Organising student exchange programs for many years, we have come across many different cultures and traditions. Some of our Australian students are spending Christmas in Europe this year, and we thought it would be interesting to look at the way people spend Christmas in other countries. And we didn’t stop with Europe.
Feliz Navidad! Christmas in Spain is celebrated on Christmas eve, ‘Nochebuena’ and it is the most important family gathering of the year. Children may receive a small gift on Nochebuena or the morning of the 25th, but the day for presents is 6th January, Epiphany, when the Three Kings bring gifts for the children.
счастливого Рождества! In Russia, Christmas is normally celebrated on January 7th (only a few Catholics might celebrate it on the 25th December). The date is different because the Russian Orthodox church uses the old ‘Julian’ calendar for religious celebration days. The Orthodox Church also celebrates Advent, starting on 28th November and going to the 6th January.
In Chile, Christmas Eve is the most important day over Christmas. Families and friends gather together for a big meal in the evening, eaten about 9pm or 10pm. Many people like to have ‘asado’ (barbecue) and chicken, turkey and pork. Christmas Day is a more relaxed day spent with family and friends. Many people who live near the coast go to the beach.
God jul! The Norwegians exchange presents on Christmas eve, and these gifts are sometimes brought by Julenissen (Santa Claus), or by little, gnome-like characters called ‘Nisse’. Many Norwegians sing the Musevisa (The Mouse Song) on Christmas, which is a traditional Norwegian folk song. It tells the story of some mice getting ready for Christmas and the Mother and Father mice warning their children to stay away from mouse traps!
boldog Karácsonyt! In Hungary, Christmas Eve (called ‘Szent-este’ = Holy Evening) is very important. People spend the evening with their family and decorate the Christmas Tree. On Christmas Eve children also hope that they find some presents under the Christmas Tree. They’re told that the presents are brought by Jesus, he’s often called “Jézuska”, a nickname or cuter version for “Jézus”. Children wait outside the room where the tree is and when they hear bells ringing, they can enter and the presents await them under the Christmas tree. St. Nicholas also visits Hungary on the 6th December. In Hungary he is known as ‘Mikulás’. Children leave out shoes or boots on a windowsill to be filled with goodies overnight.
καλά Χριστούγεννα! On Christmas Eve, children in Greece, especially boys, often go out singing ‘kalanda’ (carols) in the streets. They play drums and triangles as they sing. Sometimes the will also carry model boats decorated with nuts which are painted gold. Carrying a boat is a very old custom in the Greek Islands. People in Greece also celebrate Epiphany on the 6th January. In the Greek Orthodox Church, it’s also known as ‘The Blessing of the Waters’. There are many events throughout the country where young men dive into really cold lakes, rivers and the sea to try to be first to get a cross which has been blessed by a priest and thrown into the water. Whoever gets the cross first is meant to have good luck during the coming year. Epiphany festivals also include blessings of boats & ships, music, dancing and lots of food.
The United States of America has many different traditions and ways that people in celebrate Christmas, because of its multi-cultural nature. Many customs are similar to ones in the UK, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland and Mexico. Towns and cities often decorate the streets with lights to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps the most famous Christmas street lights in the USA are at the Rockerfeller Center in New York where there is a huge Christmas Tree with a public ice skating rink in front of it over Christmas and the New Year.
Christmas in Scotland was traditionally observed very quietly, because the Church of Scotland – a Presbyterian Church – for various reasons never placed much emphasis on the Christmas festival; although in Catholic areas people would attend Midnight Mass or early morning Mass before going to work. However, since the 1980s, the fading of the Church’s influence and the increased influences from the rest of the UK and elsewhere, Christmas and its related festivities are now very widely celebrated. The capital city of Edinburgh now has a traditional German Christmas market from late November until Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, people sometimes make big bonfires and dance around them to the playing of bagpipes. Bannock cakes made of oatmeal are traditionally eaten at Christmas.
Christmas has only been widely celebrated in Japan for the last few decades. It’s not a religious holiday or celebration as there aren’t many Christians in Japan and on the 25th of December, schools and businesses run as normal. Christmas eve is known as more of a time to spread happiness rather than a religious celebration. It is thought of as a romantic day, in which couples spend together and exchange presents (Similar to our Valentine’s Day). The Japanese New Year (called ‘o shogatsu’) is more like a traditional Western Christmas. New year is the period where families get together, have a special meal, pray and send greetings cards. New year is celebrated over five days from December 31st to January 4th and is a very busy time.
Christmas traditions in Peru date back to 1535. The holiday has a long history in the country as the majority of the population practices Catholicism. December 24th is La Noche Buena, or “Good Night,” and the main day for Christmas celebrations. In the evening, usually after mass, families go home to feast on elaborately prepared dinners and open gifts. The main focal point of Christmas decorations in Peruvian homes is the Nativity manger. Also known as a pesebre, the Nativity scenes are usually intricately carved out of pottery, wood, or huamanga stone. Family gifts are spread around the manger instead of a Christmas tree and on La Noche Buena one lucky family member is chosen to put a figurine of Christ into the manger.
Glædelig Jul! In Denmark, children believe that their presents are brought by the ‘Julemanden’ (which means ‘Christmas Man’). He looks very similar to Santa Claus and also travels with a sleigh and reindeer. He lives in Greenland, likes rice pudding and is helped by ‘nisser’ which are like elves. St. Lucia’s Day (or St. Lucy’s Day) is also celebrated on December 13th, although it’s more famous for being celebrated in Denmark’s neighbor, Sweden. During December, people like to help raise fund by using special Christmas stamps called julemærket when they send their Christmas cards. Profits from Christmas Markets are also used to support charities.
Christmas in Switzerland shares many of the customs from its neighbors Germany and Austria. But it has many traditions of its own. Advent marks the start of the Christmas preparations. Advent calendars and crowns are both popular. In some villages, there are ‘real’ advent calendars with different houses decorating an ‘Advent Window’. On the day when it’s your house with the advent window, you hold a party for the villagers in the evening. There’s food, mulled wine (called Glühwein) and music. Christmas markets are very popular in towns and cities where you can buy all kinds of Christmas foods and decorations. There are big light displays and you can enjoy some more hot Glühwein! ‘Star Singing’ is very popular among children. They go carol singing from the last week of Advent until Epiphany, carrying a large star in front of them. The star represents the star that the Wise men followed when they visited the baby Jesus.
In Italy, the Christmas celebrations start eight days before Christmas with special ‘Novenas’ and go until January 6. During this time children go from home to home reciting Christmas poems and singing. Italy, especially Naples are known for their cribs, which are very popular throughout the country. Most people have one at home and traditionally put out on the 8th December, but the figure of the baby Jesus isn’t put into the crib until the evening/night of December 24th. In Italy, children wait until January 6, Epiphany to open their presents, which are delivered by Befana, a kind ugly witch who rides on a broomstick.
Vesele Vanoce! In the Czech Republic, St Nicolaus visits the children on the 5th of December. He sometimes arrives with a few angels and devils, asks the children if they’ve been good all year and also asks them to sing a song or recite a poem. If they have, St Nicolaus gives them a basket of presents, often containing chocolate and fruit. The one’s who have been naughty might get a lump of coal from the devil. During the Christmas Eve dinner on the 24th of December, Ježíšek ‘Little Jesus’ brings presents and leaves them under the Christmas Tree. When the children hear the bell ring (usually after the children have finished eating their main meal but when they are still at the table), that means that Ježíšek had been and has left their presents under the tree. The presents are normally opened right after dinner. Religious families also usually sing Christmas carols by the tree, and go to church either at midnight or on Christmas Day.
Vrolijk Kerstfeest! For most children in The Netherlands, the most important day during December is 5th December, when Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) brings them their presents! St. Nicholas’ day is on the 6th December, but in The Netherlands, the major celebrations are held on the 5th December. Sinterklass travels with his servants called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (‘Black Peters’). Children are told that the Zwarte Pieten keep a record of all the things they have done in the past year in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas, but bad children will be put in a sack and the Zwarte Pieten take them away for a year to teach then how to behave! On the evening that Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands, children leave a shoe out by the fireplace or sometimes a windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs. They hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night with some presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets or small presents. They’re told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on the roofs on his horse and that a ‘Zwarte Piet’ will then climb down the chimney (or through a window) and put the presents and/or candy in their shoes. Christmas Day itself is a much quieter day in The Netherlands, with a Church Service and family meal.
Canada is a very large country and people of many different cultural backgrounds live there. Because of this, there are lots of different Christmas traditions in Canada. Many of the traditions and celebrations come from French, English, Irish, Scottish, German and native/first nation influences. Canadian children believe in Santa Claus and Canadians are especially proud to say that their country is the home of Santa Claus. (Although people in Finland would disagree!). The Santa Claus Parade in Toronto is one of the oldest and largest Santa parades in the world! It started in 1913 when Santa was pulled through the streets of Toronto. Children along the route followed Santa and marched along with him. It’s been taking place for over 100 years and now is a huge event with over 25 animated floats and 2000 people taking part! It’s broadcast on TV around the world.
Like in Australia, the schools in South Africa are on their summer holidays during the Christmas period and there are many other similarities to our Christmas. Going carol singing on Christmas Eve is very popular in cities and many people go to a Christmas morning Church Service. Children leave a stocking out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and open their presents on the morning of the 25th. People also like to pull Christmas Crackers and the meal is often eaten outside in the summer sun. If it’s really hot they might even have a barbecue or ‘braai’. In Afrikaans (one the languages spoken in South Africa) Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Geseënde Kersfees’; in Zulu it’s ‘UKhisimusi omuhle’ and in Sesotho it’s ‘Le be le keresemese e monate’.
Joyeux Noël! In France, Santa Claus is called Père Noël (Father Christmas) and in some regions, he is accompanied by Le Pere Fouettard, a man dressed in black. He might be the same person as Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands and Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, who accompany St Nicolas. Gifts are given either on the 6th of December, the celebration of St Nicolas, or on Christmas eve. This can vary by the region.
The main Christmas meal, called Réveillon, is eaten on Christmas Eve/early Christmas morning after people have returned from the midnight Church Service. Dishes might include roast turkey with chestnuts or roast goose, oysters, foie gras, lobster, venison and cheeses. For dessert, a chocolate sponge cake log called a bûche de Noël is normally eaten. The French celebrate Epiphany, called Fête des Rois in French, on January 6th. A flat Almond cake is eaten called ‘Galette des Rois’.
Children believe that Father Christmas or Santa Claus leaves presents in stockings or pillow-cases. These are normally hung up by the fire or by the children’s beds on Christmas Eve. Children sometimes leave out mince pies and brandy for Father Christmas to eat and drink when he visits them. Throughout the holidays, carolers go from house to house at twilight ringing handbells and singing Christmas songs. “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are English favorites. People give the carolers treats, such as little pies filled with nuts and dried fruits.
Austria shares many Christmas traditions with its neighbor Germany, but also has many special Christmas customs of its own. Most towns will have a ‘Christkindlmarkt’ (Christmas market) from late November, early December selling Christmas decorations, food (like gingerbread) and Glühwein (sweet, warm mulled wine). Cities like Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg have huge markets and people from all over the world to visit them. Every town will also have a large Christmas Tree in the town square. In homes, trees are decorated with gold and silver ornaments and stars made from straw. Christmas in Austria really starts around 4.00pm on Christmas Eve (‘Heilige Abend’) when the tree is lit for the first time and people come to sing carols around the tree. The most famous carol is Silent Night (‘Stille Nacht’), which was written in Austria in 1818.
Many Brazilian Christmas traditions come from Portugal as Portugal ruled Brazil for many years. Nativity Scenes, known as Presépio are very popular. They are set-up in churches and homes all through December. Christmas plays called ‘Os Pastores’ (The Shepherds), like the plays in Mexico, are also popular. Most people, especially Catholics, will go to a Midnight Mass service or Missa do Galo. Some cities have big firework displays after the Missa do Gallo. In Brazil, Santa Claus is called Papai Noel & Bom Velhinho (Good Old Man). Epiphany, when people remember the Wise Men visiting Jesus, is widely celebrated in Brazil.
God Jul! Around Christmas time in Sweden, one of the biggest celebrations is St. Lucia’s Day (or St. Lucy’s Day) on December 13th. The celebration comes from stories that were told by Monks who first brought Christianity to Sweden. St Lucia was a young Christian girl who was martyred, killed for her faith, in 304. The most common story told about St Lucia is that she would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head so she had both her hands free to carry things. Today, you can see girls dressed in white dresses with a crown of candles on their heads on St Lucia’s Day to celebrate the event. Christmas Eve is also very important in Sweden. This is when families eat the main Christmas meal, which is often a lunch julbord (buffet). Presents are brought by ‘Jultomten’ (Santa) or by gnomes/elves called ‘Nissar’ or ‘Tomte’. People often go to Church early on Christmas morning.
Frohe Weihnachten! Besides the famous Christmas Markets, Germany has a lot of other traditions leading up to Christmas eve. During Advent, many families will have an Advent Wreath made from evergreen twigs and decorated with ribbons and four candles. Each Sunday in Advent, they light one candle and maybe sing a carol or two. Advent Calendars are very popular, too. In Germany, the Christkind brings the presents on Christmas eve. This name translates literally to ‘The Christ Child’. However, German children don’t necessarily associate Baby Jesus with the Christkind. It is more of an Angel-like figure that brings the presents during the day or while the family is at church. The main celebration and opening of presents is on Christmas eve, after many families return from Christmas mass. St Nicholas also visits Germany on the 6th of December, as well as the three wise men on the 6th of January.