Christmas Eve

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Christmas Eve

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 24
Where Celebrated: United States, Great Britain, Europe, and by Christians throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Candles, Luminarias, Reindeer, Santa Claus, Yule Log
Colors: Christmas Eve is traditionally associated with the colors red and green.
Related Holidays: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) ORIGINS

For Christians, Christmas Eve marks the night before the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

Christmas Eve marks the end of the ADVENT season, the period of preparation for CHRISTMAS that begins on November 30 (November 15 in the East). It was on this night that the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks outside Bethlehem saw the bright star in the sky that signaled the birth of Jesus Christ (see STAR OF BETHLEHEM under EPIPHANY).

Despite its Christian significance, there are a number of pagan and supernatural beliefs connected with Christmas Eve. In Scandinavian countries, it is believed that the dead revisit their former homes on Christmas Eve. People make sure that their parlors are tidy and that a good fire is burning before they go to bed. They often light candles, set the table, and leave out plenty of food for their ghostly visitors. They also make sure that the seats of their chairs have been dusted. When they get up in the morning, they wipe the chairs again with a clean white towel. If they find any dirt on the seat, it means that a relative fresh from the grave sat there during the night.

In many parts of Europe, people believe that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals briefly possess the power of speech. It might have been the traditional association of the ox and the ass with the Nativity scene that gave rise to such superstitions, but the concept of talking animals is probably pagan in origin. A closely related belief, widespread in England and Europe, is that cattle rise in their stalls at midnight on Christmas Eve, or kneel to worship the Christ Child.

The midnight church service celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ is the main Christmas Eve tradition for Christians of all denominations and even for nonbelievers, many of whom come to hear Christmas music performed.



Candles have always been symbolic of the sun's light and warmth, and in ancient times they were lit to dispel the darkness of winter at the time of the WINTER SOLSTICE (December 21 or 22). Early Christians preferred to see them as symbols of Jesus' "light," which replaced the darkness of paganism. Some scholars think that the custom of lighting candles on Christmas Eve came from the Jewish "Feast of Lights" or HANUKKAH, which was held around the same time of year and featured the lighting of candles or lamps.

Throughout the Middle Ages, it was customary to light one large candle on Christmas Eve, in both the church and the home, to commemorate the Star of Bethlehem. The candle may also have been symbolic of the Holy Child, whom Simeon called "A Light to lighten the Gentiles." These giant candles burned continuously throughout the Christmas season, right up until TWELFTH NIGHT. In Scandinavian countries, keeping the "Yule candle" burning was very important. Sometimes there were two candles representing the head of the house and his wife. If one of them went out first, it meant that the other partner would live longer. A similar belief prevailed in Scotland before the Reformation. If the Christmas candle was extinguished before midnight, it meant that a great disaster would befall the family. In Ireland, the Christmas Eve candle is often so big that a large turnip must be carved out to serve as a candlestick.


Luminarias (pronounced loo-mee-NAR-ee-yahs) means "lights" or "illuminations" in Spanish. The word also refers to the small bonfires that illuminate the dark nights of the Christmas season throughout the American Southwest. These bonfires are made from piñon pine logs that have been stacked in log-cabin fashion to form a box about three feet in height. Although one may spot luminarias throughout the Christmas season, they are most common on Christmas Eve, when the little bonfires blaze in front of churches, homes, and in public plazas.

Some believe that luminarias can be traced all the way back to the fires that warmed the shepherds to whom the birth of Jesus was announced. Others say the custom came from Native American traditions, which Spanish missionaries later incorporated into the celebration of Christmas. Still others think that Spanish missionaries brought the custom with them to Mexico. Whatever its origins, the earliest historical record of the practice in the New World dates back to the sixteenth century, when Spanish missionaries, sent to evangelize the native peoples of Mexico, wrote that on Christmas Eve the people celebrated by singing, drumming, and lighting bonfires on church patios and on the roofs of their flat-topped houses.

In some areas of the United States, luminarias are not bonfires but glowing paper bags filled with sand holding small candles. The custom of outlining buildings, patios, sidewalks, and public squares with these paper-bag lights on Christmas Eve started in the Southwest, where these lanterns are called farolitos, which is Spanish for "little lanterns" (see CHRISTMAS). It has since spread all the way to New England. In some areas the two customs-small bonfires and paper-bag lanterns-remain distinct, while in others both "luminarias" and "farolitos" refer to the homemade paper lanterns that line the streets on Christmas Eve

In Louisiana along the levees of the Mississippi River, bonfires built out of logs, cane reed, old tires, and bamboo are lit on Christmas Eve. Derived from the feux de joie (fires of joy) that burned in France on Epiphany Eve, the eve of ASH WEDNESDAY , and NEW YEAR'S EVE, these fires were brought to Louisiana after the Civil War by Marist priests. When Christmas became the predominant winter holiday, the bonfire tradition was shifted to December 24.


More than 600 years after St. Nicholas' death, Russians carried his legend back from Constantinople, and he became Russia's patron saint. From there, his story spread to Lapland, home of the reindeer, which may explain why the modern Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and gets around in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. In reality, of course, he often arrives by car or helicopter at the local shopping mall.

Clement Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" popularized the names of Santa's reindeer: "Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen!" But to children everywhere, Rudolph is the most beloved. He first appeared in a complimentary Christmas store souvenir given out by Montgomery Ward during the holidays in 1939. The little book was written by Robert May, a Montgomery Ward ad man known for his light verse. It tells the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a variation on the ugly duckling motif. Illustrated by May's friend Denver Gillen, the story of Rudolph sold 2.4 million copies in Montgomery Ward stores that first year. The poem appeared in book form in 1947, and when the singing cowboy star Gene Autry recorded a musical version of the tale in 1949, it reached the top of the Hit Parade. What began as an advertising gimmick soon became a popular emblem of the modern American Christmas. Nowadays Rudolph can be seen on television, in store window displays, and on front lawns and rooftops everywhere.

Santa Claus

The original Santa Claus was Nicholas, the legendary saint who was bishop of Myra (Turkey) in the fourth century. He was usually shown wearing the furtrimmed robes of a cleric, with a beehive (symbolizing industry) and a bulldog (fidelity) at his side. He was a gift-giver but also a disciplinarian, bringing switches and rods for children who misbehaved. December 6 was his feast day, and in many countries, it is on this day-not Christmas Eve-that St. Nicholas arrives to hand out his presents and punishments.

The Christian story of St. Nicholas was brought to Europe, where it got mixed up with the Germanic religion and its chief god, Woden (or Odin), who rode an eight-legged white horse. The Dutch Sinter Klaas, for example, wears bishop's robes and rides a white horse. In other northern European countries, St. Nicholas has been integrated with ancient gods to become a spirit of winter rather than a Christian saint.

Martin Luther substituted the Christ Child for St. Nicholas as a bearer of gifts, and moved the day of his arrival from December 6 to Christmas as part of an effort to remove the last vestiges of paganism from the Christian church. In some parts of Europe, it is still the Christ Child who brings gifts, which is why he is called Kriss Kringle (from the German Christkindl).

The American Santa Claus is actually a combination of three figures: (1) the English Father Christmas, a winter deity wearing a crown of holly who replaced St. Nicholas after the Reformation (see CHRISTMAS); (2) the German St. Nicholas, brought to the United States by German immigrants during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; and (3) the Dutch Sinter Klaas, who was brought by Dutch settlers to New York. But it wasn't until the publication of Clement Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" on December 23, 1823, that the American Santa Claus was transformed from a tall, thin bishop to a jolly, overweight, pipe-smoking figure wearing a fur-trimmed red suit. His elf-like image was reinforced by Thomas Nast, an editorial cartoonist who did numerous illustrations of Santa Claus based on Moore's poem. Washington Irving made his own contribution in A History of New York, when he described St. Nicholas as "laying a finger beside his nose" and dropping gifts down the chimney.

Most American children believe that Santa Claus comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve to fill the stockings they've left hanging on the mantle. This custom can be traced back to a folk legend in which three daughters decided to help their father escape poverty by selling themselves into prostitution. A wealthy man named Nicholas visited their house on three successive nights, and each time he tossed a ball of gold through an open window. The three gold balls, which landed in the stockings the girls had hung by the fire to dry, saved them from a life of sin.

Some scholars have traced this tradition back even farther, to the ancient Norsemen's winter solstice festival in honor of Herthe, goddess of the home. Before the holiday feast, a fire of fir boughs was laid on an altar of flat stones in the belief that Herthe would appear in the smoke to bring the family good fortune. The Norse altar stones became our modern hearth stones, and Santa's trip down the chimney was an updated version of Herthe's appearance in the smoke.

Yule Log

Traditionally burned on Christmas Eve and throughout the Christmas season, the Yule log gets its name from the pagan Norsemen, who observed a 12-day winter celebration called Jól, which means "wheel" and probably refers to the turning of the sun at the winter solstice. There is also an old English word, geol, which means "feast." In pre-Christian times, the entire month of December was known as geola, or "feast-month." The name was later attached to the Christmas feast known as Yule in England and Jul in Scandinavia.

It was common in ancient times to light bonfires at the winter solstice to scare off winter's demons and to brighten the darkest time of the year. But the Yule log, which appears to be a survival of this custom, is burned indoors and is more of a domestic than a public celebration. In its purest form, the Yule log is a whole trunk of a tree, selected and cut on CANDLEMAS (February 2) and dried throughout the year. The usual practice in England was to light the Yule log with a fragment of the previous year's log, which had been kept in the house throughout the year in the belief that it would offer protection against fire and especially lightning. Because it was usually an oak log, it's possible that this belief is a relic of the ancient Aryan religion, which associated the oak tree with the god of thunder.

The English Yule log is said to have come from the Druids, the ancient Celtic religious order. The Druid priests prayed that the oak or fruitwood log burned in their midwinter festival would flame, like the sun, forever. Both the log and its ashes were considered symbols of good luck and strength. Even in more recent times, bringing the Yule log into the house was often accompanied by great ceremony. The youngest child would pour wine on the log before it was thrown into the fire, and then a remnant of the log would be saved and used to kindle the new log on the following Christmas Eve. It was considered bad luck if the fire went out before New Year's Day. Yule log ceremonies are most elaborate among the Serbs and Croats, where two or three young oaks are cut down for every house (sometimes one log for each male member of the family). As the logs are carried in, lighted candles are held on either side of the door, and as the father of the family crosses the threshold with the first log, someone throws corn at him or pours wine over the log. The log itself may be a symbol of the spirit of vegetation, and burning it may be symbolic of sunshine, whose influence is needed during the coming year. The corn and wine are probably symbols of the sun and rain the crops need to grow.

A number of superstitions surround the Yule log in Europe. In southern France, people put the log on the fire for the first time on Christmas Eve and then continue to burn it a little bit each day until TWELFTH NIGHT (January 5). If it is kept under the bed, it will protect the house from fire and thunder and will prevent those who live there from getting chilblains on their heels in winter. The unburned remains are also believed to cure cattle of many diseases and to help cows deliver their calves. If the ashes are scattered over the fields, it will save the wheat from mildew.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.


Library of Congress New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Christmas Eve

December 24
Christmas Eve or the Vigil of Christmas represents the culmination of the Advent season. Like Christmas itself, Christmas Eve celebrations combine both religious and secular events. Perhaps the most widely anticipated by children is the arrival of Santa Claus—known as Sinterklass by the Dutch settlers of New York, who were the first to introduce the idea of St. Nicholas's annual appearance on this day; the original Santa Claus was the tall, saintly looking bishop, Nicholas of Metz. It wasn't until the 19th century that he became the jolly, overweight, pipe-smoking figure in a red fur-trimmed suit that children in the United States recognize today. The modern Santa Claus was largely the invention of two men: Clement Moore, who in 1822 wrote his now-famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," and Thomas Nast, a cartoonist who did numerous illustrations of Santa Claus based on Moore's description. In any case, it is on Christmas Eve that Santa Claus climbs down the chimney and fills the children's stockings that have been hung by the fireplace mantel. Before going to bed children around the world leave milk and food out for the one who brings the presents, be it Santa Claus, the baby Jesus, the Christmas elf of Denmark, the Christmas goat of Finland (called Joulupukki ), or the Swedish tomte, or little man, who resembles Puck or a leprechaun.
The midnight church service celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ is the main Christmas Eve tradition for many Christians of all denominations and even of non-believers, especially if there is a good organist, soloist, or choir. In most European countries, a large but meatless meal is eaten before church, for it is a fast day. Some families, especially those with grown children, exchange gifts on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day. Caroling—going from house to house singing Christmas carols—began in Europe in the Middle Ages. The English brought the custom to America, where it is still very popular.
In Venezuela, after midnight on Christmas Eve, crowds of teenagers roller skate on the Avenida de los Caiboas. After an hour or so, they attend a special early mass called Misa de Aguinaldos, "Mass of the Carols," where they're greeted at the door with folk songs. Then they skate home for Christmas breakfast.
In Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Canada, mummers, or belsnickers, go from house to house. Once inside they jog, tell licentious stories, play instruments and sing, and generally act up until the householder identifies the person under the mask. Then the mummer takes off his or her costume and acts like a normal visitor.
In the 19th century, in what is now New Mexico, bundles of branches were set ablaze along the roads and pathways. Called farolitos and luminarias, these small fires are meant to guide the Travelers to the people's homes on Christmas Eve. Residents are ready to give hospitality to anyone on that night, especially Joseph and Mary with the Christ Child. They wait in faith for the Travelers' three knocks on their door. But modern fire codes overtook the ancient faith, and firefighters began to extinguish the small piles of burning pine branches for fear a spark would start an inferno. Small brown paper bags partially filled with sand and holding a candle eventually replaced the open fires. Inevitably merchants began to sell wires of electric lights to replace the candles, and plastic, multi-colored sleeves to imitate lunch bags, and the modern luminarias began to appear at holidays like Halloween and the Fourth of July.
Last-minute shopping is another Christmas Eve tradition, and stores often stay open late to accommodate those who wait until the last minute to purchase their Christmas gifts.
In Buddhist Japan, Christmas Eve is for lovers, a concept introduced by a Japanese pop star and expanded by trendy magazines. It is a Western rite celebrated with a Japanese twist. The day should be spent doing something extra special (expensive), and should end in a fine Tokyo hotel room, most of which have been booked since the previous January; even the cheapest rooms go for exorbitant prices. Being alone on this night is comparable to being dateless on prom night in the United States.
Uncle Chimney is the Japanese version of Santa Claus. Youngsters may be treated to a $29 (or more) barrel of Kentucky Fried Chicken (10 pieces of chicken, five containers of ice cream, and salad) if their parents don't mind lining up for two hours. The reason for the chicken is that many Japanese think Colonel Sanders resembles Santa Claus. Another culinary tradition is strawberry shortcake with a plastic fir tree on top. This was introduced 70 years ago by a Japanese confectioner as a variant of plum pudding. While the origins of this form of Christmas are unclear, many people say it dates from the 1930s, well before the United States occupation in 1945 after World War II.
See also Befana Festival; Día de los Tres Reyes; Giant Lantern Festival; Posadas; St. Nicholas's Day; "Silent Night, Holy Night" Celebration; Tolling the Devil's Knell; Wigilia
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 850
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 733
BkFest-1937, pp. 9, 20, 22, 35, 48, 62, 73, 92, 98, 107, 116, 129, 139, 154, 175, 191, 215, 222, 234, 252, 272, 280, 287, 296, 304, 313, 322, 333, 344
BkHolWrld-1986, Dec 24
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 350
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 549, 591, 1063
FestSaintDays-1915, pp. 8, 228
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 27, 28, 50, 82, 83, 102, 120, 156, 206, 219, 239
HolSymbols-2009, p. 137
OxYear-1999, p. 510
RelHolCal-2004, p. 85

Celebrated in: Armenia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Guatemala, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Slovakia, Switzerland

Christmas Eve (Armenia)
January 5 by the Julian calendar; January 18 by the Gregorian calendar
On Christmas Eve in Armenia it is traditional to eat fried fish, lettuce, and boiled spinach. The spinach is eaten to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary, who, according to legend, ate spinach on the evening before Jesus' birth. After a morning church service on Christmas Day, the men exchange brief social calls and are served coffee and sweets. On the third day after Christmas, it's the women's turn to make and receive calls.
BkFest-1937, p. 22
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 351
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 36

Celebrated in: Armenia

Christmas Eve (Baltics)
December 24
Many people in Estonia attend church on Christmas Eve. The holiday dinner, which follows the church service, typically includes roasted pig's head or blood sausages, turnips, and potatoes. For dessert there is cranberry soup, and of course plenty of Estonian vodka, which is made from the potatoes for which the country is famous. Many of the Christmas tree ornaments are edible, and real candles—often made by dipping a lamb's wool thread into hot sheep fat—are used to light the tree.
In Latvia, the tree is the only Christmas decoration, and it is laden with gilded walnuts, artificial snow, tinsel, small red apples, and colored candies. After the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, which consists of roast pork, goose and boar's head, and little meat-filled pastries known as piradzini, the candles on the tree are lighted and the gifts piled beneath it are distributed and opened.
In Lithuania family members break and consume delicate wafers, or plotkeles, on Christmas Eve as a token of peace. The family puts a little hay under the tablecloth as a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable. The kucios, or Christmas Eve supper, consists of fish soup followed by cabbage, fried and boiled fish, sauerkraut, and a huge pike served with a hearty, dark gravy. Dessert is kisielius, a pudding-like dish that is composed of cream of oats, sugar, and cream.
Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Press and Information Department
Islandi valjak 1
Tallinn, 15049 Estonia
372-6-317-000; fax: 372-6-317-099
BkFest-1937, pp. 107, 215, 222
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 225, 421, 427

Christmas Eve (Bethlehem)
December 24
Located only a few miles from Jerusalem in an area that is part of the biblical land of Palestine, Bethlehem is known as the birthplace of Jesus and has long been regarded as a holy place by Christians. A church was eventually built on the site, and the crypt beneath it, known as the Grotto of the Nativity, is reputed to be the site of the original manger. Because there have been so many arguments over the years about which Christian church should control the sanctuary, it is jointly owned by the Armenian, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches. A Roman Catholic mass is held there at midnight on Christmas Eve, and because pilgrims from all over the world attend, most of them end up watching the service on a large closed-circuit television screen in nearby Manger Square. The highlight of the service occurs when a carved wooden figure of the Christ Child is laid in a manger in the Grotto of the Nativity.
Protestants hold an outdoor service in Shepherds' Field where, according to tradition, the shepherds kept watch over the flocks on the first Christmas Eve.
Palestine Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
Manger St.
P.O. Box 534
Bethlehem, Palestine
970-2-274-1581; fax: 970-2-274-3753
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 62

Christmas Eve (Denmark) (Juleaften)
December 24
The celebration of Christmas in Denmark actually begins on Little Christmas Eve (December 23) and continues well into the New Year. It is customary to make enough apple fritters on Little Christmas Eve to last three days. In rural areas, farmers tie a sheaf of grain to a pole in the garden so that the birds can feed from it. Even city dwellers tie bunches of grain to their balconies.
The traditional Christmas Eve dinner starts with risengr+d (rice porridge). Like Christmas puddings elsewhere, there is an almond hidden inside the porridge. Whoever finds it receives a prize. The risengr+d is followed by roast goose stuffed with prunes and apples and decorated with small Danish flags. After dinner, family members often dance around the Christmas tree, sing carols, and exchange gifts.
The Julenisse, or Christmas gnome, is a small bearded man dressed in gray with a pointed red cap who, according to Danish legend, lives in attics or barns and is responsible for bringing a family good or bad luck. On Christmas Eve the Julenisse is given a generous portion of risengr+d with an extra helping of butter.
Royal Danish Embassy
3200 Whitehaven St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-234-4300; fax: 202-328-1470
BkFest-1937, p. 98
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 192
FestWestEur-1958, p. 27

Celebrated in: Denmark

Christmas Eve (Finland) (Jouluaatto)
December 24
Before sitting down to the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, many Finns go to church and place flowers and lighted candles on the graves of departed family members. Then the family gathers around the table and listens to the head of the household read a Christmas prayer. The meal itself includes lipeäkala (the Christmas fish) and ham, various breads, a kind of plum cake known as torttuja, and the traditional rice pudding in which an almond has been hidden. According to superstition, the boy or girl who finds it will be married before the next Christmas. The tree is decorated with homemade paper or wooden toys, gingerbread cookies, gilded walnuts, and other treats.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland
Department for Communication and Culture
P.O. Box 176
Helsinki, 00161 Finland
358-9-1600-5; fax: 358-9-1605-5901
BkFest-1937, p. 116
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 602

Celebrated in: Finland

Christmas Eve (France) (Veille de Noël)
December 24
Christmas Eve church services in Paris can be quite elaborate, while those in rural areas of France are usually very simple. No matter where it takes place, the Christmas Mass involves burning candles, Christmas carols, bells, and a creche or miniature Nativity scene. Most homes also have a creche. In Provence, the creche includes not only the Holy Family, but small clay figures called santons representing traditional village characters—the butcher, baker, basket maker, flute players, etc.—who come to adore the infant Jesus. In Marseilles, there is a Santon Fair in the weeks preceding Christmas that is attended by people from all over Provence who want to purchase the traditional santons, made from molds that have been used for generations.
After the midnight service is over, families return to their homes for the rÉveillon, or traditional Christmas Eve meal, which includes pâtÉ de foie gras, oysters, blood sausage, pancakes, and plenty of French wine. It is customary for the newspapers to calculate how many kilograms of blood sausage have been consumed at rÉveillon. Many families serve goose because, according to a Provençal legend, the goose clucked a greeting to the Wise Men when they drew near the baby Jesus.
In France children leave a pair of shoes out for PÅre Noæl, the French gift bringer, to fill with treats.
In some parts of France, people celebrate Christmas Eve with the FÉte des Bergers, the Shepherds' Mass or Shepherds' Festival. The event revolves around a procession led by shepherds and shepherdesses dressed in traditional, local costumes. A simple farm cart, led by a ram, is decorated with bells, flowers, and candles. The shepherds and shepherdesses put a lamb in the cart and lead it in a procession around the church. Then a shepherd picks up the lamb and gives it to the priest, a gesture that is said to represent the offering of a newborn lamb to the infant Jesus.
French Embassy
4101 Reservoir Rd. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20007
202-944-6000; fax: 202-944-6166
Department of Canadian Heritage and France's Ministry of Culture
150 John St., Ste. 400
Toronto, ON M5V 3T6 Canada
416-973-5400; fax: 416-954-2909
BkFest-1937, p. 129
BkHolWrld-1986, Dec 24
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 262, 644
FestWestEur-1958, p. 50

Celebrated in: France

Christmas Eve (Italy) (La Vigilia)
December 24
The presÉpio, or Nativity manger, with its miniature figures of the Holy Family, angels, shepherds, and Three Kings plays a major role in the Italian observance of Christmas and is thought to have originated with St. Francis of Assisi more than 700 years ago. The presÉpio is set up on the first day of the Novena (the nine days preceding Christmas); on each subsequent morning, the family gathers before the presÉpio to light candles and offer prayers. Although manger figures are on sale in every market and village fair, in many families the manger is an heirloom that has been handed down for generations. The setting for the manger is usually built at home from cardboard, moss, and bits of twig, and it can be quite elaborate.
Christmas Eve is a family affair. After lighting candles before the presÉpio, a meatless meal known as the cenone, or festa supper, is served. It usually consists of some type of fish (eel is popular among the well-to-do), fowl, artichokes cooked with eggs, fancy breads, and Italian sweets such as cannoli (cheese-filled pastry), nougat, and other delicacies.
The Yule log plays a more important role than the Christmas tree. The children may tap it with sticks, requesting certain gifts. Few presents are given on Christmas Eve, since Epiphany is the time for gift-giving. The evening concludes with a church service at midnight.
In parts of Calabria and the Abruzzi, itinerant bagpipers, or zampognari, come down from the mountains and go from house to house playing pastoral hymns before the homemade mangers. They are given gifts of food or money.
See also Befana Festival
BkFest-1937, p. 191
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 365
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 229
FestWestEur-1958, p. 102

Celebrated in: Italy

Christmas Eve (Moravian Church)
December 24
Members of the Moravian Church—named after Moravia, a region in the former Czechoslovakia (now part of the Czech Republic)—fled to America to escape persecution in the mid-18th century. They established a number of communities in Pennsylvania, one of which is called Bethlehem and known as "America's Christmas City." As Christmas approaches, the Moravians carry on the Old World tradition of building a Christmas "putz" (from the German word putzen, meaning "to decorate") or Nativity scene, which can range from a simple mantle decoration to an elaborate miniature landscape.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, they hold a children's "love feast" consisting of music, meditation, and a simple meal—usually sweet buns and mugs of sweetened coffee—served in the church. Then, after dinner, they assemble again in the church for the Christmas Eve Vigil, a service devoted almost entirely to music. The church lights are dimmed and handmade beeswax candles are distributed to the entire congregation while the children's choir sings a favorite Moravian hymn. A similar observance is held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, now a historical restoration at which the Moravian way of life is preserved.
Moravian Church in North America
P.O. Box 1245
Bethlehem, PA 18016
610-867-0593; fax: 610-866-9223
Moravian Music Foundation
Southern Music Archives, Research Library and Main Office
457 S. Church St.
Winston-Salem, NC 27101
336-725-0651; fax: 336-725-4514
Old Salem Online
P.O. Box F Salem Station
Winston-Salem, NC 27108
888-653-7253 or 336-721-7300; fax: 336-721-7335
DictWrldRel-1981, p. 493
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 64, 438, 632
OxDictWrldRel-1997, p. 655
RelHolCal-2004, p. 86

Christmas Eve (Switzerland) (HeiligerAbend)
December 24
There are a number of superstitions and folk beliefs surrounding Christmas Eve in Switzerland. One is the belief that animals gain the power of speech at midnight on Christmas Eve because they were present at Jesus' birth. Farmers give their horses, cows, goats, and other animals extra food on this night, but it's considered bad luck to overhear what the animals say. Old people claim that they can predict the weather for the next 12 months by peeling off 12 layers of onionskin and filling them with salt. Young lovers who want to find out who they will marry are told to drink from nine different fountains while the midnight church bells are ringing on Christmas Eve. If they rush to the church, their future mate will be standing on the steps.
Christkindli, or the Christ Child, who travels in a sleigh pulled by six reindeer, brings Swiss children their gifts. In the area surrounding Hallwil in the canton of Lucerne, a girl dressed in white robes, glittering crown, and a veil portrays the Christ Child. Other children, wearing white garments and carrying baskets of gifts and lanterns, accompany her on her rounds. Some families wait until the Christkindli enters the house to light the candles on the Christmas tree. In many homes the tree is kept hidden until after Christmas Eve supper, when the parlor doors are opened and the tree is displayed in all its glory.
In Zurich cakes known as Tirggel, whose main ingredients are flour and honey, are served at Christmas time. The cakes are believed to have originated as a pagan offering. They are made by pushing dough into intricate molds, shaped like characters from folktales, cartoons and other popular subjects. The finished cakes are tough and glossy, so it is not uncommon for them to be kept for months, or even years, and to be used as decorations around the house.
Swiss Embassy
2900 Cathedral Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-745-7900; fax: 202-387-2564
BkFest-1937, p. 322
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 114
FestWestEur-1958, p. 239

Celebrated in: Switzerland

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.