Christmas is an annual holiday commemorating the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus and is observed generally on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year and it closes the Advent season. It initiates the twelve days of Christmastide, which ends after the twelfth night. Christmas is a public holiday in many of the world’s nations. It is celebrated culturally by a large number of non-Christian people, and is an integral part of the Christmas and holiday season.
While the birth year of Jesus is estimated among modern historians to have been between 7 and 2 BC, the exact month and day of his birth are unknown. This is not the focus of the Church’s Christmas celebration. His birth is mentioned in only two of the four gospels. By the early-to-mid 4th century, the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date later adopted in the East.
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Historical Traditional Information
Although some churches celebrate on the December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which, in the Gregorian calendar, currently corresponds to January 7. This is the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany. The Council of Tours of 567 “declared the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany to be one unified festal cycle”, thus giving significance to both December 25 and January 6.
The date of Christmas may have initially been chosen to correspond with the day exactly nine months after early Christians believed Jesus to have been conceived, or with one or more ancient polytheistic festivals that occurred near the Roman winter solstice; a further solar connection has been suggested because of a biblical verse identifying Jesus as the “Sun of righteousness”.
The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly.
In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, such as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and Saint Nicholas are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.
Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. The economic impact of Christmas is a factor that has grown steadily over the past few centuries in many regions of the world. This has many people and clergy considering the the idea of retailers taking over the Christmas season with commercialism as significantly diminishing the true idea of the reason we celebrate.
People in America like to decorate the outsides of their houses with lights and sometimes even statues of Santa Claus, Snowmen and Reindeer.
Towns and cities often decorate the streets with lights to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps the most famous Christmas street lights in the USA are at the Rockerfeller Center in New York where there is a huge Christmas Tree with a public ice skating rink in front of it over Christmas and the New Year.
Slavic Nations Christmas Traditions
Advent is the beginning of Christmas Time. It’s a time when people try to be peaceful and remember the real reason for Christmas. People try not to have excess of anything. Some people give up their favorite foods or drinks and parties and discos are not widely held. Some people also go to Church quite frequently. There is the tradition of the ‘roraty’, special masses held at dawn and dedicated to Mary for receiving the good news from the angel Gabriel. During Advent, people also prepare their houses for Christmas. There’s lots of cleaning and people wash their windows and clean their carpets very thoroughly. Everything must be clean for Christmas day!
During the evening of the 5th of December, children are very excited and watch for St. Nicholas (Mikuláš) to arrive. He normally is accompanied by one or more angels and one or more devils. He asks the children if they’ve been good all year and also asks them to sing a song or recite a poem. Young children place their shoes near the door so Mikuláš can fill them with presents often containing chocolate and fruit. Of course the main presents are opened on Christmas eve, during the evening and on Christmas Day.
Carp is usually the main dish of the meal. The fish itself is traditionally bought a few days earlier alive and it swims in the bath until it’s killed by the lady of the house! Now most people just buy a fillet of carp or another white fish instead. The carp’s scales are said to bring luck and fortune and by some are kept for the whole year.
Families usually sing Christmas carols by the tree, and go to church either at midnight or on Christmas Day. On the table there are 12 dishes – they are meant to give you good luck for the next 12 months. The meal is traditionally meat free, this is to remember the animals who took take of the baby Jesus in the manger. Everyone has to eat or at least try some of each dish. For Catholics the 12 dishes symbolize Jesus’ 12 disciples. Like in many Catholic Slavic countries, Christmas Eve is often a ‘fasting day’ meaning that some people don’t eat anything until after sunset (when the Church day officially ends). Meat is not normally allowed to be eaten in any form. So that’s where the custom of the first star come from. Some people in central Poland say that at midnight the animals can talk.
A Typical Slovak Christmas Eve Menu
Oplatky Stewed Prunes
Wine Machanka (Mushroom Soup)
Honey Caraway Soup
Garlic Bread For Christmas Eve
Dried Peas Mixed nuts
Mushroom Soup Nut and Poppy Seed Rolls
Pagach Pirohy (Pierogi)
Babalky Mushroom & Cabbage Soup
Christmas in Poland
Poland is a largely catholic country and Christmas Eve is a very important and busy day. It’s now often the most important day over Christmas – even though it’s not a holiday but Christmas and the 26th December are holidays!
Christmas Eve is known as Wigilia. The house is also cleaned and everyone gets washed and puts on their festive clothes. The main Christmas meal is eaten in the evening and is called “Kolacja wigilijna” or Christmas Eve supper. It’s traditional that no food is eaten until the first star is seen in the sky! So children look at the night sky to spot the first star!
One of the most important dishes is “barszcz” (beetroot soup) and it’s obligatory to have it. If you really hate it, you can eat mushroom soup instead! The barszcz may be eaten with “uszka” (little dumplings with mushrooms) or “krokiety” (pancakes with mushrooms or/and cabbage, in breadcrumbs, fried on oil or butter).”Bigos” is a dish which can be eaten either hot or cold. It’s made of cabbage, bacon, sometimes dried plums – so it is saved for Christmas day or the 26th as it has meat in it. It is made about a week or so before Christmas Eve, because with each day it gets better.
Herrings are very popular and usually are served is several ways: in oil, in cream, in jelly. Each household has their own recipe that that say is ‘the best in the whole wide world’! In most houses there is also “kompot z suszu” that is drink made by boiling dried fruits and fresh apples.
The most popular desserts at Kolacja wigilijna are “makowiec”, a poppy seed roll made of sweet yeast bread, “kutia” mixed dried fruits and nuts with wheat seeds, “piernik” a moist cake made with honey (that’s like gingerbread) and gingerbreads (which are usually dry and very hard).
At the beginning of the meal, a large wafer biscuit called an ‘Oplatek’, which has a picture of Mary, Joseph and Jesus on it, is passed around the table and everyone breaks a piece off and eats it. Sometimes a small piece may be given to any farm animals or pets that the family may have. A place is often left empty at the meal table, for an unexpected guest. Polish people say that no one should be alone or hungry, therefore if someone unexpectedly knocks on the door they are welcomed.
In some houses, the empty place is to commemorate a dead relative or for a family member who couldn’t come to the meal. Sometimes straw is put on the floor of the room, or under the table cloth, to remind people that Jesus was born in a stable or cow shed.
Christmas in the Slovakia and The Czech Republic
In the Czech language Happy Christmas is ‘Prejeme Vam Vesele Vanoce’ and in Slovakian it is ‘Vesele Vianoce’. The actual evening is called ‘Stedry vecer’ (the Generous Evening) and the Christmas season is called ‘Vianoce’.
The main celebrations are on Christmas Eve. Some people fast during Christmas Eve in the hope that they will see a vision of ‘the golden pig’ appear on the wall. This is meant to be a sign of good luck! The idea of fasting was a direction given by the Catholic Church. It was said that if you manage to get by without food for the whole day, you will see a little golden pig in the evening.
The Czech traditional Christmas dinner is eaten during the evening of Christmas Eve. The meal often consists of fish soup (made of carp), and fried carp with potato salad.
Ježíšek ‘Little Jesus’ (the Czech version of Christkind) brings presents during the Christmas Eve dinner and leaves them under the Christmas Tree. He rings a bell right before he leaves. Family gifts are put under the Christmas Tree.
A common tradition is that the children have to leave the room when the presents are being brought in by Jesus. When they are, a bell is rung. The children then run to the Christmas Tree to try and see the Baby Jesus but they always narrowly miss him! Then the presents from Ježíšek are opened. Most people open the family presents after the main Christmas meal, although some open them before they eat, opened right after dinner and in modern times before the Christmas Day breakfast.
The main Christmas meal is known as the ‘velija’ and consists of 12 dishes. The number of dishes symbolizes the number of Jesus’s disciples. The table is prepared with a white table cloth with straw and sheaves of wheat at each end. Other dishes might include a baked ham or a roost goose, ‘bobajky’ small pieces of bread mixed with butter and sauerkrat or sweetended with honey and poppyseeds, potato salad, pirohy dumplings, vegetables and plenty of walnut rolls or cookies.
Cookies are a popular dessert and treat at Christmas. Some favorites include vanilla ones made with poppy seeds and walnuts and apricot cookies. Sometimes people will make more than 10 different types of cookies. These are given to visitors over Christmas. There are also special thin waffles that are eaten with honey.
After supper people might visit the close family or neighbors and give small gifts. Then many people will go to a Midnight Mass Service. This is the busiest Church service of the year.
Christmas dinner begins with Oplatky small bread wafers and a blessing. The main Christmas supper varies between regions and families. It normally has lots of courses including a fish dish and ‘Kapustnica’. Kapustnica is a thick cabbage soup with sausage, meat, dried mushrooms and cream. Every family has its own recipe. Some recipes include ingredients that might seem unusual such as dried plums and apples. Carp is often the fish that is eaten.
Slovak Christmas Trees are decorated with coloured lights, fruits, hand-made decorations made of wood, baked goods made with honey in the form of Angels and other religious symbols and sweets. Christmas Trees are kept until January 6th, Feast of the Three Kings (know as The Epiphany). Then the children are allowed to finally eat the candies and other sweets from the tree.
There’s a superstition in the Czech Republic that says if you throw a shoe over your shoulder on Christmas day, if the toe points towards the door, you will be married soon!
Christmas in Hungary
In Hungary, Christmas Eve is very important and is called ‘Szent-este’ which means Holy Evening. People spend the evening with their family and decorate the Christmas Tree. Sometimes only the adults decorate the tree without the children there, so when children come in and see the tree, it’s a great surprise and they are told that angels brought the tree for them!
The main Christmas meal, which is also eaten on Christmas eve, consists of fish and cabbage and a special kind of poppy bread/cake called ‘Beigli’.
The Midnight Mass service is very popular in Hungary. Most people go to Church after their Christmas meal.
Christmas in Serbia and Montenegro
In Serbian Happy/Merry Christmas is Hristos se rodi followed by Christ is born or Vaistinu se rodi – and replied with truly born.
People in Serbia and Montenegro also celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day, but on the 19th December. During the time when Serbia and Montenegro was under communist control until about 15 years ago, the communist government didn’t like St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, so they had their own version called Grandfather Frost or Christmas Brother who came on New Year’s Eve.
Traditional Serbian customs have also mixed with western customs. For example people also have Christmas Trees but they are decorated on New Year’s Eve, not at Christmas!
In Serbia and Montenegro, the main Church is the Orthodox Church and they still use the old ‘Julian’ Calendar, which means that Christmas Eve in on 6th January and Christmas Day in on the 7th January! Advent in the Orthodox Church starts on 28th November and last for six weeks.
There are a lot of old Serbian traditions associated with the countryside, which have now lost their meaning because more people live in towns and cities. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the father of the family used to go to the forest to cut a young oak called the ‘Badnjak’ (Christmas Eve tree) but today people just buy one. Under the table there should also be some straw as a symbol of the stable/cave where Jesus was born.
At Christmas a special kind of bread is eaten. It’s called ‘cesnica’ and each member of the family gets a piece (and the house does too). There is a coin hidden in it and whoever gets the coin will be particularly fortunate in the next year!