STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Santa Claus. Father Christmas. St. Nicholas. Père Noël. People around the world call the gift giver of the holidays many things, but the spirit is the same. And the traditions – of celebration with family, gift-giving, and making memories to last a lifetime – are universal. Viewers can explore that and more in Glencairn Museum’s look at “Christmas Traditions in Many Lands.”
The exhibit, running through Jan. 10, reveals how Christmas has been celebrated in a variety of countries during the 19th and 20th centuries. Displayed objects and images are from the collection of the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster. They illustrate Christmas customs in many European countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands, as well as Russia, and even those from eastern Pennsylvania.
“Christmas beliefs and customs show remarkable persistence,” said curator Ed Gyllenhaal in an email interview. “Not only are they passed down from generation to generation, but they often overcome great obstacles, surviving severe wartime conditions or religious persecution.”
One thing viewers will see is a “New Year tree” decorated with glass ornaments made in the Soviet Union, he said.
“Christmas trees and other Christian traditions were banned by the Soviet Communist government in the 1920s. But people found it hard to give up this beautiful custom,” he said. “Christmas trees became New Year trees without any religious association.”
In Russia today, Christmas is a national holiday. Most families use the tree to celebrate both holidays, he said.
Jim Morrison, curator and historian of the National Christmas Center, said in a telephone interview that the exhibit at Glencairn shows what Christmas is all about.
“It’s memories of family – there’s no other day in a child’s life like Christmas,” he said. “I remember my childhood. I remember my Christmases.”
Children remember gifts they got, gifts they gave, spending time with relatives they may see only during that time of the year, he said. They also remember their parents’ love. When he was a kid in 1946, his parents saved money in an envelope, adding quarters when they could, until they had enough to purchase a Lionel train that cost $44 for him.
“It had smoke and a whistle and more cars than others,” he said. “I still have that train.”
Getting presents is fun, but Morrison always liked making and giving them more.
“I love making things,” he said. “I loved that I could give presents out that I made or picked.”
Morrison created the National Christmas Center to preserve Christmas, which he thought was changing.
“All of a sudden, Santa’s in the mall and you get 40 seconds to talk to him,” he said. “The department stores in little towns used to decorate their windows, but it changed. I wanted people to relive their memories.”
And the exhibit at Glencairn is an extension of that. One of the best things about working with Glencairn is having their staff help to discover more information about his collectibles. They traced one nativity back, for instance, and found the grandson of the man that carved it. Morrison appreciates that the museum gets what he’s doing with preserving Christmas’ history.
“Christmas isn’t just yesterday,” he said. “It’s centuries old. It’s so important.”
Morrison hopes that people will “recognize and learn about their heritage,” at the exhibit, he said. “Christmases are celebrated differently in all countries. We want families to hold on to their memories and traditions.”