Christmas in the Lands of Our Ancestors

Another Christmas Eve was here and little Tess and Kevin’s eyes were getting heavy with sleep they could no longer put off. Children in almost all the countries of the world were eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. Putting down his book of children’s Christmas stories after he had finished reading The Night before Christmas to his granddaughter Tess and grandson Kevin, Grandpa Ralph gently places his sleeping three year old grandson in his rocket ship shaped bed, making sure he was covered by the soft fluffy blanket. Bending down he gently kisses him on his forehead making certain not to awaken him. “Sleep well little guy as you blast off in your rocket bed to some faraway dreamland. Grandpa Ralph loves you very much,” he whispers.

Then walking back to the large overstuffed chair where he had been reading stories to them he carefully and quietly lifts his 5 year old granddaughter and places her in her child’s bed that had a fairy princess shaped headboard with a dancing ballerina footboard. “Grandpa, did our ancestors from Iran, Italy, Germany, and Greece celebrate Christmas like we do,” little Tess asks?

“Much of Christmas is observed in many countries like we do here in America. “Tomorrow, after you and Kevin wake up and find out what Santa has left you under the Christmas tree maybe we can explore how other countries celebrate this holiday. “In the meantime, close your eyes and sleep well my beautiful princess. “Who knows, maybe the spirit of Christmas from all your ancestor’s native lands will visit you and your brother in your dreams and tell you about the holiday as it has been celebrated in their lands. “I love you” he again whispers so as not to wake up her sleeping brother.

Yawning and rubbing her eyes Tess says “Grandpa, I hope that if the spirits of Christmas from our ancestor’s native lands do pay us a visit in our dreams they won’t be scary like the spirits that visited Scrooge in the story you read to us yesterday.”

“Don’t worry about that Tess because you are only a child and you haven’t been a bad person like Scrooge was. “Only good spirits will come and visit with you in your dreams.”

“Thank you Grandpa, now I can go to sleep and not be afraid,” Tess says as she closes her eyes and instantly falls asleep.

Shortly after midnight as little Tess and Kevin soundly slept, each dreaming of Christmas day a magic spirit placed itself in their sub consciousness so that both of them would be dreaming the same dream. “Don’t be afraid Tess and Kevin, I am the good spirit of Christmas, I am called Joy and Happiness. “I am here to take you on a journey in dreamland to the lands of your ancestor’s so you can see how Christmas has been celebrated in their native countries for thousands of years. “Take hold of my hand and we will get started on our Christmas journey,” Joy and Happiness tells them.

Unafraid, Tess asks, “Where are we going good spirit Joy and Happiness?”

“The first step in our journey will take us to Italy where you will be given a tour of your Italian ancestor’s native land and how they have celebrated the Christmas holiday. “There you will be joined by your cousins of many generations ago Alessio and Alessia, and they will tell you about how they spent their Christmas in the past and how it is still celebrated in the present.”

“But Mama and Papa will worry when they find we are gone good spirit Joy and Happiness,” Kevin says.

“Don’t worry little Kevin, if they look in on your room they will see that you and Tess are still here in your beds. “You will only be going on our magical journey in your dreams and you will be back before you wake up,” good spirit Joy and Happiness replies.

“Thank you, good spirit we don’t want to miss Christmas morning with our Mama, Papa, Grandpa and Grandma,” Tess says.

Flapping her wings together rapidly like a hummingbird does sparkling fairy dust appears and covers little Tess and Kevin and soon they are being whisked from the present to times long ago and the land of Italy which is far, far away. Moments later they can see little villages and happy people below as they fly far above them with the good spirit Joy and Happiness. “We are here, Tess and Kevin, Italy and soon I am going to turn you over to your cousins of many generations ago, Alessio and Alessia. “They will take you on your Christmas journey of Italy and tell you about its customs and traditions.” Before Tess and Kevin could say anything they are joined by a little boy and girl. “Bongiorno, hello, I am Alessio and this is my sister Alessia. “We are here to take you on a journey of our native land, Italy and tell you how we have celebrated Christmas for many generations.”

“Hello, I am Alessia and welcome to Italy.”

“Let’s get started,” Alessio says.

“Although it is now Christmas day in Italy, Advent Sunday marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Italy. “Starting on this day there will be many events and celebrations taking place and then on nine days before Christmas, a time we call the novena the Italian children will go house to house reciting Christmas verses in hopes of receiving coins,” Alessia says.

“And on the first day of novena many families will set up a presipio, or a manger scene and they will gather before it each morning or evening to light candles and pray,” Alessio tells them.

“Did you know that Christmas carols and manger scenes originated in Italy,” Alessia remarks?

“During the nine days of novena Italian boys and girls write letters to their Mama and Papa wishing them Merry Christmas. “In those letters they promise their parents they will be good and they also make a list of gifts they hope to receive. “The letters are read at dinner time by their Mama and Papa aloud and then they are tossed in the fireplace as they chant to La Befana who is the mythical Good Christmas Witch as their wishes go up the chimney,” Alessio tells them.

“I become even more excited on Christmas Eve when I see the first star in the evening sky,” Alessia says.

“Why, what happens that is so special that makes you more excited when you see the first evening star in the sky,” Tess asks?

“In Italy as in many countries in the world it is a part of our custom, culture and belief that on Christmas day a baby named Jesus was born. “Not all persons in the world believe this story about the baby Jesus and I am not trying to get you to believe our story I merely want to tell you of our customs and traditions as they relate to what we believe. “When the first star appears in the evening sky on Christmas Eve every family sets lighted candles in their windows to light the way for the baby Jesus. “Also, they light candles and put them around their presepio or manger scene and pass the figure of the baby Jesus from one person to another and then place it gently in the manger,” Alessio proudly says

“Yes, and then we have a large feast of fish or seafood served with lots of vegetables, salads, antipasto, bread, pasta and sweets. Then later at night we all go through the streets of our village that are lighted by torches to church for the Christmas Eve Mass,” Alessia cheerfully proclaims.

“Does Santa come and bring you lots of presents,” Kevin asks?

“Some Italian children receive gifts on Christmas from Babbo Natale or Father Christmas which might be like this Santa Claus you ask about, but most have to wait until January 6 when La Befena, the good Christmas Witch will bring them candy and gifts. “Usually on Christmas day we celebrate only with our family, have another feast and go to church. “One thing that is certain is we love the food that is prepared, especially Pannetone, which is a cake and Panforte also another kind of cake made from honey and spiced with cinnamon and cloves,” Alessio tells Kevin and Tess.

“From Christmas day and for the next few days until New Years Day we celebrate the holiday and family friends get together and visit and the adults exchange gifts with each other, but like Alessio has told you we children have to wait until January 6 to get our gifts from La Befana,” Alessia says.

“On the night before January 6, Italian children will set their shoes on the fireplace hoping they will receive the gifts they had asked for in their letters they wrote to their parents during novena as La Befena only leaves candy and gifts for children that are good,” Alessio remarks.

As Alessio speaks the good spirit Joy and Happiness reappears. “Now you know about Christmas and how it is celebrated in your ancestor’s native land of Italy. “Now we will pay a visit to Greece and learn about the Christmas customs and traditions observed by your Greek ancestors,” Joy and Happiness says as she whisks Tess and Kevin away from Italy on their way to Greece.

Little Tess and Kevin suddenly find themselves flying high above the ruins of the Acropolis and Parthenon in the ancient city of Athens. “Look below children, we are over the country that is the birthplace of democracy as we know it. “Also, it is home to some of history’s greatest thinkers, mathematicians and philosophers, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates,” the good spirit Joy and Happiness tells them.

“Is it Christmas time here, good spirit Joy and Happiness?

“Yes Kevin, it is and soon your Greek ancestors Agathias and Agatha will take you on a Christmas journey like your Italian ancestors Alessio and Alessia did. “They will show you and tell about the Christmas customs and traditions in Greece,” Joy and Happiness answers.

Moments later Tess, Kevin and the good spirit Joy and Happiness are joined by a little Greek boy and girl, ” Yia sou (yah soo,) hello, I am Agathias, my sister Agatha and I will tell you how Christmas is observed and celebrated in our native country, Greece.”

“Tess, Kevin, I will return for you later after your Greek ancestors Agathias and Agatha take you around their country and explain to you about Christmas in Greece,” Joy and Happiness tells them.

“Let’s get started, there is much to learn and see about Christmas in Greece,” Agathias says.

“By December 6th Christmas is usually well under way. “During the “Feast of St Nicholas” presents are exchanged. “The Christmas celebration will last through January 6th which is the last day of the Feast of the Epiphany,” Agatha adds.

“I think our Italian ancestors observe the same December 6th through January 6th Christmas celebration or at least something like you do in Greece,” Tess comments.

“What about Santa Claus, does he bring presents to the little Greek boys and girls,” Kevin asks?

“I think St Nicholas is like the person you call Santa Claus, however, in Greece he is the patron saint of sailors. “His appearance is different because according to Greek tradition his clothing is drenched with brine and his beard drips with seawater,” Agathias replies.

“Please tell us more,” Kevin asks.

“Let me tell them,” Agatha pleads.

“Okay Agatha, you tell them about the solemn traditions and I will tell them about the mythical spirit Kallikantzari. “You can tell your story first,” Agathias says.

Thank you Agathias, “here in Greece Christmas is a very solemn holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christ child. “Beautiful carols or kalandas which have been handed down from the Byzantine times are sung. “On Christmas Eve, village children go from house to house offering good wishes and singing kalanda or carols as you would call them,” Agatha says.

“Agatha, don’t forget the small metal triangles and little clay drums the children use when singing the kalanda’s,” Agathias reminds her.

“Agtathias, please I am telling Tess and Kevin this part of the story, let me finish,” Agatha impatiently says.

“I’m sorry Agatha, please continue your story” Agathias tells her.

“Again, thank you Agathias. “As I was telling you, when the little children go from house to house and sing the kalanda they are often rewarded with sweets and dried fruits,” Agatha says.

“I haven’t seen many Christmas trees while we have been travelling through Greece,” Tess observes.

“In Greece, Christmas trees are uncommon. “In almost every home the main symbol of the season is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim that has a sprig of basil hanging from it wrapped around a wooden cross. “A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil fresh and alive. “Once a day a family member, usually the mother dips the cross and basil in some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house,” Agatha says.

“Why, does the mother do this,” Kevin asks?

“I’ll answer that question Agatha. “This ritual is done to keep the Killantzaroi, or goblins and spirits away that only appear during the twelve day period from Christmas to the Epiphany on January 6th,” Agathias tells Kevin in answer to his question.

“That sounds scary, is there really goblins and spirits here in Greece at Christmas time,” Tess asks?

“Myth has it that the Killikantzari only prey upon people during the twelve days of Christmas between Christmas day through the Epiphany on January 6th. “It is believed the Killikantzari are usually male and some believe they wear wooden or iron boots to kick people. “Others believe they take the form of wolves or even monkeys. “One story tells of a wicked stepmother that forces her step daughter to walk alone to a mill through the twelve days of Christmas because she is hoping the Killikantzari will snatch her away,” Agathias says.

“On January 1st which is St. Basil’s day more gifts are exchanged. “Also, on this day the “renewal of water” takes place, which is the ritual when all water jugs in the house are emptied and then refilled with new St. Basil water. “The ceremony is often accompanied by offerings to the naiads, or the spirits of springs and fountains,” Agatha says.

“Now you know much about Christmas celebrations, traditions and customs in your Greek ancestor’s native homeland of Greece,” Agatha says as the good spirit Hope and Joy returns to take Tess and Kevin to their next land of their ancestors, Germany.

Once again, flapping her wings together and producing more golden magical fairy dust that soon covered Tess and Kevin she says, “We’re off to visit little Dieter and Erika, your German ancestors of long ago in the magical Christmas country of Germany.”

In the blink of an eye Tess and Kevin soon found they had arrived in Germany of many years ago. A moment later blond haired and blue eyed Dieter greets them. “Gutentag, (Good day) my name is Dieter and my sister and I will take you on a tour of our homeland, Germany and show you the customs and traditions we observe and celebrate.”

“Yes, and we have celebrated these customs and traditions for hundreds of years,” little brown hair and brown eyed Erika says.

“Tess, Kevin, I will be back for you after you have taken a magical visit through Germany,” the good spirit Hope and Change tells them.

“Tell me, where has the good spirit taken you so far on your journey,” Dieter asks?

“So far we have visited our ancestor’s in Italy and Greece,” Tess replies.

“Then many of the traditions celebrated in those countries are similar in many ways to what we observe here in Germany,” Erika comments.

“The Christmas season begins in Germany on Advent or 24 days before Christmas Day. “During Advent our Mama bakes Stollen and Platzchen, which are Christmas treats and cookies. “What I like the most are the gingerbread houses and the hand- carved wooden Nutcracker (Nussknacker) figures,” Dieter excitedly says.

“Here in Germany, like in Italy, Advent is observed. “However, in Germany we keep track of the days of Advent on “The Advent Calendar” which was invented in Germany and designed to involve all the German children in the festivities leading up to Christmas,” Erika says.

“That sounds like fun, tells us more about the Advent Calendar,” Kevin says.

“Erika, do you want to tell Tess and Kevin about the Advent Calendar or do you want me to tell them,” Dieter asks?

“You can tell them Dieter, and if you leave something out I will tell them about what you forgot to mention,” Erika says.

“Okay, Erika, that sounds like a good idea, and I will try not to forget anything. “Each of the 24 days of Advent on the calendar divided into twenty four small windows, one for each day. “They are normally made of cardboard, but in ancient German times the families would mark the 24 days of Christmas preceding Christmas with a chalk line on the wall. “In the mid-19th century or the 1800’s the first hand crafted Advent calendars were produced and the first printed calendar appeared in Munich in the early 1900’s. “Each day a window on the calendar is opened which reveals a Christmas scene.”

“I think I have seen an Advent Calendar at one of my friends home’s and the little boy and girl that lived there showed me the chocolates and candy that were revealed when each new window was opened,” Tess says.

“Tell us about Santa Claus, Christmas Trees and decorations in Germany, do you have them” Kevin asks?

“Yes we do and they are very beautiful, let me tell you about the Christmas trees and decorations first. “In addition to having Christmas trees, in Germany we also have the Advent Wreath or Der Adventskranz, which has 4 larger candles and 19 smaller ones. “Each day of Advent our Mama or Papa would light one additional candle which would help us count the days until Christmas. “While this tradition originated in Germany, many countries throughout the world have adopted it. “When you visited your Greek ancestors perhaps they also had Advent calendars as many Eastern Orthodox churches use them. “The tradition of a ring of light existed among the Germanic tribes many centuries before the celebration of Advent began,” Erika says.

German children always know about and greatly look forward to the Christmas markets or Weinachtsmarkte as they are called in Germany that open up in nearly every German town when the Advent season opens. “The town squares are lit up and alive with activity. “The townspeople gather together, listen to brass band music drink beer, hot mulled wine, or apple cider,” Dieter tells Tess and Kevin.

“Now, we’ve learned about Advent, the Advent Wreath, what about Christmas trees and Santa Claus,” Kevin asks again?

“In Germany, the Christmas tree is called Der Tannenbaum and traditionally German families usually put it up and decorate it on Christmas Eve. “However, some German families will put up their Christmas tree earlier during the Advent season. “The first known Christmas tree was set up in Freiburg in 1419 by the town bakers who decorated it with fruits, nuts and baked goods. “The German children were allowed to remove and eat the treats on New Year’s Day. Christmas trees are normally taken down on January 6 which is Three Kings Day and eat any remaining sweets and treats they might have missed on New Year’s Day,” Erika says.

“I remember our Italian ancestor’s celebrated January 6th or the day that the good Christmas witch La Befena visits them and leaves candy and gifts for the children that have been good. “I also remember our Greek ancestor’s celebrate January 6th or the Epiphany,” Tess recalls.

“You asked about St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, Kevin. “There once really existed a St. Nicholas who lived during the 4th century in a country that is now known as Turkey. Many stories have been told about him and many legends are associated with him and he became known as the protector of children and he gifts upon them anonymously. Since that time the life and deeds of St. Nicholas have been celebrated on December 6th or St. Nicholas day,” Dieter says.

“In addition to there being a St. Nicholas in Germany there is also a Santa Claus or as he is called in German “Der Weinachtsmann,” which when translated into English literally means “the Christmas man.” “Santa Claus is a direct descendant of St. Nicholas and in English speaking countries his name is derived from the Dutch term Sinterklass. “Many of the characteristics of the modern day Santa Claus are easily recognizable in both the St. Nicholas figure and the personality descended from old German folklore. “The Weinachtsmann much like Santa Claus is a jolly old man with a long white beard that wears a red fur suit. On Christmas Eve he leaves gifts for well-behaved children and punishes those who have been bad. “Kevin, I hope I have answered your questions about Christmas trees and Santa Claus,” Erika says.

Soon the good spirit Joy and Happiness returns for Tess and Kevin, “we have one more country to visit before you will wake up in your beds in your rooms at your home on Christmas morning, and that country is Iran where your Iranian ancestor’s are from.”

“Thank you Dieter and Erika for telling us how our German ancestor’s celebrated Christmas,” Tess says.

“Yes, thank you very much Dieter and Erika, I have learned much about Christmas in Germany,” Kevin adds.

Flapping her wings together for the final time of the night as Tess and Kevin are taken to the magical and ancient country of Iran, the land of their Iranian ancestors the good spirit Joy and Happiness tells them, “this will be the end of our journey in your dreams so you will learn of Iran’s Christmas customs and traditions,” she says as another magical golden cloud of fairy dust covers them.

In less time it takes to blink an eye, Tess and Kevin arrive in Iran. Rubbing the magical fairy dust from her eyes Tess asks, “Are we in Iran now?”

“Yes Tess, you and your little brother Kevin are in Iran now and I am Kurshed and this is my sister Kursheed. “We are your ancestor’s from the ancient country of Iran.”

“The good spirit Joy and Happiness has told us you have been on a long, long journey from your home in America to the lands of your ancestor’s in Italy, Greece and Germany where you have learned how the Christmas holiday is celebrated in each of those countries,” Kursheed says.

“Come, hop on my magic flying carpet and we will begin our journey,” Kurshed says.

“What will keep us from falling off the magic carpet as it fly’s through the air, I don’t see any seat belts that will hold us on the carpet that will prevent us from falling off,” Kevin observes.

“Please don’t worry, my carpet is magic and it will not allow you to fall off with its magical powers,” Kurshed tells them.

As Kurshed, Kursheed, Tess and Kevin begin their journey over the ancient country and cities in Iran, Kursheed begins telling them about the Christmas holiday celebration in that country. “Iran is much different in how they celebrate or observe Christmas than the other countries the good spirit has taken you to visit. In your modern world you came from, Iran is a Muslim country and Muslim’s don’t celebrate Christmas. “The major holiday observed by all Iranians, Christian or Muslim is the holiday called Norouz, a secular holiday on the first day of spring. “In ancient times, hundreds of years before the birth of the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the Christmas holiday began, a man by the name of Zoroaster founded a religion that became known as Zoroastrianism, which believes in one God called Ahura Mazda. While it is unknown exactly when the Zoroastrian religion started many think it could have started as far back as 1200 years before the baby Jesus was born. “It wasn’t until 549 years before the birth of the baby Jesus when the Persians (now called Iranians) led by Cyrus the Great conquered Western Iran and founded the first Persian Empire. “History shows that Cyrus the Great was tolerant of all religions.”

“Also, before the time of Jesus there were popular winter festivals around Christmas time in many cultures. Also, solstices and equinoxes were important to several cultures and most of the important gods in the Ishtar and Mithra religions had their birthdays on December 25 and so there was a major holiday celebrating gods’ birthday on that day. “It was not until 221 years after Jesus death that December 25 was the earliest year that proclaimed he was born on that day. “No one knows for sure why this claim was made since it’s clearly not winter in the Bible when Jesus is born,” Kursheed says.

Since that time, cultures throughout the entire world have celebrated Christmas and in Iran people who are of the Christian belief celebrate Christmas which is more commonly known as the “Little Feast.” “For the first 25 days of December a great fast is observed during which no meat, eggs, milk or cheese is eaten. “It is a time of peace and meditation; a time for attending services at the church. “Christmas Eve is the last day of the fast and on Christmas day people attend Mass and then the Christmas feast begins,” Kurshed adds.

“And, just like in your other ancestor’s countries the Iranian Christians decorate Christmas trees, exchange gifts. “Also, even though Iran is an Islamic Republic and Muslim’s believe that Jesus was a prophet not a deity as Christians believe, out of respect for those who celebrate Christmas, Christmas trees appear in store windows,” Kursheed says.

“What about Santa Claus,” Kevin asks Kursheed and Kurshed?

“The boys and girls in Iran generally have not heard of Santa Claus so they don’t exchange gifts at Christmas but they do receive new clothes, which they proudly wear all during the happy Christmas week,” Kurshed answers.

“Soon the good spirit Joy and Happiness will be here to take us back to our home before it is time for us to wake up on Christmas morning. “Kevin and I have learned so much about the Christmas holiday and how it is celebrated in the lands of our ancestor’s,” Tess says.

Little Tess and Kevin could not remember the good spirit returning to Iran and taking them back home when they awakened from the deep sleep they had been in. “Kevin, get up, it’s Christmas morning and we need to go downstairs and see if Santa Claus has left us presents under the Christmas Tree,” Tess gleefully says.

“Tess, I had a wonderful dream that you and I visited our ancestor’s from Iran, Italy, Germany and Greece and told us about Christmas in their native lands,” Kevin says as he was hurriedly getting dressed to go downstairs.

“So did I Kevin, so did I. “We must tell Mama, Papa, Grandma and Grandpa about our amazing dream and the journey to the lands of our ancestor’s.”

THE END-Grandpa Ralph

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