Here in the United States, we share many of the English Christmas traditions that date back to Dickens’ time. Christmas is a widely celebrated holiday, and many countries around the world follow Christmas traditions that are far removed from ours – some even celebrate it at a different time of year, or in a different season. Listed below are the traditions of several nations, some of which may seem familiar and others completely different. As you read, think about your ancestral heritage. Do you find your culture’s celebrations described below? If not, how does your cultural heritage view and celebrate Christmas?
In Democratic Republic of the Congo, Christmas is a primarily religious festival, and few people exchange gifts. Christmas Eve services have a heavy emphasis on music, with several choirs, and a Nativity play which often includes much more from the Christian Bible than Jesus’ birth. Many of the characters, particularly “villains”, are given a comical treatment. The birth of Jesus will happen sometime around midnight, and church resumes early the next morning. The Christmas feast usually includes meat, among other foods.
People go by the Julian calendar in Ethiopia and celebrate Christmas on January 7th rather than December 25th. The Christmas celebration is referred to as Ganna. After Christmas Eve fasting, people attend church early the morning of Ganna dressed in white – either in the Ethiopian shamma dress or more Western clothing. Their churches are built in a concentric circular pattern rather than rectangular or like a cross, which plays a part in the community of church services. The choir sings from the outer circle, and all in attendance hold candles. The priest gives Mass from the center circle. One of the more popular games during this time is also called ganna, and is similar to hockey. Popular Christmas foods include wat (stew) served on injera (flat bread). Much of Ethiopian Christmas tradition is affected by the belief that one of the Three Wise Men to visit Jesus at his birth came from Ethiopia.
In Ghana, celebrations last from December 20th to the end of the first week in January. People often travel to visit family in this incredibly multicultural country. Christmas Eve church services involve much drumming and dancing, and children perform the Nativity play. Songs are sung in various languages, and dancers perform in front of the priests. The festivities are continued with fireworks and parties. Christmas morning begins with colorful, festive dress and a church service, after which people return home to exchange gifts. Ghanaians eat fufu, okra soup, porridge, meats and rice to wrap up the Christmas Day celebrations. Up until the end of the celebrations, holiday parties take place in public places.
A South African Christmas has several highlights, beginning with a Carols by Candlelight service on Christmas Eve and church services on Christmas morning.Christmas trees and Santa Claus are just as popular, and the Christmas meal includes many English traditions like roast beef, mince pies or suckling pig, rice, vegetables, Christmas pudding and the South African Lekker pudding. Boxing Holiday, celebrated on December 26th, is a public holiday here as it is in England, Canada and other countries. As a country in the Southern Hemisphere, its Christmas occurs during summer and means swimming and outdoor festivities for many.
After the Christmas morning church services in Zimbabwe, house parties become the order of the day. Food and presents are exchanged at each party. Many of the gifts exchanged among families on Christmas morning are new clothes for that day. Some sing carols and some do not, and rather than a European Christmas tree Zimbabweans decorate their homes with plants such as ivy. A singular church meal after the service may include goat, cornmeal porridge, bread, jam and tea.
Because Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas actually occurs in early summer. Christmas celebrations have mostly been very similar to the English ones, with some notable exceptions influenced by modern life and multiple ethnic heritages. Australians spend Christmas outdoors. On Christmas Eve, thousands of people gather for “Carols by Candlelight.” The evening is lit by many candles. They surround themselves with Christmas Bush, a native plant with little red flowers. At many beaches, Santa Claus arrives on a surfboard. A Christmas feast is made up of cold meats, seafood, chicken, ham, duck or turkey, pasta, fruit and vegetable salads, pavlovas and desserts. Many families choose to have this feast in the woods or at the beach. Australians sing traditional English carols as well as original Australian songs.
Many of Brazil’s Christmas traditions come from a Portuguese heritage. Much like in Italy, Nativity scenes are created in each home with Presepios, or a bed of straw much like the one Jesus is thought to have lain in – this custom is especially prominent in northeastern regions of the nation. They are displayed in stores, homes and churches. Christmas trees are also popular decorations here, and Brazilian cities like Sao Paulo are known for giant electric Christmas “trees”, made from lights. The religious attend Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster, or Midnight Mass) at midnight on December 24th, and morning and afternoon masses on the following Christmas Day. Christmas Carols are sung, the most iconic being “Noite Feliz”. Christmas meals are heavily influenced by European traditions, and are primarily based on turkey, rice, beans, vegetables and fruits. Brazilians drink beer and wine, and may even include some German and Italian dishes. Papai Noel (Father Noel) is believed to live in Greenland, and is almost the same figure as our American Santa Claus.
Christmas in the Dominican Republic lasts much longer than in many other countries; celebrations begin at the 1st of December and last until January 6th to celebrate the Three Kings. Dominicans often conduct weddings during this season. Groups of musicians called Pericos Ripiaos sing and play Merengue. Aguinaldos are another major tradition: carolers travel to homes and sing Christmas favorites in the hope that someone will invite them in for holiday fare and an informal party. Carolers sing at each home on the path to the final party house, receiving ginger or rum drinks as they travel. How Dominicans celebrate Christmas Eve can vary from family to family. One of the most popular Christmas decorations is the Christmas Tree, which can also come in the form of a dry branch painted white and decorated – a charamico. Dominicans place their Nativity scenes at the base of their tree. Small groups of friends and coworkers exchange little gifts, or angelitos, weeks before Christmas. Around this time families also clean the house in preparation for the new year, even throwing out old things and giving the home a fresh coat of paint.
Many of Finland’s traditions are very similar to those held throughout Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, but what sets it apart is the Finnish belief that Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, lives in the north of Finland in a region called Korvatunturi. In fact, this region has become an international tourist attraction and is often publicized as “Christmas Land.” Despite living so close, Father Christmas leaves his presents under the Christmas tree, as he does in North America. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day are considered the three holy days of Christmas, and are marked by house cleanings and traditional meals which include macaroni, rutabaga, carrot, potato, ham or turkey. The “Peace of Christmas” is broadcast at midday from the southern city of Turku.
The major Indian holiday is Diwali, not Christmas. Christians are a minority in India, but even so many people of other faiths join in Christmas festivities. Originally introduced by Europeans, it follows many of the European traditions, including exchanging of gifts. Some variations occur, however – the pine Christmas tree is often replaced with a banana or mango tree. On Christmas Eve, Christians flock to department stores and gift shops for Christmas shopping and buy new clothing, decorations and other presents. Catholics in particular attend Midnight Mass, at churches decorated with poinsettias and candles. This celebration is followed by a feast, featuring curries as a main element. Once they reach home, they celebrate Christmas by lighting fire crackers. In the South, people may place small clay oil-burning lamps on the flat roofs of their homes as a sign of Jesus. As India is such a multicultural nation, “Merry Christmas” can be heard in English, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Tamil and many others. In certain areas and cities such as Mumbai with higher Christian populations, families set up Nativity displays in front of their homes and welcome visits from neighbors. Many schools also put on Nativity plays, followed by hymns, carols and a visit from a costumed “Santa” bearing candies.
On Christmas Eve, a children in the family read the story of the Nativity from an Arabic Bible while other family members hold lit candles. When the story is finished, a bonfire of dried thorns is lit. Psalms are sung while the fire burns. When the fire is reduced to ashes, everyone jumps over the ashes three times and makes a wish. Local church services are held on Christmas day, and another bonfire is lit while men in the congregation chant a hymn. A procession starts, led by the bishop or priest who carries an icon of the infant Jesus on a red cushion. The service always ends after the bishop has blessed those in attendance and touched a member of the congregation. This touch is passed around until all present are involved in the “Touch of Peace.”
Celebrations last from Christmas Eve on December 24th to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th (many Irish people call this day “Little Christmas”). After the 6th, it is considered bad luck to leave the Christmas tree standing. Homes are decorated with flowers and ornaments, as well as English/American Christmas trees. Irish families bake cakes, puddings, and pies. Before the holidays people give gifts to all those who provided service to them throughout the year (including public service employees), and homes are cleaned in a symbolic purification. Roman Catholic families attend the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, and place lighted candles in windows to signify hospitality. Traditionally, women bake a seed cake for each member of the household as well as a pudding for Christmas Day, New Years and Twelfth Night. Traditional Irish dishes include spiced beef and mince pies. Irish wish Merry Christmas in both English and Irish-Gaelic.
Christmas in Bethlehem attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims of a variety of religions to the church built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity has a silver star to mark the place, and above it fifteen silver lamps burn. Around the star is the inscription ‘Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born.’ On Christmas Eve, a service is sung in Latin, and at the end a model of the Baby Jesus is laid in a manger. There is only room for a few hundred people at the Mass, and they are there by invitation only. Outside in ‘Manger Square’, the service is broadcast on screens to thousands of people who have joined for the celebration. After the service, many pilgrims go out to the fields around Bethlehem to sit where it is believed the shepherds received the news of Jesus’ birth.
Christmas festivities last for three weeks, starting eight days before Christmas at Novena and ending on January 6th at the Feast of the Epiphany. Novena marks the beginning of nine days of church services and prayer, ending on Christmas Day. The Nativity, or manger, scene comes from Italy and is a prominent Christmas symbol. Italians set up Christmas trees and the presepio, or Jesus’ crib, around which small figures depict scenes of Jesus’ birth. Candles are lit around each family’s crib, and members pray and recite poems. As in many European countries, the crib and tree are put away on January 6th. Italians fast on Christmas Eve, and end the fast with a large feast. Meat is not eaten on Christmas Eve, but may be eaten on Christmas day. Pasta, meat, cheese, fruits, liquor and sweets make up the meal. A New Years banquet follows on December 31st, which includes raisin bread, turkey, chicken, rabbit, and spaghetti. Small gifts are given on Christmas Day, but the real gift exchange occurs on January 6th. Children hang stockings and wait for a visit from the Befana, a witch who according to legend missed Jesus’ birth and flies around the world each year in search of him.
Activities in rural areas of Jamaica include a Jonkanoo celebration. Jonkanoo is a special parade with festivities originally brought from Africa ancestors who were brought there as slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dancers play flutes, drums, and dress in myriad colorful costumes depicting anything from animals to caricatures of public figures, and even a pregnant woman and the Devil. Christmas dinner is usually a big feast on Christmas day. It consists of rice and gungo peas, chicken, oxtail, and curried goat among other dishes. Rum cake, egg nog, and sorrel (a rum drink with spices) are also enjoyed. Christmas carols are very similar to those heard in America, but are often played in their Reggae versions. Families attend church services and merrymakers light firecrackers. Jamaican Christmas symbols include red poinsettias (flowers), and many Jamaicans also whitewash stones or trees in their front lawns.
There is no official celebration of Christmas in Japan, as less than 1% of the population identifies as Christian. There is an unofficial, widespread secular observance due to American influence during and after WWII and Japan’s Christmas industry, which provides decorations and trinkets to Christian nations. As the Christmas industry grew, it was natural for the Japanese to become involved in the Christian celebrations and absorb some of the customs. These include Christmas trees and turkey with all the trimmings. Instead of Santa, Hoteiosho (one of the original seven gods of good fortune) brings gifts. He is said to have eyes in the back of his head, which he uses to watch children for good behavior. On New Year’s Eve, the house is cleaned and decorated for New Year’s Day. Families dress in their finest clothes, and the father marches through the house followed by the rest of the family. They throw dried beans into the corners, symbolically bidding evil spirits to leave and granting good luck to those who enter.
Celebrations begin on December 12th with the birth of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and end on January 6th with the “Epiphany.” Most children receive their gifts on this date, which are thought to have been brought by the Three Wise Men. It is also on the morning of the 6th that the figures of the Wise Men, or Magic Kings, are found at El Nacimiento (the manger scene). Each family constructs a manger scene in their home for the holiday season. At midnight on Christmas Day, a figure of the baby Jesus is placed in the crib in the manger scene. Families celebrate midnight on Christmas Eve with bells, whistles, and fireworks, before attending Midnight Mass or Misa del Gallo (Mass of the Rooster), named so because it is believed Jesus’ birth was the only occasion on which a rooster crowed at midnight. Christmas dinner consists of many traditional dishes, including tamales, rice, rellenos, atole, and menudo.
Christmas is called Bozz Narodzenie or Gwiazdka (little star). Despite the difference, some of the Polish traditions that are celebrated elsewhere include the symbolic cleaning of the house and a 24 hour Christmas Eve fast that ends in a huge feast. This fast and feast are referred to as Wigilia, and the fast is broken when the first star of the night appears (in honor of the star of Bethlehem). When this happens, an oplatek breaks and shares rice crackers, signifying the start of the meal. The feast consists of twelve courses, and an extra place setting is left empty in case the Holy Spirit decides to join. Some older traditions, such as the blowing of candles, are still observed.
Official Christmas celebrations begin on December 16th, starting a series of nine early-morning Masses until Christmas day. Celebrations continue until the Epiphany, or Feast of the Three Kings. The Philippines has a greater population of Christians than any other Asian nation, and most Christians are Catholics. Filipinos follow some Anglo Saxon traditions like Christmas Trees, caroling, and Father Christmas, but have their own traditions as well. One of the more popular festive decorations is the pah-role, a bamboo pole with a lighted lantern on top to symbolize the star of Bethlehem. Many people stay awake all through the night of Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, and enjoy the massive feast of Nochebuena. It is a large open-house celebration for friends and family.
Christmas is marked by certain major days, such as Christmas Eve on December 24th (called Nochebuena), Christmas Day, New Years on December 31st , and January 6th (el Dia de Reyes – the most important day for children). There are some major differences from a traditional American Christmas, most notably that most Puerto Ricans pretend to be jibaros, from the country. Puerto Ricans also have their own version of caroling, performed by groups of friends or parranderos. Most play their own instruments, and their songs tend to be more secular than religious. Parrandas occur at each house in a community and finally culminate in a house party at the end of the night with traditional sopa de pollo. One of the biggest elements of the Christmas feast is the roasting of the pig, or lechon. While many Americans offer cookies and milk for Santa Claus, on Three Kings Day (January 6th) children leave boxes of grass for the Kings’ camels. In the morning they find these boxes filled with presents and candy.
Before the 1917 Revolution, Russians celebrated Christmas like much of the Western world on December 25th. The holiday was banned under the Communists, but since the Soviet Union ended Russians have celebrated the holiday on January 7th, going by the Julian calendar. Most Russian Christians are Russian Orthodox, and do not eat meat, eggs or milk starting a couple weeks before Christmas. Russians fast after the first church service on Christmas Eve, and attend an all-night Mass Christmas morning. Christmas Eve dinner does not include meat, but is still festive. Christmas dinner includes delicacies such as pirog (pies made from meat or cabbage) and pelmini (meat dumplings), as well as a porridge made from grains and honey. Priests often go door to door with boys carrying holy water, which is sprinkled in each home to usher in happiness and fortune. Christmas morning is characterized by child carolers travelling among local homes with a star, in order to receive sweets from adults. New Years is perhaps even more important, and is the time when Ded Moroz (Father Frost) brings presents to children in the manner of Santa Claus. Russians also believe in the legend of Babushka, the story of an old woman who is very similar to Befana.
The holiday season is full of the usual Christmas festivities, but there is one tradition that is not at all common elsewhere. Hogueras (bonfires) is the observance of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the official beginning of winter. One of its many aspects involves people jumping over the bonfires as a symbolic protection against illness. Christmas dinner is not eaten until after midnight. It is a family feast, highlighted with pavo trufado de Navidad (Christmas turkey with truffles – a mushroom-like delicacy).