwanzaa each year. Millions more are thought to celebrate 
the festival in Africa, Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe. 

Further Reading 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 

Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Om- 

nigraphics, 1997. 
Karenga, Maulana. The African-American Holiday of Kwanzaa. Los Angles, 

Calif.: University of Sankore Press, 1988. 
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year. Urbana, 111.: University of Illinois Press, 

Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 






If you ever attend a traditional English Christmas feast you might 
find lamb's wool on the menu. This oddly named English Christmas 
beverage combines sugar, spice, wine or ale, and a number of other 
ingredients. Over the years English cooks have varied the recipe in 
many ways. Most recipes include roasted, chopped apples. The soft, 
whitish chunks of apple float to the top and give the surface the 
appearance of lamb's wool, hence the name of the drink. Some vari- 
ations substitute crumbled toast for roasted apple chunks. Other 
recipes include cream, milk, or beaten eggs. These give the beverage 
a creamy, whitish appearance suggestive of lamb's wool. {See also 

Lamb's wool dates back to the Middle Ages. Since lamb's wool tra- 
ditionally filled the wassail bowl at Christmas time, some people 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

also refer to the beverage as "wassail." The English poet Robert Her- 
rick (1591-1674) describes the preparation of the wassail bowl for a 
seventeenth-century Christmas party: 

Crown the bowl full 

With gentle lamb's wool — 
Add nutmeg, sugar, and ginger. 

With store of ale too; 

And this ye must do 
To make the wassail a swinger [Crippen, 1990, 100]. 


The following recipes, used in England's royal kitchen in the early 
seventeenth century, offer somewhat more specific instructions for 
concocting the mixture: 

Set ale on the fire to warm, boil a quart of cream with two or 
three whole cloves, add the beaten yolks of three or four eggs, 
stir all together, and pour into the ale: add sops or sippets of 
fine Manchet or French bread; put them in a basin, and pour 
on the warm mixture, with some sugar and thick cream on 
that; stick it well with blanched almonds, and cast on cinna- 
mon, ginger, and sugar, or wafers and comfits [Crippen, 1990, 

Boil three pints of ale; beat six eggs, the whites and yolks 
together; set both to the fire in a pewter pot; add roasted 
apples, sugar, beaten nutmegs, cloves, and ginger; and, being 
well brewed, drink it while hot [Crippen, 1990, 101]. 

A contemporary recipe adapts the beverage for today's tastes by 
omitting the eggs and cream and adding wine: 

In a large pot combine one bottle of sweet white wine with 
six and one half cups of brown ale. Add one teaspoon each 
of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Place over medium low 
heat. Peel and chop two roasted apples. When wine and 
spice mixture is warm, add the chopped apples and brown 
sugar to taste. Serve warm. 


Latvia, Christmas in 

Further Reading 

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays and Feasts. New York: Charles 

Scribner's Sons, 1981. 
Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Latvia^ cfiristmas in 

The vast majority of Latvians are Christians. Most are Lutherans but 
sizeable Roman Cathohc and Orthodox minorities exist. In past times 
Latvians often gathered together during the long evenings that sur- 
round the winter solstice to do needlework and other crafts, as well 
as to tell stories, guess riddles, dance, and sing. Though today Latvians 
honor Christmas as the birthday of Jesus Christ, their ancestors cele- 
brated the winter solstice as the birthday of the sun maiden. 


Latvians anticipate Christmas with Advent wreaths and Advent 
calendars. They also prepare for the coming of the Christmas holi- 
day by baking, cleaning, and decorating. Many people construct 
three-dimensional ornaments out of bent straws, which are used to 
dress up rooms. Decorations are also made from greenery, colored 
cloth, and other natural substances. Christmas trees constitute an- 
other important decoration, whose use in Latvia can be traced back 
several hundred years. 

Christmas Eve 

Christmas Eve is the highlight of the Christmas season. Latvians 
enjoy an elaborate dinner on this day, usually featuring roast pork, 
sausage, bacon, or even pig's head {see also Boar's Head). Another 
prominent dish, a barley mash called koca, kukis, or kikas, gave rise to 
a Latvian nickname for Christmas Eve, which may be referred to as 
"Kukis Evening." Other typical Christmas Eve dishes include beans, 
peas, sauerkraut, beer, gingerbread, cookies, and fruit. Some say 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

that the beans and peas became midwinter favorites because their 
round shape symbolized the longed-for sun. After dinner Latvians 
exchange their Christmas presents. In some homes Father Christ- 
mas arrives in time to distribute gifts and ask the children how well 
they have behaved during the year. 

Latvian Christmas Traditions 

The Yule log once played an important role in traditional Latvian 
Christmas celebrations. Villagers felled an oak tree from which they 
obtained their logs. They pulled these logs round their properties and 
then set fire to them. Several families might share a single log, which 
was burned after it had been dragged round the last homestead. 
Latvian lore offers two different explanations for this custom. One 
interprets the log as a kind of sponge that absorbs all the ill luck that 
clings to the household. Burning it permits the family to begin the 
new year with a clean slate. Another suggests that the logs signify life 
and burning them entices the sun to spend more time in the sky. 

Mumming was another traditional practice associated with the mid- 
winter holidays. Called kekatas, kujenieki, budeli, cigani, preili or kalad- 
nieki, these masked and costumed wanderers might appear anytime 
from Martinmas to Carnival (the festival that precedes the start of 
Lent). They were most active at Christmas time, however. Popular 
mummers' disguises included those of wolves, horses, bears, cranes, 
goats, short men, tall women, haystacks. Death, dead people, and 
fortune-tellers. Under the direction of a "father," they traveled from 
house to house singing songs and telling fortunes. One frequently 
used fortune-telling method involved ladling molten lead or wax into 
a pail of icy water and reading the twisted shapes as signs of future 
events. Their visits were thought to scare off harmful spirits, to pro- 
mote fertility, and to bless {see also Ghosts). In exchange for all these 
favors, householders offered the mummers food and drink. 

Repression and Revival 

Between the years 1940 and 1991 the Russian-led U.S.S.R. (Union of 
Soviet Socialist Republics) occupied Latvia. This government for- 
bade the celebration of religious holidays. Latvians restored these 
holidays as soon as the occupation ended. 


Further Reading 

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Cana- 
da: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. 

Web Site 

"Latvian Seasonal Holidays," an article written by Mera Mellon of the Uni- 
versity of Latvia's Center for Ethnic Studies and posted to the web by the 
Latvian Institute, located in Riga, Latvia: 



Seasonal decorations of greenery have embellished European Christ- 
mas celebrations for centuries. Laurel's association with the season 
can be traced back even further, however. The Romans celebrated 
their new year festival. Kalends, by adorning their homes and tem- 
ples with evergreen branches. Both the Greeks and the Romans 
crowned the victors of their athletic and other contests with wreaths 
of laurel, since the laurel branch served as a symbol of victory. In later 
times northern Europeans gathered laurel, or bay, for their Christmas 
garlands. In the seventeenth century the English poet Robert Herrick 
(1591-1674) noted that, according to local custom, "Rosemary and 
bales [bays] that are most faire were stuck about the houses and the 
churches as Christmas decorations." Christian authorities explained 
this use of laurel with reference to its ancient association with victory, 
declaring that when used in Christmas trimmings the fragrant leaves 
represented the triumph of Jesus Christ. 

Further Reading 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christinas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Lebanon^ cf^ristmas in 

Lebanese Christians celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees, out- 
door light displays, Christmas carols, special church services, holiday 
foods, and gift exchanges. 

Although no recent, accurate census has been taken, most experts 
believe that Muslims constitute more than fifty percent of the popu- 
lation of this Middle Eastern nation. The vast majority of those re- 
maining are Christians. Most of these people belong to the Maronite 
Church or various Orthodox churches. A very small percentage of 
people adhere to other religions. Strife between Muslims and Chris- 
tians fueled a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. In spite of this 
recent conflict, in the past several years, when Christmas fell during 
the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, some Muslims honored the 
eve of Jesus'birth with special gatherings and gift exchanges. Others 
hung shooting star decorations on the tents where they assembled 
to celebrate their own festival {see also Star of Bethlehem). 


Many Eastern Christians, such as the Maronites and the Orthodox, 
fast for some or all of Advent, a period of spiritual preparation for 
the coming of Christ at Christmas time. Eastern Christians fast by 
avoiding meat, dairy products, fish, and eggs. 

As the holiday draws near, numerous Lebanese families buy and 
decorate Christmas trees. Many Lebanese Christians also construct 
Nativity scenes to place next to the tree. Housewives prepare for a 
sumptuous Christmas dinner, some buying a live turkey as early as 
November in order to ensure a plump, juicy, fresh bird for the Christ- 
mas table. Christmas preparations also include shopping trips to buy 
gifts for family members and friends. Shopping areas take on a fes- 
tive appearance in many Lebanese towns at Christmas time. Christ- 
mas trees glitter with ornaments and strings of electric lights twin- 
kle in the dark but mild winter nights. Images of Papa Noel, or Fa- 


Lebanon, Christmas in 

ther Christmas, remind shoppers of their mission. For many people 
this Lebanese Santa Claus has replaced the camel as Lebanon's tradi- 
tional Christmas gift bringer. Gifts may also be purchased at church 
bazaars, which usually feature homemade foods and crafts. 

Christmas Eve and Day 

People celebrate Christmas Eve by lighting firecrackers, ringing church 
bells, and shooting guns off into the air ijor similar customs, see Shoot- 
ing in Christmas). Many attend special religious services, such as 
Midnight Mass. Some churches also hold special concerts featuring 
Christmas carols on this evening. 

Children enjoy a special privilege on Christmas Day. Custom per- 
mits them to approach any adult with the cry, "Editi 'aleik," meaning, 
"You have a gift for me!" In this way they hope to add to the pre- 
sents they have already received on Christmas morning. Neverthe- 
less, a Lebanese Christmas emphasizes family togetherness over gift 
giving. Lebanese Christians often go visiting on Christmas Day, pay- 
ing their respects first to older relatives and then visiting with other 
family members and friends. Guests are usually offered holiday 
treats, such as sugared almonds. Dried, sugared fruit is another 
favorite holiday sweet. Dishes of nuts, seeds, and fresh fruit provide 
additional snacks. Christmas dinner often features turkey or chicken, 
but people also enjoy many special pastries at Christmas time. In ad- 
dition to baklava, a pastry made from phyllo dough, nuts, spices and 
sugar syrup, many Lebanese prepare knafi, a baked dessert made 
from cheese, shredded wheat, and sugar syrup. 

New Year's Eve and Day 

Both Muslim and Christian Lebanese celebrate New Year's Eve on 
December 31. Some people go out to elegant restaurants and night 
clubs. Among the more traditionally minded, families visit each 
other on New Year's Eve, sitting up late to sing, dance, tell jokes and 
stories, and to play games, especially cards and other games of 
chance. Superstition hints that these games may reveal one's fortune 
for the coming year. Fathers sometimes distribute a small sum of 
money to their children on New Year's Eve. These gifts express their 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

hope to provide well for them in the coming year. Some Lebanese 
children receive presents on New Year's Day rather than on Christ- 


Lebanese Christians celebrate Epiphany on January 6, a holiday 
which, for these Eastern Christians, honors the occasion of Jesus' 
baptism. According to Lebanese folklore, the trees still bow down at 
midnight on Epiphany eve in honor of this great event. In past 
times, children who lived in the cold, mountainous regions of Leb- 
anon would venture forth the next morning looking for brush marks 
in the snow. These disturbances revealed where the crowns of trees 
had grazed the ground. 

Further Reading 

Marston, Elsa. Lebanon: New Light in an Ancient Land. New York: Dillon Press, 

Sheehan, Sean. Lebanon. Cultures of the World. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Marshall 

Cavendish, 1997. 
Walker, Richard Kennedy. Lebanon: A Portrait of the Country Through Its 

Festivals and Traditions. Danbury, Conn.: Grolier Education, 1999. 

Web Site 

An article titled "Lahhoud Attends Christmas Mass at Bkirki," published in 
Beirut, Lebanon, on December 26, 1998, posted on 


Lithuania, Christmas in 


Lkfiuanm^ cfiristmas in 

Lithuanian folk tradition treats the Christmas season as a time of 
religious mystery and folk magic. In past times Lithuanians associat- 
ed many old superstitions and folk charms with the season. Though 
no longer taken seriously, these magical formulas may still be prac- 
ticed as a form of entertainment. In this predominantly Roman 
Catholic country, people once observed Advent with fasting. This 
tradition has left its mark on the customary Lithuanian Christmas 
Eve dinner, which is meatless. Today Lithuanians observe Christmas 
Eve with a ceremonial evening meal, fortune-telling games, and at- 
tendance at Midnight Mass, which is referred to as the Shepherd's 
Mass (see also Shepherds). 

In the twentieth century Lithuanians adopted certain Christmas 
customs more familiar to Americans and western Europeans. These 
include the exchange of Christmas gifts, the decorated Christmas 
tree, and the nighttime visit of Santa Claus who sometimes makes 
a personal appearance in Lithuanian homes on Christmas Eve to 
distribute gifts. Many Lithuanian families like to gather around the 
tree after leaving the Christmas Eve dinner table and sing Christ- 
mas carols. In some families children are expected to recite a poem, 
sing a song, or offer some other kind of performance before receiv- 
ing their gifts. 

The Christmas season closes on January 6, with Epiphany, or Three 
Kings Day. On this day people write the letters KMB over their 
doorway in chalk as a reminder of the kings who came to visit the 
baby Jesus (see also Magi). The letters stand for the names assigned 
to the kings in folklore: Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. 

Christmas Eve Preparations and Ceremonies 

Lithuanians make every effort to return home for Christmas Eve, 
even if it means traveling long distances. People prepare for the 
evening's festivities by bathing, putting on their best clothes, and 
giving their homes a thorough cleaning. They also cook both the 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Christmas Eve meal and the Christmas Day meal, since according to 
custom, no work should be done on December 25. The family strews 
the dining table with straw over which is placed a white tablecloth. 
The hay reminds everyone that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable 
{see also Yule Straw). Plates are often set for family members who 
could not attend. Plates with a candle in the center are also set for 
those who have recently died. Some people observe the tradition of 
waiting until the first evening star appears in the sky to begin the 
meal {see also Star of Bethlehem). 

In Lithuania both Christmas Eve and the Christmas Eve meal share 
the same name: Kudos. Before eating the meal Lithuanians say a 
prayer and observe a ceremonial blessing involving the use of wa- 
fers. The father begins by offering his wafer to his wife and wishing 
her a joyful Christmas. She breaks off a piece and says "God grant 
that we are all together again next year." Then she extends her wafer 
to her husband and they repeat the words and actions. Afterwards 
everyone at the table exchanges wafers and greetings with every 
other person present. This ceremony also gives people a chance to 
play a game of luck. In breaking the wafer, whoever is left with a 
bigger piece in their hand will have better fortune in the coming 
year. Naturally, people try to manipulate this exchange so that they 
will be left with the larger piece of wafer. 

Adam and Eve Day 

Lithuanians observe December 24 as the feast day of Adam and Eve. 
In some parts of the country people set apples on the table in their 
honor. Some people observe another short ceremony with the apples. 
The lady of the house cuts an apple into pieces. Then she offers the 
man of the house the first slice and passes them around until every- 
one receives his or her piece. These apple slices remind diners of 
Adam and Eve's act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Mary's 
obedience to God's will, and the resulting birth of the Savior celebrat- 
ed on Christmas Day, provides an instructive contrast to this story. 

Christmas Eve Foods 

In past times many families thought it unlucky if an odd number of 
people sat down to dinner on Christmas Eve. If faced with an odd 


Lithuania, Christmas in 

number of family members the head of the house invited a soHtary 
neighbor or even a beggar to join the family's Christmas Eve supper. 
Today many people still observe a folk custom that requires everyone 
at the table to eat at least a little bit of every dish. An old folk belief 
claimed that those who neglected to do so would die before the next 
Christmas Eve. Custom dictates that the family serve twelve dishes 
said to represent either Jesus' twelve disciples or the twelve months 
of the coming year. Traditional Christmas Eve dishes omit meat, 
eggs, and dairy products. Many Lithuanian families still observe 
these customary restrictions. Foods often found on the Christmas 
Eve table today include herring and other kinds of fish, kisielius (a 
kind of cranberry pudding), fruit soup or compote, slizikai or kuciukai 
(a kind of biscuit), poppy seed milk, oat pudding, beet soup, mush- 
rooms, salad or dried vegetables, sauerkraut, potatoes, and bread. 


Fortune-telling is a popular Christmas Eve activity. Events that occur 
on this day are generally thought to predict trends in the coming 
year. For example, those who quarrel on Christmas Eve will most 
likely quarrel all year long. Therefore people do their best to pay 
their debts, avoid gossip and idleness, prepare a bountiful feast, and, 
in general, to behave in an exemplary fashion. The weather on Christ- 
mas Eve foretells the weather for the coming year. If the night is 
clear and starry, the weather will be good. 

Hundreds of little Christmas Eve formulas and charms offer Lithu- 
anians ways in which to use the events of this evening to predict the 
future. For example, if someone rises to leave the Christmas Eve din- 
ner table before everyone has finished eating, then that person will 
be the first in the family to die. The shadows cast on the wall give 
further indications of one's health and fate. If one's shadow is clear, 
definite, and shows both the head and body, one can expect a pleas- 
ant year. If the shadow quivers, is small or lacks definition, trouble is 
brewing. If one's head appears not to cast a shadow, terrible misfor- 
tune lies ahead. 

One fortune -telling charm requires everyone seated at the table to 
reach under the tablecloth and pull out a straw. For an unmarried 
person, a short, fat straw predicts a short, fat boyfriend, girlfriend, or 
spouse. A long, thin straw assures one of attracting a tall, thin part- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ner. Married people interpret the same signs in a different fashion. 
The long, thin straw means a year of hardship while a fat straw indi- 
cates abundance. Girls would also try to predict their marital future 
by picking up a large number of fence posts, sticks of firewood, 
matches, candy, or other items. Then they would count them. If they 
picked up an even number it meant that they would marry within the 
year. An odd number indicated another year as a maiden. If these 
techniques did not appeal, Lithuanian girls could avail themselves of 
dozens of other methods of learning about their future mates. 

Return of the Dead 

When the family leaves the dinner table on Christmas Eve, they make 
no effort to clear the food. They leave it out all night long in accor- 
dance with an old folk belief that the spirits of the family's dead 
return to earth on Christmas Eve {see also Ghosts). In this way the 
dead may refresh themselves before returning to heaven. 

Increasing Crop Yields and Protecting Animals 

Lithuanian folklore presents farmers with many Christmas Eve charms 
to foretell or improve the health of farm animals and crops. In some 
parts of Lithuania people placed little piles of wheat, rye, barley, and 
oats on the floor and then brought in a hen. The hen's choice of grain 
indicated which crop would flourish in the coming year. Other charms 
taught householders how to enhance their crops. For example, wrap- 
ping one's fruit trees in straw was thought to increase their produc- 
tion. Scattering cooked peas in the orchard would achieve the same 
effect. Sprinkling a mixture of peas and wheat in the barn, on the 
other hand, would ensure the well-being of one's animals. Washing 
the doorknobs and windows of one's house and then giving the wash 
water to the animals protected them from evil eyes. Beekeepers ob- 
served a number of superstitions on this day, including placing a com- 
munion wafer in the beehive to bless the bees. 


Lithuanian folklore asserts that on Christmas Eve many miracles 
may occur. It was once widely believed that animals gain the power 
of speech on this magical evening. Creeping into the barn to listen 


Lithuania, Christmas in 

to them was perilous, however. Their favorite topic of conversation 
was the death of their masters and they seemed to have foreknowl- 
edge of when these deaths would come. At the exact stroke of mid- 
night the animals knelt and prayed out loud using human speech. 
Another folk teaching proclaimed that at midnight on Christmas 
Eve, all water turns briefly into wine. 

Christmas Day 

In past times people honored Christmas Day — Kaledos in Lithuani- 
an — by scrupulously avoiding all forms of work. This meant that 
Christmas dinner had to be prepared the day before. In times past 
many householders slaughtered their pigs at Christmas time, and 
pig's head was a customary dish for Christmas dinner {see also Boar's 
Head). Upon waking, family members would take the straw that had 
lain on the table during the Christmas Eve feast and give it to their 
cows, sheep, and oxen — all animals that might have been present in 
the stable where Jesus was born. Before they distributed the hay they 
examined it. If it had shed most of its grain, then that meant the fami- 
ly could expect a bountiful harvest in the year to come. 

The weather on Christmas Day was thought to predict the weather 
on Easter Day. If snow covered the ground on Christmas Day, Easter 
Day was sure to be green. On the other hand, if snow hadn't yet fall- 
en by Christmas, then Easter Day was bound to be snowy. 

In the nineteenth century groups of men went door to door on 
Christmas Day, singing hymns and dragging a Yule log behind 
them. Householders rewarded the men with Christmas treats. The 
carolers later set fire to the log outside the village. 

In past times Christmas festivities involving parties and dancing 
began on the second day of Christmas, that is, St. Stephen's Day 
{see also Twelve Days of Christmas). Many people thought Christ- 
mas Day too holy for these kinds of activities and waited until the 
day after Christmas to gather together with their neighbors. People 
also took their oats to church to be blessed on this day. 

In more recent times Christmas festivities began on Christmas Day. 
The celebrations lasted for several days, during which time custom 
forbade most types of work. Sometimes bands of revelers in costume 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

went door to door during the Christmas season wishing householders 
abundant crops in the coming year {see also Mumming). This group 
included Kaledu Senis, the Lithuanian Father Christmas. People 
thanked these well-wishers with Christmas treats. Kaledu Senis 
gave nuts to children and blessed homes by sprinkling grain in a 
special corner of the family's dining area. 

Today many Lithuanian families decorate their Christmas trees with 
geometrically shaped ornaments made from bent straws. These 
ornaments, once used by Lithuanian peasants to beautify their 
homes for weddings and feast days, were adapted to the Christmas 
tree by Lithuanians living in the United States. In past times Li- 
thuanians decorated their trees with glass ornaments, candies, cook- 
ies, apples, and little toy figurines. When Christmas was over chil- 
dren consumed the edible ornaments. 

Christmas under Soviet Rule 

Between the years 1940 and 1991 the Russian-dominated U.S.S.R 
(Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) occupied Lithuania. Religious 
holidays were forbidden during these years and some Christmas 
customs transferred to New Year's Day, a secular holiday. For exam- 
ple, the government renamed Christmas trees "New Year's trees" 
and promoted a New Year's gift bringer. Grandfather Frost {see also 
Russia, Christmas in). 

New Year's Eve and Day 

Lithuanians nicknamed New Year's Eve "Little Christmas Eve." The 
holidays are celebrated in comparable ways. Lithuanians prepare sim- 
ilar dishes on the two days, although meat dishes are allowed on New 
Year's Eve. After eating dinner Lithuanians sit up to welcome the start 
of the new year. Like Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve furnishes Li- 
thuanians with an important opportunity for fortune -telling. 

Many New Year's Eve superstitions offered young men and women 
yet another batch of charms that could reveal something of their 
future mates. One such method required a girl to write twelve differ- 
ent male names on twelve pieces of paper and put them under her 
pillow on New Year's Eve along with a blank slip of paper. When she 
awoke she reached her hand under the pillow and pulled out the 


Lithuania, Christmas in 

first slip of paper her hand touched. The name she saw there was 
the name of her future husband. If she received the blank slip it 
meant that she would not find a boyfriend that year. Boys worked 
the same fortune-telling trick by sleeping with twelve female names 
under their pillow. Another fortune-telling charm called for a group 
of boys and girls to gather in a dark room on New Year's Eve. They lit 
a candle with a match, and waited for the match to burn all the way 
out. Then someone asked aloud, "Who loves me?" and blew out the 
candle. The direction in which the candle smoke drifted answered 
the question. If the candle smoke went straight up, then no one pre- 
sent cared for the questioner; if it went straight down, then someone 
there disliked him or her. 

People watched the weather on New Year's Day carefully, as it was 
seen to predict the weather for the coming year. Snow on New Year's 
Day indicated a year of bad weather. If it snowed in the morning it 
meant that lots of young people would die in the year to come. Snow 
in the evening signified that many older people would die. A clear day, 
on the other hand, signaled a bountiful harvest. Cold weather on New 
Year's Day foretold a warm Easter. 

Human activities were also viewed as indicators of future events. 
People tried to smUe and be kind to one another, as this meant that 
they could expect much of the same throughout the year. People 
hoped to hear good news when they rose on New Year's Day. The 
first piece of news they heard, whether good or bad, revealed the 
kind of news they would receive in the year to come. 

Further Reading 

Brazyte Bindokiene, Danute. Lithuanian Customs and Traditions. Third edi- 
tion. Chicago: Lithuanian World Community, 1998. 

Web Sites 

The Lithuanian Folk Culture Center, located in Vilnius, Lithuania, offers ex- 
cerpts from two books on Lithuanian folk customs, Lithuanian Roots, edited 
by Rytis Ambrazevicius, at: and 
Tlie Lithuanians: An Ethnic Portrait, by Juozas Kurdirka, at: 

The Anthology of Lithuanian Ethnoculture contains an article entitled "Lithuani- 
an Customs and Traditions" at: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Lord of Misrule 

Abbot of Unreason, Christmas Lord, 
Master of Merry Disports 

In late medieval and Renaissance England, towns, colleges, noble 
houses, and the royal court often chose a mock king to preside over 
their Christmas festivities. Temporarily elevated from his ordinary, 
humble rank to that of "king," he was known by a variety of names, 
including the Lord of Misrule, the Abbot of Unreason, the Christmas 
Lord, and the Master of Merry Disports. These colorful titles reflect 
the kind of madcap revelry associated with these parties. 


The Christmas festivities over which the Lord of Misrule presided 
might include feasts, dances, mumming, musical entertainments, 
plays, and masques, as well as good deal of general merriment. 
According to an irate Puritan of the sixteenth century, Christmas 
Lords sometimes led their retinue of giddy followers through the 
streets of the town and into churches while services were being 
held. Perhaps in imitation of the Feast of Fools, the motley band 
careened down the aisle, dancing, singing, jingling bells, and bran- 
dishing their hobbyhorses. Many worshipers laughed at the specta- 
cle and stood on their pews to get a better view. Apparently, the 
Puritans did not find the interruption at all amusing. 

Of course, the noble and wealthy enjoyed the most elaborate Christ- 
mas celebrations, and also left the best records of the Lord of 
Misrule and his activities. One of the earliest records of an English 
Christmas celebration presided over by a mock king dates back to 
the time of King Edward III (1312-1377). In 1347 Edward enjoyed a 
number of extravagant Christmas masques and dances prepared for 
him by his "Master of Merry Disports." King Henry VIII (1491-1547) 
found the Lord of Misrule and his diversions vastly entertaining. His 
enthusiasm for the custom was such that in a few cases he ordered 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

others to follow suit. For example, when he founded Cambridge 
University's Trinity College he mandated that a Lord of Misrule pre- 
side at its Christmas festivities. 

Term of Office and Duties 

The duties of the Lord of Misrule varied from place to place, as did 
the type of entertainment offered and the duration of the Christmas 
holiday. The Lord of Misrule's most fundamental duty, however, was 
to attend the Christmas festivities in the character of a mock king. 
His temporary elevation of status permitted him to command all 
present, but he was primarily expected to foster a merry atmos- 
phere. One wealthy estate owner has left us a written record of the 
authority granted to his chosen Lord of Misrule. It states: 

I give free leave to Owen Flood, my trumpeter, gentleman, to 
be Lord of Misrule of all good orders during the twelve days. 
And also, I give free leave to the said Owen Flood to com- 
mand all and every person or persons whatsoever, as well as 
servants as others, to be at his command whensoever he shall 
sound his trumpet or music, and to do him good service, as 
though I were present myself, at their perils. ... I give full 
power and authority to his lordship to break up all locks, 
bolts, bars, doors, and latches, and to fling up all doors out of 
hinges, to come at those who presume to disobey his lord- 
ship's commands. God save the king! [Chambers, 1990, 2: 

In some cases the Lord of Misrule also helped to plan the various 
Christmas season entertainments. At this time Christmas celebra- 
tions in wealthy households usually lasted throughout the Twelve 
Days of Christmas. In some places, though, Christmas festivities 
began as early as All Hallow's Eve (Halloween), October 31, with the 
selection of the Lord of Misrule. Indeed, the period between Hal- 
loween and Twelfth Night coincided with the theater season in 
London, a period of parties and entertainments of all sorts for the 
well-to-do. The Lord of Misrule's tenure might or might not end 
with Epiphany on January 6, however. In 1607 the Christmas Lord 
serving St. John's College at Oxford University began offering Christ- 
mas entertainments on November 30, St. Andrew's Day {see also 


Lord of Misrule 

Advent). Followers enjoyed his program of festivities so much that 
they extended his term of office until Candlemas, February 2, and, 
after that, prolonged it until Lent. 

Rise and Decline 

The Lord of Misrule was known in England as early as the fourteenth 
century. The custom reached the height of its popularity in the fif- 
teenth and sixteenth centuries and declined in the seventeenth cen- 
tury. Some writers believe he evolved out of the mock bishops associ- 
ated with the Feast of Fools. Others guess that the King of the Bean, 
already popular in parts of continental Europe, may have inspired the 
creation of this custom. Whatever his origins, the Lord of Misrule did 
resemble these and other temporary kings of the Christmas season, 
including the boy bishop and the mock kings associated with Sa- 

Further Reading 

Chambers, E. K. The Mediaeval Stage. Volumes 1 and 2. Oxford, England: 
Clarendon Press, 1903. 

Chambers, Robert. "December 24 — The Lord of Misrule." In his TJie Book 
of Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Ahnanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 
Press, 1996. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: TapHnger, 1977. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


The lovefeast is a special kind of Moravian church service. The Mo- 
ravians are Protestant Christians whose denomination was estab- 
lished in 1457 in what is now the Czech Republic. Heavily persecut- 
ed in the early years of their existence, they moved from Bohemia to 
Germany, and from there sent members to establish Moravian com- 
munities in the American colonies. The denomination's official name 
is the Unity of the Brethren, or Unitas Fratrum in Latin. Moravians 
hold lovefeasts on holidays and other special days, such as Christmas 
Eve, Good Friday, church anniversaries, or mission occasions. 

Moravian lovefeasts revolve around a small communal meal. The 
meal, usually composed of a sweet roll and coffee, should not be 
confused with the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion. Rather, 
the sharing of food and drink is intended to foster the growth of love 
and connectedness among members of the congregation. Moravian 
church officials trace the origins of the lovefeast back to the year 
1727, when a group of Moravians attending a communion service in 
Germany felt an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Grudges melted away 
and arguments over religious doctrine gently resolved themselves, 
leaving participants with renewed feelings of love and appreciation 
for one another. Afterwards people celebrated with communal meals 
in one another's homes. These historical events inspired the Morav- 
ian lovefeast. Some writers also note that these incidents recalled 
the fellowship displayed by the first Christians who shared their 
meals in common after experiencing the marvelous power of the 
Holy Spirit (Acts 2:46). 

The Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, cele- 
brates two lovefeasts at Christmas time. The first occurs on the first 
Sunday in Advent. The service begins with a hymn sung by the entire 
congregation and a prayer. Then several women pass through the 
church, distributing buns to the congregation. Dressed in old-fash- 
ioned lace caps called haubes, they are referred to as deiners, the Ger- 
man word for "servers." The women are followed by male servers. 



who distribute mugs of coffee to the worshipers. When all have been 
served, the choir sings anthems and the congregation eats. More 
hymn singing follows the meal of bread and coffee. 

The second lovefeast takes place on the afternoon of December 24. 
The Church gears this service towards children and their families. 
Sugar cookies and chocolate milk replace the buns and coffee at this 
service. The congregation and the choir alternate in singing Christ- 
mas carols and hymns. The singing of an old Moravian hymn titled 
"Morning Star" constitutes the highlight of the musical program. 
Each year a child is chosen to sing portions of this hymn as a solo. To 
be entrusted with this role is considered a great honor. The congre- 
gation also chimes in on portions of this hymn. Then the servers dis- 
tribute a lighted beeswax candle to every member of the congrega- 
tion and everyone sings the closing hymn, "How Bright Appears the 
Morning Star" {see also Christingle). 

Further Reading 

Sawyer, Edwin. A. All About the Moravians. Bethlefiem, Pa.: Tfie Moravian 

Churcfi in America, 2000. 
Sweitzer, Vangie Roby. Christmas in Bethlehem. Bethlefiem, Pa.: Central 

Moravian Church, 2000. 

Web Site 

The New Philadelphia Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Caro- 
lina, maintains a page on the Moravian lovefeast at: http://www.everyday htm 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Luminarias (pronounced "loo-mee-NAR-ee-yahs") means "lights" 
or "illuminations" in Spanish. The word also refers to the small 
bonfires that illuminate the dark nights of the Christmas season 
throughout the American Southwest {see also Farolitos). These bon- 
fires are made from pifion pine logs that have been stacked in log- 
cabin fashion to form a box about three feet in height. Although one 
may spot luminarias throughout the Christmas season, they are 
most common on Christmas Eve. On that evening the little bonfires 
blaze in front of churches, homes, and in public plazas guiding wor- 
shipers to mass, enlivening public and family celebrations, and wel- 
coming the coming of the Christ child. 

Some believe that the custom of celebrating Christmas Eve with lu- 
minarias can be traced all the way back to the fires that warmed the 
shepherds to whom the birth of Jesus was announced in the Gos- 
pel according to Luke. Others say the custom came from Native 
American traditions, which Spanish missionaries later incorporated 



into the celebration of Christmas. Still others think that Spanish mis- 
sionaries brought the custom with them to Mexico. They note that 
the Spanish custom evolved out of various pagan European practices 
(see also Advent Candle; Christmas Candles; Martinmas; Yule). 
Whatever its origins, the earliest historical record of the practice in the 
New World dates back to the sixteenth century. Spanish missionaries, 
sent to evangelize the native peoples of Mexico, wrote that on Christ- 
mas Eve the people celebrated by singing, drumming, and lighting 
bonfires on church patios and on the roofs of their flat-topped houses. 

Today, the custom of lighting luminarias on Christmas Eve continues 
in New Mexico. Although city conditions sometimes make the light- 
ing of outdoor fires difficult, many people and organizations strive to 
continue this old custom. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, organized 
tours guide interested viewers through the neighborhoods that tend 
to offer the best displays. 

Further Reading 

Christmas in the American Southwest. Chicago: World Book, 1996. 
Ribera Ortega, Pedro. Christmas in Old Santa Fe. Second edition. Santa Fe, 
N.M.: Sunstone Press, 1973. 


"t '-'*i *i 

Macys Tl)anksgivmgT>ay Varade 

For many Americans Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which takes 
place in New York City, symbolizes the start of the holiday season 
(see also Christmas Season). It also announces the beginning of the 
Christmas shopping season. Macy's, a department store chain that 
began in New York City, launched the yearly parades in 1924 as a 
means of advertising its stores at the start of the year's busiest shop- 
ping season. In 2001 the parade celebrated its seventy-fifth anniver- 
sary. It featured 30 giant balloons, 28 floats and falloons (float and 
balloon combinations), 12 marching bands, 14 music and dance en- 
sembles, over 20 groups of clowns, and performances from four 
Broadway shows. The Radio City Rockettes, a group of New York 
City dancers, also appeared in the parade, in addition to a number of 
celebrities. Four thousand Macy's employees helped to stage the 
two-and-one-half-mile parade, which takes place between 9:00 a.m. 
and noon on Thanksgiving Day. Although similar Thanksgiving Day 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

parades — also sponsored by department stores — take place in De- 
troit and Chicago, national television coverage has helped to make 
the New York parade an American institution. 

Store-sponsored Thanksgiving Day parades developed in the 1920s as 
a means of attracting Christmas season shoppers. In the nineteenth- 
century many cities instead hosted military parades on Thanksgiving 
Day. In addition to the military parade, the citizens of New York City 
celebrated Thanksgiving Day with a few unique customs that may 
have helped to inspire the format of Mac/s parade. 

Thanksgiving Day in Nineteenth-Century New York 

In the late nineteenth century many New Yorkers celebrated Thanks- 
giving Day with public masquerades. Bands of working-class men 
dressed in costume and paraded around the streets. Known as "fan- 
tastical," they often lubricated their costumed hijinks with liberal 
amounts of alcohol. Their parades began early in the morning and 
were accompanied by blaring horns, much to the annoyance of 
those who preferred to sleep in. They usually ended their march 
about town with a meal in one of the city's parks and in the evening 
often attended costumed balls. 

Children who participated in Thanksgiving Day masquerades were 
called ragamuffins. They did not march with the adults but rather 
begged for coins or treats under the cover of costume, much in the 
way children do today at Halloween. Frequently, boys dressed as 
girls and girls dressed as boys. White children blackened their faces 
with soot while black children whitened their faces with powdered 
talc. The sight of children dressed up in old clothes and make-up 
was so common that some New Yorkers called Thanksgiving "Raga- 
muffin Day." 

The Target Companies provided another Thanksgiving Day public 
spectacle for nineteenth-century New Yorkers. These bands of young 
men, most of whom belonged to a slightly higher social class than 
did the fantasticals, enjoyed being soldiers for a day. They gave their 
"company" a name, dressed in boots and military costumes, and 
marched to a city park to practice target shooting. Since most prac- 
ticed only once a year, there were not many good shots among 


Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade 

them. Proper mihtary parades also took place in New York and other 
U.S. cities on Thanksgiving Day. 

Some commentators believe that the November antics of the raga- 
muffins and fantasticals began as celebrations of the final withdraw- 
al of British troops from the city, which took place on November 25, 
1783. Others view them as Carnival customs that somehow migrat- 
ed from early spring to autumn. Researcher Diana Karter Appel- 
baum suggests that they might instead have grown out of early Guy 
Fawkes Day celebrations — commemorated by the British on No- 
vember 5 — which moved to Thanksgiving Day as the city's inhabi- 
tants began to think of themselves less as British and more as Ameri- 
cans. As the twentieth century dawned and rolled on, fewer and 
fewer people celebrated Thanksgiving Day as fantasticals or raga- 
muffins, however. These customs died out around the time of World 
War II. 

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Begins 

Thus, when Macy's launched its first parade in 1924 the sight of peo- 
ple marching through the streets of New York in costume on Thanks- 
giving Day was nothing new. Though the organizers of Macy's pa- 
rade may have found inspiration in New York's old parade and mas- 
querade customs, the most immediate influence was likely to have 
been the parades sponsored by Gimbel's department store in Phila- 
delphia in 1921 and Hudson's department store in Detroit in 1923. 
These stores had used the parades to convince the public that the 
Christmas shopping season began as early as Thanksgiving and to 
draw shoppers into their store. Macy's thought the gimmick a good 
one and followed suit. 

The first parade featured Macy's employees dressed in costumes, 
animals on loan from the Central Park Zoo, and Santa Claus, who 
unveiled Macy's store window display as the finale of the parade. 
The parade was a hit with New Yorkers and a great boost for the 
store. In fact, Macy's estimated that the parade contributed to bringing 
5,000 children per day to visit the Santa who held court at the store. A 
few years after the parade's installation, however, devout citizens be- 
gan to complain that the popular event drew people away from morn- 
ing church services held in honor of the day. The complaint led Macy's 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

to change the parade from the morning to the afternoon hours. 
Several years later, however, Macy's reinstated the morning parade. 
Parade administrators didn't want their event to conflict with the 
increasingly popular afternoon football games that were beginning to 
draw even bigger audiences than the church services. 


The first few parades did not include the gigantic balloons that char- 
acterized the event in later years. These first appeared in 1927 and 
were the invention of Tony Sarg, an expert puppeteer and designer 
that Macy's hired to help jazz up their show. Sarg got rid of the wild 
zoo animals, because they frightened away the little children, and 
replaced them with papier mache creatures. Finding inspiration in 
the dirigible and zeppelin — the helium-inflated flying devices of his 
day — and drawing on his experience as a puppeteer, he designed a 
number of huge airborne balloons shaped like a dragon, a toy sol- 
dier, an elephant, and a cartoon character named Felix the Cat. Sarg 
viewed his creations as enormous, upside-down marionettes, ma- 
nipulated by ropes from below, rather than by strings by above. He 
called them "balloonatics." 

Making the balloonatics required the help of expert manufacturers. 
Sarg sent his designs to the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in 
Akron, Ohio. Goodyear executed the designs in rubber and fabric 
and sealed them with airship cement. 

In the early years, the public not only loved the sight of the tethered 
giants careening down broad city streets, but also thrilled to the 
sport of hunting them down afterwards. At the end of the parade 
the balloon wranglers simply let the big behemoths go, knowing 
that they would eventually deflate and sink to earth. Macy's gave a 
cash reward to anyone who found and returned the deflated bal- 
loons. In 1931 world-class pilot Clarence Chamberlin caught sight of 
the unleashed Jerry the Fig balloon bobbing over Brooklyn's Pros- 
pect Park on Thanksgiving Day. He roped the balloon and towed it 
back to the ground, winning not only Macy's cash reward but also a 
good deal of publicity. Nevertheless, the policy of releasing the bal- 
loons with cash rewards for their return caused unexpected prob- 
lems. Some people shot the balloons down, damaging them for 


Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade 

future use. The most alarming incident occurred in 1932, however, 
when a student pilot and her instructor nearly collided with a giant 
cat balloon that had ascended to 5,000 feet. After that, Macy's quietly 
deflated the balloons at the end of the parade route. 

The big balloons have continued to cause problems over the years. A 
Santa Claus balloon exploded during inflation in 1941. High winds 
took out all but one balloon during the 1956 parade. A helium short- 
age in 1958 meant that the balloons had to be filled with air and 
then suspended from cranes for the duration of the parade. In 1971 
strong winds led to the cancellation of the parade balloons. 

Nevertheless, the big balloons are the most noted feature of the 
parade. One of the biggest balloons in the 2001 parade, representing 
Thommy, Chuckie, and Spike from the Rugrats cartoon series, mea- 
sured 48 feet high, 60 feet long, and 28 feet wide. Sixteen thousand 
seven hundred eighty cubic feet of helium filled out the balloon 
while 46 handling lines assured wranglers of some control over the 
enormous cartoon characters. Since the big balloons are capable of 
lifting over 600 pounds, wranglers must work the giant, inflatable 
puppets in groups at all times. Each wrangler must weigh at least 
125 pounds. 

World War II 

The Thanksgiving Parade was cancelled in 1942, 1943, and 1944, due 
to World War II. In 1942, Macy's surrendered its balloons to wartime 
officials in response to the government's call for citizens to donate 
rubber to the military. Making a spectacle out of the event, parade 
officials inflated one of the balloons — a giant, green dragon — and 
escorted it to city hall. When they arrived. Mayor Fiorello La Guar- 
dia, also head of the Office of Civilian Defense, took a long knife and 
"slew" the beast. By handing over its balloons, Macy's contributed 
650 pounds of rubber to the war effort. 

National Popularity 

The parade resumed in 1945, drawing a crowd of two million as well 
as attracting its first television coverage. In 1948 television coverage 
went nationwide, expanding the parade's potential viewing audi- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ence from coast to coast. The 1947 Christmas film Miracle on 34th 
Street generated further publicity for the event by setting the open- 
ing scenes of the story at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. By 
the 1950s the opportunity to ride in the parade drew well-known 
celebrities. In 1957, the first high school marching band participated. 
The marching bands, as well as other groups of young entertainers, 
would become a regular feature of the parade, with hopeful candi- 
dates auditioning yearly before Macy's judges. The 1970s saw the 
first falloons — part float, part balloon — enter the parade. 

Commercial Effects and Influences 

From its modest beginnings, the parade has grown to become big 
business for the Big Apple. In the late 1990s the mayor's office esti- 
mated that the parade generated just over $24 million of economic 
activity annually in New York City. But the economic effects of the 
parade are also felt far away from New York. About 60 million people 
watch the parade each year, either in person or on television. This 
enormous audience, glued to television sets right at the start of the 
Christmas shopping season, creates plenty of opportunity for what 
some have termed holiday commercialism. For example, many 
companies pay Macy's for putting a balloon in the parade that will 
promote one of their products. Quite a number of the characters 
represented by the Macy's parade balloons are licensed images. In 
the late 1990s companies were paying about $350,000 to have their 
character represented as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving 

In the year 2001 some of the "commercial" balloons included Jimmy 
Neutron (sponsored by Nickelodeon), Snoopy (sponsored by United 
Feature Syndicate), Arthur (sponsored by the Learning Company), 
Cheesasaurus Rex (sponsored by Kraft Macaroni and Cheese), Pi- 
kachu (sponsored by the Pokemon Company), Ronald McDonald 
(sponsored by McDonald's Corporation), Barney the purple dinosaur 
(sponsored by HIT Entertainment), Big Bird (sponsored by Sesame 
Workshop), Jeeves (sponsored by Ask Jeeves, Inc.) and the Honey-Nut 
Cheerios Bee (sponsored by Honey-Nut Cheerios). Non-commercial 
balloons in 2001, billed as novelty balloons, included an elf, a flying 


Madagascar, Christmas in 

fish, Chloe the Holiday Clown, IHiarold the Fireman, a hippopotamus, 
an ice cream cone, and a toy soldier. 

Where and When 

The parade begins at 9:00 a.m. at the intersection of 77th Street and 
Central Park West. It ends around noon at the Macy's store in IHIerald 
Square. Located at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, this, Macy's flag- 
ship branch, bills itself as the largest department store in the world. 
Just as he did in the early days, Santa Claus still brings up the rear of 
the parade. Promoters bill his arrival at Herald Square as the official 
start of the holiday season in New York. 

Further Reading 

Appelbaum, Diana Karter. Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American 

History. New York: Facts on File, 1984. 
Pool, Daniel. Christmas in NewYork. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997. 

Web Site 

The New York Historical Society maintains a web exhibit on the parade at: 

Madagascar^ cfiristmas m 

The people of Madagascar, a large island nation off the coast of south- 
erri Africa, enjoy a summertime Christmas {see also Winter Solstice). 
Just over forty percent of the Malagasy people are Christians, about 
seven percent are Muslims, and the rest practice traditional religions. 

Christians iri Madagascar celebrate Christmas with church services 
and gift giving. In spite of the summer heat, their Christmas gift 
bringer wears a red suit edged with white fur, much like Santa 
Claus. In Malagasy his riame is Dadabenoely. In Frerich he is called le 
Bonhomme Noel, which may be translated as Father Christmas. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

New Year's Celebrations 

The traditional Malagasy New Year's Day falls months after Christ- 
mas. This lunar festival takes place in March, at the time of the first 
new moon of the Malagasy year. Both New Year's Eve and Day are 
important occasions in Madagascar. In the capital city of Antanana- 
rivo people celebrate both days. On the first day people put on their 
brightly colored holiday clothes and assemble at Ambohimanga, the 
holy hill on top of which the queen once had her palace. Once there 
they listen to energetic music and take part in rituals designed to 
honor and communicate with their ancestors. People attend these 
ceremonies in bare feet as a sign of humility. Some attendees fall into 
trances during which time they can convey messages and prayers to 
those who have died. Once these ceremonies have concluded people 
head for home where families gather together for special meals. On 
this occasion many people eat romaza, a dish made from meat, rice, 
herbs and leaves. A kind of wine, distilled from sugar cane and rice, 
may also be served. People begin New Year's Day with a Christian 
hymn. In this country most people are perfectly comfortable mixing 
together Christian and indigenous customs and rituals. Later, two 
zebu, a humpback kind of African cattle, are sacrificed and people are 
anointed with the blood, which is thought to enhance the power of 

Further Reading 

Ellis, Royton, and lohn R. lones. Festivals of the World: Madagascar. Milwau- 
kee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens, 1999. 

Heale, lay. Cultures of the World: Madagascar. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Marshall 
Cavendish, 1998. 





Three Kings, Three Kings of Cologne, 
Wise Men of the East 

Christian lore and tradition assigns several different titles to the Magi, 
sages from the East who traveled to Bethlehem to pay tribute to the 
baby Jesus. They are referred to as the Wise Men of the East, the Three 
Wise Men, the Three Kings, the Three Kings of Cologne, or by the 
names most commonly associated with them in legend — Melchior, 
Caspar (or Caspar), and Balthasar. Their association with Christmas 
begins in Christian scripture. Of the two Gospel accounts of Christ- 
mas recorded in the Bible, the Gospel according to Matthew is the 
only one to mention the Magi and their pilgrimage. However, this 
brief account of their actions neither reveals their identities nor elab- 
orates on the source of their prophetic knowledge. Over time, tan- 
gled vines of legend have grown up around the slender trunk of 
Matthew's account, creating a rich heritage of story, custom, and cel- 
ebration around these mysterious witnesses of the first Christmas. 

The Magi in Matthew's Gospel 

In chapter two of the Gospel according to Matthew, Magi from the 
East, led by a star, journey to Jerusalem. They arrive at the court of 
King Herod asking for the whereabouts of the newborn king of the 
Jews. Herod, secretly troubled by news of a potential rival, consults 
Jewish priests and scribes. He discovers that prophecy dictates that 
the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Herod relays this informa- 
tion to the Magi, asking them to return with news of the child's 
identity. The Magi then continue on their journey, again guided by 
the star. They find Jesus in Bethlehem, worship him, and offer him 
costly gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A dream warns the 
Magi not to return to Herod, who is planning to kill the child they 
identify as the king of the Jews, and they set off for their own coun- 
try by another route. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

The Magi in History 

Although the Gospels give no further information about these 
prophets from the East, scholars of ancient history can tell us some- 
thing about the people known in biblical times as magi. The word 
"magi" comes from the ancient Greek term laayoi {magoi, plural of 
magos) and from the Old Persian word magu. Both terms referred spe- 
cifically to a class of scholar-priests originally from the ancient land of 
Media (Medes), now part of Iran. In biblical times, magi could be 
found throughout Persia and in many other Near Eastern countries. 

The magi were famed for their knowledge of astronomy, astrology, 
dream interpretation, philosophy, and religious ritual, hence the 
translation often given for the term magi is "wise men." They often 
served as councillors to kings and as tutors to princes. Their teach- 
ings were studied and recorded by some of the most renowned 
thinkers of ancient Greece, including Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, 
and Herodotus. The magi were also associated with what we today 
would call magical or occult practices, such as divination. Indeed, the 
English word "magic" comes to us from the ancient word "magi." 
Because of the magi's strong association with magic, the term magi 
was sometimes used more loosely and negatively by ancient Greek 
and biblical writers to refer to anyone who claimed occult knowl- 
edge from Eastern lands. 

When Media was conquered by Persia in the sixth century B.C., the 
magi adopted many of the ideas of Persian Zoroastrianism, an an- 
cient religion. They became important proponents and developers of 
Zoroastrian ideas, spreading their influence beyond Persia. One of 
these beliefs corresponds well with their role in the Christmas story. 
Like the ancient Jews, Zoroastrians believed in the coming of a sav- 
ior, a saoshyant. Zoroaster had been the first saoshyant. The last of 
the three saoshyants, who would be born to a virgin mother, was to 
be the greatest. He would have the power to defeat the forces of evil, 
resurrect the dead, banish old age and decay from the world, and 
would usher in a new age for humanity. 

Early Christian Interpretations 

This historical background helps to explain the presence of magi in 
Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. As believers in the coming of a 



saoshyant, they would be expecting the birth of a savior. Since they 
were skilled in divination practices, they might be keenly interested 
in predicting this event. As astrologers, they might expect that the 
prophet's birth would correspond with a heavenly event, such as the 
rising of an unusual star. As astronomers, they would know and 
watch the night sky and notice immediately any such event. As 
scholars and religious experts, they might be interested in making 
the journey to Judea to discover the identity of the child and to wor- 
ship him. Finally, as experts in the study of dreams, they would 
understand the dream imagery warning them of Herod's evil intent. 
Because of the intellectual and occult prestige of the magi in the 
ancient world, readers of Matthew's account would be likely to 
interpret their recognition of Jesus' birth as confirmation of his iden- 
tity as the Messiah. 

Although we do know something of the activities and beliefs of 
magi in ancient times, we know literally nothing about the individu- 
als who appear in Matthew's account. He states that the Magi jour- 
neyed to Bethlehem from the East, but he does not mention their 
names, their nationalities, or their exact number. They could have 
been from any number of countries, such as Arabia, Persia (or Iran), 
Mesopotamia, or even India. The lack of detail given in the scrip- 
tures led to speculation about the Magi by religious figures, as well 
as much embellishment of the story in folk tradition. Early Christian 
artwork depicts two, three, four, or more Magi. Eastern Christians be- 
lieved that there were twelve Magi. By the sixth century A.D., the idea 
that there had been three Magi became firmly established among 
Western Christians. This belief was probably based on the three gifts 
mentioned in the scriptures, which became associated in folk tradi- 
tion with three individuals. 

By the end of the second century a.d.. Christians began to celebrate 
a special holiday, called Epiphany, in honor of the Magi's pilgrim- 
age. The word "epiphany" means "manifestation," "appearance," or 
"showing forth." The feast of Epiphany thus celebrates the first 
manifestation of Jesus' divinity, as witnessed by the Magi. Epiphany 
predates Christmas by well over a century, illustrating its importance 
to early Christians. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Folk Beliefs and Legends 

By the early Middle Ages, folk and Church tradition had converted 
the enigmatic wise men of Matthew's Gospel into three kings. Some 
scholars attribute this transformation to the influence of prophetic 
writings in the Old Testament (Psalms 72; Isaiah 60:3-6) linking the 
future conversion of the gentiles with the homage of foreign kings 
and gifts of gold and frankincense. 

The most widespread Western legend about the Magi assigns them 
the following identities: Melchior, king of Arabia; Caspar (or Gas- 
par), king of Tarsus (located in southern Turkey); and Balthasar, king 
of Ethiopia or king of Saba (in modern-day Yemen). Not only did 
legend assign them names and nationalities, but they were also as- 
signed various characteristics. Melchior is most often described as an 
elderly, light-complexioned man with white hair and beard who 
bears the gift of gold. Caspar, a young and beardless man of "ruddy" 
complexion, offers frankincense. Balthasar, a middle-aged African 
man, brings the infant Jesus a gift of myrrh. (Sometimes the ages of 
Balthasar and Caspar are switched). 

Once these identities became firmly established in the folk imagina- 
tion, they, too, began to excite speculation. St. Bede (c. 672-735) sus- 
pected that the diverse kings represented the continents of Europe, 
Africa, and Asia. Others believed that the ethnic and racial diversity 
of the three kings represented the belief that Jesus' teachings were to 
spread to all nations. The gifts of the Magi also acquired symbolic 
meanings. The gold was said to represent Jesus'kingship, the frankin- 
cense his divinity, and the myrrh his early death or his ability to heal. 

In addition to providing answers about the names, ages and fates of 
the Magi, folk tales also speculated about their ancestry and origins. 
One legend affirms that they were descendants of Balaam, a Meso- 
potamian seer from the Old Testament, who some also called a 
magus. Balaam predicted that "a star out of Jacob" (Numbers 24:17) 
would foretell the birth of a great Jewish leader. The legend suggests 
that Balaam kept watch for the appearance of the star, passing the 
search to his sons, who in turn passed it on to their descendants. 
Another account, again credited to St. Bede, speculates that the 
Magi were descended from Noah's sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 



Yet another tale declares that the kings of Persia and Chaldea sent 
the twelve wisest men of their courts to follow the star. 

Magi Tales from the East 

In the late thirteenth century, Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254- 
1324) returned to Italy from his years of travel in central and east 
Asia. He brought with him many exciting, foreign tales, including 
some Eastern stories concerning the Magi. In one, Melchior, the 
eldest, first entered the shelter where Jesus lay. There he encountered 
an old man who spoke with the wisdom of many years. The middle- 
aged king went next, and found Jesus to be a learned man of his own 
age. When the youngest stepped over the threshold he discovered a 
young man full of passion and inspiration. After comparing and mar- 
veling over their varied experiences, the kings entered the shelter 
together bearing their gifts and found Jesus to be an infant. 

Another tale of Eastern origins suggests that the Magi's gifts were 
meant to test the baby Jesus. If he chose the gold, he was a king; if 
he chose the incense he was a priest; and if he chose myrrh he was a 
healer. The child took them all, and the Magi concluded that Jesus 
was all three things at once. 

One more story states that the Magi received a small gift in return 
for their pilgrimage, some say from Mary, others say from the infant 
Jesus. When the Wise Men opened the box, they found only a stone 
inside. The stone was meant as a sign that their faith should be as 
firm as a rock. The Magi did not understand this, however, and, 
thinking the stone worthless, they tossed it down a well. As they did 
so, fire streamed down from heaven towards the well (or, some say, 
ascended from the well towards heaven). The amazed Wise Men 
transported the fire back to their own countries where it was wor- 
shiped. This tale presents us with an interesting lirik back to Zoro- 
astrianism. In the Zoroastrian religion, fire represents the divine. In 
Zoroastrian fire temples, flames are kept burning perpetually and 
are used in religious ceremonies and worship. 

The Fate of the Magi 

Many legends suggest that, after returning to their own lands, the 
Magi devoted the rest of their lives to good works and to spreading 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

the news of Christ's birth. One tale declares that they were baptized 
by St. Thomas the Apostle and later became Christian priests and 
bishops. Another suggests that the Star of Bethlehem appeared to 
them once more, shortly before their deaths. Some believed that 
they died in the city of Sewa, now in Iran. Marco Polo, who visited 
that city during his thirteenth-century travels, declared that the in- 
habitants showed him the tombs of the three ancient kings, called 
Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, who in their lifetimes had made a 
great journey to worship a newborn prophet. 


In the tenth century the citizens of Milan, Italy, turned to the well- 
known legends concerning the Three Kings to interpret an unusual 
discovery. The embalmed bodies of three men, one young, one mid- 
dle-aged, and one old, had been found in the church of St. Eustor- 
gius. These remains were quickly assumed to be those of the Three 
Kings. The emperor Frederick Barbarossa had the relics transferred 
to Cologne, Germany, in 1164, where a special shrine was built to 
house them in the city's cathedral. In this way, the Magi acquired yet 
a new name: the Three Kings of Cologne. 

But how did the three Middle Eastern kings end up buried in Italy? 
It was believed that the Empress Helena (St. Helena, c. 248-c. 328) 
had originally retrieved the bodies from the East during her travels 
to the Holy Land. Legend had it that she brought the remains to 
Constantinople, and that later they were moved to the city of Milan. 
The bodies appeared not to have aged since the Magi's momentous 
meeting with Jesus, but it was not difficult for people to believe that, 
in death, the bodies of the kings had been preserved as they had 
been during that holy encounter. The long tale of the Magi's bones 
took a final turn in 1903, when the Cardinal of Cologne approved 
the return of some of the relics to Milan. 

Enduring Popularity 

The story of the Magi's quest has kindled the imaginations of 
Christians for centuries. The Magi's journey was one of the most pop- 
ular images depicted by early Christians in the Roman catacombs. The 
Magi often appear as characters in medieval Nativity plays. A multi- 



tude of artists, including the famous painters Diego Velazquez (1599- 
1660), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), and Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 
1519), have created memorable images of the adoration of the Magi. 
Gian Carlo Menotti's twentieth-century opera, Amahl and the Night 
Visitors, revolves around a small boy's encounter with the Magi. Both 
the Italian La Befana and the Russian Baboushka were believed to 
have met the Three Kings on their journey towards Bethlehem. The 
Magi are the central figures in such familiar Christmas carols as "We 
Three Kings of Orient Are." The initials of each of the three kings, 
CMB, are still inscribed over the doors of houses during the Christ- 
mas season in Germany, Austria, Poland, Lithuania, and Czecho- 
slovakia in order to protect the house. Roman Catholic priests some- 
times bless the homes of their parishioners at Epiphany by writing the 
initials CMB inside the door with blessed chalk, surrounded by the 
numbers representing that calendar year. In the year 1999, for exam- 
ple, the priest would write 19 CMB 99. Finally, the Magi are often rep- 
resented in the Nativity scenes that Christians all over the world 
assemble during the Christmas season. 


For close to two millennia, folk tales and legends have embroidered 
additional details around Matthew's spare outline of the Magi's pil- 
grimage to Bethlehem. For some, however, Matthew's original text is 
rich in spiritual significance. The Magi's journey may be said to rep- 
resent the universal search for God. Some Christians see the Magi's 
story as a demonstration of an active faith; the Magi act on the inspi- 
ration and understanding that they have while others, who presum- 
ably also see the star, do nothing. The story's assertion that the non- 
Jewish Magi are the first people inspired to worship Jesus is also 
believed to be significant by many Christian commentators. It sym- 
bolizes that seekers of all ethnic and religious backgrounds will be 
drawn to Jesus, that his message is to be offered to all peoples, and 
that his teachings will spread throughout the entire world. 

Further Reading 

Chambers, Robert. "December 25 — The Three Magi." In his The Book of 
Dfli/s. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Gnoli, Gherardo. "Magi." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. 
Volume 9. New York: Macmillan, 1987. 

. "Saoshyant." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol- 
ume 13. New York: Macmillan, 1987. 

Grigson, Geoffrey. "The Three Kings of Cologne." History Today 41, 12 (De- 
cember 1991): 28-34. Reprint of 1954 article. 

Hackwood, Frederick W. Christ Lore. 1902. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Re- 
search, 1969. 

Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, 
Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. 

Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Keck Leander, ed. The New Interpreter's Bii^/e. Volume VIII. Nashville, Tenn.: 
Abingdon Press, 1995. 

Lehane, Brendan. The Book of Christmas. Chicago: Time-Life Books, 1986. 

Manger Scene, see Nativity Scem 


Marshall Islands, Christmas in the Republic of the 

Marsfialllslands^ cfiristmas 
in tl)e RepH&ffc o\tl)e 

The Marshall Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, about 3,000 
miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. The Marshallese adopted 
Christianity with the coming of European colonists and Christian 
missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 
The people of this 34-island nation have created a celebration of 
Christmas that is all their own, by blending Christian beliefs with 
their own cultural traditions and values. On Christmas Day huge 
baskets of food are exchanged and the entire day is spent watching 
various local groups, called jeptas, perform original songs, dances, 
and skits. Preparations for the great day begin months in advance. In 
fact, the Marshallese enjoy a holiday season that stretches from Sep- 
tember through December. The activities of this long season of prep- 
aration, as well as those of the Christmas festivities that crown it, 
illustrate Marshallese concepts of well-being, abundance, love, gen- 
erosity, prestige, beauty, and play. The following description of the 
Christmas season in the Marshall Islands summarizes the celebra- 
tions that take place on Ujeland and Enewetak atolls. 

The Christmas Season 

People begin to think about Christmas shortly after Easter, and start to 
set aside food and other resources during the summer. What's more, 
composers and choreographers begin dreaming up new Christmas 
ditties and dances during the summer months, basing them on bits 
and pieces of the tunes and dance movements used in past holiday 
performances. Western church hymns, and Pacific Islands songs and 
dances. The real work begins in the fall, however. Indeed, Kuriimoj, 
the word for Christmas, is used to refer not only to December 25, 
but also to the several months that precede it, when preparation for 
Christmas becomes a part of one's daily occupation. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


When Christmas is still a few months away, the islanders divide them- 
selves into jeptas, which may be thought of as teams. These teams 
begin practicing the new songs and dances that will be performed 
from memory on Christmas Day. Each group may perform as many as 
fifteen to twenty songs. Before Christmas Day, the jeptas visit one 
another, engaging in competitive songfests in order to show off their 
skills and assess the competition. In these "surprise attacks" one jepta 
drops in on another bearing gifts of food and other small items, such 
as bars of soap and books of matches. The generosity, musical polish, 
and skill of each group's chosen orators will be judged and the pres- 
tige of each jepta will rise or fall accordingly. 

The women also take part in another form of playful competition 
between the jeptas, known as karate. The preparations made by the 
jeptas include stockpiling gifts of food that will be distributed to 
other islanders on Christmas Day. When the women of one jepta spy 
some men from a rival jepta coming back from a food-collecting mis- 
sion, the women surround them and steal their food. Nevertheless, 
the women always leave the men with a meal of some kind. These 
encounters have become an occasion for much good-natured banter 
between the sexes and islanders find them extremely amusing. 

During Advent, the jeptas perform their songs in front of the church. 
Each jepta also builds a pifiata-like construction, called a wojke, 
which serves as a kind of Christmas tree. It may take on many 
shapes, including that of a ship, plane, or bomb. It contains numer- 
ous little presents "for God," such as bars of soap, matches, and 
money. The teams explode the pifiatas at the end of their Christmas 
Day performances. The gifts are usually collected by the local pastor. 

Last-Minute Preparations 

During the last few days before Christmas, the islanders prepare by 
giving their homes, streets, and church a thorough cleaning. They 
also prepare gifts for the performers who will sing and dance on 
Christmas Day, including bottles of coconut oil, bags of copra (co- 
conut), and various handmade items. Men slaughter pigs, prepare 


Marshall Islands, Christmas in the Republic of the 

fish, and gather coconuts. Women make rice, doughnuts, bread, and 
put the final touches on their breadfruit paste and other foods. In 
addition, they sew costumes for the jeptas and weave mats and food 
baskets. Young boys take special responsibility for cleaning pathways 
and disposing of trash. Young girls help the older women with their 
cooking and weaving and provide childcare. At last, after months of 
preparation, the Christmas foods are packed into baskets which will 
be given away — to members of another family, cookhouse, or jepta 
— on Christmas Day. 

In the last few days before Christmas the jeptas make special visits 
to the minister's home. They sing for him and his family and give 
them food and presents. The minister often responds with a polite 
speech and gifts of coffee or tea. 

Christmas Day 

Christmas Day celebrations begin with an early morning church ser- 
vice. Then the baskets of food are exchanged. These hefty gifts, 
which weigh 25-40 pounds, elicit hearty thanks. People eat some of 
the choicest foods on the spot and take the rest home for later. At 
around 10:00 a.m. the people return to the church to watch the per- 
formances of the jeptas, which last the rest of the day. When a par- 
ticular song, dance, or speech especially pleases members of the 
audience, they may run up to the stage area and grab the per- 
former's headdress, flower necklace, watch, or clothing. The per- 
former lets them take everything but necessary pieces of clothing; 
modesty dictates that these be delivered later that evening. Rushing 
the stage to douse the performers with sweet- smelling substances 
such as baby powder, cologne, or pomade is another spontaneous 
tribute paid to thrilling acts. The performances end with a short skit 
at the conclusion of which the wojke explodes, scattering money 
and other party favors among the crowd. The festivities end with 
prayers and the singing of a hyinn. 

The day's performances are talked about for months. The singing, 
dancing, speeches, costumes, skits, and gift giving will be exhaus- 
tively analyzed, and the members of the jepta that made the best 
display will gain status in the community. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Some United Church of Christ Christmas services include a tree- 
lighting ceremony that links the Christmas tree with the traditional 
Christian symbol of the cross. A Christmas tree is concealed inside a 
large, hollow cross. While the congregation sings Christmas carols, 
the tree rises out of the cross. The congregation greets this sight with 
exploding firecrackers. Then the tree descends back into the cross, 
while the singers hush their voices. After the singing, the cross splits 
open down the middle, revealing the tree standing inside. 

New Year Celebrations 

Feasting and gift giving also take place on New Year's Eve, but to a 
much lesser degree. Children stay up late on New Year's Eve. At 
midnight they go door to door, singing songs and receiving in ex- 
change treats and trinkets. Islanders make every attempt to attend 
early morning church services on New Year's Day, as good behavior 
on the first of the year is thought to honor the new year and to steer 
it in a good direction. Hotly contested softball matches take place 
later on New Year's Day. 

Further Reading 

Carucci, Laurence Marshall. Nuclear Nativity: Rituals of Renewal and Em- 
powerment in the Marshall Islands. Dekalb, 111.: Northern Illinois University 
Press, 1997. 

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 
Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1997. 





Funkentag, Martinalia, Martinsfest, Martinstag, 
St. Martin's Day 

Martinmas, or St. Martin's Day, falls on November 11. This Christian 
feast day honors St. Martin of Tours (c. 316-397 a.d.), but many of 
the popular customs that have been associated with it over the cen- 
turies resemble those connected to a much earlier pagan autumn 
festival. In medieval Europe, the arrival of Martinmas signaled the 
beginning of winter. In early medieval times, the festival marked the 
beginning of Advent in some parts of Europe. 

Life and Legends of St. Martin 

Born into a pagan family in Hungary in the late fourth century a.d., 
St. Martin became interested in Christianity and a monastic life at an 
early age. His military father forced him to become a soldier, howev- 
er. Many tales about the saint's life illustrate his generosity. In the 
most famous of these, Martin, while stationed in Amiens, France, as 
a soldier, encountered a beggar shivering miserably in the cold. 
Martin quickly removed his cloak, cut it in half with his sword, and 
covered the beggar with the cloth. That night Jesus appeared to 
Martin in a vision declaring, "Martin the catechumen hath clothed 
me in this garment." Shortly afterwards Martin was baptized. At the 
age of forty he left the army and began a life of religious devotion. 
He was elected bishop of Tours in 371 a.d. 

One legend tells that when the retiring saint heard the news of his 
election, he was so flustered that he ran away and hid in a barn, but 
the squawking of a goose soon announced his presence. The goose 
thereafter became a symbol of the saint. As bishop of Tours, Martin 
gained a reputation for religious fervor by converting his entire dio- 
cese to the new religion of Christianity and replacing the pagan 
temples with Christian churches. St. Martin eventually became one 
of the most popular saints of the medieval era. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


In pre-Christian times the Germanic peoples of north-central Eu- 
rope celebrated a great autumn festival. As pastures thinned with 
the coming of cold weather, they slaughtered the animals that could 
not be kept alive and preserved most of their meat for the winter. At 
this time the people gathered together, feasted on fresh meat, and 
drank. They may also have honored the dead and lit ceremonial 
bonfires at these celebrations. This festival probably marked the end 
of the old year and the beginning of the new year in pre-Christian 
times. According to several scholars, some of the customs associated 
with medieval Yule celebrations were actually transferred to that 
season from earlier celebrations of this great autumn festival. At 
least one researcher has identified the date of this ancient Germanic 
new year festival as November 11 or 12. 


The Christian festival of Martinmas developed in the several hun- 
dred years that followed the saint's death in the late fourth century. 
In 490 A.D. Bishop Perpetuus of Tours called for a forty-day period of 
partial fasting in preparation for Christmas. This period began on 
November 11, a day already associated with the veneration of St. 
Martin, and was known as the "Forty Days' Fast of St. Martin," or 
"St. Martin's Lent." In later times these weeks of spiritual prepara- 
tion for Christmas came to be called Advent. Pope Martin I (d. 655) 
established Martinmas as a great Church festival. He may have been 
attempting to provide a Christian rationale for the celebrations that 
pagan northern Europeans still held around this time of the year. In 
the Middle Ages some referred to Martinmas by the Latin name 

The customs associated with medieval celebrations of Martinmas 
closely resemble those connected with earlier pagan celebrations. In 
the Middle Ages the feast of Martinmas marked the beginning of 
winter. Customs in some regions suggest that it may have been 
treated as a kind of new year as well. In areas of England, France, 
and Germany, leases ended at Martinmas, rents were due, and ser- 
vants left households in search of new employment. In his eighth- 
century chronicles, St. Bede (c. 672-735) noted that the Anglo-Saxon 



term for November was Blot Monath, or "Blood Month/' in reference 
to the customary slaughtering of animals that took place during that 
month. Not only did this old custom attach itself firmly to Mar- 
tinmas, but so also did the feasting and drinking of earlier Novem- 
ber celebrations. In medieval times Martinmas may have served as a 
kind of thanksgiving festival during which the people rejoiced at the 
close of the harvest and their full barns and larders. In Germany St. 
Martin became the patron saint of the harvest, as well as the cham- 
pion of the poor. 

The sixteenth- century Protestant Reformation created a new ratio- 
nale for this traditional November festival. Rather than forbid the 
celebration of the day because it venerated a Roman Catholic saint, 
Protestant authorities dedicated the celebrations to Martin Luther, 
the German founder of the Protestant movement who was born on 
November 10, 1483. In some areas of Germany the celebrations were 
shifted to November 10; in others the people continued to celebrate 
on November 11 in the belief that the Protestant reformer was bap- 
tized on that day. In Germany the holiday acquired the name Mar- 
tinsfest or Martinstag, meaning "Martin's Festival" or "Martin's Day." 

Martinmas Fires 

In Germany and the Netherlands, great bonfires roared on Martin- 
mas or Martinmas Eve in past times. In the fifteenth century, the fes- 
tival acquired the nickname Funkentag (Spark Day) in Germany, due 
to the many fires that blazed in honor of the occasion. In the cen- 
turies that followed, people in Austria, Germany, Denmark, and 
Belgium, also participated in lantern parades on Martinmas Eve, 
marching through the darkened streets of town with lanterns or 
jack-o'-lanterns fashioned out of turnips or pumpkins. 

Martinmas Feasts 

The central and enduring customs of Martinmas feature the prepa- 
ration and consumption of meat and drink. The date at which the 
holiday falls in the agricultural cycle anchored these customs to it. In 
Britain the customary slaughter of cattle on Martinmas produced 



"Martlemas Beef," the salted and dried meat that sustained people 
throughout the lean winter months. In Germany, Denmark, Ireland, 
and Scandinavia goose became the traditional Martinmas feast, per- 
haps in reference to the Christian legend connecting the saint with a 
goose. Another possible explanation for this association between 
Martinmas and geese arises from an old German agricultural cus- 
tom; in past centuries people fattened geese for the fall season, 
when they could be used to pay the taxes due on Martinmas. Not 
every European country favored roast goose for their Martinmas 
feast, however. In Portugal the traditional St. Martin's Day feast fea- 
tured roast pig. 

According to old German and Italian traditions, the year's new 
wines were sampled for the first time on Martinmas. People who got 
drunk on Martinmas were often called "Martinmen," as were people 
given to spending their money on short-lived good times. Indeed, so 
important was this association between Martinmas and wine that 
St. Martin became the patron saint of tavernkeepers, wine makers, 
and drunkards. Indulging in large quantities of meat and drink per- 
sists as a perennial feature of the holiday. In France the upset stom- 
ach that often follows the consumption of too much food and drink 
is known as mal de Saint Martin, or "Saint Martin's sickness." St. 
Martin's Day is still observed in Europe with traditional festive 
meals, most commonly of roast goose. 

Martinmas Folklore 

Long after pagan European religions disappeared, early November 
retained its association with the commemoration of the dead. Old 
Scottish and Irish folk beliefs declared that the ghosts of the dead 
returned to their old homes on Martinmas. In the twentieth century, 
the festivals of early November still link the season to the remem- 
brance of the dead. On November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, the British 
commemorate the capture and execution of a group of men who 
tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In Britain and North 
America many celebrate October 31 as Halloween, a folk festival 
associated with spirits of the dead. Christians in many countries 
observe All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on 
November 2. Even the secular calendar retains November 11 as a 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

date sacred to the memory of the dead. After World War I, November 
11 was established as Armistice Day and dedicated to the memory of 
the soldiers who died in that war. (In Britain and Canada the day is 
known as Remembrance Day). In 1954 Armistice Day became Veter- 
ans Day in the United States, and its purpose broadened to include 
the recognition of all those who have served in the United States 
armed forces. 

In some European countries St. Martin became a gift-bearing folk 
figure, much like St. Nicholas. He was often depicted as a bishop 
garbed in red robes riding a white horse. In Belgium and other Euro- 
pean countries he distributes sweets to well-behaved children on 
St. Martin's Eve, but badly behaved youngsters may receive a rod 

A variety of folk beliefs and sayings link Martinmas with the weath- 
er. In Europe the temperate days that often surround Martinmas 
may be referred to as "St. Martin's Summer." Legend has it that God 
first sent mild weather at this time of year to shield St. Martin from 
the cold, since he had just given half of his cloak to a beggar. An 
English folk belief suggests that if Martinmas is mild, the coming 
winter will be severe, whereas if frost occurs before Martinmas, the 
winter will be gentle. 

Martinmas in Contemporary Germany 

In the twentieth century Martinmas Eve fires still blazed along the 
banks of the Rhine and Moselle rivers in Germany. Although fire 
safety has become an issue in recent decades, the fires burn on in 
some parts of Germany. Excited children collect cardboard, tree 
branches, and other tinder for weeks in anticipation of the event. 
Lantern parades continue to be celebrated in Germany, although 
they have become primarily a children's custom. Children fashion 
elaborate lanterns from paper or recreate the traditional turnip 
lanterns. The finished lanterns dangle from a wooden pole. In some 
areas the lantern processions end with a reenactment of St. Martin's 
most famous deed, sharing his cloak with a beggar. Afterwards the 
children disperse, singing songs (Martinslieder) and reciting rhymes 
for neighbors and shopkeepers. In return, they are given small gifts 
(Martinswecken) , such as nuts, candies, apples, cookies, and coins. 


Further Reading 

Christmas in Germany. Second edition. Lincolnwood, 111.: Passport Books, 

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 
Con\pany, 1976. 

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol- 
ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 

Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald 
Wolff, 1982. 

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1994. 

Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 

Tille, Alexander. Yule and Christmas: Their Place in the Germanic Year. Lon- 
don, England: David Nutt, 1899. 

Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Mar\)^ Bfesse^Vfrgin 

Jesus was born to a human father named Joseph and a human 
mother named Mary. The Bible tells that Mary conceived the child 
by the power of God's Holy Spirit before the couple was married, 
however. For this reason she is known as the Virgin Mary, or the 
Blessed Virgin Mary. Although she is present at various events re- 
corded in Christian scripture, Mary figures most prominently in the 
biblical passages describing the events surrounding Jesus' birth. In 
Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, Mary is the most re- 
vered of all the saints, honored both as the mother of the Lord and 
for her own spiritual attributes: purity, faith, humility, love, steadfast- 
ness, and introspection. Artists have often pictured Mary in blue 
robes, as the color blue symbolizes truth, love, fidelity, and constancy 
in Christian art. 


Mary, Blessed Virgin 

The Annunciation 

The Gospel according to Luke gives the most detailed portrait of 
Mary's miraculous pregnancy. In an event that later became known 
as the Annunciation, she receives a visit from Gabriel, an angel 
who greets her with the phrase "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is 
with you" (Luke 1:28). He then tells her that she is to bear a son, 
conceived by the Holy Spirit, whom she will name Jesus and who 
shall be acclaimed as "the Son of the Most High" (Luke 1:32). Gen- 
erations of Christians have interpreted the angel's greeting, along 
with heaven's selection of Mary to be Jesus' mother, as signs of her 
great purity and virtue. She demonstrates her steadfast faith in God 
and her humility by assenting to the decree delivered by the angel, 
saying, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me 
according to your word" (Luke 1:27). 

The Visitation 

After receiving the angel's visit Mary hurries to see her kinswoman 
Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a son who will become the 
prophet called John the Baptist. During the meeting between the 
two women, often referred to as the Visitation, Elizabeth honors Mary 
as the mother of the Lord. Mary exults in the fulfillment of God's 
promise to bring both mercy and justice to those on earth in a long 
speech known as the Song of Mary, or the Magnificat (Luke 1:46- 
56). The title Magnificat, which means "it magnifies," comes from 
the first word of the Latin version of the hymn: 

My soul magnifies the Lord, 

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. 

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; 

For he who is mighty has done great things for me. 

And holy is his name. 

And his mercy is on those who fear him 

From generation to generation. 

He has shown strength with his arm. 

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 

He has put down the mighty from their thrones. 

And exalted those of low degree; 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

He has filled the hungry with good things. 

And the rich he has sent empty away. 

He has helped his servant Israel, 

In remembrance of his mercy. 

As he spoke to our fathers. 

To Abraham and to his posterity for ever [Luke 1:47-55]. 

Various branches of the Christian church have incorporated this 
beautiful hymn of praise into the liturgy of daily religious services. In 
addition, numerous composers have set it to music. Mary's hymn 
not only underscores her faith and humility, but also reveals her love 
of God, her gratitude for the gift God has made to her, and her joy at 
the prospect of seeing God come to the rescue of the needy and 

Jesus' Birth 

In both the Gospel according to Luke and the Gospel according to 
Matthew, Mary and Joseph receive visitors around the time of Jesus' 
birth. Matthew's account implies that the Holy Family lived in Beth- 
lehem. He tells of a mysterious star that guided a number of learned 
men from Eastern lands, the Magi, to the site of Jesus' birth in order 
to pay him homage. 

By contrast, Luke's story has the couple journeying to Bethlehem in 
order to comply with a Roman census. Since the Bethlehem inn was 
full the couple spent the night in a stable, where Mary gave birth to 
Jesus. Shepherds received notice of the holy birth from angels and 
came to Bethlehem to worship the newborn Son of God. The shep- 
herds explain to Mary and Joseph how they came to know of the 
child's birth, and Mary "kept all these things, pondering them in her 
heart" (Luke 2:19). Thus Luke's account also shows Mary to be a 
seeker of spiritual wisdom. Because of her faith and her heart's incli- 
nation to "ponder" God's ways, many Christians view Mary as a 
model of contemplation and the contemplative life. 

The Flight into Egypt and the Circumcision 

The Gospel according to Luke and the Gospel according to Matthew 
also differ in their accounts of the events following Jesus' birth. 


Mary, Blessed Virgin 

Matthew fails to mention Mary's role in these events. Nevertheless, 
Luke's account gives us one more clue as to Mary's character. Mat- 
thew reports that King Herod ordered soldiers to kill all the male 
infants in Bethlehem so that he might rid himself of the child the 
Magi identified as the King of the Jews (see Holy Innocents' Day). 
The Holy Family escapes the slaughter because an angel warned 
Joseph about what was soon to occur. Following the angel's man- 
date the family journeys to Egypt. This event, called the Flight into 
Egypt, is not reported in Luke's gospel. Luke instead says that eight 
days after his birth, Jesus' parents had him circumcised and gave him 
the name Jesus. These events illustrate Mary's obedience to Jewish 
law and her continuing cooperation with the divine plan announced 
to her by the angel Gabriel. 

Early Christian Ideas 

Early Christian writers and teachers, such as Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 
165), Irenaeus (c. 120-140 to c. 200), and Tertullian (c. 155-160 to 
after 220) compared Mary to Eve, the first woman, whose story is 
told in the Bible's Book of Genesis. Eve heard God's command and 
disobeyed, but Mary listened to the angel Gabriel and gave her 
assent to God's plan. Thus Mary was cast as a "second Eve," the 
woman who would bring a savior into the world to undo the dam- 
age done by Adam and Eve's disobedience. This comparison was 
heightened by the medieval calendar of Christian holy days, in 
which Adam and Eve were commemorated on December 24, and 
Jesus'birth on December 25. 

Early Christian leaders sometimes disagreed on the nature of the 
role Mary played in the birth of the Savior and the degree of venera- 
tion that should be accorded to her. They resolved some of these 
issues in the year 431 at the Council of Ephesus. The Council de- 
clared that Mary was the Theotokos, or "God bearer," paving the way 
for greater devotion to be dedicated to her. 

Feast Days 

Over the centuries many festivals evolved to pay tribute to the im- 
portant events in Mary's life. The first festival scheduled in honor of 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Mary was called the Commemoration of St. Mary and dates back to 
the fifth century. Some researchers report that it was scheduled for 
the Sunday before Christmas, others believe that it was held on 
December 26 or even on January 1. It celebrated Mary's death, which 
was viewed as her birth into heaven. This observance eventually 
evolved into the Feast of the Assumption, and the date was changed 
to August 15. 

Other Marian festivals still celebrated today commemorate events 
related to the Nativity. The Feast of the Circumcision Qanuary 1), 
for example, honors the fact that Mary and Joseph complied with 
Jewish law by taking their son to be circumcised on the eighth day 
after his birth. In the Roman Catholic Church the day celebrates 
Mary's role as the mother of God. Candlemas (February 2) com- 
memorates Mary's purification in the temple 40 days after Jesus' 
birth. The Annunciation (March 25) recalls the angel Gabriel's visit 
to the Virgin Mary and her acceptance of the mission with which 
God entrusted her. 

Other important Marian festivals include the Birthday of the Blessed 
Virgin Mary (September 8) and a Roman Catholic observance called 
the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8). In addition, 
many people celebrate Marian festivals particular to their communi- 
ty. Mexicans, for example, honor the Virgin of Guadalupe on De- 
cember 12. All told, the major feasts dedicated to Mary, plus those 
feasts celebrated only in certain places or observed by certain mo- 
nastic communities, numbered about 1,000 by the early twentieth 
century. This number reflects the love and respect accorded to the 
Blessed Virgin Mary by generations of Christians. 

New Views 

In recent decades feminist theologians have begun to question some 
of the traditional doctrines concerning Mary. Some of these views 
are critical, suggesting, for example, that in upholding Mary as both 
virgin and mother, religious authorities have encouraged both women 
and men to view female sexuality as dirty and shameful. Others object 
to the emphasis placed on Mary's humility in her role as exemplary 
woman, noting that church officials have used this image of Mary to 
support the subordination of women in society. Nevertheless, for 


Mary, Blessed Virgin 

many people Mary models a deeply faithful Christian spirituality to 
be adopted by all those who follow the teachings of Jesus, both men 
and women. 

Further Reading 

Ceroke, C. P. "Mary, Tfie Blessed Virgin, I (in the Bible)." In New Catholic 

Encyclopedia. Volume 9. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. 
Clement, Clara Erskine. A Handbook of Christian Symbols. 1886. Reprint. 

Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1971. 
Cross, R L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. "Mary, The Blessed Virgin." In their 

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Second edition, revised. 

Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. 
Cuneen, Sally. In Search of Mary. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. 
Hulme, F. Edward. The History, Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Chris- 
tian Art. 1891. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1969. 
McManus, Jim. All Generations Will Call Me Blessed. New York: Crossroad, 

Maier, Paul L. In the Fullness of Time. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1991. 
Metford, J. C.J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 

Munro, Winsome. "Mary, the Virgin." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The Harper 

Collins Bible Dictionary. Revised edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSan- 

Francisco, 1996. 
Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. 

Web Site 

The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute of the Uni- 
versity of Dayton, a Roman Catholic university with a Marian focus, has set 
up a page of questions and answers about Mary: (Click on "Questions") 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 



Around the time of the Renaissance, England's elite celebrated the 
Christmas season with roving, costumed entertainments known as 
masques. The English borrowed the French word masque, meaning 
"mask," to describe these events because the costumes were often 
designed around elaborate and sometimes bizarre masks. 

Early Masques 

Early English masques, sometimes called "disguisings," probably 
evolved out of such popular Christmas folk customs as mumming 
and Nativity plays. Early masques resembled mumming in that 
bands of costumed revelers dropped in on friends and family and 
startled them with their unexpected entrances and entertaining 
antics. Unlike the mummers, however, masquers wore elaborate 
costumes, often traveled about with musicians, and amused the 
assembled company with flowery speeches and courtly dances. For 
example, in 1347 some of the masquers who appeared at King 
Edward Ill's Christmas celebrations wore masks resembling angels' 
faces surrounded with haloes. Other more unusual masks looked 
like mountaintops or a collection of legs swinging wildly though the 
air. Yet another group of masquers came dressed as dragons, pea- 
cocks, and swans. 

Although the noble and well-to-do might enjoy a masque at any 
season of the year, they were often performed during the Christmas 
season and were particularly popular on Twelfth Night. The young 
King Henry VIII once surprised his wife, Katherine of Aragon, by 
presenting her with a Twelfth Day masque. He burst unannounced 
into her apartments dressed as Robin Hood. His companions fol- 
lowed, dressed as Robin's merry men. 

The fact that masked and costumed bands of men were a fairly com- 
mon sight during the Christmas season eventually gave a few indi- 




viduals the idea of adopting the mummer's or masquer's disguise in 
order to commit crimes. In the early 1400s London officials passed a 
law against nighttime plays, mummings, and disguisings, excepting 
those that took place at private homes. The city of Bristol also adopt- 
ed ordinances that curbed one's rights to ride through the street in 
mask and costume during the Christmas season. 

Although these decrees may have decreased public mummings and 
disguisings to some extent, courtly masques continued to flourish. 
King Henry VIII introduced an Italian custom whereby masquers 
interacted with bystanders, selecting dance partners from the audi- 
ence. The presentation and narration of short dramatic scenes also 
became an important part of the masque. On the whole, however, 
masques remained short, simple, and frivolous works designed to 
stimulate the senses by providing an amusing, colorful spectacle. 

Height of Popularity 

The English masque reached its artistic height in the early seven- 
teenth century. During this era the famous writer Ben Jonson (1572- 
1637) wrote several masques. He created one of these specifically as a 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Christmas entertainment. Titled Christmas His Masque (1616), it fea- 
tured Father Christmas as a main character. The characters present- 
ed in Jonson's masque embodied popular Christmas foods, symbols, 
and customs. They included Misrule, CaroU, Minc'd Pie, Gamboll, 
Post-and-Paire, New-Year's-Gift, Mumming, Wassal, Offering, and 
Baby Cake {see also Lord of Misrule; Mincemeat Pie; Wassail). The 
innovative scenery contributed by designer and architect Inigo Jones 
(1573-1652) also enriched the masques of this era. Masques began to 
fall out of favor in the second half of the seventeenth century, eventu- 
ally disappearing altogether as a Christmas entertainment. 

Further Reading 

Banham, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre. Cambridge, 
England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters. London, England: Prospect 
Books, 1984. 

"Masque." In Phyllis HartnoU, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. 
Fourth edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. 

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 


For Christmas customs involving the use of masks and costumes, see 
America, Christmas in Nineteenth Century; Berchta; Black Pe- 
ter; Boy Bishop; Ecuador, Christmas in; Feast of Fools; Guate- 
mala, Christmas in; Jonkonnu; Kalends; King of the Bean; 
Knecht Ruprecht; Knocking Nights; Lord of Misrule; Masque; 
Mummers Parade; Mumming; Nativity Play; Nigeria, Christmas 
in; Pantomime; Paradise Tree; Pastores; Plough Monday; Po- 
sadas; St Barbara's Day; St. Lucy's Day; St. Nicholas's Day; 
Saturnalia; Star Boys; Twelfth Night; Yule Goat; Zagmuk 






In contemporary English the word "merry" means "jolly," "cheerful," 
"lively," or "happy." Few people realize, however, that it once meant 
something slightly different. At the time the English coined the 
phrase "Merry Christmas," merry meant "pleasant," "delightful," or 
"joyful." Thus, at that time, the well-known phrase "merry England" 
did not mean "jolly England," but rather "pleasant" or "delightful" 
England. When used to describe a holiday, the word "merry" signaled 
that it was a time of festivity or rejoicing. 

In greeting one another with the phrase "Merry Christmas," the En- 
glish were wishing each other a festive and joyful holiday. The six- 
teenth-century English Christmas carol, "God Rest You Merry, Gen- 
tlemen," offers another example of this usage. Contemporary English 
speakers often interpret the title of this song to mean something like 
"God Rest You, Jolly Gentlemen." In fact, the comma separating 
"merry" from "gentlemen" in the original phrase tells us that in this 
context "merry" does not function as an adjective describing the gen- 
tlemen in question. In the sixteenth century, "God Rest You Merry, 
Gentlemen" meant "God Rest You Joyfully, Gentlemen" or, as con- 
temporary English speakers might be more likely to say, "God Keep 
You Joyous, Gentlemen" (for the phrase "Merry Christmas" in different 
languages, see Merry Christmas and Happy New Year). 

Further Reading 

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Merry Cl^rfstmas and 
Happy New Year 

Here's how to say "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" in lan- 
guages from around the world. 


Brazilian Portuguese 



Chinese (Cantonese) 

Chinese (Mandarin) 











Gaelic (Scots) 





Geseknde Kersfees en 'n Gelukkige Nuwe 

Boas Festas e Feliz Ano Novo 
Vesela Koleda i Chestita Nova Godina 
Bon Nadal i un Felig Any Nou 
Sin Dan Fae Lok. Gung Hai Fat Choi. 
Shen Dan Kuai Le. Xin Nian Yu Kuai. 
Sretan Bozic. Sretna Nova Godina. 
Stastne a Vesele Vanoce a Stastny Novy Rok 
Glaedig Jul Og Godt Nytar Gelukkige 

Vrolik Kerstfeest en een Gelukkig Nieuw 

Felican Kirstnaskon Kaj Bonan Novjaron 
Roomusaid Joulupuhi ja Head Uut Aastat 
Gledhilig Jol Og Eydnurikt Nyggjar 
Hyvaa Joulua ja Onnellista Uutta Vuotta 
Zalig Kerstfeest en Gelukkig Nieuw Jaar 
Joyeux Noel et Bonne Annee 
NoUaig Chridheil Agus Bliadhna Mhath Yr 
Frohliche Weihnachten und ein Gliickliches 

Neues Jahr 
Kala Christougenna kai Evtichismenos o 

Kainourious Chronos 
Barka ka Kirsimatikuma Barka da Sabuwar 

Mele Kalikimaka Ame Hauoli Makahiki Hou 
Hag ha-Molad Sameah. Shanah Tovah. 


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 


Inupik (Eskimo) 





Pennsylvania German 















Boldog Karacsonyi Uennepeket Es Boldog 

GledhHeg Jol Og Farsflt Komandi Ar 
Selemat Hari Natal Dan Selamat Tahun Baru 
Jutdlime Pivdluarit Ukiortame Pivdluaritlo 
Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo 
Meri Kurisumasu Soshite Akemashite 

Sungtanul Chukaheyo. Sehae Bok Mani 

Natale Hilare et Annum Faustum 
Priecigus Ziemsvetkus un Laimigu Jaungadu 
Linksmu kaledugnenna. Laimingu Najuju 

God Jul Og Godt Nytt Ar 
En Frehlicher Grischtdaag un en Hallich Nei 

Krismas-e Shoma Mubarak. Sal-e no 

Wesolych Swiat i Szczesliwego Nowego 

Feliz Natal e um Prospero Ano Novo 
Craciun Fericit Si Un An Nou Fericit 
Veselogo Rozhdestva. Schastlivogo Novogo 

Hristos se Rodi. Srecna Nova Godina. 
Vesele Vianoce i na Ndravie v Novom Roku 
Vesele Bozicne Praznike in Srecno Novo 

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Afio Nuevo 
God Jul Och Ett Gott Nytt Ar 
Maligayang Pasko. Maligayang Bagong Taon. 
Neseli Noel. Mutlu Yilbasi. 
Chuc Mung Giang Sinh. Chuc Mung Nam 

Fraylekhn Krimes. A Git Yor. 
E Ku Odun, e Ku lye'dun 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Web Sites 

The Donnell Library Center of the New York Public Library maintains a web 
site listing common phrases in 26 different languages. For "Merry Christmas," 
see: http://www.nypl.0rg/branch/central_units/d/f/expressions/list/merryc.htm 

For "Happy New Year," see: http://www.nypl.0rg/branch/central_units/d/f/ 
expressions/Ust/happyn/htm, a commercial web site dedicated to providing products and 
services useful to travelers and students of foreign languages, offers a page 
that translates the phrase "Merry Christmas" and "Merry Christmas and 
Happy New Year" into a wide variety of foreign languages: 


George Frideric Handel's (1685-1759) Messiah is perhaps the most 
popular piece of classical music associated with the Christmas sea- 
son. Two common misconceptions have spread along with its fame. 
Although many call the work "The Messiah," Handel named his ora- 
torio simply "Messiah." These days most performances of the piece 
take place around Christmas. Nevertheless, Handel never intended 
Messiah to be connected with the Christmas season. In fact, he wrote 
the oratorio in the late summer of 1741 and premiered it around 
Easter of the following year. Subsequent performances during Han- 
del's lifetime also took place around Easter. 

Composition of Messiah 

Although he composed the music for Messiah, Handel did not select 
the biblical texts that make up the libretto. His friend Charles 
Jennens compiled a collection of biblical verses outlining the birth 
and death of Jesus and the redemption of humankind. Jennens's 
compilation delighted and inspired Handel. He sat down to write 
the music for these texts on August 22, 1741. Composing with light- 
ning speed, he completed the oratorio about three weeks later, on 
September 14. Some say that Handel once remarked about the 



work's creation, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the 
great God himself." The approximately two and one-half hours of 
music is divided into three parts, often referred to as the "Nativity," 
"Passion," and "Redemption" sections because of the themes devel- 
oped in each. 

Handel scored Messiah as an oratorio. An oratorio is a long choral 
work made up of arias, duets, trios, and choruses. Oratorios attempt 
to tell a story, usually a religious one. The music must convey all, 
since no dialogue, scenery, or costumes are used. Some experts be- 
lieve that oratorios evolved out of the medieval mystery plays {see 
also Nativity Play). Indeed, early oratorios included dance and dra- 
matic representations, as well as church hymns, and were usually 
performed in churches. Handel's Messiah differed sigiiificantly from 
the first oratorios written in the early 1600s. Messiah consists of noth- 
ing other than music, beautiful and sometimes difficult music. Han- 
del often employed opera singers to perform the challenging solo 
parts of his oratorios and staged the performances in theaters rather 
than churches. 

First Performance of Messiah 

Although the German-born Handel was living and working in Lon- 
don at the time he composed Messiah, the first public performance of 
the oratorio took place in Dublin, Ireland. Handel brought several 
principal singers over from England, including noted operatic sopra- 
no Signora Avoglio and singer- actress Mrs. Susannah Gibber, who 
sang the alto parts. He engaged Dublin musicians to present the other 
solo parts. The choir consisted of singers from both Dublin cathedrals, 
although the premiere performance took place in a music hall on 
Fishamble Street. The cantankerous dean of St. Patrick's Gathedral, 
who was none other than Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the author of 
Gulliver's Travels, at first refused to permit his choristers to participate 
in an event held in such a secular setting. Luckily for the audience, 
and for the history of music, he eventually relented. 

In order to increase the number of people who would fit in the avail- 
able seating, newspaper advertisements kindly requested that ladies 
who planned to attend refrain from wearing hoops under their skirts. 
Gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Handel's Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742, and was warmly re- 
ceived. Mrs. Gibber's rendition of "He Was Despised" so moved one 
member of the audience. Dr. Patrick Delaney, a friend of Jonathan 
Swift's, that he cried out, "Woman, for this thy sins be forgiven 
thee!" Delaney may have had some very specific sins in mind since 
rumors concerning Susannah Gibber's amorous affairs had made 
her the talk of London. In the days that followed, several Dublin 
newspapers printed the following review: 

On Tuesday last Mr. Handel's Sacred Grand Oratorio, the 
Messiah, was performed in the New Musick Hall in Fish- 
amble-street; the best Judges allowed it to be the most fin- 
ished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the ex- 
quisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audi- 
ence. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to 
the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired 
to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear. 

The review also praised Handel for donating the proceeds from this 
performance to three Dublin charities. 

Later Performances of Messiah 

Encouraged by Dublin's warm reception Handel returned home to 
London and arranged for performances to take place in that city. 
London rewarded his best efforts with rejection. Ghurch officials 
objected to staging a work on a sacred theme in the profane space of 
a public theater. In spite of these objections, Govent Garden Theater 
hosted the first London performance oi Messiah on March 23, 1743. 
The audience and the critics responded with indifference. In addi- 
tion, Handel's friend Jennens, who had supplied the libretto for 
Messiah, faulted the composer in a letter to a friend. With blind con- 
ceit Jennens wrote, "His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in 
great hast, tho' he said he would be a year about it, & make it the 
best of all his Gompositions. I shall put no more Sacred Works into 
his hands thus to be abused" Qacobi, 1982, 41-42). 

Apparently, King George II attended one of the early performances 
oi Messiah. Some writers believe this occasion gave birth to the tra- 
dition whereby the audience stands during the "Hallelujah" chorus. 
(Others believe that King George III started this tradition). In any 



case, one of these kings rose from his seat at this point in the piece. 
Whether he was reacting to the exuberance of the music or simply 
attempting to stretch his legs cannot now be determined. In those 
days etiquette demanded that no one remain seated when the king 
stood up. As a result, the entire audience rose to its feet, creating a 
tradition still observed today. 

During the decade of the 1740s Handel aired Messiah only a few 
more times. The work teetered on the edge of obscurity until 1750 
when Handel began to perform it in a series of annual concerts to 
benefit charity. Over the next nine years the work achieved wide- 
spread popularity. 

Handel's Death 

On April 6, 1759, two days before Palm Sunday, Handel conducted 
what was to be the last performance of his life, a presentation of 
Messiah at Covent Garden. He collapsed upon leaving the theater 
and had to be carried home. In the days that followed, Handel 
passed in and out of consciousness. The elderly composer recog- 
nized the seriousness of his condition. In one of his clear moments 
he expressed his wish to die on Good Friday, as did Jesus, "in the 
hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the 
day of his Resurrection." On Good Friday, April 13, 1759, seventeen 
years to the day from the premiere performance oi Messiah in Dub- 
lin, Handel lay dying at his home in London. He passed away quiet- 
ly sometime between that evening and the following morning. 

A few days before his death Handel requested that he be buried in 
Westminster Abbey and set aside money to pay for his funeral mon- 
ument. The artist who created the monument depicted the compos- 
er at work on one of the arias from Messz'a/?. Visitors to Westminster 
Abbey may note that the monument dedicated to the composer's 
memory misspells the word "messiah." 

Handel's Personality and Legacy 

Although later generations attributed a kind of milktoast piety to the 
famed composer of Messiah, Handel's friends and contemporaries 
described him as a somewhat gruff yet amiable man. He rejoiced in 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

the consumption of large quantities of food and drink, earning him- 
self a reputation for gluttony. Stubborn, arrogant, and irritable when 
it came to the correct interpretation of music, he acquainted many 
musicians with the rough edge of his tongue. He could, and often 
did, swear fluently in four languages. On the other hand, Handel 
possessed an excellent sense of humor combined with a flair for tell- 
ing funny stories. He won a reputation for honesty in financial deal- 
ings, so much so that musicians accepted his occasional lOUs with- 
out a qualm. Finally, friends, family, musicians in his employ, and 
charities all benefited from his generosity. 

Although Messiah stands as perhaps the composer's best-known 
work, Handel himself did not count it as his greatest achievement. 
He judged the chorus "He Saw the Lovely Youth" from his oratorio 
Theodora to be far superior to the "Hallelujah" chorus from Messiah. 
Neither proud nor self-effacing, Handel evaluated his own accom- 
plishments fairly and was capable on occasion of belittling some of 
his less-distinguished pieces of music. Later composers paid tribute 
to his brilliance. Ludwigvon Beethoven (1770-1827) once exclaimed 
"He was the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my 
head and kneel before his tomb." Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), 
after hearing Messza/i for the first time, reportedly exclaimed of Han- 
del, "He was the master of us all." 

Further Reading 

Barber, David W. Getting a Handel on Messiah. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: 

Sound and Vision, 1994. 
Buxton, David, and Sue Lyon, eds. Baroque Festival. Volume 4 of The Great 

Composers, Their Lives and Times. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1987. 
Dean, Winton, and Anthony Hicks. The New Grove Handel. New York: W. W. 

Norton, 1983. 
. "Handel, George Frideric." In Stanley Steele, ed. The New Grove 

Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Volume 8. London, England: Macmil- 

lan, 1980. 
Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Jacobi, Peter. The Messiah Book. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982. 
Weinstock, Herbert. Handel. Second edition, revised. New York: Alfred A. 

Knopf, 1959. 


Mexico, Christmas in 


Mexico^ cfiristmas in 

Mexicans ornament their homes, churches, and streets in joyous an- 
ticipation of Christmas. These festive decorations may include bright 
pinatas, multicolored Nativity scenes, scarlet poinsettias, and twin- 
kling light displays. Religious observance and family merrymaking 
are also important elements of Mexican Christmas celebrations. 


The Christmas season in Mexico begins in mid-December when 
many families retrieve their Nativity scenes from storage. Old pieces 
are cleaned and new figurines may be added to the family collection. 
In Mexico Nativity scenes are called nacimientos, which literally means 
"births." The central figures of Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus are 
referred to as misterios, or "mysteries." Along with Nativity scenes, 
pifiatas, and poinsettias, some families now add a Christmas tree to 
their home decorations. 

Posadas, Pastores, and Novenas 

Many families assemble their Nativity scenes on December 16. This 
date coincides with a number of other Christmas customs. It marks 
the beginning of the nine-night Christmas novena, a series of prayer 
services in preparation for Christmas. These services are called misas 
de aguinaldo, which means "Christmas gift masses" {see also Misa de 
Gallo). Las Posadas, a reenactment of Joseph and Mary's journey to 
Bethlehem and search for shelter, also begins on December 16. Per- 
formances of Los Pastores, a humorous folk play recounting the 
story of the shepherds' journey to Bethlehem, begin in the latter 
part of December as well. 


As Christmas draws near, markets begin to fill up with colorful 
Christmas goods such as children's toys and figurines for Nativity 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

scenes. Merchants also display a wide variety of pinatas, a special 
kind of Mexican toy popular at celebrations involving children. The 
traditional way of making a pifiata calls for filling a clay pot with 
treats, such as candy, nuts, fruit, and small toys. Artisans then cover 
the pot with a combination of papier mache, colorful tissue or crepe 
paper, paint, tinsel, and sequins. Nowadays, many artisans leave out 
the pot and form the pifiata out of paiper mache alone, shaping it 
into any form that strikes their fancy. Children may choose from a 
nearly infinite variety of shapes, including animals, cartoon charac- 
ters, flowers, vegetables, suns, moons, stars, comets, electrical appli- 
ances, and vehicles of all kinds. During the Christmas season, homes, 
plazas, shops, schools, churches, and other institutions display pifia- 
tas as seasonal decorations. 

What's more, children play games with pifiatas at holiday season 
parties, such as those that follow Las Posadas. The pifiata hangs 
from a rope which is suspended over a pulley in the ceiling. Each 
child is blindfolded in turn and given a chance to break open the 
pihata with a big stick. An adult spins the blindfolded child around 
several times and then takes hold of the rope. While the rest of the 
children call out instructions to the blindfolded youngster, an adult 
raises or lowers the pihata to keep it away from the swinging stick. 


Mexico, Christmas in 

Eventually, a child succeeds in striking the pifiata, breaking it open 
and spilling all of its treats onto the floor. The children rush forward 
to gather up the sweets and toys. 

Christmas Foods 

Mexicans serve Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. This meal usual- 
ly features roast turkey. This dish is especially appropriate to Mexican 
celebrations. Turkey is native to the Americas, and it was first import- 
ed to Europe by the Spanish colonists who conquered Mexico in the 
sixteenth century. Ensalada de la Nochebuena, or "Christmas Eve Sal- 
ad," is another typical Christmas dish. It usually includes sliced fruits, 
beets, and nuts. Tamales, tortillas, fish, steak, punch, hot chocolate, 
and a special kind of doughnut often appear on the Christmas menu 
as well. 

Christmas Activities 

On Christmas Eve many families finally place the Christ child fig- 
urine into the Nativity scene. The figurines representing the shep- 
herds, who have been inching their way towards the stable shelter- 
ing the Holy Family, also arrive on Christmas Eve. Mexicans cele- 
brate Christmas Eve by attending the Misa de Gallo, or Midnight 
Mass. Often the air crackles with the sound of exploding firecrack- 
ers as worshipers approach the church. After church families return 
home to large, festive meals. The next morning the children may 
receive a small gift from their parents. They will have to wait until 
Epiphany to receive the rest of their gifts. Mexicans spend Christ- 
mas Day visiting with family members and friends. 

Innocents' Day, Epiphany, and Candlemas 

In spite of the gruesome deed it commemorates, Mexicans celebrate 
Dia de los Inocmtes, or Holy Innocents' Day, December 28, with high 
spirits. Tradition calls for the playing of practical jokes and tricks on 
the unwary. The one who is tricked is referred to as an inocente, or an 

In Mexico children traditionally receive their Christmas presents on 
Epiphany, which they call Di'a de los Reyes, or Three Kings' Day. The 

Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Three Kings, or Magi, serve as Mexico's gift bringers. According to 
Mexican folklore, the Three Kings journey around the world on the 
eve of Epiphany, rewarding well-behaved children with Christmas 
presents. In anticipation of these treats children place their shoes 
near the family Nativity scene or just outside a door or window. 
Often they leave straw and a dish of water to refresh the Wise Mens' 
camels. In the morning they find the water and straw gone and their 
shoes spilling over with gifts. Three Kings' Day celebrations usually 
feature a special ring-shaped bread or cake called La Rosea de los 
Reyes, or "Three Kings' Cake." Bakers insert a tiny doll in the batter 
for each cake. Whoever finds the doll in their slice of cake will have 
good luck in the coming year. Lastly, Mexicans finally complete their 
Nativity scenes on Epiphany, moving the figurines representing the 
Three Kings into the stable that shelters the Holy Family. 

The Christmas season ends with Candlemas on February 2. On this 
day many families take down their Nativity scenes and store them 
until the following year. 

Further Reading 

Christmas in Mexico. Chicago: World Book, 1976. 

Marcus, Rebecca, and Judith Marcus. Fiesta Time in Mexico. Champaign, 111.: 
Garrard Publishing Company, 1974. 

Sechrist, Elizabeth Hough. Christmas Everywhere. 1936. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. 

Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Fiesta! Mexico's Great Celebrations. Brookfield, Conn.: 
Millbrook Press, 1992. 

Wakefield, Charito Calvachi. Navidad Latinoamericana, Latin American Christ- 
mas. Lancaster, Pa.: Latin American Creations Publishing, 1997. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by Mexico Connect, a web magazine published by Con- 
exion Mexico S.A. de C.V.: 
xmasindex. html 


Midnight Mass 



The Roman Catholic Church honors Christmas with three separate 
masses, each with its own distinctive liturgy. The first of these masses 
takes place in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and is called 
Midnight Mass. In Spanish-speaking countries. Midnight Mass is 
known as the Misa de Gallo, or the rooster's mass {see also Ply gain). 

The first Christmas masses were celebrated at St. Peter's Basilica in 
Rome on Christmas morning. In the fifth century Roman officials 
added another mass to be celebrated in the middle of the night. 
Rules in effect from about 400 to 1200 a.d. prescribed that this mass 
be held ad galli cantum, that is, when the rooster crows. Roosters 
begin to crow at about three in the morning. Eventually, however, 
the scheduling of the mass shifted to midnight. Perhaps the popular 
belief that Jesus was born at midnight influenced this shift. A 
fourth-century Latin hymn expresses this belief: 

When the midnight, dark and still. 

Wrapped in silence vale and hill: 

God the Son, through Virgin's birth. 

Following the Father's will. 

Started life as Man on earth [Weiser, 1990, 52]. 

In the fifth century a third mass, held at daybreak, was added to the 
first two. Each of the three masses, however, emphasized a different 
aspect of the Nativity. The first mass at midnight celebrated the mys- 
tery of the relationship between the Father and the Son, the second 
rejoiced at the birth of the Son on earth, and the third commemorat- 
ed the birth of the Son in human hearts. Folk tradition translated 
these three themes into descriptive names for each of the masses. 
Thus, the Midnight Mass was known as the "Angels Mass," the 
dawn mass became the "Shepherds Mass," and the morning mass 
was called the "Mass of the Divine Word." 

Until the eleventh century, the pope alone held the privilege of con- 
ducting three masses in honor of Christmas. After that time the cus- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

torn spread throughout the Church. Today Roman Catholic churches 
and cathedrals throughout the world offer Midnight Mass on Christ- 
mas Eve. In addition, television stations in seventy nations transmit 
live broadcasts of the pope's Midnight Mass from St. Peter's Basilica 
in Rome. 

Further Reading 

Baldovin, John F. "Christmas." In Mircea EUade, ed. The Encyclopedia of 

Religion.Yolume 3. New York: Macmillan, 1987. 
Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 

N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 
Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1990. 
. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, 

Brace and World, 1952. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and Canadian Heritage: 


Mincemeat Pie 



Christmas Pie 

The name "mincemeat" may puzzle many of those who have come 
across a meatless recipe for this dish in their cookbooks. Mincemeat 
pie is an old English Christmas favorite. The dish got its name from 
what used to be its main ingredient, minced meat. Over the cen- 
turies, however, meat gradually dropped out of many recipes. Today 
the dish gets most of its flavor from fresh and dried fruits, spices, and 

Medieval Christmas Cookery 

In pre-industrial times people slaughtered the animals that were to 
provide them with their winter meats in late autumn. At this time of 
the year domesticated animals could no longer find enough to eat by 
grazing. Since most of the family's grain was needed for feeding 
human beings throughout the lean winter months, the animals that 
were not kept for breeding purposes were killed {see also Martin- 
mas). In medieval times this meant that cooks could expect a large 
quantity of meat to prepare for the feasting that took place during 
the Twelve Days of Christmas. 

Food preservation, however, challenged medieval cooks since they 
did not have access to preservatives or reliable refrigeration. Instead, 
people employed sugars and spices to preserve meats and fish. Fresh 
and dried fruits were less expensive and easier to obtain than sugar 
or honey, so they were often used to flavor dishes. In England me- 
dieval cooks prepared large fruit, meat, and butter pies for wealthy 
families entertaining many guests at Christmas. Some researchers 
believe that the sugary fruit helped to preserve the meat, others con- 
tend that its function was to cover the flavor of the aging meat. En- 
closing the ingredients in a tough, airtight crust also helped to pre- 
serve them. Medieval diners apparently possessed a rather blunt 
sense of humor about their foods. They sometimes called these stur- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

dy enclosures "coffins." Not only could these hard-crusted meat pies 
be prepared well ahead of time, but also their rich ingredients served 
as a special Christmas treat. 

The dish we know today as mincemeat pie was so popular during the 
Christmas season that, in earlier times, it was also called Christmas 
pie. During the Middle Ages the presentation of the Christmas pie 
was just as important as its ingredients, since medieval feasts aimed 
at offering diners a spectacle as well as a meal. A late fourteenth-cen- 
tury recipe for Christmas pie describes a manner of both preparation 
and presentation: 

Take a Pheasant, a Hare, a Capon, two Partridges, two pi- 
geons, and two Conies; chop them up, take out as many 
bones as you can, and add the livers and hearts, two kidneys 
of sheep, forcemeat made into balls with eggs, pickled mush- 
rooms, salt, pepper, spice, and vinegar. Boil the bones in a pot 
to make a good broth; put the meat into a crust of good paste 
"made craftily into the likeness of a bird's body"; pour in the 
liquor, close it up, and bake well; "and so serve it forth with 
the head of one of the birds at one end and a great tail at the 
other, and divers of his long feathers set cunningly all about 
him" [Crippen, 1990, 122-23]. 

Another popular way of presenting the Christmas pie required the 
cook to mold the pie into the shape of a manger and place a dough 
image of the baby Jesus on top. 

Jack Homer's Christmas Pie 

Mincemeat pies have played a prominent role in several episodes of 
English political and religious history. In 1532 King Henry VIII 
(1491-1547) began a campaign to reduce the political and economic 
power of the Roman Catholic Church in England. He started to dis- 
solve England's monasteries and to claim their wealth for the crown. 
Some say that Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, tried 
to protect his abbey from this fate by freely offering the monarch the 
deeds to twelve of the abbey's richest estates {see also Glastonbury 
Thorn). He attempted to tickle the king's fancy as well as satisfy his 
greed by inserting the deeds into the crust of a Christmas pie which 


Mincemeat Pie 

was to be presented to the king as a Christmas gift. The abbot asked 
one of his trusted agents, Thomas IHiorner, to deliver the pie to the 
king. Along the way, however, Horner reportedly pulled out the 
deeds for himself. Some writers claim that an old English nursery 
rhyme commemorates this Christmas theft in what are now veiled 

Little Jack Horner 

Sat in a corner 

Eating a Christmas pie 

He put in his thumb 

And pulled out a plum 

And said, "What a good boy am I!" 

In this instance, crime did pay. Henry VIII dissolved Glastonbury 
Abbey and seized its possessions, Horner took possession of Mells 
Manor, and Abbot Richard Whiting was brutally executed on a 
trumped-up charge of treason. It is only fair to add that Horner's 
descendants, still living at Mells Manor, deny much of this story. 
They claim that Thomas Horner bought Mells from the king and 
that the rhyme has nothing to do with their ancestor. The full truth 
of the matter may never be known. 

Puritan Opposition to Mincemeat 

In the following century Christmas pie once again landed in the 
middle of England's political and religious controversies. In the sev- 
enteenth century mincemeat pie, along with plum pudding, raised 
the ire of an increasingly powerful Protestant sect known as the 
Puritans. Some writers claim that the manger- shaped pies and 
dough images of Jesus scandalized the Puritans' sense of religious 
decorum. Others suggest that the Puritans viewed the consumption 
of mincemeat pie as an act of gluttony that did not befit the season 
of the Nativity. An anonymous writer of the time parodied the 
Puritans' objection to traditional English Christmas fare in the fol- 
lowing lines of verse: 

The high- shoe lords of Cromwell's making 
Were not for dainties — roasting, baking; 
The chiefest food they found most good in. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Was rusty bacon and bag pudding; 

Plum-broth was popish, and mince-pie — 

O that was flat idolatry! [Chambers, 1990, 2: 755] 

The Puritans condemned mincemeat pie and those who feasted on 
it at Christmas time. Another writer mimicked their thundering de- 
nunciations of the dish in the following lines: 

Idolatrie in crust! Babylon's whore 

Rak'd from the grave, and bak'd by hanches, then 

Sew'd up in Coffins to unholy men; 

Defil'd, with superstition, like the Gentiles 

Of old, that worship'd onions, roots, and lentiles! 

[Pimlott, 1978, 46] 

Catholics and Anglicans defended the traditional Christmas pie against 
Puritan attackers. As Protestants and Catholics strove with one an- 
other to dominate England's political life, the consumption or avoid- 
ance of mincemeat pie at Christmas time became a sign of religious 
and political loyalties. One writer mocked the views of his more 
extreme Puritan contemporaries in the following lines of verse: 

All plums the prophet's sons deny. 

And spice-broths are too hot; 

Treason's in a December pie. 

And death within the pot [Chambers, 1990, 2: 755]. 

In spite of this controversy both plum pudding and mincemeat pie 
survived the brief period of Puritan rule in the seventeenth century. 
They emerged once again in the following centuries as English 
Christmas favorites. In 1728 one foreigner who had experienced an 
English Christmas noted that at this time of year, "Everyone from 
the King to the artisan eats [plum] soup and Christmas pies." 

Changing Recipes 

Over the years mincemeat pie recipes began to call for less meat and 
more fruit and sugar. A sixteenth-century pie described by English 
poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) contained beef tongues, chicken, 
eggs, orange and lemon peel, sugar, and various spices. As sugar 
became more affordable and, therefore, more widely available, a divi- 


Mincemeat Pie 

sion between sweet and savory dishes arose in English cooking. 
Mincemeat pie gravitated towards the galaxy of sweet foods. In fact, 
many later recipes for mincemeat pie omit meat entirely. Never- 
theless, most of these meatless pies still call for suet, or beef fat. 

Today's Christmas baker can choose between meat and meatless 
recipes. For example, one recipe calls for sliced apples, chopped lean 
beef or ox hearts, suet, sugar, cider, sour cherries, raisins, citron, can- 
died orange and lemon peel, mace, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt, 
pepper, and nuts. More common, however, are recipes that omit the 
meat and add additional fruits to the mixture, such as figs, prunes, 
cherries, pears, dried apricots, raisins, or currants. Sherry, brandy, or 
molasses may be added as well. Mincemeat ages well and may be 
made several weeks in advance in order to allow the flavors to blend 
and mature. 

Further Reading 

Bett, Henry. Nursery Rhymes and Tales. Second edition. 1924. Reprint. De- 
troit, Mich.: Singing Tree Press, 1968. 

Black, Maggie. "The Englishman's Plum Pudding." History Today 31 (De- 
cember 1981): 60-61. 

Chambers, Robert. "December 25 — Old English Christmas Fare." In his 
The Book of Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 

Opie, lona, and Peter Opie, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. 
Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. 

Pimlott, ]. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.].: Hu- 
manities Press, 1978. 

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 



Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

Miracle on 341!^ Street 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) has become one of America's best-loved 
Christmas movies. Based on a book of the same name, it tells the 
story of Susan Walker (a little girl who doesn't believe in Santa 
Claus), her mother Doris Walker (an independent career woman), 
neighbor Fred Gailey (a lawyer who has fallen in love with Doris), 
and an elderly gentleman who calls himself Kris Kringle. Doris 
Walker works at Mac/s in New York City. She hires Kris Kringle to 
play Santa Claus for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Seeing that 
he is a natural in the role, she convinces him also to work as a store 
Santa. Kringle's unconventional philosophy of sending customers to 
rival stores if Macy's does not carry the item they're looking for 
boosts Macy's sales. Nevertheless, his belief that he really is Santa 
Claus raises difficulties. Kringle remains unaware of these difficulties 
for quite a while, as he works on inspiring Susan's belief in Santa 
Claus and aiding Doris's handsome neighbor in his campaign to win 
her heart. By the end of the movie, the girl has found faith in Santa, 
her mother has fallen in love with the neighbor, and Kris Kringle has 
returned home. 

The Author of the Book 

Valentine Davies grew up in New York City. He attended the Univer- 
sity of Michigan and Yale Drama School and went on to write plays, 
novels, and, eventually, screenplays. He and director George Seaton 
became pals and, during a vacation that the two of them took with 
their wives in Nevada, he shared with Seaton his idea for Miracle on 
34th Street. Seaton set to work on creating a screenplay and finished 
his first draft about a year and a half later. Davies's short novel was 
published in the same year that the film was released. For his part in 
the film, Davies won an Academy Award for best original story. Da- 
vies and Seaton worked together on other projects, including the 
films Chicken Every Sunday (1949) and The Bridges atToko-Ri (1955). 


Miracle on 34th Street 

The Director and Screenwriter 

George Seaton began his theatrical career as a stage actor and pro- 
ducer. In 1933 he began to write screenplays. He did double duty on 
Miracle on 34th Street, both writing the script and directing the film. 
His ability to translate Davies's novel into the more visual medium 
of a movie script garnered him an Academy Award for best screen- 
play. Though it did not win, the movie also received an Academy 
Award nomination for best picture of the year. 

The Actors 

Little Natalie Wood, who played Susan Walker, made her motion 
picture debut in 1943 at the age of five. She had appeared in three 
other movies before Miracle on 34th Street. Her naturalness on cam- 
era adds much appeal to the film and made her a child star. She 
continued her career on into adulthood and picked up three Acade- 
my Award nominations along the way for her roles in Rebel Without 
a Cause (1955), Splendor in the Grass (1961), and Love With a Proper 
Stranger (1963). She is also remembered for her tragic death in a 
drowning accident off the California coast in 1981. 

Miracle on 34th Street charms audiences by pairing 8-year-old Natalie 
Wood with 72-year-old Edmund Gwen, who played Kris Kringle. 
While Wood was a relative newcomer, both to life and to the world of 
film, the elderly Gwen had achieved the status of veteran in the 
world of the dramatic arts. Born in Wales in 1875, he appeared in his 
first movie in 1916, after a successful London stage career. Miracle on 
34th Street won him the acclaim of his peers. He received an Academy 
Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Kris Kringle. 

The film's romantic angle often takes a back seat to its comedic bits 
and its touching treatment of a mother and child's journey towards 
the capacity to imagine, hope, and trust. Maureen O'Hara, who plays 
Doris Walker, and John Payne, who plays her boyfriend Fred Gailey, 
were well paired as a subdued romantic couple. Just as she did in 
Miracle on 34th Street, O'Hara often played independent, strong- 
willed women who go it alone in a world where men have the upper 
hand. John Payne played many romantic leads in the 1940s. In the 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

1950s his career turned towards action and western films. He also 
starred in the western-themed television show. The Restless Gun. 

Facts about the Film 

Seaton had originally planned to use the false names "Tracy's" and 
"Trimballs" for the two famous New York stores that appear in the 
film. After both stores gave permission to use their proper names, 
however, he changed them back to Macy's and Gimbel's. A good 
portion of the movie was shot on location in New York City. Seaton 
was even permitted to range freely about the 34th Street store dur- 
ing the Christmas season, in order to film Macy's real holiday rush. 
During the movie's opening scenes, viewers are treated to actual 
shots of Macy's famous Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

Although Miracle on 34th Street appears incredibly sweet to today's 
audiences, the Roman Catholic Church voiced moral objections to 
the film at the time of its debut. Church officials disapproved of the 
movie because the leading lady plays a divorced woman. 

When the film first came out, publicity experts played up the roman- 
tic aspects of the film rather than its connection to Christmas. In 
fact, instead of opening during the holiday season the film pre- 
miered in June of 1947. 


The enduring popularity of the 1947 film inspired Twentieth-Cen- 
tury Fox to authorize a remake in 1994. The new, color version of the 
film stars child actress Mara Wilson as Susan Walker, and Richard 
Attenborough as Kris Kringle. This time around, however, Macy's 
refused to let the filmmakers use its name. After shooting a few 
parade shots in New York City — not Macy's real parade but rather a 
movie version of the yearly event — production moved to Chicago. 
In this version of the story, Susan's mother works for a fictional 
department store called Cole's, which faces stiff competition from its 
arch-rival. Shopper's Express. 

The story was also adapted as a made-for-television movie in 1973. 
Barely remembered television versions of the story aired in 1955, 
1956, and 1959, the first two airing under the title Meet Mr Kringle. 


Misa de Gallo 

Further Reading 

Danielson, Sarah Parker. Miracle on 34th Street: A Hollywood Classic. New 

York: Smithmark, 1993. 
Davies, Valentine. Miracle on 34th Street. New York: Harcourt, Brace and 

Company, 1947. 
Galbraith, Jane. "Now the Miracle Is Off 34th Street, Macy's Says 'No 

Thanks' to a Remake of the Classic, so the Film Moves to Chicago." 

Newsday (April 18, 1994): B13. 
Werts, Diane. "A'Miracle'in the Making/Behind the Scenes of a Christmas 

Classic." Newsday (November 21, 2001): B27. 

Misa de Gallo 

Misa de Aguinaldo, Missa do Galo 

Misa de gallo (pronounced MEE-sah day GAH-yoh) means "roost- 
er's mass" in Spanish. Both the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking 
peoples of the world refer to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve as 
the rooster's mass. The Portuguese term for "rooster's mass," missa 
do galo, closely resembles its Spanish cousin. 

This curious name for Midnight Mass comes from a bit of old Euro- 
pean folklore. According to a traditional tale Jesus was born at the 
stroke of midnight. The task of announcing this miraculous event 
fell to the roosters. The first rooster fluttered to the roof of the stable 
and proclaimed in a human voice, "Christ is born!" The second fol- 
lowed, crying out, "In Bethlehem!" Since the rooster was the first 
creature to call humankind to worship on the eve of Jesus' birth, 
people throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds 
honor the animal by referring to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 
as the "rooster's mass." 

Perhaps elements of this legend inspired the scheduling of Midnight 
Mass itself. Since early medieval times Roman Catholic priests have 
celebrated three Christmas masses. Rules dating back to the fifth cen- 
tury A.D. ordained that the first Christmas mass be celebrated ad galli 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cantum, that is, when the rooster crows {see also Plygain). Few roosters 
crow as early as midnight. Instead, the belief that Jesus was born at 
midnight determined the hour at which the first mass was held. 

The Philippines 

Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines offer nine rooster's 
masses on the nine nights preceding Christmas. This practice re- 
mains from colonial times. In the Philippines and other areas colo- 
nized by the Spanish, missionaries instituted a special novena for 
the nine days before Christmas. A novena is a prayer service offered 
on nine consecutive days. The missionaries deemed the novena nec- 
essary in order to impress upon the recent converts the importance 
of the upcoming feast day. In the Philippines the Christmas novena 
is called Simbang Gabi, a Tagalog phrase which means "night mass." 
The Filipinos also use Spanish terms for these masses, referring to 
them as misas de gallo, "rooster's masses," or misas de aguinaldo 
(MEE-sahs day ah-ghee-NAL-doh), which means "Christmas pre- 
sent masses" or "gift masses." The "gifts" refer to the shepherds' 
offerings to the infant Jesus. These nine early morning masses are 
also celebrated in some parts of Central America and the Caribbean. 

In the Philippines the rooster's masses begin on December 16 and 
usher in the Christmas season. A festive rather than solemn mood 
pervades these observances, in spite of the fact that the masses begin 
at four in the morning. At four a.m. church bells ring, marching 
bands play, and fireworks explode, rousing anyone who is stiU in bed 
and reminding everyone to attend mass. Young people who went to 
parties the night before may stay out long enough to attend the 
masses before returning home. After the service many stay to social- 
ize with one another and share the traditional breakfast of salabat 
(ginger tea) and puto bum-bong (sweetened rice cakes). Although the 
last of these nine masses occurs in the early morning hours of 
December 24, Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines still offer 
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. 

Further Reading 

Christmas in Brazil. Chicago: World Book, 1991. 
Christmas in Mexico. Chicago: World Book, 1976. 



Christmas in the Philippines. Chicago: World Book, 1990. 

IHienderson, IHielene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and 

Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1997. 
MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 

Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 
Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 

graphics, 1990. 


The parasitic plant known as Viscum album to botanists has attached 
itself in a mysterious way to the celebration of Christmas. More 
commonly known as mistletoe, this plant frequently makes its home 
on the branches of apple trees, but may also be found on poplars, 
hawthorns, limes, maples, and even, occasionally, on oak trees. Ac- 
cording to an old English custom, sprigs of mistletoe may be hung 
over doorways and from ceilings around Christmas time; anyone 
may kiss a person who passes beneath the mistletoe. How did this 
plant and this custom come to be associated with Christmas? Per- 
haps no definitive answer to this question can be given, but we can 
review the history of the plant from ancient times to the present. 
Over the centuries a variety of European beliefs and customs have 
linked mistletoe to the winter season, magic, good will, and flirtation. 

Evergreens in Ancient Times 

Mistletoe is an evergreen, a plant that stays green throughout the 
winter. Like holly and ivy, mistletoe even bears fruit during this 
cold, dark season. The ancient Romans as well as the pagan peoples 
of northern Europe adorned their homes with evergreen boughs for 
their winter festivals (see also Kalends; Yule). These plants, which 
continue to thrive as others around them appear to wither and die, 
may have symbolized the promise of new life or of eternal life to 
these ancient peoples. The custom of decking homes and temples 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

with greenery during the heart of winter passed on into later north- 
ern European Christmas celebrations. 

Celtic Customs and Beliefs 

Over a century ago the famous anthropologist and classics scholar Sir 
George Frazer (1854-1941) suggested that mistletoe was an especial- 
ly sacred plant to both the ancient Romans and the ancient peoples 
of northwestern Europe (sometimes referred to as the Celts). He pro- 
posed that the mistletoe plant, which not only lives without roots in 
the ground but also stays green in winter, baffled these ancient peo- 
ples. Therefore, they assigned mistletoe a special role in their reli- 
gious beliefs. 

Frazer claimed that the pagan peoples of ancient France, Britain, and 
Ireland held mistletoe to be sacred, and they harvested it in special 
ceremonial ways. These peoples believed that mistletoe possessed 
magical powers and that the rare plants that grew on oak trees were 
the most powerful of all. Mistletoe gained its power in part from its 
ability to live halfway between heaven and earth. Therefore, when the 
Druids, or pagan priests, harvested the plant, they cut it with golden 
sickles and were careful never to let it touch the ground. The Druids 
called the plant "all-healer" and thought it had the power to cure 
many ills, including infertility, nervous diseases, and toothaches. (To- 
day we know that mistletoe berries are highly poisonous, however). 
Mistletoe was also thought to attract good luck and to ward off witch- 
craft. Frazer asserted that the European folklore of his day still con- 
tained traces of these ancient beliefs. He noted that in some modern 
Celtic languages the word for mistletoe translates to "all-healer." 

Norse Mythology 

The ancient Norse also reserved a special place for mistletoe in their 
mythology. Balder, the Norse god of sun and summer, was beloved 
in heaven and on earth. His mother, Frigga, the queen of the Norse 
gods, loved Balder so much she set about extracting a promise from 
every thing on the earth to refrain from harming her son. She disre- 
garded the puny mistletoe, however, thinking it powerless to dam- 
age the sun god. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

This omission provided an opportunity for the evil god Loki to 
scheme against Balder. Loki obtained some mistletoe and fashioned 
it into a spear. Then he brought it to Hodur, Balder's blind brother, 
the god of night. The other gods were amusing themselves by toss- 
ing all sorts of objects at Balder and watching them turn aside at the 
last minute, bound by their promise not to harm the god. Loki 
offered Hodur the spear, assuring him that it, too, would turn aside 
before it could hurt the sun god. Hodur threw the mistletoe spear at 
his brother. It pierced Balder's chest and killed him. According to 
one version of the myth, the father of these two brothers, Odin, 
eventually sent someone to kill Hodur, thus avenging Balder's death. 

At least one writer has suggested that the Norse attached this myth 
to the turning of the seasons, viewing the summer solstice as the 
time of Balder the sun god's death, and the winter solstice as the 
time of Hodur the night god's death. 

Mistletoe as an Emblem of Good Will 

This Norse myth suggests that the ancient Scandinavians believed 
that mistletoe possessed unseen powers — in this case, put to evil 
purposes. At some point, though, mistletoe became a symbol of 
peace and good will in pagan Scandinavia. Enemies who happened 
to meet beneath it in the forest declared a day's truce from fighting. 
In Scandinavia a branch of mistletoe hung above a threshold thus 
came to signify the offer of hospitality and friendship within. Some 
claim that, after the coming of Christianity, mistletoe was seldom 
incorporated into church Christmas decorations, due to its strong 
association with the pagan past. Others disagree with this claim. If 
such a ban did exist, then York Cathedral in England defied it. 
During medieval times Church officials placed a branch of mistletoe 
upon the high altar on Christmas Eve, signaling a general pardon for 
all wrongdoers for as long as it remained there. 

Kissing under the Mistletoe 

The custom of kissing under the mistletoe appears to be of English 
origin. Although in recent centuries the British have earned a repu- 
tation for being physically reserved, this was not always the case. In 



the sixteenth century the visiting Dutch scholar Erasmus (1466?- 
1536) wrote that the English were so fond of kissing at meeting and 
parting that it was impossible to avoid being constantly kissed. It is 
difficult to say with certainty when the British adopted the custom of 
kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas time. A seventeenth-centu- 
ry document speaks of the transport and sale of mistletoe at Christ- 
mas, but none mentions the custom of kissing under the mistletoe 
until the eighteenth century when some writers suggest that it be- 
came a common practice. 

The custom attracted a number of somewhat contradictory folk 
beliefs. According to one belief, each time a boy kissed a girl under 
the mistletoe, he must pluck one of the berries. When no berries 
remained, no more kissing could occur under that branch. Some 
claimed that to refuse a kiss under the mistletoe meant that one 
would not marry in the next twelve months. Others claimed that no 
marriage was possible after such an offense. Another folk belief ad- 
vised householders to burn their mistletoe branches after Twelfth 
Night in case the boys and girls who kissed under them never mar- 
ried. Still another recommended that a sprig of mistletoe be kept in 
order to drive evil away from the house during the coming year. The 
sprig might also be used to light the fire under next year's Christmas 
pudding, or plum pudding. Finally, some thought it unlucky to cut 
mistletoe at any other time than Christmas. 

The English often displayed mistletoe in the form of a kissing bough, 
a circular, or even spherical, configuration of greenery woven around 
hoops of wire or wood. One expert claims that the kissing bough 
reached the peak of its popularity in the eighteenth century and be- 
gan to decline in the nineteenth century. In The Pickwick Papers, 
British writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870) offers a charming descrip- 
tion of the fun and flirtation that occurred under the mistletoe in his 

From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had 
just suspended with his own hand a huge branch of mistle- 
toe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave 
rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and 
confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick, with a gal- 
lantry that would have done honour to a descendent of Lady 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ToUimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her 
beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy 
and decorum. The old lady submitted to this piece of practi- 
cal politeness with all the dignity which befitted so impor- 
tant and serious a solemnity, but the younger ladies, not 
being so thoroughly imbued with a superstitious veneration 
for the custom — or imagining that the value of a salute is 
very much enhanced if it cost a little trouble to obtain it — 
screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and threat- 
ened and remonstrated, and did everything but leave the 
room until some of the less adventurous gentlemen were on 
the point of desisting when they all at once found it useless 
to resist any longer and submitted to be kissed with a good 
grace. Mr. Winkle kissed the young lady with the black eyes, 
and Mr. Snodgrass kissed Emily, and Mr. Weller, not being 
particular about the form of being under the mistletoe, kissed 
Emma and the other female servants just as he caught them. 
As to the poor relations, they kissed everybody, not even ex- 
cepting the plainer portions of the young-lady visitors, who, 
in their excessive confusion, ran right under the mistletoe as 
soon as it was hung up, without knowing it! Wardle stood 
with his back to the fire, surveying the whole scene with the 
utmost satisfaction; and the fat boy took the opportunity of 
appropriating to his own use, and summarily devouring, a 
particularly fine mince-pie that had been put carefully by for 
someone else. 

Today many people still enhance their Christmas festivities with 
mischievous sprigs of mistletoe. The custom is typically found in 
Britain, France, or countries where the British have settled, such as 
Canada and the United States. 

Further Reading 

Baker, Margaret. Christmas Customs and Folklore. Aylesbury, Bucks, England: 
Shire Publications, 1968. 

Cooper, Quentin, and Paul Sullivan. Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem. Lon- 
don, England: Bloomsbury, 1994. 

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, 
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. 


Mummers Parade 

Frazer, James. The New Golden Bough. Theodor Gaster, ed. New York: S. G. 
Phillips, 1959. 

Guerber, H. A. Myths of Northern Lands. 1895. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Sing- 
ing Tree Press, 1970. 

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and 
Company, 1976. 

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omni- 
graphics, 1990. 

Mummers Varade 

For more than one hundred years, the people of Philadelphia, Penn- 
sylvania, have lined the streets on New Year's Day to watch the 
Mummers Parade. Marching string bands, fancy and funny floats, 
and thousands of extravagantly costumed mummers dazzle onlook- 
ers brave enough to risk the winter weather. Although participants in 
Philadelphia's first officially sanctioned parade strutted up Broad 
Street in 1900, local people established the custom of parading in 
costume on New Year's Eve and Day way back in the first half of the 
nineteenth century {see America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Cen- 

Parade Forerunners 

Many of those who celebrated Christmas in early nineteenth- centu- 
ry America did so by shooting off guns {see also Shooting in Christ- 
mas). This custom was popular in the West, the South, and in many 
areas settled by Germans. Those who didn't own guns, such as chil- 
dren, found other ways to make loud noises, like popping inflated 
hog bladders, the nineteenth-century equivalent of a balloon. On 
occasion a gang of especially rowdy frontiersmen blew up a stash of 
gunpowder, so as to create an especially deafening noise with which 
to usher in Christmas. In some American towns and cities boys and 
men took to the streets at Christmas and New Year's, blowing on tin 
horns, ringing fire bells, firing guns, shouting, drinking, cussing, 
fighting, and generally disturbing the peace. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

In areas where the English had settled, some of their descendants 
kept up a version of Christmas time mumming. Groups of boys or 
young men would dress in rude, homemade costumes, and go door to 
door, reciting some garbled folk verse and partaking of the house- 
hold's hospitality in the form of food and drink. The Scotch Irish prac- 
ticed similar customs on New Year's Eve, or Hogmanay. In Penn- 
sylvania, some Americans of German descent developed a distinctive 
custom called belsnickling (for more on belsnickling, see Knecht Ru- 
precht). Young men and boys disguised their identities by covering 
their faces with a mask or low-slung hat or by darkening them with 
burnt cork, soot, or redwash. Then they dressed in rags, furs, or baggy 
overcoats and armed themselves with bells, whips, and sacks. Thus 
arrayed they trouped about town or village, playing tricks on neigh- 
bors and frightening children by cracking their whips while tossing 
them sweets and nuts. They received food and drink at homes where 
they succeeded in amusing householders with rhymes and horseplay. 

Pre-Civil War Holiday Masquerades in Philadelphia 

In nineteenth-century Philadelphia all these traditions collided and 
merged, creating pandemonium in the streets at New Year's and 
Christmas. By the 1830s and 1840s, people began to create slightly 
fancier disguises for their holiday frolics. Some dressed up as blacks 
or members of other ethnic groups in order to make fun of them, 
thereby using holiday mumming customs as a way of expressing 
their fear of or hostility towards certain groups. Others were less 
pointed in their actions and choice of dress. Costumed celebrants, 
dubbed "fantasticals," often converged downtown, engaging in lively 
horseplay and raising a ferocious din with firecrackers, horns, whistles, 
bells, hornpipes, or homemade instruments of various kinds. Some of 
these intrepid instrumentalists organized themselves into impromptu 
bands, marching up and down the street and churning out a discor- 
dant kind of music referred to as "callithumpian." A newspaper ac- 
count from January 10, 1834, describes New Year's celebrations in the 
nearby town of Easton: 

The Fantasticals. On New Year's Day our borough witnessed a 
parade of the fantasticals — the immediate body guard of the 
lately elected redoubtable Col. Sheffler. It was a new and per- 


Mummers Parade 

haps an improved edition of the late parades in New York and 
Philadelphia. The corps including music (numbered) about 
one hundred. The Calithumpian band had been uniformed 
and pressed into service. These commenced their inelody 
about 10 o'clock in the forenoon and made the circuit of the 
town, playing the most splendid and novel voluntaries and 
variations. Their dresses displayed taste and ingenuity. All the 
quarters of the earth appeared to have been ransacked to 
swell the ranks of the Enterpian band. Indians, Negroes, 
hunters, Falstaffs, Jim Crows and nondescripts, all displaying 
surprizing (sic) skill upon their several instruments . . . Conch- 
shells, old cracked instruments, stones, shingles, tin horns, 
speaking trumpets, here and there a bassoon, old kettles, pot- 
lids, dozens of cow-bells strung upon poles and iron hoops 
constituted their musical instruments. . . . [Welch, 1991, 29-30] 

In the rest of the country these carnivalesque Christmas celebrations 
faded as the century rolled by. In Philadelphia, however, holiday 
noisemaking and masquerading customs grew in popularity. Phila- 
delphia's first mummers club, a group organized solely for the pur- 
pose of parading together in costume on New Year's Day, was orga- 
nized in 1846. Called the Chain Gang, the club survived into the 
twentieth century. 

In the early days these masqueraders were referred to as "shooters." 
The name came from the old, established custom of shooting in 
Christmas. By the 1880s a few people began to refer to them as 
mummers and the new name stuck. 

In the year 1861 the rowdy revelers succeeded in reducing the center 
of the city to chaos. Many of the city's leading citizens were not 
amused. Opposition to these disorderly practices can be traced back 
to the eighteenth century, when historical documents reveal that 
certain Christmas masqueraders were tried in courts of law for their 
unruly behavior. The Pennsylvania legislature passed a law against 
Christmas masquerading and masked balls in 1808, but in spite of 
the stiff penalties — up to three months in jail and fines of up to 
$1,000 — the law was not really enforced. In 1868 and again in 1881 
Philadelphia's city government attempted to outlaw Christmas noise- 
making, masquerading, and parading. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

These laws failed to root out the deeply entrenched custom, howev- 
er. Instead, these half-hearted restrictions, plus the growing, late- 
nineteenth- century consensus that Christmas was a domestic holi- 
day, acted together to shift the holiday season masquerading away 
from Christmas and towards New Year's Day (for more on the chang- 
ing sentiments concerning Christmas, see America, Christmas in Nine- 

African-American cultural elements began to influence the parade in 
the second half of the nineteenth century. Many mummers paraded 
with a particular kind of strutting walk that some researchers believe 
may have been derived from the cakewalk, a nineteenth- century 
African-American dance that parodied and exaggerated the fancy 
steps popular in the formal balls of the time. The name came from 
the custom of awarding a cake to the couple with the best moves. 
The song "Oh, dem Golden Slippers," written by African-American 
composer James Bland in 1879, became very popular with the mum- 
mers and today it still serves as a kind of theme song for the parade. 

Post-Civil War Parade 

In the years following the Civil War, the Philadelphia Mummers 
Parade as we know it today took shape. The year 1876 witnessed the 
first, unofficial. New Year's Day Mummers Parade. The parade did 
not proceed in a direct manner down the street, however. Instead, 
participants meandered towards city hall, stopping frequently to eat, 
drink, and socialize. The leisurely paraders might take all day to 
arrive at their final destination. In that era many saloons offered free 
beer and food to the marchers. Paraders partook freely of these 
offerings. What's more, neighborhood women and local stores often 
baked cakes for their favorite clubs. The clubs stopped by to sere- 
nade the women or the storeowners, and received the cake in 
return. Some groups pulled a cake wagon along behind them, a 
vehicle specially designated to hold these offerings. These cakes pro- 
vided refreshments at later New Year's parties. 

By the 1880s many mummers clubs had been established. Members 
of these groups came primarily from the neighborhoods of South 
Philadelphia, still a stronghold of parade enthusiasts today. In 1888 
the first cash prize was awarded to a mummers club for its perfor- 
mance in the parade. 


Mummers Parade 

Twentieth Century and Beyond 

By 1900 city officials grew tired of trying to curtail the sprawling 
parade and decided to sponsor it instead. The city provided cash 
prizes for the best club performances in two divisions, fancy and 
comic. The fancy clubs focused their attention on creating beautiful 
and elaborate costumes. The comics dedicated themselves to making 
people laugh. In 1902 the first string band, named Trilby, marched in 
the official parade. 

With the parade now an accepted event in Philadelphia's yearly cal- 
endar, participants began to put more and more effort into their cos- 
tumes. By the 1920s the captains of fancy clubs wore long, magnifi- 
cent trains along with their costumes. In 1929 the leader of the Silver 
Crown Club wore a satin train that stretched a city block in length. 
Dozens of page boys kept the train from dragging on the ground. 

As the years went by old clubs died out and new clubs took over. 
Some old traditions, too, began to fade away. The old simple comic 
costume — often a coat turned inside out with a sign pinned to it — 
fell out of favor to be replaced with more elaborate efforts. Another 
old mummers' device, a walking stick with some dice attached to the 
top of it, was eliminated, perhaps out of fears that some might use it 
as a weapon. Female impersonators began to make regular appear- 
ances with the clubs beginning in the early twentieth century. 

The need for coordination between mummers clubs gave rise to the 
Mummers' Association. This association, together with city hall offi- 
cials, began to formulate rules governing parade participants and the 
awarding of prizes. With each decade the number of rules and restric- 
tions grew, as what was once a spontaneous folk custom became a 
government-regulated event. 

Nevertheless, it is family tradition, not prize money, that inspires a 
large percentage of the mummers to carry on the old New Year's 
Day customs. Many parade participants grew up watching their 
grandfathers, uncles, and fathers march in the parade. 

Nowadays mummers compete with one another in four divisions: 
the comics, the fancies, the string bands, and the fancy brigades. The 
comic clubs organize their displays around humorous themes and 
dress like clowns. The string bands are marching, costumed musical 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

ensembles, featuring the banjo and the saxophone. The fancy clubs 
wow the audience with their imaginative and lavish costumes and 
floats, and the fancy brigades — the largest of all the clubs — show- 
case spectacularly costumed performers in an elaborately choreo- 
graphed performance. 

Over the years both the number of participants and the value of the 
cash prizes has increased. In recent years about 15,000 costumed 
mummers have taken part in the parade. In 2002 the judges award- 
ed a total of $375,000 among various winners. 

Recent Controversies and Challenges 

One initially unpopular parade rule was announced in 1963. It de- 
clared that marchers could no longer appear in blackface. The ruling 
was made in response to pressure from civil rights activists, who felt 
that the spectacle of white people disguising themselves as simple- 
minded blacks was degrading to African Americans. Many mummers 
were outraged at this interference. They pointed out that mummers 
had painted their faces black for hundreds of years as a kind of sim- 
ple, homemade disguise. Activists countered that in spite of its ori- 
gins, blackface had since become a method of poking fun at black 
people. The 1963 parade, monitored by hundreds of police, was tense 
and sullen, but only a small percentage of mummers defied the ban 
on blackface. The tension over this issue subsided after a few years. 

During the 1960s, no predominantly African-American clubs marched 
in the parade. The last African-American club, the Octavius V. Cato 
Club, had put in its final parade appearance in 1929. Lingering sus- 
picion and resentment over the blackface issue kept all but a few 
African Americans out of the parade again until the Octavius V. Cato 
string band marched with the Goodtimers Club in 1987. Since that 
time slowly increasing numbers of African Americans have joined 
the existing clubs. 

Women, too, had been excluded from the parade until recent times, 
although over the years a few had succeeded in infiltrating the parade 
in mask and costume. The first women to openly march in the parade 
did so in 1975, as official members of the Dick Crean String Band. 
Slowly but surely, other clubs began to accept female members. 


Mummers Parade 

Some bystanders complain that with the advent of television cover- 
age, the mummers perform less for the crowds and more for the 
camera. Perhaps in response to the convenience of being able to 
watch the parade on television, the crowds lining the streets have 
dwindled from a high of about two million people in the 1940s to 
about a quarter of a million people in recent years. In response to 
declining turnouts, the city has decreased the parade route from 2.5 
miles to 10 city blocks. 

The mummers themselves are preoccupied with the expense involved 
in maintaining their tradition. Costuming an entire club costs tens of 
thousands of dollars, money that must be raised by club members 
since no corporate sponsorship is allowed. The number of fancy 
clubs has decreased in recent years in response to the rising costs of 
these costumes. Only the top contenders in each division can expect 
to defray some of their club's expenses with prize money. The rest 
continue because of their pride in a Philadelphia tradition and their 
love for mumming. 

Further Reading 

Alison, James. "Stmttin' in Style." The World and 1 13 Qanuary 1998): 178 (11). 
Davies, Susan G. Parades and Power. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California 

Press, 1986. 
Lange, Karen E. "Kings for a Day." National Geogi-aphic 199, 1 Qanuary 

2001): 58-65. 
Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1995. 
Welch, Charles E. Oh, Dem Golden Slippers. Revised edition. Philadelphia, 

Penn.: Book Street Press, 1991. 

Web Sites 

The Philadelphia Recreation Department maintains a page on the Mum- 
mers Parade at: 

Parade results, route map, photos, and other information concerning Phila- 
delphia mummery can be found at: 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 


Geese Dancing, Guising, Masking, Mummering 

Mumming is a form of folk entertainment in which bands of masked 
and costumed merrymakers roam the streets singing, dancing, acting 
out stories, or simply engaging in horseplay. In past centuries people 
throughout Europe celebrated the Christmas season by mumming 
or by hosting bands of mummers in their homes. In the United States 
today we allow children to practice a similar form of seasonal mas- 
querading at Halloween. 

Since mumming began as a folk rather than elite tradition, mum- 
mers usually wore simple, homemade costumes, often accompanied 
by masks or blackening of the face. Indeed, some scholars trace the 
origins of the English word "mumming" back to the ancient Greek 
term for "mask," mommo. In some cases, the mummer's costume 
represented a mythical figure whose character or behavior the 
mummer enacted in a kind of folk drama called a mummers' play. In 



other cases, mummers simply cavorted under the cover of disguise, 
engaging in playiiil but sometimes rather unruly behavior to the 
amusement or irritation of their neighbors. Christmas time mum- 
ming was particularly common in the British Isles, where it survived 
as a popular folk custom until the mid-nineteenth century. 

Ancient Precedents 

How did this custom attach itself to the Christmas season? Some 
would answer this question by pointing to the revels that took place 
during the ancient Roman feast of Kalends. During this midwinter 
new year festival, groups of young men ran through the streets 
dressed as women or animals and, under the cover of disguise, 
engaged in many behaviors that would normally have been frowned 

Although Christian authorities condemned these activities, they 
proved difficult to stamp out, even after Christianity became the 
dominant religion and Christmas an important winter holiday. One 
researcher has counted at least forty separate Church documents 
containing official denunciations of these kinds of midwinter mas- 
querades. These documents range from the fourth to the eleventh 
centuries and come from authorities in many European lands as well 
as north Africa and the Near East. 

Mumming in Britain 

Some researchers believe that these ancient customs lingered on in 
a few places, eventually giving rise to Christmas time mumming 
practices. Others disagree, arguing that these ancient practices died 
out in all but a few places hundreds of years before medieval mum- 
ming customs were established. In any case, Christmas time mum- 
ming can be traced back to the late Middle Ages. The earliest docu- 
ments referring to it date back to the thirteenth century. Although 
mumming sprang from the lower classes, by the fourteenth century 
King Edward III adopted an elaborate rendition of this practice as a 
Christmas season entertainment at court. Among the elite, these 
costumed Christmas revels eventually developed into masques or 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

In some areas mumming was known as "masking" or "guising" 
(from the word "disguise"). In other areas the word "guising" even- 
tually became "geese dancing." In fifteenth- and sixteenth-century 
England bands of mummers, also called "maskers" or "guisers," 
frequently appeared on the streets during the Twelve Days of 
Christmas. The following account of one such band in the fifteenth 
century illustrates the mixture of fun and fear that the revelers 

John Hadman, a wealthy citizen, made disport with his 
neighbors and friends, and was crowned King of Christmas. 
He rode in state through the city, dressed forth in silks and 
tinsel, and preceded by twelve persons habited as the twelve 
months of the year. After King Christmas followed Lent, 
clothed in white garments trimmed with herring skins, on 
horseback, the horse being decorated with trappings of oys- 
ter shells, being indicative that sadness and a holy time 
should follow the Christmas revelling. In this way they rode 
through the city, accompanied by numbers in various gro- 
tesque dresses, making disport and merriment; some clothed 
in armour; others, dressed as devils, chased the people, and 
sorely affrighted the women and children; others wearing 
skin dresses, and counterfeiting bears, wolves, lions, and 
other animals, and endeavoring to imitate the animals they 
represented, in roaring and raving, alarming the cowardly 
and appalling the stoutest hearts [Halpert and Story, 1969, 

For the most part, people engaged in mumming and welcomed 
mummers into their homes because it was fun. Mummers relished 
parading in costume and appreciated the protection it gave them to 
praise or tease their neighbors as they saw fit. The less well-off 
might also avail themselves of this opportunity to exact hospitality 
from their more prosperous neighbors. Indeed, mummers usually 
demanded and received food or drink from each household or locale 
they visited. No doubt many people liked the lively atmosphere cre- 
ated by the mummers and enjoyed their entertaining antics. Others 
probably resented being pestered for gifts of food and drink. 



Mummers ' Plays 

In Great Britain and Ireland some mummers eventually began to 
entertain their hosts with short folk dramas called mummers' plays. 
Since mummers' plays were often passed down through oral tradi- 
tions, they varied in many details. Nevertheless, three main story 
lines emerge, which experts have dubbed the hero-combat, the 
sword play, and the wooing ceremony. The hero- combat was the 
most popular of these stories. Some of the characters likely to ap- 
pear in this play include St. George, Father Christmas, the king of 
Egypt or England, the king's daughter, a pompous doctor, and a 
Turkish knight. The story revolves around a fight between the hero, 
St. George, and the Turkish knight. One combatant kills the other. 
Afterwards, the bumbling doctor miraculously manages to revive the 
dead soldier. All of this takes place amidst a great deal of silly or gar- 
bled dialogue in which characters flatly announce their identities 
and narrate their actions. Father Christmas often serves as a kind of 
announcer for the play. In England women did not usually take part 
in mumming, so all the roles were played by men. 

After presenting their play, the mummers collected coins from the 
audience in return for their dramatic efforts. Mummers performed 
these plays most frequently at Christmas time, but in some areas 
they were presented around Easter and All Souls' Day (November 2). 
Although some writers believe these plays, or at least the themes 
they touch on, to be ancient, others point out that the earliest writ- 
ten records of the plays date back to the eighteenth century. 

Mumming in Europe 

British and Irish mumming traditions have been well documented 
by generations of historians and folklorists. Although Christmas 
mumming was practiced in many parts of Europe, it is somewhat 
more difficult to find descriptions of the custom from other Euro- 
pean countries (see also Bulgaria, Christmas in; Latvia, Christmas 
in; Lithuania, Christmas in; Russia, Christmas in; for similar cus- 
toms practiced outside of Europe, see Ecuador, Christmas in; Mar- 
shall Islands, Christmas in the Republic of the; Nigeria, Christ- 
mas in). One of the best portraits of the practice outside of Great 
Britain and Ireland comes from the pen of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

the great Russian writer. The following excerpt from his novel War 
and Peace (1865-69) describes Christmas festivities in a well-to-do 
Russian household: 

The mummers (some of the house-serfs) dressed up as 
bears, Turks, inn-keepers and ladies — frightening and funny 
— bringing with them the cold from the outside and a feel- 
ing of gaiety, crowded, at first timidly, into the anteroom, 
then hiding behind one another they pushed into the ball- 
room where shyly at first and then more and more merrily 
and heartily, they started singing, dancing, and playing 
Christmas games. The countess, when she had identified 
them and laughed at their costumes, went into the drawing- 
room. . . . Half an hour later there appeared among the other 
mummers in the ballroom an old lady in a hooped skirt — 
this was Nicholas. A Turkish girl was Petya. A clown was 
Dimmler. An hussar was Natasha, and a Circassian was Sonya 
with burnt-cork mustache and eyebrows. After the conde- 
scending surprise, non-recognition, and praise from those 
who were not themselves dressed up, the young people 
decided that their costumes were so good that they ought to 
be shown elsewhere. 

Mumming in North America 

Mumming remained a popular Christmas season pastime in Eng- 
land until the mid-nineteenth century. After that time it faded away 
almost completely, being kept alive in only a few places by local 
enthusiasts. Long before its decline, however, English emigrants had 
carried this custom to the New World. In the seventeenth century 
the English established themselves in Newfoundland (now part of 
Canada). Local inhabitants there carried on a tradition of Christmas 
mumming, or "mummering," as they called it, until the 1960s. 

In the United States English settlers introduced mumming to an 
ethnically diverse population. In Pennsylvania, English Christmas 
time mumming traditions combined with the German folk figure 
Belsnickel to create the custom of belsnickeling {see Knecht Ru- 
precht). When these influences collided with the holiday season 
noisemaking traditions of Scandinavians and the musical and dance 
heritage of African Americans, new traditions were born. 



Although Philadelphia city officials periodically attempted to dis- 
band the noisy holiday revelers, they finally accepted these customs 
in an organized format, issuing the first official permit for the Phila- 
delphia Mummers Parade in 1901. Philadelphians continue to stage 
this extravagant event every year on New Year's Day. Squads of 
elaborately costumed mummers, magnificent floats, and lively string 
bands all march through the city streets, and judges select the win- 
ning entries. In spite of its name the parade bears little resemblance 
to its ancestral English mumming traditions, except that participants 
wear costumes and, often, masks. 

Related Customs 

Mumming was only one of a number of old Christmas customs that 
authorized revelry, including unruly or forbidden behavior, under 
the cover of masks and disguises. These practices span many cen- 
turies and come from different lands. Examples include belsnickel- 
ing, the ceremonies surrounding the boy bishop, the customs asso- 
ciated with Berchta, Black Peter, Germany's Knocking Nights, the 
Feast of Fools, masques, pantomimes, Los Pastores, Las Posadas, 
Plough Monday, St. Sylvester's Day, and Twelfth Night celebra- 
tions. Although their historical and cultural roots vary, some authors 
identify in these customs a perennial return to the ancient theme of 
celebrating midwinter with costumed merrymaking. 


Although Christmas mumming no doubt entertained many partici- 
pants and onlookers, mummers also caused many disturbances. 
Complaints against mummers ranged from excessive noisiness to 
malicious mischief and, even, criminal acts. Perhaps the excitement 
of shedding one's usual social role with the aid of a disguise, com- 
bined with a good deal to drink, tilted some mummers towards rau- 
cous behavior. In other cases, some who set out to steal, incite politi- 
cal disturbances, or simply settle old scores with a neighbor found it 
convenient to disguise themselves as mummers. This tendency toward 
disorder caused local authorities throughout the centuries to attempt 
to eradicate the practice. Indeed, the oldest document known to men- 
tion Christmas mumming records that it was forbidden in the French 
town of Troyes in 1263. In 1405 the practice was outlawed in London. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

In the seventeenth century the Puritans railed against it. Throughout 
the nineteenth century Pennsylvania legislators attempted to abolish 
it. Ironically, legislators were never able to kill this form of folk enter- 
tainment. Mumming finally died a natural death at a ripe old age 
when the societies that gave birth to it had changed so much that 
ordinary people simply abandoned the practice. 

Further Reading 

Brody, Alan. The English Mummers and Their Plays. Philadelphia, Pa.: Uni- 
versity of Pennsylvania Press, 1970. 

Chambers, Robert. "December 24 — The Mummers." In his The Book of 
Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Halpert, Herbert, and G. M. Story, eds. Christmas Mumming in 'Newfound- 
land. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1969. 

Helm, Alex. The English Mummers' Play . Totowa, N.I.: Rowman and Little- 
field, 1981. 

Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, England: 
Oxford University Press, 1994. 

. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 


Langstaff, fohn. Saint George and the Dragon. New York: Atheneum Press, 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, 
Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, 
Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Miller, Katherine. Saint George, A Christmas Mummers' Play . Boston, Mass.: 
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967. 

"Mummers' Play." In Phyllis HartnoU, ed. The Oxford Companion to the 
Theatre. Fourth edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. 

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 

Robertson, Margaret. "The Symbolism of Christmas Mummering in New- 
foundland." Folklore 93, 2 (1982): 176-80. 

Web Site 

A site sponsored by the Philadelphia Department of Recreation on the Mum- 
mers Parade: 





The sap of the myrrh tree {Commiphora myrrha) dries into hard, red- 
dish brown lumps of gum resin known as myrrh. Although unfamil- 
iar to us today, in ancient times myrrh was a precious and much 
sought-after substance. The Magi, or Wise Men from the East, 
brought the baby Jesus a gift of myrrh. 

History and Significance 

In order to understand the significance of this gift, we must explore 
the uses of myrrh in biblical times. Ancient records tell us that it was 
perhaps most commonly employed as a medicine. The Romans, 
Greeks, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean 
and Near East prescribed myrrh in treatments for a wide variety of 
afflictions, including sores in the mouth, infections, coughs, and 
worms. It was also burned to fumigate the rooms of the sick. Myrrh 
appears at the beginning of Jesus' life as a gift and at the end of his 
life as a medicine. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus is offered a 
cup of wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23). This suggests that 
myrrh was used as a painkiller. The ancient Egyptians used myrrh in 
the process of embalming corpses. The ancient Hebrews also treated 
the dead with myrrh; according to the Gospel of John, Jesus' body 
was treated with myrrh and aloes before being wrapped in cloth for 
burial Qohn 19:39). 

Myrrh was also highly valued as a component of perfume and in- 
cense. Although myrrh has a pleasant smell, like many more familiar 
perfume products, it has a bitter taste. In fact, the English word 
"myrrh" comes from the Hebrew and Arabic terms for "bitter." 
Myrrh was especially prized as an ingredient in perfumed oils and 
lotions because of its enduring fragrance and long shelf life. The 
Hebrews made myrrh one of the primary ingredients of the holy oil 
with which they anointed their high priests and the sacred objects of 
their temples. It was also used to make incense, which many ancient 
peoples, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Persians, 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

and Babylonians, burned in home and temple worship. Frankin- 
cense was preferred over myrrh in the making of incense, however. 

In ancient times, Arabia supplied the Mediterranean and Asia with 
most of their myrrh and frankincense. These products were so highly 
valued and so difficult to obtain outside of Arabia that they became a 
luxury affordable only by the rich. 

The Magi's gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh have each been 
assigned a special significance in Christian lore and legend. Due to its 
bitterness, the gift of myrrh has often been interpreted as a symbol of 
the hardships that Jesus would suffer in his adult life: persecution and 
early death. The fact that myrrh was used in embalming has led some 
to assert that myrrh represents Jesus' humanity. Like us, he would die. 
Another interpretation suggests that because myrrh had many medic- 
inal uses in biblical times, it must represent Jesus' role as a healer of 
body and spirit. Finally, it might be argued that the gift of myrrh sym- 
bolizes Jesus' role as a Jewish religious leader, since myrrh was a main 
ingredient in the holy oil used to anoint Jewish high priests. 


Until the mid-1 700s tradition dictated that the British monarch offer 
a gift of frankincense, gold, and myrrh at the Chapel Royal on Epiph- 
any. Heralds and knights of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath accompa- 
nied the king on this reenactment of the Magi's royal pilgrimage. 
The procession was abandoned under the unstable King George III 
(1760-1820), although a proxy continues to deliver the monarch's gift 
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Chapel Royal on Epiphany. A 
similar royal offering was at one time customary in Spain. 

Myrrh Today 

Today myrrh trees can be found in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and 
Somalia. Myrrh is still used as a component of incense and perfume. 
It is also found in mouthwashes, gargles, and toothpastes. Interest in 
the medicinal properties of myrrh has been increasing in recent 
years. Herbalists recognize its antiseptic, antifungal and astringent 
qualities. Moreover, a recent scientific study has found that myrrh 
indeed does reduce pain, affirming ancient uses of the drug. 


Further Reading 

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, 

Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Groom, Nigel. Frankincense and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade. 

London, England: Longman House, 1981. 
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University 

Press, 1996. 
Lehner, Ernst, and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants 

and Trees. 1960. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 
Lipkin, R. "Myrrh: An Ancient Salve Dampens Pain." Science News 149, 2 

Qanuary 13, 1996): 20. 
"Myrrh." In AUen C. Myers, ed. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, 

Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987. 


National cfiristmas Tree 

The National Christmas Tree stands on the lawn of the President's 
Park South — or Ellipse, as it is more commonly called — in Wash- 
ington, D.C. Its ceremonial illumination each year in early December 
kicks off a festival called the Pageant of Peace. The pageant was es- 
tablished in order to "foster friendship and understanding among all 
peoples" and "to reflect the unity of purpose that emanates from the 
diversity of traditions and backgrounds of mankind." The festival 
lasts till January 6, Epiphany. Over the years, radio and then televi- 
sion coverage has made the National Christmas Tree an increasingly 
important symbol of Christmas celebrations in the United States. 

The Early Years 

Community trees illuminated with electric lights date back to the first 
years of the twentieth century. From California the idea spread to 
New York City, resulting in a tree-lighting ceremony in Madison Fkrk 
(now known as Madison Square Gardens). In 1913 the first commu- 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

nity tree in Washington, D.C., was erected on the East Plaza of the 
Capitol Building. Lighting ceremonies took place in 1913 and 1914, 
but folded due to lack of funds. The event resumed at the end of 
World War I. 

In 1923 the Capitol tree was eclipsed by another community tree, 
however, this one standing on the Ellipse south of the White House 
and lit by the president himself. That year President Calvin Coolidge 
agreed to flip the switch that illuminated the 60-foot fir tree's electric 
lights. He did so at sundown on Christmas Eve, but showed little 
interest in the proceedings. The evening's activities also included a 
free concert at the tree by the Marine Band quartet, a 9:00 p.m. carol 
sing on the North Lawn, and a midnight reenactment of the journey 
of the Magi at the Washington Monument. 

Several years later President Coolidge designated the General Grant 
tree, located in California's King's Canyon National Park, the Na- 
tion's Christmas Tree. Although this 267-foot-tall tree is never dec- 
orated with lights and ornaments, Christmas ceremonies have taken 
place at the foot of the tree since 1925. 

Washington's first National Christmas Tree had come from Cool- 
idge's home state of Vermont, a donation from Middlebury College. 
Between the years 1924 and 1933 the ceremony took place in Sher- 
man Plaza using a living Christmas tree. During these years the 
event became increasingly popular. Radio announcers broadcast the 
ceremony in 1925. In 1926, a flare was sent up at the moment of the 
illumination. This signal alerted buglers dispersed throughout the 
city to proclaim the lighting of the tree in song. By 1929 the hot 
lights and heavy ornaments had so damaged the tree that it had to 
be replaced. 

Between the years 1934 and 1938, the renovation of Sherman Plaza 
forced the lighting ceremony to move to Lafayette Park. Two living 
Christmas trees were used in alternate years, in order to avoid per- 
manently harming either one. 

World War II 

In 1939 the tree-lighting ceremony returned to the Ellipse, but in 
1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered it moved to the South 


National Christmas Tree 

Lawn of the White IHiouse, a decision he felt would make the pro- 
ceedings "more homey." The United States entered World War II in 
December of that year. On Christmas Eve the British Prime Minister 
Winston Churchill, who was in Washington to confer with Roosevelt 
about the war, appeared alongside President Roosevelt at the tree- 
lighting ceremony. Both gave brief speeches about the war and 
Christmas. In 1942 wartime blackout requirements led to the can- 
cellation of the tree's illumination. Nevertheless, First Lady Eleanor 
Roosevelt insisted on an alternate ceremony. Schoolchildren col- 
lected ornaments for the tree and a ceremony featuring the ringing 
of chimes was substituted for the usual illumination. The blackouts 
continued in 1943 and 1944. In these years, tags bearing the names 
of men serving in the military were attached to each ornament. 

Post-War Years 

By Christmas of 1945 World War II was over and Washingtonians 
rejoiced anew as President Harry S. Truman pushed the button that 
illuminated the National Christmas Tree for the first time since 1942. 
Truman preferred to spend Christmas at home in Missouri and so 
missed a number of illumination ceremonies. Without an appear- 
ance by the President, the event's glamour and popularity sagged. 

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie breathed new 
life into the illumination ceremony, however. In 1954 they moved it 
back to the Ellipse, which permitted larger crowds to gather. In that 
same year the date of the ceremony was moved back to December 
17 and a series of related activities lasting from December 17 to 
January 6 was added. This program of activities, named the "Christ- 
mas Pageant of Peace," was concocted by local businessmen to attract 
more tourists to the area at Christmas time {see also Commercialism). 
Twenty-seven foreign embassies participated in the pageant that year, 
sending performers to demonstrate the Christmas songs, dances, 
and traditions of their countries. A full-scale Nativity scene, featur- 
ing live animals, was also erected as part of the pageant. In addition, 
during the Eisenhower years the tree-lighting ceremony was tele- 
vised to ever-expanding TV audiences, which helped make the tree a 
national icon of the holiday season. 

Between the years 1954 and 1972, festival organizers scouted out 
beautiful, tall trees from various parts of the country, bought them. 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

cut them down, and imported them to Washington to serve as the 
National Christmas Tree. In that era festival organizers thought that 
planting a living Christmas tree on the Ellipse would interrupt the 
area's usage during the rest of the year. As the festival became a 
more important part of the nation's Christmas celebrations, various 
states began to send smaller Christmas trees to stand alongside the 
"pathway of peace" that leads to the National Christmas Tree. Even- 
tually all fifty states were represented. 

Problems and Protests 

The illumination ceremony was postponed until December 22 in 
1963. President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed on No- 
vember 22, and the nation observed a thirty- day mourning period 
for him in which it was deemed inappropriate to light the tree. 

The illumination ceremony became the site of political protests dur- 
ing Richard M. Nixon's presidency. Citizens who opposed American 
involvement in Vietnam used the occasion to voice their objections 
to the war, heckling the President during his speech. One year the 
police arrested nine people, charging them with disorderly conduct. 

Another kind of objection was raised by the American Civil Liberties 
Union. On behalf of several plaintiffs, they charged that the Nativity 
scene that had become part of the display violated the constitutional 
guarantee against the government establishing or promoting a par- 
ticular religion. The courts decided in their favor in 1973, and the 
Nativity scene was eliminated. 

At the same time, the White House received numerous letters that 
criticized the continuing practice of cutting down a magnificent tree 
each year for the ceremony. In response to these concerns President 
Nixon requested that a living tree be planted on the Ellipse. In 1973 
the National Arborist Association contributed a 42-foot Colorado 
Blue Spruce from Pennsylvania, which was uprooted and transplant- 
ed to Washington, D.C., to serve as the National Christmas Tree. The 
tree lasted only four years. In 1977 it was replaced with another 
Colorado Blue Spruce. This tree was knocked over by strong winds 
in January 1978. The following year it was replaced by yet another 
Colorado Blue Spruce, 39%-feet high, which was uprooted from the 


National Christmas Tree 

home of the Myers family of York, Pennsylvania, in exchange for 

In December of 1978, a new ritual was added to the illumination 
ceremony. Jimmy Carter's daughter Amy was lifted to the top of the 
Christmas tree by a cherry picker to place the last, topmost orna- 
ment on the tree. In the years that followed, this honor was general- 
ly reserved for a member of the president's or vice-president's fami- 
ly. In 1980 Penne Langdon, the wife of one of the American hostages 
being held in Iran, performed this task. 

As a means of expressing America's solidarity with the hostages. 
President Carter ordered that the National Christmas Tree remain 
unlit in 1979 and 1980. The hostages were released on January 20, 
1980, President Ronald Reagan's Inauguration Day. Even though 
Christmas had passed, Reagan had the tree decorated and illumi- 
nated in celebration of both events. 

The Eighties and Beyond 

The Reagans often invited children to assist them in the tree-light- 
ing ceremony. One year a boy scout and a girl scout attended the 
ceremonies. Another year a child selected by the Make-a-Wish 
Foundation helped the President and his wife light the tree. 

During the Reagan years, the President lit the Christmas tree by re- 
mote control from inside the White House. An assassination attempt 
on Reagan's life in 1981 in combination with other death threats led 
security advisors to insist on this change. His successor. President 
George H. W. Bush, once again strolled out to the Ellipse to light the 
tree. During Bush's presidency his wife Barbara Bush placed the top- 
most ornament on the Christmas tree four years in a row. As the 
wife of Reagan's vice-president, she had also performed this task, 
and so holds the national record for most cherry picker rides (twelve) 
to the top of the National Christmas Tree. 

Over the years the Pageant of Peace expanded, thereby pushing the 
date of the illumination ceremony back into the early part of De- 
cember. During the Clinton presidency it took place on various dates 
between December 5 and December 11. The crowds continued to 


Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd Edition 

grow as well. In 1993, approximately 9,000 people attended the 
event. In recent years over 75,000 electric lights have twinkled from 
the National Christmas Tree. The decorations on the tree vary from 
year to year. 

Further Reading 

Menendez, Albert J. Christmas in the White House. Philadelphia, Pa.: West- 
minster Press, 1983. 

Seeley, Mary Evans. Season's Greetings fivm the White House. Tampa, Fla.: A 
Presidential Christmas, 1998. 

Web Site 

The National Park Service, which maintains the President's Park South (the 
Ellipse), sponsors a page on the National Christmas Tree and the Pageant 
of Peace at: 

Natrona's cfiristmas Tree 

King's Canyon National Park, located in east central California, is 
home to some of the largest trees in the world. These enormous red- 
wood trees, called giant sequoias, or Sequoiadendron giganteum, can 
live for over 3,000 years. One of these behemoths, named the Gen- 
eral Grant tree, serves as the Nation's Christmas Tree. 

The General Grant tree is only the third largest sequoia in the park. 
Nevertheless, its dimensions impress. The tree reaches over 267 feet 
in height. It measures 40 feet in diameter and 107 feet in circumfer- 
ence around the base. The first branch extending off the trunk does 
so at abou