Christmas around the world > traditions

Here are some Christmas traditions celebrated in other countries.

• Australia > Christmas in Australia is often very hot. A traditional meal includes a turkey dinner, with ham and pork. A flaming Christmas plum pudding is added for dessert. Australian families and tourists often celebrate Christmas at the beach or pool. Carols by candlelight is held on Christmas Eve, and tens of thousands of people gather in Melbourne to sing their favorite Christmas songs.

• Belgium > In Belgium, there are two Santa Claus figures, St. Nicholas and Pere Noel. St Nicholas visits those who speak the Waloon language, twice. He first arrives on December 4, to find out which children have been good and which have been bad. On December 6, if a child is good, he returns with presents. Bad children receive twigs inside their shoes or in small baskets. Pere Noel and his companion Pere Fouettard visit those who speak French. Good children receive chocolates and candies. Bad children are more likely to receive a handful of sticks. Christmas for both gift-givers is December 6, the feast of St Nicholas.

• China > The Christian children of China decorate trees with colorful ornaments. They also hang muslin stockings hoping that Christmas Old Man will fill them with gifts and treats. The Chinese Christmas trees are called Trees of Light.

• India > Christians in India decorate banana or mango trees. They also light small oil-burning lamps as Christmas decorations and fill their churches with red flowers. They give presents to family members and baksheesh, or charity, to the poor people. In southern India, Christians put small clay lamps on the rooftops and walls of their houses at Christmas, just as the Hindus do during their Diwali festival.

• Nicaragua > Christmas begins officially on Dec. 6 in Nicaragua, but actual activities begin on December 16. Every home contains a manger scene. From December 16 until the Christmas Eve Mass, prayer is held each evening in the home, followed by refreshments and the singing of carols. Christmas Day is celebrated with much fun and eating, fireworks and dancing.

• Russia > In Russia the religious festival of Christmas is being replaced by the Festival of Winter, but there are some traditions that are still kept up in some parts of the country. In the traditional Russian Christmas, which is observed on January 7, special prayers are said and people fast, sometimes for 39 days, until Christmas Eve, which is January 6 in Russia. On Christmas Day, hymns and carols are sung. People gather in churches, which have been decorated with the usual Christmas trees or Yelka, flowers and colored lights. Babushka is a traditional Christmas figure who distributes presents to children.

• Syria > In Syria on December 6, a special Mass is held in churches in honor of St. Nicholas Thaumaturgus. On Christmas Eve everyone in the family carries a lit candle to an unlit bonfire outside their house. The youngest child, usually the son of the family, reads the Christmas story, after which the bonfire is lit. The way the flames spread shows the luck of the house in the coming year. When the fire burns, psalms are sung, and when it sinks, everyone leaps over the embers making wishes. Early on Christmas morning everyone goes to Mass. It is on New Year’s Day that children receive presents.

• Wales > Every year at Christmas, carol singing is the most enjoyed activity. Caroling is called eisteddfodde and is often accompanied by a harp. Christmas is spent with lots of people gathering in the public square for the announcement of who has won the prize for submitting the best music for a new carol. Taffy making is one of the most important of the Welsh Christmas. The Welsh people maintain most of the traditional customs associated with England.


Iowa’s melting pot of traditions

Residents tell of heritages from many cultures that create a holiday season rich in memories.

The holidays are a time of holding tight to tradition, whether it’s lovingly displaying a faded ornament made by a kindergartner now grown to manhood or crowding in front of the television to watch “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Many of the rituals that guide this season began with our families. Others entered our lives through marriage, through the pleading of our children, sometimes through a loss that made the old ways of doing things a source of pain rather than joy.

No two Iowa families celebrate the holidays exactly the same way. For local residents from other countries and other cultures, those differences are even more pronounced. Even if their traditions are unknown to us, though, the reverence with which they uphold them is very familiar. There are many ways of celebrating this time of year. Here are just a few of them.

Christy Karthan > Karthan grew up in Greece, emigrating right after high school. She and her husband, James, who is also of Greek descent, have three adult children and four grandchildren. Childhood holiday memories: I grew up right after the war. The night before Christmas as children, we’d get together and go door to door and sing Christmas songs. Invariably the people in the home would give us money. On Christmas Day, we went to church, then we’d come home, have a meal and sing songs. My mom baked baklava and a lot of special sweets that she would not make the rest of the year. In Greece, Santa, Saint Basil, came on New Year’s Day. When I was little, he brought me a doll.

What are your holidays like now? > Most of our traditions are more or less like Western ones. Santa comes for the little children. We open gifts and decorate a Christmas tree. My son when he comes home, he always looks on the tree for the little itsy bitsy Santa we used to put on the tree when he was little.

How does your culture influence your celebration? > I bake sweets that are a little different like baklava and kourabiethes, white round cookies with powdered sugar on top. And melomakarona, which are like macaroons dipped in hot honey with crumbled nuts over it. Christmas is about the only time I make these treats.

Mary Goose > Half Meskwaki and half Chippewa, Goose works at Drake University in food service and catering. She grew up mainly in Des Moines and has also lived on the Meskwaki settlement in Tama. She has a son, Lucas. Childhood holiday memories: Growing up, we got presents and did the whole gift-giving thing. I think a couple of times we had a tree. We weren’t that much into celebrating Christmas, it’s not part of our religion. It was just kind of like a holiday we had to work around. When we lived on the settlement, they used to have a Christmas program at the community center or school and we’d go to that. Mostly it was a kids program. That was like something the non-native culture brought in there and it became part of our culture.

What are your holidays like now? > I just give presents to my closest family members – my son, sister, aunt and mother. I’ll probably get together with them on Christmas Day. Usually we get a turkey from work so it’s something we’ll have just because we get a turkey. The closest I’ve come to ever having a Christmas tree is doing one of those little living Christmas trees you get at Target that are less than a foot tall with the little ornaments stuck on there. My son he’s kind of getting older. It was more exciting when he was little. Probably my favorite thing is just the fact that we had two or three weeks together without him having to go to school.

Dawn Martinez Oropeza > She was born to a Mexican Catholic father and Jewish mother. The arts education community programs coordinator for the Iowa Arts Council, she and husband Juan Carlos have two children. Childhood holiday memories: We would spend Christmas Eve at my Jewish grandmother’s house and have Jewish food. We’d go to church in the morning, then do Christmas with Santa Claus. We didn’t really have Mexican Christmas traditions. Dad did more of a standard American Catholic celebration. We had a Christmas tree, wrote letters to Santa and had presents. We ate turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, and hung our stockings on the fireplace.

What are your holidays like now? > My husband is from Mexico, and since I’ve been married to him, we’ve incorporated more Mexican traditions. In Mexico, starting December 16, they have Las Posadas. They re-enact Jesus’ birth and go house to house asking to be let in. When someone lets you in, they serve tamales and hot chocolate. In Mexico they do this like every night up until Christmas Eve. Because we just moved here last year, instead of posadas, my kids had a cookie party on the 15th. We’ll do midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

How does your culture influence your celebration? > My family in Des Moines all make tamales and bunuelos – fried tortillas with cinnamon and sugar. My mother-in-law comes from Mexico every year at the end of December. She brings tamales and Rosca de Reyes for Three Kings’ Day. Three Kings’ Day is on January 6 and is a celebration of the three Kings who came to see Jesus. The night before, children write a letter to the three Kings and put the letter in their shoes. The next day, they wake up and find gifts from the Kings. Rosca de Reyes is a big oval wreath made out of egg bread with dried fruit on top for decoration. Baked inside the bread are little baby Jesuses. If you get a piece of bread with a baby Jesus in it, you have to have a party for everyone on Dia de la Candelaria on February 2.

What influence has your mom had on your holiday traditions? > My mom passed away this year. Her birthday is the 12th, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and this year we started a tradition by going to get our tree on her birthday. We’re also doing Hanukkah this year. My kids have never celebrated Hanukkah.

Abid Talic > Talic grew up in Bosnia as a Muslim and moved to America in 1995. The general manager of the Spring Hill Suites in West Des Moines and a graduate student at Drake University in public administration, Talic received his American citizenship in September 2005. He and his wife, Ramiza, have two children. Childhood holiday memories: One of the two main religious celebrations for Bosnian Muslims is on December 30 this year. It’s called Kurban Bajram and it celebrates when God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son to him and instead sent a young ram to Abraham to save his son. It’s what Christmas is for you guys here. It’s a very festive time with three days of celebration. What we do basically is have community gatherings. Traditionally on that same day, some members of the community will go to a farm and sacrifice one of the three allowed farm animals such as a cow, goat or ram. They will take this meat to poor families, friends, neighbors, anyone willing to accept it, to show mercy and love to other members of the community.

What are your holidays like now? > We will not do anything on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. On December 30, the first thing in the morning we’ll all go in and pray. Then, I’ll go to visit my mom, dad, my brothers, all the people I’m connected with, to have coffee at their house and cake and to wish them “bajram mubarak olsun.” It basically means “Happy Bajram”. Then as the oldest son, I’ll invite all their families to visit my house. We’ll spend the first day of Bajram at my house, the second day at my brother’s house and the third day we all go to Mom’s and Dad’s. We also call family in Bosnia any time there’s any type of holiday. We will do traditional Bosnian food and traditional American food. On the night of December 30 at 7 Flags, there will be a celebration for the entire Bosnian community in Des Moines with 2,000-3,000 people.

Do you decorate? > No, but something very important is the house has to be perfectly clean. We have to start at least a week before. Everything needs to be put together in as nice a way as possible. There are also certain types of sweets that have to be made: baklava and torta hurmasice.

Francis Chan > Chan grew up in southern Sudan in a Catholic family and moved to the United States in 2000. He is a case manager for the Bureau of Refugee Services. He married Regina last year. He has four daughters. Childhood holiday memories: When I was a young boy in Sudan, the end of the month of November is when everybody started preparing for Christmas. This is the time when children try their best to have a good relationship with their parents so they can have new clothes. Secondly, people will begin making arrangements for the parties. We celebrate Christmas starting the 23rd to the first day of January, and every day there is a party from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. or 6 a.m. in the morning. For four days, there is no work at all. Even the public offices are closed. On the 24th, there will be marching starting from midnight until morning. A very huge group joins together and there is drumming, dancing and a lot of singing. On the 25th and 26th, the children move from one child’s house to another and they give you candy. On the 27th and 28th, the women move around to each other’s houses. On Christmas in Sudan, it is important for people to eat together as a sign of unity. For a family that is rich, they have to kill a cow or sheep. If you were from a poor family, you got fresh fish from the river. We also ate a special cake done a month before. It’s like fruit cake here. I miss it.

Describe your first Christmas here: > I came here by myself with four of my daughters. My oldest daughter was 9 when we came. The first Christmas, a friend of mine, a priest, took me out with the children to see how people celebrate Christmas in the city of Des Moines. It has become a tradition. Every Christmas on the 23rd, I take my children around and look at the lights.

How does your culture influence your celebration? > We have special clothes we wear. My children, they don’t like it. Some of them accept it, some say it’s snowing today or it’s too cold. On the 26th, I try by all means to go visit some friends in the evening after my working hours.

The Rev. Gunsoo Jung > He is a native of Korea who moved to the United States in 1993. Pastor of Korean United Methodist Church in Des Moines, he and his wife, Gwi Jeong Jung, have four children. Childhood holiday memories: The most important holidays in Korea are Seolnal (New Year’s Day in lunar) and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day). They are bigger holidays in Korea than Christmas. People get together at their parents’ house or their elder brother’s and talk about what they did last year and what they are going to do this coming year. People try not to sleep on New Year’s Eve because if they sleep at night, they believe their eyebrows will turn gray. Children wear their new clothes, Seolbim, early in the morning and do a memorial service, Charye. People have Ddeukguk, rice cake soup. People believe that if they eat Ddeukguk on New Year’s Day, they will get one year older. They go to their ancestors’ tombs in the nearby mountain. They offer some food and fruits and make bows to their ancestors. Then they visit and bow to their relatives or seniors in the neighborhood.

What are your holidays like now? > My family celebrates Christmas like Americans. But we celebrate Seolnal like other Koreans in Korea. We have a service of New Year in my house with my family and in our church with our church members. We make Ddeukguk and other side dishes. I bow to my father and mother and my kids make bows (SaeBae – bows on the New Year’s Day) to us (my wife and me) and their grandparents. Then we give them some money – Saebaedon – and tell them Deokdam. That’s a wish for good luck for the year.

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, “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.

Epiphany > A feast fit for 3 kings

Three Kings from the East offered precious, symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.

They arrived in Bethlehem not on the day of his birth, but 11 days later. This day is recognized on the Christian calendar as the Feast of Epiphany. In cultural revelry, January 6 is known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the grand finale of the Christmas season. The traditions of Epiphany, also called Three Kings Day, live on in places that were once Spanish colonies.

People from the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Mexico share their Epiphany customs of gift-giving and special foods, which they maintain to enrich their children’s sense of heritage and for the sheer fun of it.

Philippines > A nativity scene, called a belen, is the centerpiece of Christmas decorations in Filipino homes.

Maria Cielo Eugenio, remembers the excitement of waking on the morning of January 6  to find gifts for all the children near the belen, left in the night by the three kings during their journey. “Little children believe in this the way they believe in Santa,” Eugenio says. “The Kings are supposed to be rich, so they must leave gifts.”

There are three major islands in the Philippines, but there are 7,107 in all. Epiphany customs vary from island to island and from family to family.

Eugenio’s friend Myrlina Hunley from Visayas island recalls rearranging the figures of the three Kings in the belen on Epiphany to show them departing. Many of Eugenio’s friends left shoes, the bigger the better, on the windowsill for the three Kings to fill with gifts. Eugenio, a coordinator for classes on Philippine history and culture held at Our Lady of Lourdes, says the Philippines observe the longest Christmas celebration in the world.

In a nation that is 82 percent Catholic, Masses play a central role. Beginning December 16, people arise at 4 a.m. for nine days for Misa de Gallo, the aptly named Mass of the Rooster. Special foods are served to family and friends after the Masses. The midnight Mass of December 24 is followed by a big celebration at home. Fifteen or more dishes, such as chicken adobo, pancit bihon and leche flan, cover the table. Influenced by 40 years as an American colony, Filipino homes also receive a visit from Santa Claus.

On the morning of Christmas Day, another Mass is held. A grand family reunion follows at noon. Roast pig, called lechon, is the main dish. The Christmas tree and the decorative star lantern, a parol, stay up until Epiphany, or the Feast of Three Kings. Many of the dishes served on the Christmas table reappear at Epiphany.

Mexico > When Maria Garcia-Lara, was growing up in Guadalajara, Christmas was all about baby Jesus and going to church. The day of January 6, when the three wise men came, was a big celebration. Gifts were exchanged and family cooks would labor over traditional foods, such as a hearty soup called posole and time-consuming tamales.

Garcia-Lara’s mother prepares those dishes for Three Kings Day when she comes to visit. With two daughters, and a job in her family business, Mexico restaurant, Garcia-Lara doesn’t have time to prepare the traditional dishes herself. Garcia-Lara says her children enjoy the custom of the three Kings’ visit as well as Santa.

Mexican Epiphany celebrations also feature the Rosca de Reyes, or Kings’ bread. This crown-shaped bread with icing contains Christmas figures inside, including the baby Jesus.

“The person who got the Jesus figure from the Epiphany bread would do a rosary [gathering] in the house on February 2, Candelaria” Garcia-Lara said. Candelaria feasts feature tamales and Mexican hot chocolate. Candelaria, or Candlemass, often falls on the same day as Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, the last day in the church calendar before the season of Lent.

Many bakeries and groceries stock Kings’ cake, a close relative of Rosca de Reyes, often sprinkled with sugar dyed the festive green, purple and gold colors of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities. Home cooks wishing to involve children in making Kings’ bread will find a recipe at

Puerto Rico > Going out into the yard to cut grass to place in a shoebox under the bed along with a bowl of water was an annual January 5 ritual for Ana Guerrero and her now-adult son. He knew the camels bearing the three Kings would pass by and probably be hungry from their long journey.

“We didn’t leave cookies like we do for Santa,” Guerrero said. The Kings would have to do without. As a child in Puerto Rico, Guerrero, received presents from Santa on Christmas and toys on Three Kings Day.

“I remember the year I got a dollhouse and I thought I had seen the Kings [in my room],” recalled Guerrero. Often, there would be a trail of grass blades from the child’s bed to a doorway, showing the Kings’ path in and out of the house. “When I got a little older, and a little wiser, the Kings would bring school supplies.”

In Puerto Rico, the menu for Three Kings Day repeated Christmas favorites, such as roast pig and pasteles, which is a mix of pork, chickpeas, raisins and almonds enclosed in a masa of plantain, taro root, milk and salt.

Using a cookbook she received as a gift in 1962, Guerrero recently got together with two friends to make pasteles for the first time. Carols played as they worked in the kitchen, but it was a different experience from Christmas baking, she says. “It was more homey, more Latin, not sugary.”

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 in Europe, but where’s Santa?

Santa on the road again, reports coming in from our local offices……….!

December 2006 > Christmas is celebrated across Europe but in different ways, especially when it comes to Father Christmas. In order get to the facts on this story, our PR executives across Europe have pooled their local knowledge to give you the spin on Christmas in their country. Here is a sample of their reports.

Czech Republic:
Saint Nicholas
is helped by the Infant Jesus to give presents to the children. On the morning of December 24, children wake up and start to arrange the Christmas tree. Sometimes they are told not to eat all day before the Christmas dinner in order to see “Golden piggies” on the walls. After dinner children have to leave the room where the Christmas tree is situated and wait until baby Jesus brings gifts. Parents come in to welcome baby Jesus and to thank him for all the gifts. Once his job is done, Jesus rings on a small bell (usually fixed on the tree) and disappears. When children hear the bell they may come in and enjoy their gifts.  

Christmas dinner
is on December 24th around 18.00 or 19.00 (roasted duck followed by risalamande (rice pudding with whipped cream served with cherry sauce) as desert. After that the Christmas tree is lit up, we dance around it and sing Christmas carols. Suddenly Julemanden (Father Christmas) turns up with a big sack full of presents for the children. After the children have received the presents they are immediately opened. Father Christmas quickly leaves the family again. Unfortunately one of the older male members of the family are usually out of the room while Father Christmas visits the family, so he never has the luck to meet Father Christmas!  

It’s traditional to be with families at Christmas (Jõulud). Estonians like to visit their families from 24-26 December and do not go out with friends as much or go out drinking in the bars. On the 24th or 25th of December there is Christmas dinner; special Christmas food is pork and pickled cabbage or blood sausage. There is a Christmas tree is in every home, a tradition that dates back to Russian time when Christmas was prohibited. Presents are opened in the evening of the 24th or 25th when Santa Claus (Jõuluvana) visits. Our people are not too religious, but during Christmas more people visit church.  

Young children leave their shoes by the fire on Christmas Eve for a gift from “le père Noël” while the older children and adults go to church at midnight and then return home for a late supper called “le réveillon”. Children decorate their Christmas Lists with pictures and then leave them on the windowsill overnight, weighed down with a little sugar so they won’t be missed by Father Christmas.  

Christkind (the baby Jesus)
comes on Christmas Eve, bringing the tree and all the presents which are opened on Christmas Eve. But the fun starts early with the coming of St Nikolaus – who very closely resembles Father Christmas/Santa Klaus – and who brings gifts for children on or during the night of 5th December. Santa Klaus is, in fact, a shortened version of the name Nikolaus.  

Today 144,000 Christians are living in Israel. Most are Christian Arabs living mainly in Jerusalem and Nazareth. The land of Israel, like Rome, is a preferred tourist destination for pilgrimage trips. Throughout the years other churches and monasteries worldwide were added to these pilgrimage trips, however the importance of Israel, the land on which Jesus was born, has always remained central. The Church of the Nativity is located in the Nativity Circle in Bethlehem and is one of the sacred places for Christians. This is where the festive mass takes place annually. Pilgrims come for the mass from all over the world and it is covered by media throughout the five continents. Israel is a Jewish-dominated country and therefore Christmas is not felt when walking in the streets. But from a business perspective, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been busy because of the greetings and blessings sent by Israeli companies to their colleagues abroad. 

In the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium St. Nicolaas
is more popular than Santa Claus. We celebrate St. Nicolaas’ birthday on December 6th, however most celebrate it on December 5th the day before his birthday. Usually St. Nicolaas arrives two weeks before on a steamboat, loaded with gifts. 1600 years ago he was born in Myra, a Roman town in Turkey. His popularity stems from his generosity and kindness to children. In 1087, 326 years after his death, his remains were brought to Italy. He was honoured for centuries, and churches and towns were named after him. He became the patron of shippers, travellers, children, prisoners, traders, lawyers, cities (Amsterdam) and countries (Russia and Greece).

On December 6th children received gifts and presents from St. Nicolaas, an old man with a long white beard who sat on horse. Over the years his original home country of Italy became Spain. Except in the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium, St. Nicolaas has been replaced by Santa Claus. A real pity. How can such a serious, holy person as St. Nicolaas change into a big fat, jolly guy? It began with a group of Dutch colonists who lived in New Amsterdam (now New York). They had arrived with a statue of a pipe-smoking St. Nicolaas. They carried the statue along with them during Christmas celebrations. Later most Dutch-Americans were carrying St. Nicolaas dolls with them during Christmas. In 1809 the American writer Washington Irving wrote about a laughing, pipe smoking Santa Claus who sat on a carriage and was riding the firmament. This was the basis for the popular poem in 1823: ’The night before Christmas’, about St. Nick on a sled pulled by eight flying reindeer. Santa Claus is Dutch, really.  

Christmas in Poland
is the most awaited holiday of the year. In every house there is a specially decorated Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve when the first star appears in the sky, families sit at the table for the traditional Christmas Eve supper. There is always an additional table setting for an unexpected guest. Before the supper begins members of the family share the holy wafer, wishing each other all the best. Father Christmas, with his white beard and red suit visits on Christmas Eve and leaves presents under the Christmas tree. Sometimes he comes in person and gives the presents to children or he somehow enters the house (coming down the chimney or through the window) and puts all the gifts under the Christmas tree. He is so quick that children have never seen him doing this. After supper the presents are opened. At midnight many people go to church to attend a special Mass. On December 25 most people stay at home with their families and on the next day they pay and receive visits. 

In Spain, traditionally Christmas
has always been a religious time and is centred around the original story behind the birth of Christ. For example, the Three Kings bring presents (as in the story), not on Christmas but on the 6th of January. Children leave a shoe out on the night of the 5th and wake up the next day with, surprise, surprise, a present or two inside. For those boys and girls who have been naughty the year before, the Three Kings leave a lump of coal. During the afternoon of the 6th, there is usually a parade through the streets of the town with the Three Kings on floats throwing sweets to the children watching.

Christmas Day is less important than Christmas Eve, which is the main time when families get together and have dinner – usually seafood and fish. Christmas Day is more a day for spiritual reflection for the religious, and a time to recover from the previous night’s excesses for the rest of us. Other key ingredients of Spanish Christmas celebrations are cava and a local specialty known as ‘turron’ which are assorted types of sweets such as nougat, chocolate, caramel, etc. Another important date in Spain in the Christmas calendar is the 22nd when they hold the Christmas lottery draw known as ‘El Gordo’ or ‘The Big One’. Even people who don’t usually play lottery during the year will have at least one ticket, hoping their life might change for the better.

Spanish Christmas decorations are sparse, and generally orientated around the setting up of a ‘Belén’ or Nativity scene in the central part of the house, using elaborate figures for Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, etc. and natural materials from the countryside such as bark and moss. Many areas hold competitions to see who can build the biggest and most elaborate scenes (eg: with running water and flashing stars), and in some towns they have become a seasonal tourist attraction. However, as religion’s influence in society is waning with consumerism, commerce, and globalisation taking its place, the typical globally-recognised symbols of Christmas (trees, turkeys, Santas Claus, holly, snowmen, etc) are gaining ground and sadly homogenising the season.  

The majority of the population in Turkey is Muslim but we are a secular country and even if we do not directly celebrate Christmas, we share this custom with our Greek Orthodox and Armenian neighbours who are a minority, especially in big cities. We have Christmas trees and exchange gifts for the new year. Islam as a religion recognizes all prophets of the monotheist religions. Therefore we celebrate the New Year and we recognize Jesus as one of the prophets. The birth place of St. Nicholas is in Turkey, near Antalya (Myra-Demre).  

United Kingdom:
Father Christmas,
an older man in a red suit with a white beard, comes to visit children on the night of 24th December, arriving on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He comes down the chimney, puts presents in a stocking (or rather large sock), usually at the end of the bed or under the decorated Christmas tree. Children leave a mince pie and a drink for him and carrot for his reindeer. Presents are then opened on Christmas day morning, though this may start very early!  

In Rome, cannon are fired from Castel St. Angelo on Christmas Eve
to announce the beginning of the holiday season. A 24-hour fast ends with an elaborate Christmas feast and small presents drawn from the Urn of Fate. The main exchange of gifts in most places in Italy however, traditionally takes place on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, and the celebration in remembrance of the Magi’s visit to Jesus. Children anxiously await a visit from “La Befana” (an old witch who flies on her broomstick) who brings gifts for the good and punishment for the bad. According to legend, the three wise men stopped during their journey and asked an old woman for food and shelter. She refused them and they continued on their way. Within a few hours the woman had a change of heart but the Magi were long gone. La Befana, which means Epiphany, still wanders the earth searching for Jesus to ask forgiveness. Throughout Italy these days, however, many people celebrate what has become the recognized Christmas celebration: with Christmas trees, stockings, and Santa Clause and his reindeer delivering presents on Christmas Day. 

New Year’s Celebrations > around the world

At the stroke of midnight on Sunday night, tall flutes of sparkling champagne will be poured and sipped as people the world over toast the arrival of the New Year.

Kisses, hugs and well-wishes will be exchanged as colorful streamers and gold and silver confetti flutter in the air and fireworks illuminate the sky.

Starting from the east, the celebration of new beginnings will commence and continue till the clocks ring in 12 all over the globe. Different cultures usher in the New Year in different ways. Some gather to watch the famous glittering ball drop in New York City’s Times Square, while others will meet to watch the spectacular fireworks at Sydney harbor in Australia.

Although the celebrations and traditions may vary, the energy that’s sparked by New Year’s Eve will be present no matter where the party.

Beachfront in Brazil > More than 2 million people gather on candlelit Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a couple of hours before midnight on December 31.

Each will bring a bottle of champagne and most will wear white, says 24-year-old Shana Claudio, a public relations professional living in New York City. As a Brazilian native, no matter where Claudio has lived, each year she has gone back to her home country to ring in the New Year.

Although a few might deviate from white clothes, “mostly everyone wears white because people in Brazil are superstitious,” she explains. “They believe it will bring peace, happiness and health.”

Looking down from a balcony of the bordering Copacabana Palace hotel, the masses drawn together on the beach will look like “a sea of white.”

Underneath the white, it’s even traditional for women to wear different colored underwear depending on what they want in the coming year. For money, ladies choose yellow; for peace, white; and those longing for love will wear pink, Claudio says.

After a family dinner, people meet friends and walk together to Copacabana. Everyone usually gathers early because they know there will be hordes of people and nobody wants to miss the fireworks. The revelers sit on the beach drinking and talking or dancing while they wait.

People also buy white flowers from nearby sellers and step barefoot into the dark Atlantic, make a wish and throw the flowers into the ocean as an offering to Yemanja, goddess of the sea. And when the clock strikes midnight, everyone uncorks their bottles.

“You see the corks flying everywhere as white flowers wash up on the sand,” Claudio reminisces. “It’s really beautiful.”

After midnight and the fireworks, some take their shoes off, step into the water with their right foot and jump three waves for good luck, she says. Some also eat grapes and keep the seeds in their wallets for good luck, until they are replaced the following year.

The Rio New Year’s Eve is often a time spent with family; most parties don’t get started until after the clock strikes 12. People living in apartments bordering the beach will typically host parties and watch the fireworks from their apartment balconies. Others head to dance clubs after the beach.

“One of the big takeaways is that Rio’s not only this gorgeous metropolitan city, but there’s also tradition ingrained,” Claudio says. “Everyone has a lot of beliefs, and at the end of the day it’s about family and tradition, that’s what makes it really beautiful.”

Ushering In Shogatsu > Hours earlier, in the eastern half of the world, Tokyo will be one of the first cities to ring in the new year, literally. At midnight, crowds gather at the “watch-night bell” in Tokyo, which will be struck 108 times to rid people of the 108 earthly sins they are said to possess, according to Buddhist scriptures.

As the old year passes, the chimes and peals of temple bells reverberate all over Japan as millions of people line up to ring the bells to summon the New Year, says a 28-year-old Japan native who has been living in Manhattan for more than two years. The lines, she recalls, can be up to two hours long.

On the streets of Tokyo, people gather to watch dezomeshiki, a stunt-filled parade of the city’s firemen. Before calling in the New Year, the Japanese will spend the night of December 31, also called omisoka, watching Kohaku Uta Gassen, an annual televised music show.

Toward the end of the night, people eat buckwheat noodles called toshikoshi soba, also known as “year-crossing” noodles, for a prosperous and long life.

The New Year, or Shogatsu, is considered by many the most important holiday in Japan, and accordingly, preparations for the celebration begin weeks in advance: The Japanese clean their homes, put up rice-straw and bamboo decorations, send out New Year’s cards and hold bonenkai, or “year-forgetting,” parties.

On the first day of the year, many awake early to view the first sunrise, as it is traditionally considered the right way to start the year. During the day, people also visit temples and shrines to pray for a good and healthy year.

On the night of January 2, the Japanese go to sleep hoping to dream of Mt. Fuji, hawks or eggplants, as dreaming of these is considered an omen for a lucky year ahead. These are regarded as lucky because Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan, hawks fly high, and eggplants were highly priced in ancient Japan, when the tradition was first enacted.

During this time, Japanese children receive otoshidama, or little envelopes with pocket money, and celebrate by flying kites, spinning wooden tops and playing cards.

Locals feast on special New Year’s dishes called osechi, consisting of yellow fish eggs marinated in a dashi, sake and soy-sauce broth; sweet black beans; and umami-rich kombu rolls stuffed with salmon and simmered in dashi, mirin, sugar and soy sauce.

Japanese businesses remain closed through January 3, and the “whole city is very quiet” for the first three days of the year, the native says. As the days are said to be representative of the year to come, people generally gather with family and friends and spend the time in tranquil celebration.

Wherever your New Year’s Eve is spent, it will be a memorable night of festivities with family and friends, in which everyone can rejoice in the year past and look forward to a new beginning. Happy New 2007 everyone!

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