Our Christ­mas a blend of many tra­di­tions

The Chatham Daily News - - NEWS - JIM & LISA GIL­BERT

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.

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