EUGENE DALY looks at some Christmas customs and traditions around the world


The world is now a much smaller place than it was in our youth in the middle of the last century. Modern technology gives us almost instant access to happenings all over the world. In many ways this is an undesirable reality. A big world means many different cultures, and thus great variety, as in the simple things, like what’s for breakfast and how is Christmas celebrated.

Christmas is now more or less the same throughout the English speaking world. There is very little difference between, say Birmingham, and Cork. We have the advertising that starts weeks before the holiday, the feverish shopping, the feasting (for those who can afford it), the excesses in buying, in eating and drinking.
Of the Christmas customs, only the lighting of candles in the windows is probably the only uniquely Irish custom. The rest we have borrowed from other lands – particularly Germany, England and the U.S.A.

The German Christmas season officially begins with Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. The Advent calendar and wreath, a circle of greenery in which four candles are set, originated with the German Lutherans. Christmas markets and trees were also first popularised in Germany.

Traditionally, St. Nicholas brought gifts to German and Dutch children on the eve of his feastday, December 6th. After the Reformation, things changed and St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus) was born, complete with long white beard, red suit and sleigh. He is known as Father Christmas and now appears on Christmas Eve. In Germany, as in many European countries, the high point of Christmastide is the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Spain is noted for how deeply religious their holiday is. The Christmas season begins on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, because Spaniards have a great love of the Virgin Mary.

Other Spanish traditions are similar to those of Italy and Portugal, where families gather and feast on Christmas Eve, with special menus and treats, such as almond nougat. Gifts are exchanged on the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) and the nativity scenes are important and often lavish.

The Christmas Tree has never been very popular in France. French children receive their gifts from Pere Noel, assisted by the stern disciplinarian Pere Fouettard, often on both St. Nicholas Eve and on Christmas Day while the adults exchange gifts on New Year’s Day.

The Greeks also exchange gifts on New Year’s Day, or as they refer to it, St. Basil’s Day. In most homes in Greece the main symbol of the season is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim, from which hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross.

A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil fresh. The water in the bowl wards off the goblins who are apt to appear during the Christmas season. For the same reason, the fire in the hearth is kept burning day and night over the same period.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own