Trees and Traditions
Several elfin characters visit Norwegians during the holiday season. Julenisse, a short elf with a red hat and beard, is much like Santa, bringing gifts for good children. Fjonisse lives in the barn and cares for animals. He is a trickster, though, and families must give him Christmas Eve porridge to keep mischief at bay. Traditional Norwegian holiday foods include lutefisk (dried cod) and a minimum of seven different types of cookies. Yum!
A pageant known as Panunuluyan takes place Christmas Eve. As midnight mass is about to begin, a young couple re-enacts Mary and Joseph's search for shelter. The couple arrives at church, just as mass starts. Colorful star lanterns called paról, crafted with bamboo and paper, adorn homes throughout the country, symbolizing the star of Bethlehem.
In Poland, Christmas Eve is known as Wiglia (after "vigil"). Early in the evening, family members share the oplatek, or Christmas wafer. Poles wait for the first star to appear in the sky before sitting down to dinner. The meatless meal may be either a 12-course feast to symbolize the 12 apostles or includes seven dishes representing the seven sacraments. With full stomachs, families share the oplatek with friends and neighbors. Livestock and pets are included in the sharing; after all, animals also witnessed Christ's birth in the manger.
Friends and families get together in groups, or trullas, late in the evening to go from house to house, singing traditional songs and playing many instruments. The participants aim to surprise their friends by waking them with the music. As the night progresses, the group becomes larger and larger as people from each house join the group to the next asalto. Christmas is celebrated in Puerto Rico, but the more popular holiday is January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day (Día de Los Reyes).
Romanian families make an intricate wooden star placed atop a long pole, covered with paper, bells and ribbons. This steaua depicts a nativity picture with a lit candle placed inside. Families travel from home to home, carrying their steaua, reciting poetry and singing songs. These religious, somber and elaborate carols are an important part of a Romanian Christmas.
Long ago, Russian children would dress as barn animals and sing kolyadki (carols) to neighbors, receiving treats in return. The tradition is still observed in some parts of Russia. From 1917 (the Russian Revolution) until the early 1990s, Christmas was replaced with a non-religious winter festival. Today, Christmas follows the Julian calendar, taking place on January 7.
During the 16th century, the Reformation banned Christmas in Scotland, and for some 500 years, Scots celebrated New Year's Day (Hogmanay) instead. However, several Christmas superstitions survived. Bees are believed to leave their hives on Christmas morning. Fires are kept burning on Christmas to keep evil spirits at bay. The morning after Christmas, Scots may look at the fire's ashes for a footprint. If there is a footprint, and it faces the door, a death in the family is foretold; if the footprint faces into the room, a stranger will visit.
Mir Boziji, Hristos se Rodi
Following the Julian calendar, Serbians celebrate the "Nativity of Christ" on January 7. The morning before, Serbian fathers take their eldest son to chop down (or in more recent times, buy) a young oak tree called a badnjak. A traditional holiday treat is cesnica, bread with a gold coin baked inside. Good luck comes to the one who finds the coin.
The holiday season in Slovakia begins with the first day of Advent and the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, and continues through Three Kings Day on January 6. Slovakia's foremost celebration takes place on Christmas Eve (Vilija). The Vilija meal starts with oplatka (a wafer coated with honey and eaten with a clove of garlic).
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Trees and Traditions Podcast
Hear about the international holiday traditions on display in Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light.
Get the "Christmas Around the World" and "Holidays of Light" exhibit guide, including the events, hours, a map and activities. (PDF file)
For children visiting the exhibit, this take-along guide provides activities to learn more about the cultures represented in our annual holiday celebration. (Suggested for grades 2 - 8.)