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.


Christmas controversy?

The dream of Christian children worldwide: Jerusalem celebrates three Christmases! That statement is, of course, a bit misleading. The traditional Christian communities, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian, celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, January 6 and January 19 respectively, negating the possibility of Santa coming thrice to the same child.

These faith traditions each bring their own customs to the holiday, but share a common focus on the mystery and glory of the event, deemphasizing the commercial aspects so prevalent in the West.

Most Europeans and Americans are unfamiliar with the Armenian Church, which is ironic, because Armenia officially adopted the faith in 301 CE (about 25 years before Rome), and has maintained an emphasis on the Christ-mass, without the more secular gift-giving.

Bishop Aris Shirvanian, spokesman for the Armenian Patriarchate, explains why the Western churches were more influenced by pagan practices surrounding Christmas.

Christmas parties and gift-giving stem from “merrymaking inherited from the old pagan worship of the sun god – Saturn” he said. “Saturnalia was celebrated on December 25 in Rome, while Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6. The pope of the day, Sylvester, in order to abolish the pagan feast, moved the celebration of Jesus’s birthday from January 6 to December 25, but the Armenian church had no reason to change the date because there was no pagan feast in Armenia on December 25.”

Since the Armenians maintain the ancient date of Christmas as well as the old (Julian) calendar, 13 days are added to January 6, postponing Armenian Christmas until January 19 on the modern (Gregorian) calendar.

The Armenians focus on astvadz-a-haytnootyoon – revelation, since the January 6 holy day celebrated both Jesus’s birth and baptism. Many churches still celebrate Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus, on January 6.

Since Jesus’s birth and baptism are celebrated together, water is a vital aspect of the Armenian feast. Water, blessed by the Armenian clergy, receives the addition of oil believed to be similar to that which Jesus used to clean the feet of his Apostles, and is distributed to the congregants. The oil additive is said to come from St. Thaddeus, who first preached the gospel in Armenia, and is considered to have healing properties.

On January 18, Christmas Eve, Patriarch Torkam Manogian leaves the Armenian Quarter of the Old City with a large entourage and police escort. In centuries past the horse drawn procession stopped at the Greek Monastery of Mar Elias outside Bethlehem to water the horses and allow devotees to refresh themselves. Modern processions keep that tradition, as the Palestinian Authority assumes responsibility for the procession. Greek Archbishop Aristochos notes that the two governments work diligently to ensure Christmas access to Bethlehem. The Greek Orthodox Church enjoys a similar procession on Christmas Eve.

The procession continues to Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where there is an official reception. The congregants enter the Church of the Nativity – shared by the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians – and a mass is held. After a festive supper and rest, the midnight mass begins, concluding at about 3:30 Christmas morning.

The Greek Orthodox were reluctant to join the Western church in celebrating Christmas on December 25, but eventually did so for the sake of unity. Both East and West agreed to celebrate Jesus’s birth in December and his baptism on January 6. Still, Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church clings to the Julian calendar, so when it adds the required 13 days to December 25, it celebrates Christmas on January 7 according to the modern calendar.

A highlight of the Greek Orthodox Christmas season is the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 and a pilgrimage to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Beit Jala. St. Nicholas was a church father born in the late third century who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in about 330 CE. Tradition holds that he slept in a cave in Beit Jala while visiting nearby Bethlehem. The church built over that cave commemorates his pilgrimage.

Archbishop Aristochos states that St. Nicholas’s feast day “prepares us for Christmas.” Since St. Nicholas was noted for his kindness and generosity to children, many believe this contributed to the Western tradition of giving gifts on Christmas. Influenced by northern European immigrants to the US, St. Nicholas’s memory eventually morphed into Santa Claus, akin to the Dutch Sinterklaas.

The Greek Orthodox observe a 40-day fast before Christmas. The fast forbids meat, milk and eggs, but allows fish after the first week until the beginning of the last. This culminates with a great feast on Christmas Day including fried fish, asparagus with egg and lemon sauce, bean soup, and honey cake with nuts.

There are a number of beliefs related to the kallikantzaroi – “bad spirits” according to the Archbishop – that are released during Christmas and wreak havoc until January 6, when Epiphany is celebrated.

These spirits are mischievous, toppling things and scaring people. Still, tradition holds that home remedies can be employed to restrain them. Among these is a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. Eventually the kallikantzaroi are expelled by the priest on Epiphany as he sprinkles holy water (associated with Jesus’s baptism) around the house.

Like the members of its related liturgical churches, Roman Catholics proceed to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, celebrated December 24. This is the celebration for which Bethlehem is most noted. Whether associated with the church or not, Manger Square fills with thousands. Multitudes of Muslims also come to witness the event.

But in smaller parishes quieter ceremonies occur on Christmas Eve. Franciscan Father Fergus Clarke is guardian of St. John in the Mountains Church, built at the traditional site of John the Baptist’s birth, and on Christmas commemorates the Magnificat – the Virgin Mary’s extended quote in Luke 1.

“Since we’re a very small community,” he says, “it’s extraordinary that on Christmas Eve our church is full of mostly Jewish people. For example, last year I counted only eight Christians present. Since the church is very small, holding about 110 people seated, when I say it was ‘full,’ I mean standing room only. These Jewish people arrive as early as 11:15 for midnight mass. What is really so edifying is that the Jews, predominately young, stand in complete reverence and silence for almost an hour and half. If you compare it to other churches you wouldn’t see such reverence and patience.

“Remember, the mass is celebrated in a foreign language for them, since we celebrate in Italian. The whole ritual is foreign to them, apart from the homily, which is given in English. But they come from as far away as Tel Aviv, and many call in advance to be sure they’ll be here on time. They come because of some sense of mystery or awe of the divine that comes from the ritual, the music, and their memories – transmitted from their parents, perhaps. For us it’s a very uplifting ceremony because of their presence and attitude.”

Fergus says the Israeli presence contributes to the “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” that Luke says the angels proclaimed at Jesus’s birth. “This year we are having an Israeli choir sing at midnight mass, and two years ago we had a Southern Baptist from Alabama sing a solo,” he said.

Protestants maintain no official presence in Bethlehem, although many visit for interdenominational “shepherds’ field” services convened by the YMCA in nearby Beit Sahur. Many attend local services in Jerusalem, such as those at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, or at the Baptist Church near the city center.

Lindell Browning is a Nazarene minister living in Jerusalem. Browning’s tradition includes traditional “shepherds’ field” services.

“‘Shepherds’ field’ is wherever the shepherds are in Bethlehem; it’s not a specific field that we know of. There’s no way to know.”

Browning says he and friends read the birth narratives together from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, often asking one of the young people to read the account of angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest.” They sing carols, pray and share thoughts on the Christmas message.

Browning believes that in Jerusalem there is great stress placed on the angels’ declaration to secure peace on earth. “In this area of the world it’s something we pray for, something we want to see happen. Isaiah predicted the coming of a man who would be called the prince of peace, and that’s our declaration: Christ is the prince of peace for the world.”

Among Christians in Jerusalem there is less focus on the commercial aspects of the holiday. “I think there’s much less emphasis on shopping and much more interest in people that are less fortunate than us. There were a couple of years when we gave each other smaller gifts and gave gifts to needy families. There were other years on which we made gifts for each other so we could better give to those in need. Here too [in Jerusalem] there’s much more time because we don’t have the Christmas activities that we would in the States. So we get together with friends and share.”

For the majority of the Israeli population it is a normal work day. Some Jerusalem Christians do put up Christmas trees, as the Israeli government provides trees free. A few shops decorate their windows for the holiday, but for the most part, commercialism is subdued and the season is pared back to its devotional origins.

The Armenians, proceeding into Bethlehem on their Christmas Eve, summarize the motive for the march as they sing joyously “Great and Wonderful Mystery.” Greek Archbishop Aristochos says Christmas is in memory of the event “by which begins our salvation,” while Father Fergus calls for goodwill toward men. The Brownings and friends quietly find a hillside and try to imagine what the shepherds experienced, expressing their devotion in good works.

St. Nicholas would recognize a Jerusalem Christmas. The real Santa Claus: St. Nicholas was born in Patara, a Greek village (now Turkish) in the late third century. Although it’s difficult to distinguish legend from fact, scholars agree on several points about his life.

Nicholas was from a wealthy fishing family and was generous to young people. A story, regarded as accurate in its essence though shrouded in legend, holds that on three different occasions he provided dowries for poor girls, thus saving them from slavery. Tradition maintains that these dowries, tossed in through a window, were bags of gold that landed on stockings or shoes left near the fire to dry. Similar stories tell of Nicholas’s generosity in saving people from starvation.

Due to a wealth of popular support, Nicholas was elected bishop of Myra on the coast of modern Turkey in the early fourth century. About 330 CE he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was there for several weeks, often sleeping in a cave in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church now stands over that cave.

Nicholas died about 350 CE on December 6 – a feast day that was already being celebrated only a few years after his death. Due to the day’s proximity to Christmas, as well as his generosity, Nicholas became caught up in the season’s lore.

Throughout much of Europe alms were given to the poor on this Saint’s day, and children were the special recipients of gifts. Medieval French nuns would distribute candies on December 6.

Nicholas began the transformation into Santa Claus mostly by way of German and Dutch immigrants to North America. Germanic St. Niklaas became Sinterklass, and eventually Santa Claus. Some less desirable aspects of northern European fable may have immigrated as well: His flying reindeer may stem from myths of the Norse god Wodin riding through the sky.

Reformers like Martin Luther tried to stop the metamorphosis, hoping to portray the baby Jesus (Christkindl in German) as the gift giver. Kris Kringle, derived from that German word, is now a synonym for Santa.

Nicholas’s image in Dutch-influenced New York changed from pious churchman to elf-like gift bearer. This picture became formalized by a few poems, notably the Christmas favorite “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now known as “The Night before Christmas”) in 1823.

Currently burdened by commercialism, it’s hard to envision Santa’s prototype, the generous and devout Nicholas, making the dangerous trip to the Holy Land and sleeping in a cave in order to worship at the site of the first Christmas.

East is East and West is West: The early church can be roughly divided into East and West. The Eastern church, later Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, maintained different holidays, traditions and even doctrines than the Western church, which remained bound to Rome and the pope. Among the points of disagreement was the proper dating of Jesus’s birth – Christmas Day.

There is an ancient Jewish tradition that a prophet dies on the day of his conception, and the early church applied this formula to Jesus. Eastern and Western churches, through various and often questionable reasoning, determined respectively that Jesus died on April 6 and March 25. The Roman Catholic Church still celebrates the latter date as the Annunciation of the Birth. Adding nine months of pregnancy to those dates results in a December 25 or January 6 Christmas.

Scholars also hold that the December 25 date was especially appealing to the Western church because it replaced the birthday of Sol Invictus (invincible sun). Romans thought that on that day the sun began its ascent and the days began to lengthen. The pagan ceremony contained much revelry, drinking and immorality which the early church couldn’t condone. Sun worship was outlawed under penalty of death, in the hope that worship of the Son would replace it.

Clearly that did occur, but not without echoes of the pagan traditions surviving. Imbibing and, to a lesser degree, gift-giving and holiday lights are related to the pre-Christian feast. Still, the Eastern church maintained the January 6 date and combined it with Epiphany, the day of Jesus’s baptism.

Eventually, under pressure from the Western church as well as its own clergy’s inability to go to both the Jordan River and Bethlehem on the same day, a compromise was reached in the middle of the fifth century. Christmas would be celebrated December 25 and Epiphany on January 6 by both churches. This is simple enough, but when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian one, the Eastern church in Jerusalem continued using the old calendar. This results in a January 7 Christmas (December 25 plus 13 days).

Armenians refused the compromise, maintaining both the old January 6 date as well as the Julian calendar. Consequently Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 19 (January 6 plus 13 days).

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.

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. 

Christmas Traditions in Lebanon

Meelad Majeed!

Most of the countries of the Arab world have special traditions related to Christmas. Some of them are in common with those of the Western world but there are some unique differences as well. For example, for many Christians, Christmas is preceded by a fasting period of 40 days. Another tradition is the ringing of huge church bells on Christmas Eve, to announce the birth of Christ.

Most homes in the Middle East try to raise plants in small dishes, at least 3 weeks before Christmas. The living plants remind of the living Lord. These plants are grown in dishes into which they put a thin layer of cotton instead of soil. Different kinds of seeds like wheat, lentils, beans, chickpeas and other fast growing seeds are placed on the cotton.

These plants, which usually grow to a height of about 17 cm during this time, are usually placed under the Christmas tree, at the entrance of the Christmas cave, or in different corners of the house, where they will be kept until the Christmas tree is taken down.

Food also plays a unique part of the Christmas celebration. There is a tradition of preparing a special type of pudding whenever a child is born into a family at this time of year, particularly if it is a boy. This kind of pudding is called Mughly. It is made up of rice flour, caraway, sugar and other spices, put into small plates. It is topped with coconut, raisins, peanuts, crushed almonds, and walnuts. This pudding is offered to the members of the family as well as to the visitors who come to the house visiting during the season.

In Lebanese villages large bonfires are made in the town centers where everyone gathers in a circle around the fire to sing songs and tell stories. This is a chance to renew friendships and to reconcile with one another for any misunderstanding during the year.

Special dances called Dabkeh are performed during the Christmas season. Young men and women hold hands in semi-circles dancing together to special music. The dances are made up of artistic footwork that harmonizes with the sound of the music. The dancers wear special colorful clothes and head covers or “tambourines.”

The story of Christmas around the world > 2

The gates of the homes of Syrian Christians are locked on Christmas Eve, commemorating persecutions of the past, when worship had to be held in secret. Family members carry a lit candle and stand around an unlit bonfire in their yard. The youngest member 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 church floor 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 has received it.

The traditional Christmas dinner consists of roast chicken, nuts, dates, and pastries.

There is more emphasis on prayer and communal gatherings among the five million Christians in this predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. Nonetheless, Syrian children receive gifts at Epiphany from the smallest camel of the Wise Men’s caravan. 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.

The story of Christmas around the world > 1

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

In the following series of entries, we list 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.


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

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