Christmas bells are ringing, snow is falling, and the reindeer are stretching as everyone prepares for the holiday season. But what makes these holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah so special? Why do people partake in so many annual traditions with family, friends, and those they hold dear? This year, I have decided to dive into the history of a variety of holiday traditions that different cultures across the world take part in during the month of December. I also sought to find what defines the holidays for some of our very own members of the Catalina community.
The Origin of the Christmas Tree:
While thousands of people across the globe participate in the famous Christmas tradition of decorating a Christmas tree for the holidays, many do not know why and how this tradition came to be. Long before Charlie Brown was struggling with his very special Christmas tree, it was actually the Germans in the 16th century who were creating this new tradition that would evolve into one of the most famous symbols of Christmas in the world. Devout German Christians brought decorated trees into their homes; some even built pyramids of wood decorated with evergreens and candles if they could not use a full tree. The idea of hanging lights on a Christmas tree is widely believed to have been started by Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer who is said to have been walking home one winter’s night when he suddenly was captivated by the beautiful stars shining amongst the evergreens nearby. It is said that Luther wanted to recapture the scene for his family, so he placed a tree in the main room of their home and wired its branches with lighted candles. It is thanks to the German immigrants who continued to migrate to the U.S. that the tradition eventually was adopted by the vast majority of Americans during the late 19th century. Christmas trees also gained popularity thanks to Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, who put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, thus inspiring thousands throughout England, the U.S., and Canada to follow in his lead.
While many German-Americans continued to decorate their trees with apples, nuts, marzipan cookies, and eventually dyed popcorn, Americans were the ones who began creating homemade ornaments to hang on their trees. Today, one of the most famous Christmas trees in the U.S. is the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, which is decorated with roughly 25,000 Christmas lights.
While decorating Christmas trees is a widely popular tradition during the month of December, I wanted to learn more about unique traditions that different cultures take part in while celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year”. Below are snippets describing a variety of winter traditions.
Besides decorating their Christmas trees, another famous tradition for Germans is the celebration of Advent. Advent is the period during which Christians remember the time spent waiting for God’s son to be born, which is why many celebrate with Nativity scenes depicting Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. This time also celebrates the return of Jesus during the Second Coming: the term “advent” is a version of a Latin word that means “coming”. Many Germans also celebrate this time with Advent calendars, which contain twenty-four little presents to be opened on each day of December leading up to the 25th. This is similar to the tradition of lighting candles at the beginning of each week in Advent. The four candles each represent different beliefs such as Hope and Peace.
Interested in seeing Christmas in Spain? The country’s special traditions include the beautifully elaborate “Nacimiento”, or nativity scenes, and the brilliant Christmas markets where vendors sell delectable fruits, sweets, marzipan, and handmade Christmas gifts, decorations, and candles. On Christmas Eve, the ringing of churchbells calls families to “La Misa Del Galo”, or “The Mass of the Rooster”, a breathtaking candlelight service that allows communities to come together to celebrate this holy day. Families must then wait until after midnight to pop open the apple cider and enjoy a glorious Christmas feast through the length of the night. One old Spanish verse states of this tradition: “Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no es noche de dormir”, which translates to, “This is the good night, therefore it is not meant for sleep”.
The Spanish Christmas continues after December 25th until January 5th, known as the Eve of Epiphany. On this night, children place their shoes on the doorstep in anticipation of the Three Wise Men, who travel through the cities and villages and deliver gifts to the children on their way to Bethlehem.
Imagine flying across the sea to the beautiful hills of Ireland to celebrate Christmas next to a warm hearth and the melodies of a bagpipe! Far off in the distance, you might even recognize a particular science teacher with stark white hair swinging a golf club while his Labrador puppy runs nearby. Who knows! There are two things to know if you plan to spend your holidays across the sea: the word for Christmas in Gaelic is “Nollaig”, and native Irish citizens do not call Santa Claus, “Santa Claus”. Instead, he is called “San Nioclás”, which means “Saint Nicholas”, or “Daidí na Nollag”, which means “Father Christmas”. Another fun fact is that in the past, some Irish towns have celebrated the January 6th Feast of Epiphany along with “Nollaig na mBean”, or “Women’s Christmas”. On this day, women were given the day off of work and the men were expected to do all of the housework. While today, this idea of “Women’s Christmas” is not quite as popular, many women still enjoy gathering together on the Sunday nearest Epiphany to catch up and celebrate the merry season.
After discovering so much information about different cultures, traditions and customs, I was thrilled to ask Dr. Hunt, Gracie Gaon ‘21, Maddie Elkin ‘21, and Anna Cole ‘21 a little bit about what the holidays mean to them and what kinds of traditions they look forward to partaking in every year. While all four celebrate Christmas, Gracie and Maddie also celebrate Hanukkah, and because Dr. Hunt is Dutch, she also celebrates St. Nicholas Day. To honor this day, she leaves a small present and a tissue paper cone of green and red M&Ms in her kids’ shoes.
The first question I decided to ask all of them was, “What is your favorite thing about the holiday season? What is a favorite activity that you love?” All replied that they love being with their families, watching Christmas movies, and baking. Dr. Hunt further elaborated by saying that she particularly enjoys listening to the many Christmas jingles and seeing everyone’s beautiful Christmas lights. Every year with her family, she loves going to Candy Cane Lane in Pacific Grove, a street where the entire neighborhood decorates their houses and lawns with elaborate decorations for visitors to see. Anna also expanded on her favorite holiday traditions, explaining, “My favorite thing about the holiday season is decorating for Christmas and playing in the snow! I love having snowball fights with my friends, skiing, and sledding, and then going inside after drinking hot cocoa and apple cider. I also love holiday fashion, like sweaters, hats, and cute boots.”
The next question asked was, “What do you think makes this season so special for people?” Dr. Hunt and Maddie spoke about how it is a time for family to come together and celebrate. Dr. Hunt says, “I also think that there is something deeply comforting in traditions.” Gracie and Anna expanded on this sentiment, with Gracie replying, “It’s a time to remember what is important in life. For me, it’s a time when most of the family can get together and just be happy without worrying about anything else.” Anna says, “It is a time when people can take a much-needed break from their work and focus on what is really important, like spending time with family and doing what you love. It is always a reminder of what is really important in life and allows people to stay in touch with their youthful side.”
To follow up, I then asked all of them if they had a favorite tradition with their families or friends. While Gracie talked about going to her grandmother’s house, filling her belly with great food, and playing lots of games, Dr. Hunt described decorating her Christmas tree with close friends and family. For Maddie, the promise of cinnamon sunburst on Christmas morning is enough to make her jump out of bed, but it is the thought of Christmas Eve, when everyone in her family opens one very special gift, that she treasures most. It all started when Maddie was in preschool, she says. Her whole family had gone to her grandparents’ house to celebrate, but one very important thing had been left behind: her parents had forgotten to pack everyone’s pajamas! Luckily, her family was already going to exchange Christmas pajamas as gifts the following morning, so as a special treat that night, everyone opened and got to wear their Christmas pajamas to bed. As a tradition that has now lasted for more than twelve years, every Christmas Eve, Maddie’s family will open up one special Christmas present from their mom: a new pair of holiday pajamas! Maddie loves being able to tear open her present on Christmas Eve and dance around with her siblings in her new stylish pajamas. While pajamas entertain the thoughts of the Elkin siblings, for Anna, family cookies are essential to pull off their Christmas tradition: every year, her family hosts a cookie party. Friends and family come together to catch up and spend quality time devouring sweet treats. Anna elaborates, “the night before, my family always stays up really late to bake over three hundred sugar cookies, and the house smells like freshly baked cookies for the next week or so.”
After hearing this, I couldn’t help but feel curious as to what the girls’ favorite holiday treats are. The answers were simple and to the point; while Anna clearly loves her cookies, adorable gingerbread men also capture her heart. Double fudge caramel brownies are all Maddie needs for a proper Christmas night, and Gracie “LOVE[S] peppermint hot chocolate!”
Next, I asked Dr. Hunt, Gracie, and Anna, “Is there a memory of a specific gift that you have given or received that holds a special place in your heart?” Below are their responses:
Dr. Hunt says, “When I was little, just after my parents divorced, money was very tight. My mother and my sister built me a doll house. It was under the tree with little lights on it on Christmas morning. They had worked in secret for weeks to do it, and I am still moved that they took so much trouble with it.”
Gracie describes, “Last year for Kris Kringles, I got Spencer Leatherberry a bracelet that has the coordinates of the C2 building on it, because that’s where we first met. On the back, the bracelet has the engraving, “physics study buddy”, because she is the reason why I passed that class.”
Anna says, “A couple of years ago, the only thing I wanted for Christmas was tickets to Hamilton. A lot of my friends had gone to see it, but at that point, it was impossible to get tickets, so I knew that it was never going to happen. However, on Christmas, I unwrapped a stuffed bear with a Hamilton wig and a recorded rap from my dad to the tune of “Alexander Hamilton” explaining that I got to go! The fact that he worked so hard to find tickets for me and then literally wrote and recorded his own rap to tell me because he knew how much it meant to me made this the best gift I’ve ever received.”
Finally, I had to ask if any of them could describe a scene or image that epitomizes this holiday’s spirit or what this holiday means to them. Below are their responses.
Gracie describes, “After Thanksgiving, we go to buy a tree and then have a small party and decorate the tree… my mom gets fussy because she wants the lights to be perfect and it’s great!”
Anna says that for her, an iconic holiday scene takes place “the night my family and I get together every year to decorate the Christmas tree. It always smells a bit dusty from taking out all of the decorations… that, mixed with the pine from the tree and all of the Christmas candles, are what comes to mind when I think of the holiday spirit, as well as how the tree is stuffed full of our various ornaments from throughout the years. To me, it feels like home and quality time with family, which is why I love the holiday so much even though I’m not involved in the religious aspect.”
Maddie describes that her favorite holiday scene is “my crazy family tossing presents in an effort to get started quickly.”
Lastly, as a bonus question, I asked whether any of the girls had a favorite story or song that they love to hear every year during the holidays. Both Anna and Maddie enjoy listening to specific songs: Anna loves “Winter Wonderland” by Ella Fitzgerald, and Maddie loves to listen to The Muppet Christmas Carol soundtrack while decorating her family’s tree. Gracie, however, has one special memory that comes to mind. She explains, “When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t let me watch Love Actually, but every single year when they watched it, they would call me in from their bedroom where I would watch Elf, just for the last scene, where the girl sings “All I Want For Christmas”. Now, that song makes me laugh because of that.”
Whether it is a song, movie, special pajamas, or the tradition of baking cookies, it is clear that the spirit of the holidays cannot come in a pre-ordered Amazon package, but is instead found in those special moments we create with the ones we love. While Christmas is a time filled with fun, food, festivities, and much more, it is in those moments spent with family and friends while embarking on all of these crazy traditions that the Christmas spirit is truly embodied. Through these moments, we experience the holiday magic which shines throughout the month like a star on the Christmas tree.