Our first stop is in Australia...the world's largest island and smallest continent. Christmas in Australia is celebrated during summer vacation. In addition to swimming, sailing, and surfing, Aussies like to spend their Christmas season singing. The most popular event of the Christmas season is called Carols by Candlelight. People come together at night to light candles and sing Christmas carols outside. The stars shining above add to the sights and sounds of this wonderful outdoor concert. And no Christmas would be complete without a meal cooked outdoors on the "barbie."
Next up is China. The small number of Christians in China call Christmas Sheng Dan Jieh, which means Holy Birth Festival. They decorate their homes with evergreens, posters, and bright paper chains. The family puts up a Christmas tree, called "tree of light," and decorates it with beautiful lanterns, flowers, and red paper chains that symbolize happiness. They cut out red pagodas to paste on the windows, and they light their houses with paper lanterns, too. Christmas Eve is generally spent at a party and Christmas dinner is traditionally enjoyed at a local restaurant.
It is cold, wet, and foggy in England at Christmastime. Families welcome the warmth and cheer of a Yule log blazing on the hearth. They decorate their homes with holly, ivy, and other evergreens and hang a mistletoe "kissing bough." Throughout the holidays, carolers go from house to house at twilight ringing handbells and singing Christmas songs. "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" are English favorites. People give the carolers treats, such as little pies filled with nuts and dried fruits.
Leaving the cold of England, we travel next to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in Africa. It still follows the ancient Julian calendar, so Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church's celebration of Christ's birth is called Ganna. It is a day when families attend church. The day before Ganna, people fast all day. The next morning at dawn, everyone dresses in white. Most Ethiopians don a traditional shamma, a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly colored stripes across the ends. The shamma is worn somewhat like a toga. Urban Ethiopians might put on white Western garb. Then everyone goes to the early mass at four o'clock in the morning. In a celebration that takes place several days later, the priests will dress in turbans and red and white robes as they carry beautifully embroidered fringed umbrellas.
Pere Noel is Santa Claus to French children. Christmas in France is a family holiday. The celebrations begin on December 5, which is St. Nicholas Eve. It is a day for gift-giving between friends and relatives. On that cold night, children leave their shoes by the hearth so Pere Noel, or Father Christmas, will fill them with gifts. Christmas Eve is the most special time in the French celebration of Christmas. Church bells ring and voices sing French carols, called noels. The family fasts all day, then everyone but the youngest children goes to midnight mass. The churches and cathedrals are beautifully lit, and most display a lovely antique creche. Afterward, the family returns home to a nighttime feast that is called le reveillon. The menu is different in the various regions of France. In Paris, it might be oysters and pate, while in Brittany, the traditional midnight supper is buckwheat cakes and sour cream.
From France, we travel next door to Germany. German families prepare for Christmas throughout cold December. Four Sundays before Christmas, they make an Advent wreath of fir or pine branches with four colored candles. They light a candle on the wreath each Sunday, sing Christmas songs, and eat Christmas cookies. The children count the days until Christmas with an Advent calendar. Each day, they open a little numbered flap on the calendar to see the Christmas picture hidden there. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, homes are filled with the delightful smells of baking loaves of sweet bread, cakes filled with candied fruits, and spicy cookies called lebkuchen. Many German children write letters to St. Nicholas asking for presents. St. Nicholas Day is December 6. Other German children write their letters to the Christ Child. In some areas, the Christ Child brings gifts to children on St. Nicholas Eve and in other areas on Christmas Eve. He is dressed all in white, with golden wings and a golden crown. Christmas Eve is the most important time of the Christmas season for families. Some even say it is a magical night when animals can speak. The wonderful tradition of the Christmas tree, which started in Germany, is the heart of the celebration. Grown-ups decorate the evergreen tree with beautiful ornaments of colored glass and carved wood, silver stars, and strings of lights. A golden angel is placed at the very top of the tree.
From Germany, we move to neighboring Holland. Dutch children in Holland, or the Netherlands, anxiously look forward to St. Nicholas Day on December 6. While they eagerly await the arrival of Sinterklaas, the people around them shop for gifts, write a little poem to accompany each one, and carefully wrap each gift to keep the contents a surprise to the receiver. Sinterklaas is a kindly bishop. He wears red robes and a tall, pointed mitre on his head. Sinterklaas travels by ship from Spain to Amsterdam's harbor every winter. With him he brings his white horse and a huge sack full of gifts for the children. The mayor and all the people of Amsterdam flock to the harbor to greet Sinterklaas as he arrives. Bells ring out, the people cheer, and a brass band leads a parade through the streets. The parade stops at the royal palace, where the Queen welcomes Sinterklaas. Families celebrate St. Nicholas Eve at home with lots of good food, hot chocolate, and a letterbanket. This is a "letter cake" made in the shape of the first letter of the family's last name. In some families, each person gets a little letterbanket with their first initial.
And we'll end our world tour in sunny Mexico. The weather is warm and mild in Mexico during the Christmas season. Families shop for gifts, ornaments, and good things to eat in the market stalls, called puestos. They decorate their homes with lilies and evergreens. Family members cut intricate designs in brown paper bags to make lanterns called farolitos. They place a candle inside and then set the farolitos along sidewalks, on windowsills, and on rooftops and outdoor walls to illuminate the community with the spirit of Christmas. The Mexican celebration of Christmas is called las posadas and begins on December 16. The ninth evening of las posadas is Buena Noche, Christmas Eve. The children lead a procession to the church and place a figure of the Christ Child in the nacimiento or nativity scene there. Then everyone attends midnight mass.
I'm off to spend the holidays with my family, but I'll be back again on Thursday, December 27th. Until then, from the Wart family to yours, we wish you Happy Holidays!
Peace on Earth.