Serving Greater Vancouver & the Fraser Valley

A cultured Christmas

by Agnes Chung and Jack Taylor

Argentina: Christmas in summer

The Europe of South America, Argentina has a long history of Christmas traditions dating back to the arrival of Spanish explorers in 1516. More than 80% of the population identifies themselves as Roman Catholics. Most Argentinians are of Spanish, Italian and other European lineage. Their ancestors arrived on its shores in the mid-1800s and 1900s under the European migration policy.

Christmas falls in the summer in this southern hemisphere nation. The festive season begins at the start of Advent in late November and lasts until Epiphany (also known as Theophany or Three Kings’ Day) on January 6.  Carolling and the practice of giving Christmas cards are not customary in Argentina. However, homes and public places are adorned with festive decors including the Pesebre (nativity scene), which is placed near the Christmas tree, and given a place of honour in homes and churches.

Argentina’s holiday traditions reflect a fusion of European, American and Hispanic influences. While commercialism is everywhere, traditions such as connecting with family and friends, sharing gifts, good food and observing religious rituals remain strong. Christmas Eve midnight masses are more than just church services to celebrate Christ’s birth. The events also function as gathering places for families and the community.

Traditional Argentine Christmas involves a late family dinner on December 24 followed by gift opening and fireworks at midnight, says Sandra Sallovitz, founder of Destinos Enterprises, a Vancouver-based destination marketing company. The celebration continues to late afternoon the next day with lunch included, adds Sallovitz who reminiscences having great times with parents, grandparents, and relatives during the season.

Growing up in Argentina, Sallovitz recalls her mother rising before dawn on Christmas Eve to prepare the festive meal. Among the popular dishes are Mayonesa de Ave (bird mayonnaise), a cold salad of boiled chicken breast, potatoes, carrots, peas mixed with mayonnaise; homemade ravioli with ricotta and sweet tomato jam. Dessert featured homemade pan dulce (panetone), turrones de almendras y mani (almond nougat) and chocolates. Since its summertime, barbeques (asado) and picnics are also popular.

Armenia: Noah’s Christmas

Armenia was mentioned in the King James Bible in 2 Kings 19:37 and Isaiah 37:38. It is surmised to be the final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Most historians believe this West Asian republic of about three million people is the world’s first nation to adopt Christianity back in 301 AD.  Today Christians make up 95% of the population. Legend has it that Gregory the Illuminator was first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the national church of Armenia.

Armenians do not celebrate Christmas on December 25, the date set by the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century based on the Gregorian calendar. Armenian Christmas traditions are tied to the beliefs of the Armenian Orthodox Church and the history of its people. Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and his baptism in the Jordan River on Epiphany, January 6.

“January 5 is Christmas Eve and January 6 is Christmas.  Church services are held on both evenings with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and The Blessing of the Water, a ceremony symbolising the Lord’s baptism,” shares Archpriest, Rev. Fr. Keghart Garabedian of St.Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church of BC.

“The season starts with the observation of Advent from November 19 until January 6. Believers fast during the 50-day Advent period. The fast is broken on in the evening on Jan 5 and believers receive the Holy Communion,” adds Rev. Garabedian.“In the Holy Land, however, Christ’s nativity is celebrated 13 days later, on January 19. Armenians living in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem follow the Julian calendar. Outside of Jerusalem, Armenians follow the new calendar,” says Rev. Garabedian.

He adds that a day prior, the Armenian Patriarch together with his entourage of clergies and parishioners travel from Jerusalem to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem in Palestine to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The ceremony is quite lengthy and elaborate.

Red, orange and blue, the Armenian national flag colours are common Christmas tree decoration colours used in Armenian homes. Other festive décor features the Crèche, or nativity scene ,and fine handmade needlework.

Food is an important element of the holiday traditions.  Traditional festive favourites include fish dish, ishkhanatsoog (princely trout); poulgeur pilav (lamb with rice); anooshaboor (Christmas pudding) and rojik, a candy of whole walnuts attached to a string and dipped in concentrated grape syrup.

Families and friends convene for a big celebration meal on Christmas day with gift exchange afterwards. Meat dishes return to the table on this day. Traditionally, Armenians refrain from eating meat one week leading to Christmas.

A Burundi Christmas

Esperance Mpitarusuma still loves her memories of childhood during Christmas in the small east African country of Burundi. While the day might mean only getting a bottle of pop and a few candies the celebration of the people surrounded her with joy.

Despite the chaotic history of this former Belgium colony, where French is still predominantly spoken, this mostly Christianized population stops to celebrate with food, fun and fancy. Esperance was born in Canzuko City, some 235 km from the capital of Bujumbura where 90 percent of the population was considered Christian. “The teens explored the forest to find the best Christmas trees to decorate the churches. Not much was done in the homes.” she says.

Christmas is a special time of celebration for the children of Burundi. Only the young ones are indulged with treats not normally in their day to day experience. Adults can purchase candy and gifts for the little ones but adults are not included in any gift exchanges. Some families sent their young ones to bed on Christmas Eve, woke them up at 11 pm, spent an hour singing Christmas hymns, then began their feast at mid-night.

Preparations begin weeks before with students memorizing texts which they will recite for their families on the afternoon of Christmas Day. The time away from school already makes the day a favourite. Parents purchase new clothes and shoes which will be worn to church on Christmas morning. Even those who don’t usually attend church will spend time in church out of respect for the day. Every church is packed with jubilant celebrators while they enjoy the choirs and show off their new clothes.

Mpitarusuma says that “on Christmas Eve many people try their best to be with their loved ones, which means even those who work or study far from home try to be home by Christmas Eve.” Last Christmas, Esperance celebrated at her uncle’s home with 25 other family members, dancing until 2 am. Decorations in homes are usually reserved for the city folk. Use of the Sapin de Noel (Christmas Tree) has recently been banned by the government because of environmental concerns. Apart from a few artificial trees in shop windows, any trees that are strung with lights are still firmly rooted in their original spot.

After church services people continue their celebration with dinner at home or at a restaurant. Chicken is the central menu item. Mpitarusuma cites a favorite Burundian proverb as “even an ignorant person would never trust you to keep his rooster on Christmas Day.” Fish is also often a menu item for some families.

With the current economic crisis after tumultuous elections in the past years the extent of options available are limited but the traditions of years gone by live on in those able to enjoy the day when Jesus was born.


Mexican Magic

Mexican traditional crafted toy very popular in posadas and parties

In the land of Mexico, where 85 percent of the population is Catholic, Christmas time is magic and mystery for children. Poinsettia flowers are everywhere. Starting December 16 children begin the first of nine Posadas – re-enacting the quest of Joseph and Mary to find room for baby Jesus to be born.

Each Posada involves carrying clay figures of Joseph and Mary from house to house singing songs about the quest. The children may be given money but they are informed there is no room for them. They proceed to the next house until they find the mystery home designated for the evening party. After prayers of thanks the evening is marked by games and food. This activity happens every night with a different home being designated for the party until Christmas Eve.

On December 24 (Noche Buena) the money gathered is used for candy-filled piñataand special foods. Papier-mache piñata were usually donkey-shaped (like the one Joseph and Mary rode) and filled with candies. Each child was blind-folded one at a time and given a stick to try and hit the piñata which was pulled up and down as the child swung wildly. Eventually someone would make contact, breaking the ‘donkey’ and a free-for-all would ensue as children scooped up all the sweets they could grab.

Gina Gutierrez says, “the adults have a big family dinner party until midnight when ‘Jesus is born’ and they put a ceramic baby under the Christmas tree with the nativity set, including shepherds.” The nativity scene (known as nacimiento) are popular in most homes and public spaces. All kinds of figures can be placed around the manger scene whether they have anything to do with the original Christmas story or not.

Most families also put gifts under the tree from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. A midnight church service, the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the rooster) is common for almost everyone before the fireworks are set off. Along with Posadas, Christmas plays called Pastorelas are performed. This is the story of the shepherd’s quest to find the baby despite opposition and temptations along the way. In Spanish there are many greetings of “Feliz Navidad”

The three kings have to wait until Epiphany before being added to the set and some families wait until this day for gifts to be given. A special cake called Rosca de Reyes (Cake of the Kings) is shared. Within this cake there is sometimes a small figure of the baby Jesus. Whoever gets the figurine is designated ‘godparent of the year.’ Christmas celebrations officially end on February 2 with a Candelaria party and mass.

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