Many are the ways of Christmas changing from country to country taking on numerous shapes and colors as diverse as the peoples who first started them for those who through the course of time turned them in to traditions. It is strange and wonderful how dissimilar all these Christmas habits are, ranging from waiting till January 6, “Dia de Los Reyes” (Day of Kings) to open up ones presents (tradition practiced in Spain) to Poland where people do not even delay till Christmas day as their presents are opened as soon as the first star makes its appearance in the sky on the evening of Christmas. There are even those countries such as Russia and Greece whose orthodox churches have not adopted to the Julian calendar and are still using the Gregorian calendar making their celebration of Christmas take place about a fortnight after the 25th of December.
As for myself I have been fortunate enough due to my many travels to spend Christmas in many a country where this holiday is upheld and thanks to this fact I have seen for myself the many ways people in the United States, Poland, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Italy, Hungary and the Soviet Union celebrate Christmas. The customs I have seen in these lands were of true beauty as I was invited to people’s homes in all of the above mentioned countries well with the sole exception of Soviet Union. It was in this last country where I spent this day in a hotel (Cosmos) in Moscow in the year 1988 during the time when the words Glasnosts and perestroika were becoming known to most Americans thanks Gorbachov. This being a man whose popularity in America at the time could match that of any other politician or actor.
With Regards to Christmas I can not say much about what it is that Russians did or ate on this day as the hotel I and the rest of the tour group I had joined did not offer any thing special on the menu. In truth the only thing I learnt about Russian Christmas while in the Soviet Union was from our Russian tour guide who told us that in the Soviet Union Christmas was not celebrated as in her country New Year’s Day served as a combination of the two. She also told us how people gave presents to each other on that day and how her and her husband would pay a man to dress up as “father Christmas” and go to their home to give their son his presents. Of coarse needless to say times have changed since my visit to the Soviet Union as this “empire of evil” as Ronald Reagan called it was eventually eradicated by history.
As for the other countries where I spent Christmas Hungary was also unique in the fact that it was the first country (the Soviet Union being the 2nd) where I spent Christmas with no family or relatives of any kind. The year was 1987 but unlike in the Soviet Union I spent the day in a pension which was the apartment of a Hungarian family which out of some sort of kindness perhaps seeing that I was completely alone invited me to join them for their Christmas Dinner. It perhaps was the oddest feeling I had ever had sitting down to dinner on Christmas day with people whose language was as foreign to my ear as mine (me speaking Italian, French and Spanish apart from English at the time) was to theirs. The meal I must say was not bad in its humble way though for the life of me I knew not what I ate as my hosts were unable to explain to me what I was eating which was some sort of meat which was probably pork. In a way I felt honored because this family which was far from being affluent had invited me, a person who was only renting a room in their apartment to share in their Christmas meal which I could imagine based on what I knew of eastern block countries had cost them a lot of money. It was while sitting down with them at the table that I noticed a certain dignity in this middle aged couple infused with the tremendous joy and pride they took in not only the way they ate their simple meal which I could see in their faces but the way they spend this day.
I must however say that I felt rather relieved when they opened their presents that they had not bought me anything fore I given that I had not expected to be invited to Christmas dinner had not bought them anything either.
I felt good after the meal and it was not because I had eaten something but because it had been that feeling of Christmas that makes people a little nicer that had propelled them to invite me so I would not spend this day alone in my room or walking through what was probably a very empty city. The following day came which was the 26Th and leave early I did as I had to catch a very early train to Warsaw so it was on the night table in my bedroom that I left the key along with a ten dollar bill. It is funny how that might not seem like much to the average American or Hungarian now a days but then 10 dollars was the average weekly salary for many a person in Hungary. The money I left not as payment for the meal but as a small present which I feared to give directly as hurting the feelings of someone who had invited me to Christmas was the last thing my heart desired so I did it in a way that might be understood hopefully as a traveler in a rush giving what he can.
The country which saw me spend the most Christmases is the United States which does not really celebrate the evening of Christmas but uses it as a time to get ready for the day to come. It is generally on this eve that food is prepared or people, those who have one sit in front of their fire places listening to Christmas songs or watching one version or another of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.
It is the day of Christmas itself the 25th of December and only this day that is of real consequence in the USA as it is on this day that children along with their families rise early from their slumber to those presents under the tree and in their stockings. On this day after going through on emotional round of Christmas present opening the turkey is carved for young and old as families go about eating their meal. As a personal comment I must admit that I always found having turkey for Christmas slightly tiring specially after having had it less then a month before for Thanksgiving.
Some around the world may find it strange how Americans well some any way go shopping on the 25th as many though not all the stores are open. It is with the intension of getting those truly last minute presents or getting those boxes of Christmas cards at half price to give out next year that arouse many an American to leave the comfort of home to go to one of those open department stores. Naturally there is the case of those teenagers whose wish is non other then to spend their present which was given to them in the form of cash or gift certificate as fast as they can get to the nearest store. I even recall how 21 years ago I bought my first camera on the day of Christmas in a store on 5th avenue in New York. There are also those who take advantage of open grocery stores to get those items they might have run out off or forgotten in all the rush rush of the season to get such as apple sauce for the turkey or a bottle of eggnog.
After myself the second biggest traveler in the family is my older sister Mili (though not my oldest) who has also spent Christmas in several different countries given the many places her Spanish husband was posted to by his former employer Columbia Pictures. It was in Ecuador in the city of Guayaquil, year of 1984 that I spent one of the most memorable Christmases due to the tropical weather of this city. I if truth be told never felt the need to see snow on Christmas for New York contrary to popular concept does not show off snow covered streets every year but however it was not beach weather that I was used to either.
As for the celebration of Christmas itself I can not claim to have noticed anything that distinguished it from the way the same festivity is carried out in Peru or Argentina. People in Peru and Argentina like those in Ecuador also stay up till midnight on the 24th to wish each other a merry Christmas with a big hug after which they tear in to their presents and then at their turkey dinner. It was with great hunger I noticed the meal is consumed in these countries as they abstain from victuals till midnight and for the most part have not eaten since lunch. This appetite in some is even further increased by the tragos (drinks in Spanish) they drink in the lead up to that minute that turns Christmas eve to Christmas day. Another thing about Peru, Argentina and Ecuador that I found unique was the way in which fireworks are used at midnight to light up the sky. I being American was only used to seeing such displays on the 4th of July.
As for Italy this being the country of birth of my grandmother and where part of my heritage comes from it is strange that I have only spent Christmas there once and it being not long ago in the house of my daughter’s Godfather Erico Jannone (who sadly passed away earlier this year) who lives near Torino which in English is known as Turin. As for Italian Christmas the only thing that really separates it from the American version is that they eat 7 seven types of seafood. Apart from this there is not much difference between Americans and Italians as they both wait till the 25th of December to both celebrate and open presents though they part company when it comes to going shopping on this day for Italian strict social laws do not allow businesses to be open on this day.
The country where we spend Christmas can not help but influence how we spend it but one thing that we must never forget is the people who we celebrate it with us. It was in the company of my now late compadre and his daughter and son that my wife, daughter (The Little Opera Singer) and I spent this most special of days on the Christian calendar. It was his pleasant demeanor added to his regional Neapolitan charm that made this day so grand as he told my daughter all about the befana. Befana being the name given to the gift bearing witch who visits toddlers on Christmas.
Last but not least I will describe my Polish Christmases where people also have their distinctive way of celebration and that being to perform all the rituals of this holiday on the 24th of December on the day they call Wygilia. It is at the moment when the evening’s first star lights up in the sky that Polish people start in. First by sharing a wafer of some kind with each other as they exchange season wishes. As far as I am concerned I can not in earnest claim to have taken a fancy to this almost ceremonial act though I have nothing against it either as I simply do not take part in it as I do not feel any emotional connection with it.
It is after the sharing of this wafer that Polish people start in on their meal that includes 12 dishes one to symbolize everyone of the Jesus’ apostles. The dishes are for the most part cabbage composed along with other things that do not include meat as the Polish tradition though not of the Church does not allow the eating of any meat that is not fish. I in my personal preference prefer not to eat each dish therefore I concentrate on just 3 or 4 of them as my taste buds prefer to concentrate on fewer foods at a time.
It is following the meal that presents are opened though in my case I save the presents I am giving not only to my wife and daughter but to others to be opened the following day and how could I proceed other wise then also saving the presents which have been given to me for the same day.
As one can see there are many ways to spend Christmas and I have been blessed to see several of them thanks to my multicultural family and travels so it is with the truest of sincerity that I state that all of the methods of celebrating Christmas are great in their own way and that non be better for that would make some worse, non be more special for that would make some less but they be equal in the differences and similarities for after all do they not carry the same purpose behind them which is sharing with one another. It is with this thought that I end this article by saying that no matter how you choose to spend your Christmas eve or day may it be to your heart’s content as that is the purpose of this day to my way of seeing things.