05 January 2014

Around Europe (and a Bit Further East) At Christmastide

Since my last book review here, I've been jaunting around Europe during Christmastide courtesy the World Book folks, and what a great trip it's been! Christmas in Denmark was very appealing, with their simple approach to the holiday season and the red-and-white color scheme. I love the tradition of joining hands and dancing around the Christmas tree, which is still lit with candles as it was in the past. All those candles during the darkness of the winter solstice sound homey (or "homely," as the British would say) and warm.

Christmas in France is delectable! Many of the customs have to do with eating special food, plus there is the City of Light threaded in even more lights. I am fascinated with the idea of santons, the little figures with which the French populate their nativity scenes. As in some other cultures, like Spain and Italy, the French construct more than a simple stable scene with Holy Family, shepherds, animals, and Wise Men, but build whole villages, with bakers, merchants, carpenters, etc. We had an arrangement like this in our church; it was fascinating to see life going on in Bethlehem. Next we traveled "next door" to "today's" Germany (published after the reunification), where they note that Germany was the origin of many of our enduring Christmas customs, like the Christmas tree, the Advent wreath and calendar, glass Christmas ornaments, and gingerbread houses. Some pages are taken up with how Christmas was celebrated in East Germany when the nation was still divided, and, delightfully, several more about the christkindlmarkts, Christmas markets, where special gifts, ornaments, and foods are sold. It's my dream to see one someday! From St. Martin's Day in November, to Epiphany on January 6, it's a great big long wonderful season.

Christmas in the Holy Land is structured a little differently; the first part repeats the pertinent parts of the Bible narrating the story of the Nativity, and tries to explain a little more about the history and culture. For instance, to us shepherds sound very innocuous, but in those days they had bad reputations and were often former criminals. There are a few pages about Christmas in modern Bethlehem before the crafts/food portion standard to each volume begins.

Once again, Christmas in Ireland emphasizes how the cultures of Europe build up to a twelve-day celebration of Christmas with simple preparations and Advent activities rather than the orgy of shopping in the United States that ends Christmas abruptly on December 25, to have everything swapped out for Valentines Day shopping. It was the Irish who began the custom of having candles in the window at Christmas. They told their British administrators that it was so that the Holy Family could find the home on Christmas Eve, and the British dismissed it as superstition, but it was actually, in those days of Catholic persecution, a sign that a Catholic family lived there and priests could visit and say Mass.

I actually have both the older Christmas in Italy and the newer Christmas in Italy and Vatican City. The texts are the same, just arranged some differently in the newer book,  but over half the photographs/illustrations are different, so I'm keeping both. I'm Italian by ancestry, so all the customs were so familiar: fish on Christmas Eve, the emphasis on having a presepio (manger scene), and the delectable traditional foods. One of the books even has a woman making what we called wandi, but they call crostoli. My Aunty Petrina was a great hand at wandis, even if they were a devil to make, especially at Easter time, when cooking them would be hot, exhausting work. And of course no book about Christmas in Italy would be complete without La Befana, the "witch" who delivers the gifts!

I was amused by Christmas in the Netherlands, where they spend several pages chronicling the adventures and travels of St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and his Moorish companion Peter, who arrive in Holland by ship from Spain. Much is made of the mischief but goodness of "Black Peter," who is supposed to collect naughty children in his sack and take them back to Spain, but who ends up being as capricious as the kids. Although photos are provided, there is no commentary in this 1980s volume that Peter is played by white men in blackface, which has become an issue as Holland becomes more racially diverse. He is a very popular character with the Dutch. (This is a volume I need to replace some time if possible; the spine is split.) From Holland we go north and east for Christmas in Poland. The volume is peppered with Polish mottoes, which made me think of the television detective Banacek, who was always spouting "Polish proverbs," and there's an amazing chapter about the elaborate nativity scenes built by the Poles; these look like little castles or palaces.

The last volume I finished today was Christmas in Spain, which is interesting because of the different cultures that exist within the country, from the Moorish influence on southern Spain, which celebrates a warm Christmas, all the way up to Catalonia near France, whose speech is close to the Provencal language. While there are similar foods and celebrations, each are colored by the area of the country they live in. Music and dancing play a great part in the celebration, and children's gift wishes are not fulfilled until the very end of Christmastide, on Epiphany when the Three Kings bring their gifts.

I still have four volumes to go, but am determined to finish reading them all. I probably won't make it before Christmastide is over—or maybe I will. After all, Christmas isn't over in Norway till St. Knut's Day on the 13th, and in Armenia until the 18th. Heck, in Poland some areas celebrate until Candlemas (February 2)!

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