- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

Suzanne Edam, a Swedish native and Capitol Hill resident, will be busy baking the typically Swedish treats saffron buns and gingersnaps with her children, Elsa, 10, and Thomas, 12, in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

“My favorite thing is letting it snow on the gingerbread house,” Elsa says. “Then we decorate it with M&Ms.;”

“Letting it snow” refers to sprinkling powdered sugar on the gingerbread house, which Ms. Edam and her children bake and assemble from scratch according to a recipe the family has used for decades. They use melted sugar to glue the edible roof and walls together.

Across town in Wheaton, Guatemala native Veronica Quintanilla will be making tamales from scratch with her 9-year old daughter, Aurora.

“And we will put up the Nativity scene together, which is very important for us,” Mrs. Quintanilla says. “Aurora has been helping me since she was a toddler. It’s one of her favorite parts of Christmas preparations. Sometimes she plays with the sheep and other animals.”

These families are representative of the multicultural nature of contemporary Christmas celebrations, in which immigrant families maintain some of their native traditions while also incorporating North American traditions, says Gerry Bowler, author of the World Encyclopedia of Christmas.

Sometimes combining Christmas traditions from different cultures means receiving gifts more than once, from more and other gift-givers than Santa and celebrating for more than a month. The one tradition virtually all Christian nations share, however, is the focus on family.

“Christmas being a family-centered event is a fairly new thing,” says Mr. Bowler, who holds a doctorate in history from King’s College, London, and is a resident of Winnipeg, Manitoba. “Christmas tended to be community-centered before the early 1800s. It was alcohol-fueled and outdoors, but then it shifts into the parlor and becomes much more family-centered and domestic.”

The emergence of railroad travel had much to do with Christmas starting to symbolize homecoming, he says. The British, for example, would send their children off to boarding school, and it wasn’t until the beginning of railroad travel that these youngsters could return home for Christmas.

Christmas is particularly domestic in the United States and Canada, Mr. Bowler says.

“In North America, we tend to really bunker ourselves up on Christmas,” he says.

Part of the reason for that habit, Mr. Bowler says, is that we tend to treat Christmas as one day instead of a season. If we only have one day, there is barely time for family celebrations, much less community-centered festivities, he says.

But at least we have that one day. During the Industrial Revolution, he says, holidays where pretty much abolished.

In Sweden, however, the Christmas season is long. It starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, when families light the first candle of four to represent the first week of Advent, but Christmas doesn’t end with the last Advent lighting four weeks later, Ms. Edam says.

“It actually doesn’t end until 20 days after Christmas, when we plunder the tree,” she says.

The “tree plunder” tradition features children cracking open ornaments (reminiscent of pinatas, but smaller) that contain candy.

“We invited Thomas’ and Elsa’s [American] friends for that one year, and it was very popular,” Ms. Edam says.

In Latin America, too, the season is much longer than in the United States and includes more communal festivities and celebrations, including the posada, the nine-day celebration preceding Christmas that re-enacts the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

If Mrs. Quintanilla, husband Rony Santis and Aurora were in their hometown of Guatemala City, they would be celebrating the posada by visiting friends and family each of the nine nights before Christmas. In Wheaton, however, that’s not the case.

“You need nine families. Here I don’t have anyone to do it with,” Mrs. Quintanilla says.

Mixing and matching

Mrs. Quintanilla’s posada dilemma highlights a phenomenon experienced by many multicultural families, Mr. Bowler says: Those families mix and match different traditions from their home countries and their new country, giving up some of their old traditions and picking up new ones.

“Many cultures have given up their Father Christmas figures and other gift-givers in favor of the American Santa Claus,” he says.

Americans made Santa popular about 1810, Mr. Bowler says.

Some cultures, though, have kept their unique gift-givers. Iceland, for example, has 13 gift-givers, including some vicious-looking Yule Lads with names such as Meat Hook and Door Sniffer, he says.

“Iceland still has some very distinctive Christmas traditions, probably as a result of being isolated for so long,” Mr. Bowler says.

A not-so-unique Christmas tradition that almost every country in the world emulates is the German Christmas tree tradition.

“We started seeing it inside people’s homes in Germany in the 1500s,” Mr. Bowler says. “After that it was exported to Canada and later to what is now the United States. … The English royal family adopts it in the 1830s.”

Now, even countries that don’t grow pine trees sell fresh, imported Christmas trees at Christmastime, Mrs. Quintanilla says about her own and other Latin American countries.

Mr. Bowler, however, has noticed a new conservation trend when it comes to Christmas trees.

“We’re starting to see places in Europe where people are renting potted trees. They decorate them for Christmas and then return them after the holiday season is over,” he says.

Sound politically correct?

“It’s nothing new. Christmas has always been mixed up with politics,” Mr. Bowler says. “In Nazi Germany, the Nazi party refused to call it Christmas but insisted on ‘Yule,’ and they also insisted on decorating the Christmas trees with swastikas.” It didn’t really catch on, he says.

In communist countries, regimes often try, or tried, to shift the celebration to New Year’s instead of the religious Christmas, he says.

Like much of Christmas that once used not to be child- or family-centered, gift-giving, once reserved for the benefit of employers and kings, has become a huge part of the holiday season. Too huge, some would say.

Mrs. Quintanilla says she tries to limit Aurora’s gifts to a couple each Christmas, which is the tradition in her country. She is often unsuccessful, though, because gifts come from many different family members and friends.

Also, the tradition in Guatemala, Mrs. Quintanilla says, is that Jesus brings the gifts, but in the mix-and-match mode that has become so common for multicultural families, Aurora has her own explanation as to how gifts are delivered.

“She thinks Santa Claus works for Jesus,” Mrs. Quintanilla says with a chuckle, “and let’s face it, children enjoy presents whenever and whoever brings them.”

While Mrs. Quintanilla has given up the posada, Ms. Edam and her family have given up the Swedish tradition of giving gifts on Christmas Eve in favor of the American tradition of giving gifts on Dec. 25.

Giving up a tradition here and there is not a problem for either family. In their opinion, you incorporate the best of each tradition to create your own unique Christmas celebration.

“We live in two different cultures, and we try to honor both,” Mrs. Quintanilla says.

More info:

Books —

• The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Gerry Bowler, McClelland & Stewart/Tundra Books, 2000. This book provides a comprehensive look at Christmas and its customs. It contains information on the history of Christmas baking, drinking and merrymaking, plus Christmas dramas, music, literature, art and films. It also includes profiles of the many gift-bringers, from Santa Claus to Babouschka, and histories of seasonal celebrations and folk customs from around the world.

• Encyclopedia of Christmas: Nearly 200 Alphabetically Arranged Entries Covering All Aspects of Christmas, by Tanya Gulevich, Visible Ink Press, 2000. This book has about 20 entries devoted to Christmas in specific countries or regions around the world. It includes all aspects of Christmas, including folk customs, religious observances, history, legends, symbols and related days from Europe, America and around the world.

• “Christmas! Traditions, Celebrations and Food Across Europe,” by Stella Ross-Collins, Kyle Cathie Limited, 2001. Drawing on traditions from more than 40 European countries, this book takes the reader on a journey through 2,000 years of festivities. There are chapters on Christmas trees, flowers and foliage; projects for stockings, cards, toys and ornaments; ideas for decorating the home and table; holiday recipes from 20 countries; and a wealth of Christmas lore from around the world.

• “The Everything Christmas Book: Stories, Songs, Food, Traditions, Revelry, and More,” by Brandon Toropov and Sharon Gapen Cook, Adams Media Corp., 1996. This book has several entries on how Christmas is celebrated around the world.

• “Christmas Around the World,” edited by Maria Hubert von Staufer, Sutton Publishing Ltd. 1998. This book features a wealth of international Christmas recipes, songs and stories. Among the stories are the magical tale of how Italian Christmas bread earned its name and the history of England’s traditional Christmas pork pie.

• “Christmas Around the World,” by Emily Kelley, Lerner Publishing Group, 2004. This children’s book describes Christmas traditions in Mexico, Iran, China, Sweden, Iraq, Spain and Norway.

• “Quiz the Season: Book of Christmas Trivia,” by Heather Revesz, Barnes & Noble Books, 2002. This book contains hundreds of questions and answers to everything you ever wanted to know about Christmas. Why are trees taken indoors and decorated? Who was St. Nick? Are there any plums in plum pudding? Learn the answers to these questions and others about customs around the world, food, music, television, movies and literature.


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