One holiday that is celebrated in many countries is Christmas Eve. It is celebrated in most Christian societies as part of the Christmas celebrations. It is an evening filled with anticipation and joy. In many cultures, a festive dinner is traditionally served for the family and close friends in attendance. In some parts of Eastern Europe such as Poland and Lithuania, a traditional meatless 12-dishes Christmas Eve Supper is served before opening gifts.
In Spain, La Nochebuena is known as the Good Night. At midnight, everybody hurries to Midnight Mass. The hours between mass and dawn are devoted to street dancing and singing. There is a large variety of food that is served, and each region has it’s own specialty. It is particularly common to start the meal with a seafood dish such as prawns or salmon, followed by a bowl of hot, homemade soup. For the main meal, there will commonly be roast lamb, or seafood, such as cod or shellfish. For dessert, there is quite a spread of delicacies, among them are turrón, a dessert made of honey, egg and almonds that is Arabic in origin.
The Italian Christmas, as it is celebrated today, has two origins: the familiar Christian traditions blended with the pagan traditions of the Roman Empire. The great feast of that era was “Saturnalia,” celebrated from December 17 to 24 to honor Saturn, god of the harvest. Now, these dates coincide with part of the pre-Christmas celebrations of Advent. Consequently, Christmas markets, merry-making and torch processions, honor not only the birth of Jesus, but also the birth of the “Unconquered Sun.” Natale, the Italian word for Christmas, is the translation for “birthday.” It is customary for a family to create a handmade “presepe,” or Nativity scene, as elaborate as they can afford to make it. This model of a manager is an important part of an Italian Christmas celebration, as the manger scene originated in Italy. The family meets in front of this Nativity scene each morning of Novena (a nine-day period that begins on December 6th) to recite prayers. A “ceppo”, the Italian version of the Christmas tree is built. It resembles a ladder. The presepe is placed on the bottom shelf and gifts and decorations are placed on the other shelves. The children are sent throughout the neighborhood to recite Christmas poems. La Vigilia, or the Feast of Seven Fishes, starts with a Novena of devotional preparation and a 24-hour fast. The fast starts at sunset December 23rd and continues through to sunset December 24th. The food eaten after the fast is Capitoni (large eel), fish, fowl, and Cardoni, which is a dish of artichokes with eggs. There is also Panettone (current loaf), a cheese-filled pastry called Cannoli and Torrone (nougat). Also on Christmas Eve, the children of the family provide their parents with a letter written on decorative stationery with their promises to behave during the coming year.
Christmas Eve in Germany, or Heiligabend, is very much like Christmas Eve in the United States. On this day, the Germans trim the tree and sing Christmas carols. The parents or the mother decorates the tree secretly on Christmas Eve when the children are at church. The tree has real candles on it to symbolize the light of Christ. The candles are only lit on Christmas Eve making that night even more special. Usually, there is a display under the tree of the stable where Christ was born. Once the tree is decorated, a bell is rung and everyone may come to see it and open presents. Some families hide a pickle in their tree and the first person to find it gets to open the first present. Also on Christmas Eve, the children write letters to the Christ Child. They glue on an envelope and sprinkle sugar to catch the Christ Child’s eye when He passes by. The children put their letters on their windowsills. Then, they go to bed hoping for presents the next morning. A favorite meal is roast carp.
The activities that have become a part of Christmas Eve in France are the setting up of the crèche, or miniature nativity scene in the homes, and Christmas Mass, which is announced by the church bells at midnight. There, bells also joyously announce the birth of Christ. The midnight service is the most colorful of the year. After Midnight Mass, it is customary to hold family parties at which the Réveillon (late supper) is served. Some of the food served is oyster, blood sausage, pancakes (crepes), goose, white wine, and sweets. On Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Pere Noel. In the morning they also find that sweets, fruit, nuts and small toys have been hung on the tree.
In the United States, you will find a blend of many of these customs along with some variations and embellishments. In some households, it is a very traditional evening. The tree is trimmed and one gift is opened. The rest must wait for Christmas Day. There is lots of baking and cooking going on, in preparation for Christmas dinner on the next day. Children are sent to bed early with the caution that Santa Claus will not come if they are awake. Gifts are brought out of their hiding places, wrapped and placed under the tree. In other homes, people will attend Midnight Mass, followed by late suppers, or parties. Some people will quietly gather to read the Christmas story in Luke and sing carols while setting up the Nativity.
All, in all, it is a very festive time of the year. These are only a few of the many customs that are practiced in the world on this blessed night.