Celebrations at Christmas time can be far more than just good food and good presents on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Starting in late November and ending in early January, families can celebrate other traditions of Christmas for a whole month. This teaches important truths to children, develops important family traditions, and is a lot of fun!
6 December – Saint Nicholas Day (Sinter Klaas Day)
Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, Asia Minor, who was born around 15 February 270 and died on 6 December, 346 AD. He was born to a wealthy family, but chose to use his wealth to help the poor rather than trying to grow wealthier. His generosity soon became legendary, and though he was never officially canonized, he has been recognized as a saint over the ages.
Legend states that as he was walking past a house in the poor part of the city, he overheard a young woman crying to her father that she could not marry her beloved because she had no dowry. That night, dressed in his red Bishop’s robe, he secretly tossed some money in to their house through an open window. A second daughter had the same problem, and received the same kindness. The last daughter needed the same, but when Nicholas came, the windows were closed. He climbed to the roof and dropped a bag of gold coins down the chimney, were the landed in the girl’s stocking that had been left to dry. Nicholas was discovered, and he spent the rest of his days ministering to others in God’s love.
Saint Nicholas is venerated throughout the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, and well admired by Protestant Christians as well. European children will find candies and toys in their shoes on the morning of December 6, placed there on the night of the fifth. The American icon Santa Claus comes directly from the Dutch “Sinterklaas”.
12 December – Gross Day
This holiday, which I learned from Mr. McDonough, my Spanish 2 teacher at California High School in Whittier, California, is on the 12th day of the 12th month, because 12×12 = 144, one gross. On that day, he was also famous every year for planting a dead tree branch in a pot and hanging a 30-6 shell from it. Mr. McDonough called it his “cartridge in a bare tree.” It is a fun time to eat a gross of something or do a gross of something, or even eating or doing something gross.
13 December – Santa Lucia Day
Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) was an Italian Christian who was martyred by Diocletian in Sicily around 300 AD. Legend states that she spent her days helping Christians hiding in the catacombs, bringing food and other supplies to sustain them. To keep both hands free, she wore a crown of candles.
In Scandinavian tradition, 13 December was Lussi night (Lussinatta), the longest night of the year in the unreformed Julian calendar. Lussi was a witch, and she, along with her retinue of evil spirits and dead people, flew through the air looking for victims to steal away. Sometimes Lussi would come down the chimney and steal children.
When large numbers of Scandinavians followed Christ, the holiday changed. Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) is a young woman who brings lights and sweets to the people in December 13th. She wears a crown of candles (lights) in her hair and leads a procession of others, each holding one candle.
Santa Lucia Day is another example of Christians taking something evil and changing it for good.
25 December – Happy Birthday to Jesus
Though many people celebrate Christmas, few celebrate it as a birthday party for Jesus. While we give presents to one another, it is also important to give presents to Him. In our family we have a birthday cake, sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, and have the youngest child present blow out the candle. Sometimes we give money or gifts to a charity for Jesus’ birthday. This is yet another way to remember what Christmas is really about, and have a good time doing it.
6 January – Three Kings Day (Epiphany)
Epiphany is the Greek word for “manifestation” or “striking appearance”. As such it describes the appearance of the Magi (wise men or kings) to pay homage to Jesus, the infant king.
As much as we like the image of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the stable, surrounded by animals, shepherds and wise men, the real birth of Christ probably did not happen that way. The wise men, according to the Gospel of Matthew, did not arrive until later, after the Holy Family had moved into a house. It is not clear why Joseph and Mary didn’t go quickly back to Nazareth, but perhaps the census took longer than we would expect and so they decided to settle down in Bethlehem. Either way, Jesus was probably 12-18 months old when the wise men came.
While the Eastern Orthodox church celebrates the visit of the magi on 25 December, to account for the delay, Western church tradition celebrates the coming of the wise men on 6 January, the twelfth day after the Nativity. They gave three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there is no mention of how many wise men came. Western tradition teaches that there were three, a Persian scholar named Melchior, an Indian scholar named Caspar, and an Arabian scholar named Balthazar.
- Syrian tradition – Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Homisdas
- Ethiopian tradition – Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater
- Armenian tradition – Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma.
Families traditionally exchange presents on Epiphany and some cultures have parties or other events to commemorate the coming of the kings.
The Christmas season is exactly that, a season, and not merely a day. Regardless of one’s denomination or affiliation, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, celebrating Jesus’ birth in other traditions is a fantastic way to build family unity, have fun, and better understand the mystery and magic of the Coming of Christ.