We’ll wrap gifts with red ribbon, string lights around pine trees, and place light-up reindeer on our lawns. We’ll Zoom call our loved ones overseas, dust counters for a fresh batch of cookies, and online shop with an air of finesse. Although the celebrations are different this year, the holiday cheer and tradition continue. 

All with the modern edge of technology, there’s so much more to this holiday than cookies and bright lights. This semester, Professor Kyle Smith, director of U of T’s history of religions program, created and taught a course called “Christmas: A History” at UTM. “[It’s] a new course that keeps the ancient and the medieval in conversation with the contemporary, but in a way that [is] more narrowly focused. A course on the history of Christmas was the obvious choice because it’s a holiday that’s so culturally ubiquitous,” says Professor Smith in an interview with The Medium.

In the course, Professor Smith discussed the origin of Christmas celebrations. “We know from a Roman calendar prepared for the year 354 CE that Christmas was being celebrated on December 25 by at least the middle of the fourth century if not well before that,” says Professor Kyle Smith.

“December 25 made sense for a lot of reasons. It was the time of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, so theologically speaking, it was a good fit to celebrate Jesus’ birth as a new light—the dawn of longer days—came at the time of deepest darkness.” 

As we turn our focus to Christmas traditions this holiday season, we may struggle to identify their beginnings. “Many of us have no idea where all these annual Christmas traditions come from,” continues Professor Smith. “In the Middle Ages, Christmas was much more of a public festival, one that was more raucously and drunkenly celebrated. Some of the ways in which Christmas is culturally celebrated today is thanks to a number of nineteenth-century writers; Charles Dickens most notably among them.”

Christmas traditions evolved over time, often with cultures infusing new traditions. For example, my dad is from Trinidad and Tobago, so salt fish and fry bake (think Beavertails’ dough in the shape of a pita) are Christmas breakfast staples. In order to gain a greater appreciation for Christmas traditions across cultures, here are how five students celebrate the holiday season:

How do you and your family celebrate Christmas?

Mithea Murugesu: My mom is Catholic, and my dad is Hindu. I’ve always admired my parents’ understanding and support for each other’s religious beliefs and traditions. Their mutual understanding allowed me to appreciate our family tradition of going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t always my favourite tradition—I remember dozing off when I was younger. However, I love, both then and now, getting dressed up, driving through quaint streets with my family to church, and coming home to unwrap presents. 

Monika Krizic-Fronteddu: My family and I usually host Christmas at our house, and it’s mandatory that everyone wears pajamas or comfortable clothing. We put out lots of food—turkey, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and homemade ravioli—and eat and eat and eat. Then we spend the rest of the day playing board games and showing each other songs we’ve enjoyed recently on YouTube. 

Elisa Nguyen: We spend time together, give gifts, and we always celebrate with our church too. There’s usually a Christmas service, and we remember that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. 

Jade Ramnarine: On Christmas Day, we invite family over and have a huge Christmas feast where most of the family bring their own cooked dishes and treats. After dinner, we play a lot of different games together like card games, charades, and end up doing karaoke. 

Catherine Nassralla: We’re Coptic Orthodox (Christian Church in Egypt), so we fast leading up to Advent with the church on January 7. For about a month, we are essentially pescatarian. Living in Canada, we also participate in the gift-giving, tree decorating, stocking-filling version of Christmas on December 25.

What’s your favourite holiday tradition?

Krizic-Fronteddu: My favourite holiday tradition is helping my mom prepare Christmas dinner. We usually make a whole day out of it—I make us a special playlist consisting of our favourite artists, and we drink wine while cooking. It’s really a lot of fun, and I love spending time with my mom. 

Nguyen: For me, it is when my dad and I go visit a tree farm. We wander around the farm, looking at different trees of different shapes and sizes; struggle to saw it down; and mount it into a trailer to bring home. After, my family decorates the tree together. One year, our tree fell over three times though. 

Nassralla: I enjoy gathering on Christmas Eve to spend time with each other and waking up to gifts under the tree. When I was a kid, waking up also meant seeing a partly eaten chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk on the table too!

How does your culture influence your Christmas festivities?

Murugesu: My parents are both from Jaffna, a city in Northern Sri Lanka, and they love spice! You can expect to see at least one hot and savoury dish on our dinner table. What stands out most during our Christmas festivities are all the snacks my mom prepares. Vadas, murukkus, and fish cutlets are some of my favourites! We usually enjoy these with a hot cup of tea, just like how my parents used to drink it back home.

Krizic-Fronteddu: We’re Italian, so a couple of days before Christmas, my mom, grandmother, and I get together and spend an entire day making a ridiculous amount of homemade ravioli to serve on Christmas Day.

Nguyen: I’m from a Vietnamese family, so we often have spring rolls or other Vietnamese dishes at Christmas. For dessert, there’s “chè.” For presents, there’s “lì xì,” money in a red envelope.

Ramnarine: I would say in the Cayman Islands, we insist on having cassava cake for dessert. Also, rice and beans are a must for all Caribbean dishes!

Nassralla: On the eve of January 7, we have a big family dinner as a way to end our fast and to celebrate the birth of Christ. My mom always makes some of our favourite Egyptian foods for that dinner and her amazing lamb.

“Christmas is a time where we come together as a family and enjoy each other’s company. It’s a great way to wrap up the year by reflecting with my loved ones,” says Murugesu, and we hope it continues to despite the challenges in 2020. 

Although our celebrations this year will occur under very different circumstances, we will all nonetheless keep the holiday cheer in our hearts and continue to honour our traditions. During this challenging time, going back to the roots of what makes us most happy may be the key to this holiday season. Gratitude will be at the centre of our celebrations as we realize how precious life has revealed itself to be this year and how important our family and loved ones are. 

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