The traditional western Christmas includes decorated Christmas trees, the giving of presents, and feasts of turkey, mince pies and Christmas cake. However, Christmas celebrations around the world vary, depending on the culture, history and geographical location of the country.
Probably one of the most dramatic Christmas celebrations occurs amongst the tribes of New Guinea, who were converted to Christianity by a Canadian missionary and his wife, thus ending constant inter-tribal wars. Today, it is the custom to exchange an infant son between neighbouring tribes. The baby, known as the Peace Child, is well cared for by the adoptive clan, as his death would bring about the renewal of war and the end to all peace treaties.
In Italy, children do not hang up their stockings for Santa or Father Christmas. It is believed that it is Jesus Christ who visits every house and brings gifts for everyone. The Christmas feast takes place on either Christmas Eve or on Christmas night, with turkey the main part of the meal. Nativity scenes, known as Presepe, are set up in most homes, and the packing away of the Presepe on 7 January signifies the end of the celebrations. In Costa Rica, Nativity scenes are made life-sized, often filling entire rooms, to ensure that Christ will be comfortable!
In France, Christmas is called ‘Noël’. Traditionally, Christians attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, followed by a meal called ‘le reveillon’, which means the first call of the day or the awakening, symbolising the spiritual awakening that Jesus is believed to have brought about. Cafes and restaurants stay open all night, serving dishes such as baked ham, roast fowl, sausages, and oysters. Christmas cakes are usually decorated with sugar figures of the Holy Child. French children leave their shoes outside the door or in the hearth, hoping that ‘Père Noël’ will fill their shoes with gifts (naughty children are threatened with a spanking by his partner, La Pere). In northern France, it is traditional to give gifts to children on 6 December, St Nicholas’ Day, instead of Christmas Day. In the Netherlands and Belgium, children also put their shoes outside, but filled with hay, to feed the white horse on which Santa or ‘Sinterklaas’ rides. They do this on the night before St Nicholas’ Day.
In Switzerland and Germany, Santa is depicted wearing bishop’s robes instead of the more familiar red suit and boots. Children put out their Christmas ‘wish list’ on the windowsill along with some sugar, hoping that the sweetness will attract the ‘Weinachtmann’ to read their list.
In southern Germany, Santa is said to visit every house, accompanied by twelve fierce-looking companions, the ‘Buttenmandln’, who wear straw cloaks and masks like animals’ heads, carry loudly clanging bells, and supposedly punish naughty children. More scary figures feature in traditional festive processions that parade through Swiss villages. First comes the ‘watchman’ blowing a bugle, followed by two ‘demons’ who clear the way with whips. After them comes a horned, black figure, and a man disguised as a goat, who bleats noisily outside every house. Then follows Santa’s servant with a sack into which he threatens to put badly behaved children. Lastly, Santa Claus himself arrives to banish the noisy, evil creatures and distribute presents.
In Hungary, Santa Claus visits on 6 December. Again children put their shoes outside the door, to find them filled with sweets and small toys the next morning. For frequently misbehaved children, a birch branch is placed next to the sweets as a symbolic warning about possible spankings! On 24 December, parents get their children to visit childless relatives or go to the movies, to give them time to set up the tree and presents that Jesus is said to bring. That night, a festive dinner of fresh fish with rice or potatoes, followed by homemade pastries is prepared, and afterwards, the tree is revealed to the children and the gifts under the tree are shared out. The following day the children are allowed to eat the edible decorations on the tree.
Children in Transylvania, a region of Rumania reputed to be the homeland of Count Dracula, have less of a fun Christmas as far as feasting is concerned. The traditional festive dish is stuffed cabbage, which is not only served on Christmas Eve, but also for Christmas lunch. The custom probably arose to give busy mothers time to do other things, by preparing this rather dubious festive treat a few days in advance. Rather more appetising is the mouth-watering ‘turta’, a special cake prepared for Christmas Eve, composed of thin layers of rolled sweet bread, symbolic of the swaddling wrappings of the Christ Child.
In Russia, under Communist rule, it was not acceptable to openly celebrate Christmas, and festivities were adapted so that “Father Frost” brought presents for children on New Year’s Eve. Now, festivities take place on either 25 December or 7 January. Special dishes include meat dumplings pies and cakes.
In Finland, it is said that Santa Claus lives in the northern part of the country, north of the Arctic Circle, so that they get their presents first. Children receive their presents on Christmas Eve, usually handed out by a family member dressed up as Father Christmas. The festive meal is eaten in the evening, consisting of various casseroles containing macaroni, carrot, rutabaga (Swedish turnip) and potato, with cooked ham and turkey. The dead are also remembered, and families visit cemeteries to place candles on the graves of loved ones.
In Egypt, a Muslim country, Christmas is not a public celebration, except amongst the Christian community of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which celebrates Christmas on 7 December. Advent is observed for forty days, and during this period people are expected to fast to prepare themselves for the festive season, eating no meat, poultry or dairy products. Midnight prayers are held at church on the 6th, which ends with the ringing of the church bells. After prayers, families celebrate with a feast known as the ‘fata’, which consists of rice, bread, soup, boiled meat and garlic. On Christmas Day, people visit friends and relatives, taking with them a type of shortbread called ‘kaik’, which is eaten with a drink known as ‘shortbat’.
In South America, countries like Brazil and Nicaragua tend to celebrate Christmas with a mixture of British and US traditions, and customs from the lands of the original settlers, Portugal and Spain respectively. Father Christmas is called Papai Noel, and a special Christmas meal for those who can afford it consists of chicken, turkey, pork and ham, rice, salad, fresh and dried fruit, with beer. Poorer people have chicken and rice. Because of the heat, picnics and outside meals are common.
No matter where in the world Christians are living, there are always special festivities to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. Good food shared with family and friends, the giving of gifts, decorated trees and some pagan elements too are combined to create an international tribute that unites Christians across the world. Merry Christmas…