Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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Heritage and Traditions

  1. Can a person outside of the military chain-of-command receive a military gun salute?
  2. Can my section, NDHQ directorate, etc., have an authorized badge?
  3. Can the National Flag be dipped on parade?
  4. Can the UN Flag be used to drape a casket or can a UN beret be placed on a casket?
  5. Do I have to have my medals court-mounted?
  6. How is the Canadian flag folded during a funeral ceremony?
  7. I received a foreign award. May I wear it on my uniform?
  8. I served in the Gulf and Kuwait War. May I wear my Saudi Arabian medal as well as my Canadian Gulf and Kuwait Medal?
  9. May I wear a relative's medals?
  10. What are the origins of the Christmas dinner?
  11. Where can I get a copy of a change-of-command certificate?
  12. Who can get a battle honour and can one be given outside of a war zone?

Question

What are the origins of the Christmas dinner?

Answer

A custom peculiar to the military is the Christmas tradition of role reversal. The youngest member switches places with the commanding officer for the day, the officers serve dinner to the non-commissioned members and they in turn serve dinner to the stewards. All these activities stem from the ancient Roman custom of Saturnalia.

The festival of Saturnalia honors Saturn and falls at the same time as Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice and/or Kwanzaa. Christmas decorations such as swathes, garlands, wreaths and tree ornaments began with the merriment of Saturnalia.

During the time of Saturnalia slaves and children got to be waited on for meals, lead the rituals, and participated in the revelry as if they were their parents/masters. The parents/masters jokingly played the part of children and slaves by waiting on them. The role reversal was symbolic as slaves were not really free to make decisions as free persons nor were children able to enter into contracts or make business deals. Role reversal was only for minor privileges.

As with the ancient Romans the Canadian Forces today practices role reversal in terms of minor privileges and in the spirit of good cheer. Although, the origins of the custom cannot be traced to any specific event or even time period, it has however become a 'standard' practice from at least the 18th Century.

Before the introduction of mechanization and sophisticated systems of logistics in the 20th century, enlisted personnel occupied much of their time in tedious routine. In an effort to boost morale, and to show general appreciation for junior ranks, officers took it upon themselves to organize celebrations for the enlisted ranks. One tradition that has been preserved over the ages has been Christmas dinner. Officers and senior non-commissioned officers not only organize the dinner, but they also prepare and serve it to the junior ranks of their unit. When the dinner is over their task is not complete until they clean up the cafeteria.

On this special occasion, one tradition can be found throughout the Forces during the Christmas season. During these festive times, rules are bent in a playful way. Commanding Officers frequently switch roles and tunics with the youngest member of the unit. This soldier then becomes the honorary commander for the day. The remainder of the officers and the warrant officers and sergeants exchange their jackets and tunics for chef’s hats and aprons. The practice of exchanging jackets between the senior private and the RSM is a fairly recent innovation, and is indicative of the RSMs important position as an advisor to the CO and as a conduit between the members of the unit and the senior command structure.

Specific traditions during the Christmas season can vary amongst environments and units in the Canadian Forces, For example, in the navy, Christmas lights and decorations have been used to decorate trees, streets, buildings and a ship’s yardarms. In many cases there is an active competition to see who has the best decorations.