Discovering Christmas TraditionsSeason Of Wonders
Christmas is celebrated around the world in many different countries, each with its own traditions. NOW! Jakarta has reached out to a couple of embassies in Indonesia to ask them about the way they and their fellow countrymen celebrate Christmas.
Hungarians take Christmas traditions seriously and although originally a religious holiday, customs and rituals at this time of year have an interesting blend of Christian and pagan origins. Here’s an overview of the festive traditions in Hungary:
The festive season begins four Sundays before Christmas, when the first candle on Advent wreaths is lit. The wreaths have four different coloured candles (that are lit one a week, in order) and are decorated with red and gold ribbons, colours that symbolize life and brightness. For children, every day from 1 December has a surprise in store for them as they get to open a new little flap on their Advent calendar until Christmas Eve. Candles and Advent calendars make great gifts and can be found at the Christmas markets.
Mikulás (St. Nicholas Day) – 6 December
St. Nicholas was the patron saint of children and students.
He arrives on 6th December bearing gifts for children, who have been good throughout the year. Children await his arrival by polishing their boots the previous evening and Mikulás stuffs it with chocolate, nuts, fruits or maybe even some small toys or books. He usually also leaves a “virgács”, a switch made of dry twigs to warn children to refrain from being naughty.
Luca nap (St. Lucia’s day) – 13 December
Being one of the darkest days of the year, Luca day (pronounced Lutza) is traditionally ideal for witch-hunting, or rather: taking witch-avoidance measures. 13 December was the day to begin carving a ”Luca stool” to be finished by Christmas Eve. Standing on the stool at Midnight Mass, witches could easily be spotted as they would be wearing horns for the occasion. However, the Luca chair had to be thrown in the fire immediately after, or else the owner had to face being torn apart by the witches. Another tradition is sowing Luca wheat to find out how next year’s crop will do. The grains of wheat would sprout by Christmas and rich green buds would supposedly be a sign of a fruitful harvest to come.
Also called Szenteste (Holy Eve), this day is the peak of the Christmas preparations for Hungarians, culminating in dinner and presents. Businesses and shops close at noon, even public transportation stops around 3 o’clock, after which only night-time services are running. Hungarians decorate the tree on the 24th and arrange the presents underneath. Christmas dinner begins once the evening star appears in the sky. The menu usually entails halászlé (fish soup with paprika), fried fish, stuffed cabbage, roast turkey stuffed with prunes and a special dessert called beigli: rolled pastry stuffed with walnuts, poppy seeds or chestnut puree. Midnight Mass is popular throughout the country and so are nativity plays („Betlehemezés”).
Merry Christmas! Boldog Karácsonyt!
What is it like celebrating Christmas 11,000 kilometres from home - and under palm trees instead of in the snow? We asked the Norwegian diplomats in Jakarta which Christmas traditions they miss the most from back home - and which ones they brought with them.
Lighting the communal Christmas tree
In early December, local communities all over Norway will defy the dark, the cold and the snow to gather outside for an afternoon or evening. Typically, a school band or choir will lead the community through the singing of Christmas carols, and the lights on the communal Christmas tree will be officially lit.
Celebrating Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy)
On 13 December, early in the morning when it is still pitch dark, children all over the country dress up all in white to parade with candles in their hands. They are celebrating Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, one of the few female saints in Christianity - honouring her with a festival of light. Often, the one leading the procession as St. Lucia even gets to have lit candles in his or her hair. Santa Lucia is a tradition we have stolen from Sweden, but we love it so much that we hope we have been forgiven.
Most Norwegians associate gingerbread cookies with Christmas. The factory-made ones are often served in the office or in stores - but everyone knows it is the homemade ones that are the real thing. Baking and decorating gingerbread cookies is a popular and social family activity. In Bergen, a city on the West Coast of Norway, they even build a whole city of gingerbread!
Hunting for a family Christmas tree
For most Norwegians, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a tree in the house. Our forests are steadily growing, so we allow ourselves the luxury of decorating a real tree, not the plastic version. In the countryside, it is a popular weekend activity to go to the forest and find your own, favourite tree. Farmers can take the whole family on a horse and sledge trip to select and cut the tree, so that it can be transported back to their home. Trees are normally decorated with some inherited family treasures, in combination with strings of Norwegian flags, Christmas tree lighting and precious ornaments created by the family’s children.
24 December - The Big Day
On Christmas Eve, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus, traditionally with a visit to the local Church. In the evening, Santa Claus shows up with presents for families with children. Before this, the day has typically been filled with watching traditional Christmas cartoons on TV, having porridge for lunch and making sure the birds outside also get some extra nutritious food, as they often struggle to find food during the long, cold winter.
Christmas dinner is typically a very solid meal, which has taken many hours, if not days, to prepare. Most families insist on having dinner before the presents are opened, making 24 December the longest day of the year for Norwegian children.
Which Christmas traditions did the Norwegians bring to Jakarta?
The Ambassador invites the Norwegians to a pre-Christmas gathering in the residence, together with the Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Singapore. Norwegian salmon will be served, while families bring homemade gingerbread cookies and other traditional cookies and cakes.
Diplomats will typically decorate their homes with candles and Christmas decorations from home. There are also Christmas trees, of course, but as Indonesian forests are shrinking, most of us have resorted to a plastic tree.
Indonesia is of course a popular holiday destination for Norwegians, so several diplomats receive friends and family visiting for the holiday. Whether they are in Lombok, Flores or Raja Ampat, we trust they will not miss the snow too much when they see the white beaches and blue water. At least, as long as they have their advent calendars and gingerbread cookies with them!
During the festive season, Finns like to take things slow and enjoy the company of loved ones. The natural atmosphere is a key element for a true Finnish Christmas. White landscapes enshrouded in darkness, only lit by the stars in the sky and ice lanterns on driveways set the mood for a soothingly cozy festive season.
Sweet pastries, cakes and biscuits are Finnish Christmas treats loved by people of all ages. One of the most cherished tasks of Christmas-time is decorating ginger bread, often to be hung on the branch of a beautiful spruce tree. Finnish Christmas would not be the same without gingerbread of all shapes and sizes.
“Glögi”, a type of mulled wine, is a favoured hot drink at Christmas time. It is usually made out of red wine or red juice of some sort, mixed with spices like cardamon and cinnamon, then served with raisins and almonds.
Pork roast is the main dish in most households and a variety of fish, casseroles and salads are served with it. The most authentic Christmas Eve breakfast is rice pudding. After a couple of Christmas ales, carols are sung with gusto. At the end of the night a Christmas sauna relaxes both body and soul.
Everyone knows Santa – the one and only – comes from Finland. What some people don’t know, however, is that it is possible to meet him in person all year round. Santa’s official office, situated on the mysterious Arctic Circle, is open to each and everyone. In the city of Rovaniemi, children and adults can visit Santa’s office, enjoy a private chat with him and revel in the enchanted atmosphere. Santa may only visit your home once a year, but he welcomes everybody to visit him during the rest of the year. Don’t pass up the invitation!
While we don’t often get snow in Ireland, it looks like this year will be a White Christmas and this will add a little more magic to what is a favourite time of year for many Irish people. This is because families and friends reunite, with many travelling home from afar, as is the case in many other countries. Airports are an emotional place at this time of year and all our international airports greet home comers with huge ‘Welcome Home’ messages, lit up especially for Christmas.
Attending Christmas Mass is a major feature of an Irish Christmas, and ‘Midnight Mass’ on Christmas Eve, when churches are usually lit solely by candle light and choirs are in full voice, is a special occasion in towns and villages across the country.
One of the highlights of an Irish Christmas is the great array (and quantity!) of food and drink available. The traditional Roast Turkey and Ham dinner on Christmas Day is equal in popularity to warm and spiced wines, cider, whiskey and brandy to keep away the harsh chill!
The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland, is also very important as it is a busy day for receiving visitors and seeing family and friends. It’s also the day when our Wren Boys to “hunt the wren”, a tradition which has its origins in an ancient ritual when a wren – the king of birds in Celtic mythology - was hunted, killed and hung on a holly bush. More recent legends suggest the wren was hunted as punishment for betraying the hiding place of St. Stephen by singing where he hid.
Thankfully, no wrens are killed these days! Instead, the Wren Boys dress up and call to homes and pubs while playing music and singing the following verse, in a ritual not unlike Trick or Treating during Hallowe’en, itself a festival which began in Ancient Ireland:
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us a penny to bury the wren.”
Christmas in Ireland traditionally ends after the 6th January when many areas celebrate Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas. This day traditionally acknowledged and celebrated all the hard work done by women in preparing for the Christmas festivities; it was a day when men did all the work around the home and women met up and visited the friends before the Christmas decorations were taken down and normal life resumed once more.