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The folk traditions of Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve, that is, December 24th, is connected to a number of traditions and customs. We no longer celebrate some of these, and many of them we do not even know about. Yet there are countless interesting, lovely and festive customs that concern this day. Here we present three of these interesting traditions.

The nativity play

The nativity play is one of the most well-known Christmas folk traditions. According to tradition, children dressed as shepherds from Bethlehem, knocked on the doors of the houses one after the other on the afternoon of the 24th, and performed their nativity play with singing and dancing. The key part of their performance was the funny dialogue between the three shepherds, centred around the manger in Bethlehem.

The participants in the nativity play were the two angels carrying a small church building and the three shepherds, supplemented by other characters in some regions. After performing the biblical story of the birth of Jesus, the nativity characters passed on their good wishes and were invited inside by the people of the house.

The Christmas table

On the vigil, or eve, of Christmas, the fully set table also played a prominent role. The objects and foods placed on the table were all meant to ensure a good harvest and wealth for the coming year.

The loaf of bread on the table had to be a full one ensuring the family bread throughout the coming year. But what was under the table also mattered: if there was hay and straw, it was later placed under the animals to make them stay healthy. But sometimes tools were placed under the table in the hope that they would be efficient and useful in the coming year as well. And placing seeds and crops under the Christmas table was an attempt to ensure an abundant harvest.

Food and how they were eaten also mattered. To keep the family together, the head of the family cut an apple into as many pieces as the number of people who were sitting around the table. Nuts symbolised health, while legumes, fish and pumpkins were the right choice if they hoped for plenty of money.

However, the crumbs remaining after the Christmas dinner were not swept under the table. Rather, they were collected and used against spoilage and illnesses, or sprinkled under fruit trees for a good harvest.

The water

It was believed that water had a healing effect and magical power that night. To ensure the health of the people in the house, apples and money were thrown into the wash water, thus enhancing the healing effect.

After returning from midnight mass, they drew fresh, so-called ‘golden’ water from the well. The new-born baby Jesus was believed to have been bathed in this, so they hoped for his blessing and thus a prosperous, healthy coming year; that is why the whole family drank and bathed in this water.


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