Christmas in America has become a close showdown between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. The bombardment in the media about the jolly, old man delivering his presents often overshadows the original purpose of the holiday: celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
However, the situation could be worse; in Belgium, Jesus does not have one, but three notorious competitors.
In Wallonia, the Frenchspeaking part of Belgium, Santa Claus is called “PŠre No‰l” – Father Christmas. Before delivering the presents, he visits his companion PŠre Fouettard – Whipping Father – and asks him which child has been nice and which has been naughty.
In Flanders, the Dutchspeaking part of the country, St. Nicholas is the one who has the duty of visiting the children, twice. The first time he finds out if they deserve presents, and the second time he brings candy and toys for the good kids and leaves only twigs for the others.
Interestingly, the name “Santa Claus” was imported to the United States by the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam; it comes from the phonetic alteration of the name “St. Nicholas” from the Dutch “Sinterklaas” and the German “Sankt Klaus.”
Christmas traditions vary from country to country, especially in Europe, a continent filled with diverse Christian backgrounds.
In Italy, households prepare a large, ornamental bowl called “Urn of Fate” that holds presents for everyone. Each member of the family takes his or her turn at drawing from the bowl until everyone finds a gift.
In France, families typically set up a nativity scene, or “crŠche,” peopled with clay figures called “santons.” The French also bake Yule-log cakes – “b–ches de No‰l” – that they decorate and eat during Christmas dinner – “RŽveillon.”
In Ukraine, finding a spider web on Christmas morning brings luck. The tradition comes from a popular tale of a widow who was too poor to afford decorations for her children’s Christmas tree. On Christmas morning she found spiders had spun a web around the tree, and when her youngest child opened the window, the first sunshine that touched the web turned the whole thread into silver and gold.
Fortunately, the positive spirit of Christmas also reaches to countries not founded on Christian roots.
In Bangladesh, Muslims make up about 90 percent of the population; still, Christmas is called “Bara Din” – the Big Day.
In villages, men traditionally cut banana trees to replant them along the paths to churches; they also bend the leaves over the paths to form arches. They plant bamboo poles with a hole pierced at the top and fill it with oil. When they light up the holes, it illuminates the way to church.
In India, Christians from the plains use banana or mango trees as Christmas trees and sometimes adorn their homes with mango leaves. Christians traditionally give presents to friends and family but also “baksheesh,” or charity, to the poor.
Whether people emphasize the religious side of Christmas does not really matter; it must remain a time of celebration where we give – and receive – joy, and where presents and other symbols are secondary.