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Introduction to Christmas Customs
In Spain, any Christmas customs and Christmas Carols are based on the birth of Jesus Christ. Crib scenes are built of the birth with figures of shepherds, the Three Wise Men, and animals surrounding the baby Jesus. Presents are given because of the Three Wise Men, who brought presents to the baby Jesus.
Many traditions and celebrations associated with Christmas (giving gifts, lighting a Yule log, singing carols, decorating an evergreen) hark back to older religions. We know that it wasn't until about 200 years after Christ's death that Christians even thought about celebrating his birth (no one really seems to know the exact date of his birth). Christmas was once a moveable feast celebrated many different times during the year.
The Romans, towards the end of autumn, worshipped the God Saturn. For them Saturn signified the beginning of a new cycle. The rites and ceremonies held were leading up to the new awakening of a vegetation that was still lying dormant, so that it would bear appetising fruit and crops for man. It was like a call to fertility, as the days began to grow longer. It was a time of feasting and parties.
The choice of December 25th appears to have been made by the Pope Julius I in the fourth century AD because this coincided with the pagan rituals of Winter Solstice, or the Return of the Sun. This was an intent to replace the pagan celebration with the Christian one.
Winter Solstice celebrations were held on the eve of the shortest day of the year. In Spain there is one tradition, not at all common elsewhere. The tradition of making "Hogueras" (bonfires) originated long before Christmas itself. It is connected to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter. It is characterized by people jumping over fires as a symbolic protection against illness. This fire-jumping can be seen primarily in Granada and Jaen.
During the first millennium in what is today Scotland, the Druids celebrated Winter Solstice honoring their Sun God and rejoicing his return as the days got longer, signaling the coming of spring. Also called Yule, this tradition still lives today in many cultures around the world.
A huge log -- the Yule Log -- is brought into an outdoor clearing and becomes part of a
great bonfire. Everyone dances and sings around the fire. All the noise and great
excitement is said to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep, hurrying spring on its
way as the cycle begins once again and the days grow longer than the nights.
From the fifteenth century, the meaning of Christmas as a religious festival began to overtake the pagan celebrations. The celebrations for the Sun God became the celebrations for the Christian God. The birth of Jesus signified the beginning of re-birth of the world in the same way as the lengthening of the day had done before.
But people kept some of the old customs - such as burning a Yule log and having feasts and parties.
The word Yule is still used as a name for the Christmas season.
Since then, people have gone on establishing many new traditions and customs that have led to this time of year being a specially festive one all over the World.
One was the Christmas tree, which was started in Germany. As the Germans settled in new lands they brought with them this tradition.
A long time ago, a bishop named Nicholas lived in what is now the country of Turkey. No one knows much about him. There are stories that he often helped children in need. Many years after his death, Nicholas was made a saint. In time, he became the patron saint of children. (In Belgium he still brings the toys).
La Befana is a kindly Italian witch, who rides a broomstick down the chimney to
deliver toys into the stockings of Italian children. The legends say that Befana was
sweeping her floors when the three Wise Men stopped and asked her to come to see the Baby
Jesus. She said that she was too busy and then later, she changed her mind but it was too
late. So, the tradition says that to this day, she goes out on Christmas Eve searching for
the Holy Child, leaving gifts for him in each household.
There are too many traditions to be able to name them all, but Christmas has always held extra meaning for the family. In many parts of the world families get together on this special day. Although in this modern-day age the custom is slowly beginning to die, usually everyone is there if they can possibly make it.
Spaniards do not need an excuse for a fiesta, so when there is the winter
solstice (one of the two most important dates of the solar calendar), the birth of Christ
and, three days later, Spain's equivalent of April Fool's Day (los Santos Inocentes), they
really do kow how to have a good time.
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Email : Pat Spiller-Spanish Festivals
or St. Paul's School, Barcelona