EDITOR’S NOTE: The Diocese of Brooklyn is known as the “Diocese of Immigrants.” Its international flavor means that Mass is celebrated in 30 languages, and church pews are filled with parishioners of many nationalities. All month, The Tablet is taking a look at how different cultures represented in the diocese celebrate Christmas. This week, we focus on Guatemala, Ghana, Croatia, Ireland and Haiti.
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — In Guatemalan households, at Christmas, the most important item is not the Christmas tree; it’s the Nativity scene.
“People have Christmas trees, but the Nativity set takes priority. People will empty out half their living room to put up the Nativity set,” said Deacon Jorge Castillo, coordinator of the Guatemalan Apostolate for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Guatemala has a population of 17.1 million people, 41.2% of whom are Catholic. For Guatemalans, the Holy Family is truly at the center of the Christmas celebration. Not only do they observe a nine-day novena in the days leading up to the holiday — during which they pray in anticipation of the coming of Jesus — they also reenact the search by Joseph and Mary for a place to stay in Bethlehem.
The reenactment is part of Las Posadas (Spanish for The Inns), a nine-day, pre-Christmas celebration that starts on Dec. 16 and ends on Dec. 24 and features nightly processions, in which people portray Joseph and Mary and go house-to-house.
“They knock on the doors of different houses and ask to be let inside. It’s a really big part of the holiday for us,” Deacon Castillo explained. The procession participants carry special lanterns, called faroles, to light the way and bang drums made out of turtle shells.
Many people host gatherings, and when “Joseph” and “Mary” come knocking, the hosts beckon them inside to pray and enjoy ponche, a fruit punch, and munch on tamales.
On Christmas Eve, people gather at 11:45 p.m. for prayer. At midnight, the head of the household will uncover the face of Baby Jesus in the home’s Nativity scene, which up to that point, was covered with a handkerchief.
Also, at midnight, Guatemalans typically shoot off fireworks to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
“Then we sit down, and the children receive their presents,” said Deacon Castillo, who serves at St. Joan of Arc Church in Jackson Heights.
And in Guatemala, it is a tradition to go to Mass at noon on Christmas Day. “We do it at 12 noon because we celebrate 12 hours since the birth of Jesus,” he explained.
Christmas trees aren’t the only trees decorated with colorful lights for Christmas in Ghana. “We decorate any type of big tree, like a palm tree or a banana tree in front of your house,” said Father Anselmus Mawusi, coordinator of the Ghanian apostolate and administrator of St. Therese of Lisieux Church in Flatbush.
Palm and banana trees are a common sight in the West African nation — where approximately 10% of the 31.7 million population are Catholic — and residents enjoy festooning their branches with lights.
The days leading up to Christmas Day are spent preparing for the big day by attending Masses and going to Confession “to prepare for the Nativity,” Father Mawusi said.
Midnight Mass is a major activity in Ghana, as it is in many parts of the world. Churches are decorated with flowers that parishioners bring from their own gardens. Midnight Mass lasts until the wee hours of the morning. There is also an early morning Mass on Christmas Day that is usually heavily attended by people coming to church in colorful traditional dress. Following Mass, children are given treats like chocolates and cookies by Santa Claus, or as they call him in Ghana, Father Christmas.
It is after Christmas Day Mass that presents are exchanged and the holiday meal is prepared. A traditional dish is jollof rice, banku (a dish made of corn and dough), and a meat dish, usually chicken, goat, turkey, or guinea fowl.
“In many parts of Ghana, people will give guinea fowl as a Christmas present,” Father Mawusi explained.
Although Catholics in Croatia put up their Christmas trees during Advent, they wait until Christmas Eve to decorate them. “Before Midnight Mass, you decorate the tree. You do not do it before then,” said Nada Bernich, a native Croatian and the faith formation director of Most Precious Blood Church in Astoria.
Catholics in this predominantly Catholic country (approximately 85% of the nation’s 3.8 million people) spend Advent lighting candles, praying, and placing wreaths made of straw and evergreen twigs around their homes. Four candles, one for each week of advent, are placed on the wreath. Each week, Croatians light one of the candles at home and say a prayer.
“It is a time for looking forward. We know that Christ, as our savior, is coming into the world. We pray that Christ will touch our hearts,” Bernich explained.
A fifth candle, placed in the center of the wreath, is lit on Christmas Day.
Croatians mark two special days during Advent — St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 and St. Lucia Day on Dec. 13 — with traditional celebrations. On St. Nicholas Day, children clean their shoes and leave them in the window in the hope that St. Nicholas will place chocolates in them. St. Lucia Day is celebrated by sowing wheat for placing in places under the tree on Christmas Eve.
Families will take time out on Christmas Eve to decorate the tree, eat bakalar (dried cod) and fritule, which is a donut similar to the Italian zeppole.
Many families attend midnight Mass, although most people go to church on Christmas Day. The typical Christmas meal features goulash, beet soup, roast pork, goose or duck.
“Christmas is usually just your immediate family,” Bernich said. “St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26, the day after Christmas) is the day you go to visit your relatives.”
Kathleen Heanue, who grew up in County Meath, Ireland, has fond memories of Christmas pudding.
“We used to get a big wooden spoon and stir it together, all of us, as a family,” she recalled. Christmas pudding, a thickened pudding made of dried fruit, is a staple of Irish Christmas tables.
Another favorite memory for Heanue, the mother of Father Christopher Heanue — who serves as coordinator of the Irish Apostolate and is pastor of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Prospect Heights — was the sight of Christmas cards strung across the room like clothes on a clothesline in her family’s house.
Many Irish families put their Christmas trees up early — on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In addition to the Christmas tree, Mrs. Heanue said Irish families place holly around their homes.
Msgr. Sean Ogle, vicar for clergy, who is of Irish descent, said evergreen plants are also a feature of many Irish homes during the Christmas season.
Ireland is a predominantly Catholic country, with nearly 80% of its population of 5 million people members of the faith.
Advent is often a time for families to do their “spring cleaning” even though it’s wintertime, Msgr. Ogle said. “It fits with the liturgical season. You’re cleaning and getting ready for something new,” he added.
In Ireland, it is traditional to place a single candle on the windowsill after sunset on Christmas Eve and light it. There is a special reason for this. “You put a candle in the window to signal to Joseph and Mary that, ‘You can stay here,”’ Msgr. Ogle said.
Different regions of Ireland have their own Christmas traditions. “In the old days, in rural regions, dinner would consist of whatever food the family had in hand, like goose, bacon, potato spurs, and vegetables,” he said.
Nowadays, Christmas dinner “is similar to ours here in the U.S.,” said Msgr. Ogle. Turkey is a common entree. But spiced beef and mince pies are also commonly found on Irish tables.
And along with Christmas pudding, trifle (a sweet concoction of Lady Fingers, fruit, custard, and whipped cream stacked in layers in a deep dish) is a popular dessert, Mrs.Heanue said.
The celebrations don’t end on Christmas Day. Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day, is a day for visiting family and friends.
A fun-filled tradition known as the Wren Boys Procession, which dates back to ancient times, also takes place on that day in a small handful of regions around the country. Similar to Halloween here in the U.S., the Wren Boys Procession event consists of children dressing in costumes and going house to house singing a rhyme about the wren, one of the smallest birds found in Ireland.
“It’s the only bird that sings all through the winter,” Msgr. Ogle explained.
Christmas celebrations last all the way until the Epiphany on Jan. 6, which the Irish call “Little Christmas.”
“You don’t take your Christmas decorations down until Little Christmas,” Mrs. Heanue said.
“Haiti is 85-95% Catholic, so Christmas is a big deal in Haiti,” said Father Hilaire Belizaire, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Cambria Heights and coordinator of the Haitian Apostolate.
Families spend several weeks preparing for the holiday. One custom is to decorate homes with fanals, which are detailed paper drawings of churches made by children. “Homes are prepared for the coming of Christ,” Father Belizaire said.
Midnight Mass is a tradition in Haiti. “Before Mass, we replay the Nativity. Everyone participates. Babies are blessed. It’s a wonderful time,” he said. “Mass begins with the singing of ‘O Holy Night.’ And a bell will ring.”
After Mass, many people host big parties and invite family, friends, and neighbors. “The party goes on all night until morning,” he said. There is usually lots of dancing and singing.
The dishes served include goat, chicken creole, pork, and fried accra. For dessert, there’s pineapple upside-down cake and orange cake.
In recent years, the turmoil in Haiti, which has seen armed gangs running rampant through cities and villages, has led to changes in Christmas schedules. “Some churches have Mass in the morning and not at midnight because of security concerns,” Father Belizaire said.
Still, Haitians do their best to find joy in the season, like taking pleasure in the giving and receiving of gifts. “God gave us the gift of his son,” Father Belizaire added, “so we give gifts to each other.”