Christmas is the time of year when families get together, exchange presents, share meals, and help create a magical time of year for children. Christmas trees, carols, presents, and Santa are everywhere you look during the holiday season. The same can be said for many other cultures; however each has its own twist on our classic American traditions.
The holiday season has a different meaning for each of us and exploring how other cultures celebrate the Christmas holidays may even bring on new family traditions in the United States.
In Australia during Christmas, people can be found barbequing their dinner on a beach. Their holiday lands at the beginning of the summer holiday. An Australian summer holiday starts in mid-December until early February.
In many other ways their celebrations are very similar to America’s. There are carols sung and Christmas pageants. However, Santa Claus uses kangaroos to pull his sleigh and people are more likely to see him in shorts and sunglasses than a red suit.
Similar to Australia, Christmas comes during the summer months in South Africa. In South Africa, Christmas is largely influenced by the British, according to Tunkhannock resident, Desiree Engel, who grew up in South Africa and spoke of her own Christmas traditions.
“Christmas for us is next to the pool; December is summer in South Africa. On the 26th we celebrate Boxing Day which is a British tradition, nobody works on that day of rest before going back to work.”
Santa in South Africa is the same as in the United States and, while there are still Christmas trees, they are all artificial as the climate does not allow the real thing to grow.
“One of our family members dresses as Santa to hand out presents. We also sing Christmas songs and on the 25th we visit family and friends to wish them a Merry Christmas,” added Engel.
Merry Christmas for the population of China is “Sheng Dan Kuai Le”.
Approximately only 5 percent of the Chinese population celebrates Christmas. Those who do normally have a plastic tree decorated with paper chains, paper flowers, and paper lanterns. On Christmas Eve, people will exchange apples wrapped in colorful paper since Christmas Eve is called “Ping’an Ye,” which translates to “peaceful or quiet evening”; this has also been translated into the popular carol ‘Silent Night.’ “Jingle Bells” is also a popular carol sung in China.
A few countries over, in France, Nativity scenes are a popular Christmas decoration. Local towns and cities, such as Marseilles, have fairs that cater to Nativity figures and displays. Besides the typical figures one would normally see in a Nativity scene, France adds a butcher, a baker, a policeman, and a priest.
A popular custom is to leave a Yule log and candles burning all night along with food and drink in case Mary and the baby Jesus visit during the night.
In eastern France, Father Christmas, also known as “Pere Noel” is sometimes accompanied by “Le Pere Fouttard”, a man dressed in black.
Jolly Saint Nicholas is painted in quite a different light in Germany’s Christmas celebrations.
In some parts of Germany children will write to the “Christkindl” asking for presents. The “Christkindl” translates to “The Christ Child,” but most Germans describe the child as a young girl with “Christ like” qualities.
Every year in Nurnberg, a young girl is chosen to participate in a parade as the “Christkindl” where she will wear a long white and gold dress and sometimes angel wings. Although letters requesting presents are written to the “Christkindl,” it is Santa Claus that brings the main presents on December 24th.
A darker part of Germany’s traditions is the legend of Krampus, a horned monster clothed in rags that carries a switch to punish misbehaving children. Krampus only accompanies Santa Claus on St. Nicholas day December 6th.
Advent is a large part of the German Christmas traditions and their Christmas market opens on the Friday before Advent starts. Several types of Advent calendars are used and a candle is lit each week until the end of Advent. Germany’s Christmas market is well known for its food and decorations, in particular the hand-blown glass ornaments.
To wish someone in Germany a Happy/Merry Christmas, one would say “Frohe Weihnacten.”
Russia seems to have the biggest contrast in traditions when it comes to Christmas. During the days of the Soviet Union, New Year’s Day was more important than Christmas. Today, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th. The reason for the date change is because the Russian Orthodox Church uses the “Julian” calendar for religious celebration days. Also, their Advent season is 40 days long.
On Christmas Eve, some people choose to fast until the first star is visible in the night sky. When it is time to eat, the popular meal is “sochivo” or “kutia”, a porridge made from wheat or rice served with honey, poppy seeds, fruit, nuts, and sometimes fruit jelly candies. A Russian tradition is to throw a spoonful of porridge up to the ceiling; if it sticks it is throught to bring good luck and a good harvest the next year.
Instead of Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost, in Russian known as “Ded Moroz” brings children presents. Grandfather Frost is always accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka. On New Year’s Eve children will hold hands, make a circle around the Christmas tree, and call for Ded Moroz or Snegurochka. When both appear the lights on the tree are said to light up.
Celebrating Christmas in Spain starts with music. After midnight mass, people walk through the streets carrying torches, playing guitars, and banging tambourines and drums. A popular saying is, “Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no es noche de dormir” which translates to, “Tonight is the good night and it is not meant for sleeping.”
Many families eat their main meal on Christmas Eve before attending church services. The customary dinner is turkey stuffed with mushrooms or seafood.
There is a festival in Spain that is apart from Christmas, but celebrates the Christmas story. It is called Epiphany and is celebrated on January 6th; the festival of the Three Magic Kings. Epiphany celebrates when the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
According to tradition, letters are written from children to the three kings asking for toys and, on the night of the Epiphany, they leave shoes on windowsills or balconies to be filled with goodies. Children receive presents on Christmas Day, but normally wait to open them until the Epiphany celebration. Instead of cookies and milk, children leave three glasses of Cognac for each king, some walnuts, and a bowl of water for their tired camels.
Whichever way Christmas is celebrated it is still clearly a time for family, friends, and creating new memories and traditions.