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Christmas traditions around the world

By Margo MacArthur
Catholic News Service

The Christmas customs that unify Christians worldwide center around Nativity scenes, Christmas trees, carols, gift-giving and Christmas dinner. In fact, religious celebrations and secular pageantry have merged to produce a season of good cheer for all.
Christmas in England, for instance, gave the English-speaking world the Christmas tree. During the reign of Queen Victoria, trees were first brought indoors and decorated with apples to satisfy Prince Albert’s longing for a custom from his German childhood.
On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, visitors to English homes are given tiny wrapped boxes containing sweets or gold coins. It seems that Father Christmas (a tall, red-robed version of Santa Claus) accidentally dropped some coins down the chimney when delivering gifts centuries ago, and the English have included gold coins among their gifts ever since. In Africa, where Catholicism is on the rise, Christmas customs are spirited and prolonged.
In Ghana, for example, Christmas and the weeks leading up to it are celebrated publicly and joyously with shouts of “Afishapa!” (“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”)
Since Ghanaians have moved to the cities in droves in recent years, at Christmastime most try to return to the villages or towns where they grew up. They share a Christmas Eve meal of soup or stew. Then they go to church, inviting all relatives, friends and even strangers along the way to join them.
On Christmas Day, a larger feast which includes rice, chicken or goat and many native fruits and nuts is served in houses decorated with brightly painted paper ornaments. Mango, guava and cashew trees in the middle of a courtyard are also decorated, and the bright decorations extend to schools and churches.
New clothes and new shoes or books and journals are also popular gifts on Christmas Day, after which Ghanaians go to church, and processions and revelry extend into the evening and through many nights ahead.
For Italians, the Christmas season begins with the Novena, the eight days before Christmas during which necessary preparations are made and Christmas itself.
Presepios, life-size Nativity scenes, which St. Francis of Assisi first commissioned to dramatize Jesus’ humble birth, are the center of activity outside most Italian homes. Some include beautifully carved figures. An “urn of fate” in which gifts are placed resides beside the presepio.
On Christmas Eve, Italians fast. At evening, canons are fired.
Christmas Day is acknowledged with a feast after which gifts are selected from the urn. As twilight falls, families gather again by the presepio to light candles, sing songs and recite poetry. But the main exchange of gifts does not take place until Epiphany on Jan. 6.
The night before, Italian children hang up their stockings, hoping that the good witch Befana, who has been looking for the Christ Child for centuries, will leave gifts at every house in case Jesus is there.
In Mexico, Christmas, or Navidad, is celebrated for nine days. Neighbors dressed as Mary and Joseph go door to door, asking if they may stay the night. Each night, they are turned away; then the door is reopened for a party, and children are given pinata full of candy. Finally, on the ninth night, Mary and Joseph are let in. Family and guests dine together, and then go to church to celebrate Christ’s birth.
Recognizable in these varied traditions is the same gladness in celebrating the birth of Jesus within the family and beyond, and the same goals of choosing and giving gifts.

(Margo MacArthur is a freelance writer in Andover, N.J.)

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