Travel the World
How Christmas is Celebrated Around the World
Every nation has its own customs. So when Christmastime rolls around, holiday traditions certainly vary depending on where you’re celebrating. Here are some interesting ways that cultures outside North America show their Christmas spirit.
Since less than 1 percent of Japan’s population is Christian, December 25th is not an official holiday in the country. But for those who do celebrate, festivities resemble North American holiday traditions: participants sing carols (in Japanese, of course), decorate Christmas trees, and hang mistletoe and holly. One main difference is the Japanese version of Santa, who takes the form of Hotei or Hoteiosho, originally one of the seven gods of good fortune. The traditional Japanese Christmas food is Christmas cake, made of sponge cake, strawberries and whipped cream.
La Posada, the main Christmas event in Mexico, sees celebrants go from house to house carrying images of Joseph and Mary, in a reenactment of the couple’s search for shelter before the birth of Jesus. Posadas take place from the 16th to the 24th of December. On Christmas day, Mexican children break a decorated piñata filled with peanuts, oranges, tangerines, and sugar canes while blindfolded. It isn’t until January 6-“El dia del Reyes” (the Day of the Kings or Wise Men)-that children receive presents.
During the holiday season, bakeries offer the Rosca de Reyes, an oval sweetbread decorated with candied fruit. Hidden inside the Rosca is a plastic figurine of the Baby Jesus, symbolizing a secure place where Jesus could be born. Each person cuts a slice of the Rosca, carefully inspecting their piece in hopes they didn’t get the figurine. The one who does must host a new celebration for everyone present on February 2.
Sviata Vechera, or “Holy Supper,” is the big Christmas Eve celebration in Ukraine. However, instead of taking place on the 24th of December, the Ukrainian Christmas festive days proceed according to the Julian calendar; they begin on January 6th (the Ukrainian Christmas Eve) and end January 19th. The Sviata Vechera begins when the children see the first star in evening sky, symbolizing the trek of the Three Wise Men. Kutia (sweet grain pudding) is traditionally served. It is usually the first dish in the traditional twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper (known as Svyaty Vechir), reserved specially for this occasion.
Latvia was the first place that a Christmas tree was ever decorated, with the first documented holiday use of an evergreen taking place in 1510 in the town square of Riga, Latvia’s capital. On each of the 12 days of Christmas, Latvians give and receive presents, which are put under the family Christmas tree. The special Latvian Christmas Day meal is cooked brown peas with bacon sauce, small pies, cabbage, and sausage.
In Norway, it is not Santa Claus who distributes presents to children, but a little gift-bearing gnome known as Julebukk, or “Christmas buck.” The Julebukk is a goat-like creature dating back to the Viking era, when pagans worshipped the god Thor and his goat. During pagan celebrations, one person would dress in a goatskin and carry a goat head. Over the course of the evening, the julebukk would “die” and then come back to life.
During the early Christian era, though, the goat was increasingly depicted as the devil, and by the end of the Middle Ages, the game was forbidden. In more recent times, however, the goat has emerged in a tamer form as the Julebukk.
Dutch children await the arrival of Sinterklaas on St. Nicholas Day, December 6. Sinterklaas travels by ship from Spain to Amsterdam’s harbour every winter, dressed in red robes with a pointed mitre (bishop’s hat) on his head. He rides a white horse and carries a sack full of gifts for the children. Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), Sinterklaas’s traditional helping hand, has been a subject of much controversy. Many people, especially black citizens of the Netherlands, decry Pete as a caricature of an African slave, and Americans are uncomfortably reminded of old “blackface” imagery.
The Swedish begin their Christmas celebrations on December 13 with St. Lucia’s Day, dedicated to the patron saint of light. Traditionally, the eldest daughter will get up before dawn and put on a long white dress, representing the “Queen of Light.” Singing “Santa Lucia,” the Lucia Queen goes to every bedroom to serve coffee and treats to each member of the family, with the help of her younger siblings.