Our Christmas a blend of many traditions
The earliest Europeans to our area celebrated Christmas, if they celebrated it at all, in very simple ways because they had enough trouble just surviving. It was not until they were more settled that they had the time and energy to celebrate Christmas as they had done in the old country and to develop new traditions.
Among the earliest settlers to our area were the French, and they celebrated Christmas as a very religious holiday. They went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then continued the celebrations into the night. The dinner held after midnight was called “reveillon” and it usually included meat pies, meatballs, fowl, suet pudding, stew and cakes and a few alcoholic refreshments.
One of the first Christmas Eves I spent with Lisa (nee Boileau) consisted of going to midnight mass, going back to her family’s home and consuming many, if not all, of the items mentioned above, singing Christmas carols and staying awake until sunrise. Needless to say I was a “zombie” (long before it was fashionable) on Christmas Day. My parents had always insisted we go to bed early on Christmas Eve!
When the French settlers celebrated Christmas, they didn’t give their gifts until New Year’s Eve. But as they and English became closer in the New World, the French traditions changed so that the presents were delivered after midnight mass on Christmas Eve by Pere Noel.
The other large group of early settlers, the Scots, also regarded Christmas as a religious holiday. Their observances, in contrast to the French, did not include any partying or dancing. The day was strictly reserved for going to church and silent contemplation.
On that first Christmas Day after celebrating the night before with Lisa’s family I strongly considered looking for a good old-fashioned Scottish lass!
However, this quiet time did not last any longer than a week, for New Year’s Eve
(Hogmanay) was set aside for feasting, dancing and celebrating. Just after midnight, the men would begin the ritual known as “first footing.” Whoever entered a house first after midnight would bring good or bad luck to the family who lived there.
For example, if a man with dark hair came, the family thought they would have good luck for the coming year. If a man with red hair was the first to enter, the luck would be bad. If a woman was the first one to enter your house after midnight, your luck was also considered bad. This concept gradually evolved into the tradition, that still continues today, of visiting friends and neighbours on New Year’s Day.
German settlers had a large influence on Christmas traditions. Good examples are the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, and the Christmas stocking, as well as Advent wreaths. Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, brought many of them to the forefront during her long reign.
The Advent wreath was a wreath that had a lit candle placed in it each Sunday in December before Christmas. The Advent calendar that required children to open a window each day in December also originated in German households and was a variation on the Advent wreath.
The Mennonites, a religious group originating in Germany, also had some interesting customs and beliefs. The children would leave plates with their names on them out on Christmas Eve and, in the morning, the plates would be filled with fruits and nuts.
It was also believed by Mennonites that if a girl looked into a mirror when she was alone on Jan. 6, she would see the face of the young man she would eventually marry. It’s rather an interesting tradition, but then again it could also be rather unsettling if the face that appeared in the mirror was not exactly your idea of an ideal mate! That might signify a time to get a new mirror!
Children of the Dutch settlers believed that an eight-footed horse called Sleipner brought Saint Nicholas on Dec. 6. Children filled their shoes with hay for Sleipner, who would in turn leave gifts in the place of the hay for the good children and, conversely, spanking switches for the bad children! It sort of put a bit of incentive (or risk) into the Christmas season. In fact, we are sure that some parents today might see some value in the return of this tradition!
There were many other groups of settlers who came to our area and they thankfully brought their traditions with them.
In fact, the Christmas rituals we celebrate throughout Chatham-Kent are really a delightful amalgamation of many different views of the holiday, which we feel only adds to the rich traditions and joys of the season.
As the Christmas season of 2018 gets into full swing, we hope you will appreciate all of these different traditions that have blended in so nicely in our area and makes the season of giving and sharing that much more delightful.
The Christmas celebrated by Chatham-Kent residents are really an amalgamation of various traditions brought to the community over the centuries by European settlers and newcomers, writes Jim and Lisa Gilbert.