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The story of Christmas around the world

From North, South, East and West, there are more beliefs and traditions that unite rather than divide people, especially around the meaning of Christmas.

The Anglican Journal gives a sampling of Christmas traditions around the world, which demonstrates that while countries have their own unique celebrations, a common theme still emerges: No matter the frenzy and materialism in some parts of the world, there is an inescapable moment when peoples’ hearts recognize the special grace that comes with this season – the certainty that love, peace, hope, family, faith, charity and community are possible.

Syria > The gates of the homes of Syrian Christians are locked on Christmas Eve, commemorating the persecutions of the past, when worship had to be held in secret. Everyone in the family carries a lit candle and stands around an unlit bonfire in their yard. The youngest child reads the Christmas story, and the bonfire is lit, after which hymns are sung and everyone steps on the dying embers to make a wish. 

Another bonfire is lit in the middle of the floor at church on Christmas morning and ancient hymns are sung as the celebrant of the Eucharist carries a figure of the infant Jesus around the room. The celebrant touches the nearest person in a sign of peace that is passed from one to another until everyone in the room has received it. The traditional Christmas dinner consists of roast chicken, nuts, dates, pastries, and other Syrian dishes like hummus and baba ganouj.

There is more emphasis on prayer and communal gatherings among the five million Christians (some of whom still speak Aramaic) in this predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. Nonetheless, Syrian children receive gifts at Epiphany from the smallest camel of the Wise Men. Legend has it that when the Wise Men traveled to Bethlehem, it was the smallest camel who refused to give up the long journey and was most eager to see the Christ Child. The story emphasizes how the faith of the smallest and most vulnerable can, at times, be greater than most.

Tanzania > Joanne Chaytor is the first Volunteer in Mission from the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. She began working as an administrative assistant to the provincial secretary in the office of the Anglican Church of Tanzania in Dodoma in September 2005. The following is an abridged version of her account, which appeared in her blog.

“We did have a Christmas tree. It was an artificial tree like those at home. It was much smaller and simpler than most of the ones at home but was nice and made me feel a little more at home. It was strange to have Christmas and not have any snow … There is not a huge emphasis put on commercialism which I have to say I found to be a refreshing change. The big emphasis on Christmas for Tanzanians is a nice meal and being together with family and friends … We had pilau (rice seasoned with chicken and vegetable broth), chicken, rice, sweet banana, beans, various vegetables made in sauce with meat and salads. There was soda and ice cream too … It is so nice to have such an emphasis put on the true meaning of Christmas – the birth of the Christ child.”

Zimbabwe > A couple of days before Christmas, buses and cars are loaded with people leaving the city to go to big celebrations in rural areas. Preparations are a communal event: On Christmas Eve, men slaughter a cow and goat and the women clean and prepare the meat for the next day’s festivities. On Christmas morning, church is the first order of the day and children wear their new clothes. Traditional Christmas fare includes beef, goat and chicken stew served with rice or sadza (corn meal), vegetables and salads. After a hearty meal, grandparents tell stories around the fire, ensuring that the country’s oral tradition is passed on. Celebrations often go into wee hours and people move from house to house.

Colombia > Christmas is ushered in by the lighting of scores of candles to outline the streets on the night of December 7, the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. A wish is made to the Virgin Mary for every candle lit.

Medellin is easily the most beautiful city in Latin America in December, when its major thoroughfares, tourist attractions and even rivers are bathed in colourful lights. The annual spectacle, called Los Alumbrados (Festival of Lights), is impressive around the Rio Medellin, where large statues made of lights are found.

Praying the rosary for nine days before Christmas and singing villancicos (Christmas carols) around the nativity scene are beloved traditions in this country, where 90 per cent of the population are Roman Catholic.

Christmas Eve followed by a Christmas meal that typically includes Ajiaco, a favourite soup in Colombia which contains chicken, corn, potatoes, sour cream, capers, avocado, cilantro and guascas, an aromatic herb. Dinner may also include breads, roast pork, tamales (pork, rice and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves), and natillas, a cold, heavy custard with hints of cinnamon. When they wake up on Christmas morning, children find gifts at the foot of their beds from El Niño Jesus. 

Trinidad and Tobago > Christmas here would not be complete without parang, indigenous carols with Spanish and Venezuelan influences. Paranderos (carolers) hop from one house to the next, singing songs that echo the spirit of the island: lively, joyful and infectious. They are often accompanied by a wide variety of musical instruments: cuatro, bass box, mandolin, maracas, flutes, guitars and tambourines.

The black fruit cake is prepared days (even weeks) in advance to ripen the flavours of dark Jamaica rum, currants, dried figs, prunes, angostura bitters, maraschino cherries and other ingredients. Drinks are likewise prepared in advance: plantain wine, ginger beer and ponche de crème (the Trinidadian version of eggnog). The Christmas meal can include chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, rice and calaloo (a Caribbean version of gumbo).

Belize > From an account by Rev. Stanley Isherwood, an Anglican Volunteer in Mission (VIM), who began working for St. Joseph’s Anglican Church in Punta Gorda, which appeared in his blog, www.anglican.ca/partnerships/VIM/stories: “In (Punta Gorda) there are Christmas lights here and there, carols are being played on the radio, but more important, the Christmas spirit is starting to show! … When the Christmas spirit reaches the local boys it means that firecrackers are set off right outside my window. It’s in their yard but that’s right outside my window. They have really been quite good about it lately after an initial outburst that almost gave me apoplexy. But I have been warned to expect more as the day approaches … The Advent wreath provides a wonderful opportunity to talk about the love, joy, peace and hope that are so much part of Christmas.”

Ireland > The lighting of candles has a deep religious meaning in Ireland and is heightened during Christmas, when it symbolizes hospitality for the Holy Family. To light a candle (or even holiday lights) is to say that there is room for Mary and Joseph in one’s home, even though there was none in Bethlehem. The hospitality is extended to others at dinnertime, when extra plates are set on the table for unexpected visitors. Many decorate their doors with holly for the holidays and may not realize that this custom originated in Ireland.

Christmas begins on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and lasts until January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Familiar Christmas carols are still sung on the streets of some cities, by choirs big and small; street musicians play timeless Christmas classics on flutes, violins, harps and guitars.

France > French homes often display a crèche or Nativity scene, a tradition that began as early as the 17th century. Some crèches are elaborate – they include not just the Holy Family, Magi and shepherds, but also local dignitaries and characters. Crèches can be bought at shops and at the annual Christmas fairs held throughout December in Marseilles and Aix.

In Southern France, an ancient tradition of burning a log from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day lives on. It is said that farmers then used part of the log to attract a good harvest for the year.

Some people make a traditional log-shaped cake called the bûche de Noël, or Christmas log. The log cake is served alongside many other pastries during Le Réveillon, a late supper held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. This tradition started as a simple meal of biscuits and a hot drink but eventually evolved into a grand feast. The meals vary from region to region but are all equally lavish. It may include goose, turkey, oysters and foie gras, ham, fruit, sweets and wine.

Before bedtime, children leave their shoes by the fireplace and wake to find them filled with gifts from Père Noel.

Philippines > Filipinos, perhaps, celebrate the longest Christmas. As early as September, Christmas carols are played on the radio and shopping malls set up decorations; the festivities do not end until January 6, the feast of the Three Kings. Most homes display a parol outside their windows (usually a star-shaped lantern signifying the Star of Bethlehem that can be made simply from bamboo sticks and colourful cellophane or the more elaborate capiz shells) and decorated Christmas trees (mostly plastic).

The daily pre-dawn mass (Simbang Gabi) begins December 16 and ends with a midnight mass (Misa de Gallo) on Christmas Eve. Sleepyheads (church bells can start ringing as early as 3 a.m. for the 4 a.m. mass) are rewarded at the end of the church service with the joyful sight of festive food stalls in the churchyard that sell puto bumbong (purple sticky rice steamed in bamboo cylinders and topped with grated coconut and mascovado or brown sugar), bibingka (steamed rice cake) and salabat (hot ginger tea) or tsokolate (hot chocolate).

Most churches stage the Panunuluyan, a dramatization of the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem, on Christmas Eve. After midnight mass on Christmas Eve, families gather for the Noche Buena (midnight feast) and the opening of gifts. There is a great divide between the Noche Buena of the rich and the poor in this predominantly Roman Catholic country in Southeast Asia. While the rich can feast on as many as 20 dishes, including ham, lechon (whole roast pig), stuffed chicken, tiger prawns, paella, imported fruits and chocolates, pastries and native delicacies, the poor often have to rely on the kindness of neighbors and strangers. Most, strive, however, to save for what is considered the most important feast of the year and commonly serve pancit (noodles), embotido (stuffed ground pork) or morcon (rolled beef flanks) and leche flan (custard with caramel glaze).

The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Gerald Bowler, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2000.

The world gets goofy on New Year’s Eve

Eating black-eyed peas. Toasting with bubbly. Making resolutions we won’t keep. Isn’t there more than this to New Year’s Eve? Sure there is. Here’s a fractured look at some of the more, um, robust traditions around the world:

Times Square, New York: At 11:59 p.m. they drop the big crystal ball amidst revelry by a million or more people jammed into the square for hours, with lots of drinking and no apparent place to go to the bathroom. Did you ever wonder about that?

South Africa: In the Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow, it’s customary to throw refrigerators, beds and trash bins out of tall buildings. And to set off fireworks horizontally, aimed at the windows of neighboring buildings.

Scotland: In a tradition called ‘‘fireball swinging,’’ locals fashion big balls out of chicken wire, tar, paper and other flammable materials, set them afire and walk through pedestrian-jammed streets swinging them on ropes.

Atlanta: They drop a peach. Wimps.

America: They sing ‘‘Auld Lang Syne’’ an arcane poem by Scotsman Robert Burns. Sure, you can handle the first verse. Now have three glasses of bubbly and try singing the third:

‘‘We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,’’

‘‘Frae morning sun till dine,’’

‘‘But seas between us braid hae roar’d,’’

‘‘Sin auld lang syne.’’

Philippines: Children jump up and down at midnight to make sure they will grow tall. Hours later, sensors warn of tsunami waves around the Pacific Rim.

Spain: They eat 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight. Those Spaniards know how to party, don’t they?

Greece: They make Saint Basil’s Cake, called Vasilopitta in Greek, hiding a gold coin inside. Whoever finds the coin has good luck in the coming year. Or breaks a tooth and sues.

The American South: They eat ‘‘Hoppin’ John’’ black-eyed peas and ham hocks for luck. If they were even luckier, they’d have caviar and champagne.

France: New Year’s Eve is celebrated with a feast called ‘‘Le Reveillon de Saint-Sylvestre’’ with champagne and foie gras, and a fancy ball called ‘‘une soiree dansante.’’ Face it. We’ll never be as cool as the French.

Ecuador: They see out the ‘‘Ano Viejo’’ by using wood, newspapers and rags to make human figures – often of disliked politicians, stuffing them with fireworks and setting them aflame. We call that an election campaign.

China: Tradition has it that a scary, man-eating beast, Nyan, used to skulk down from the mountains, infiltrate houses and do its worst to the inhabitants. Then they discovered the monster was sensitive to noise. Which explains the firecrackers, banging drums and such that make San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade audible from space. The next lunar new year, ushering in the Year of the Boar, falls on February 18.

Cambodia: In ‘‘Chab Kon Kleng,’’ a traditional New Year game, one player, the hen, tries to protect his chicks while another player, the crow, tries to catch them. In America, the game is called ‘‘lobbyists and special prosecutors.’’

Japan: Tradition is to pay off all debts and go into the New Year with a clean slate. This is how you can tell they’re not Americans.

Ireland: In a tradition called ‘‘First Footing,’’ if the first person to set foot in your door in the New Year is a dark-haired man, you’re in for good luck. But watch out if it’s someone whose eyebrows meet above his or her nose. This would seem to be good advice year-round.

Sources: Wikipedia and other web sites, some rock-solid, others possibly fanciful.

Christmas Traditions in Ghana


In response to the above Christmas greeting in Ghana, one would reply: Afe nko betu yen which means May another year come to meet us again, an expression that surpasses all tribal bounds and is used by all Ghanaians.

Unlike most countries, Ghana celebrates Christmas by having people from various localities, mainly young boys, dress in fancy and colorful costumes and dance on the main streets of towns and cities to the tune of brass band music. Large crowds fill the streets to observe the celebration.

This art of masquerading was imported from Brazil and has been associated with the Fante communities in Ghana. It is found mainly in Central Ghana and parts of the western regions of the country. Sometimes the masqueraders even enter people’s homes. In the joyous spirit of Christmas, families join in and also dance to the music. Gifts of money, food, and drinks are given to the masqueraders.

Christmas Traditions in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia there are more than 80 languages and 200 dialects spoken among the 60 million people in that country. Here are just a few of the Christmas greetings:

In Amharic, the official language of the country, the greeting is: meaning “It is my pleasure to see you in this delightful day of Christmas”. In Oromiffa, the second most widely spoken language, the greeting is: meaning “Happy Christmas”. In Tegergna, the greeting is: meaning “Seasons Greetings”. 

The Amharic and Tigergna languages both use the Sabean alphabet, which has been in existence for 4 thousand years. The Oromiffa language uses the Latin alphabet.

A unique aspect of the Ethiopian Christmas celebration involves the game of “Gena” or Ethiopian Hockey. Legend has it that the game was being played by the shepherds who were tending their flocks on the night that Jesus was born. This game is still played today by Ethiopian youths at Christmas time. The game is attended by the leader of the community. A prize is awarded to the winner of the Gena game.
Another interesting aspect of the Ethiopian Christmas celebration is the Christmas dinner. Families gather together and share the meal, which is usually a meat stew. The stew is served on traditional Ethiopian Injera bread and placed on a basket in front of the family. The meal is eaten by taking pieces of Injera bread and using it to scoop out the stew. Injera bread, which is a flat and round, is often used in place of a plate or utensil at Ethiopian meals.

The Evangelical Church has greatly increased in the past half-century. They observe Christmas on the same date as Orthodox Christians but in quite a different manner. They assemble in church on Christmas Eve and observe the occasion with great solemnity. The women turn up in their beautiful national dresses; a number of hymns are sung; the story of the Lord’s Birth is read from the Bible and expounded, and collections are made for distribution to the needy. In the homes the preparations are more or less the same as in the Orthodox homes. In recent years, the custom of setting up Christmas trees in the Evangelical Church and the homes of the believers has been taken from the Western Churches.

Christmas Traditions in Uganda

Mukulike Okutuuka ku Mazaalibwa

MUKULIKE OKUTUUKA KU MAZAALIBWA is the greeting that all Ugandans, men, women, and children greet each other with as they congratulate one another for yet another Christmas added to their age.

The Christmas season is the most important holiday of the year in Uganda and is very festive. Christmas is ushered in as early as the first week of December by a business boom caused by the purchase of new clothes, gifts, and especially Christmas cards, which are popular among urban dwellers.

City authorities organize Christmas caroling and many Christian choirs participate with the lighting of giant Christmas trees the cities. Families and friends dance until the wee hours of the morning.

Christmas Traditions in South Africa

Traditionally Zulus, Sothos and other native Africans converge on their family home on Christmas Day and the whole day is spent eating, singing, drinking, and being merry.

The difference in the Christian families being, that they attend the church service and sing Christian songs. One of the senior male members of the family then narrates the nativity. No gifts are presented, only in more westernized families, because the plentiful food, with special emphasis on meat, and the company of family and friends are regarded as precious gifts.

Among those whose forebears immigrated to South Africa from Europe, their celebrations reflect those of the countries from which they came. These celebrations include decorating Christmas trees and going caroling.

One aspect that makes such celebrations unusual is that they take place during the summer months in South Africa. Because of the time of year, many families have outdoor celebrations some of which even take place on the beach!

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