Christmas History and Habits - Holiday Week


By Tanya Silverman

Caga Tio, the Christmas Log. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Greenhill.

Most in the western world know Christmas as an annual religious, cultural, and commercial holiday. It could connote similar, or different, aspects to many: spiritual experience at church, long shopping lists, family get-togethers, family drama, a day off of work, adhering to a non-Christian faith (or no religion) and not officially celebrating but nevertheless enjoying the yearly television specials.

Whatever the case, here is some history you may or may not know, plus a few traditions you may not have heard of. Or, depending on your culture, are simplified write-ups of the annual customs you celebrate.

Christmas History Tidbits

Yule Log. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Scandinavia, long before the Biblical era, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21st, the Winter Solstice, on through January. Dark, dismal, and cold conditions, men would bring home logs to light up their lives.

Also around Winter Solstice, in Ancient Rome, people celebrated Saturnalia, where societal opposites occurred: slaves were masters, peasants were politicians, schools and businesses were closed.

Christianity spreads through the Middle Ages. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In terms of religion, during the early days of Christianity, the church acknowledged Easter as their paramount holiday. Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ only became a tradition in the fourth century, and while the Bible does not document the exact day of his birth, Pope Julius I decided upon December 25th. By the Middle Ages, Christianity prevailed over paganism in Europe, and believers were known to attend church and then hold Christmas parties afterwards, while rich people were obliged to give to the poor.

Fast forward centuries on through today, Christian faith and influence have since spread throughout many different regions, leaving all sorts of celebratory adaptations of the holiday in its historical wake.

Pet Carp for Czech Dinner

Though fish is not common to this landlocked country’s cuisine, for this holiday, carp is the traditional dinner dish for Czechs. During the winter weeks leading up to Christmas, fishers capture these carp from muddy ponds, where they are transported to Prague and provincial cities to sell at stands.

Some customers have the fishmongers club and kill the carp on the spot, while other Czechs take these fish home alive to leave in their bathtubs for the few weeks preceding Christmas.

Carp in a home bathtub. Photo courtesy of Pavel Sevela.

Even though the scaly creature’s domestic dwelling may run into conflict with bath time, children treat the carp as a pet…

Czech Christmas Dinner: Carp and Potato Salad. Photo Courtesy of Pavel Sevela.

… up until it meets its breaded, fried fate next to a serving of potato salad on Christmas Eve.

American Jewish Christmas

An unofficial, but still acknowledged, tradition for American Jews is to go out for Chinese food on Christmas. If you’re in New York City, which has a large Jewish population, Chinatown is bustling on December 25th.

Buddha Bodai in NYC. Photo courtesy of Bernard.

Last year I made plans to dine at Buddha Bodai, a restaurant that’s not only Chinese, but Kosher and vegetarian – though when I got there, it was so busy that I could not get a seat.

Going to the movies is also popular as, like Chinese restaurants, theaters traditionally tend to be some of the only businesses open on Christmas.

Landfill Lights in Ohio

Holiday spirit outside the facilities. Photo courtesy of Rumpke Consolidated Industries, Inc.

Rumpke, a waste disposal and recycling plant located outside Cincinnati, makes the season merrier by illuminating its facilities. At 1,052 feet sits the peak of their landfill, where, each year, employees decorate it with 10,000 holiday lights to resemble a Christmas tree. Also lit is a giant sign that reads “Seasons Greetings”, plus a giant candy cane.

In addition, Rumpke constructs a nativity scene at their facility entrance, where, on every Christmas Eve, several families wait anxiously for Santa Claus, who delivers baby Jesus to the manger.

Caga Tio

Caga Tio, a Catalonian figure, translates as “poop log.”

…What does this have to do with Christmas? It excretes gifts.

Caga Tio. Photo courtesy of Joan Valls.

On December 8th, the Feast of Immaculate Conception, parents bring a log into their homes and paint a face on it. The Caga Tio is very hungry, and children are required to “feed” him until Christmas, the day when they place a blanket around his rear end, sing some jingles, and beat him with sticks. After the lashing, his system should be clear, and families can remove the blanket for some pleasingly pooped out presents.

Back in the day, Caga Tio would release dried figs, but has evolved from providing fiber-filled fruits for other candies and trinkets. The grand finale of presents is either a salty herring, head of onion, or garlic – but in some homes, Caga Tio gives a final micturition, which comes out as a glass of beer.

Then it’s time to play with presents and, if there’s a fireplace, burn Caga Tio for warmth.

Caga Tios for sale. Photo courtesy of Bernadette Farriol.

Not meaning to knock on the cookies-and-milk custom, but to me, Catalan’s Caga Tio seems more creative than Ol’ Saint Nick. Though, whether the provincial pooping log is more wholesome, I’ll let you be the judge.