Christmas Around the World

Did you ever wonder whether Christmas is mainly a Western tradition, or if it is celebrated in other countries that are not Christian as we think of it? Christmas is actually celebrated in many unique ways in every country around the world, some predominantly Christian in culture, and other nations where Christians are a tiny minority in a culture dominated by secularism or other religions. Here are a few examples.



In France, a Nativity crib is often used to help decorate the house. During December some towns and cities, such as Marseilles, have fairs that sell Nativity figures. As well as having the normal Nativity figures in them, French scenes also have figures such as a butcher, a baker, a policeman and a priest. In French Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Joyeux Noël’. Yule logs made out of cherry wood are often burned in French homes. The log is carried into the home on Christmas Eve and is sprinkled with red wine to make the log smell nice when it is burning. There is a custom that the log and candles are left burning all night with some food and drinks left out in case Mary and the baby Jesus come past. The main Christmas meal, called réveillon, is eaten on Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning after people have returned from the midnight Church Service. Dishes might include roast turkey with chestnuts or roast goose, oysters, foie gras, lobster, venison and cheeses. For dessert, a chocolate sponge cake log called a bûche de Noël is normally eaten.



In the days of the Soviet Union, Christmas was not celebrated very much. New Year was the important time. Now Christmas is normally celebrated on January 7th (only a few Catholics might celebrate it on the December 25th). The official Christmas and New Year holidays in Russia last from December 31st to January 10th. Some people fast on Christmas Eve, until the first star has appeared in the sky. People then eat ‘sochivo’ or ‘kutia,’ a porridge made from wheat or rice served with honey, poppy seeds and fruit. ‘Vzvar’ (meaning ‘boil-up’) is often served at the end of the meal. It’s a sweet drink made from dried fruit and honey boiled in water. Vzvar is traditionally at the birth of a child, so at Christmas it symbolizes the birth of the baby Jesus. Following the meal, prayers might be said and people then go to the midnight Church services.



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. 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 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 who are Christians in China go to special services. Going to Midnight Mass services has become very popular.



Christmas is not widely celebrated in Japan as not many people there are Christians. In Japan, Christmas is known as more of a time to spread happiness rather than a religious celebration. Christmas Eve is often celebrated more than Christmas Day. Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, so schools and businesses are normally open on December 25th. Fried chicken is often eaten on Christmas day. It is the busiest time of year for restaurants such as KFC, and people can place orders at their local fast food restaurant in advance! The traditional Japanese Christmas food is Christmas cake; however, it’s not a rich fruit cake but is usually a sponge cake decorated with strawberries and whipped cream.



On Christmas Eve, children, especially boys, often go out singing ‘kalanda’ (carols) in the streets. They play drums and triangles as they sing. Sometimes they will also carry model boats decorated with nuts which are painted gold. Christmas trees are becoming more popular in Greece, but they aren’t traditional. Instead most houses will have a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim. A sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross hangs from the wire. Some water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day someone, usually the mother of the family, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. Carrying a boat is a very old custom in the Greek Islands. If the children sing well, they might be given money, nuts, sweets and dried figs to eat. Going to a Midnight Mass Service is very important for most Greeks. After the service people can go home and end their Advent fast.



Christmas Eve is the time when gifts are exchanged. The gifts are sometimes brought by Santa Claus (called ‘Julenissen’ in Norway). Presents are also brought by the small gnomes called ‘Nisse’. 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 are believed to guard the farm animals. 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.


South Africa

Because South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas comes in the summer. So there’s lots of sun and beautiful flowers in full bloom. The schools are closed for the Christmas holidays and some people like to go camping. Carols by Candlelight services are popular on Christmas Eve. Many people go to a Christmas morning Church Service. The Christmas meal is either turkey (or duck), roast beef, mince pies or suckling pig with yellow rice, raisins and vegetables, followed by Christmas Pudding. People also like to make Christmas Crackers! The meal is often eaten outside in the summer sun! If it’s really hot, they might even have a barbecue or ‘braai’.



In Australia, Christmas comes in 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. Australians hang wreaths on their front doors and sometimes go out Christmas carol singing on Christmas Eve. 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. Australians also decorate their houses with bunches of ‘Christmas Bush’, a native Australian tree with small green leaves and cream colored flowers.



In Mexico, Christmas is celebrated from the December 12th to January 6th. From December 16th to Christmas Eve, children often perform the ‘Posada’ processions. Posada is Spanish for Inn or Lodging. The Posadas celebrate the part of the Christmas story where Joseph and Mary looked for somewhere to stay. The outside of houses are decorated with evergreens, moss and paper lanterns. Children are given candles and a board, with painted clay figures of Mary riding on a donkey and Joseph, to walk around the streets with. 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.



Many Brazilian Christmas traditions come from Portugal as Brazil was originally Portuguese territory. Christmas plays called Los Pastores (The Shepherds), like the plays in Mexico, are very 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 Rooster). After the Missa do Galo there are often big firework displays and in big towns and cities there are big Christmas tree shaped displays of electric lights. The most popular Christmas song in Brazil is ‘Noite Feliz’ (Silent Night).

We need to be thankful that we have religious freedom and liberty of expression to be able to celebrate the birth of our Savior openly and joyfully without persecution or fear. Let us pray for those Christians in countries where tyranny and terrorism are rampant, and continue to share the love of Jesus in this Christmas season.

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Bob Woods has worked as an engineer at AECOM Technical Services and WGI, and is a published Christian author. He can be reached at [email protected].

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