Christmas celebrations around the world
“He had a broad face and a round little belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly, He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself”
Clement Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.
On the sixth of December Sinterklaas or Saint-Nicholas is celebrated, which is an entirely different holiday from Christmas. Santa Claus in Belgium is called de Kerstman or le Père Noël and he does come around on Christmas Day to bring children presents. There are different cultures in Belgium, the Northern part being Vlaanderen (speaking a Dutch dialect), the Southern part being Wallonie (speaking a French dialect) and the Eastern part speaking German.
Small family presents are given at Christmas too, under the tree, or in stockings near the fire-place, to be found in the morning. Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread called “cougnou” or “cougnolle” – the shape is supposed to be like baby Jesus. Some families will have another big meal on Christmas Day.
Father Christmas is called Papai Noel. Many Christmas customs are similar to USA or UK. For those who have enough money, a special Christmas meal will be chicken, turkey, ham, rice, salad, pork, fresh and dried fruits, often with beer. Poorer people will just have chicken and rice.
Finnish people believe that Father Christmas (Santa Claus) lives in the north part of Finland called Korvatunturi, north of the Arctic Circle. People from all over the world send letters to Santa Claus in Finland. (It is only fair to say that the people of Greenland say that really, Father Christmas lives in Greenland!). There is a even big tourist theme park called “Christmas Land” in the north of Finland, near to where they say that Father Christmas lives.
Everyone cleans their houses ready for the three holy days of Christmas – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Christmas Eve is very special, when people eat rice porridge and plum fruit juice in the morning. They will then decorate a spruce tree in the home. At mid-day, the “peace of Christmas” is broadcast on radio and TV from the Finnish city of Turku by its Mayor. In the evening, a traditional Christmas dinner is eaten. The meal will include casseroles containg macaroni, rutabaga, carrot and potato, with cooked ham or turkey. Many families will visit cemeteries and grave-yards to place a candle onto the burial graves of family members. Cemeteries are very beautiful at Christmas-time.
Children receive their presents on Christmas Eve, usually with a family member dressing as Father Christmas. As children grow older, they come to realise that Father Christmas is really a bigger brother, sister or family member.
In France, Christmas is called Noël. Everyone has a Christmas tree, sometimes decorated in the old way with red ribbons and real white wax candles. Fir trees in the garden are often decorated too, with lights on all night. The Christmas meal is an important family gathering with good meat and the best wine. Not everyone sends Christmas cards.
Germans love to decorate their houses at Christmas. Many houses will have little wooden frames holding electric candles in their windows, and coloured pictures of paper or plastic which look beautiful from the outside at night. Often too, they will have an “Adventskranz” – a wreath of leaves with four candles. (Advent – meaning “coming”, is the 4 week period before Christmas). On each Sunday of Advent, another candle is lit. Most homes will also have little wooden “cribs” – a small model of the stable where Jesus was born, with Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and animals.
Father Christmas brings presents in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve (December 24th), after people have been to a church gathering. The presents are then found under the Christmas tree. One person in the family will ring a bell and call everyone to come to the room. On Christmas Day, fish (carp) or goose will be cooked.
Santa Claus (Winter-grandfather) comes on the 6th of December. Children should clean and put their shoes outside next to the door or window before they go to sleep. Next day candies and/or small toys appear in them in red bags. For children, who don’t behave well, a golden birch is placed next to the sweets, a symbol for spanking… (but don’t worry, it is just for fun, and not for actual punishment.)
On 24th of December, children go to their relatives or to the movies, because little Jesus brings the tree and the presents that evening to their house. It is customary to hang edible things on the tree, like golden wrapped assorted chocolates and meringues beside the glass balls, candles (real or electrical), and sparklers.
Families usually cook festive dinner for that night. An example would be fresh fish usually with rice or potatoes and home made pastries as dessert. After dinner, the tree would be viewed by the children for the first time. It is very exciting. Christmas songs are sung and then the gifts under the tree are shared.
Older children attend the midnight mass with their parents. During communism, children had to hide at the back of the church. Teachers could have lost their jobs for attending the mass. Later (in mid 1970s) most of the Communist Party leaders of the town attended it too. Next day the children attack the edible part of the tree. Festive food is enjoyed on the second and third day too.
People from Transylvania serve stuffed cabbage on Christmas Eve, and next day for lunch. Most likely the reason for that custom is that stuffed cabbage is the best on the second and third day after it was cooked. Moms can prepare the food a day earlier, leaving more time for decorating and organizing. Very practical. On the 25th of December, the whole family attended church and ate stuffed cabbage for lunch.
Latvians believe that Father Christmas brings presents on each of the 12 days of Christmas starting on Christmas Eve. Usually the presents are put under the family Christmas tree. What a good idea to spread Christmas out longer! It was in Latvia that the first Christmas tree was decorated. The special Latvian Christmas Day meal is cooked brown peas with bacon (pork) sauce, small pies, cabbage and sausage.
Christmas starts with gifts under the tree, to be opened Christmas morning. Then its onto a Christmas lunch either at home or at one’s parents place. Turkey or chicken with all the trimmings is eaten, then comes tea time, it is a Bar-B-Q for friends and family to get together,and have a few beers or wines with the meal!
People pretend that Father Christmas brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. The presents are left under the Christmas tree or in shoes by the fireplace. A special Christmas meal of salted dry cod-fish with boiled potatoes is eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve.
In the days of the Soviet Union, Christmas was not celebrated very much. New Year was the important time – when “Father Frost” brought presents to children. With the fall of Communism, Christmas can be openly celebrated – either on December 25th, or more often on January 7th. This unusual date is because the Russian Orthodox Church uses the old Julian calendar for religious celebration days. Special Christmas food includes cakes, pies and meat dumplings.
The most important day is Christmas Eve. A special Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve – ham (pork), herring fish, and brown beans – and this is the time when families give presents to each other. Many people attend a church meeting early on Christmas Day.
The USA is so multi-cultural that there are many different ways of celebrating Christmas. Some families (mostly of Eastern European origin) favor turkey with trimmings. Some preferred keilbasi (Polish sausage), cabbage dishes, and soups. Italian families insist on lasagna!
All year long children are told to behave, or they will get coal in their stocking. On Christmas Eve, they hang highly stylized stockings on the mantle of the fireplace, then go to bed early so that they will find presents in the morning. They are told that at midnight Santa Claus will come, bringing a huge bag of toys. He will come down through the chimney, leave candy in the stockings and presents under the Christmas tree (anything from a Pine or Fir to a Spruce), then plug one nostril and shoot up through the chimney. Cookies are traditionally left for him, and a carrot is commonly left for Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer, very much a part of Christmas tradition (Santa will land on the roof with his sleigh and nine reindeer).
On Christmas morning, things such as cinnamon rolls or coffee cake are served for breakfast, and for dinner there is typically ham (and occasionally regal plum pudding). That is it for celebration, Boxing Day is never celebrated, Epiphany is only celebrated by Catholics, and Advent not commonly celebrated.