Christmas in the United States is really BIG. By big, I mean over the top, crazy, out of control enormous. Everyone comments on how it gets bigger and the preparations start earlier as the years pass. My first encounter with Christmas carols occurred in my car on exactly November 8th, a Monday morning driving into work. A few stray bars of “Jingle Bells” hit my ear drums and it was all over, Christmas had arrived a full two and a half weeks before Thanksgiving. Is this really and truly necessary?
Christmas, designated as my favorite holiday, sometimes gets more cumbersome each passing year. What is the perfect present to buy? How many lines will I have to stand in? How long will it take to move through all the traffic that clutters the highways and main shopping arteries? Is the U.S. the only country that deals with the commercialization and the hubbub leading up to the night Santa slides down the chimney in his roly- poly glory? Santa is everywhere you go, in the shopping mall, on your Christmas cookies, all over television, on signposts, in window displays with his eight trusty reindeer. How did the legend known as Santa Claus permeate American society so much that we spend 2 months preparing for his arrival? What about the baby Jesus?
With a bit of research, I decided to investigate how other countries celebrate the birth of the Christ child and if Santa Claus has foreign manifestations. After all, he visits every child in the world on Christmas Eve, right? Santa Claus, in historical context is Saint Nicholas of Asia Minor, who was born about 300 C.E. He was the Bishop of Myra and known throughout his kingdom as a “wonder worker.” His miracles as well as his generous spirit made him the patron saint of children. He became a popular saint in Europe and his story spread to America with the colonists. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas was written in 1822, furthering the myth. His legend, popularized in fiction, movies, music and television in the 19th and 20th centuries has lead to the Santa mania of today.
In other countries, Christmas traditions differ from the American standard, mostly emphasizing the Christian traditions. Christmas was not even declared a national holiday in the US until 1836. A Christmas Carol came a few years later in 1843. Let's take a look at some other Christmas traditions, some old and some quite new that occur around the world.
In Italy, there exists a legend of an old woman named La Befana, who leaves children presents on the feast of the Ephinany. La Befana is approached by the three Wise Men to come visit the baby Jesus, but she is not able to travel with them and goes late. She cannot find the baby and every January 6th she lives presents for all the young children, hoping that one of them is Jesus Christ.
Christmas trees originated in Germany in the 1500s however, they are not put up and decorated until December 24th. Also popular in Germany and Austria at Christmas time are Christmas markets, which sell handmade wooden goods, toys and sweets.
In the Netherlands, children leave out their shoes for Santa Claus, to find them filled with small gifts and sweets on Christmas morning.
In Sweden, December is the month of Saint Lucia Day, on the 13th. The oldest girl of the family dresses in white robes with a wreath of candles on her head, bringing sweets and buns to her family.
In Australia, snow never falls for Christmas celebrations. In fact, Christmas occurs in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer so many people celebrate by going to the beach on Christmas Day.
In Mexico, Christmas is celebrated for nine days before the holiday, called La Posadas. People dress up like Mary and Joseph and knock on doors to recreate the search for an inn the night of Jesus' birth. Pinatas are also used in the Christmas celebrations.
Santa, who is known as Pere Noel, Babbo Natale, Weihnachtsmann,Father Christmas, Sinter Klaas delights children to this day no matter where he originated or what presents he brings, which shopping mall he patronizes or what Coke can his image may be on.