Merry Christmas!



The United States is a blend of various different cultures and nowhere is this more apparent than in their celebration of Christmas which incorporates many different elements - carols from England and Australia, trees from Germany, Santa Claus from Europe and parades from Latin America - and it seems that nearly every family has it's own unique Christmas traditions.

One custom in parts of South West America is for people to light the way to their doors with 'luminaries'. These are paper bags with designs cut out of the sides and a candle placed inside. Paths are lined with the bags and after dark the candles are lit to show the way to the door.

In San Antonio, Texas these lights are placed along the River Walk, a paved walkway alongside the San Antonio River, and an old custom known as 'Las Posadas' is acted out. Two young people, representing Mary and Joseph, follow the luminaries up to a house and knock on the door. However, there is no room in the house so they move onto the next one. This is repeated several times until someone finally lets them in. Everyone then sings carols and eats the food provided by the 'innkeeper'.

In San Felipe Pueblo, 35 miles south of Santa Fe, Christmas Eve is celebrated by a unique dance. Following the sermon, dancers dressed in masks, animal skins, feathers, coral, shells, turquoise and head dresses with real antlers perform the deer, turtle, eagle and buffalo dances in front of the altar. Women carry a sprig of hakak, the sacred spruce tree, which represents eternal life and which they believed helped to create mankind.

Palm trees are decorated in Hawaii and fragrant flower leis are hung around the indoor Christmas trees. In many shopping centres 'Menehunes', the legendary little people who are supposed to have been the first inhabitants of Hawaii, are displayed.

In the run up to Christmas most houses and streets are decorated with Christmas trees and lots of coloured lights. The sound of carols and Christmas songs can be heard everywhere - especially in shops and in many parts of the US carollers will go from house to house singing Christmas songs.

Children write letters to Santa Claus, telling him what presents they would like to receive for Christmas, and many stores have their own 'Santa' for children to meet. Connecticut has a Christmas village where Santa and his elves give out gifts and in New York there is a small town called the North Pole, which was designed for Santa Claus and which has a post office, a church and a blacksmith shop to repair the shoes of the reindeer.

Christmas cards are sent to friends and relatives and most homes will have a tree which is decorated with lights, tinsel and lots of colourful ornaments - many of them handmade over the years. Presents are placed under the tree ready to be opened on Christmas Day.

Many people attend church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning. The churches are decorated with evergreens, poinsettias and scenes of the Nativity.

After the evening service on Christmas Eve, the family will gather together and adults often drink eggnog - a drink made of cream, milk, sugar, beaten eggs and brandy or rum. 'The Night Before Christmas' is read to children before they go to bed to await the arrival of Santa Claus, who arrives in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Stockings are hung up so that Santa can fill them with candy, fruit and other small gifts.

The traditional Christmas Dinner is eaten on Christmas Day. This usually consists of roast turkey (or goose), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and a variety of other dishes. Desserts include mince pies, pumpkin pie, plum pudding and fruitcake.

There is a great variety of food eaten at this time of year: New England has Lumberjack Pie (a mashed potato crust, filled with meats, onion and cinnamon; North Carolina has Moravian Love-Feast Buns (faintly sweet bread of flour and mashed potatoes); Baltimore serves Sauerkraut (which includes apples, onions and carrots) with their turkey and Southern states have Hominy Grits Soufflé and Whisky Cake (with 100% proof whisky). Louisiana's treat is Creole Gumbo (which can include ham, veal, chicken, shrimp, oysters and crabmeat) and New Mexico has Empanaditas - little beef pies with applesauce pine nuts and raisins.

Many American traditional desserts, like other Christmas customs, were started long ago in other parts of the world - Crostoli, a fried bread spiced with orange peel, is made in Italian-American communities; German-Americans eat Pfeffernuesse, a bread full of sweet spices; doughnuts are a holiday offering in many Ukrainian-American homes and Norwegian-Americans eat Berlinerkranser, which is a wreath-shaped cookie.