Christmas and Culture
As most reading here know, Christmas is both a religious holiday and a cultural one. In Christian majority countries, Christmas is a major anchor of the rhythm of the year: the calendar year, the academic year, the emotional year, and the family year. In Christian minority cultures most often there are signs of celebration, at least in places where there are a substantial number of Christians. In my experience Hong Kong was a place where Christmas was on full display, Thailand perhaps less so, but definitely where there were tourists, there were signs of festivity with no religious connotation, eg. a banquet, a carnival for children. In Morocco, Christmas is acknowledged and cards sent and greetings offered to Christian friends and relatives. The Moroccan staff at the Canadian Embassy set up a Christmas tree and decorated it--joking in Moroccan that it was the Christmas “sheep”, as for the Eids. The Catholic Churches in Rabat, Casablanca and Tangiers hold Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, as do the minority Protestant ones. As I have learned, in Saudi Arabia non-Muslim religious celebrations are not allowed, although they occur on expat compounds and very discretely in expat work places. There are, of course, no functioning, recognized churches publicly announcing services.
Globally, the culture of Christmas is diverse over time and space. As was mentioned in the earlier post on the Winter Solstice, when Christianity spread from the place of its birth in Palestine, it became more integrated with pre-Christian observances of the Greek, Roman, Germanic and Celtic societies. Although Christmas was initially secondary to Easter, the birth of Jesus became more important, and became part of the Roman Julian calendar. The date of December 25 corresponded to that of the Winter Solstice, and the birth of the Christ child became symbolically allied to the re-birth of the sun. The festivities in Roman culture, the Saturnalia, and in the Germanic culture, Yule, were integrated into what we now view as Christmas traditions and celebrations. Many of the current traditions are more recent borrowings from nineteenth century German (Christmas trees) and English (Christmas cards) cultures, with a large measure of 20th century American culture (Santa Claus, an emphasis on buying presents) as the most recent. Symbolically all can be tied to the earliest rituals, religious and cultural--lights (in the darkness of winter), feasting (the final harvest and treating livestock), evergreens (trees, holly, mistletoe--symbols of the promise of seasonal renewal after the death of winter), and bells tolling the birth of a god/God.
La Befana--an old crone who delivers presents to children, an Italian pre-Christian tradition
As Christianity spread around the world more local traditions were incorporated and evolved: Santa Lucia in Sweden, for example; or, La Befana in Italy. There certainly are commonalities across cultures, like the nativity story from the Bible, and the nativity scenes that represent it, special church services at midnight on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and the usual concomitants of a festival, ie special clothes, decorations, the exchange of gifts, and special foods to celebrate with family and friends. Yet, in addition to differences across cultures, there are variations even from family to family within the same culture. Moreover, immigrants carry their traditions with them and then incorporate new ones, and share theirs as a group with the dominant culture.
My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, all grew up with Italian traditions whether in Italy or in Canada. All celebrated primarily on Christmas Eve; and, oranges were a special treat no matter what their circumstances. Attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Mass on Christmas morning with family and friends were a major part of the celebration. Yet there were regional differences, particularly in the foods prepared for the main Christmas dinner. My paternal grandmother followed her Tuscan traditions in Canada (and my Friulano grandfather was happy to go along with them): home made ravioli, a stuffed capon, eggplant-tomato ratatouille, romaine lettuce salad, and a panforte (a Tuscan Christmas cake) were standard, along with other accompaniments and desserts. My maternal grandmother followed her traditions from the Adriatic seacoast, in the Marche region (and my maternal grandfather, born in the same town went along with them): homemade prosciutto, salami, and cappacuolo, fish stew prepared with home prepared baccala (salted cod), stuffed calamari, endive salad, and fruit for dessert were their standards, along with other accompaniments and home prepared lupine (salted flat beans). Both sides accompanied the dinner with home made regional wine.
These regional differences, and more Canadian influences, meant that my mother combined traditions. One year the Christmas Eve dinner was homemade ravioli (all family members helped in the preparation, father hand grinding the meat, mother preparing the stuffing and pasta, children crimping the edges of the stuffed folded ravioli with a fork); and the next year the traditional fish dinner (less fun, no crimping for the children to do), with shrimps replacing the baccala stew. Then, on Christmas day, the traditional North American stuffed turkey, vegetables, salad, and mince pies. Over time the ravioli faded and the fish dinner replaced it each year--until last year. My mother finally went on strike and informed all that they had eaten their last stuffed calamari in her home. Despite my father’s help, and my offers of help, she was boycotting the calamari which required so much preparation. This year’s lovely Christmas Eve dinner thus featured my grandmother’s baked sole recipe, and shrimp. Christmas dinner will be a large stuffed chicken--turkeys were boycotted a few years ago when there was an unusual amount of waste due to insufficient post-Christmas turkey left over consumption.
Similar evolutions happen in other North American homes as generations move away from the traditions of their countries of origin, and different ethnicities, not just regionally different members of the same ethnic group, marry and mix traditions. Newer trends in mainstream North American Christmas traditions also impact this--whether is it imported tropical fruits, mass production of ethnic desserts, or general turkey fatigue leading to a Christmas ham or a Christmas goose (the latter being more traditional in England but something of a novelty in North America).
Then there are those of us, or at least myself, who have only prepared Christmas dinner a very few times--as opposed to always helping with dinner in the home of family or friends. 4 times to be precise, and 4 times I was the only Christian present, and 3 times the only woman. The first time was in Ireland, where I was travelling with Moroccan friends to visit Irish friends. Although the Irish friends and their parents (we were all students) were very gracious, Christmas dinner was family only; so I prepared dinner for myself and my Moroccan friends. Dinner was a success, despite a braised tarragon chicken replacing any stuffed goose or other bird, and a rather humble repast in keeping with our student budgets.
The second time was in France where, for a variety of reasons, no one in our circle was travelling. I must say that my Muslim friends were concerned that I not spend Christmas alone, and made sure I was organized for the festivities and the university closure. The upshot was that we all had Christmas dinner at my apartment, including a few friends of friends who had no other plans. I honestly don’t remember what I prepared except that the kitchen looked like it had been bombed out when I finished (disarray, pots and pans everywhere, counters cluttered, and a fine dusting of flour over all), so I just closed the door on it. The dinner was very enjoyable for all, with a great deal of merriment. They kindly provided all the desserts to make up the traditional 13 desserts of a P Christmas, including the French Yule Log.
The third time was in Canada with my husband, shortly after he arrived in Canada. We agreed that I would work Christmas and take New Year’s off, since I preferred Christmas in the ER to sewing up fallen drunks on New Year’s. The plan was for him to do the basic preparations for dinner, and for me to actually cook the dinner when I returned after a 10 hour shift, which was supposed to be an easy one based on previous years’ busyness in that ER. Not! Even the senior ER physician, an Indian Muslim, was stunned and apologized for telling me it would most likely be slow, as it had been all the other Christmases he had worked so his Christian colleagues could be home with family. He and I handled the rush all by ourselves as we were short staffed. I did all the emergency psychiatry work, and took all the Francophone patients, while he handled the most serious medical cases, so that we could play to our respective strengths and work faster (and safer!).
Somewhere in the middle of the shift I got a call from the hub, announcing that he had bought a dozen oysters, and asking how to clean them. Forcing myself to remain calm, I explained; but he didn’t seem to understand, even when I told him to just read the Joy of Cooking. Instead, he said that I could do them when I got home. Fortunately I was in the nursing station, which meant I was forced to sound pleased, or at least pleasant, or at least not irate. Ah, but when I got home, he presented me with a beautifully prepared tray of fully cleaned oysters--the whole scenario was his idea of how to find out how to clean them and give me a surprise. They were a nice appetizer for the rest of Christmas dinner--which again I have lost from memory, except that for sure no bird was stuffed, braised or baked maybe, but not stuffed.
The fourth time, I cooked Christmas dinner for my husband and his sister who was visiting from Morocco. This was her first time out of her home country and she was coming to the end of her 3 months with us. We tried to make Christmas extra special, and more traditional, so this time I was decided to actually stuff a bird. Not astrophysics of course, and I had certainly watched enough times, and I had my Joy of Cooking book handy, so what could go wrong? Well, lots of things actually. Everything from undercooked, inedible stuffing, to salmonella poisoning, to my greatest fear: overstuffed exploding bird all over oven, kitchen, dining room, living room, books, treasures… sort of like the bombed out kitchen in France, only with greater projectile potential.
I started off bravely enough, and my sister-in-law was being supportive and helpful; but then when it came to actually stuffing the beast, I lost all my courage. The internal cavity of a bird has no markings like “half stuffed”, “3/4 stuffed”, “fully stuffed”, “overstuffed”, and “explosive”. You may be thinking that one could just eyeball it, but have you calculated the degree and rate of expansion of stuffing in an enclosed heated cavity X oven temperature X stuffing composition X quantity X strength of stitching/suture materials? No, I thought not. My sister-in-law kept encouraging me to add more stuffing, rather than proceed with such caution. When I expressed a mild version of my fears, she told me to just fill it, making stuffing motions with her hands. It was all too much for me! I handed the bird over, and resumed my rightful role as observer of the bird stuffing ritual, until it was time for suturing. That, I could do.
Even beyond bird stuffing trauma, the 4th dinner was rather odd, rather strained, and uncomfortable to the point that it was all I could do to sit through it myself. Partly it was that I had wanted my family to come, and they couldn’t make the trip because of other family obligations. Partly it was because my husband was behaving oddly. He seemed not to be as comfortable as usual, wanting things to go well, but then putting a damper on things. Wanting them to be nice, fun, and traditional, and then wanting to pass it off as just another dinner, no big deal, no extra effort needed. I actually did leave the table at one point, and not in the direction of the kitchen. When I returned, after a self-imposed “time out” in my room, it finally came out in sort of elliptical phrases that he had promised his father that his sister wouldn’t be corrupted by Canadian life, and enjoying Christmas dinner too much would be a part of that somehow. Hmmm, good thing I hadn’t voiced a thought I had had days earlier that it might be nice, for cultural reasons, to go to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at the Cathedral--the high mass, with the organ, the choir, the incense, the multiple priests, the television cameras, all that praying and kneeling, and sitting and standing, and taking Communion. Yes, good thing.
Which leads us to Part II…Interfaith Christmases.
But before we go there:
What are your family traditions, if you celebrate Christmas?
Have you invited non-Christian guests to you Christmas celebrations?
If you are not a Christian, have you been invited to a Christmas celebration with a Christian family? or a social group, or friends?
What was your experience like?
If you are a mixed couple, how do you celebrate Christmas, or not?
Does it depend on where you are living?
And most importantly:
Merry Christmas to all who celebrate!
And, Peace, Love and Joy to All!
Coming next…Interfaith Christmases