Christmas and New Year are probably one of the most magical events that connects the whole world. Why? Because almost everyone celebrates it. Diversity of traditions and celebration events are so many and beautiful in their kind that No Label Business Magazine decided to share WhyChristmas‘s list of the wonderful Christmas customs and traditions of countries around the world.
Madagascar is an Island off the east coast of Africa, so it is very warm at Christmas time! Even though it’s hot, common decorations include holly, robins and snow even though none of them exist in Madagascar! The official language of Madagascar is Malagasy. Most Malagasy’s only exchange small presents. In Madagascar, Santa Claus is called ‘Dadabe Noely’.
On Christmas Day people (even strangers) greet each by saying ‘Arahaba tratry ny Noely’ which means ‘Merry Christmas’. Malagasy families like to eat Christmas dinner together in large groups and dress up in the best (or new) clothes. The meal is normally Chicken or Pork with rice followed by a special cake. Some rich people go to restaurants for Christmas dinner, but most people stay at home with their families. A special Christmas food in Madagascar are fresh lychees, which are bought from shops and street sellers, fresh from the trees. The streets get covered in lychee skins! Poinsettias also grow as large outdoor shrubs in Madagascar and don’t just flower at Christmas! They are also the national emblem of Madagascar.
For most people in Zimbabwe, Christmas day starts with a Church service. After the Church service, everyone has a party in their homes and people go from house to house, visiting all of their family and friends on the way home! Sometimes, this can take all of the rest of the day! At every house you have something to eat, exchange presents and enjoy the party. A lot of people get their biggest stereo speakers out and put them out side the front of the house and play their favorite music very loudly! It is not only Christmas music that is played, but also the latest pop tunes and old African favorites. Everyone wears their best clothes for Christmas, as for some families the only new clothes they get every year are for Christmas. The parties are a good place to show off their new clothes. Children in Zimbabwe believe that Santa Claus brings them there presents early on Christmas Day, ready to show their friends at Church and at the parties. Only the main room in the house is often decorated in Zimbabwe. Some Zimbabweans have a traditional ‘European’ Christmas Tree, but they decorate the room with plants like Ivy. This is draped around the whole of the top of room.
Christmas Carols are sung during the Christmas Day morning service and in services leading up to Christmas. There are also sometimes Carols by Candlelight Services in city parks. The Christmas Cards that are used in Zimbabwe sometimes have African pictures on them, such as wild animals, but most are imported so they have the traditional ‘snow scenes’ and pictures of the Christmas story on them. The special food eaten at Christmas in Zimbabwe is Chicken with rice. Chicken is a very expensive food in Zimbabwe and is a special treat for Christmas. This is often eaten at the Christmas Day parties. Santa might sometimes arrive at big stores in a Fire Engine. The streets in the big cities also can have colorful Christmas lights. Over the last decade Zimbabwe has had many changes, please see the Zimbabwe Country profile at BBC News and Zimbabwe Situation for more information.
In Serbia, the main Church is the Orthodox Church and they still use the old ‘Julian’ Calendar, which means that Christmas Eve is on 6th January and Christmas Day is on the 7th January! Advent in the Orthodox Church starts on 28th November and last for six weeks. During Advent, some people fast and they don’t eat food that comes from animals (meat, milk, eggs, etc.). The countries of Serbia and Montenegro share many Christmas traditions.
On Christmas Eve (called ‘Badnji dan’ during the day and ‘Badnje vece’ after sunset), families gather and many people fast and don’t eat food that comes from animals. It is the last day of the Christmas fast. Christmas is a very religious holiday and most people go to the Christmas Services. There are a lot of old Serbian traditions associated with the countryside, which have now lost their meaning because more people live in towns and cities. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the father of the family used to go to the forest to cut a young oak called the ‘Badnjak’ (Christmas Eve tree) but today people just buy one. The Badnjak is then burnt like a Yule Log. There are sometimes large bonfires outside churches where oak branches and Badnjak are burnt.
On Christmas Day the dawn is greeted with church bells ringing and sometimes firing guns into the air! The first person to enter a house on Christmas Day is called a polaznik and it’s thought to bring luck to the house and family. The polaznik is often re-arranged. But if the family don’t have good year, they don’t ask the same person back! Early on Christmas morning, girls traditionally went collected water to bring to their family. This was called ‘strong water’ and was meant to have special powers. People would drink some strong water and wash their faces in it before having breakfast!
At Christmas a special kind of bread is eaten. It’s called ‘cesnica’ and is made in a round shape. Sometimes it’s made using some of the ‘strong water’. Each member of the family gets a piece (and the house does too). There is a coin hidden in it and whoever gets the coin will be particularly fortunate in the next year! Other popular Christmas dishes include pecenica (roast pork), sarma (cabbage stuffed with rice and ground meat) and lots of cakes! Under the dinner table there should be some straw as a symbol of the stable/cave where Jesus was born. When the straw is spread out, some people make the noise of a chicken! Clucking like a chicken symbolises that Jesus wanted people to follow him like one big family (like chickens gather together!). It’s also common for a handful of walnuts to be spread on the straw.
In Serbian Happy/Merry Christmas is Hristos se rodi – Christ is born Vaistinu se rodi – truly born (reply).
People in Serbia also celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day, but on the 19th December. During the time when Serbia was under communist control (after World War II until about 20 years ago), the communist government didn’t like St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, so they had their own version called Grandfather Frost (Deda Mraz) or Christmas Brother (Božic Bata), who came on New Year’s Eve. Traditional Serbian customs have also mixed with western customs. For example, people also have Christmas Trees, but they are decorated on New Year’s Eve, not at Christmas!
4. South Korea
There are more Christians in South Korea (the Republic of Korea) than in other asian countries such as China and Japan, so Christmas is celebrated more widely. (Christians make up about 25-30% of the population.) However, the other 70% of people in South Korea are Buddhist (about 25%) or don’t have a religion. Unlike Japan, Christmas is an official public holiday – so people have the day off work and school! But they go back on the 26th (Boxing Day). There’s a longer official winter break in the New Year.
Churches are decorated with lights and many have a bright red neon cross on top (all the year!) so that goes very well with the Christmas lights! Most churches will have a service on Christmas day. Going to Church for Christmas is becoming more popular, even among non Christians. Department stores put on big displays of decorations. There’s also an amazing display of lights in the capital city, Seoul. The lights are all over the city center including the bridges over the Han River.
Some people (especially Christians and westerns who live in South Korea) will have decorations at home including a Christmas tree. Presents are exchanged and a popular present is money! Giving actually gifts has become more popular, but giving money is still very common. Santa Claus can also be seen around Korea but he might be wearing red or blue! He’s also known as (santa kullosu) or (Santa Grandfather).
A popular Christmas food is a Christmas Cake, but it’s often a sponge cake covered in cream brought from a local bakery! Or you might even have an ice cream cake from a shop like ‘Baskin Robbins’! Happy/Merry Christmas in Korean is ‘Meri krismas’ or ‘Jeulgaeun krismas doeseyo’. Christians can say ‘Sungtan chukhahaeyo’ to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages. If you live in North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Christmas will be very different. Being a Christian is ‘officially’ allowed but you can go to prison, or even be killed for being a Christian or even having a Bible. Christians in North Korea have to meet in secret and any celebrations of Christmas will also be held in secret.
In Australia, Christmas comes in the towards the beginning of the summer holidays! Children have their summer holidays from mid December to early February, so some people might even be camping at Christmas. Because it’s so hot at Christmas time in Australia, there are quite often massive bush fires across the country. Many volunteer bush fire fighters are involved in saving people and property and travel from all over Australia to help in other states.
Australians hang wreaths on their front doors and sometimes go out Christmas carol singing on Christmas eve. People also decorate their houses and gardens with Christmas Trees and Christmas lights. Neighbors sometimes have little competitions to see who has got the best light display. The neighbors often visit each other to look at the light displays at night. Sometimes the displays are put out as early as December 1st. One street in Sydney raises over $(AUS)35,000 every year for charity with their co-ordinated street display! Australians also decorate their houses with bunches of ‘Christmas Bush’, a native Australian tree with small green leaves and cream-colored flowers. In summer the flowers turn a deep shiny red over a period of weeks (generally by the week of Christmas in Sydney).
In each State capital city, there are large Carols by Candlelight service. Famous Australian singers like The Wiggles, John Farnham, Anthony Warlow, Colin Gery, Niki Webster and many more help to sing the carols. These carol services, held in different cities, are broadcast on TV across Australia. There are also huge Christmas pageants in each state capital city, that are also broadcast across the country. Most towns and cities have festivals and parades. In some places, there is a fireworks display at the local park.
Many towns, cities, and schools also hold their own Carols by Candlelight services, with local bands and choirs sometimes helping to perform the Christmas Carols and songs. As it is the middle of Summer in Australia at Christmas time, the words to the Carols about snow and the cold winter are sometimes changed to special Australian words! There are also some original Australian Carols. When he gets to Australia, Santa gives the reindeer a rest and uses kangaroos or ‘six white boomers’ (a popular Australian Christmas song!). He also changes his clothes for less ‘hot’ ones!
On Boxing Day most people go and visit their friends and often have barbecues at the beach. A famous Yacht race from Sydney to Hobart in Tasmania is also held on Boxing Day. The Flying Doctor Service has to work all though-out Christmas. On Christmas Day the people who live in the outback send Christmas greetings to each other over the radio network.
Most families try to be home together for Christmas and the main meal is normally eaten at lunch time. Most people now have a cold Christmas dinner, or a barbecue with seafood such as prawns and lobsters along with the ‘traditional English’ food. On Christmas Eve, fish-markets are often full of people queuing to buy their fresh seafood for Christmas day. Australians often have Christmas Crackers at Christmas meal times.
Austria shares many Christmas traditions with its neighbor Germany, but also has many special Christmas customs of its own. During Advent, many families will have an Advent Wreath made from evergreen twigs and decorated with ribbons and four candles. One each of the four Sunday in Advent, a candle is lit and a carols or two might be sung! Most towns will have a ‘Christkindlmarkt’ (Christmas market) from late November, early December selling Christmas decorations, food (like gingerbread) and Glühwein (sweet, warm mulled wine). Cities like Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg have huge markets and people from all over the world to visit them.
Every town will also have a large Christmas Tree in the town square. In homes, trees are decorated with gold and silver ornaments and stars made from straw. Christmas in Austria really starts around 4.00pm on Christmas Eve (‘Heilige Abend’) when the tree is lit for the first time and people come to sing carols around the tree. The most famous carol is Silent Night (‘Stille Nacht’), which was written in Austria in 1818.
The national pop radio station Ö3 has special Christmas ‘jingles’ and plays Christmas music from 4.00pm on ‘Heilige Abend’. It’s used by many people as the ‘soundtrack’ to the start of Christmas. Traditionally the Christmas tree is brought in and decorated on Christmas Eve. Decorations include candles (now often electric and) and sparklers. For children, other important decorations are sweets such as small liqueur-filled chocolate bottles, chocolates of various kinds, jelly rings and ‘Windbäckerei’ (meringue, usually in the form of rings, stars, etc.).
Some children believed that the ‘Christkind’ decorates the tree. The Christkind also brings presents to children on Christmas Eve and leaves them under the tree. (The Christkind is described as a golden-haired baby, with wings, who symbolizes the new born Christ.) Some children might also get a present from St Nicholas on December 6th. In Austria, St Nicholas is often accompanied by the Krampus, He a big horned monster clothed in rags and carries chains. He’s meant to punish children who have been bad!
The main Christmas meal is also eaten on Christmas Eve. It’s often ‘Gebackener Karpfen’ (fried carp) as the main course, this is because Christmas Eve was considered a ‘fasting’ day by many Catholics and no meat could be eaten. However ‘Weihnachtsgans’ (roast goose) and roast turkey are becoming more popular. Dessert can be chocolate and apricot cake ‘Sachertorte’ and Austrian Christmas cookies ‘Weihnachtsbaeckerei’.
Some ‘really cool’ people, or those who live in the mountains, might go skiing on Christmas Day. Skiing on New Years Day is also popular. Every year, Austria’s capital city, Vienna, holds a world famous classical music concert ‘NeuJahrsKonzert’ which takes place during the morning of New Year’s day. It’s held in the ‘Großer Saal’ (large hall) of the Musikverein, the concert hall of the Viennese Music Association. The concert is played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and always features music from the Strauss family: Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II, Josef Strauss and Eduard Strauss. It is famous for its waltz music. During the last piece played, the The Blue Danube, the introduction is interrupted by applause from the audience and the musicians then wish them a Happy New Year! The concert is shown around the world on TV.
For Epiphany, 6th January, a special sign in chalk over their front door. It’s a reminder of the Wise Men that visited the baby Jesus. It’s made from the year split in two with initials for ‘Christus mansionem benedicat’ which is ‘May Christ bless the house’ in latin. So 2016 would be: 20*C*M*B*16. The sign is meant to protect the house for the coming year. (Some people say the ‘C M B’ can also represent the names that are sometimes given to ‘the three wise men’, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, in the middle.) As in parts of Germany, the sign is traditionally written on the door by the Sternsinger (or star singers), carol singing children who dress up like the Wise men and one who carries a star on a stick as a symbol for the Star of Bethlehem.
Another famous event that happens over the new year in Austria and Germany is the Ski Jumping ‘Four Hills Tournament’ (‘Vierschanzentournee’). It starts in Germany with Oberstdorf (Germany) on the 29th or 30th December and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany) on New Years Day and continues in Austria with Innsbruck (Austria) on 3rd or 4th of January and Bischofshofen (Austria) on the 6th January.
Many Brazilian Christmas traditions come from Portugal as Portugal ruled Brazil for many years. Nativity Scenes, known as Presépio are very popular. They are set-up in churches and homes all through December. Christmas plays called ‘Os Pastores’ (The Shepherds), like the plays in Mexico, are also popular. In the Brazilian versions of the play, there’s also traditionally a shepherdess and also a woman who tries to steal the baby Jesus! Most people, especially Catholics, will go to a Midnight Mass service or Missa do Galo (Mass of the Roster). The mass normally finishes about 1.00am. On Christmas day, people might go to church again, but this time the services are often in the afternoon.
After the Missa do Gallo there are often big firework displays and in big towns and cities there are big Christmas Tree shaped displays of electric lights. In Brazil, Santa Claus is called Papai Noel & Bom Velhinho (Good Old Man). Many Christmas customs are similar to ones in the USA or UK even though it’s summer and very hot at Christmas time in Brazil. Many people like to go to the beach. Sometimes children leave a sock near a window. If Papai Noel finds your sock, he’ll exchange it for a present!
Taking part in a ‘Secret Santa’, known as ‘amigo secreto’ (secret friend) is popular in Brazil at Christmas. It is traditional to give small gifts all through December using a pretend name (apelidos). On Christmas Day, people reveal who their amigo secreto was! The most popular Christmas song in Brazil is ‘Noite Feliz’ (Silent Night). It’s common in Brazil to get a ’13th salary’ at the end of the year – i.e. in December you get twice the normal amount of pay for that month! The idea is to help boost the economy around Christmas. This has been going on for decades and most people don’t even question that other countries might not do it!
Favourite Christmas foods in Brazil include pork, turkey, pork, ham, salads and fresh and dried fruits. Everything is served with rice cooked with raisins and a good spoon of “farofa” (seasoned manioc flour.) Popular Christmas desserts include tropical and ice cream. Brazils population is a mix of many different cultures and people that originally came from different countries, so you may have Italian Panettone in São Paulo, Portuguese salted Cod in Rio de Janeiro and some African style food in the states of North-East Brazil.
The meal is normally be served around 10pm on Christmas Eve and exactly at Midnight people greet each other, make a toast wishing everyone a Happy Christmas and after that they will exchange presents. The lunch on Christmas day is also special and after that some people go to relatives and friends houses to visit. Epiphany, when people remember the Wise Men visiting Jesus, is widely celebrated in Brazil.
In Bulgaria, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. Many countries in Eastern Europe celebrate Christmas on January 7th as most Orthodox Churches use the old Julian Calendar, but the Bulgarian Orthodox Church uses the Gregorian calendar Christmas in on the 25th December. For many Bulgarians, the preparations for Christmas start with Advent which lasts 40 days in the Orthodox Church and starts on November 15th.
One legend in Bulgaria is that Mary started her labor on ‘Ignazhden’, December 20th (Saint Ignatius of Antioch’s Day) and she gave birth of Christmas Eve but the birth of Jesus wasn’t announced until Christmas Day. The 20th is also the traditional ‘new year’ in Bulgarian culture. It’s traditional to eat a special ring shaped caked called ‘kolaks’ on this day. Christmas Eve (called ‘Badni Veche’) is a very important day and the main Christmas meal is eaten in the evening of Christmas Eve. The meal should traditionally have an odd number of dishes in it (normally 7, 9 or 11) and an odd number of people sitting around the table. (Salt, pepper and sugar can count as separate dishes!)
Straw is often put under the tablecloth and you might even bring a wooden plough into the house and put it behind the door! These are meant to help you have good crops during the next year. There’s a special round and decorated loaf of bread called ‘pita’ which has a coin baked in it. If you find the good you’re meant to have good luck for the next year! The bread is normally cut by the oldest person at the meal and hands it around the table.
It’s normally a rich vegetarian meal and includes dishes made of different such as beans soup, ‘sarmi’ cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, peppers stuffed with rice, boiled wheat with sugar and walnuts, different kinds of pastries (cheese, pumpkin and sweets pastries soaked in syrup), some kolaks, lots of fruits and nuts like dried plums, dried apricots, oranges and tangerines and ‘oshav’ a dried fruit compote.
Walnuts are especially popular. If you walnut is delicious you will have a good year, but if it’s empty or has a small nut you’ll have a bad year! It’s traditional that the table is left with all the food on it until the morning of Christmas Day. Some people think their ancestors might like something to eat during the night! On Christmas Day some families will have another big meal, but this time there will be meat, normally some kind of pork.
Following the meal some people will go to a Midnight Mass service. You might also hear Koledari (carol singers) which are normally young men who go carol singing dressed it traditional clothing. The singing can only start after midnight. The singers often go round singing all night, so the sun never catches them! When they reach a house they sing ‘the house song’ praising and wishing the house well. Having the Koledari visit your home is meant to be good luck. The songs are often in two parts with half of the singers singing the song and then the other half repeating it back. After the singing, the head of the house will give the Koledari food to thank them for singing. The special foods include ‘Koledni gevreci’ (round buns) and ‘banitsa’ (a layered pastry filled with cheese).
Christmas Trees now popular in Bulgaria and towns are decorated with Christmas lights. Some people will still have a traditional Yule Log (normally from an oak, elm or pear tree) known as a ‘badnik’ or ‘budnik’ which is brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Santa is known as ‘Dyado Koleda’ which means Grandfather Christmas. In Bulgarian Merry Christmas is ‘Vesela Koleda’.
In China, only about one percent of people are Christians, so most people only know a few things about Christmas. Because of this, Christmas is only often celebrated in major cities. In these big cities there are Christmas Trees, lights and other decorations on the streets and in department stores. Santa Claus is called ‘Shen Dan Lao Ren’ and has grottos in shops like in Europe and America.
In Chinese Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Sheng Dan Kuai Le in Mandarin and ‘Seng Dan Fai Lok in Cantonese. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages. In China, Santa is known as ‘Sheng dan lao ren’ (means Old Christmas Man). Only a few people have a Christmas Tree (or celebrate Christmas at all!). If people do have a tree it is normally a plastic one and might be decorated with paper chains, paper flowers, and paper lanterns (they might also call it a tree of light). The Christmas Trees that most people would see would be in shopping malls!
Christmas isn’t that widely celebrated in the rural areas of China, but it’s becoming more well known. The strange thing is that most of the world’s plastic Christmas Trees and Christmas decorations are made in China, but the people making them might not know what they are for! A tradition that’s becoming popular, on Christmas Eve, is giving apples. Many stores have apples wrapped up in colored paper for sale. People give apples on Christmas Eve because in Chinese Christmas Eve is called “Ping’an Ye”, meaning peaceful or quiet evening, which has been translated from the carol ‘Silent Night’. The word for apple in Mandarin is “píngguo” which sounds like the word for peace.
Some people go Carol singing, although not many people understand them or know about the Christmas Story. Jingle Bells is a popular Carol in China! People who are Christians in China go to special services. Going to Midnight Mass services has become very popular.
In Egypt about 15% of people are Christians. They are the only part of the population who really celebrate Christmas as a religious festival. Most Egyptian Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church and they have some very unique traditions for Christmas. Christmas Day isn’t celebrated on the 25th December but on 7th January (like in Ethiopia and by some Orthodox Christians in Russia and Serbia). The Coptic month leading to Christmas is called Kiahk. People sing special praise songs on Saturday nights before the Sunday Service.
For the 43 days before Christmas (Advent), from 25th November to 6th January, Coptic Orthodox Christians have a special fast where they basically eat a vegan diet. They don’t eat anything containing products that come from animals (including chicken, beef, milk and eggs). This is called ‘The Holy Nativity Fast’. But if people are too weak or ill to fast properly they can be excused. On Coptic Christmas Eve (6th January), Coptic Christians go to church for a special liturgy or Service. The services normally start about 10.30pm but some chapels will be open for people to pray from 10.00pm. Many people meet up with their friends and families in the churches from 9.00pm onwards. The services are normally finished shortly after midnight, but some go onto 4.00am!
When the Christmas service ends people go home to eat the big Christmas meal. All the foods contain meat, eggs and butter – all the yummy things they didn’t during the Advent fast! One popular course if ‘Fata’ a lamb soup which contains bread, rice, garlic and boiled lamb meat. On the Orthodox Christmas Day (7th) people come together in homes for parties and festivities. People often take ‘kahk’ (special sweet biscuits) with them to give as gifts.
Even though not many in Egypt are Christians, a lot of people in the country like to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. Christmas is becoming very commercial and most major supermarkets sell Christmas trees, Christmas food and decorations. Hotels, parks and streets are decorated for Christmas. In Egypt, Santa is called Baba Noël (meaning Father Christmas). Children hope that he will climb through a window and will leave some presents! They might leave some kahk out for Baba Noël. Most Egyptians speak Egyptian Arabic. In Arabic Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Eid Milad Majid’ which means ‘Glorious Birth Feast’. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages. ‘Christmas’ in Arabic is ‘eid almilad’.
Father Christmas (‘Pai Natal’) is believed to bring presents to children on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day. The presents are left under the Christmas Tree or in shoes by the fireplace. However, some people say that the presents are brought by the Baby Jesus rather than Father Christmas. Like in Spain, the traditional Christmas meal in Portugal, called ‘Consoada’, is eaten during the evening of Christmas Eve and consists of codfish with green vegetables and boiled potatoes. This is normally followed by shellfish, wild meats or other expensive foods.
After the meal, people go to church for the ‘Missa do Galo’ or ‘Mass of the Rooster’ service. During the service an image of baby Jesus is brought out, and everyone queues up to kiss it. It is then put in the nativity scene (the presépio) that every church will have. After the service people return home and open their presents. Before leaving for the service, parents secretly put the baby Jesus in the nativity scene in their houses and put the gifts under the Christmas Tree, so that Jesus will ‘miraculously’ be in his manger by the time the family returns home! Children run to check the nativity scene as soon as they enter the house as no baby Jesus means no presents!
Some families have two present opening times with children being allowed to open a few gifts after midnight mass and most of them in the morning. People that don’t go to a midnight service will put the gifts under the tree and the family will open the gifts when they wake up. Christmas Trees are common now, but not everyone had a tree until around the 1970s. However, the Nativity Scene (or Presépio) is the traditional christmas decoration in Portugal, and most families will have a small one with just the holy family and the animals; but often the scenes have dozens of characters including the holy family, animals, the wise men, shepherds, farmers, folk characters, etc. Children like to make the nativity scene, fetching moss to make the grass and arranging the figures.
Some shops and clubs still make huge nativity scenes with over one hundred figures, waterfalls, windmills that rotate, and lights! People like to go and see the big scenes. Every house has a rich table set in the living room full with traditional food, cakes, fried cookies, nuts and other goodies! Turkey is often the main dish now. Traditionally it was goat or lamb in northern Portugal and pork in the south of the country.
Also, each region traditionally has its own selection of deserts. In the northern province of Minho, rich people would have rich desserts made with lots of eggs such as ‘Lampreia de ovos’. Normal people would be more likely to have something like rice pudding. French Toast (called ‘Rabanadas’) is popular throughout the country as are fried dough deserts sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon like ‘filhós’. Filhós are also made differently in different regions. Alentejo province makes them with crated carrot and shapes them balls. Beira Province makes them flat and round with just the flour and water and sometimes some orange or lemon zest to flavor the dough.
The traditional Christmas cake is ‘Bolo Rei’ (which means ‘King Cake’) and is placed in the center of the table. There is also a version without candied fruit called the ‘Bolo Rainha’. Traditionally a broad bean and a gift (a little token) are hidden in the cake. If you get the token you are allowed to keep it. But if you find the broad bean, you have to pay for next year’s Bolo Rei! People drink porto wine, traditional liquors and eat ‘azevias’ and ‘felhozes’ (Portuguese biscuits and sweets). The party lasts until the early hours of the morning! On Christmas Day the living room table remains untouched and people still enjoy their goodies together! Families come together and have Christmas Day lunch together.
After Christmas (and never before!) and going into the first weeks of January, groups of people will go from house to house with an image of the baby Jesus in his manger singing the ‘Janeiras’ songs (January songs). They are often accompanied with small instruments. They usually start with an opening song asking the owner of the house for food and drink! The owner of the house should invite them in to warm up and to help themselves of a spread of snacks sweet like dry figs with walnuts inside them or savory like cheese and chorizo and some wine or brandy.
If you do not open your door, or your food and drink doesn’t meet what is expected (especially if you’re rich), the singers will sing songs mocking you (like saying you’ve got a big nose)! Normally after enjoying the food, the January singers will sing a song of thanks praising the generosity of the hosts, saying how nice you are and saying any single girls are very beautiful!
In the region of Penamacor, a special Christmas tradition called the ‘Christmas Madeiro’ takes place on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, young men who were about to go into the military (for compulsory military service) were meant to steal whole trees to make the tallest fire in the church yard. However, compulsory military service was stopped in 2004 in Portugal, but the tradition of lighting the Madeiro stump/fire still takes place in some area. The fire is lit just before the Midnight mass or during it “to warm baby Jesus’s feet”! It also gives people a warm place to meet friends, chat and sing songs when they come out of midnight mass. The Madeiro is sometimes so big that it will keep on burning for Christmas day as well!
The wood for this Madeiro was traditionally stollen – it should not be bought! If the boys were caught by the owners of the trees, then they have to pay for it. However, nowadays the wood is normally paid for after christmas or it is discretely donated by the boy’s parents; or relatives who tell them where some trees that are sick, or which need felling are, so they can get them from there! In Portuguese Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Feliz Natal or Boas Festas’.
In Mexico, Christmas is celebrated from the December 12th to January 6th. From December 16th to Christmas Eve, children often perform the ‘Posada’ processions or Posadas. Posada is Spanish for Inn or Lodging. There are nine Posadas. These celebrate the part of the Christmas story where Joseph and Mary looked for somewhere to stay. For the Posadas, the outside of houses are decorated with evergreens, moss and paper lanterns.
In each Posada, children are given candles and a board, with painted clay figures of Mary riding on a donkey and Joseph, to process round the streets with. They call at the houses of friends and neighbors and sing a song at each home. The song they sing is about Joseph and Mary asking for a room in the house. But the children are told that there is no room in the house and that they must go away. Eventually they are told there is room and are welcomed in! When the children go into the house they say prayers of thanks and then they have a party with food, games and fireworks.
Each night a different house holds the Posada party. At the final Posada, on Christmas Eve, a manger and figures of shepherds are put on to the board. When the Posada house has been found, a baby Jesus is put into the manger and then families go to a midnight Church service. After the Church service there are more fireworks to celebrate the start of Christmas. One game that is often played at Posada parties is piñata. A piñata is a decorated clay or papier-mâché jar filled with sweets and hung from the ceiling or tree branch. The piñata is often decorated something like a ball with seven peaks around it. The peaks or spikes represent the ‘seven deadly sins’. Piñata’s can also be in the form of an animal or bird (such as a donkey). To play the game, children are blind-folded and take it in turns to hit the piñata with a stick until it splits open and the sweets pour out. Then the children rush to pick up as many sweets as they can!
As well as the posada’s, another type of Christmas play known as Pastorelas (The Shepherds). These tell the story of the shepherds going to find the baby Jesus and are often very funny. The devil tries to stop them by tempting them along the way. But the shepherds always get there in the end, often with the help of the Archangel Michael, who comes and beats the devil!
Nativity scenes, known as the ‘nacimiento’, are very popular in Mexico. They are often very large, with the figures being life size! Sometimes a whole room in a house is used for the nacimiento, although this is less common now. The figures are often made of clay and are traditionally passed down through families. As well as the normal figures of the Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Shepherds and Three Kings, there are often lots of other figures of different people, including women making tortillas, people selling food and different animals and birds, like flamingos! The figures can be bought from markets in cities all over Mexico. The baby Jesus is normally added to the scene during the evening of Christmas Eve. The Three Kings are added at Epiphany.
Christmas Trees are becoming more popular in Mexico, but the main/most important decoration is still the nacimiento. Christmas Eve is known as ‘Noche Buena’ and is a family day. People often take part in the final Posada and then in the evening have the main Christmas meal. At midnight, many people go to a Midnight Mass service, known as the ‘Misa de Gallo’ (Mass of the Rooster). There are lots of fireworks to celebrate Christmas Day. Poinsettia flowers are known as ‘nochebuena’ (Christmas Eve) flowers in Mexico.
People in Mexico also celebrate ‘los santos inocentes’ or ‘Day of the Innocent Saints’ on December 28th ad it’s very like April Fools Day in the UK and USA. 28th December is when people remember the babies that were killed on the orders of King Herod when he was trying to kill the baby Jesus. In some states in Mexico children expect Santa Claus to come on December 24th. In the south of Mexico children expect presents on January 6th at Epiphany, which is known as ‘el Dia de los Reyes’. On el Dia de los Reyes the presents are left by the Three Kings (or Magi). If you’ve had a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve, you might also get some candy on el Dia de los Reyes!
It’s traditional to eat a special cake called ‘Rosca de Reyes’ (Three Kings Cake) on Epiphany. A figure of Baby Jesus is hidden inside the cake. Whoever has the baby Jesus in their piece of cake is the ‘Godparent’ of Jesus for that year. Another important day, is Candelaria (also known as Candlemas) on the 2nd February and it marks the end of the Mexican Christmas celebrations. Lots of Mexicans have a party for Candelaria. In Mexico, presents might also be brought by ‘El Niñito Dios’ (baby Jesus) & Santo Clós (Santa Claus)
In Mexico most people speak Spanish (Español), so Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Feliz Navidad’. In the Nahuatl (spoken in some parts of central Mexico) it’s ‘Cualli netlacatilizpan’ Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages. The largest ever Angel Ornament was made in Mexico. It was made in January 2001 by Sergio Rodriguez in the town of Nuevo León. The angel was 18′ 3″” high and had wing span of 11′ 9″! Perhaps the most amazing thing about the angel was that it was completely made out of old beer bottles, 2946 of them!
A big part of the Christmas celebrations in Germany is Advent. Several different types of Advent calendars are used in German homes. As well as the traditional one made of card that are used in many countries, there are ones made out of a wreath of Fir tree branches with 24 decorated boxes or bags hanging from it. Each box or bag has a little present in it. Another type is called a ‘Advent Kranz’ and is a ring of fir branches that has four candles on it. This is like the Advent candles that are sometimes used in Churches. One candle is lit at the beginning of each week in Advent.
Christmas Trees are very important in Germany. They were first used in Germany during the Middle Ages. If there are young children in the house, the trees are usually secretly decorated by the mother of the family. The Christmas tree was traditionally brought into the house on Christmas eve. In some parts of Germany, during the evening the family would read the Bible and sing Christmas songs such as O Tannenbaum, Ihr Kinderlein Kommet and Stille Nacht (Slient Night).
Sometimes wooden frames, covered with colored plastic sheets and with electric candles inside, are put in windows to make the house look pretty from the outside. Christmas Eve is the main day when Germans exchange presents with their families. In German Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Frohe Weihnachten’. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages. Christmas Day being called “Erste Feiertag” (‘first celebration’) and the 26th December is known as “Zweite Feiertag” (‘second celebration’) and also “Zweiter Weihnachtsfeiertag” which translates as Boxing Day (although it doesn’t literally mean that)!
Germany is well known for its Christmas Markets where all sorts of Christmas foods and decorations are sold. Perhaps the most famous German decorations are glass ornaments. The glass ornaments were originally hand blown glass and were imported in the USA in 1880s by the Woolworth stores. The legend of the glass ‘Christmas Pickle’ is famous in the USA, but it’s that, a legend. Most people in Germany have never heard of the Christmas Pickle!
In some parts of Germany, mainly the south east of the country, children write to the ‘das Christkind/Christkindl’ asking for presents. The letters to the Christkind are decorated with sugar glued to the envelope to make them sparkly and attractive to look at. Children leave the letters on the windowsill at the beginning of or during Advent. ‘das Christkind’ translates as ‘The Christ Child’ in English but Germans don’t think of the Christkind as the baby Jesus! The Christkind is often described as a young girl with ‘Christ like’ qualities. In Nürnberg a young girl is chosen every year to participate in a parade as the Christkind. She wears a long white and gold dress, has long blond curly hair and wears a gold crown and sometimes wings like an angel. This is similar to St Lucia is Sweden. (And it can seem a bit confusing calling the ‘Christ Child’, Jesus, a girl!)
The Nürnberg Christkind officially opens the Christmas market on the Friday before Advent starts. And before Christmas she has over 150 ‘official duties’ including visiting hospitals, old people’s homes and children’s nurseries! She also has to give TV interviews and visit other cities. Santa Claus or Father Christmas (der Weihnachtsmann) brings the main Christmas presents on December 24th. You might also write a letter to Weihnachtsmann in other parts of Germany. Some people say that Santa/Father Christmas (Weihnachtsmann) brings the presents and some say it is Christkind!
As well as hoping for presents from Christkind or der Weihnachtsmann, children also hope that ‘der Nikolaus’ will bring you some small gifts, such as sweets and chocolate on the 6th December (St Nicholas’s Day). He comes in the night between the 5th and the 6th and puts the presents into the shoes of the children, who usually place them by their doors on the previous evening. In some regions of Germany, there is a character called “Knecht Ruprecht” or “Krampus” who accompanies Nikolaus (St. Nicholas) on the 6th of December. He is big horned monster clothed in rags and carries chains. He is mean to punish the children who have been bad! He is usually the one who scares the little children. In other parts of Germany, St. Nicholas is followed by a small person called “Schwarzer Peter” (Black Peter) who carries a small whip. Black Peter also accompanies St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas in Holland. In north west Germany Santa is joined by Belsnickel a man dressed all in fur. Although ‘der Nikolaus’ visits in December, he’s not officially part of Christmas!
At small work places and school parties, secret presents are often exchanged. A door is opened just wide enough for small presents to be thrown into the room. The presents are then passed around among the people until each person has the correct present! It is thought to be bad luck to find out who sent each present. Another tradition is the Sternsinger (or star singers) who go from house to house, sing a song and collect money for charity (this is a predominantly Catholic tradition). They are four children, three who dress up like the Wise men and one carries a star on a stick as a symbol for the Star of Bethlehem. When they’re finished singing, they write a signature with chalk over the door of the house. The sign is written in a special way, so 2016 would be: 20*C*M*B*16. It is considered to be bad luck to wash the sign away – it has to fade by itself. It has usually faded by the 6th of January (Epiphany). The Sternsingers visit houses between December 27th and January 6th.
Carp or Goose are often served for the main Christmas meal. Stollen is a popular fruited yeast bread that is eaten at Christmas. Here is a recipe for Stollen. Over the in Germany and Austria, the famous Ski Jumping ‘Four Hills Tournament’ (‘Vierschanzentournee’) is held. It starts in Germany with Oberstdorf (Germany) on the 29th or 30th December and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany) on New Years Day and continues in Austria with Innsbruck (Austria) on 3rd or 4th of January and Bischofshofen (Austria) on the 6th January. I’m a big Ski Jumping fan, so I watch it!
Christmas Eve is the time when presents are exchanged. The gifts are sometimes brought by Santa Claus (called ‘Julenissen’ in Norway). Presents are also brought by the small gnomes called ‘Nisse’. There are also hobgoblins (Nisse) decorations. Children pick up the presents from under the Christmas Tree and read the cards on the presents out loud. As in Finland, a sheaf of wheat is often left out for the birds to eat over Christmas. Also a type of rice porridge is sometimes left for the ‘Nisse’ who is believed to guard the farm animals.
In some parts of Norway, children like to go carol singing. Often children will dress up as characters from the Christmas Story, such as the Shepherds and Wise Men, and go singing from house to house in their local neighborhood. Sometimes they carry with paper stars on them. Another tradition in parts of Norway is that families light a candle every night from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day. Christmas wasn’t celebrated in Norway until about 1000 or 1100, when Christianity first came to the area. Before this people celebrated jul or jòl in the middle of winter. It was a celebration of the harvest gone and a way of looking forward to the spring. Lots of beer (juleol) was brewed and drunk in honour of the old pagan scandinavian gods.
Maybe the most famous custom about Christmas in Norway is the big Christmas Tree that Norway gives to the UKevery year. The tree is given as a present to say ‘thank you’ for the help that the people of the UK gave to Norway during World War II. The tree stands in Trafalgar Square in the middle of London and often hundreds of people come to watch when the lights are turned on. A traditional Norwegian Christmas Tree decoration are small paper baskets called ‘Julekurver’ which made in the shape of a heart. It’s said that the writer Hans Christian Andersen might have invented them in the 1860s! Instructions on how to make Julekurver are on this site: http://www.stavanger-web.com/baskets.php
In Norwegian Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘God Jul’ or ‘Gledelig Jul’. Many different types of cakes and biscuits are eaten over the Christmas period in Norway. One of the most popular is a special bread called ‘Julekake’ that has raisins, candied peel and cardamom in it. Here’s a recipe for Norwegian Hole Cake. Rice Porridge is eaten on Christmas Eve either as a meal at lunchtime (served with butter, sugar and cinnamon) or as a dessert to the main evening email (with whipped cream mixed in!). If you find an almond in your portion you’re traditionally given a pink or white marzipan pig.
The main meal is normally pork or mutton ribs served with ‘surkal’ (white or red cabbage, finely chopped and cooked with caraway seeds and vinegar) and potatoes. A very popular song at Christmas time in Norway is the Musevisa (The Mouse Song). The words were written in 1946 by Alf Prøysen. The tune is a traditional Norwegian folk tune. It tells the story of some mice getting ready for Christmas and the Mother and Father mice warning their children to stay away from mouse traps! It became popular very quickly and is now as popular as ever in Norway. In 2008 an extra verse was thought to have been discovered (that involved a cat!). However this was a hoax by a Norwegian photographer called Ivar Kalleberg. Most people thought this was quite fun and that Alf Prøysen would have liked the joke!
In Argentina the weather is warm at Christmas. Preparations for Christmas begin very early in December and even in November. Many people in Argentina are Catholic and they also celebrate Advent. House are beautifully decorated with lights and wreaths of green, gold, red and white flowers. Red and white garlands are hung on the doors of houses. Christmas Trees are also very popular and they are often decorated by 8th December (the feast of the Immaculate Conception – when Catholics celebrate when Mary was conceived). Some people like to put cotton balls on the Christmas Tree to represent snow! Any tree might be made into a Christmas Tree – not just the traditional fir tree!
The Nativity scene or ‘pesebre’ is also an important Christmas decoration in Argentina. The pesebre is put near to the Christmas tree. Christmas Cards aren’t common in Argentina and although some people give and receive presents, it’s normally only between close family and friends. The main Christmas celebrations take place on Christmas Eve. Many Catholics will go to a Mass in the late afternoon. The main meal Christmas is eaten during the evening of Christmas Eve, often about 10pm or 11pm. It might be served in the garden or be a barbecue! Some popular dishes include roasted turkey, roasted pork (in northern Argentina, some people will have goat), stuffed tomatoes, salads and Christmas bread and puddings like ‘Pan Dulce’ and Panetone.
At midnight there will be the sound of lots of fireworks! People also like to ‘toast’ the start of Christmas day. Some people like to go to midnight services, but other prefer to stay at home and let off fireworks and then open their presents under the tree. Another Christmas Eve night tradition are ‘globos’, paper decorations with a light inside that float into the sky (like Chinese Lanterns). The sky is filled with them on Christmas Eve after midnight. Some people stay awake all the night chatting and seeing friends and family and then spend most of Christmas Day sleeping. In Argentina the main language spoken is Spanish (called castellano by Argentines), so Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Feliz Navidad’. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages.
The Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates Christmas on January 6th. On this day it also celebrates the Epiphany(which means the revelation that Jesus was God’s son). Epiphany is now mainly the time Churches remember the Visit of the of Wise Men to Jesus; but some Churches, like the Armenian Apostolic Church, also celebrate the Baptism of Jesus (when he started his adult ministry) on Epiphany.
Some Armenians fast (don’t eat anything) in the week before Christmas. The Christmas Eve meal is called khetum. It often includes dishes such as rice, fish, nevik (green chard and chick peas) and yogurt/wheat soup called tanabur. Desserts includes dried fruits and nuts, including rojik (whole shelled walnuts threaded on a string and encased in grape jelly), bastukh (a paper-like dessert made of grape jelly, cornstarch and flour). This lighter menu is designed to ease the stomach off the week-long fast and prepare it for the rather more substantial Christmas Day dinner. Children take presents of fruits, nuts, and other candies to older relatives.
Santa Claus Gaghant Baba / Kaghand Papa traditionally comes on New Year’s Eve (December 31st) because Christmas Day itself is thought of as more of a religious holiday in Armenia.
In Armenian Happy/Merry Christmas is Shnorhavor Amanor yev Surb Tznund (which means ‘Congratulations for the Holy Birth’). At the beginning of December a big Christmas Tree (Tonatsar) is put up in Republic Square in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Favorite and traditional Holiday foods in Armenia include Anooshaboor (Armenian Christmas Pudding), Khozee bood (glazed ham) and dried fruits. Every house is ready with lots of sweets because anyone might knock on the door and come in for a party!
Christmas is often known as ‘Yule’ or ‘Jól’ in Iceland. This comes from the ancient winter solstice celebrations, that were taken over by the early Christians. Yule also include the New Year celebrations. There are lots of customs and traditions about Yule in Iceland. The Yule season consists of the following days: Þorláksmessa – St. Thorlakur’s Day – December 23rd
Iceland’s major Saint is ‘heilagur Þorlákur Þórhallsson’, or ‘St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson’, the Bishop of Skálholt. December 23rd, is the day on which he died. On St. Thorlakur’s Day, the main custom is eating of a simple meal of skata or skate. The Yule (or Christmas) tree is usually decorated on this day. This is also a big shopping day for last minute gifts, with stores remaining open until midnight.
Aðfangadagur – Christmas Eve / Yule Eve
Celebrations start at Iceland at 6.00pm on Yule Eve. This may have come from old Icelandic tradition, when a new day started at 6.00pm not midnight. Icelandic children open their presents after the evening meal on Aðfangadagur. This is when the Yule celebrations really start! (TV used to stop at about 5.00pm and restarted at 10.00pm! But now TV is on all through the christmas period.)
Jóladagur – Christmas Day / Yule Day
Jóladagur is usually celebrated with the extended family. The main Yule meal is ‘Hangikjöt’, a leg of roast lamb. Sometimes ‘Rjúpa’ (Rock Ptarmigan a sea bird) is also eaten. Another Yule meal speciality is ‘Laufabrauð’ or leaf bread. This is made of thin sheets of dough cut into delicate patterns and fried. Each family often has their own patterns for the Laufabrauð.
Annar Jóladagur – Boxing Day
This is another day for visiting friends and family and eating lots more! Public entertainment is considered inappropriate on Yule Eve and Yule Day, and it is on Boxing Day that dancing is again allowed in public!
Gamlárskvöld / Nýársdagur – New Year’s Eve / New Year’s Day
This is one of the most important nights of the year in Iceland and there are several magical traditions that are supposed to happen on it! Cows are meant to be able to talk, seals take on human form, the dead rise from their graves, and the Elves move house. Bonfires have been lit on Gamlárskvöld since the late 1700s. People also have big fireworks displays to bring in the New Year. This is called ‘sprengja út árið’ or ‘blowing out the year’.
Þrettándinn – Epiphany – January 6th
This is the last day of Yule, celebrated with bonfires and Elfin dances. Many of the magical traditions associated with New Year’s Eve are also supposed to happen at Þrettándinn.
Happy/Merry Christmas/Yule in Icelandic is ‘Gleðileg jól’. One other big Yule custom is the coming of the ‘Jólasveinarnir’ or Yuletide Lads. These are magical people who come from the mountains in Iceland and each day from December 12th to Yule Eve a different Jólasveinn (Yuletide lad) comes. Jólasveinar first came to Iceland in the 17th century as the sons of Grýla and Leppalúði, a couple of child-eating, bloodthirsty ogres!!!
Here are thirteen of the most common names of the Jólasveinar:
Stekkjarstaur – Gimpy
Giljagaur – Gully Imp
Stúfur – Itty Bitty
Þvörusleikir – Pot Scraper Licker
Pottasleikir – Pot Licker
Askasleikir – Bowl Licker
Hurðaskellir – Door Slammer
Skyrgámur – Skyr Gobbler (Skyr, an Icelandic yoghurt)
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Snatcher
Gluggagægir – Window Peeper
GáttaÞefur – Doorway Sniffer
Ketkrókur – Meat Hooker
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar
The Jólasveinar are thought of as playful imps or elves who like lots to eat and playing little tricks on people. They leave little presents for children in shoes placed on the windowsill. If children have been naughty, they might leave a potato or little message telling them to be good. They start going home on Christmas Day, with the last one leaving on Þrettándinn.
Presents might also be brought by Jólasveinn (Yule Man). It is traditional in Iceland that everybody has a new piece of clothing for Yule and also often a book. Children also traditionally receive a candle and sometimes a pack of cards. There are no native evergreen trees in Iceland, so the first Yule or Christmas Trees were Rowan (mountain ash). The first recorded Yule tree was in 1862. People then started to make Yule Trees from a central pole with branches attached to it and it was all painted green.
Nowadays, there are evergreen trees grown on Iceland and people have evergreen Yule trees. It is traditional to have a star or crown on top of the tree. The Icelandic Flag is also commonly used as a decoration. The tree is normally decorated on Þorláksmessa or early Christmas eve. A very large tree stands outside Reykjavík (the capital of Iceland) Cathedral and is a yearly present from the people of Oslo, Norway. In Iceland the traditional Christmas meal is roast lamb. Some people like to have it smoked to add flavour and traditionally it was smoked over sheep’s dung! This is still done in a few places today! Like in Finland, cemeteries are often lit up and decorated with Christmas lights over Christmas.
At Christmas time in Lithuania it is very cold, normally with snow and ice on the ground. Christmas Eve (Kucios) is a more important day than Christmas Day. Kucios is also the name of the big Christmas Eve meal which families have together during the evening of Christmas Eve. Kucios is also the last day of Advent, so it is important and special.
But before the meal can be eaten, lots of preparations have to take place. The whole house is cleaned, the bedding is changed and everyone washes and puts on clean clothes ready for the meal. Many Lithuanians used to go to the bathhouse to be cleaned before the meal. Some people thought being clean helped to protect them from evil or diseases during the coming year. During Christmas Eve, working men would put away their tools and clean the cattle pens and farmyard, etc.
Many people fast (don’t eat anything) during the day. The Kucios meal also shouldn’t contain any meat. Straw is a traditional decoration. Is it normally spread on the table top and then covered with a clean, white tablecloth. The table is then decorated with candles and small branches or twigs from a fir tree. The straw reminds people of the baby Jesus lying in a manger. A superstition says that if you pull a piece of straw from under the tablecloth and it’s long, you will have a long life; but if it’s short you will have a short life; and a thick straw means a rich and happy life!
Often an extra place is set – for a family member who can’t come to the meal or if a family member has died during the past year. Sometimes a candle is lit to remember family members who died. Some people believe that dead family members come and join the family round the table. People who are going to be alone on Christmas Eve are also invited to meal. At the center of the table is a plate of Christmas wafers – one wafer for each person at the meal. In some parts of Lithuania the wafers have the scene of the birth of Jesus on them. The meal starts when the first stars can be seen in the night sky. If it’s cloudy, the ‘head of the house’ decides when the meal will start! The wafers are offered to each person at the table and Christmas greetings are exchanged. Sometimes an apple is also cut into as many people at the meal and is shared. This remembers the apple eaten in the Garden of Eden.
The Kucios meal normally has 12 dishes – one for each of Jesus’s followers. None of the dishes contain meat (and some people also don’t have milk or eggs in them). Traditional and popular dishes include fish (often herring), kuciukai (small sweet pastries) normally soaked in poppy milk, kisielius (a drink made from cranberries), dried fruit soup, beet soup (often with mushroom filled dumplings in it), vegetable salad, mushrooms, boiled or baked potatoes, sauerkraut, a kind of wheat porridge with honey and bread. Normally water or homemade cider is drunk with the meal.
Sweet dishes are also often eaten including kissel (a fruit soup/jelly thickened with potato flour) and stewed fruit compote. After the meal (or possibly between the main and sweet courses) there might be a visit from ‘The Old Man of Christmas’ (Santa Claus) with presents! People will also exchange presents between themselves. When the presents have been exchanged, children often go to bed and the adults might go out to Midnight Mass (Berneliu mišios – which means Shepherds’s Mass). Popular Christmas Tree decorations in Lithuania are ones made from white paper straws. They are often in the shapes of stars, snowflakes and other geometric shapes. You can find out more about the straw decorations and see some photos on them on this site.
Nativity Cribs are also popular in Lithuania with very large scenes often being put outside churches. The Christmas season lasts until the 6th of January – Epiphany.
In Lithuanian Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Linksmu Kaledu’.
Around Christmas time in Sweden, one of the biggest celebrations is St. Lucia’s Day (or St. Lucy’s Day) on December 13th. The celebration comes from stories that were told by Monks who first brought Christianity to Sweden. St Lucia was a young Christian girl who was martyred, killed for her faith, in 304. The most common story told about St Lucia is that she would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head so she had both her hands free to carry things. Lucy means ‘light’ so this is a very appropriate name. December 13th was also the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, in the old ‘Julian’ Calendar and a pagan festival of lights in Sweden was turned into St. Lucia’s Day.
St. Lucia’s Day is now celebrated by a girl dressing in a white dress with a red sash round her waist and a crown of candles on her head. Small children use electric candles but from about 12 years old, real candles are used!
The crown is made of Lingonberry branches which are evergreen and symbolise new life in winter. Schools normally have their own St. Lucia’s and some town and villages also choose a girl to play St. Lucia in a procession where carols are sung.
A national Lucia is also chosen. Lucias also visit hospitals and old people’s homes singing a song about St Lucia and handing out ‘Pepparkakor’, ginger snap biscuits. Small children sometimes like dressing up as Lucia (with the help of their parents!). Also boys might dress up as ‘Stjärngossar’ (star boys) and girls might be ‘tärnor’ (like Lucia but without the candles). A popular food eaten at St. Lucia’s day are ‘Lussekatts’, St Lucia’s day buns flavored with saffron and dotted with raisins which are eaten for breakfast.
St Lucia’s Day first became widely celebrated in Sweden in the late 1700s. St Lucia’s Day is also celebrated in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Bosnia, and Croatia. In Denmark it is more a of a children’s day and in some part of Italy, children are told that St Lucy brings them presents. They leave out a sandwich for her and the donkey that helps carry the gifts! Christmas Eve is also very important in Sweden. This is when the main meal (well really a feast!) is eaten. This is often a ‘julbord’ which is a buffet, eaten at lunchtime. Cold fish is important on the julbord. There is often herring (served in many different ways), gravlax (salmon which has been cured in sugar, salt and dill) and smoked salmon.
Other dishes on the julbord might include cold meats including turkey, roast beef and ‘julskinka’ (a Christmas ham); cheeses, liver pate, salads, pickles and different types of bread and butter (or mayonnaise). There will also be warm savoury foods including meatballs, ‘prinskorv’ (sausages), ‘kåldolmar’ (meat stuffed cabbage rolls), jellied pigs’ feet, lutfisk (a dried cod served with a thick white sauce) and ‘revbenspjäll’ (oven-roasted pork ribs). Vegetables such as potatoes and red cabbage will also be served. Another potato dish is ‘Janssons Frestelse’ (matchstick potatoes layered with cream, onion and anchovies that is baked to a golden brown). There’s also ‘dopp i grytan’ which is bread that is dipped in the broth and juices that are left over after boiling the ham.
The desert of the julbord might be a selection of sweet pastries, some more pepparkakor biscuits and some home made sweets! Wow, I think I like the sound of a Jolbord! To wash all that food down you can have some ‘glogg’ which is sweet mulled wine and some coffee to finish off the meal! Another popular food at Christmas in Sweden is ‘risgrynsgröt’ (rice porridge that’s eaten with ‘hallonsylt’ [raspberry jam] or sprinkled with some cinnamon). It’s often eaten during the evening after people have exchanged their presents. If there is any risgrynsgröt left over, when it’s cold it can be mixed with whipped cream and eaten with a warm fruit sauce. This is called ‘Ris a la malta’ and sounds rather yummy!
Presents are normally exchanged on Christmas Eve. People often go to Church early on Christmas morning. Another popular and important that many Swedes do on Christmas Eve afternoon is to watch Donald Duck! Every year, since 1959, at 3.00pm on Christmas Eve, the TV station TV1 shows the Disney special “From All of Us to All of You” or in Swedish it’s “Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul” meaning “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas.” About 40 to 50% of the Swedish population stop to watch it!
Families sometimes have goats made of straw in the house to guard the Christmas Tree! Straw is used as a decoration in homes, to remind them that Jesus was born in a manger. Christmas Tree decorations that are made of straw are also very popular. In the city of Gävle, a huge straw goat is built every year for the start of Advent. It’s 13m/43ft tall and takes two days to put up! It has a large metal structure on the inside and is covered with straw. The tradition started in 1966. The first Gävle Yule Goat was burnt down on New Year’s Eve 1966 and ever since it’s been the target for vandals. In its 50 year history it’s only survived throughout the Christmas and New Year period about 12 times! In 2016, its 50th year, it was burnt down in less then two days!
In Sweden, presents might be brought by Santa called ‘Jultomten’ or by gnomes/elves called ‘Nissar’ or ‘Tomte’. They’re called Nisse’ in Norway. The end of Christmas in Sweden is on January 13th (twenty days after Christmas) which is called ‘Tjugondag Knut’ (Twentieth Day Knut) or ‘Tjugondag jul’ (Twentieth Day Yule) and is named after a Danish prince called Canute Lavard. On Tjugondag Knut it’s traditional that the christmas Tree is taken down and and left over cookies and sweets are eaten!
In Swedish Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘God Jul’.
20. New Zealand
In New Zealand, like its neighbor Australia, Christmas comes in the middle of the summer holidays. Lots of people like to spend time of the beach, camping or at their Baches (holiday homes) for Christmas. Many towns have a Santa parade with decorated floats, bands and marching girls. This can be any time from mid November onwards and is really a commercial event but much enjoyed by all. As it’s warm, Santa is often seen wearing ‘jandals’ (New Zealand sandals) and sometimes he swaps his red top for a New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ rugby shirt! Children in New Zealand leave out carrots for Santa reindeer and Santa might be left a beer and some pineapple chunks! In the main cities like Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton, there are big Christmas light shows and displays. There are big carol services throughout the country, even in small town, villages and rural areas.
New Zealand has some special carols of it’s own. These include ‘Te Haranui’, Christmas in New Zealand and A Kiwiana Christmas! These are sung at most carol services around the country. Many people have a Christmas Tree in their homes and decorate it like people in the USA or UK. Kiwis also have their own special Christmas Tree, the Pohutukawa. It can grow to be a very large tree and has bright red flowers which are popular decorations and also feature on Christmas cards. It’s been associated with Christmas since the mid 1800s. The Pohutukawa is also important in Maori culture.
Many New Zealanders have a barbecue for Christmas lunch and this is becoming more popular. The food cooked on the barbecue is often ham slices or even venison or some other kind of exotic meat. Shrimps and other fish are also barbecued. White bait fritters are also popular. It’s common to have Christmas Crackers on the Christmas dinner table. Desserts are also very popular! Many still have a hot fruit pudding with custard and ice cream but cold desserts are popular. These include pavlova and whipped cream, meringues, cold fruit salad, jelly and ice cream. Drinks will include a range of soft drinks. Those who like it often over do the alcoholic drinks too. Here’s a recipe for pavlova.
My relations from New Zealand have an English type Christmas meal in the middle of June (New Zealand’s mid winter)! This meal will often be hot food such as roast chicken, roast lamb, cold ham, hot roast vegetables such as potatoes, pumpkin, sweet potato, and other root vegetables and also greens such as peas. Coleslaw is increasing in popularity. All with gravy! But it seems my relations are unusual in doing this! They open their presents on Christmas day once the whole family is all together. This is usually before the Christmas lunch. One popular present for Christmas in New Zealand are ‘jandals’. These are flip-flops/thing sandals – the name ‘jandals’ comes from combining the two words ‘Japanese Sandals’. They’ve been popular in New Zealand since the late 1950s.
In the Maori language Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Meri Kirihimete’.