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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

A Month of Christmas

I’m risking my respiratory health to get out a dusty paper file that dates to the late 1980s or early 1990s. I published my first book (Foreign and Female) in 1986, and we spent much of 1988 in Europe. That included Christmas in a house we rented from a Dutch family in the Algarve section of Portugal, on its southern coast. I noticed then how differently the holiday season is celebrated in various European countries, all of which were ostensibly Christian.

I finished writing my second book, American Women and World War II, while in Portugal, using a primitive computer that we imported from the US – with electricity that went off several times a day. Local stores stocked utilitarian candles next to light bulbs, and people bought both. Portugal had a resident tax that went into effect at year’s end, so we left prior to that. We spent New Years Eve at a hotel on the Riviera -- where yes indeed, French television featured Jerry Lewis. We traveled on to the French and Italian Alps, as well as Switzerland, winding our way back to Paris, where we resold our Renault to the people who had sold it to us a few months earlier, and then on to London and the flight that took us home in late January. All of this was a lot more complicated prior to e-mail and cell phones, but the planning paid off – and one result was that we saw Christmas and New Year activities in several countries.

After we got home, I outlined a book that I called A Month of Christmas. My New York agent was Jewish and may not have really promoted it, but no publisher took the bait. I set it aside when a Prentice Hall editor called with a project she wanted me to do, and I never returned to A Month of Christmas. Because of today’s constantly updated international internet, it would be much easier to accomplish such a trip now than then, and that also means less need for such a travel book. On the other hand, the book as a coffee table Christmas gift still could work, as I explored the reasons behind the month of celebrations between December 6 and January 6. I’m going to quote some research sources below without attribution; if you want to know them, just ask.

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Historians and even theologians agree that many modern Christmas traditions are vestiges of our pagan past. The date of December 25 was not set until after 336, when Constantinople, the first Christian emperor, celebrated “Christ Mass.” The timing is strongly connected to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. On the modern calendar, the solstice occurs sometime between December 20 and 22; the Roman festival of Saturnalia that predated Christianity began on December 17. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as December days darkened and our ancient ancestors were unsure if the sun would rise again, they developed rituals to make it do so – and then rejoiced when it turned around and the days lengthened.

Scandinavia, which has only a few hours of dim daylight during December, has numerous Christmas linkages to ghosts and dangerous elves. Christianity developed much later there than in southern Europe, and its customs were permeated with the spirit world. We clean house prior to the holidays now because we are expecting human guests, but they were expecting supernatural ones and cleaned to get rid of evil spirits. This subconscious ritual continued in the American Midwest, where Scandinavian pioneers whitewashed the walls of even sod houses prior to Christmas.

Back in Europe, their ancestors lit bonfires. Especially in England, people who were wealthy enough to have a big piece of timber dragged a Yule Log to the hearth and burned it throughout the holiday season. Heat was a luxury, as “Good King Wenceslas” reminds us. Variously attributed to Finland, Poland, and Bohemia, the song features a peasant hunting for fuel on the Feast of Stephen, December 26. We take warmth for granted now, nor do we need the candlelight that also became traditional. Even the poorest household back then was not expected to do without a Yule candle, and beggars asked for them prior to Christmas. Seasonal begging was especially common in the British Isles. You may remember, too, the old carol that chimes, “a soul cake, please good mister, a soul cake; an apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry.” It was much like “trick or treat,” as carolers expected and usually got a reward for their appearance.

Christmas mixed with other customs now considered appropriate to Halloween. In Ireland, boys went around on December 26 carrying “a straw wren on the end of a branch and singing a wren song for coins.” Germanic peoples dressed in animal masks during the solstice, and archeological records show that “the Yule goat was the most scary one of all… The stuffed head of a goat was carried by someone completely hidden under a sheet of cloth; the jaw of the head was rigged so that it could be moved by pulling a string.” Their descendants in some northern American states, especially Pennsylvania, now continue this as “mummers,” who thankfully dress in less frightening costumes. “Knocking Night” also was similar to Halloween in parts of Germany and Austria. On the last Thursday before Christmas, people went “house to house, knocking on doors, rattling cans and cowbells, and cracking whips to drive the spirits away.”

Elves eventually evolved to be merely impish instead of evil, but cautious Norwegians nonetheless put out Christmas porridge for trolls who otherwise might cause trouble. Danes offered rice pudding for “nisser,” tiny elves that specialized in guarding household pets. According to one source, “nisser have families and they are easily distinguished; the old head of the household wears a red cap like the rest of his family, but he also has a long white beard.” In much of Europe, animals shared the same building as humans, and putting out fresh straw for livestock also was part of the holidays. Christmas straw was endowed with magical qualities, including an ability to read the future in its grains. Straw was especially important in Norway, and that is why Christmas ornaments you find in the Norway exhibit at Epcot are made of straw.

Scandinavian children also were told that animals spoke in human language at midnight on Christmas Eve. My father was Norwegian, but although we stayed up late after Lutheran services on Christmas Eve, I never heard an animal speak. We honored other of his traditions, but I did not care for either lutefisk (dried cod soaked in lye and reconstituted as fish with melted butter) or sweet soup (prunes, raisins, and lemon). Lefse, a thin pancake with cinnamon and sugar, was okay, but involved a lot of preparation, especially potato peeling. Not really worth it, although some of my cousins still meet for pre-holiday lefse making.

Back in Europe, on the opposite side of the North Sea from Norway, bells tolled in Yorkshire on Christmas Eve to warn the Prince of Evil that he would die when the Peace of Peace was born. The English tradition of crackers also may be based on making noise to chase away the devil. Crackers, you know, are paper rolls about six inches in length that contain candy and tiny toys. We had them in Portugal because they were available in Gibraltar, the British colony off the coast of Spain where we shopped for Christmas foods. Portugal probably has changed since, but then its celebration was very modest. No Christmas trees were for sale, so we spotted some camphor trees that needed pruning and made our own.

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I’d start my dream month of Christmas in Amsterdam, where December 6 is St. Nicholas Day. Like a number of northern European saints, his origin was in the Middle East. He was the Christian Bishop of Myra, in what now is Turkey, during the fourth century. Reputedly personally wealthy, he secretly gave gifts to the deserving -- and in the sexist situation of that time and place, among the most deserving were young women who needed a dowry to wed. It’s not clear how this Middle Eastern milieu got to the south coast of the Baltic Sea, but St. Nicholas became a favorite there. He now travels by horse between Flanders and Belgium, with a major stop in Holland. It is historically Protestant, while Belgium is Catholic. St. Nicholas appears twice in Belgium: He checks on kids’ behavior on the 4th and returns with either gifts or switches on the 6th.

December 8 is the feast of the Immaculate Conception in Spain and Portugal, but I’d skip that solemnity and stay north on my dream trip. I’d visit the famed holiday markets in Denmark and Germany or maybe skip over to Wales, where carol-singing choirs are legendary. I’d just be sure to get to Sweden for Santa Lucia Day, December 13. Like Saint Nicholas, Santa Lucia came from far southern Europe. No one knows why Swedes picked this Sicilian female saint, but my Dictionary of Saints calls her a virgin martyr and says she died at Syracuse in 304. Romans still were persecuting Christians then, and some say that a rejected suitor brought Lucia to the attention of religion-enforcing authorities. Her name translates to Lucy in English, of course, and is associated with luna, the Latin word for moon. That connection to moonlight would be important to Swedes, who spend months in near darkness. On December 13, Swedish girls woke their families with sweet buns – which they delivered wearing a headdress of lighted candles! Now that we have wreaths with battery lights for their heads, I’d be much less worried about the girls.

Europe has lots of options for the actual dates of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I’ve not really decided where I want to go in my daydreams. I might spend the 26th in England, where Boxing Day means that servants got presents in boxes, as well as the day off. Think Downtown Abbey and how glad Mrs. Patmore would be to quit cooking and visit her own family on the day after Christmas! For New Years Eve, I’d probably choose Vienna and dance to Viennese waltzes by great composers, but Scotland is another possibility. Even though their “Auld Lang Syne” is the American standard for New Years Eve, Scots are not known as party people. Yet crowds gather around bonfires, and “at Stonehaven processions are held in which balls of flaming tallow-coated rope are swung about on long cords.” New Years Day is devoted to visiting – or among the affluent in the past, leaving calling cards with servants because everyone else was out visiting, too. Buffets were set so that one could nibble a bit at every house, whether or not the host was home.

After recovering from New Years, I’d head south, where Epiphany on January 6 long was the most important date. Exactly what it commemorates is rather confused. To some, it is associated with John’s baptism of an adult Jesus; to others, it is Jesus’ first appearance in the temple (and the equivalent of a Bat Mitzvah in his Jewish heritage); and to still others, especially Hispanics, it denotes the arrival of Magi who gave gifts to little Jesus. Most nativity scenes include the Three Wise Men near the baby Jesus, but some church authorities object to this depiction. The biblical evidence is that they arrived much later, when the Holy Family was in a Nazareth house, not in a Bethlehem stable. Assuming that the star in the East appeared at the same time that angels came to the shepherds, the two sets of worshipers couldn’t be simultaneous. The root of “Magi” is also that for “magic,” and I reluctantly agree with theologians who say that these camel-riding astrologers shouldn’t be with the infant in a manager.

My Lutheran church noted Epiphany, but to me, it was a sad leftover from Christmas. I first became aware of a happy January 6 when I taught in Massachusetts, where many students were of Greek or Italian heritage. School had started again by the 6th, and most of my high-school kids took the day off for what they called “Little Christmas” -- and more presents, this time brought by the Magi. Here in Tampa Bay we know the 6th as Epiphany, when church leaders come from Greece to celebrate at Tarpon Springs. Boys compete in diving for a gold cross that gives good luck, while a girl releases a white dove, the symbol of baptism. Down in Ruskin and other places where many Hispanics live, it is El Dia de Los Tres Reyes, or Three King’s Day, and it includes cake with a baby Jesus figure inside that also brings good luck.

These January 6 traditions continue in the homelands of their European ancestors. In parts of Spain, “villagers gather up cakes and fruit…and to the clatter of hand bells, horns, and rattles, walk to the edge of the village to meet the Three Kings. But the Kings always seem to have taken another road, leaving the children free to eat the goodies.” In Italy, the gift giver at Epiphany was Lady Befana (same root as benefit). Other places have other givers at other times -- some male, some female, and some actually Jesus himself. Kriss Kingle derives from the German for “Christ Child,” and in France, the giver is “Le Petit Jesus.”

The American Santa Claus is gender confused. The first word denotes a female saint, as in Santa Lucia (or Santa Barbara or Santa Clara or any number of female saints whose names were not Anglicized), but everyone knows that our Santa Claus is male. The best explanation is that it came from “Sinterklaas,” a Dutch elf that may have predated northern Europe’s association with St. Nicholas. This Sinterklaas still was in evidence when I visited Pennsylvania Dutch country two seasons ago -- and thus traditions continue. Americans have transformed St. Nicholas from the “right jolly old elf” status that he had in 1881, when Clement Moore published his famous poem, and we have added Rudolph and Frosty and more. I think that’s fine and say good riddance to many fading traditions. I don’t want any goat heads as part of my holidays, and I’ll bet you don’t either. I hope yours were happy and wish you the best for the New Year.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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