“It’s that time of year when the world falls in love
Ev’ry song you hear seems to say “Merry Christmas,
“May your New Year dreams come true”
And this song of mine in three-quarter time
Wishes you and yours the same thing, too.”
Why this particular song came to mind when I sat down to write this, I will never know. The song, called “The Christmas Waltz” was originally written for Frank Sinatra and has been covered in subsequent years by countless other artists. It’s not one of my favourites. However, in thinking about Christmas traditions, its midcentury charm will do just fine.
As a medievalist, I’ve spent many hours over the years making the point that the medieval concept of the holiday of Christmas was very different than our North American ideals. Advent was the second-most solemn fast of the year, after Lent, and Christmas itself paled in comparison to Easter in its importance as a Christian religious observance. In fact, those traditions that can actually be traced to the period are often not religious at all (or only marginally so) or have only a tenuous connection to Christmas. The tradition of presenting servants with new clothes or livery on what we now call Boxing Day is traceable to the celebration of the feast of St. Stephen on December 26 (yes, that St. Stephen who’s mentioned in “Good King Wenceslas”, a song that isn’t particularly about Christmas, but is interesting for the historical component, which you can read about here). Decorating with evergreens, mistletoe, and holly has pagan origins. Wassailing and mumming certainly have nothing to do with the religious holiday, either. St. Nicholas had his day on December 6 (usually celebrated, as usual for medieval holidays, on the “eve”), a day known in schools (wholly religious in the Middle Ages) for hijinks such as the appointment of a “boy bishop” for the day, but not for substantial gift-giving. Twelfth Night, also known as the feast of the Epiphany, drew its gift-giving from the traditional gifts of the Magi, but is otherwise far from a religious observance. Later, in the early modern period, the celebration of Christmas (other than as a religious observance) was for a time banned in England, as it had gotten a reputation as a drunken stampede.
Christmas and holiday traditions have certainly grown in the past 200 years. In English-speaking countries, you can blame Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” along with Queen Victoria’s introduction of the Christmas Tree, a German tradition picked up from Prince Albert that itself is perhaps not as old as often suspected. (They definitely did not have Christmas trees or even Christmas presents in 1183, when the wonderful Lion in Winter takes place, but I will forgive them that as the movie itself is a delight). In the United States, you can blame Coca-Cola and other early advertising for solidifying Santa Claus’ iconic look; before, he often wore longer robes of any number of colours. In countries where St. Nicholas is venerated, he retained his bishop’s robes.
Reading about these traditions, I sometimes wish my own American traditional upbringing had had a little more colour–although perhaps not the type represented by Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands–St. Nicholas’ companion (who is “from Spain”, which amuses the historian in me) is a Moor with stereotypical exaggerated features, and is to this day often portrayed by white actors in blackface. No, I enjoy the Icelandic Yule Lads, thirteen trouble-making gnomes or trolls, each named for the trouble they cause, who leave gifts for children in their shoes; as well as the Christmas or Yule Cat, a giant cat who roams the countryside eating anyone who has not received new clothes. (See here for a song about the jólakötturinn, sung by Bjork, and here for a video about the jólasveinarnir.) The more recent tradition of jólabókaflóð, or “Yule book flood”, has its roots during WWII, when new books were only released towards the end of the year, and receiving and reading books on Christmas eve became a tradition.
Krampus has gotten more popular in North America in recent years. Another companion of St. Nicholas who punishes bad children, Krampus appears on St. Nicholas Eve, parading through through the streets of central European (particularly Alpine) towns in areas such as Bavaria, Austria, the Czech Republic/Bohemia, and Hungary, bringing coal and switches to naughty children. Other companions of St. Nicholas (other than the aforementioned Zwarte Piet) include Knecht Ruprecht in Germany (a peasant farmer; Ruprecht being a name often used for the Devil, although the figure is now often now seen as St. Nicholas’ manservant), and a whole host of devils and other rude figures throughout most of Europe. One of my favourite is Befana, the Christmas Witch of Italy, an old woman riding a broom who brings gifts to children at Epiphany. I remember when I was a kid being very sad for the children of the USSR, where those danged Commies had banned Christmas and Santa Claus, but in fact most of the traditions simply moved forward to New Year’s, including the appearance of Ded Moroz (Father Frost) and his helper Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden), both figures from Slavic mythology. Ded Moroz looks strikingly like a traditional Father Christmas, although he tends to wear blue.
Every culture seems to have its own traditional foods for the season. I am inordinately fond of Stollen, the German sweet Christmas bread or cake that dates back in some form to the 15th century. You might buy your stollen in Germany at a Christmas market; the famous one in Dresden is known as Striezelmarkt. Striezel is an early term for stollen (and related to strudel). Other traditional foods include panettone in Italy and Argentina, Æbleskiver in Denmark, Thirteen Desserts in Provence, Christmas puddings in England, the Julbord in Sweden, and the Christmas Carp in central European countries such as Poland and Slovakia. But my favourite food tradition is probably the Japanese tradition of KFC as a holiday dish.
In a classic case of “grass is greener” syndrome, I always used to look at non-North American traditions with envy, but then I though about it some more. North American traditions have plenty of colour, partially because of the multicultural origins of its residents. In recent years, Christmas markets and Krampus runs have sprung up in many cities in the US and Canada. In a few days, should I go to Starsky’s, I can go around the back of the building for a Christmas carp, should I want one. I’ll skip that, but will happily eat the stollen from Deninger’s–soooo much more tasty than traditional fruitcake. But it is my own memories of traditions that make the holidays special.
When it comes to the American traditions of my childhood, no movie really captures the rhythm of the season better than A Christmas Story. The Santa Claus parades and department store Santas, the wish lists, the fetching of the tree (and then putting it up, complete with recalcitrant light strings and shiny glass balls), the Christmas essays and teacher gifts at school, the importance of the turkey dinner, and even the Chinese restaurant open on Christmas Day–nothing quite replicates that yearly cycle like A Christmas Story does. Even though it is set in about 1940, over thirty years before my own childhood Christmas memories, it still rings true as a portrait of the classic American Christmas of my youth. So, too, do songs from a handful of midcentury crooners–Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, and Johnny Mathis in particular–evoke a particular feeling of that time and place, and are still keystones in the modern Christmas song canon. When I was younger, I much preferred traditional Christmas carols and classical selections such as Handel’s Messiah or dances from the Nutcracker (and I still love these), but those midcentury classics have gradually grown on me until now I cannot think of Christmas without them.
And each generation makes its own traditions. Mine include the making of buckeyes and pineapple cookies, the Messiah sing-along, acquiring new ornaments for the tree and remembering Christmases past when I unbox my collection, regular Festive Specials from Swiss Chalet (including lunch on Christmas Eve), watching the Grinch (the words “It came!” and the star never failing to induce damp eyes), viewing A Christmas Story and Scrooge (the Christmas Carol version with Alistair Sim) while eating shrimp on Christmas Eve, and, of course, getting the cats stoned on catnip in between those two movies.
And this despite the fact that I am a confirmed agnostic verging on outright atheism, redeemed only by the fact that I’m not prideful enough to say for sure that I know how the universe works.
But I still believe in Christmas.
I still believe in peace on earth and goodwill to all.
I still believe in wonder.
I still believe in hope.
I still follow the star.