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December 12, 2012

Christmas culture

By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer

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Nesting dolls like this one are used to show scenes from the nativity and life of Jesus at Christmas time in Russia.

Picture a witch on a broomstick; she takes to flight for one night a year, stopping at each house where a child dwells to search for the one she seeks. Unsuccessful, she returns to the unknown until another year passes and she can finally rise again in pursuit of the perfect child.

This isn’t a Halloween story.

This is Christmas in Italy.

Christmas is celebrated around the world. Some celebrate by decorating a tree, telling stories of flying reindeer and a jolly old elf, while others celebrate with money baked inside a fruitcake, and still others celebrate by dressing up like demonic beasts. Just as culture changes from region to region and country to country, so too do Christmas customs. 

They call her La Befana — the aforementioned Italian Christmas witch.

“La Befana is a witch, but she’s not a bad witch,” explained Bill Morelli, the administrative director of the Italian American Cultural Center in Clinton Township.

“When the three wise men came and asked her where the baby Jesus was, she said she did not know and she would not help them find him. But then she had a change of heart, and she started looking for the baby Jesus,” he continued. “Tradition says she has looked for the baby Jesus ever since.”

In Italy and in a handful of Italian homes around the world, La Befana continues her search each year on the eve of Jan. 5 — the eve of the feast of the Epiphany, considered by many Catholics to be the date Jesus was baptized — leaving behind candy for each child she visits.

Some children celebrate the season with a trick-or-treat-like sing-along. The Hispanic tradition of Las Posadas symbolizes Joseph’s and Mary’s search for a place to stay.

“Children dress up like Joseph and Mary and go door to door,  singing a song, ‘Please, let us in,’ and certain homes will sing back, ‘No, we don’t know you, please go away.’ Then at the last house, there is celebration with a piñata,” said Sister Lorraine Reaume of Saint Anne de Detroit Catholic Church.

In Mexico, Las Posadas is celebrated for the nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve, beginning on Dec. 16 and ending on Dec. 24, but in the United States, it’s celebrated from Dec. 15-23, and at Saint Anne’s, at least, children celebrate by going door to door inside the church.

“It’s colder here, so we offer it inside the church, but some people might still celebrate it out in the community,” Reaume said. “That, I’m not really sure about, but in Mexico and the Southwest, it is usually celebrated outside. It’s really something to see, with the songs going back and forth.”

Christmas Day and Santa Claus’ yearly visit aren’t one and the same in Polish culture, which has Mikolaj visiting children and leaving presents on Dec. 6, while the celebration on Dec. 25 is called “the first holiday.” In traditional Polish homes, it is spent at home — no cooking, cleaning or visiting allowed. Visitors and visiting comes the following day, Saint Stephen’s Day, when families and friends visit to exchange Christmas cheer, sing carols and celebrate the season.

A horned, demonic beast named Krampus rules the night on Dec. 5 in Austria and other European countries. According to Krampus legend, while Santa brings presents to all the good little girls and boys, Krampus punishes the bad ones, dragging them to his fiery lair. 

From the man that brings the presents — Santa Claus is often pictured in red in the United States, but in Germany, Christkindl is depicted in robes of white and gold. From the style of celebration to signature meals, Christmas is celebrated a little differently everywhere.

“We have a few different traditional foods that we make around the holidays,” said Susan Kattula, a Chaldean American born in Iraq and chairperson of the Ethnic Community Committee in Sterling Heights — a group focused on bringing together and raising awareness of the cultures and ethnicities represented in the city.

“Tripe, or sheep’s stomach, stuffed with meat and rice and klecha, which is a stuffed date cookie, are the common traditional holiday foods in most Chaldean families,” Kattula said.

Kattula currently has a display of nativity scenes from around the world at the Sterling Heights Public Library.

“Everyone thinks everyone lives and celebrates the same way, but they don’t. So it’s interesting to talk about, and see what happens and what is believed elsewhere,” she said. “Everyone who celebrates Christmas is a Christian — it’s about the birth of Jesus Christ — but not everyone sees him the same.”

Kattula’s display depicts the various ways the nativity story is envisioned in countries around the world. It will remain on exhibit through the end of the month.

This article is intended as a sampling of some of the unique ways Christmas is celebrated in some cultures. It is not meant to be inclusive of all traditions celebrated by the countries/cultures mentioned.

For more information on Christmas customs in other countries, the websites www.whychristmas.com and www.the-north-pole.com are great places to start; each offers brief descriptions on holiday traditions from across the globe.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Sara Kandel at skandel@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1030.