GTPulse: Christmas Around the World
By this time tomorrow, the presents around your tree will probably be unwrapped. You may be drinking your fourth cup of coffee, watching the snow fall outside the window. Or, you could be watching your cat fight with your dog over the collection of boxes and bags strewn about the house.
If you’re lucky, you might find yourself on the way to a Christmas nap, scrolling through your phone as your eyelids become heavy.
No matter what you’re doing right now, I think we can agree—the afterglow of Christmas is undoubtedly bittersweet.
When you’re a kid, the slow march to Christmas begins right after Halloween, and the anticipation of the biggest day of the year can result in downright mania.
But, as you get older, the march starts to feel more like a marathon of to-do lists, shopping, baking, church pageants, Christmas sweaters and endless wrapping. Oh God, the wrapping.
But, no matter how old you are, it’s perfectly natural to feel a twinge of wistfulness as the hours and days following the much anticipated celebration dissipate.
So, if you’re finding yourself in the post holiday glow, I suggest a deep dive into Christmas celebrations around the world. Not only will you learn something that will make you look like a Yuletide aficionado, you’ll also get to hold on to those festive feelings for just a while longer.
With approximately 90% of Italians identifying as Roman Catholic and an 64,000 churches spread throughout the country, Christmas in Italy is more like a season than a day. The traditions of the seasons are some of my favorite. First of all, the celebrations begin in early December and culminate on January 6th with the day of Epiphany (known as Three Kings’ Day in the United States), a massive Christian feast that celebrates the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus. Children in Italy do celebrate the relatively modern arrival of Babbo Natale (the Italian version of Santa Claus) but his Christmas Eve arrival pales in comparison of the arrival of La Befana, a good witch who was invited to join the three wise men on their journey to greet the Christ child. But Befana, who reportedly kept a meticulously clean house, missed her opportunity to join the men on their journey because she was busy cleaning. Saddened by her missed opportunity, Befana travels on her broom on Epiphany Eve (January 5th) leaving presents for Italian children. An Italian Christmas Eve dinner is on the lighter side, with a lot of seafood and no meat. Italian-Americans often include swordfish, tuna, salmon, octopus, smelt, calamari, spaghetti with clam sauce and the famous salted cod, called baccalà.
*Say Merry Christmas in Italian— Buon Natale
Like America, children in Denmark help decorate family trees and wreaths in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but in this Nordic country, Christmas celebrations formally begin on December 23rd with a meal that includes a traditional pudding made of rice and cinnamon called grod. Santa Claus, known in Denmark as Julemanden or “the Yule Man” arrives with his reindeer and gets help from the julenisser (Danish elves) that live in attics and barns and play pranks on people during Christmastime. On Christmas Eve, families may leave some rice puddling for the elves so they are not victims of the pranks, and, on Christmas morning, children wake up to find that the pudding was consumed while they slept. Danish meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are often elaborate and usually include duck or goose, and a traditional dessert made of rice pudding, cream and chopped almonds. Once whole almond is included in the rice pudding and whoever finds the almond wins a marzipan treat.
*Say Merry Christmas in Danish—Glaedelig Jul!
Christmas Eve takes marks the big event for Norwegians. Many attend church services and the churches ring their Christmas Bells at 5 p.m. each year. Pork ribs and a cod dish called lutefisk are prepared at home and desserts include risengrynsgrot (gingerbread) and glogg (mulled wine). Norwegian children welcome the Christmas elf Sinterklass, a hybrid of the traditional elf called Nisse and the modern-day Santa Claus. Norwegians also pay homage to their Viking heritage with the tradition of Julebukk, or, “Yule Goat,” which represents Thor’s magical goats that would lead him through the night sky. Today, the goat is symbolized by a goat figurine that is made of straw in early December and is often used as a Christmas ornament.
*Say Merry Christmas in Norwegian— Gledelig Jul or God Jul.
Swedish celebrations begin each year on December 13th with Saint Lucia day. Lucia was a third century martyr who brought food to Christians who were in hiding. In Sweden, the eldest girl in the family portrays Lucia by wearing a white robe and a crown of candles. Christmas trees are decorated a few days before Christmas with poinsettias, topics and amaryllis. Christmas Eve, or Julafton, is celebrated by attending church services and eating a traditional buffet style dinner(smörgåsbord) that includes ham or fish and a selection of desserts. After dinner, a family member will dress up as Tomte, the Christmas gnome who lives in the forest. Tomte hands out gifts to the family.
*Say Merry Christmas in Swedish— God Jul.
Poland includes some incredibly unique Christmas traditions. Christmas Eve begins with fasting that in the morning and ends as the start appears with the Kolacja Wigilia, or Christmas Eve supper. A traditional Wigilia includes fish, usually carp, and a variety of other traditional Polish dishes and desserts. Just before dinner, family members share a wafer and wish each other well for the coming year. An empty chair can always be found at the table on Christmas Eve and, although the origins of this tradition have been debated, the most popular explanation is rooted in the New Testament—a nod to the Holy Family traveling to Nazareth who were forced to seek shelter when Mary went into labor. Catholic Poles believe they must always be ready to accept an unexpected guest and never turn away anyone in need while non-religious Poles see this as traditional hospitality, as they would gladly extend an invitation to any stranger who turns up on Christmas Eve. The Polish Santa Clause is called Gwiazdor, an older man dressed like a bishop who carries presents for the good children, but also has a birch switch to spank the naughty children.
*Say Merry Christmas is Polish— Wesołych Świąt
Christmas in Germany begin on Sankt Nikolaus Tag or “Saint Nicholas Day,” celebrated annually on December 5th as German children clean and polish their boots leaving them outside the door before they go to sleep. St. Nicholas fills the boots with small gifts, nuts and candy. German children have to watch out for Krampus, a devil sidekick who travels with St. Nicholas to teach naughty children a lesson. Men in Southern Bavaria dress in Krampus costumes on St. Nicholas night, patrolling the streets and are sometimes even invited inside by frustrated parents to scare misbehaving children.
In parts of Germany, like in Italy, the holiday extends until January 6th for Epiphany Day, or, Das Dreikönigsfest (‘three kings festival’). The German Epiphany celebration includes children who dress as the Magi and go from house to house singing songs and asking for donations for children’s causes.
*Say Merry Christmas in German— Frohe Weihnachten
The country of Ireland effectively shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s in order to celebrate the holiday season, but Christmas begins earlier than Christmas Eve at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Traditionally, December 8th marked the belief in the sinless life and immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, however, the holiday has since morphed into an Irish Black Friday of sorts, as Irish citizens who resided in rural and farm areas would traditionally make their way into town to shop for Christmas. It is an old Irish custom still widely practiced today to place a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. The family places a large candle in a front window of the home to welcome Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, and the youngest child in the family lights the candle. For those who don’t practice religion, the gesture serves as a symbol to welcome strangers and remember those who are far away from home. A permanent candle has been placed in the window of Saras an Uachtarin, thanks to President Mary Robinson to remember the Irish immigrants who left Ireland—and to serve as reminder that they are always welcome home.
Churches in Ireland are usually packed for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, although in some more rural towns, Midnight Mass takes place at 8 p.m. Midnight Mass has become a social gathering of sorts, as family, friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate Christmas. A traditional Irish Christmas dinner is not complete without spiced beef. The dish, particularly famous in Cork, is cooked with sugar, spices and berries and dates back centuries to a time when it was the only way to preserve meat. Roast turkey and stuffing with crispy goose fat potatoes and clove studded baked ham are among the other traditional courses and whiskey cakes and puddings are among the favorite desserts.
*Say Merry Christmas in Gaelic— Nollaig Shona Dhuit
Christmas has only been widely celebrated in Japan for the last few decades, and it’s not seen as a religious holiday, but several of the Japanese Christmas customs, like giving presents and sending Christmas cards, actually came from the United States. A clever marketing campaign from Kentucky Fried Chicken convinced locals in Japan that fried chicken is actually the traditional American Christmas feast. The campaign was so successful that reservations are required for a KFC Christmas. Colonel Sanders statues outside KFC restaurants don Santa gear and the Christmas Family Buckets are served in special holiday packaging.
*Say Merry Christmas in Japanese—Merii Kurisumasu
Christmas down under happens in the middle of the Australian summer seasons, as the seasons in Australia are opposite of those in America. The most popular Christmas tradition is called Carols by Candlelight where people come together at night to light candles and sing Christmas carols outdoors. Most of the Christmas celebrations in Australia happen outside, as Australians spend time swimming, surging and grilling meals outdoors on the barbecue. Homes are decorated with ferns and palm leaves along with colorful summer blooms called Christmas bellflowers. Boxing Day, widely celebrated in the United Kingdom and Canada, is also celebrated on December 26th in Australia. Traditionally a day off for servants, the celebrations have evolved into an opportunity to leaves tips for grocers, mail carriers, and others in the service industry to thanks them for their service over the past year.
There are literally hundreds of Christmas traditions around the world. Traditions that range from roller skating to mass in Venezuela to the Caga tió—a Christmas log in Catalonia that poops candy nougats. If you find yourself with a little time to spare in the afterglow of Christmas, a little Google search can go a long way.