Christmas is everywhere
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When you stop to examine them, the traditions of Christmas are remarkably international. At the close of a year in which the contributions and merits of individual nations have come into sharp political focus, how delightful it is to celebrate a feast that has demonstrably been improved by such a diversity of people for the enjoyment of anyone who will enter into its joyful spirit.
Take the Advent-calendar cover of this week’s bumper issue. Behind each door, you will discover a Victorian Christmas card, featuring rosy-cheeked children, snowmen or mistletoe. The idea comes from late-19thcentury Germany, where the young Gerhard Lang was entranced by the sweets his mother stuck on a piece of cardboard, each delicious morsel eaten bringing him a day closer to the wonder of Christmas. In 1908, he published what may have been the first paper Advent calendar, a commercial yet still delightful adaptation of the North european tradition of lighting a candle for each day of preparation for remembering the anniversary of Christ’s birth.
International customs and contributions abound in the approach to Christmas. St Francis of Assisi is supposed to have organised the first Nativity scene, in Italy in 1223, and, although everyone knows that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole with a herd of reindeer, St Nicholas was actually a 4th-century monk from Asia Minor (Turkey) and, over the years, children all over europe began leaving out a stocking—or shoe or clog—for him to fill with presents.
Many of our favourite carols have surprising origins, too. The German composer Mendelssohn wrote the tune for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing—in fact, he didn’t intend it to be religious and died before it became a carol—the words to Once in Royal David’s City were written by an Irish- woman and clergyman’s wife, Cecil Frances Alexander, and Silent Night was created by a priest and a schoolmaster in Austria.
Prince Albert, the originator of so many good things, brought to us from Germany the idea of decorating the Christmas tree. In another happy twist, the nation’s tree on Trafalgar Square actually comes each year from Norway. The turkey that dignifies our Christmas tables origin-ally comes from America. So too, probably, does the razzmatazz of over-the-top Christmas lighting displays, although, nowadays, these illuminations are almost certainly made in China.
Of course, it is in the cast of Christmas that we see the most international line-up of all, from the figure of Good King Wenceslaus—the benevolent 10th-century Duke of Bohemia—to Three Wise Men, who came from heaven knows where.
how appropriate, therefore, that the figure at the heart of all of this was himself displaced—an impoverished Nazarene uprooted with his family to be born in Bethlehem. Now, that city is in Palestine, Nazareth is in Israel (Judea) and the whole family fled to egypt. In every sense, Christmas transcends nationality.