If you've ever wondered who first decided to bring trees inside to celebrate Christmas, or where advent calendars come from, we've tracked some popular festive traditions – as well as some lesser-known ones – back to their country of origin.
Tradition: hanging Advent calendars
Advent, which means "to come," is the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas. In the 19th Century, German Protestants counted down the days until Christmas by marking 24 chalk lines on a door and rubbing one off every day in December. Paper advent calendars became popular in Germany in the early 20th century when Gerhard Lang, thought to have produced the first printed Advent calendar, began mass printing them. Inspired by a calendar his mother had made, Lang made one with illustrations attached to a piece of cardboard and added doors that could be opened to view the images underneath. They became a commercial success, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Advent calendars included chocolate.
Today, during the Christmas season, you can even see giant Advent calendars on the facades of buildings in many European towns and cities. Some of the prettiest can be found in Hattingen in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany; Bernkastel-Kues in Germany’s Moselle Valley and the old town of Innsbruck, Austria.
Tradition: Decorating fir trees
The custom of bringing a fir tree into the home during the winter solstice was common among pagan Europeans. In Scandinavia people decorated their homes and barns with greenery for New Year in order to ward off evil. Since evergreens symbolize eternal life, greenery helped Europeans visualize the spring to come. Among pagan Europeans, tree worship was common and they would decorate a living tree in the outdoors with candles and ornaments meant to symbolize the sun, the moon and the stars on the tree of life.
It’s not known exactly when fir trees began to be used by Christians as Christmas trees, but the cities of Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia lay claim to the first documented use of a public tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations.
Tradition: Noche de las Velitas (Night of the Little Candles)
On the night of December 7, Colombia honors Mary and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception with an enchanting celebration of light that marks the start of the holiday season. Colombians illuminate their homes and streets with millions of white and colored velas (candles) in patterned paper lanterns.
The "Night of the Little Candles" was once a small-scale, family-centric affair, but over the years the decorations have become more creative and sophisticated, and electric lights are more often used. Celebrations have become increasingly public, with music and fireworks displays as well as food markets.
You can see a similar tradition in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a beloved Christmas Eve tradition is the Farolito Walk up Canyon Road. Here the tradition calls for simple paper bags filled with a bit of sand and a tea candle.
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Tradition: celebrating Christmas on January 7
The Christmas story tells us that three wise men, also referred to as magi or kings, traveled to Bethlehem "from the East," following a miraculous guiding star so they could pay homage to the infant Jesus. It’s generally thought that the magi came from Asia, Europe and Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians believe that all three (some believe it was 12) Wise Men were Ethiopian.
Today, Ethiopians, who follow the Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas on January 7. Called Ganna or Genna, people dress in white, with most wearing the traditional netela, a thin piece of white cotton cloth with brightly colored stripes across the ends. Worn like a shawl or toga, many people wearing it look very kingly indeed.
Tradition: gifting poinsettia
Poinsettias, which bloom in winter, are indigenous to Central America, specifically to southern Mexico around Taxco del Alarcon and the state of Oaxaca.
A Mexican legend tells of a girl who had nothing to offer the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services but a bunch of weeds. When she knelt down to deposit the weeds by the nativity scene, the bouquet burst into bright red flowers. Ever since, the bright red flowers, whose leaves are thought to be shaped like the star of Bethlehem, were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, and have become synonymous with Christmas.
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Tradition: La Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil)
Guatemalans practice a Christmas season ritual unique in the world. At sunset on December 7, the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, people gather in towns and villages across Guatemala to burn an effigy of the devil. A tradition established in the 17th century, people believed that in burning an effigy of the devil, they would cleanse their homes of the evils and misfortunes suffered in the previous year.
Today communities gather in plazas and light a bonfire for the burning of the devil, often a piñata, at 6pm sharp on December 7. Vendors sell devil horns and firecrackers and many revellers wear devil disguises. Afterwards, families will come together to eat buñuelos, traditional donuts, and drink warm fruit punch.
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Tradition: midnight mass
The tradition known today as Midnight Mass originated in modern-day Israel. In the late 4th century a Christian pilgrim from Rome joined a group of Christians in a vigil in Bethlehem on the night of 5 January – Christmas Eve in the Eastern tradition. The vigil was followed by a torchlight procession to Jerusalem, culminating with a dawn gathering. When the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was built in 5th century, Pope Sixtus III instituted a Midnight Mass in the chapel, a tradition that today has spread to many Christian countries worldwide.
In Québec, French-speaking families celebrate Christmas the night before. It’s a late-night to early morning event, hence the term réveillon, which comes from réveil, meaning waking. The tradition originated in France and is similar to the way it’s celebrated in New Orleans.
Traditionally families would attend midnight mass before returning home for the big meal, where Santa magically appears to dole out gifts. Once the gifts have been opened, everyone moves to the table for a gluttonous meal of tourtière (minced meat pie), mashed potatoes, turkey with stuffing and coquilles Saint-Jacques (great scallops), followed by bûche de Noël (Yule log cake) and sinfully sweet sucre à la crème (tablet, made from sugar and cream). For those still standing, the festivities might last until dawn.
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