One Norwegian Christmas custom begins in late autumn at harvest time. The finest wheat is gathered and saved until Christmas. This wheat is then attached to poles made from tree branches, making perches for the birds. A large circle of snow is cleared away beneath each perch. According to the Norwegians, this provides a place for the birds to dance, which allows them to work up their appetites between meals. Just before sunset on Christmas Eve, the head of the household checks on the wheat in the yard. If a lot of sparrows are seen dining, it is suppose to indicate a good year for growing crops.
In Norway on Christmas Eve, visitors should know that after the family’s big dinner and the opening of presents, all the brooms in the house are hidden. The Norwegians long ago believed that witches and mischievous spirits came out on Christmas Eve and would steal their brooms for riding.
In Finland and Sweden an old tradition prevails, where the twelve days of Christmas are declared to be time of civil peace by law. It used to be that a person committing crimes during this time would be liable to a stiffer sentence than normal.
In Sweden, a common Christmas decoration is the Julbock. Made from straw, it is a small figurine of a goat. A variety of straw decorations are a usual feature of Scandinavian Christmas festivities.
At Christmas, Ukrainians prepare a traditional twelve-course meal. A family’s youngest child watches through the window for the evening star to appear, a signal that the feast can begin. There are twelve courses in the Ukrainian Christmas Eve supper. According to the Christian tradition, each course is dedicated to one of Christ’s apostles. The table for Christmas Eve dinner in the Ukraine is set with two tablecloths: one for the ancestors of the family, the other for the living members. In pagan times, ancestors were believed to be benevolent spirits who, when shown respect, brought good fortune.
Ukrainians have a traditional Christmas bread called “kolach” which is placed in the center of the dining table. This bread is braided into a ring, and three such rings are placed one on top of the other, with a candle in the center of the top one. The three rings symbolize the Trinity.
La Befana, a kindly witch, rides a broomstick down the chimney to deliver toys into the stockings of Italian children. The legends say that Befana was sweeping her floors when the three Wise Men stopped and asked her to come to see the Baby Jesus. “No,” she said, “I am too busy.” Later, she changed her mind but it was too late. So, to this day, she goes out on Christmas Eve searching for the Holy Child, leaving gifts for the “holy child” in each household.
In Portugal, the traditional Christmas meal (consoada) is eaten in the early hours of Christmas Day. Burning in the hearth is the Yule log (fogueira da consoada). The ashes and charred remains of the Yule log are saved; later in the year, they are burned with pine cones during Portugal’s thunderstorm season. It is believed that no thunderbolt will strike where the Yule log smoke has traveled.
In Syria, Christmas gifts are distributed by one of the Wise Men’s camels. The gift-giving camel is said to have been the smallest one in the Wise Men’s caravan.
In Armenia, the traditional Christmas Eve meal consists of fried fish, lettuce, and spinach. The meal is traditionally eaten after the Christmas Eve service, in commemoration of the supper eaten by Mary on the evening before Christ’s birth.
Christmas is a summer holiday in South Africa. Children are fond of the age-old custom of producing pantomimes – for instance, “Babes in the Wood,” founded on one of the oldest ballads in the English language. Boxing Day on December 26th, when boxes of food and clothing are given to the poor, is observed as a holiday.
In Guatemala, Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25; however, Guatemalan adults do not exchange gifts until New Year’s Day. Children get theirs (from the Christ Child) on Christmas morning.
In the U.S., Alabama was the first state to recognize Christmas as an official holiday. This tradition began in 1836. In 1907, Oklahoma became the last US state to declare Christmas a legal holiday.
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