Christmas is the most joyous time of year and celebrating this festive season varies from country to country. Some customs are similar other are quite different. Many countries enjoy decorating Christmas trees, hanging Advent wreaths, placing stockings on the mantle, and eating candy canes.
Christmas carols about the infant Jesus, St Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Christkind or Grandfather Frost, are sung in choirs, churches and on street corners. Sending Christmas card greetings, burning of a Yule log, and the giving and receiving of presents are warm traditions I grew up with and continue today. It’s interesting to learn how Christmas is celebrated around the world. Below are a few holiday traditions from various countries.
Denmark’s Julekalender (Christmas calendar) is a television series with 24 episodes. One episode is shown each day in December with the last one being aired on Christmas Eve. The two main Danish TV channels offer different versions of Julekalender each year for kids and adults to follow long. The themes are similar storylines, with a culprit trying to ruin Christmas and the main characters saving Christmas! Popular Christmas foods include roast duck, goose or pork served with boiled and sweet potatoes, red cabbage, beetroot and cranberry jam/sauce.
In Russia, Christmas is traditionally celebrated on January 7th by most people in that country. Some will celebrate on December 25th. The Orthodox Church also celebrates Advent from November 28th to January 6th, so it’s 40 days long. Some foods eaten during this time are sauerkraut. It’s the main dish for the Christmas Eve meal. It can be served with cranberries, cumin, shredded carrot and onion rings. It might be followed by more pies or porridge dishes such as buckwheat with fried onions and fried mushrooms.
In Belgium, children believe that Sinterklaas/St. Niklaas or Saint Nicholas will bring them presents on December 6th, St. Nicholas’ Day. Children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, along with some biscuits, tangerines, gingerbread, mokjes for St. Nick, carrots for Sinterklass’s horse and something for Zwarte Piet (Black Peter, Sinterklass’s assistant). During the night, Sinterklaas arrives on the roof on his horse with Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet climbs down the chimney and leaves the presents in and around the shoes. Sinterklaas has a naughty and nice book in which he keeps all the names of the children. Bas children, will put you in his sack and taken you back to Spain by Zwarte Piet!
In the Ukraine, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th because, like many countries where the main Church is the Orthodox Church, they use the old ‘Julian’ calendar for their church festivals. The main Christmas meal, called ‘Sviata Vecheria’ (or Holy Supper) is eaten on Christmas Eve (6th January). They will fast all day and then eat when the first star appears in the sky. The meal consists of 12 dishes which represent Jesus’s 12 disciples. The main dish is often ‘kutia’ a type of a kind of sweet porridge made of wheat. Other dishes can include mushrooms, sauerkraut, red borsch, dumplings known as ‘varenyky’ (Pierogi), whitefish, ‘bigos’ ( meat and cabbage stew), cheesecake and bread.
In France, Father Christmas / Santa Claus / St. Nicholas is called Père Noël (Father Christmas). In eastern France, e is accompanied by Le Pere Fouettard, a man dressed in black. He could very well be the same person as Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands. Very often the French will decorate their homes with a Nativity crib featuring clay figures. 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, lobster, venison, and cheeses. For dessert, a chocolate sponge cake log called a bûche de Noël is normally eaten.
In Greece, Christougena, which means Christmas, is celebrated on the December 25th. Greece has its own version of Santa Claus; they call him Saint Vasilis. He comes to their homes on Christmas Eve to deliver a few small gifts to the children. On Christmas Eve, children often go out singing ‘kalanda’ (carols) in the streets while playing drums and triangles. They might also carry model boats decorated with nuts which are painted gold. Carrying a boat is a very old custom in the Greek Islands. While we have Christmas Elves, the Greek have ‘kallikantzaroi.’ They are mischievous and even dangerous elves that prey upon people only during the twelve days of Christmas between December 25 and Epiphany on January 6th.
In Ireland, Christmas is celebrated similar to the US, but they do have customs and traditions. An old Irish tradition that is fading away is where people put a tall, thick candle on the sill of the largest window after sunset on Christmas Eve. The candle is left to burn all night and represents a welcoming light for Mary and Joseph. One ancient tradition is the Wren Boys Procession that takes place on St. Stephen’s Day (Boxing day). Although this procession mostly died out in the early 20th century, it still occurs in some towns including Dingle, in Country Kerry in the South West of Ireland.
In Kenya, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th and is called ‘Krismasi’ in the local Swahili dialect. Homes, Churches, and shopping malls are decorated in holiday splendor with balloons, ribbons, and green plants. Cypress trees are used as Christmas trees and adorned with candles, bells, and small presents.
Experiencing and celebrating Christmas in different countries is to open our hearts to non-traditional ways. It’s about getting in the holiday spirit and making the holidays a truly memorable celebration. If you have a Christmas tradition that is unique to your country or family, please share below. I’d love to read it.