'Tis Christmastide, season of goodwill to all men. I thought of Christmas at the time my book is set, in the bleak years of 1939-45, when Britain and her allies were at war with Nazi Germany and Japan. Then I got to thinking about Christmas customs in different countries, and decided to write about some of them.
Despite the restrictions in wartime Britain, Christmas was still celebrated, if in a more muted fashion. The various church youth groups held parties, for which harassed mothers were pressed into making sandwiches and baking. In school, we had nativity plays stretched into class concerts; art paper was glued into paper chains to brighten drab halls, and calendars, made from last year’s hoarded Christmas cards and little calendar tabs procured by the teacher, were diligently manufactured gifts for parents, grandparents, and aunties. Letters with wishes written to Santa Claus were set alight in the fire, and dispatched up the chimney. Don’t ask me why – I never did find out. Scots mothers could threaten their unruly offspring with, “You’ll get nothing but a lump of coal or a pile of cinders in your stocking if ye don’t behave.” It worked, for a few minutes at least. Stockings were hung over the end of the bed – nobody was going to risk a fire by hanging them at the fireplace - in expectancy of a wish being fulfilled, along with a silver sixpence (the size of a dime), an apple, and an orange. Toys were few. Like almost everything else, paper was hard to come by, and new books a precious rarity; my personal most-hoped-for gift was a book. One cherished discovery on Christmas morning was a John Bull printing outfit. This was my chance to become a famous author! Visions of books bearing my name danced in my head. I think I exhausted its ink pad inside a week. Our family was lucky in that we always had poultry in some form. Other families would have a steak pie. We didn’t have the English Christmas pudding; Mother’s clootie dumpling was famous. This was an enormous pudding wrapped in a cloth rather than put in a bowl, and set on an upturned soup bowl over a pot of simmering water. It was served hot with custard. Into it she inserted carefully-saved silver threepenny bits (smaller than a dime), wrapped in parchment paper, for luck. Our Christmas began on Christmas Eve and ended twelve days later at Epiphany, when all cards were taken down. An illustration of the robin is popular on British Christmas cards.
St. Nicolas and Strewelpeter
The Dutch started their Christmas celebrations early with the arrival of St. Nicolas and his helper Black Peter on 5th December. St. Nicolas’ Day is actually 6th December, but in the Netherlands he arrives on the 5th, accompanied by Black Peter. There are many legends surrounding St. Nicolas, or Sinterklass, one of them being Peter was an unhappy slave boy that the saint rescued. From elementary school days, my memory is of St. Nicolas restoring to life some orphan boys who had been boiled in oil by a cruel butcher; I have not heard that anywhere else. Dutch children believe that when Peter comes on December 5th with Sinterklass; he carries a huge sack full of toys which he distributes to good children. However – many must be the harassed Dutch mother who has threatened her offspring with being popped in Black Peter’s sack and carried off, never to be seen again, if their behaviour is less than angelic. On Christmas Eve, more presents are left for the good children. Christmas Day is a much quieter festival than that of December 5th and most families still attend church in the morning then all gather in the grandparents’, or other family members’ home for a big family meal.
When our primary teachers told us how Christmas was celebrated in Sweden, the class opined Swedish children were lucky. They celebrated not twelve but twenty days of Christmas, starting off in great style with St. Lucia’s Day. December 13th, the winter solstice and shortest day of their year, was celebrated in pagan Sweden as a festival of lights. With the advent of Christianity, the Swedes renamed their festival of lights ‘St. Lucia’s Day’. According to the monks who brought Christianity to Sweden, Lucia (Lucy means light from lux – Latin for light, clarity) was a young girl who carried food to the Christians hiding in the catacombs under Rome to escape Diocletian’s harsh persecution of Christians. To free her hands for carrying as much food as possible she lit her path by wearing a circlet of candles round her head. She was executed in 304 AD. St. Lucia’s day was first widely celebrated in the late 18th century. Schools and some towns and villages had their own St. Lucia, and a national St. Lucia was chosen. She was robed in white and wore a crown of woven lingonberry branches set with lighted candles on her head. We in Scotland had yearly reports on this Swedish festival, and my romantic imagination was fired by the idea of a ghostly St. Lucia gliding along in her flaming crown. I remember from photographs ‘St. Lucia’ carried a silver bowl; this probably held the saffron buns popular for this day. On reflection, I recall some of the girls looked decidedly uneasy under their flaming headgear! On Christmas Eve there is a huge feast before going to church for midnight mass, and presents are delivered that night.
Polish friends tell of charming and colourful traditions in their native land. They begin at Advent, when the house is cleaned from top to bottom. Everything, including every window, has to be washed, and carpets cleaned very thoroughly. Nothing is left out of place as the home is made spick and span for Christmas Day. Schools hold Nativity plays which are really more Christmas concerts so that all the children can take part. A largely Catholic country, Christmas Eve is a busy day in Poland, with the great feast occurring that night. Legend has it the animals in can speak at midnight, thus the feast consists mainly of fish and dessert dishes. To mark the twelve apostles, traditionally there are twelve different dishes. Tradition also has it that the meal cannot be started until the first star appears in the sky, which makes an exciting game for the children. Halfway through the meal, St. Nicolaus (one of the adults) looks in through the dining room window. Loud cheers from the children – he has come to lay presents by the tree in the other room! Alas, no presents can be opened before the meal is over. Since each course is punctuated by carol singing, it can be a very long meal for the excited, impatient children! Afterwards, everyone hurries off to Midnight Mass. Christmas Day and the days through Epiphany are spent visiting and receiving friends.
Germany had similar festivities. My dear friend Inge loved her Tannenbaum and all the German Christmas traditions. Her house, the architecture of which was like an illustration from Hansel and Gretel, was always colourfully and imaginatively decorated inside and out. I loved hearing her stories of the great German Christmas markets. I believe there is now a small stall with traditional German goodies in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, over the Christmas season. Stollen bread played a major part in German Christmas cooking, and many fine food stores in Canada stock it. It requires two days in the making, but the smell through the house and the taste of fresh Stollen is wonderful; ample compensation. German families gather on Christmas Eve for an evening of good food, games, music and singing, and to exchange their presents.
In Ireland, Christmas is celebrated very much as it is elsewhere in the western world. One old tradition is still kept by some people – that of having a large candle lit, set at the main window and left burning all night long to light the Virgin and Joseph safely on their way as they journeyed to Bethlehem. One friend tells me the custom was to have a candle in every window in the house. He didn’t tell me how many fires resulted from this practice, and he himself now has a safety lantern in his window!
My thanks to German, Polish, and Swedish friends and to www.whyChristmas.com. And to all of you, a very joyous Christmastide, good health and a Happy New Year.