“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
And so begins arguably the most famous poem in history describing the anticipation of Christmas Eve. The poem was written by Clement Clarke Moore, an American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, and was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23 1823. It was 14 years later that Moore’s name was acknowledged in print as the author.
Christmas Eve traditions vary between countries and cultures. Here's how the Spanish, French, Mexicans, Swedes and the Austrians celebrate the night before Christmas.
In France, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël which literally translates to Father Christmas. However it isn’t Santa who keeps track of who’s been naughty and nice - it's Père Fouettard. Tradition says that children should place their shoes in front of the fire place to encourage Père Noël to place gifts inside them. At midnight on Christmas Eve a special dinner is served called the Réveillon. Following the meal the Bûche de Noël is savoured - this is a delicious log shaped cake that features chocolate whipped cream. Logs are a symbol of the festive season in France; on Christmas eve traditionally the French poured wine over a log and set it on fire. The log would burn slowly over the next few days with the remnants saved for good luck.
Beginning on December 16 and concluding on Christmas Eve, young Mexicans re-enact the story of Jesus as part of an elaborate procession called Las Posada. Following the parade, there are private parties where the kids hit star-shaped piñatas so they can feast on the candy. Poinsettias are the flower of Christmas or Navidad in Spanish and are hung in many homes. On Christmas Eve, families attend church before enjoying a dinner at home that might include Bacalao, Christmas salad, dumplings and Romeritos, which consists of sprigs of a wild plant known as Romerito that's served with patties of dried shrimp and potatoes.
For the Swedes, Christmas Eve is the focus of the festivities not Christmas Day. Families will enjoy a smorgasbord dinner that might include meatballs, pickled herring, sausage and rice pudding. Presents are exchanged after dinner. It’s thought that the gifts are brought by Tomte, who enjoys a bowl of porridge at each house. While there are depictions of Tomte as a gnome, his modern incarnation, Tomten doesn’t look that dissimilar to Santa Claus. The festive season begins on Saint Lucia’s Day, December 13, when young girls wear white dresses, a red sash and carry candles.
The Spanish celebrate the festive season from Christmas Eve or Nochebuena to Epiphany on January 6. Families savour dinner together on December 24 that might include seafood, soup and roast lamb. A midnight mass, Misa Del Gallo is held for those who wish to attend. Kids receive their presents on Christmas Day, which are delivered by Papá Noel, Father Christmas in Spanish. Some youngsters might leave shoes filled with straw, carrots and barley on the window sill for the three wise men and their horses as they re-enact their journey to Bethlehem.
In the lead up to the big day, Austrians embrace the festive spirit with Christkindlmarkt or Christmas markets that are set up in the central squares of Austrian towns. On offer in the various stalls are gingerbread and glühwein, a sweet mulled wine. While Christmas Trees are set up in the home prior to Christmas Eve, it’s on December 24 that the lights on the tree are lit for the first time. Families sing traditional carols such as Silent Night, which was first performed in Oberndorf bei Salzburg in 1818. Children address their wish list to the Christ child who places the gifts underneath the tree. After dinner on Christmas eve, the youngsters are allowed to open their presents.