23# Christmas around the world: traditions and customs from Canada~8 min read
Yes, it seems that today is my turn! Even if I come from different countries, and you don’t ask me the reason, today I’ll talk you about Christmas in Canada, the country where I was born. Today Christmas is celebrated in various ways and in particular traditions come from the French, British and American traditions.
Christmas is generally defined as the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, but the feast has complex origins and ambiguous non-religious resonances. The origin of the name Christmas is the Old English Crïstes mæsse, “Christ’s mass”, while the French Noël derives from the Latin Dies Natalis, “Day of Birth.”
Whatever the origins of the feast that is held on the 25th of December, it cannot be the celebration of the actual birth date of Jesus. That date is unknown, and the day chosen seems more related to the many festivals that mark the winter solstice, most of which in Roman or Celtic times. Of course, it cannot be said that these celebrations are the origin of Christmas, but they have left their legacy in many of its symbols and traditions.
As we already know, winter solstice festivities of course celebrated renewal and the return of light, a perfect complement to the birth of Christ, which, according to the Christian faith, brought light into the world to dispel the darkness of sin and radiate the love of God.
In North America, some First Nations also held winter ceremonies and festivals as a time for regeneration and introspection. Some, such as the Iroquoian groups, held week-long festivals at mid-winter, with the observation of the moon and stars. Typical practices, later associated with winter solstice and some of which continue to this day, were healing rituals, making tobacco offerings, prayer and ceremonial drumming and dancing.
The Christmas tree, along with the Nativity scene is the major physical symbol of Christmas across Canada in homes, businesses and public spaces. The tree is a symbol of evergreen, of life, of magical powers in deepest winter, in fact varieties of evergreen boughs adorned homes and temples during solstice festivals already across the Roman Empire.
Pagan German tribes as well set up fir trees in their homes, and coniferous Trees are a strong symbol of eternal life and longevity, a parallel and pagan symbolism with the feast of Christmas.
The first Christmas tree in Canada appeared on Christmas Eve 1781, in Sorel, Québec, when the baroness Riedesel hosted a party of British and German officers. She served an English pudding, but the “special guest” of the evening was a balsam fir cut for the occasion and placed in the corner of the dining room and decorated with fruits and lit with white candles. The baroness was determined to mark her family’s return to Canada after a trying ordeal with a traditional German celebration.
Baron Frederick-Adolphus Riedesel was commander of a group of German soldiers sent by the Duke of Brunswick to help defend Canada. Riedesel and his family were taken prisoner during the disastrous British offensive in northern New York in 1777, and they were not released until 1780, when they returned to Sorel.
Today the Christmas tree is a tradition throughout Canada, where the fresh scent of the evergreen and the multicoloured decorations contrast with the dark nights and the gloomy nature. Beyond its pagan and Christian origins, the Christmas tree is a symbol of rebirth and of light in the darkest time.
Christmas tree production in Canada is a really profitable enterprise, and the value of freshly cut Christmas trees an estimated $65 million annually! About 1.8 million trees are exported annually, primarily to the United States, and all provinces export Christmas trees, except Newfoundland, Labrador, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The Eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia is known all over the world for its fir and pine Christmas Trees, so most families in Canada have a fir or pine Christmas Tree. One Canadian tradition is to send the biggest, best fir tree (grown in Nova Scotia) to Boston, USA because of the assistance given during the disaster, known worldwide, as the Halifax Explosion.
The Christmas that is celebrated in its various ways in contemporary Canada it is not only the product of French, British and American traditions.
Christmas was essentially a religious festival in the early days of New France. In 1645, French colonists gathered together in a church in Québec City to attend midnight mass and began to sing Chantons Noé, an old Christmas carol that they had brought from France, and the procession of the Christ Child and display of the crèche, a representation of the Nativity, were celebrated.
The earliest mention of the celebration of Christmas by First Nations dates back to 1641 when Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary who lived among the Huron of Georgian Bay from 1626, composed a Christmas carol, “Jesous Ahatonhia” or the “Huron Carol,” in their language telling the story of the birth of Jesus.
Father Brébeuf adapted his story, written in verse, to the distinctive characteristics of the Aboriginal culture: the Infant Jesus was wrapped in rabbit skin rather than linen and slept in a lodge of broken bark rather than a manger. Hunters replaced the shepherds and, in a final touch, three First Nations chiefs stood in for the Wise Men and, in place of gold, frankincense and myrrh, offered fur pelts to the holy Child.
The “Jesous Ahatonhia” (Jesus is born) of Jean de Brébeuf survived as Huron descendants, who settled in Lorette near Québec City, passed it down the generations. Today the Huron, like many other First Nations, continue to celebrate the Nativity as well as the festival of Saint Anne on July 26, the grandmother of Jesus, whom they venerate as their patron saint.
In Canada, by the 1870s, Christmas had lost much of its religious character, and the holiday became a community and family festival. Customs like the decorated Christmas tree and gift-giving became part of family tradition.
Many attribute the change to Queen Victoria, and claim that it was her marriage to the German-born Prince Albert that introduced some of the most familiar aspects of Christmas. Of course, British immigrants brought these practices to Canada, which were incorporated into Francophone culture much later, after the First World War, with the increase in commercial advertising.
Another contribution of Victorian England to Christmas was the cracker. Inspired by French bon bons, sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper, British confectioner Tom Smith invented the Christmas cracker, which snapped when pulled apart revealing the candy inside. Small gifts and paper hats, the form we recognize today, replaced the candies in the late Victorian period.
All Christian nations have traditions that have become a part of the Christmas season: England contributed holly and mistletoe, carol singing, Christmas cards, much of the menu, and gift giving., while the Christmas tree is a medieval German tradition and the sublime carol “Silent Night,” among others, also comes from Germany. The United States first transformed St Nicholas into Santa Claus and made the major contribution to commercializing Christmas.
Canada being a multicultural nation also inherited traditions also from many other regions, for example from Ukraine.
There is a large Ukrainian community in Canada (the third largest in the world following Ukraine and Russia).
Sviata Vechera, or “Holy Supper,” is the central tradition of the Christmas Eve celebrations in Ukrainian homes and the meal features 12 Lenten dishes, symbolizing the 12 Apostles of the Last Supper, made without animal products, and Christmas is preceded by a period of fasting to symbolize Mary’s hardships on the way to Bethlehem.
The main Christmas meal is often roast turkey with vegetables and something like mashed potatoes or vegetables. Traditional favorite Christmas desserts include Christmas/plum puddings and mincemeat tarts, and a rich fruit Christmas Cake is also normally eaten around Christmas time!
Many Canadian families have cookie-baking parties: they bring a recipe for Christmas cookies, bake them and then exchange them with the members of their family. Gingerbread people and houses are favorites, and at the end of the party, each family goes home with a variety of different cookies to enjoy over the Christmas season.
Christmas traditions in Québec, as elsewhere in Canada, are a blend of changing traditions brought from France, unique to the region or adapted from British and American influences. In late November and early December, Christmas markets appear throughout Québec, traditionally in the streets but also indoors in halls or in some special places, such as the Marché de la Gare de Sherbrooke and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau.
Artisans, long-time participants of these markets, set up stalls, often packed around a gigantic Christmas tree outside, where they display their pastries or decorations. Traditionally established in front of the church, these Christmas markets present the Christmas spirit outside and inside.
There is a fire stoked all day, hot chocolate and other traditional treats and choirs plays an integral part in the festive scene.
The réveillon (midnight meal) was traditionally enjoyed on Christmas Eve after the messe de minuit (midnight mass), which is celebrated today a little earlier, towards 10:00 pm.
The Christmas Nativity scene (crèche de Noël) still occupies an important place in traditions of contemporary Québec, as it does across Canada. In former times, the village children played the parts of the characters of the scene, before the midnight mass, and the most recent newborn in the village took the place of the baby Jesus.
While the family is at midnight mass, Père Noël visits the house to leave gifts. After the opening of the gifts, as the hearth fire dies out, visitors go to bed and the household falls asleep.
Many Canadians open their gifts on Christmas Eve. Some only open their stocking on Christmas Eve. Others choose one gift to open, then save the rest until Christmas Day.
December 25 is a day for visiting friends, perhaps playing pick-up hockey in the neighbourhood rink or enjoying a bowl of onion soup!
An old custom, now lost, is the blessing made on the morning of 1 January by the family father, who gathers his children to bless them and wish them bonne année (Happy New Year).
People in Canada send Christmas Cards to their friends and family.
The Santa Claus Parade in Toronto is one of the oldest and largest Santa parades in the world: It started in 1913 when Santa was pulled through the streets of Toronto. Children along the route followed Santa and marched along with him. It’s been taking place for over 100 years and now is a huge event with over 25 animated floats and 2000 people taking part!
On the south shore of Nova Scotia there’s the tradition of Belsnickeling in which people dress up in funny Santa costumes and go from house to house until the home owners guess who you were. It was especially popular in West & East Green Harbour. The Belsnicklers often brought musical instruments and sang, and they were served Christmas cake or cookies. This tradition was brought to Nova Scotia by the 1751 Germans immigrants who settled Lunenburg and South shore.