Australia | Bethlehem | Brazil | China | Denmark | Finland | France | Germany | Greece | Hong Kong | India | Ireland | Italy | Japan | Malta | Mexico | Netherlands | Norway | Poland | Russia | South Africa | Spain | Sweden | Switzerland | Turkey | United Kingdom | United States

Australia

Generally, Christmas is celebrated along traditional lines and families often travel great distances to be together. Church is attended in great mass on Christmas Day. Services are often held very early in the morning.

Due to the multi-culturalism in Australia food can vary. But meals mainly center around the traditional hams, turkeys and plum pudding. Often these dishes are cooked earlier and served cold. Salads and other summer foods are present as well as food from other cultures.

The major celebration is a Carols by Candlelight Concert, on Christmas Eve, held at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne. This is broadcast on television and radio throughout the country and also to come other countries in our region, the attendance usually ranges from 70,000-100,000.

Bethlehem

The town where Jesus was born is ablaze with flags and decorations every Christmas. On Christmas Eve, visitors and townspeople alike gather for a parade that leads directly to the church of Nativity. It is a solemn affair, akin to a funeral procession with Cross bearing soldiers and priests. The parade concludes with an ancient effigy being placed of Jesus in the church.

Brazil

December is the hottest time of the year in Brazil. Papa Noel is the gift giver. He and his helpers walk the streets giving small gifts to children. Shoes are left outside doors so Papa Noel can fill them with treats and presents. Other presents are hidden all over the house, but before the children can search for them, they must serve their parents breakfast in bed. Families go to Midnight Mass and afterwards, bells ring and fire-crackers are set off.

China

Some who celebrate Christmas in China do so after having spent time in Japan where the holiday is becoming a booming business. The small percentage of Chinese who do so, erect artificial trees in their upscale apartments decorated with spangles form southern China’s export zone. Christmas trees are called "trees of light" and are also decorated with paper chains, paper flowers, and paper lanterns. Children hang up muslin stockings in hopes that Dun Che Lao (China’s Santa) will fill them with presents. Stores have men dressed as Santa Claus handing out candy and waitresses with Santa hats. The booming commercialism which has spread outward from Beijing has been called a Chinese phenomenon. It started out as a friendly gesture or business ploy aimed at Christian visitors.

Although Christianity is unsanctioned in China, there are an estimated 10 million baptized Christians (about 1 percent of the population) who celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmastime. The popularity of Midnight Mass has grown so swiftly over the past few years that most Catholic churches can not hold the numbers who come out Christmas Eve.

Denmark

The people of Denmark have their Christmas dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve. Their dessert is a special rice pudding with one almond in it. Whoever gets the almond will have good luck in the coming year.

Finland

Christmas preparations start early in Finland with "Little Christmas." Little Christmas or pikkujoulu means a certain kind of pre-Christmas celebration, for example many companies offer their staff a restaurant outing (often with alcoholic beverages) before Christmas. It can also be though of as a period of time in late November through early December when such feasts most often occur.

Everyone helps to make piparkakkuja or gingerbread, shaping it into stars, hearts, moons, pigs and other figures. Cold ham, salted meat and pickled herrings are also eaten, as is herring salad with chopped carrots, turnips or salted cucumber.

The main Christmas celebration starts at twelve o’clock on December 24th by the Mayor of Helsinki, who says everyone should pay their respects to the Christ Child’s birth. So early on Christmas morning, around six o’clock, every body gets up and goes to church. The churches are lit with candles at all the pews. When the snow is extremely deep, the service is watched on television.

France

Christmas Day is celebrated in France with all of the family coming together. On Christmas Eve, French children put their shoes (sabots) in front of the fireplace. They hope Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with presents. His partner Le Pere Fouettard (Father Spanker) would "reward" bad children with a spanking.

In northern France, children are given their gifts on December 6th, which is Saint Nicholas Day, instead of Christmas Day.

The midnight service on Christmas Eve is traditionally followed by a meal called le reveillon. Sidewalk cafes and restaurants are open all night serving reveillon.Reveillon means to wake up, or first call of the day. So, Reveillon is a symbolic spiritual awakening to the meaning of Christ’s birth.

The meal can consist of oysters, sausages, wine, baked ham, roast fowl, salads, fruit and pastries. Christ cake are baked and decorated with sugar to resemble the Holy Child. In south France a Christmas loaf (pain calendeau) is cut crosswise and is eaten only after the first part has been given to a poor person. In Alsace, a roasted goose has pride of place. In Brittany there are buckwheat cakes and sour cream. In Burgundy, turkey and chestnuts are eaten. In the Paris region oysters are the favorite dish, followed by a cake shaped like a Yule log. After the festivities, it is customary to leave a candle burning just in case the Virgin Mary passes that way.

Germany

The advent calendar in Germany marks the arrival of Christmas. Advent starts on the first Sunday of after the 26th of November and continues up until Christmas. This time is devoted to the preparation of Christmas. Advent calendars are designed to hang over the children's beds and are comprised of 24 small windows. On each morning, the children will open one of the small windows to display a candle, a snowman or a ball. This is a way the children can count down the days of Christmas.

Christmas is also a time for singing and music. The most famous of all German songs is "Stille nacht, Heilige nacht." First heard in 1818, this was written by Joseph Mohr. It is now sung nationwide and the title is "Silent Night."

Greece

Christmas is the 2nd most important holiday in Greece. Children celebrate by traveling from house to house in small villages offering good wishes and singing carols. These songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and clay drums. Children are rewarded with sweets and dried fruits.

The Christmas feast is eagerly anticipated in Greece because it proceeds 40 days of fasting. Pigs and Christmas bread are a staple on all holiday tables.

Hong Kong

A festival of peace and renewal known as Ta Chiu is celebrated in Hong Kong. Taoists summon their gods and ghosts. People make offerings to their patron saints. Festivities close with the reading of the names of every person who lives in the area. The names are then listed, attached to a paper horse, and burned in hopes that they will rise to heaven.

India

Because of international influence on her people, India, perhaps, has the most cosmopolitan Christmas in the world. Just to name a few: Christmas trees from Germany, ornaments from America, greeting cards from England, and books from Greece. Christmas is set against a background of scarlet poinsettia trees and tropical plants. Children in brightly colored dresses, accompanied by an orchestra of drums and cymbals, perform group dances, using gaily colored sticks as they do their native dances. Gifts are exchanged, especially with children, and servants, except baksheesh, which means coins. In turn, servants present a lemon to the head of the household on Christmas morning, a symbol of high esteem, bearing wishes for a long life and prosperity.

Ireland

An Irish Christmas lasts from Christmas Eve until January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany, which Irish people call "Little Christmas." On Christmas Eve, the father of the house puts a tall candle on the sill of the largest window. It is usually lit by the youngest child in honor of the Baby Jesus. It is left to burn all night to light the way for any wanderers who are in need of shelter, like Mary and Joseph were long ago. The women bake round cakes, full of caraway seeds, for each person in the house.

December 26th is Saint Stephen’s Day and the Irish celebrate it playing football or having horse races. The children enjoy the Wren Boy Procession. Young men and boys (sometimes girls also) are up early, dressed in gay clothes in some regions, in old clothes with faces blackened in others. In the southern districts they have home-made hoods over their heads with eyes cut out or masks of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. They march and sing with violins, accordions, harmonicas and horns accompanying them and carry a long pole with a holly bush tied to the top. This is supposed to have a captured wren in it. In earlier days the bird has actually been killed and carried in the procession.

The reason for this custom goes backs to the time when, during a rebellion against English rule in the North a group of English soldiers were being surrounded while they slept. But the wrens pecked on their drums and woke them, allowing them to escape. The wren was called "the Devil’s bird" in Ireland.

Italy

Traditions in Italy are based heavily on the religion of Christianity. Christmas starts eight days before Christmas and lasts till after the Feast of Epiphany. Musical salutes are made at the shrine of the Virgin Mary and songs are played at the homes of carpenters in honor of St. Joseph. Eight days before Christmas, a special Novena of prayers and church services begin. It all ends on Christmas Day. On December 23rd, sometimes earlier, children dressed as shepherds with sandals, leggings tied with crossing thongs, and wearing shepherds’ hats, go from house to house playing songs on shepherds’ pipes and giving recitations. They receive money to buy Christmas treats. In cities like Rome real shepherds sometimes carry out the performance.

A strict fast is observed 24 hours before Christmas after which a meal with many dishes (but no meat) is served. The traditional Christmas dinner, Cennone, is made up of spaghetti and anchovies, an assortment of fish, fresh broccoli, tossed salad, fruits, and sweets.

Japan

Stores display Elaborate decorations for the Christmas holidays. Many of the same traditions that are observed in western countries are also observed in Japan. The exchange of gifts, Turkey for dinner and decorations of the Christmas tree are all adopted by the Japanese.

Japan has its own version of Santa Claus, an old priest named Hoteiosto. It is said that this priest has eyes in the back of his head and children are advised to be good when he comes around.

Malta

The Island of Malta follows the traditional timeline of a Christian Christmas but they have a few traditions that make them unique. The citizens of Malta build and place cribs called presepjis throughout the towns in public places and private homes. The cribs are decorated with clay figures of shepherds, street singers and baby Jesus. This tradition started in 1826 and the first known crib was found with the Benedictine Nuns. They also decorate the streets with lights that they call festunis and have a procession through the streets with children carrying small statues of Jesus and singing Christmas carols.

The traditional Christmas meal includes turkey and pudding, which was started by British soldiers, who were stationed in Malta during the first and second wars. They also make a dish called timpana that is baked macaroni covered with crusty pastry.

Mexico

Las Posadas is the most important Christmas tradition in Mexico. It is a procession that begins nine days before Christmas and it reenacts Joseph and Mary searching for a place to stay in Bethlem. The procession is divided into two groups, pilgrims and innkeepers. The pilgrims search for a place to stay and are turned down everywhere until they come to a house where there is an Altar and Nativity scene. At this point a prayer is said and then party begins. Children gather around a pinata and try to break it open.

Mexicans also decorate their churches and homes with Poinsettias. Mexican Franciscans started this tradition in the 17th century and has a legend associated that was started by a boy named Pablo. It is a tradition that you bring a gift to when you visit the Nativity scene during the Christmas season. Legend has it that when Pablo went to visit the nativity scene he didn’t have a gift so he went and got some green branches and placed them by the scene. Once he placed the branches, a light shined on them and red shaped star flowers appeared on each branch. From then on, Poinsettias have been used to decorate Nativity scenes in Mexico.

Netherlands

In the Netherlands, holiday tradition centers on the arrival of Saint Nicholas. The saint is said to come on horseback, bearing gifts for the children. Before going to bed, children leave out their shoes, hoping to find them filled with goodies when they awaken.

Norway

Norwegian Christmas customs began long ago. One starts late fall at harvest time. The best wheat is gathered and saved until Christmas. Then it is put on poles made from tree branches. These make nice perches for the birds. A large circle of snow is cleared away beneath each so that the birds can dance in it between meals, according to the Norwegians, to work up their appetites. Just before sunset on Christmas Eve, the head of the household checks on the wheat in the yard. If many sparrows are eating, it means a good year for growing crops.

Another custom has to do with brooms in Norway. On Christmas Eve, after the family’s big dinner, it is time to open presents. Then all the brooms in the house are hidden. The Norwegians, long ago, believed that witches and naughty spirits came out on Christmas Eve and would steal their brooms for riding. They also hid the first shovel and tongs so that naughty couldn’t play with them. Spruce logs are burned in the fireplace to keep the witches away. The hot sparks rising up the chimney will keep the witches from coming down and into the house. Lights are left on all night to keep the evil spirits away. A single bright light sits in a window to welcome any Christmas travelers.

On Christmas Day many families go to church and then spend a quiet day together. This time is given to remembering the reason for Christmas warmth and joy, the birth of Jesus nearly 2000 years ago.

Poland

Right after Christmas, people travel in horse-drawn sleighs for the Kulig --the winter sleigh party. Families gather in the forest, light fires, and prepare festive meals. Later in the evening, they celebrate with dancing and fireworks.

Russia

The Russian Winter Festival is celebrated for twelve days between December 25th and January 5th. It is similar to Christmas, although Christmas is not officially recognized. Evergreen trees are decorated and called New Year’s trees. Grandfather Frost, Dyed Maroz, looks like Santa Claus with his long red robe, white beard and black boots. He has a helper called Snow Girl and comes shaking his jingle bells on New Year’s Day, the most important day during the festival. Toys are given to the children by Grandfather Frost along with spicy ginger cakes. Carnivals, sports and special performances of the circus are performed. A Traditional gift is a set of Matryoshka dolls. They are unique in that they can be opened to reveal several smaller dolls nested inside each other. The Nutcracker ballet is associated with Russia at this time of the year.

Some Russians fast during the time before Christmas Eve. But at the sight of the first star in the sky, a twelve course supper begins. There is one course for each of the twelve apostles. Fish takes the place of meat and there borscht (beet soup), cabbage stuffed with millet, and cooked dried fruit. The specialty of Christmas Eve is kutya, whole-wheat grains soaked for hours, seasoned with honey and crushed poppy seeds. Hay is spread on the floor and table to encourage horse-feed for the coming year, and humans cluck to encourage hens to lay eggs.

South Africa

Christmas is a summer holiday in South Africa. It is a day of contradictions--the windows are draped with sparkling cotton wool and tinsel, yet it is an out-of-door day when people go to the beaches, the rivers, and shaded mountain slopes.

For native Africans, Christmas Day is a day of good eating and a lively exchange and enjoyment of gifts. The festival is a carnival-like week of singing, dancing and feasting.

English-speaking children hang up their stockings, feeling certain Father Christmas will fill them with gifts and goodies. Carol singers make their rounds on Christmas Eve to celebrate "Carols by Candlelight." Children are fond of the age-old custom of producing pantomimes--for instance, "Babes in the Wood," founded on one of the oldest ballads in the English language. Boxing Day, on December 26th, when boxes of food and clothing are given to the poor, is observed as a holiday.

Spain

Christmas is a deeply religious holiday in Spain. The feast of the immaculate conception is celebrated on December 8th at a gothic church in Seville with a ceremony called Los Seises. It is a elaborate dance ritual of precise movement that is said to be quite moving and beautiful.

Spanish children often fill shoes which they leave on the window sills with carrots, straw, barley and the Wise Men.

Sweden

Swedish families celebrate Saint Lucia Day on December 13th. The oldest daughter wears a white robe, a red sash, and a crown of lighted candles as she serves coffee and buns to other members of the family. Communities celebrate with Saint Lucia parades. Carols are sung in praise of the Queen of Light, who is said, brought hope at a dark hour.

Following Saint Lucia Day, everyone starts Christmas preparations. The house is cleaned and gingerbread is made. Bundles of wheat are tied and placed outside for the birds. Holiday breads and cakes are baked. Candles are plenteous for they represent the desire for the return of light. On December 22nd, the darkest, shortest day of the year, candles are even placed in the churchyards. Their Santa is a little dwarf-like person known as Jultomten, who delivers presents on Christmas Eve. Long ago funny little gifts called julklappar, were given by a secret rap on the door. Many families attend a pre-dawn church service celebrating the birth of the Christ child.

Special Christmas foods are lutefisk, a dried cod fish that is boiled and eaten with melted butter. Kringle, sandbakkels and crumcake are favorite Christmas sweets.

Switzerland

The celebration of Christmas begins in Switzerland with the "pursuit of Saint Nicholas"--Klausjagen. On December 5th in the village of Kussnacht near Lake Lucerne, 200 or so marchers carry huge bishops’ hats (about six feet tall) cut out of cardboard and decorated to look like lace patterns. Inside is a lighted candle. Originally worn by men, today both men and women wear the hats and participate in the parade, escorting Saint Nicholas the town. Heavy bells are carried or worn by strong men and echo through the streets. Horn blowing and brass bands add to the festivities. At the head of the parade are the whip crackers who announce, with the cracking of their whips, the arrival of the procession.

The Christmas celebration ends on December 24th. In the village of Hallwil, die Wienectchind (Christ Child) walks through the town wearing a white robe and carrying a lantern. Six girls wearing rose-colored dresses accompany her. They visit families, sing carols together and give cakes and cookie to children. "Merry Christmas" is wished in four different languages in Switzerland: Weinhnachten (German); Noel (French); Natale (Italian); and Nadel (Romansh).

Turkey

Perhaps Saint Nick’s reputation for bearing gifts comes from an old Turkish legend. In the fourth century, the Turks told of his saving three impoverished girls from being sold into slavery. According to the legend, on three consecutive nights he left each girl a sack of gold.

United Kingdom

In the UK, Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas. The English started the tradition of hanging stockings because Father Christmas once dropped coins while coming down the chimney. From then on, children began hanging stockings in hopes that they would catch the coins. Children also throw their Christmas lists in the fireplace instead of putting them in the mailbox. They believe that Father Christmas reads the smoke created form the letters and then delivers them their presents on Christmas.

December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen and is also "Boxing Day" in England. It is a day to give money to the less fortunate. The alm box in the church is opened up and distributed to the needy. This is also the traditional day that servants get off from work and open up their tip box. This tradition began in the 19th century and has developed into a very charitable day.

United States

"Santa Claus" is the American version of St. Nicholas, who originally descended from the Dutch Sinte Klaas. Santa's gift-giving role in Christmas rites follows from his fame as the friend of children. His story also tells that he used to give dontions of gold coins to those in need. His popularity spread to Europe and Chritmas presents were distributed on Dec. 6 during the pageant of St. Nicholas. In many countries, this day is still the day of gift-giving, although in America it's celebrated on Dec. 24 and 25.

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