Prepare a Nativity tray, a medieval English custom, described by Sarah Ban Breathnach in Simple Abundance. The folk custom states that anyone who on this night sets out a bone for a lost dog, hay for a hungry horse, a warm cloak for a wayfarer, a garland of bright berries for one who has worn chains, crumbs for the birds and sweetmeats for children, will be blessed for their generosity with gifts beyond measure. Sarah has been doing this for years and is always surprised to see what is gone the next day, one year, even the coat. This custom echoes other similar customs, like setting a table for the Fates (see Dec 1) or hay and carrots for St. Nicholas.
On Christmas Eve, on the small island in western Ireland where Deborah Tall lived for a year in 1977, people spruced up their houses for Christmas, even painting the walls at the last minute so that they were wet and couldn't be touched when people went visiting at nightfall with gifts of whiskey and cake.
In Czechoslovakia, the night before Christmas is spent fasting. A child who does not touch food all day is promised that he or she will see the golden pig (reminiscent of the golden boar which Freya, the Scandinavian Queen of Heaven rides through the night skies, and of the boar's head served at medieval English midwinter feasts).
French children go from house to house on Christmas Eve singing carols and giving good wishes. They are rewarded with food: bacon, eggs, flour, sweets, dried fruit, cakes, etc. In Burgundy, this round of visits is called the cornette, after the wafer made from cornmeal which is given as a reward. In Touraine, the treat is a guillauneu, a long cake split at both ends.
Cubans call Christmas Eve, Noche Buena, "Good Night." Families gather for a feast which features roast pig.
Ban Breathnach, Sarah, Simple Abundance, Warner Books 1995
Bright, Marilyn, The Christmas Cookbook, Appletree Press, Harper Collins 1993
Lang, Jenifer Harvey, editor, Larousse Gastronomique, Crown 1984
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Womans Press 1937
Deborah Tall, Island of the White Cow, Atheneum 1986
If Christmas day be bright and clear
Therell be two winters in the year.
Those who are born on Christmas day cannot see spirits.
The birth of the Persian hero and sun-god Mithra was celebrated on December 25th. The myth tells that he sprang up full-grown from a rock, armed with a knife and carrying a torch. Shepherds watched his miraculous appearance and hurried to greet him with their first fruits and their flocks and their harvests. His cult spread throughout Roman lands during the 2nd century. In 274, the Emperor Aurelian declared December 25th the Birthday of Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable Sun) in Rome.
Of course, the metaphor of the birth of the sun worked equally well for Christians celebrating the birth of the Son of God, who brings Light to the world. Biblical scholars speculate that Christ was actually born in the fall after the harvest or in the spring after the birth of the new animals, both the most likely times for taxation. The British scientist Colin Humphreys believes Christ was born between April 13 and April 27, the week of Passover in 5 BCE, when a great comet appeared.
The birth of Christ was celebrated in the early church on January 6th (on the same date, Kore gave birth to the year god Aeon). However, in the 4th century, it was moved to December 25th. Biblical scholar Brent Walters says that the Pope authorized the change at the request of Cyril of Jerusalem who was concerned about the pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate Christs birth, then turned around and headed to Bethlehem to attend special ceremonies there on the same day. By moving the date of Christ's birth forward to December 25th, they had more time to make the trip to Bethlehem by January 6th. Of course, not everyone was pleased by this change. The Christians of dessa accused the church in Rome of idolatry and sun worship."
Whatever day Christmas falls on is lucky for the whole year (unlike Holy Innocent's Day, see December 28).
Welsh churches held a carol service called Plygain between 3 am and 6 am on Christmas morning. The name is derived from the Latin pulli cantio (cock crow). The churches were decorated with candles. After a brief session of prayers, people spent the remainder of the time singing plygain carols. It seems possible this was originally a ritual designed to comfort people during the darkest hours before the sun was born, or to help welcome the newly-emerging sun.
Christmas dinner is one of those grand seasonal feasts for which each culture has its own set of traditional dishes. In France, the big meal, called the revillon (meaning the beginning of a new watch) is served immediately after Midnight Mass. It often begins with oysters and champagne. Roast turkey with chestnuts is the usual dish but in former times, each region had its own specialty: a daube (beef in red wine) in Armagnac, sauerkraut and goose liver in Alsace, aligot in Auvergne, black pudding (blood sausage) in Nivernais and goose in southwestern France. In the southeast, a large meal was eaten before Mass consisting of cauliflower and salt cod with raito (or perhaps snails), grey mullet with olives, or omelette with artichokes and fresh pasta.
The Poles eat foods containing poppy seeds. The English serve plum pudding. Romans eat eels. In Bologna, it's tortellini stuffed with minced group pork, turkey, sausage, cheese and nutmeg, followed by desserts of nocciata (walnuts and honey, cut into triangles), cassata flavored with Ricotta cheese and chocolate, and torrone, made with almonds. In northern Germany the traditional dish is Blue carp; the color comes from hot vinegar poured over it before cooking, served with sour cream, horseradish and apples.
The Germans used to serve blue carp, a fish that had been specially fattened for Christmas from August onwards, turned blue by pouring hot vinegar over it before cooking and served with sour cream, horseradish and apples. Now the main dish is more likely to be goose, turkey, venison, wild boar or a roast. However, apples, walnuts and almonds are always served.
The Swedes for centuries have feasted on marinated ling, served in a white sauce with butter, potatoes, mustard and black pepper. The Danes like roast goose stuffed with apples and prunes and garnished with red cabbage, caramelized potatoes and cranberry sauce. Dessert consists of rice porridge or rice with almonds and cherry compote. The Norwegians serve roast pork chops and sauerkraut (flavored with cumin). The Finns cook a ham in a rye-flour pastry case. In all the Scandinavian countries, Christmas is the occasion for a sumptuous smorgasbord.
Most countries also have a traditional Christmas cake. In France, it's buche de noel, a cake of dough rolled up and frosted with buttercream to look like a log. In England it's a fruitcake, sometimes soaked in alcohol, and then spread with apricot jam, almond paste and frosting. In Germany, it's stollen which contains crystallized fruit. In Alsace, it's bireweck (a cake which includes nuts and dried and candied fruit) served with compotes and gingerbread, traditionally eaten before Midnight Mass. In Brittany, it's a star-shaped fouace.
In France, the dinner concludes with the traditional Thirteen Desserts. Each one must be tasted to bring good luck in the coming year. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the number thirteen commemorates the thirteen participants at the Last Supper (this seems a bit far-fetched and out-of-season as well). The desserts are: pompe a l'huile (a fruit pastry), raisins, quince paste, marzipan sweets, nougat, fougasse (a rich cake), crystallized (candied) citrons, walnuts and hazelnuts, winter pears, Brignoles plums, dried figs, almonds and dates.
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Lang, Jenifer Harvey, Larousse Gastronomique, Crown 1984