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by Carolyn Tolman

Genealogy is about families through the ages. Filling in our pedigree charts with names, dates, and places is very satisfying, but it is the stories and traditions of our ancestors that turn our hearts to them and help us feel we are part of something greater than our individual selves. For many families the most enduring traditions have been made and kept around the holiday season—especially Christmas.

Out of my eight great-grandparents, seven of them had parents or grandparents who came to the United States after 1850—from England, Wales, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. However, very few of their distinctive cultural traditions have been handed down to my generation, perhaps because they were eager to blend in to American culture. In an attempt to bring some of their cultures back into our family traditions, we now choose an ancestral country to celebrate for our Christmas Eve dinner. We eat their traditional food, dress like them as much as possible, and tell their stories to our children. This adds to the wonderful festive spirit of the evening and has made for some great memories.

Where were your ancestors from? Does your family still carry on some of their distinctive cultural traditions? If you’re not sure, get some inspiration from these 12 unique traditions from countries around the world, and then jump into your family tree to discover how you can make your own ancestral heritage part of the holiday season this year.

  • In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives on the evening of December 5th. Children leave a shoe out by the fireplace or windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs in the hope that he will fill them with presents. They also leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse. They’re told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on the roofs on his horse and that a Zwarte Piet (Black Peter, who is like an elf) will then climb down the chimney (or through a window) and put the treats in their shoes.

How to celebrate your cultural heritage during the holidays.

  • In Iceland, in the 13 days leading up to Christmas, 13 mischievous trolls called Yule Lads (jólasveinar in Icelandic) come out to play. For each night of Yuletide, children place their best shoes by the window and a different Yule Lad visits, leaving gifts for nice girls and boys and rotten potatoes for the naughty ones. Clad in traditional Icelandic costume, their names reflect the trouble they like to cause: Stekkjastaur (sheep cote clod), Giljagaur (gully gawk), Stúfur (stubby), Þvörusleikir (spoon licker), Pottaskefill (pot scraper), Askasleikir (bowl licker), Hurðaskellir (door slammer), Skyrgámur (skyr gobbler), Bjúgnakrækir (sausage swiper), Gluggagægir (window peeper), Gáttaþefur (doorway sniffer), Ketkrókur (meat hook), and Kertasníkir (candle stealer).
  • In Caracas, Venezuela, every Christmas Eve, the city’s residents head to church in the early morning—on roller-skates. This unique tradition is so popular that roads across the city are closed to cars so people can skate to church in safety before heading home for a traditional Christmas dinner of hot tamales.
  • Little Candles’ Day (Día de las Velitas) marks the start of the Christmas season across Colombia. In honor of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception, people place candles and paper lanterns in their windows, balconies, and front yards. Entire towns and cities across the country are lit up with elaborate displays, and neighborhoods compete to see who can create the most impressive arrangement.

How holidays are celebrated around the world.
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  • In Italy, children sing carols while playing shepherds’ pipes and wearing shepherds’ sandals and hats. On Epiphany night, children believe that an old lady called Befana brings presents for them. Children put stockings up by the fireplace for Befana to fill. For many Italian-American families a big Christmas Eve meal of different fish dishes is now a very popular tradition. This meal is known as Esta dei Sette Pesci (Feast of the Seven Fishes). The feast originated in southern Italy and was bought to the United States by Italian immigrants in the 1800s.
  • In France, triangular Nativity scenes called cribs are very popular. French cribs have clay figures depicting the traditional Holy Family, shepherds, and wise men, but they also have whimsical figures such as a butcher, a baker, a policeman, and a priest. Yule logs made from cherry wood are often burned in French homes. The log is carried into the home on Christmas Eve and sprinkled with red wine to make the log smell nice when it is burning. The log and candles are often left burning all night with refreshments left out in case Mary and the baby Jesus come to visit during the night.
  • St. Nicholas Day in Germany is celebrated on December 6th.  Not to be confused with Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas), Nikolaus travels by donkey in the middle of the night and leaves little treats like coins, chocolate, oranges, and toys in the shoes of good children all over Germany, particularly in Bavaria. In exchange for the gifts, each child must recite a poem, sing a song, or draw a picture. St. Nick also brings Knecht Ruprecht, a devil-like character dressed in dark clothes covered with bells and a dirty beard. He carries a stick or a small whip in hand to punish any children who misbehave.
  • In Norway, people hide their brooms on Christmas Eve. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries to when people believed that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on. To this day many people still hide their brooms in the safest place in the house, to stop them from being stolen.
  • Christmas Eve in Ghana starts with church services that have drumming and dancing. Children often put on a Nativity play and then come out in front of the priests to dance. Choirs sing in many of the 66 languages of Ghana. Singing in their own unique language makes them feel that God speaks their language. Sometimes these services and dancing go on all night long.

Celebrate your cultural heritage this holiday season.
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  • Since it is the middle of summer in Australia at Christmastime, the lyrics to carols about snow and cold weather are usually replaced by words about sunshine and hot weather. There are also some original Australian Carols. Many Australians hold Carols by Candlelight services with local bands and choirs. When Santa Claus gets to Australia, he gives his reindeer a rest and uses kangaroos or six white boomers (a popular Australian Christmas song). He also wears clothes more suited to the hot weather. A typical Australian Christmas feast is a seafood barbecue at the beach.
  • Christians in India celebrate Christmas Eve by walking to midnight mass as a family. The churches are decorated with poinsettias and candles. Afterwards, they return home to a massive feast of different curry delicacies, and they give and receive presents. Instead of decorating fir Christmas trees, Indians use banana or mango trees. They also put small oil burning clay lamps on the flat roofs of their homes to show their neighbors that Jesus is the light of the world.
  • One of the biggest celebrations in Sweden is St. Lucia’s Day on December 13th. The celebration comes from stories that were told by Monks who first brought Christianity to Sweden. St. Lucia was a young girl in ancient Rome who would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians who hid in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head so she had both her hands free to carry things. St. Lucia is depicted by a girl in a white dress with a red sash round her waist and a lingonberry crown of candles on her head. St. Lucia leads a procession of children singing carols in churches, schools, hospitals, and rest homes, handing out Pepparkakor, which are gingersnap biscuits.

In a sense, we are all the result of the legacy that has been passed down to us. Carrying on family traditions and passing them on to our children is part of our legacy and is a way of celebrating the traditions of our ancestors. No matter how much you already know about your heritage, there is always more you can learn. Take some time this Christmas season to make some discoveries about your ancestors and perhaps create some new family traditions that reflect your collective past.

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