Christmas Traditions from Around the World
Yuletide Celebrations as Enjoyed in Selected Countries
Christmas is celebrated in many countries as a combination of ancient rituals and modern habits. While there is considerable variety in how the Yule has evolved across the globe, there are some common traits and symbols no matter where you visit. The holiday incorporates family gatherings, commerce, and is a mingling of the secular and the religious. The common and ancient symbols that underpin the holiday invariably descend from pagan observations regarding the role of light, the presence of darkness, the death and rebirth of the sun, and the traditions that connect generations past and present.
Ethiopia and Eritrea
Falling on 7 January, villagers walk to church at dawn, often with people moving from one church to another. Traditionally, young men play a game similar to field hockey, called Gena, and now Christmas has also come to be known by that name. Many Christians fast for 40 days prior to Christmas. The day is full of musical celebrations. Many Ethiopian Christians also will celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ during the three-day festival of Timkat starting on January 19.
Many Nigerians travel on Christmas Day, returning to ancestral homes to be with family. Food traditions vary widely, but there is an emphasis on meat dishes. Gift giving often incorporates donations of food, gifts, and money to the less fortunate. Christmas celebrations have been interrupted by occasional outbreaks of religious violence, most notably perpetrated by the Islamic sect Boko Haram.
Many European traditions continue in South Africa, including Christmas trees, stockings, and British-style novelties such as Christmas crackers. Traditional foods, too, follow the British provenance, including mince pies and pudding. As this holiday occurs in Summer, many South Africans take to the beach and barbecue outdoors.
Christmas in China is not a legal holiday, but some non-Christians have a cultural interest in the Western traditions. Many people celebrate Christmas-like festivities, such as sending cards, hanging stockings, and exchanging gifts. Retail marketing campaigns take advantage of the desire expressed by many to participate, especially in large urban areas. Some Chinese Christians still feel the need to celebrate the holiday “quietly.”
Christmas in Japan is a good example of the impact of American culture on a nation where the holiday is not a national holiday, but has become quite popular. Any religious aspect of the holiday today may link back 400 years ago to Jesuit missionaries, but the core of Christmas in Japan is mostly commercial and is due to a popularization and emphasis of certain holiday practices. With an expanding economy and discretionary income, Japanese celebrate with decorations such as Santa Claus. Gifts are exchanged and many enjoy a holiday dessert, Japanese Christmas cake (a white sponge cake covered with cream and decorated with strawberries). Christmas in Japan is often a romantic holiday, when couples spend time together and exchange gifts. A most unusual feature of Christmas in Japan is the desire to dine at KFC restaurants, now so popular that reservations are required months in advance. This phenomenon is the result of an overly-successful advertising campaign in the 1970s.
India was a British colony until 1947, so many traditions remain. Although Christians are a tiny minority in India, Christmas is a public holiday. Homes are decorated with Christmas cribs (nativity scenes) and neighbors are treated to sweets and pastries.
Christianity is the second largest religious minority after Hinduism. About 3 million Christians celebrate by going from house to house singing carols. Custom requires that carolers receive a small monetary gift, which is usually donated to charity. Homes are decorated with local handicrafts and many roofs are hung with a symbolic star of Bethlehem.
There are about 24 million Christians in Indonesia and the holiday includes festivals featuring a variety of local foods. Church is attended on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day although in cities there are few if any overtly religious displays. Commercial centers are decorated and there’s even a version of Santa Claus complete with sleigh and reindeer.
Christians in Malaysia are a distinct minority (9%) and there is some restriction by the government on the manner in which Christmas is celebrated. Tolerated forms of celebration are almost entirely commercial in nature. Christian groups may, on occasion, place religious ads in English-only newspapers, but this is not the norm. It is suspected that, like in China, the religious aspects of the holiday are enjoyed and preserved within the home.
In addition to East Timor, the Philippines boasts one of the largest Christian populations in the region. It is no surprise that the holiday is celebrated widely and for many weeks. In fact, the Philippines enjoys the longest Christmas season, with carols heard as early as September. Christmas eve is the highpoint, as Filipino families gather for huge feasts at midnight, called Noche Buena. Gifts may be given during the banquet. The holiday continues to the Epiphany and a bit beyond. The Feast of the Three Kings –Epiphany—is celebrated on January 6th. On that eve children often leave their shoes out in the hope that the Three Kings will fill them with candy and money. The long holiday season ends on the second Sunday in January, reserved to recognize the baptism of Jesus.
It is no surprise that Christmas is not a national holiday in Vietnam, but it is becoming more and more popular because of its commercial appeal. Vietnamese embrace the non-religious spectacle of Christmas and enjoy the government-sanctioned opportunity to enjoy overtly materialist activities like shopping, dining-out, and soaking-up colorful displays. As Vietnamese become wealthier, Christmas season no doubt will be more and more popular.
In Israel, Hanukah is of course the principle holiday, but Christmas is celebrated. As the homeland of historical and sacred sites crucial to Christianity, many Christians will flock to Bethlehem to celebrated the Nativity. The Lebanese celebrate Christmas as a national holiday and focus the festivities on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A smaller population of Armenian Lebanese celebrate the holiday on January 6th in line with the Orthodox Christian Church. Although it is a more outdated tradition of feasting, some Lebanese families butcher a sheep for Christmas Eve feast, in honor of the birth of the Shepherd, Jesus Christ. On Christmas Eve, too, the head of the household passes around to each family member a piece of coal representing the sins committed during the past year. The coal is then set on fire and consumed, symbolically burning-away old sins. Mass is attended on Christmas Eve where gifts are exchanged.
In this part of the world, what better place to spend the holiday than
Perhaps Jimmy Buffet said it best:
Let’s get away from sleigh bells, let’s get away from snow
Let’s make a break some Christmas, Dear, I know the place to go
How’d ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How’d ya like to spend the holiday away across the sea?
How’d ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How’d ya like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?
It was named “Christmas Island” because it was “discovered” on Christmas Day (25 December 1643). The island’s geographic isolation and history of minimal human disturbance has led to a high level of endemism among its flora and fauna, which is of interest to scientists and naturalists. 63% percent of its 52 sq. miles is an Australian national park. There exist large areas of primary monsoonal forest inhabited by red crabs, as hinted at in this quirky postage stamp.
Due to its cultural heritage, most Australians celebrate Christmas with British traditions and a sprinkling of American practices. But because the December holiday occurs during the Summer in a very hot Australian climate, Australians gift us with some of the most unique and amusing images of the Noel “down under.”
The pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) with its crimson flower has become an established part of the New Zealand Christmas tradition. Much like Australians, the “Kiwis” of New Zealand enjoy Christmas as a blend of British and American traditions. But never let it be said that this most unusual part of the world hasn’t spawned some equally quirky holiday past-times.
Here’s an odd example, probably not a favorite of the Surgeon General! Picnic or party games were played at Christmas time. The ‘light the cigarette race’ dates back to at least the early 20th century. It was played during ship voyages or on land and was said to be a way for people to “get fit.” Clearly the aim was to get men and women huddling together when smoking was popular for both sexes. The rules are provided in this New York Times article, 9 October 1904.
A cigarette race is not the least exciting or amusing. In this men and women are paired off. Either can do the running, but the men usually usurp that honor. The runners start from one end of the deck, while the partners wait at the other end. Each man is provided with a cigarette and each woman with some matches. The partners must meet, light the cigarette, and then the runner must return to the starting point, his cigarette still lighted, the one to get back first winning the race. The women are compelled to strike the matches to light the cigarette. They are not allowed to strike them on any part of the ship, on a match box, or on the soles of their shoes, which leaves “man fashion” practically the only way in which they can ignite the matches. The efforts of some of the women to be mannish is often extremely humorous, and the inability of many women to ignite the matches in that way often loses the race to a swift man.
Companions of Saint Nicholas:
Stemming from Norse and Alpine traditions and Germanic paganism, Saint Nicholas traditionally enjoys a host of different companions depending on region and culture, reflecting local history and beliefs. These “companions” include Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, and Belsnickel. As mythical figures they have many common traits, and generally play the role of punisher or abductor, in contrast to the benevolent and generous saint. In mythological parlance, they provide a balance between light and darkness, good and evil. They often carry a rod, stick, or broom, are usually dressed in black rags, and are shaggy, with unruly hair. Disobedient children, beware!
According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht, loosely translated “farmhand Rupert,” asks children whether they know their prayers. If they do, they receive apples, nuts and gingerbread. If they do not, he beats the children with bags of ashes. In more modern versions, he gives naughty children lumps of coal, sticks, and stones.
It is believed that the long-horned, shaggy, goat-like monster with a long, angry face and lolling, forked tongue visits the homes of misbehaving children to punish them. It is believed he will give beatings, and kidnap the kids, bringing them down to his underworld lair to live for a year. According to the centuries-old legend, if a child misbehaves, Saint Nicholas, in his omniscience, will know and send his associate, Krampus. It is said this dark partner with a serpentine tail will turn up at the house during the Christmas season to punish the wicked child. He will beat them with a bundle of birch sticks, whip them with horsehair, and throw them into a sack or wicker basket to take them down to hell for a year.
In Germany, Pennsylvania, and in the east coast of Canada the companion is named Belsnickel. A scary figure, much like Knecht Ruprecht, this partner visits at Christmas and hands out gifts or punishments. In some regions, this figure is dressed as a female, and called the Christmas Woman. With cloth wrapped around the head and face, Belsnickel carries sweets and cakes, as well as a swatting stick, or a charmed wand.
In many German-speaking communities the Christmas season usually begins on Saint Nicholas Feast Day, December 6. There are many very old and equally charming traditions. For example, the Christkind (Christ child) brings gifts on Christmas Eve. The Christkind can never be seen, however he rings a bell just prior to leaving a home in order to let the children know that the Christmas tree has been lavishly decorated and that presents abound. Publicly displayed Christmas trees are found all over the land. In addition to myriad lights and ornaments, many are set aside for birds, decorated with bread and other treats.
In Germany there are many beautiful traditions that vary throughout the country. It is the Germanic tradition that gives us the Christmas tree. In addition to the establishment of Saint Nicholas as the main source of Christmas bounty, there are other, much older and beautiful sources of wonder and joy. According to legend, on Christmas Eve in Germany rivers turn to wine, animals speak to each other, tree blossoms bear fruit, mountains open up to reveal precious gems, and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea.
According to German folklore, nutcrackers are given as keepsakes to bring good luck to your family and protect your home. The legend says that a nutcracker represents power and strength and serves like a trusty watch dog guarding your family from evil spirits and danger. A fierce protector, the nutcracker bares its teeth to the evil spirits and serves as the traditional messenger of goodwill.
Czech Republic and Slovakia
Some Czech and Slovak Christmas traditions involve predictions for the future. Apples are always cut crosswise: if a perfect star appears in the core, the next year will be successful, while a distorted star means a bad year or illness, and a cross may suggest death. Girls throw shoes over their shoulders and if the toe points to the door, the girl will get married soon. Another tradition requires pouring some molten lead into water and guessing a message from its shapes.
In Poland, Christmas Eve begins with a day of fasting and then a night of feasting. The traditional Christmas meal is known as Wigilia (The Vigil), and being invited to attend a Wigilia dinner with a family is considered a high honor. On the night of Christmas Eve, the appearance of the first star in the sky is watched for, in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem. It was called “the little star” or “Gwiazdka” (the female counterpart of St. Nicholas). On that evening, children watch the sky anxiously hoping to be the first to cry out, “The star has come!” After the first star’s appearance is declared, the family members sit down to a dinner table. According to tradition, bits of hay or straw are spread beneath the tablecloth as a reminder that Christ was born in a manger. Others partake in the practice of placing money under the table cloth for each guest, in order to wish for prosperity in the coming year. The dinner contains twelve dishes, one for each Apostle. In many homes, an extra place setting is set. The empty chair is for a lonely wanderer, an angel, the Baby Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. Before eating, everyone exchanges Christmas greetings.
The supper begins with sharing the Christmas wafer (Oplatki), when everyone at the table breaks off a piece and eats it as a symbol of their unity with Christ. The Oplatki is usually blessed and stamped with a religious image, such as the nativity scene.
Sviata Vecheria or “Holy Supper” is the central tradition of the Christmas Eve celebrations in Ukrainian homes and takes place in most parts of the country on January 6. In Western Ukraine, especially in Carpathian Ruthenia, due to historical multi-culturalism, Christmas can be observed twice—on December 25 and January 7, often irrespective of whether the family belongs to Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the (Roman) Catholic Church, one of the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, or one of the Protestant denominations. When the children see the first star in the evening sky, which symbolizes the trek of the Three Wise Men, the Sviata Vecheria may begin. In farming communities, the head of the household brings in a sheaf of wheat called the didukh, which represents the importance of the ancient and rich wheat crops of Ukraine, the staff of life through the centuries. Didukh means “grandfather spirit” so it symbolizes the family’s ancestors. In city homes a few stalks of golden wheat in a vase are often used to decorate the table. The dinner table sometimes has a few wisps of hay on the embroidered table cloth as a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem.
Christmas is an extensively prepared celebration centering on the family and home, although it has a religious dimension also. The Declaration of Christmas Peace has been a tradition in Finland since the Middle Ages. The declaration ceremony begins with the hymn Jumala Ompi Linnamme (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) and continues with the Declaration of Christmas Peace read from a parchment roll, in both Finnish and Swedish, the country’s two official languages. There is also a Declaration of Christmas Peace for forest animals in many cities and municipalities, so that there is no hunting during Christmas. Just before the Christmas festivities begin, people usually take a Christmas sauna. The tradition is very old. Unlike on normal days, when one would go to the sauna in the evening, on Christmas Eve it is done before sunset. This tradition is based on a pre-20th century belief that the spirits of the dead return and have a sauna at the usual sauna hours. After the sauna, people dress up in clean clothes for the Christmas dinner, which is usually served between 5pm and 7pm, or traditionally with the appearance of the first star in the sky.
The Christmas or Yul (Jol in Icelandic) celebration in Iceland starts four Sundays before Christmas proper, which begins on December 24 and ends thirteen days later on January 6. Traditionally, one candle is lit each Sunday until four candles are lit on the 24th. At 6:00 pm Church bells ring to start the Christmas celebration. The religiously observant and/or traditional Icelanders will attend mass at this time while the secular Icelanders will begin their holiday meal immediately. After the meal is finished, they open gifts and spend the evening together. Thirteen days before December 24th children will leave their shoes by the window so that the Yule Lads can leave small gifts in their shoes. According to Icelandic folklore, the Yule Lads are the sons of two trolls living in the Icelandic mountains. Each of the Yule Lads is known for a different kind of mischief (slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk, or eating the candles). The Yule Lads traditionally wear early Icelandic wool clothing but are now known for the more recognizable red and white suit.
The end of the year is divided between two days – the Old Year’s Day (Gamlársdagur) and the New Year’s Day (Nýársdagur). At the night of the former and morning of the latter, Icelanders shoot up fireworks, blowing the old year away and welcoming the new. Thirteen days after the 24th, Icelanders say goodbye to the Yule Lads and other mystical creatures such as elves and trolls. There are bonfires held throughout the country while the elves, Yule Lads, and Icelanders dance together before saying goodbye until the next Christmas.
And last but not least, there is the unique tradition in Ireland called Nollaig na mBan (“Little Christmas,” or “Women’s Christmas.”)
Held on the Epiphany, January 6th, this is a day when women of the household gather together out of the home to celebrate and rest from the labors of making Christmas merry for their families. Husbands and sons stay home to see to domestic needs and care for children. For older or childless couples, husbands take their wives out for a full evening of fun and a fine dinner.
Women gather to say goodbye to the cares of the passing year. It is a day of rest, relaxation, and friendship. An old tradition still practiced is the lighting of a candle in every room of the house later in the evening. This probably has much to do with recognizing the new light, and hope, of the New Year.
May you all enjoy the light, and life, of this holiday season.