Christmas in Germany
Traditionally, the holiday season starts with St. Nicholas' day, December 6. St. Nicholas traveling with a dark faced companion brings gifts to German children After the reformation, authorities frowned upon the idea of having a character representing the bishop/saint distributing gifts. As a result St. Nicholas' modern incarnation Santa Claus was born, complete with long white beard, red suit, and sleigh. Today, he is increasingly known as Father Christmas throughout Germany and appears not on St. Nicholas Day Eve, but on Christmas Eve.
We can trace some of our most beloved holiday traditions to Germany. The Christmas season officially begins with the beginning of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas Day. The tradition of the Advent wreath, a circle of greenery in which four candles are set, originated with the German Lutherans. One candle is lit the first Sunday of Advent, two are lit the second Sunday, and so on until the fourth Sunday. A large white candle in the center is lit on Christmas Day. The Advent calendar, an elaborate calendar with windows, behind which a piece of candy or chocolate can be found, is used by children to count down the days until Christmas and also originated in Germany.
The Christmas Tree owes its widespread popularity to Germany. In the Middle Ages, the Germans would put on a religious play each December 24th. Over the centuries the plays and associated festivities strayed from their religious origins. However, people continued to set up and decorate a tree in their home every year at Christmas. In 1880 glassmakers discovered how to make blown glass balls and bells, which became the decorations used to trim Christmas trees all over the world.
Christmas in Italy
The popularity of the Nativity scene, one of the most beloved and enduring symbols of the holiday season, originated in Italy. St. Francis of Assisi reportedly performed a mass in front of an early Nativity scene, which inspired awe and devotion in all who saw it. The creation of the figures or pastori became an entire genre of folk art.
The main exchange of gifts takes place on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, the celebration in remembrance of the three wise men's (Magi) visit to the baby Jesus. Children anxiously await a visit from La Befana who brings gifts for the good and punishment for the bad (similarly to St. Nicholas in German speaking countries on December 6). According to legend, the three wise men stopped during their journey and asked an old woman for food and shelter. She refused them and they continued on their way. Within a few hours the woman changed her mind but the Magi were long gone. La Befana, which means Epiphany, still wonders the earth searching for the Christ Child. She is depicted in various ways: as a fairy queen, a crone, or a witch.
Christmas in France
Nearly every French home at Christmas time displays a Nativity scene or crèche, which serves as the focus for the Christmas celebration. The Christmas tree has never been particularly popular in France, and though the use of the Yule log has faded, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the bûche de Noël, which means "Christmas Log." The cake, among other great food is served during the Christmas eve supper (le réveillon) held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The menu for the meal varies according to regional culinary tradition. In Alsace, goose is the main course, in Burgundy it is turkey with chestnuts, and the Parisians feast upon oysters and foie gras.
French children receive gifts from Père Noël (Father Christmas or Santa Claus). In some parts of France Père Noël brings small gifts on St. Nicholas Eve (December 6) and visits again on Christmas. In other places it is le petit Jésus who brings the gifts. Generally, adults wait until New Year's Day to exchange gifts.
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