Christmas is both a religious holiday and increasingly a secular holiday heavily influenced by local culture. As a result, Christmas traditions are as diverse as the world is diverse culturally.
In the United States, for example, Christmas traditions are a literal potpourri of the Christmas traditions brought by immigrants, mostly European. For example, Yule log (English), Christmas tree (German), carols or noels (France), Santa Claus (Dutch). In more recent times, newer Christmas traditions have arrived with the most recent immigrants such as luminaries (Mexico) and “Feliz Navidad!” greeting (Latin America generally).
The following is a whirlwind tour of some of the fun and different Christmas traditions around the world.
Christmas traditions in Africa are culturally rich and diverse. In Ghana, Christmas Eve is marked by the children parading through the streets singing Christmas songs and shouting “Christ is coming, Christ is coming! He is near!” Church services are held both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Following Church services, family and close friends celebrate a meal of fufu, a past made from rice and yams, with stew or okra soup, porridge and meats.
In Liberia, oil palms decorated with bells are used for a Christmas tree. On Christmas Day, simple gifts are exchanged among friends and family, such as cotton cloth, soap, sweets, pencils, and books are exchanged. Church services on Christmas morning usually have a reenactment of the first Christmas. Christmas dinner, which consists of rice, beef and biscuits, is held outdoors. Friend and family enjoy games and night fireworks.
While the peoples and cultures of Asia are far removed from Christianity and its Christmas traditions, the local Asian Christians have uniquely blended their Christian faith with their local cultures. For example, Christmas in China (the Holy Birth Festival) has many of the traditional Christmas symbols. Chinese Christian families decorate Christmas trees, or Trees of Light, with red paper chains (red is the color of happiness in Chinese cultures), lanterns and flowers. The children anxiously await the arrival of Dun Che Lao Ren which in Chinese means “Christmas Old Man.”. When permitted by local law, Asian Christians do gather in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Even though the vast majority of Asians are not Christian, the secular aspects of the Western Christmas traditions (Christmas trees and gifts) have become fashionable among many of the Asian middle and upper classes. Throughout Asia at Christmas time, you can find large department stores decorated with Christmas trees, Christmas lights and the occasional Santa Claus.
An American would find him or herself quite at home with the Christmas celebrations throughout Europe since so many of America’s Christmas traditions originated in Europe. Of course, many Christmas traditions in England have been adopted in America – mistletoe, Yule logs, Christmas hymns (“Hark! The Herald Angel Sings”, “Deck the Halls” ), carolers, Christmas stories (Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”), roasted chestnuts, wassail, hanging stockings by the chimney.
But even in England, there are unique Christmas traditions – Christmas dinners with turkey with chestnut stuffing, roasted goose with currants, Yorkshire pudding, Christmas cake. On Christmas Day, the Queen delivers a Christmas greeting by radio and television. Perhaps the most puzzling for their American cousins is Boxing Day, the day after Christmas when people give small gifts to service provides and merchants with whom they associate during the year.
Every European country has its unique Christmas traditions as well as traditions that are shared with other Western cultures. In Germany, the children excitedly count the days before Christmas with an Advent calendar. In Holland, the children anticipate the arrival of Sinterklaas on St. Nicholas Day on December 6 and it a letterbanket, a cake shaped in the form of the first letter of the family’s last name. In Sweden, In Sweden, the Christmas festivities begin on December 13 with St. Lucia’s Day, the patron saint of light. Early in the morning of St. Lucia’s Day, the oldest daughter in a Swedish family dresses as the “Queen of Light” (wearing a long white dress and a crown of leaves). She enters the bedroom of each family member to serve them treats.
La Navidad (Christmas) is a colorful, exciting holiday throughout Latin America. While the celebrations vary widely, the religious significance is still the focal point for the celebration. Mexico is a typical example of the focus on the original Christmas story. In Mexico, Las Posadas, the nine days reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem begins on December 16th. For the next 8 evenings, the celebrants reenact Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging by going door to door with two costumed children carrying images of Mary and Joseph. On Christmas Eve (Buena Noche), the children lead the procession to the local church and place Mary and Joseph in the nacimiento (crèche or manger). Mass is held at midnight followed by church bells and fireworks.
Poinsettias, piñatas, farolitos (luminaries) and tamales are all a joyous part of the Christmas season in Mexico. Poinsettias, with their red star-shaped flowers, decorate Mexican homes and serve as a reminder of the boy who was going to church to see the nativity scene but had no gift for the Christ child. On his way, he found some small green branches which he brought and laid by the nativity scene as his gift. Some people laughed at his sincere, but humble gift. However, these small branches soon blossomed with the beautiful red poinsettias blossoms.
During the Christmas season and on Christmas Day, pinatas, papier-mache Christmas figures and symbols, are filled with candy and suspended in the air by a rope while blindfolded children try to break them open with a stick. When the piñata is broken, the candy spills on the floor and the children scramble to retrieve as much as they can.
January 6th ( the Day of the Three Kings or Wisemen) marks the end of the almost month-long Christmas celebrations throughout Latin America. In Mexico, on the eve of January 5th, the children leave their shoes on the windowsill and find them filled with candy and small gifts the next morning. In Venezuela, the children leave straw next to their beds on January 5th and the next morning find that the straw has been replaced with gifts.