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: Mexico, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, India and Bangladesh.
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — One of Edith Areizaga’s favorite days of the year is Jan. 6, when her Mexican-American family celebrates Three Kings Day. It’s important to Areizaga not only because of its religious significance — it marks the visit the Three Wise Men paid to Baby Jesus — but also because she gets to eat one of her favorite foods, Rosca de Reyes Bread.
“It’s part of our culture, and it’s a very special bread,” said Areizaga, a parishioner of St. Brendan’s Church in Midwood. Rosca de Reyes (Spanish for “wreath of kings”) is a ring-shaped bread decorated with glazed dried fruits representing the jewels of a king’s crown.
The bread also contains a special surprise inside. Tradition calls for the baker to mix a tiny figurine of Baby Jesus into the dough.
When the bread is ready, each person in the family takes a turn cutting a slice. By tradition, the person who finds Baby Jesus will have good luck throughout the year. But the person also gains an added responsibility. They are tasked with making tamales for everyone on Feb. 2, the celebration of Candlemas Day — when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to God at the Temple of Jerusalem.
“If you don’t like to cook, then you don’t want to be the one who finds Baby Jesus!” Areizaga joked.
In Mexico, the Christmas season lasts long after Christmas Day. Three Kings Day, also known as the Epiphany, and Candlemas Day (officially the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ), ensure that the season lasts into February.
“Mexico has a strong Catholic culture. For us, our faith is everything,” said Father Baltazar Sanchez Alonzo, coordinator of the Mexican Apostolate for the Diocese of Brooklyn and pastor of St. Mary Gate of Heaven Parish in Ozone Park.
The vast majority of Mexicans, 72% of the country’s 130.3 million people, are Catholic. In addition to the religious significance, the season is filled with delicious meals. Tamales, the traditional Mexican dish in which meats and cheeses are wrapped in dough, is a favorite.
“And each family has their own way of making them,” Areizaga explained. “Some people like to use corn husks, other people use plantain leaves.”
For Areizaga, tamale-making is a family affair: “We all get involved.”
Poland is another country where the Epiphany and the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ are important religious holidays. “It is a beautiful tradition we have. The Christmas trees stay up until Feb. 2,” said Father Grzegorz Stasiak, coordinator of the Polish Apostolate for the diocese.
Food is a very big part of Christmas traditions in Poland. Christmas Eve features a meatless feast known as Wigilia, which usually centers on fish dishes. Pierogi and poppy seed cake are also part of the traditional dinner.
Midnight Mass is a Christmas tradition in Poland, where it is called Pasterka, or Shepherd’s Mass, in reference to the shepherds who were visited by an angel and told to visit the Christ child. Ninety-one percent of Poland’s 37.7 million people are Catholic.
Poles mark the Epiphany on Jan. 6 with processions through the streets and visits to churches, where people pick up special chalk that has been blessed by priests. The chalk has a special purpose. People use it to write the letters K, M, and B on their doors in honor of the Three Kings, Caspar (called Kaspar in Poland), Melchior, and Balthazar.
Under Polish tradition, a family will invite their parish priest at some point between Jan. 6 and Feb. 3 to pay a visit to their house to bless it. It is believed that the blessing bestows good luck on the family living in the house.
Italians don’t take down their Christmas trees until the Epiphany, which they call Little Christmas.
In many parts of Italy, a country where 66.7% of the population of 59 million people is Catholic, families celebrate a tradition known as La Befana. Children leave out a shoe or a stocking with the hope La Befana will reward them with a gift.
In Italian folklore, La Befana was a woman who was stopped by the Three Kings on their way to see Baby Jesus. They invited her to join them, but she refused. As folklore has it, she later changed her mind and tried unsuccessfully to find the manger and wound up giving her gifts to other children.
Little Christmas caps off the Christmas season in Italy that begins in Advent with a series of novenas as the faithful prepare for the coming birth of the savior.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a well-known Italian tradition on Christmas Eve. Families prepare seven fish dishes for the meal to signify the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.
In Camille Orrichio Loccisano’s Dyker Heights home, the family adds its own twist to that tradition. “We make more than seven fishes,” she said.
Her menu this year was set to include such mouth-watering dishes as shrimp bisque, fried calamari, stuffed calamari, baked clams, seafood salad, crab cakes, lobster toast, lobster tails, mussels, and shrimp oreganata.
Orrichio Loccisano, who attends church at St. Francis Cabrini in Bensonhurst, grew up watching her mother and grandmother working in the kitchen preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
“I used to watch everything they did. They were like two masters in the kitchen. And then when I started cooking, I added a few dishes of my own, like crab cakes.”
While the food is a centerpiece of the feast, its main purpose is family togetherness. “We all sit around the table and enjoy being together,” Orrichio Loccisano said.
In many Italian homes, the Nativity scene — called the Presepio (Latin for manger) — features elaborate, hand-carved figures not only of the Holy Family, the Three Kings, and the shepherd boy, but of entire villages. The scenes depict houses, fountains, trees, grottos, livestock, and vendors selling their wares.
Like their fellow Catholics in other parts of the world, Lithuanians leave their Christmas trees up until the Epiphany. Streets in cities and towns in Lithuania come alive on Jan 6 with colorful processions in which marchers carry effigies of the Three Kings.
And like Poles, Lithuanians also write the letters K, M, and B on their doors to honor the kings.
On Christmas Eve, many Lithuanian families celebrate a tradition called Kucios, a meal featuring 12 meatless dishes in honor of the 12 apostles.
Lithuania is a country where 74.2% of the population is Catholic. The country has a total population of 2.7 million people.
Raimundas Slizys, a parish trustee at the Church of the Annunciation in Williamsburg, told The Tablet about another Lithuanian Christmas Eve tradition.
“We have a tradition of exchanging pieces of Communion wafers called plotkeles. The custom consists of each person taking their plotkele to a friend or relative, and then each person breaks off a piece of the other’s plotkele and wishes them a Merry Christmas,” he explained.
Many families also place a small piece of plotkele in each of the 12 dishes in the Kucios meal.
“Besides Kucios, another Lithuanian tradition is the creation of handcrafted straw Christmas ornaments, called siaudinukai, in Lithuanian,” Slizys said. “Each year, we decorate our Christmas tree in the Annunciation Church with siaudinukai.”
Father Robert Ambalathingal has fond childhood memories of Christmas in his native India, where handmade Nativity scenes — called cribs — are common sites in homes.
“We went out into the paddy fields and took clay to make our own images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the shepherds,” he recalled. “We also used to make the palace of Herod.”
Father Ambalathingal, the coordinator of the Indian Latin Rite Apostolate of the diocese and the chaplain at Northwell Health Hospital LIJ Medical Center, said local churches often host competitions among their parishioners to see who can make the best crib. “The best one gets a prize,” he added.
Christmas trees are not a common sight in India. Instead, people take the stems of trees, paint them white to symbolize snow, and hang colorful ornaments on the tree branches.
Indian Catholics always place a star on the side of their homes and businesses to mark the birth of Jesus. “The stars are in all shapes and sizes,” he said.
Father Ambalathingal grew up in a village with no electricity. But that didn’t put a damper on Christmas celebrations.
“We would cover the star in nice paper and put a kerosene lamp in there to make the star shine,” he remembered.
Families attend Midnight Mass together and then come home to enjoy dinners consisting of rice dishes and stews made from lamb or chicken.
Catholics are in the minority in India, where most of the country’s 1.3 billion people are Hindu or Sikh. Still, there are 20 million Catholics in the country.
Christmas is called “Borodin” in Bangladesh, which translates as “Big Day.”
Catholics in Bangladesh spend a great deal of time conducting a thorough, spring cleaning type of sprucing up of their homes in the weeks before Christmas.
“It is a way to prepare the home for the coming of the Lord,” explained Father Mintu Rozario, coordinator of the Bangladeshi Apostolate for the diocese.
Christmas trees are not common in homes in Bangladesh, where less than 1% of the population is Catholic. Instead, people usually decorate their homes with banana leaves.
As in many places in the world, Christmas Eve in Bangladesh is filled with the sounds of Christmas carols. “Every village has a team of carolers,” Father Rozario said.
People attend Mass on Christmas Eve and early on Christmas morning. Following Christmas Day Mass, “people go from house to house asking for a blessing,” Father Rozario said. “In every house, you go to, people offer you food.”
The people of Bangladesh usually follow a vegetarian diet, but for Christmas, dishes like veal, pork, and chicken are often served.
A popular Christmas dessert in Bangladesh is a rice cake called Bhapa Pitha and Father Rozario, the parochial vicar for Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, said most families grind the rice into flour by hand.
“It is a primitive way to do it,” he said, “but if you make it by machine, the cake is not as good.”
The Christmas season is also a time for other celebrations. For example, many marriages take place during that time of year.