Holiday Heritage

Holiday Heritage

'Tis the season to find out where your family traditions come from—and how to incorporate some new ones.

Every family celebrates the holidays a little differently. Some light candles in the window; others wait for a costumed man bearing gifts in a sack. Between the annual mad rush to the mall, cookie baking and party preparations, have you ever stopped to think about why your family celebrates its special traditions during the winter holiday season? Or about how your forebears celebrated the holidays? You might be surprised what you can learn about your family history from the rituals and routines you carry on year after year.

2016 Holiday Calendar

DEC. 4 St. Barbara’s Day; gift markets open in Germany

DEC. 6 St. Nicholas’ Day; children in many areas (particularly the Netherlands and nearby parts of Germany) receive presents

DEC. 24 Hanukkah begins at sundown (The dates for Hanukkah change each year; this page lists dates through 2022.)  

DEC. 13 St. Lucy’s (Santa Lucia) Day; Swedish girls dress as the saint with crowns of greenery and carry candles

DEC. 24 Christmas Eve

DEC. 25 Christmas Day

DEC. 26 Boxing Day in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom; historically, churches opened alms boxes and distributed money to the poor

DEC. 26 Kwanzaa (through Jan. 1); St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland

JAN. 1 St. Basil’s Day; a day for exchanging gifts in Greece

JAN. 6 Epiphany

JAN. 7 Orthodox Christmas

JAN. 19 Armenian Christmas

The history of the season’s celebrations is full of fascinating discoveries. New Englanders, for example, often light a single candle in the window to welcome night travelers, a tradition brought to this country by Irish immigrants. It only became widespread in the 19th century when a large number of Irish settled in Boston. In the Southwest, you’ll find luminarias or farolitos lighting walkways, a Mexican version of this welcoming signal.

As your immigrant families intermarried, many different ethnic traditions became part of your celebrations. Some of these holiday rituals were brought with them, while others are regional, based on the history of the area.

Sometimes the details become part of your family life because the tradition has a romantic appeal. My children love it when the Belsnickel appears at my mother-in-law’s house each Christmas. In Germany and areas settled by Germans, such as Philadelphia, the Belsnickel dressed in costume and visited houses to perform for food and drink, bringing a bag full of treats for the children. Mummers, the English version of the Belsnickel, also called on Philadelphia residents. Now Philadelphia holds the Mummers Parade each New Year’s Day. Though my husband has some Pennsylvania German roots, it was actually his New England-born and -bred mother who adopted the Belsnickel tradition. This season, see what holiday legacies your ancestors passed down.

Three major Christian holidays occur in December and early January: Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, the day before the birth of Jesus Christ; Christmas, Dec. 25; and Epiphany, Jan. 6, commemorating the coming of the three wise men and Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Across many countries, cultures and regions, these holidays are celebrated in diverse ways. Gift-giving customs, symbols, songs and processions can all hold clues to ethnic roots:

Australia

While most Australian traditions are English in origin, Christmas cards feature native animals such as koalas. Palm leaves, ferns and flowering plants decorate houses during this summer holiday in the Southern Hemisphere.

Caribbean

On Dec. 26, residents celebrate Jonkonnu, a festival that combines English and African elements and dance movements.

Eastern Europe

Ukrianians hang spiders and webs on their trees as part of a folkloric tale about a woman who was too poor to decorate her tree so a spider spun webs for decoration during the night. In Russia before the 1917 revolution, an old woman named Baboushka brought children treats. During the Communist era, she was changed to Grandfather Frost.

Slovakian children put polished boots in their windows for St. Nicholas to deliver gifts on Dec. 5. Moravians set up Christmas pyramids decorated with a star and shelves, one reserved for a nativity scene. A propeller on top of the structure turns from the heat of the candles on the shelves.

England

English children wait for Father Christmas to deliver presents. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, brought the custom of tree decorating from his native Germany. The first Christmas cards debuted here in the 1840s. Christmas crackers, small popping cardboard tubes with surprises inside, are popular during the holidays.

Ethiopia

The Coptic Church celebrates Ganna (Christmas) on Jan. 7. Ganna is named after a popular game similar to field hockey, which legend says the shepherds played upon hearing of Jesus’ birth. Everyone wears white to a church service following a day of fasting.

France

Young children think of Advent as a calendar with a prize on every day between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25. Originally, Advent was a time to think about the future spiritual events of the season. Advent dates from 490 AD when the Bishop of Tours advocated fasting three days a week for the 40 days before Christmas. Extended families gather together after midnight Mass for reveilton, a banquet on Christmas Eve.

Germany

Most sources credit Germans for the tradition of decorating Christmas trees, bringing that custom to America. Elaborate hand-blown glass ornaments also first appeared in Germany. The German city of Lauscha was the manufacturing center for glass ornaments, although production slowed after it became part of postwar East Germany. Children write letters and lists and leave them for Christkindel (southern Germany) or Weinnachtsman (northern Germany). Many towns hold a Christkindelsmarkt, selling handmade gifts and treats during the holidays.

Greece

St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and fishermen, gives out gifts. Gift giving takes place on Jan. 1, St. Basil’s Day, in honor of one of the four fathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. On Epiphany, known as Greek Cross Day, crucifixes are blessed by dipping them into water.

Latin America

Las Posadas, a daily procession that re-enacts Joseph’s and Mary’s search for shelter, is traditionally performed in the days before Christmas. Children leave their shoes in the window on Epiphany for gifts from the Magi. In Mexico, the holiday season ends with Candlemas, a religious ceremony on Feb. 2. A Mexican folktale recounts the story of a poor girl who presented the infant Jesus with a branch from a simple plant. As she laid it beside the manger, it turned red. Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and the first US ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant to this country, where it came to be called a poinsettia.

Italy

Italian children leave their shoes or stockings near the fireplace to receive gifts on Epiphany from La Befana. They also receive presents from Father Christmas on Christmas Day. Nativity scenes and Christmas pyramids are part of Christmas displays.

Netherlands

Black Peter disciplines naughty boys and girls on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), while Sinterklass, or St. Nicholas, rewards good children with candy and gifts.

Philippines

Because the Philippines is the only Asian nation where the majority of people are Christian, Christmas there is celebrated widely. The season begins on Dec. 16 with the Misa de Gallo, or “rooster’s mass.” Most families display parols, or star-shaped lanterns, and sing carols.

Poland

At midnight on Christmas Eve in Poland, many go to pasterka, or Shepherd’s Mass. Afterward, the head of the family breaks an oplatek, a thin water made of wheat flour and water with a nativity scene stamped on it. Each family member breaks off a small piece and eats it. Later, they might feast on fish, sauerkraut, potato pancakes and beet soup.

Scandinavia

In Scandinavian countries, trees are strung with straw goats. Danes use red-and-white hearts and strings of miniature Danish flags. Finnish children believe that Santa Claus, lives in Korvatunturi, in the northern part of their country.

Swedes honor Santa Lucia on Dec. 13 by selecting a child to dress in a white gown with a red sash. The child wears a wreath on the head with lit candles and delivers traditional food. The tomte, or Christmas gnome, brings gifts on Christmas Day. In Norway, Christmas, or Juledag, is a quiet prelude to Dec. 26, when Norwegians start eating, drinking and celebrating until Jan. 13.

United States 

Various regions of the United States also dealt with Christmas in their own unique ways that may be reflected in your family’s heritage. Conservative Puritans in Massachusetts tried to outlaw Christmas in the 17th century, while Southern settlers brought over carols, yule logs and greenery from England. Christmas in New England was a time of religious devotion; the southern colonies welcomed the holiday by making as much noise as possible.

Many of these regional differences I grew out of the diversity of people in the area. In Alaska, for instance, Russian descendants still follow the traditions of the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 with a procession carrying wheels trimmed with tinsel to resemble stars.

No holiday is complete without specific foods. My childhood memories revolve around large family parties on Christmas Eve, the tables laden with a potluck supper brought by relatives reflecting their particular ethnic heritage. My cousin always made la tourtiere, a meat pie served by French Canadians after midnight Mass, originally part of reveillon.

A typical English meal featured roast goose or turkey, plum pudding and wassail to drink. Waves of immigrants to America have each added their own items to that traditional holiday menu. Fruitcake, for example, has its origins in Ireland, while gingerbread cookies began in the Netherlands and Germany. Spain is notable for its marzipan and Sweden for its lussekatt buns at the festival of Santa Lucia, while mincemeat is an old English tradition. Feasts also are part of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, of course. And no one who participates in an Italian Christmas Eve ever forgets the seven courses — with eel as one traditional offering. See the box at right for a list of cookbooks that will help you whip up heritage dishes for your holiday feasts.

Honoring African ancestors

During the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights produced a need for a new holiday, one that would allow African-Americans to celebrate their cultural origins, history and identity. Kwanzaa, a new tradition created by Maulana Karenga in 1966, filled that need. Now more than 5 million African-American families celebrate Kwanzaa, according to Ebony, and the numbers are growing.

From Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, African-Americans reflect on African traditions and values, based on harvest festivals held by several African tribes. The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase for “first fruits of the harvest,” with an extra a added to signify the seven days of reflection.

Each day of Kwanzaa is an opportunity to focus on a principle that reinforces and strengthens the family. These seven principles, called nguzo saba, are umoja (unity), kujich-agulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumbaa (creativity) and imani (faith). As part of the celebration, families place symbolic objects on a straw mat called a mkeka. These objects include an ear of corn for each child in the family (muhindi), a unity cup (kikombe cha umoja) and a wooden candle holder (kinara) with a center black candle flanked by three red and green candles (misbumaa saba). These colors come from the flag of black nationalism, in which red symbolizes blood, black symbolizes African heritage and green symbolizes land.

Children are given zawadi, handmade gifts that represent the fruit of the parents’ labor and the rewards of seeds sown by the children. As the week winds down, families get together on Dec. 31 for a feast called karamu, a celebration of the year’s accomplishments.

Festival of lights

Many religions and cultures include the candle-lighting holiday traditions. For Jews, the lighting of the menorah is a focal point for Hanukkah (also spelled Chanuka or Chanukah, meaning “dedication”), an eight-day celebration that commemorates the victory of the Jews against the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus in 162 BC. Their triumph ensured Jews were free to worship. The lighting of the menorah or candles symbolizes the rededication of their temple. The dates of Hanukkah change each year, but it’s always the 25th day of Kislev according to the Jewish calendar. According to our calendar, Hanukkah is in either November or December.

The primary symbol of Hanukkah is a candleholder called the menorah. One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, and on each successive night another candle is added until the eighth night when the entire menorah is lit. The highest candle, known as the shamash or “servant,” is used to light the other candles. Each candle signifies a virtue such as spirit, courage, justice and hope.

Latkes or potato pancakes, made from grated potatoes, onion, eggs and flour and served with applesauce or sour cream, are traditional holiday fare because Maccabee women fed them to the soldiers during battle. Frying them in oil memorializes the miracle of a small amount of oil that lasted eight days during the battle. Another signature Hanukkah treat is sufganiyot, an orange-flavored jelly doughnut traditional in Israel.

During Hanukkah, children and adults sing songs such as “Rock of Ages (Maoz Tzur),” “Who Can Retell?” and “O Hannukkah.” Children also like to play dreidel, a game with a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter inscribed on each side. Their families give them gelt, or money, which today usually is gold-foil candy coins, as well as gifts. Some families give one present each day; others wait till the last night of Hanukkah.

Invite family and friends to add their diversity to your holiday preparations. Whatever your roots, the winter season is full of opportunities to learn about your family, share its history and pass it on for the future.

Adapted from the December 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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