Like most people in the US, I have a mixed heritage of parents and grandparents hailing from other areas of the world. Many of us wonder where our holiday traditions came from; they are generally a blend of many cultures. While I couldn’t cover them all, I hope this list is enlightening. Scroll down to the countries that apply to you and piece your history together. Share them at your dinner table.
The Philippines holds the record for having the longest Christmas season. It begins in September when malls start playing Christmas music, selling decorations, and gift items. Christmas masses begin on December 16th and go through Christmas Day, and celebrations continue through the Epiphany until the first Sunday in January. Children open gifts on Christmas, put up Christmas trees, and send cards, like most Western civilizations.
The supermarkets carry traditional Christmas foods like ham and queso de bola (Edam cheese), along with hot chocolate. These are the main ingredients of the feast of Noche Buena or “good night,” which is a Christmas Eve dinner tradition. The meal and celebration are steeped in Spanish culture because the Philippines were a Spanish colony for over three hundred years. As a third world country, much of the population views ham and cheese as luxuries they can’t afford.
More lavish spreads in the Philippines are found in the homes of middle and upper-class families. The meal might be supplemented by other dishes such as Paella, an iconic Spanish rice dish. Or a fruit salad made with drained, canned fruit cocktail, cream, and sweetened condensed milk. There are also extravagant fruit cakes made from local recipes.
In England, festive Christmas teatimes with cakes and mince pies are celebrated in stores and hotel lobbies in town squares. The Christmas season starts early since they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. You will find nativity scenes and carols at city centers along with decorated Christmas trees. Santa is better known as Father Christmas and shows up on Christmas Eve, so presents are discovered in the morning. Cookies, pies, and sherry, or brandy are left out to thank him. Christmas brunch or dinner is served on Christmas Day. It consists of roast turkey, baked potatoes, carrots, parsnip, mini sausages, Brussel sprouts, and Yorkshire pudding (meat and gravy in a pastry).
In nearby Wales, the English and Irish may go caroling as dead horses. There isn’t a particular day for this tradition, but from the time of Christmas to late January, the celebration of Mari Lwyd, stemming from ancient Celtic rites, is supposed to bring good luck. One person will dress as a horse with a real horse skull and is usually accompanied by a group of people singing carols at people’s homes in exchange for food and drinks.
Boxing Day is the day after Christmas and an extension of the holiday. People spend time with their families with a relaxing day of eating Christmas leftovers, watching sports, playing games, or hunting. Children receive additional gifts from relatives and friends they did not see on Christmas day.
In the US, lights decorate the homes. In some regions of the country, you may be able to take a carriage or sleigh ride while sipping hot cocoa. Shopping for gifts traditionally starts on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. There may be a Christmas Eve dinner celebrated on December 24th or Christmas Day. It features turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and vegetables similar to Thanksgiving in November. Other types of poultry, roast beef, or ham are also used. For dessert, they have cookies, pies, cakes, Christmas pudding, or fruitcakes.
Santa Clause comes down the chimney to fill stockings and put gifts under the Christmas tree. Cookies are left for Santa, and maybe a carrot or two for the reindeer. The tree may be displayed most of December and into the New Year. Christmas day starts with opening gifts. It may include a brunch including eggs (omelets, benedict, or quiche), meats (ham, turkey, or beef), and more tasty desserts. The US has done away with Boxing Day after Christmas; however, many feel that the holidays are not officially over until New Year’s Day, which is January 1st.
In Canada, they have Thanksgiving in October because harvest times are earlier farther north. Santa Claus is referred to as either Santa or Father Christmas. Canadians may open gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and they also celebrate Boxing Day afterward. Canadians like to decorate their houses with Christmas trees, lights, and decorations. Traditions vary due to the many cultures across the large territory.
In the West, Christmas Eve dinner is typically roast turkey, mashed potatoes, veggies, plum pudding, mincemeat tarts, and fruit cake. Christmas day activities include skiing, skating, and tobogganing.
To the North, Inuit’s have a festival of dancing and gift exchange called “Sinck Tuck,” mummering door to door in costumes takes place in the province of Newfoundland, and Belsnickeling is a similar activity in Nova Scotia.
Eastern French families have a celebration on Christmas Eve called a ‘Réveillon’ after going to Christmas Eve Mass. ‘Père Noel’ (Santa) visits their house and leaves gifts for children under the tree while they are gone. The traditional Christmas meal is a stew called ‘ragoût aux pattes de cochons’ made of pig’s feet, or a ‘Tortière,’ a meat pie made from venison, pork or beef.
In Catalan, Spain, the tradition of Tio de Nadal features a Christmas log, a mythological creature with a face, a red hat, and legs. The adults beat a stick on the hollow log while singing Christmas songs and waiting for it to ‘poop’ a gift after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. All the kids have to leave the room and pray for the Tió to deliver presents. Parents and relatives sneak presents under a blanket while the kids are away.
Elsewhere in Spain, they celebrate el Caganer, which is a male porcelain doll squatting with his pants down. Legend has it that farmers would be punished with a poor harvest and bad fortune if a caganer wasn’t included within their nativity scene. The tradition today has Christmas markets mixing old and new school caganers. New versions feature famous faces such as sports icons, rock stars, and political figures.
The main Christmas meal is on Christmas Eve before mass. The traditional Spanish dinner is turkey stuffed with truffles (mushrooms). In the Galicia region in north-west Spain, seafood is more popular for Christmas Eve and Day. It may include shellfish and mollusks, lobsters, and crabs. Deserts are usually ‘mazapán’ (almonds, sugar, and eggs), ‘turrón’ (honey and almonds), and ‘polvorones’ (flour, butter, and sugar).
In China, Santa is known as ‘Sheng dan lao ren,’ and young people celebrate Christmas in cities where parties have become popular. But there are few Christians, and they don’t really know the story behind it. There may still be some Christmas trees in European and American style shopping centers, and the postman may dress up as Santa. Many Western Christmas decorations are made in China, but you don’t see them in Chinese households.
The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is a traditional winter event involving massive ice sculptures. In northeastern China, formerly Manchuria, there is a strong Russian influence. Winters are long and cold, and intricate ice carving developed in a variety of sizes and themes. They also participate in polar bear swimming competitions, sledding, tobogganing, and ice hockey.
In Japan, Christmas isn’t really celebrated. They may put up some lights in cities for young people to enjoy, encouraging them to make romantic dinner reservations and celebrate happiness rather than religion. It is more like Valentine’s Day.
However, the Japanese have developed a tradition of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) on December 25th for Christmas dinner. The Colonel’s chicken is so popular that they have to place their orders at least two months in advance. The tradition began in 1974 when it was introduced to Japan for visitors who wanted a dinner resembling a traditional holiday meal. It attracted locals and became a tradition.
In Italy, they have a Living Crèche(manger) in Puglia’s Grottoes. A nativity scene performance is a meaningful tradition in Italy, and the one in Pezze di Greco is unique. In history, the Apulian people use to live in caves, or grottoes, to avoid being seen by invaders. Modern locals, a non-profit organization of over 400 village volunteers, now use the caves as a setting for a live performance of the nativity. People dress up as farmers from the old days. They bring in animals and put tradespeople back to work with olive presses, stone ovens, and woodworking tools for producing food and artifacts. The very last grotto represents the nativity scene. The site is open to the public for several days around Christmas each year.
Instead of Santa Claus, a generous, old witch named Befana (giver of gifts’) arrives on the eve of Epiphany on January 5th. Parents leave out a plate of broccoli with spiced sausage and glass of wine. She flies around on her broom and enters houses through a chimney to deliver presents to all the good children. On January 6th, children will find the treats and toys in their stockings.
In Oaxaca, Mexico, the city has processions of people on foot, carrying torches, followed by decorated vehicles, and dancing puppets, and a band. Groups of families and neighbors are led by children dressed as Mary and Joseph. On December 16th, the nine days of posadas begin. By the 23rd, the Noche de Los Rábanos (Night of the Radishes), the most impressive display of figures of carved radishes, is put on display through Christmas day. The celebrations continue to Posada, the Epiphany, and the Virgin of Lights through February 2nd.
Each night a different house holds the Posada party with food, games, and fireworks. A piñata, a decorated clay or paper-mâché decoration filled with sweets, is hung from the ceiling or tree branch for children to hit with sticks and break open the prize. At the final Posada, on Christmas Eve, a baby Jesus is put into the manger, and then families go to a midnight Church service. Baby Jesus and Santa deliver the gifts.
The main Christmas meal includes Pozole (a thick soup made with chicken or pork, hominy, and chilies), roast turkey or pork, tamales, bacalao (salt cod), romeritos (a green vegetable in sauce with potatoes and shrimp) and a Christmas Eve salad. For dessert, fried pastries called bunuelos are sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon, or hot syrup.
In India, New Delhi, winter cuisine of local Kashmiris changes to heavy stews of goat meat, turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, lotus stems, and other winter vegetables. Families sit around a fire and hand huge pots stew back and forth for hours. All Indians embrace each other’s cultures and practices. Hindus celebrate Christmas on December 25th, where they hang lights and decorations, go shopping, pray, give gifts, and feast.
Christians organize and celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, typically lasting five days during October or November. It symbolizes a spiritual “victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance.” Muslims, however, play Holi and dress up in colorful costumes that are as loud as possible beginning in February, which welcomes spring in that area of the world.
In Ukraine, Christmas trees are often covered in spider webs. Folklore tells the story of a poor family who grew a Christmas tree, and the children wanted to decorate it. But, the family couldn’t afford any ornaments. When they woke up Christmas morning, spiders had spun webs around the tree’s branches. Today, Ukrainians string their trees with spider webs made of paper and silver wire for good luck into the coming year.
St. Nicholas visits children on December 19th, but the main Christmas meal, called ‘Sviata Vecheria’ (or Holy Supper), is eaten on January 6th. Traditionally, people fast all day and can’t start eating the meal until the first star is seen in the sky. They eat in a room with a Didukh, a decoration made of a sheaf of wheat. It represents ancestors and memories. After eating, they sing carols. They like to decorate windows with snowflakes.
Twelve dishes represent Jesus’s disciples. The recipes don’t have any meat, eggs or milk in them. The main dish is often ‘kutia,’ a type of sweet porridge made of wheat. Meals can include mushrooms, sauerkraut, red ‘borsch’ (beet soup), dumplings (Pierogi), ‘holopchi’ (cabbage rolls without meat), ‘pyrizhky’ (cabbage buns), whitefish and ‘kolach’ (special Christmas bread).
In Germany, Austria, and Hungary, bad children get a visit from Krampus. He’s a monstrous creature who shows up to punish them. If he discovers a particularly bad child, he bundles him into a sack and carts him away for a midnight snack.
Most people in this region will not put up the Christmas tree until December 24th. They may open their gifts on the same night after a holiday dinner of duck, goose, rabbit, or a roast. This main dish is accompanied by delicacies such as apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage, and potato dumplings. Dessert typically includes Christmas Stollen, considered one of the best Christmas pastries in the world. Like other areas of Europe, mulled wine and advent calendars are popular.
In Iceland, the Yule Cat (Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur) is a large and vicious cat from Icelandic folklore that eats people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. It began as a threat to get farmworkers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. If they participated, they would be rewarded with new clothes, and if not, they would be eaten.
St. Thorlakur’s Day celebrates a saint that died on December 23rd. They eat a simple meal of skate and decorate the Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve, celebrations begin at 6 pm due to an old tradition where the day starts at 6.00 pm instead of midnight. Children open their presents after the evening meal. On Christmas day, extended family celebrates with a meal called ‘Hangikjöt,’ or leg of roast lamb or ‘Rjúpa’ (the gamebird, Rock Ptarmigan). A specialty is ‘Laufabrauð’ is made of thin sheets of dough cut into delicate patterns and fried.
They celebrate Boxing day after Christmas by visiting friends and family and eating more. Entertainment such as dancing is considered inappropriate over the holiday but can be enjoyed again on Boxing Day. On New Year’s Eve and day, a magic legend happens, and cows are said to be able to talk, seals can take human form, dead rise from the grave, and elves move around the house.
In Venezuela, the residents in Caracas, roller-skate to Christmas mass and many neighborhoods close the streets to cars until 8 am. Afterward, everyone enjoys tostadas and coffee. Traditional Christmas dinner includes ‘Hallacas’ – a mixture of beef, pork, chicken, capers, raisins, and olives wrapped in maize and plantain leaves. It is tied into a parcel and boiled or steamed. A Pan de Jamón – bread that’s made with puff pastry, filled up with ham, raisins, olives, and bacon with chicken salad and Pernil (a leg of pork).
Winter holidays start with Santa Barbara’s day on December 4th, but Christmas celebrations begin on December 21st and run through the Epiphany or ‘El Dia de Los Reyes Magos’ (the day of The Three Kings) on January 6th. Wearing yellow is good luck on New Year’s.
In Poland, Santa Claus (Mikolaj) generally does not come on Christmas, but appears on December 6th, the feast of St Nicholas. The holidays start on the Advent, and the home must be thoroughly cleaned, including windows and carpets. Children participate in nativity plays and love to eat tangerines.
Christmas is known as Boze Narodzenie, the most popular Christian feast held on December 25th. It actually starts in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, December 24th and goes through the 26th. Some people fast on Christmas Eve or only eat food without meat, which is an older tradition. An important dish is “barszcz” (beetroot soup) and may be eaten with (little dumplings and mushrooms, or “krokiety” (pancakes with mushrooms, cabbage, coated in breadcrumbs, and fried).
Carp is often the main dish of the Christmas Day meal. It used to be bought a few days earlier to swims in a tub until the cook killed it. Now, most people just buy a fillet. The carp’s scales are said to bring luck, and some keep them for the whole year in their wallets. Some older ladies put them in their bras during supper. “Bigos” is made of cabbage, bacon, sometimes dried plums, and is saved for Christmas day or the 26th as it has meat in it. It is made days before Christmas Eve because it gets better with age.
Then Boxing Day begins, and the festive season goes on until February 2nd, including workdays and weekends. It is customary to break and share the Christmas wafer (oplatek), made of flour and water, with family and friends.
In Australia, Christmas comes in towards the beginning of the school summer holidays between mid-December to early February. They may spend it on the beach or camping. They decorate their houses and gardens with Christmas trees and lights, bunches of poinsettia plants, and ‘Christmas Bush,’ a native tree with small green leaves and cream-colored flowers that turn a deep shiny red in the summer.
Australians may go out Christmas carol singing on Christmas Eve or spend time shopping in fish markets for fresh seafood for Christmas day. There are candlelight services with singers and pageants, festivals, and parades. Santa uses kangaroos and changes into summer clothes. Children often leave out carrots for the kangaroos and cake and beer for Santa.
Presents are exchanged on Christmas Day. They eat a cold Christmas lunch or barbecue seafood such as prawns and lobsters along with ‘traditional English’ food. Some desserts include Christmas Pudding, pavlova, and trifle. Christmas is followed by Boxing day when they visit friends and family for more beach barbecues or to watch the famous Yacht race from Sydney to Hobart in Tasmania.
There are many similarities and some very unique differences in holiday celebrations around the globe. The more we move and travel, the more they evolve into variations of their original traditions. Ask you parents and grandparents which parts of their culture influenced their celebrations and how marriage and moves to other places may have changed them. It is sure to be an interesting story.
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Public holidays in Krakow, Poland, http://www.krakow-info.com/holidays-Poland.htm
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Photo Credit for Iceland: https://redditblog.com/2015/12/13/the-people-eating-yule-cat-is-the-best-icelandic-christmas-nightmare/
Photo Credit: Pixabay.com