The world full of Christmas
When we sit at the table on Christmas Eve in Poland, the Catholics in distant Japan have already attended Midnight Mass. And so did the inhabitants of Christmas Island in the Pacific. But people in California are buying Christmas trees...
In the public space, in almost every country Christmas is a holiday of colourful decorations, flickering lights and Santa Claus at every corner. But first of all this is the time spent with family at home. In the strongly secularised France, from which we start our journey, non-believers stress that this is a holiday for children. ‘They are looking forward to presents from Pere Noël to whom they write letters’, says Jacques Bernard. They discover their toys during the night, 24 December, in a fireplace or under a Christmas three, which they have already decorated with their parents. After Christmas Eve dinner it is customary to light candles and take them outside in case the Mother of God passes by. The tradition includes thirteen loaves of bread that symbolise the Twelve Apostles and Jesus. Jacques, together with his wife Jeanne, spends Christmas in Paris with his family because practicing Catholics are known for having many children. On 25 December they have a solemn meal. Dishes depend on the region. The Bernards come from Burgundy and so they eat roast turkey with chestnuts, foie gras, and drink champagne... And for desert they have Buche de Noël, ‘Yule log cake’, chocolate roll. ‘In our family we visit our children and grandchildren every second year, and visit our parents-in-law every second year. You need to share the time’, Jaques Bernard adds smilingly. Unfortunately, in most French homes Christmas tree is put only for one day.
Santa Claus under mistletoe
In London a huge Christmas tree welcomes us in Trafalgar Square. This is a gift from Norway, tradition dating 1847, the expression of gratitude for the collaboration during World War II. Nobody is surprised that every third passer-by who admires the tree and listens to carols speaks Polish. ‘The invasion of Great Britain by our fellow countrymen is a cultural shock for the British who do not celebrate Christmas Eve. For us it is the preparation time before Christmas. We wrap up our presents; we decorate Christmas trees. Some go to Midnight Mass’, explains Aidan Hoyle, a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism. He has lived in Poland for 12 years. He stresses that it is time for family. ‘But people usually go to a morning Mass on Christmas Day. After returning from church children look for their presents in the stockings. In some homes presents are given during a magnificent family lunch meal’, Aidan says. People eat stuffed turkey, goose or beef and pudding, a cake filled with many fruits and some sauce. Sometimes before the meal you drink cognac, which you can ignite. Sometimes you hide coins or small toys in the pudding for children. Christmas crackers are served. ‘These are cardboard tubes with gifts, caps or riddles inside. Two people must pull a cracker to get the gifts. When you split it you can hear a small bang and its contents fall out’, the Englishman explains and demonstrates how to pull a cracker. After lunch, at 3.00 p.m. the Queen delivers her message to the nation. It was George V that introduced the custom in 1932.
Jesus is born in Britain
A smiling Santa Claus accosts children and adults in the shopping part of Heathrow. He gives chocolate cars and folders of one of the ninety airlines that have agencies here. It is not important that one can see the label ‘Made in China’ hanging from his cap. Children gather around him anyway. Our flight to Mauritius is in one hour. We must cover 9,000 km. This cane sugar fragranced island, known for rare postage stamps, is in the Indian Ocean, ca. 900 km east of Madagascar. It was not inhabited till the beginning of the 16th century. Discovered by the Portuguese it was in the Dutch hands at first, then it was conquered by the French, and at the beginning of the 19th century it was seized by the British. This island, with over a million inhabitants, 150 times smaller than Poland, is a real cultural melting pot. Apart from the European descendants there are Malgash, Hindi, Chinese, Tamil and Muslim. However, regardless of the religion all inhabitants celebrate Christmas. ‘You can see that looking at those who are in love; they meet to say cordial wishes and prepare themselves to celebrate the holiday. Muslims, Christians and Hindus do so’, says Benoît Duvergé, catechist and children’s educator. He lives in Rose Hill, the population of which is 100,000, in the western part of the island. Trade is intensive before Christmas and this does not only concern shopping centres. Wanderings merchants come to towns and the streets are packed with people. The average temperature in December is 29°C. Even without snow Christmas trees, which decorate every house, look charming. People put a crib under the tree. A candle is lit and place next to it. It symbolises God’s life and presence among people. ‘In the morning of 25 December, before going to Mass and preparing meals, we say a prayer. Before we give presents we mention the poorest people whom we carry in our hearts’, says the islander.
In the land of the cherry blossom
Japan, which is 10,000 km northeast of Mauritius, celebrates Christmas in a specific way. Here, where Catholics are less than 1% of the population, celebration is of a particular character. ‘Marriages are usually mixed. And the believing spouse spends Christmas at a parish meeting’, says Fr Pawel Janocinski, a Dominican friar who has been a missionary in the land of the cherry blossom. ‘In small churches people celebrate in a really family atmosphere; the celebration is connected with preparing ‘gochiso’, i.e. exceptionally delicious meal and a special artistic programme. People eat ‘omochi’, dish made of rice, ‘buta jiru’, vegetable soup with pork. They drink ‘tamagosake’ (hot sake with yolks); the secret of its preparation was connected with the Watanabe family, one of the first Christian families in Fukushima’, the friar explains. If all family members are Catholic, they celebrate Christmas at home. They celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas at the family table. ‘The Nose family, whom I know from the parish of Tokio-Koganei, read a suitable fragment of the Gospel, sing carols and then have a special meal during which they listen to appropriate music, like in Poland.’ It is worth mentioning Christmas Island, located in the Indian Ocean, south of Java. Paradoxically, almost 70% of its 2,000 inhabitants are Buddhists. Christians constitute several percent of the population. That’s why, the second Christmas Island, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, belonging to the Republic of Kiribati, is better known. The islanders celebrate Christmas by dancing and singing. Midnight Mass, full of folk traditions, begins the three-day celebration. ‘Over 300 people came to Midnight Mass in Tabwakea. They had bare feet and wore ‘tepe’, skirts worn by both sexes. Fr Arobati, a Catholic priest, celebrates Mass wearing a wreath on his head. Black girls, wearing crowns made of flowers, carry bread and wine, making dance movements of their hips. When they all sing ‘Gloria, Gloria! at midnight I have the impression that the beams of maneaba, large open shelter where the faithful have gathered, are shaking’, recollects Wojciech Dabrowski, the well-known traveller who has visited most countries in the world, in the Internet forum. We can envy them one thing. When our weather is unstable and we have foul November weather on Christmas Eve, they enjoy the heat of 40 degrees and can immerse themselves in the warm Pacific water any time.
I want to thank Karolina Marchlewska and Agnieszka Kieniewicz for their translation from French.
Benoît Duvergé, catechist in Mauritius:
My family always celebrates Christmas very joyfully. We care for the Christian aspect of the celebration. On that day we look forward to the Word that became Flesh. At midnight the twelve strikes of the bell, placed in the tower of the Our Lady of Lourdes Church, announce the coming of the Lord. After Midnight Mass we meet our friends and family. On 25 December we eat a magnificent meal but there are no traditional dishes. Every year we eat something different. Rice and tomato sauce are fundamental in our kitchen. The sauce recipe is slightly modified depending on the family origin: the Hindi add ginger, the Malgash add clove and the Chinese add hot spices.