December 3, 2006 - January 28, 2007
300 Somerset Street, New Brunswick, NJ

The American Hungarian Foundation's



and the Traditions of DENMARK, ESTONIA, FINLAND,

Descriptions: Patricia Fazekas, Curator, American Hungarian Foundation
Photos: Gabriella Gyorffy


The origin of the Christmas tree is often credited to the Germans who reportedly began the custom in the eighth century. St. Boniface dedicated a fir tree to the Holy Child in the spirit of Tertullian of Carthage, who stated during a third-century treatise on idolatry, "You are a light of the world, a tree evergreen...".

A popular legend says that in the 16th century Martin Luther cut down the first Christmas tree and decorated it with candles inspired by the starry skies of the Holy Night in Bethlehem. Another story describes the first use of an evergreen tree in a Christmas celebration in Riga, Latvia in 1510, while the first "tree of record" is one raised in Strasburg in 1605. More than two centuries later, Princess Helen of Mecklenburg brought the custom to France after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. In 1844, it spread to England when Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxony, brought the German custom with him.

As with many holiday customs which partially have their origins in Pre-Christian practice, the Christmas tree may have some connection to the tree worship of Druids in Europe. At the winter solstice, they tied apples to the branches of oaks and firs to thank Oden for blessing them with fruitfulness. They also placed lighted candles honoring the sun god Balder in the boughs and made offerings of cakes shaped like fish, birds and other animals.

The Christmas tree has become one of the most popular Christmas traditions. It is not just a pretty decoration, but a reminder of the ancient symbolism that is embedded in our familiar modern religions, as well as a reaffirmation of our connection to the earth.


Hanukkah in Jewish history observed the victory of Judah the Maccabee and his four brothers over the Syrian-Greeks. The Temple was recaptured and rebuilt in eight days; therefore; Hanukkah is observed for eight days. In the Temple only a small undefiled jug of oil was found for lighting the Temple Menorah (candelabrum). Kindled by the High Priest, a miracle happened, the menorah flame burned for eight days rather than one. To commemorate the event, the holiday annually observed the kindling of lights for eight days, and Hanukkah became known as the Feast (or Festival) of Lights.

Welcome and opening remarks by Professor August J. Molnar,
President of the Hungarian American Foundation and by
Patricia L. Fazekas, Curator of the Museum of the Foundation

Mrs. Takacs, widow of painter Paul Takacs and
sculptor Gyuri Hollosy talked about the current exhibition:

Remembering the 50th Anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian
Revolution in Art and the Photos of Erich Lessing

Christmas songs by Polish children's choir

"A Vers Hangja" Literary Circle recited Hungarian Christmas poems and songs

Gyongyver Harko

Zsolt Balla and Eniko Gorondi


Danish Archive, Northeast, Edison, NJ


The decorations of the Danish Christmas tree are typical of those that have been used by the Danes throughout the centuries. They were made by Danish senior citizens in Denmark and by members of the various Danish lodges in New Jersey and New York who remember the more than 3,000 Danes who lost their lives in the fight for freedom and peace during World War II. At the end of the war, as the blackout was lifted, candles were placed in all the windows to herald the return of freedom. The custom of window lights has since become an annual tradition.

Danish Archives North East (DANE) is pleased to again have the opportunity to participate in the annual Festival of Trees. DANE was organized in 2000 and has opened offices at the Danish Home, 855 New Durham Road, Edison, New Jersey. The facilities of DANE will be set up to serve as a cultural center, archive, and museum. One aim of DANE
is to bring to the forefront the contributions of immigrant Danes who settled in the northeastern area of the United States. Initial research indicates that there is a wealth of information available about these Danes who gained prominence as statesmen, entrepreneurs,
educators, businessmen, and industrialists.

Individual and family photos as well as local scenes from earlier days are welcome and will form an integral part of these historical documentations. Families of present-day Danes are welcome to contact the genealogy department for assistance in tracing their lineage. DANE may be reached, toll free at 1-866-855-3263.


Lakewood Estonian Association, Inc., Lakewood, NJ


The Christmas holidays in Estonia are known as "Jöulupühad". Many of the early Christmas traditions in Estonia evolved from pre-Christian beliefs and folklore when people celebrated the winter solstice with customs that were associated with the bestowing of good fortune on families, animals, and crops which were needed for sustenance. The display of evergreen trees and singing of Christmas carols and hymns were part of Estonian celebrations as early as the 16th and 17th centuries.

According to an old Estonian holiday custom, the first sheaf of rye reaped at harvest was saved until Christmas when it was brought indoors into the living area. A few straws were taken from it and thrown against the ceiling to wish for an abundant crop next year. The whole floor of the parlor was usually covered with rye-straw to bring into the home the wholesome influence of the grain spirit.

In preparation for the three-day Christmas holiday, the house, hearth, and family had to undergo cleansing ceremonies to ensure good health, and festive clothes were donned. On Christmas Eve, an evergreen tree was placed in the parlor and decorated with handmade ornaments of straw, paper, pine and spruce cones along with strings of fruits and berries, nuts, sweets, and live candles.

A ride to church to attend Christmas Eve services was a deep-seated tradition of the Estonian people. After the service, candles would be lit on the graves of family members at nearby cemeteries.

Feasting on a traditional meal of roast pork, sauerkraut, jellied pigs feet, barley sausages, and other delicacies was a treasured part of the celebration. After the meal, carols were sung around the tree with an appearance by Santa Claus (Jöuluvana) bearing gifts for the children, who were expected to recite poems or sing. Holiday celebrations continued until the Epiphany.


"The New Jersey Finns"


The yuletide season in Finland starts with the first weekend of Advent, when many people attach ornamental Christmas wreaths to their front doors. Many such ornaments are handcrafted items made of straw or twigs, which for hundreds of years were the most common materials for Finnish Christmas decorations.

The Christmas tree is brought home on Christmas Eve at the latest and it is usually decorated by the children of the house. Christmas trees used to be decorated with real candles but now they are normally lit with electric lights. A star is placed at the top of the tree. Christmas Eve, according to the Finnish calendar, is the name day of Adam and Eve.

The great hero of the Finnish Christmas celebration is Santa Claus. According to legend, he lives on top of Korvatuturi, which is such a secret place that only Santa Claus, his wife, and hundreds of elves, Santa’s helpers, are allowed there. Santa is so old that he can't really remember his age. But that does not make any difference, for ageless Santa Claus is loved by all.


New Brunswick's Sister City, Debrecen
and The American Hungarian Foundation


The popular Nativity plays in Hungary are centered around amusing jokes, songs and acts performed by shepherds dressed in huge fur capes worn inside out. The players carry a homemade manger with them or a small house in the shape of a church. Nowadays, it is the children who perform the Nativity plays, except for one or two Székely villages in Transylvania, where grown men present the miracle plays, with the peculiar addition of formidable masks made of animal skins worn by the shepherds. 

The oldest parts of these Christmas plays in Hungary are the Latin liturgical plays that were introduced in the eleventh century. The most important scene in the Hungarian play is the pastoral. The contrasts between good and evil, rich and poor are depicted with great simplicity and expressiveness.

In Hungary the Christmas trees appeared in towns in the 1840’s and 1850’s. The honeybread, mézeskalács hanging on the tree here was decorated with designs by Patricia Fazekas, curator of the Museum.


New Brunswick's Sister City, Limerick County,
St. Joseph's School (Coláiste Jósaef)


With greater access to commercially produced Christmas decorations in recent years, most homes in Limerick City and County are now festooned in glittering displays of lights, shiny baubles and trinkets. In many ways the "Irish Christmas" has been greatly influenced by our neighbors across the Atlantic in the U.S.A.

Thankfully, Christmas is still very much a family celebration, with family members going to great efforts to "make it home" for Christmas, no matter which part of the country or world they may be in. The Christmas trees and decorations seem to grace the homes earlier each year, with the honor of placing the star or angel on top of the tree falling to the youngest member of the household.

Many homes still place a nativity or "Crib" as it is known in Ireland, in their homes in a prominent position. A tradition, especially in the country, is the placing of a lighted candle in the window as a sign of welcome to visitors. This practice grew from the Holy Family of Nazareth's difficulty in finding a room at the inn, and people's wish to extend to them a welcome at this special time.

Many people still make a Christmas pudding, the recipe for which is handed down from generation to generation, with each of the family members taking turns stirring and mixing ingredients while at the same time making a wish.

In lots of homes, Christmas gifts are placed under the tree, and are opened on Christmas morning when all the family members are gathered together after returning from morning Mass. Later in the day, the family gathers around the table where traditionally, turkey and ham are eaten, followed by Christmas pudding.

During the Season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, an Advent Wreath is made and placed in each church throughout the city and county. The wreath is circular in shape and is made from evergreen branches. This symbolizes God without beginning or end. Four candles, three purple and one pink, are placed around the wreath, and each week a candle is lit until at Christmas all four adorn the wreath. The purple candles signify our need for repentance as we prepare for the birth of Christ. The pink candle, which is lit on the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudet Sunday), symbolizes the joy of Mary as she awaited the birth of her Son, and is a reminder to us that Christmas is very near. On the last Sunday before Christmas the final purple candle is lit as a reminder that Christ’s birth is imminent and we need to make a final effort to prepare ourselves for his coming.

On Christmas Day, a single white candle, announcing to us that Christ is born, replaces the four candles.


St. Mary of Mount Virgin Church, New Brunswick, NJ


In Italy, the most popular Christmas tradition is the ‘presepio’; that is, the Nativity scene. On Christmas Eve, as the family gathers around the presepio singing traditional carols, the oldest woman in the household places the Christ Child in His straw bed. Afterwards, the family decorates their Christmas tree with both fresh and dried fruits, candies, and cookies wrapped in bright paper and tinfoil. After a hearty dinner, they enjoy some ‘panettone’, which is a sweet bread made with pignolli nuts, candied fruits, and raisins.


New Brunswick's Sister City: Fukui and Tsuruoka


Japanese people who celebrate Christmas decorate holiday trees that look very similar to their English or American counterparts. Therefore, the decorations adorning the Japanese tree are replicas of items which represent important elements of their culture. They were made by Japanese school children.

The graceful Japanese dolls are dressed in the ceremonial robes of a Japanese court lady. The kimono is a traditional Japanese dress. Today, it is rarely worn as part of daily life, but it remains an important symbol of the Japanese culture and students are taught in school to respect and value the beauty and tradition of the kimono.

The miniature kimonos on the Japanese tree are made using paper with colored figures. The art of making washi paper of high quality has been in Japan from old times. Due to its durability, washi became to be a material for making books and sliding doors (shoshi and fusuma). Many other things such as umbrellas, raincoats, lanterns and waterproof items are made of washi, too.

The origami decorations were each created from a single sheet of paper. The traditional art of origami has been in Japan for a long time. Even small children know how to make paper animals or flowers characteristic of each season in Japan. No event throughout the year goes without origami, some very simple and lovely which set your mind at peace, and others which are very artistic in design.

Other decorations on the tree are wind bells, which in summer give the illusion of coolness as they move in the breeze, folded paper fans that capture the color and air of a Japanese summer, sushi, a typical food of Japan, teacups, used to drink hot Japanese tea, and kotatsu, which can warm you up during the winter. These decorations, in their color, shape and texture, express the heart and culture unique to Japan.


Latvian Lutheran Church Ladies Aid, East Brunswick, NJ

Elvira Levans, Daina Lucs and Zigrida Tobiens


Far to the north of Europe, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, lies Latvia. Winter comes early with deep snow and long nights. In ancient times, when Christianity had not yet arrived, Latvians celebrated the Winter Solstice.

In anticipation of the Winter Solstice, one of the ancient traditions/rituals was to prepare a large oak log and pull it from farmhouse to farmhouse during the day. At night, accompanied by folksongs, it was burned in hopes that it would aid the ascent of the Sun and signified the conquest of last year’s hardships and failures. It was believed that the brighter the fire, the richer and luckier the coming year will be.

Homes were decorated with evergreen branches which hung on walls and around windows and doors. Other decorations were made and displayed from materials found in nature. Various foods were prepared in a round form symbolizing the sun (breads, sausages tied in rounds, food made from peas and beans). Special emphasis during this festival was placed on brightly burning candles and bright fire in the fireplace to drive away the darkness.

With the arrival of Christian religion in Latvia there also arrived the new meaning of Christmas. While some of the old customs remain, new traditions make this such a special season of the year in the Latvian home.

The Christmas tree came into Latvia from Germany and brought new decorations, such as wax candles set on the tree branches, little red apples, special colorful candies, cookies (piparkukas) were hung in the Christmas tree and garlands made of cranberries and straw decorations.

However, one of the most beautiful traditions is for the family and extended family members to gather on Christmas Eve and attend together the holy evening church service that usually begins at dusk. After the last hymn (Silent Night, Holy Night) has been sung and Christmas greetings are exchanged with friends, Latvians gather for the traditional family Christmas Eve meal. Then they sing more Christmas carols, children recite poems and verses from Latvian folklore and all exchange presents.

The peace and Christmas joy that has entered every heart is carried into Christmas Day which is set aside for visiting relatives and friends.


Polish Language School, Bound Brook, NJ


The Christmas Eve Vigil or Wigilia is an important part of the traditional Polish Christmas celebration. The anticipation of the four long weeks of Advent culminate in this reverent and beautiful tradition. Christmas Eve is the holiest night of the year in Polish, Slovak, and Lithuanian homes. In preparation for the evening’s observance, the home has been made clean and tidy. The room where the celebration takes place is hung with multi-colored paper decorations and garlands. The atmosphere is a pleasant blend of the scent of freshly cut evergreens and the aromas of ceremonial foods tantalizing the palate.

Earlier, the father has entered the home with a sheaf of grain which he has placed in a corner. This represents the home’s Guardian Angel. The family table, adorned to be a symbolic manger of Bethlehem, has been hallowed by the hay placed under the fine linen cloth. Since sunset, the youngest child has been peering through the window pane, waiting for the first star to appear in the night sky. Soon a the child exclaims: "It is here! The Star!" Patricia Fazekas, curator of the Museum. Then, with warm hearts the family members and guests gather around the food-laden table. They begin the ages-long Christmas Eve Vigil with the breaking and sharing of the sacred oplatek - the Christmas wafer.

The Vigil centers upon the importance of the Christmas wafer. It literally unites family wherever they are on the face of the earth. Christmas wafers are mailed to far-flung family members during this holy season to remind them of their kinship. This ancient ritual unites the past with the present, heaven with earth. An empty place is set in memory of the family’s ancestors, and Jesus Christ. There is high hope that Christ, as the unexpected guest, will come and bless the gathering. "A guest in the home is Christ in the home." As each of the odd-numbered courses is served, a small portion is set aside for the animals. At the first Christmas, when Christ was born, the animals were, after all, the only honored "eye witnesses" and they are remembered for this distinction.

The culmination of the Vigil of Christmas Eve is the family's journey to the parish church. There, after the sacred and joyous observance in the home, everyone praises God for His Wondrous Gift.


Hungarian Reformed Federation of America, Branch 20, Trenton, NJ


In Scotland, as elsewhere, adapting and miniaturizing the symbols of the country to the Christmas tree is common. Small round shortbreads, baked extra-long and sometimes varnished, miniature bagpipes, sporrans, tam-o’shanters and ribbons depicting the various plaids and tartans are all typically Scottish ornaments.

A Calvinist and Presbyterian country for most of its post-pagan history, Scotland was late in adopting a custom seen by church fathers as frivolous. Even now that Christmas trees are common in Scotland, they tend to be less tinseled and glittery than those in America or England.
Though not a quintessentially Scottish custom, the tree is always a perfect backdrop for the most indigenous highland tradition, the New Year’s piping of the haggis.


Roosevelt School, New Brunswick, NJ


In Spain, Latin America and many Caribbean Islands, like in most countries where Christmas is celebrated, there is much joy. However, in Latino Culture the celebration of the birth of the Messiah is not limited to one day. This celebration begins with the coming of the Advent season and continues through Epiphany, or as it is better known, "El Día de Los
Reyes" or Three Kings Day, which is on the sixth of January.

The season is also characterized by a tremendous enthusiasm expressed through "parrandas, asaltos or matutinos", which are very exuberant caroling after midnight. It is also customary to exchange gifts, not on Christmas Day, but with friends and loved ones on "El Día de Los Reyes".


Ukrainian National Women's League #65, New Brunswick, NJ


Ukrainian children eagerly await the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve. The star tells them that it is time for the official beginning of the Christmas holiday, the "Sviata Vecherya" or Holy Supper. In preparation for the meal, the father brings in a sheaf of grain and places it in a corner of the room.

The sheaf is called the "didukh", or "forefather", representing their forefathers who first tilled the land. Straw may be placed under the table, or atop the table under the tablecloth, representing the manger straw upon which Jesus lay. An empty place is set at the table for those family members who have passed on, and a lit candle in the window welcomes those who have no family of their own. The Holy Supper has twelve courses, symbolic of the twelve Apostles, with all courses being meatless and non-dairy. After the meal, the family attends the Christmas Eve Vigil service at church.

On Christmas Day, after church services, groups of children go from house to house caroling, carrying a star symbolic of the star of Bethlehem. Carolers, considered bearers of good news, are welcomed and offered treats. The Christmas holidays extend for twelve days, until the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. The national origin of many Christmas ornaments has been obscured. Ornaments such as doves or eggshells and tissue paper, roosters, straw crosses and spiders of straw and tissue paper come to us from Ukrainian villages, where they were made by each housewife and her daughters. In modern times, traditional Ukrainian motifs are often used to decorate contemporary Christmas ornaments.

Related links:

American Hungarian Foundation

American Hungarian Foundation - gimagine photoreports