In fourth grade, my teacher had us do a Christmas Around the World project, where we researched celebrations in different countries. My friend and I picked Germany and I loved learning about how their celebrations differed from our own. For some of us, these are traditions we’ve brought from home countries or learned from other family members. Others are just learning about them.
Warning: Many Christmas celebrations are rooted in various Christian traditions. This article will discuss several of these. Swap.com acknowledges and respects individuals of many faiths, but is not affiliated with any religion.
Five Christmas Celebrations
There are so many countries around the world where Christmas is celebrated that it is impossible to cover them all. We’ve chosen 5 different countries from different continents to explore. We hope you learn something and are inspired to share your own traditions with us. Who knows, maybe you’ll find an intriguing tradition to adopt for your own family.
While the country is predominantly Muslim, about 15% of the population is Christian. They are largely members of the Coptic Orthodox Church and they are the only group to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. That being said, many individuals observe a secularized version of the holiday. According to the website whychristmas?, the holiday is become very commercialized. Stores sell Christmas trees, food, and holiday decorations. Local public places, such as parks and streets, are decorated for the season. Santa Claus is known as Baba Noel and children the country over hope that he will climb through their window and leave them gifts.
Christians in Egypt celebrate Christmas on January 7th. Their Advent season, the days leading up to Christmas, is called Kiahk and lasts 40 days. During that time, they are expected to fast from meat, poultry, and dairy products. On Christmas Eve, they attend a service that typically starts around 10:30PM and end slightly after midnight. Afterward, they go home and and serve a special Christmas dinner called fata. It traditionally contains bread, rice, garlic, and boiled meat. On Christmas day, they typically visit friends and family. They bring a shortbread style biscuit called kahk, that is consumed with the drink shortbat.
In Finland, Christmas is celebrated from December 24th through the 26th. Preparations for the celebration can begin as much as a month before the holiday, with people buying decorations and other goodies. Juha Koponen, CEO of Swap.com, says some traditional sweets include gingerbread and small pastries filled with jam. Traditional dishes served at the Christmas dinner include ham, different kinds of fish, and rutabaga, carrot, or potato casseroles. Sometimes there’s a liver or macaroni casserole. According to Mr. Koponen, it is a common practice to visit a sauna on Christmas Eve to get clean, while Christmas day is spent at home with the family and the day after is for visiting with friends and neighbors.
In Finland, natural fir trees are typically purchased and decorated a few days before Christmas. Santa lives with his wife and the elves in a mountain named Korvatunturi. When he visits on Christmas Eve, he asks if the children in the house have been good that year. Then he gives out their gifts and the children sing a song for him before he leaves. One traditional Finnish Christmas song is “Hei Tonttu-ukot Hyppikää,” which roughly translates to “Hey You Elves Jump.” There are no traditional gifts given out during this time, but it is customary to give older relatives flowers or chocolate.
Many of Mexico’s Christmas traditions are steeped in the country’s particular brand of Roman Catholicism. Celebrations begin on December 12th, with the birthday of La Guadalupana, or the Virgin of Guadalupe. They continue through January 6th, with the Feast of the Epiphany. Children typically received their gifts in January, because it is believed that the Three Wise Men bring gifts for baby Jesus and the children. Many households are decorated with a nativity scene. The figurines can be quite large, life sized in some cases, and are often passed down through families. A figure of baby Jesus is added to the scene on Christmas Eve and the Wise Men are added on the Epiphany.
From December 16th through Christmas Eve, a popular tradition among children is that of the Posada. Houses are decorated with evergreens, moss, and paper lanterns. Children are given candles and boards with figurines of Mary and Joseph. They process through the streets, knocking on doors and singing a song. They are turned away until they are eventually welcomed in, where they say a prayer of thanks and then have a party. On Christmas Eve, the faithful attend services and then go home to enjoy a dinner of traditional Mexican foods, including dishes such as tamales, rice, rellenos, atole, and menudo. On the Feast of the Epiphany, a Three Kings Cake is served. Whoever finds the figurine of baby Jesus hidden inside becomes his Godparent for the year. Candelaria, or Candlemas, held on February 2nd, marks the end of Christmas celebrations.
Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution all religious holidays were banned in Russia. However, according to the Holiday Spot, starting in 1992 the holiday has been celebrated more publicly. Russian Christians are largely members of the Russian Orthodox Church, which celebrates the holiday on January 7th. Their Advent season lasts from November 28th through January 6th. That being said, some Russians have begun celebrating on December 25th. On Christmas Eve, priests visit every home with vessels of holy water and bless each room in the home. This practice is believed to bring happiness and fortune to them throughout the year.
For many Christians, Christmas Eve is a day of fasting until night falls. When night arrives, the traditional dish kutia is served. It is a porridge traditionally made with wheatberries or rice, and served with honey, poppy seeds, fruit, and nuts. It’s eaten from a common bowl, symbolizing unity. Some popular foods to serve for dinner include the beetroot soup borsch and a vegan dish known as solyanka. Salads and sauerkraut are also common additions to the Christmas Eve spread. To top it all off, dessert is often fruit pies, gingerbread or honeybread cookies, fruit, and nuts.
The largest religion in Vietnam is Buddhism, but there is a small population of Christians. Even so, Christmas is one of four major religious festivals observed throughout the country. Vietnam used to be a part of the French Empire. The 1975 Communist rise to power saw a reduced popularity of the Christmas holiday, which only saw a resurgence in the late 1980’s. As in other cultures, Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas day. According to WhyChristmas?, in Ho Chi Minh City people congregate in the city centre. They look at the lights and decorations on the hotels and stores. Restaurants are often open serving food for those who are hungry. Many churches sport large nativity scenes, some taking up whole streets.
Many of the Christian religious attend midnight services and then go home for supper. That dinner is a major part of Christmas Eve traditions. Many families enjoy chicken soup, though the wealthier might have turkey instead. A remnant of the French Christmas tradition is the bûche de Noël, a chocolate cake in the shape of a log. Bûche de Noël are popular gifts to give at this time, and some younger people exchange cards. In Vietnam, Santa is known as Ông già Noel, which roughly translates to ‘Christmas Old Man.”
Christmas traditions are as varied as the people who celebrate. Learning about and respecting them is a crucial part of the holiday season. I hope you learned something new and interesting. Perhaps something in the countries mentioned resonates with you and your family.
Do you know something interested about a Christmas tradition from another country? Share them with us in the comments below!