European Christmas Legends and Traditions—a Look to the Past and Present
|The Jena Christkindlmarkt or Christmas Market in Germany. THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Rene S.|
From Advent to Christmas to the Epiphany, the holidays herald time-honored traditions and customs that bring the sights and sounds of the season to life throughout Europe and all the world. Truly, it is the most wonderful time of the year. But did you ever wonder how we got here and why we celebrate the religious and secular traditions that we do? As we gather with family and friends this holiday season to recount the stories of Christmas, let us not forget from whence we came. Join me on this journey through the past and present of Christmas legends and traditions.
2017 Advent: December 3 – December 24
Sunday, December 3, marks the first Sunday of Advent, a time when Christians around the world celebrate the “adventus” or coming of Christ—a season of redemption and hope for life everlasting. Commemorating the affirmation that Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ is yet to come, Christians celebrate Advent with myriad traditions. From adoring interiors with living greens–symbolic of the promise of life everlasting and renewal, to the lighting of the five candles of the Advent wreath, Advent is also time to find hidden treasures waiting behind the closed doors of the Advent calendar as well as a visit to one of the vibrant Advent or Christmas markets throughout Europe. Beginning on the first Sunday of the new Western church calendar, Advent Sunday falls on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and is observed for the following four weeks until Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam on Sunday Nov. 19 however, his official arrival to Dokkum on Saturday, November 18 will be broadcast on Dutch TV. Europeans celebrate the official holiday on the eve of December 5 and it continues through the next day.
|Sinterklaas and Black Pete arrive in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on November 19 to mark the beginning of Sinterklaas Season. THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Arch.|
Do you know of the legend of Sinterklaas? Originally thought to be unique to the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is actually celebrated throughout Europe and the traditions vary depending upon where you live.
According to legend, Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, Patron Saint of Children, spends most of the year in Spain watching over the children and checking to see who's naughty and who's nice. Sound familiar? As November approaches, he and his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) pack up all the gifts into one giant sack, and together with Sinterklaas’ trusty steed Amerigo or Schimmel as he is known locally, embark on a steamer for one of the port towns in the Netherlands in mid-November. This year, Sinterklaas will arrive in Amsterdam on Sunday, November 19 via the Amstel River where he'll make his grand entrance in his kilometer-long water pageant of floats and boats and sail along the city's canals to the delight of nearly 400,000 guests.
As the story goes, on December 5 or Sinterklaas Eve, he flies through the night to deliver his gifts to all of the good boys and girls around the world. The trio alight upon the rooftops where Sinterklaas listens carefully at the chimney for sounds of good behavior, and if all goes well, he sends Amerigo down the chimney to replace the carrot and straw left in the children's shoes with special gifts.
Today, believers in Sinterklaas leave their shoes by the fireplaces in hopes of receiving their presents. Upon waking in the morning, each opens a gift and reads a short poem that reveals a little known fact or something humorous about the recipient. After all the gifts are opened, the Sinterklaas Feast is served.
Winter Solstice—Odin and the Yule Celebration: December 21
|Odin the Wanderer from the Nordic traditions of the Winter Solstice celebration of Yule. THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Public Domain.|
Have you ever wondered about the origins of our beloved Santa and his eight tiny reindeer? And why do celebrate at this time of the year? Throughout history, many legends recount the tales of a benevolent being who travels furtively by the winter’s night bearing gifts for children around the world. But have you heard of Odin the Wanderer and his eight-legged horse Sleipner?
Long before Christianity spread throughout the world, Pagan rituals and customs were prevalent throughout the lands but it was in northern Germany and Scandinavia that Odin can trace his roots back to the celebration of Yule—a pagan religious festival heralding the arrival of the winter solstice from mid-December to early January. During this time, many believed that Odin, disguised in a long blue-hooded cloak, would travel to earth by night with his eight-legged horse Sleipner to help those in need of food. Why is he missing an eye? To gain knowledge of the past, present and future, Odin had to drink from the Well of Wisdom but for a price. Ultimately, he sacrificed his left eye and today, it lies at the bottom of this Well of Wisdom as a symbol of the price he paid for the wisdom he possesses.
As traditions grew over time, the children of these lands would anticipate the arrival of gift-bearing Odin and would fill their boots with straw, carrots or sugar, and place them near the fireplace so that Sleipnir could come down to eat during his midnight rides. Odin would then reward these kind children by replacing the food with gifts and candy.
Here's a fascinating animated short "The Night Before Christmas, Or Yuletide or such..." by Celestial Elf recounting the legend of Odin the Wanderer.
Christmastide: December 25 – January 6.
|Giotto's "Adoration of the Magi" shows the Three Kings arriving and bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Baby Jesus. THIS PHOTO ONLY: Wikimedia.org Public Domain.|
Beginning on Christmas Day, the Twelve Days of Christmas mark the time from the Nativity to the Epiphany—the birth of the Savior to the day God revealed Himself unto the gentiles and the Magi or Three Kings. With that said and contrary to modern belief, the Twelve Days of Christmas are those that follow Christmas, not those that come before. It begins on Christmas night and concludes on the Twelfth Night or evening of January 5 with the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day following on the next.
Christmastide is a time when Christians celebrate the Glory of God and His gift bestowed upon man as promised by the Angel Gabriel’s proclamation "fear not, for behold, I bring tidings of great joy"—a gift that would bring forth peace and good will for all—the Birth of the Savior.
Did you know?
While "Twelve Days of Christmas" is usually sung during the holidays, its origins can be traced back to the 16th century when it was taught to children as a mnemonic device for learning the Christian faith. As you know, each verse begins with the lines “On the # day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…,” "my true love" refers to God and "me" represents every baptized Christian in the world. The partridge in a pear tree symbolizes the Baby Jesus whom God gave to the world on this first day of Christmas. The second day brought "Two Turtle Doves" or the Old and New Testaments. On the third day, "three French hens" represent the three religious virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. “Four calling birds” embody Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And for you trivia buffs, “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah. “Six geese-a-layin'” represent the six days of creation. “Ten lords-a-leapin'” represent the Ten Commandments, and finally, “eleven pipers piping” represent 11 Apostles sans Judas.
How do you celebrate the Christmas holidays? What customs and traditions passed down by generations do you and your family embrace? Please share your Christmas stories and celebrations with all of us.