Christmas has many traditions: families celebrate together quietly, the Christmas tree is beautifully decorated, Christmas treats abound, and, of course, either Baby Jesus or Father Christmas brings us a huge pile of presents! But how is the birth of Christ celebrated by other cultures? In India, the lack of conifers leads to mango trees being decorated! We’ve put together a few more special Christmas traditions from other countries here:
Spanish Nikolaus and his steam ship – the Netherlands
Presents are given a little earlier in the Netherlands: Sinterklaas and his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) bring them on the fifth of December, or St Nicholas’s Day (Sinterklaasavond). Sinterklaas wears a bishop’s hat and supports himself with a bishop’s staff, just like his German counterpart, Nikolaus. He passes the year in sunny Spain before setting off in his steam ship in November. On the eve of St Nick’s Day, children leave their shoes outside – and the next morning all of a sudden they are full of sweets. Particularly tasty are the Chocolade Pepernoten, or spicy Christmas cookies covered in chocolate.
Black coal and the Epiphany Witch – Italy
In Italy the whole family comes together on Christmas Eve for a quiet family feast, and then leaves together for Midnight Mass. There aren’t any presents yet – Italian children have to be patient until the sixth of January, because that’s when Befana the Epiphany Witch arrives with all the gifts. Befana has all the characteristics of a self-respecting witch: broom, pointy hat and bulbous nose. Tradition holds that she was far too late setting off on Christmas Eve, and so she missed the star which should have guided her to Jesus’ manger. To this day, she hasn’t been able to find the way and still wanders about aimlessly looking for the manger. She doesn’t give up, though, and brings each household gifts in the hope that, by some lucky coincidence, she will find Baby Jesus.
Santa-San and Kentucky Fried Chicken – Japan
In Japan Christmas is neither a bank holiday nor a religious festival, but it’s celebrated anyway. Many of the customs have been adopted from the USA: Santa-San decorates shop windows, the streets are brightly lit and sending Christmas cards is very popular. Christmas Eve, however, is celebrated in a similar way to our Valentine’s Day: young couples saunter through the streets and enjoy romantic dinners for two.
What’s really curious, though, takes place at the Japanese franchise of the fast food chain KFC: people wait in long queues to pick up the special ‘Christmas Menu’, which they’ve usually ordered in advance! The Japanese ‘carefree package’ comprises of a huge bucket containing a Christmas-patterned plate, a Christmas cake, a salad and a large portion of fried chicken. For around 28 euros, this ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner is available for families with children, and anyone who hasn’t managed to get a reservation at a restaurant.
Bound and gagged – Serbia
Early on Christmas Eve morning, the man of the house heads to the woods to chop down an old oak branch – the Badnjak – and brings it home. The branch symbolises the wood shepherds brought to the stable in Bethlehem, and which Joseph used to make a fire for the new-born Jesus.
Presents aren’t given on Christmas Day itself, but rather on both of the two Sundays before: on the first Sunday the mother is ‘kidnapped’ and tied up by her children. Ransom money is then ‘paid’ in the form of presents. On the Sunday after, the game is repeated, but with the father as the ‘victim’.
Drinks on the beach, and kangaroos – Australia
An Australian Christmas is celebrated with as much glitz, glam and razzamatazz as in New York, London, Paris or Vancouver. However, the main difference is that in Australia there’s never a ‘White Christmas’: Down Under, Christmas comes in the summer! It falls in the middle of the summer holidays and for most Australians that means sun, surf, sand and shopping! And because it’s so warm outside, Santa has naturally swapped his reindeers for a lively team of kangaroos, the Six White Boomers.
Rollerblading in church – Venezuela
Christmas is a very colourful and loud celebration in Venezuela. Groups of carollers go from house to house knocking on doors and performing traditional Christmas songs, and in some places there are nativity scenes with living nativity figures. Christmas Eve festivities begin with a cheerful supper followed by the exchange of presents. The whole family then goes to Midnight Mass. And after giving gifts, the Venezuelans don’t go to bed but rather carry on the party by eating, singing and dancing right until the crack of dawn. In the Venezuelan capital Caracas the roads are closed until 8am on Christmas Day because of Midnight Mass. But because everyone’s really slow on foot, the Venezuelans have developed an extraordinary tradition: they go to Mass on rollerblades!
Regardless whether now you’ll receive gifts on streets lit garishly by a gagged witch on rollerblades, who travels with her team of kangaroos on a steam ship, with buckets full of chicken wings – or whether you’d rather withdraw into a trusted family circle to reflect on the true nature of this festival – Christmas is a truly special time for everyone who celebrates it. In this spirit, we would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas!
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