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Secular symbols and traditions for Christmas

Christmas Eve

Christmas dinner in northern Europe(Christmas dinner in northern Europe in the early twentieth century in a wealthy family (illustration by Carl Larsson, 1904-1905).)

The evening of December 24, which for Catholics is cut by the midnight mass, is in the vast majority of cases an evening spent in the family.

In France, three-quarters of French people think that Christmas is primarily a family or business party. The Christmas dinner is the festive meal, consisting especially of the Christmas turkey, seafood, foie gras and traditionally ends with Christmas cake, a dessert shaped of small log; the latter is often a jellyroll coated with chocolate cream, sometimes it is an ice cream. This log recalls the old tradition where a big early evening log fire was put. This log was chosen for its size and quality as it was to burn throughout all the vigil.

In other parts of the world, the traditional menu of this meal is quite different. In Japan, the couples usually celebrate Christmas as a romantic evening at the restaurant, or at home with family for those with young children. In Central Europe (Poland), this meal is strictly “lean”, so vegetarian; no meat or cold cuts are never served during the Christmas evening meal. It serves only meat at lunch the next day, the first day of Christmas spent in the strict family circle between children and parents. It was only the second day of these holidays they went to visit, ranging lunch or dinner with the extended family (aunts, uncles), or among friends.

Father Christmas

Typical Father Christmas(Typical Father Christmas of Anglo-Saxon countries, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jonathan_G_Meath_portrays_Santa_Claus.jpg)

Responsible for bringing gifts, he is represented as an old man with a long white beard and a red coat. This image is accompanied by a whole folklore flying sleigh pulled by reindeer, letter requesting gifts for him, his bag filled with toys, etc.

Character of Anglo-Saxon and Protestant invention in the nineteenth century, including Charles Dickensțs Christmas with his five books, the publication of the first, A Christmas Carol, dates back to 1843. One of his first performances dates from 1868, designed by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Originally the character is dressed either in green or red, at the option of fantasy illustrators.

If it is inspired by the Christian saint Nicolas, including his clothes, it can also be likened to Julenisse, a Scandinavian elf who had the same function at the party in mid-winter, jul in Norwegian, (or “Jol” or “Midtvintersblot” corresponds to the winter solstice) and helped with the farm work.

catalog offering Christmas gifts(Cover of a catalog offering Christmas gifts (1904))


These are exchanged on Christmas Day with the people gathered under the same roof and in the following days with family and close friends. These gifts are packed in paper with colorful patterns. They are open on Christmas morning or sometimes at the end of Christmas Eve. For children, these gifts are essentially toys and Christmas is the time when the toy shops carry out the majority of their sales.

For Christians, these gifts refer to gifts to the infant Jesus by the Magi: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The tradition of giving gifts continues beyond a Christian context. Gerald Berthoud, professor of cultural and social anthropology at the University of Lausanne, explains: “The Christmas period is very busy ceremonially, has some ritual intensity. While we basically live in a market society, there is in this exchange of gifts something of the order of the gift and that is universal in principle: they create, maintain and strengthen links; they constitute a kind of social matrix.”


Christmas tree(Christmas tree, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Juletr%C3%A6et.jpg)

Both indoors and in the streets, they give a festive air. They are often bright to be lit at nightfall.

The Christmas tree, always present inside the houses, is responsible for decorating and group the Christmas presents in families. The first Christmas tree would have appeared in Selestat in Alsace in 1521. Some authors make the connection with the mysteries, plays performed in churches or the courts: at Christmas time, it represented the biblical accounts of creation of the world and a Christmas tree featured the tree of life planted in the middle of paradise. This tree was decorated with Oblatas (offerings, small candies contained the hosts), and apple representing the forbidden fruit, the subject of the first sin.

However, the tradition of a decorated tree is much older since the Celts decorated a tree, symbol of life at the time of the winter solstice. The Scandinavians were the same for the feast of Jul, which took place at about the same time as Christmas. The installation of this tree is also considered a pagan practice until the mid-twentieth century by the Catholic Church. Instead, adopt the Protestant Reformation from 1560 as a symbol of the tree of paradise. Banned in the USSR under the anti-religious state policy, the Christmas tree is again authorized by Joseph Stalin in 1934, but provided it is now prepared to celebrate the New Year.


Christmas Market in Düsseldorf(Christmas Market in Düsseldorf)

The Christmas market consists of stalls usually wooden and built for the occasion, offering small decorative items, toys and often handmade gifts.

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