By Jan Pierce, M.Ed.
Christmas is a holiday celebrated from sea to shining sea, and while there are commonalities surrounding the festivities no matter where you go, the unique customs of each locale make Christmas different from place to place. In every culture, the religious significance of the holiday involves celebrating the birth of Jesus, while the secular festivities include a gift-giving character who brings presents and treats to good children. From there, the decorations, music and specialty foods are as varied as you can imagine! Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting ways Christmas is celebrated all around the world.
India Christmas is celebrated on December 25 with church services for believers; a midnight service is very popular. People of all faiths decorate their homes and gardens with star-shaped paper lanterns, and some set up nativity scenes. Father Christmas is the one who brings presents on a horse and cart. Special Christmas cakes and sweets such as newries and kulkuls are baked, and open houses abound.
Sweden St. Lucia’s day is celebrated on December 13. St. Lucia was a Christian martyr from 304 AD, known for sneaking food to persecuted Christians in the catacombs of Rome. Today, young girls don white dresses with a red sash and wear a crown of lights to help Lucia find her way. Special St. Lucia Day buns, called lussekatts, are served. Then on Christmas Eve, a huge buffet, or julbord, is eaten in courses. It begins with cold fish dishes and moves to cold meats, warm meat dishes and desserts. Glogg, a sweet mulled wine, and coffee are favorite drinks. Homes are decorated with straw to remind everyone that Jesus was born in a manger, and gifts are brought by small gnomes called jultomten.
Madagascar This island off the east coast of Africa is very warm at Christmastime. Still, decorations include holly and “snow,” though neither exist there. Santa is known as Dadabe Noely and only small gifts are exchanged. On Christmas Day, people everywhere, even strangers, greet one another with “Arahaba tratry ny Noely,” which means Merry Christmas. Then, they gather with their families to eat dinners of chicken or pork with rice, a special cake and lychee, a local fruit.
Hong Kong Christians in Hong Kong celebrate Christmas with homemade cards bearing original artwork of the Holy Family in Chinese settings. Poinsettias and nativity scenes are used for decoration, the Chinese alphabet adorns streamers and paper chains hang everywhere. Santa Claus is known as Lan Khong or Dun Che Lao Ren.
Zimbabwe Christmas Day, known as Kisimusi, begins with a church service, then people visit friends and family, eat and exchange gifts all day long. A favorite meal is chicken with rice, which is a special treat. Often, large speakers are put into the streets and music is played loudly. People wear their best clothes and homes are decorated with ivy draped around the rooms. Christmas cards may have wild animals on them and small gifts are given to children on Christmas morning.
New Zealand Christmas also falls in the hot summer months in New Zealand. Families often celebrate their summer holidays by camping or staying at the beach. There are parades and Christmas trees, and the popular Christmas meal includes barbecued meats or seafood with hot fruit pudding, meringues or pavlova for dessert. Presents are opened on Christmas Day before the special lunch.
Ethiopia Christmas, called Ganna, is celebrated by the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia and is held on January 7. People fast on January 6, then on the morning of the seventh, they don a white toga-like garment called a shamma. The shamma is worn to a special service held in the circle-shaped church where candles are held in a procession and communion is taken. At the time of Ganna, men and boys play a game similar to hockey, also known as ganna. Special foods eaten at this time of year include a stew of meat and vegetables, called wat, and flatbread known as injera. Children usually receive gifts of clothing.
Wales In this part of the world, singing carols is the highlight of the festivities. Carolers sing at dawn Christmas morning and are invited in for snacks. There is a prize for the best new Christmas carol written that year and it is added to the list of carols sung in future Christmas celebrations. Taffy-making is also a favorite family activity.
Russia Christmas is celebrated by the Orthodox Church in Russia. Once banned by the Communist regime, Christmas is again celebrated with special church services, wonderful meat and cabbage pies called pirogi and meat dumplings known as pelmeni. Kutya, a local porridge, is served along with honey and poppy seeds to bring happiness, success and peace. Children carry a star and go house-to-house in the cold winter snow singing carols and receiving sweets.
Kids love to hear about the ways children in other lands live and celebrate holidays. They might even like trying out some of the customs or foods other cultures enjoy during Christmas. Sharing the customs of people around the world helps kids feel connected despite language barriers and oceans of distance, and there’s no better time to feel unified than during the holiday season.
Jan Pierce, M.Ed. is a retired teacher and freelance writer living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She travels to India, working with orphanages and schools.