Cultural Christmas

Holiday spirit comes alive in many ways

Kentuckiana residents represent
a diverse cultural spectrum

Ben Fronczek
Staff Writer

(December 2001) Crestwood, Ky – It starts immediately after Thanksgiving. First, there are the month-long shopping sprees, along with the massive light and tree displays.
Holiday movies, cartoons, parades and shows fill the TV schedule. Traditional carols and holiday music can be heard around the clock. Christmas programs are staged at schools and churches.

Johanna Welch

Johanna Welch

On Christmas Eve, the stores finally close and Christian families make their way to their respective churches and homes to be with family and friends. Christmas Day involves gift opening, feasting and munching on holiday treats. This has become the standard Christmas tradition in America today. For most, anyway.
Many families in America, including those in the Kentuckiana area, celebrate other holiday traditions, depending on their culture or ethnic backgrounds. Here’s a look at a few of those “other” cultural Christmases.
German Christmas has different chronology
In Germany, Christmas is referred to as Weinachten. Just as in America, Christmas begins at the beginning of December. One big difference from America is that Santa Claus makes his appearance weeks before Christmas. Well, at least the German equivalent of Santa Claus called St. Nicolas. According to Johanna Welch, a German native who resides in Switzerland County, Ind., the visits from St. Nicolas occur on Dec. 6. These are front door visits where St. Nicolas delivers the gifts. Rather than being a rotund, white-bearded man in a red suit, St. Nicolas is a naturally brown bearded man in a long, brown robe with a gold rope belt. His long robe includes a hood, which is bordered by fur.
“He looks more like a monk than a Santa Claus,” said Welch, who operates the German Corner restaurant and catering in Bennington.
She remembered receiving visits from St. Nicolas as a child. She would sit on his lap and recite a Christmas poem or verse for him.
“I used to learn my verse perfectly so I would be ready when he came,” said Welch. “After the Dec. 6, we didn’t hear anymore about St. Nicolas. We then focused on the Christ Child.”
She explained that the St. Nicolas visit was the centerpiece of gift giving in Germany.
“Germans do not go overboard on gift giving, but we do give presents,” said Welch.
While gift giving occurs early, the decorating begins later.
“My mother and father would set up the tree on the 24th, never later,” said Welch. “We don’t decorate as much in Germany. But the ornaments are much like ours in America.”
Indeed, many German ornaments are seen on American trees. Popular ornament styles in Germany include those made of wood and also those made of porcelain. Specific ornaments that are popular include the Hummel figurines and Goebels. These are small porcelain miniatures of the Christ Child and other Nativity figures.
Outside the home, Welch described beautifully decorated Christmas villages called Krist-Kindl Markt. These villages are filled with lights and holiday related booths.
“Almost every town has one of these,” she said. “Our churches are decorated beautifully, too.”
When Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, the activity is a little different, too. The stores close by 2 p.m. Families start attending church services after 5 p.m., followed by a holiday snack. On Christmas Day, the major feast occurs at noon, and the main course is usually a Christmas goose. A sweet, fruit-filled bread called Christmas stollen is also popular among Germans at Christmas.
“We don’t make a big spread like the Americans, but it was always very special and very nice,” said Welch. “Later that day at 3:30, we always get together for coffee and desserts.” Having a larger meal during the midday and a smaller one later in the day is a German practice year round.
Welch moved from Germany to America in the late 1950s to marry American Jim Welch. She said she now celebrates Christmas the American way.
“I kept the German tradition for years, but we’ve had children and so we’ve had to shift a little bit. I’ve adjusted to my life here. Besides, I decorate early for the restaurant, and geese are so hard to find here.”
Religious roots highlight Hispanic Christmas
Like the Germans, those raised in the Hispanic culture focus on Christianity at Christmas.
Maria Cruz, a Mexican native who owns Mexico Lindo grocery store in Carrollton, Ky., said that the major beginnings of Christmas happen on Dec. 12. This is what Mexicans believe is the Virgin Mary’s birthday. Cruz said that this is even bigger than the festivities on Christmas Day itself.
“Every year, people go to Mexico City to make a promise to the Virgin Mary,” said Cruz.
She said many of these people walk on foot from far away small towns. “I don’t know if they do this in other Hispanic counties, but people from other Hispanic countries go to Mexico that day, too.”
This festive event is only the beginning. From Dec. 16-24, Cruz described an event called Posadas, which is a group worship. In Posados, a statue of the Virgin Mary known as the Santos is removed from the Catholic Church building for a period of eight nights. Each night, it visits a different house and it is at this house where people go to gather each night. A group first gets together to call on the house.
“Every night they sing a song, asking the people in the house to let them stay and then the people let them in,” said Cruz. “They are pilgrims asking for a place to sleep until the baby is born on the 24th.”
Actually, the visitors do not spend the night, but that idea is more in the theme of the event. After visiting each house, the Santos returns to the church on Christmas Eve. From there, the Christmas Eve church worship lasts through the night until 5 a.m. Christmas Day.
There are others in Mexico who celebrate Christmas Eve by dancing in the streets all night. Some also have big feasts that night. Cruz herself will carry on the Mexican Christmas Eve tradition with dinner and dancing at 8 p.m. on Dec. 24 at Mexico Lindo.
“Anyone who wants to come, who doesn’t have anything else to do, can come,” said Cruz. “We are trying to make this a tradition.”
Other Hispanic countries have different traditions from Mexico. Juan Sanchez, the pastor at Ryker’s Ridge Baptist Church in Madison, Ind., hasn’t lived in Puerto Rico since he was 8 years old but recalled the Christmas traditions his family once celebrated. He is trying to bring those traditions back into his children’s lives.
Sanchez remembered how Epiphany on Jan. 15 was considered an even larger celebration than Christmas.
“We had a Christmas tree and put gifts under the tree, but we exchanged more on Jan. 15,” said Sanchez. “The actual Dec. 25 was not as emphasized in terms of gift giving.”
According to Sanchez, the day commemorating the Wise Men’s visit to the Christ Child was the major theme for gift giving. He remembered that the strength of this theme even overshadowed the Santa Claus tradition.
“We would put hay out for the Wise Men instead of cookies for Santa,” recalled Sanchez. “We really try to emphasize that the reason we celebrate Christmas is Jesus Christ.”
Sanchez also mentioned the traveling from house to house singing, only he referred to it as Parrandas. Rather than staying at one house per night, this singing was from house to house until 3 a.m. in the morning. He also spoke of Noche Beune, a Spanish translation for Christmas Eve. On this day, families would gather to eat roast pig, rice and beans, rice pudding and other Spanish foods.
Sanchez said that in his family in Madison he is trying to re-invent some of the Spanish cultures he practiced.
“We try to celebrate epiphany with our children, and because the Wise Men gave three gifts to Jesus, we give three gifts to our children.”
Christmas comes earlier in India
Christmas comes early for other cultures as well. Praful “Paul” Patel, owner of the Holiday Inn Express in La Grange, Ky., has been in America for 23 years but recalled celebrating Christmas in India as a child. The Indian Christmas is called Diwalli and is celebrated for five days, beginning Nov. 14. Diwalli honors the Supreme Commander of the Hindu religion, Rama.
“Diwalli is our Christmas. It is the coming back of Rama after years in exile,” said Patel. Hindus believe Rama was born to royalty and exiled for 14 years to the wilderness by his stepmother. Rama returned from exile to purify man from sin. Patel said that the purification is a major portion of Diwalli.
“We wake up really early, and first thing we bathe to cleanse our body,” said Patel. “Then we celebrate with a ritual of recipes. We welcome a family recipe and have a big feast.”
Afterward, the festivities continue into the evening. A symbol of the Diwalli is a small clay-oil burning lamp that is placed on flat-top roofs and walls of houses. There are fireworks to go along with the burning of the lamps.
“We have like a Fourth of July,” said Patel.
Though the majority of the population is Hindu or Moslem, they recognize Christmas as a national holiday, only during this November time. Also, Christmas is a little different, depending on the part of the India in which it is celebrated.
“They celebrate Christmas mostly in the big cities and south parts of India,” said Harish Mistry, who owns the Super 8 Motel in La Grange, Ky. He was raised in the south portion of India in the city of Bardolioli and has been in America for five years. “In the evening, people get together and party to celebrate the Christmas and the New Year.”
While the Hindus use Diwalli as their Christmas, Christians in India observe a variety of different customs. In the plains of India, they decorate mango and banana trees. The poinsettia plants are also prominently displayed, particularly in churches.
Festive Christmas foreshadows Japanese New Year
In Japan, where the majority of the population is Buddhist, Christmas is rarely celebrated. For the Japanese, New Year’s (Shogatsu) is the larger more religious holiday. According to Kuniaki Kondo, president of Arvin Sango, Inc. in Madison, and John Kakimoto, the company’s administration director, Christmas is more of a festival than a holiday. Even though Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25, all business and places of recreation are still open.
“Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan,” said Kakimoto. “All schools, companies and public offices do not close.”
Still, the Japanese take part in many of the traditional Christmas customs.
“The Japanese decorate Christmas trees in their home and have champagne and a big decorated cake,” said Kakimoto. “Children set big socks at their bedsides when they go to sleep Christmas Eve night. But Japanese are not in the habit of exchanging Christmas cards at the season.”
Rather, the greeting cards are exchanged at New Year’s. It is then when the Japanese go the temple to pray for the coming year. It is then that everything closes.
Since both Kondo and Kakimoto live in Madison with their families, they still practice American decorative customs but said they still focus on the meaning of the New Year.
“Just changing the year, we reflect on the year change,” said Kondo. “We pray for luck or good fortune.”
In a survey conducted in December 1999 by the website www.japan-guide.com, 208 people who live in Japan responded to a survey about Christmas. Most were female (75 percent), single (89 percent) and between 10 and 30 years old (82 percent). Less than 2 percent of the Japanese were Christians, and Christmas is not a national holiday. Nevertheless, the popularity of Christmas is growing in Japan especially among young female Japanese.
According to the survey, Christmas is something special for more than 60 percent of the survey participants. The percentage is higher for women (67 percent) than for men (40 percent), and it is highest for female teenagers (86 percent). On Christmas, 34 percent of the survey participants have a special family dinner, 18 percent have a dinner with friends and 15 percent have a special dinner with their boyfriend or girlfriend.
The survey results also show the typical Japanese Christmas menu: A large majority of 73 percent enjoys a Christmas cake and 34 percent prepare chicken. Only about 4 percent follow the American tradition of eating turkey.
Among the survey participants, a majority of 60 percent also exchanges gifts on Christmas. Most of them exchange presents with family members, friends, girlfriends and boyfriends. Finally, 35 percent of the participants indicated that they decorate their houses for Christmas, while a large majority of 65 percent did not.
New Year’s, however, is widely celebrated in Japan. The tradition of eating Osechi Ryori is still followed by a large majority (72 percent) of the Japanese, while 61 percent visit a temple or shrine on New Year. A large majority of people watch the television program “Kohaku Uta Gassen” on New Year’s eve.
Many people decorate their house or car for New Year’s. The New Year holidays are also known for high travel activities, primarily within in the country.

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