Christmas traditions around the world
November 18, 2023
In the United States, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has become the "traditional" Christmas season kick-off. This relatively new tradition started in the early 1960s when Philadelphia police officers used the term to describe the general chaos that occurred on the Friday after Thanksgiving when gobs of people came to town to start their holiday shopping. It wasn't until the late 1980s that merchants glommed onto the term to promote holiday shopping and improve their bottom lines.
Some Americans feel the commercialization of Christmas overshadows the reason people celebrate Christmas in the first place, which is the birth of baby Jesus more than 2,000 years ago. Jesus's birth, a miraculous gift from God, embodies hope for mankind, love, peace, good will toward others and the reality that miracles can and do happen. I call this the Spirit of Christmas. And the good news is that the Spirit of Christmas is alive and well today, in spite of all the commercialization.
Over the years people have blended their local customs with the Spirit of Christmas to create some interesting traditions. Let's take a look at a few.
Ukraine churches have their roots in the Russian Orthodox church and have long celebrated Christmas on January 7th. However, this year a new law was enacted moving the official celebration to December 25. The main meal or Holy Supper is eaten on December 24 and consists of 12 meatless dishes representing Jesus's 12 disciples. They are meatless in respect to the animals that were in the stable where Jesus was born. While the dishes vary by region, kutia a sweet pudding made with grain, honey and poppy seeds, and uzvar a beverage made with cooked dried fruits and berries are pretty much mandatory. Some families place a small handful of hay on the table to represent Jesus in the manger. The tradition of giving gifts to children started in the 1800s, but they are brought by Grandfather Frost (the 2,000 year-old Slavic wizard of winter).
Christmas (Ganna) is celebrated on January 7 with many people taking part in the Advent fast (Fast of the Prophets), which starts on the 25 of November. During the 43 days between the start of Advent and Ganna, one vegan meal is eaten each day. The fast is believed to cleanse the body of sin in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Eve, Ethiopians dressed in white robes attend overnight mass where men/boys are separated from women/girls. After mass, the fast is broken with a huge feast that may include doro wat/wot (chicken stew in red pepper paste) served on injera (a spongy flat bread) along with yogurt to cool the spiciness. Following the meal is a coffee (buna) ceremony where green beans are roasted and passed around for guests to savor the aroma. Coffee is then brewed and served along with popcorn. Gifts are not usually given.
Celebrations start on December 20 with Ignat Day, where a pig is killed by the head of the household. Killing the pig is an ancient tradition which has now become a symbol of Christ who dies and is resurrected. The meat is served at various Christmas meals along with Pork's Charity (left over pork bits in a garlic sauce) and polenta. Caroling is extremely popular and participants wear bells and carry drums and whips to make noise to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes Capra, a person dressed as a goat, will dance around with the carolers. American children will appreciate that Saint Nicholas, the Romanian version of Santa Claus, arrives on December 6, not the 24. If you were good throughout the year, St. Nicholas will leave a present in your boots, otherwise you get a stick.
Greeks have a long and proud history as seafarers so it's no surprise that their Christmas traditions include boats. Karavaki (small boats) are decorated and displayed in thanks to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. The Christmas season starts on December 24. Hordes of children descend on their neighborhoods singing kalanta, Greek Christmas carols, and are usually reward with sweets and small change. Afterward, there's the Midnight Mass service followed by a feast that includes lamb or pork along with spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese pie), Christ's bread (a round sweet bread flavored with cinnamon, orange and cloves) and lots of sweets like baklava (phillo, honey, nuts) and melomakarona (honey cookies). Although the Greeks give thanks to Saint Nicholas during the Christmas season, it's Ayios Vassileios, one of the main saints of the Greek Orthodox church, who arrives on the first of January bringing gifts.
Christmas in New Zealand is very laid back, partly because it's the middle of summer south of the equator and people are wearing shorts and enjoying the beach. Instead of pine trees, Kiwis display pohutukawa trees, which produce bright red fluffy flowers in December. And instead of gathering around a yule fire, they gather around the barbecue for a Christmas lunch of ham, seafood and locally grown vegetables. If the family has Maori roots, a traditional hangi might be on the menu. Hangi is a style of underground cooking where fish, chicken, vegetables and kumara (sweet potato) are wrapped in flax leaves, placed on hot stones in a pit, and buried to cook for three to four hours. Santa comes on Christmas Eve, but he wears jandals (flip-flops) not black books, and kids leave pineapple chunks and beer out for him instead of cookies and milk. Many towns have a Santa parade, and fancy light displays and shows are common in the larger cities. Gifts are opened on December 25.
The Christmas Spirit is alive and well in Japan, even though less than 1% of Japanese are Christian. December is the month Japanese people spread happiness and joy and spend quality time with loved ones. Gifts are given, and Christmas trees, lights and decorations are a popular way of expressing the spirit. Christmas cake, a white sponge cake covered with cream and decorated with strawberries is often served. Another oddly popular custom is eating fried chicken, specifically Kentucky Fried Chicken. Back in 1974, KFC began an advertising campaign called "Kentucky for Christmas," which went over so well that fried chicken at Christmas is now a Japanese national tradition. "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is wildly popular and choirs all over the country perform it.
We at The Loop hope the Spirit of Christmas lights up your December, and we wish you...
Kala Christouyenna – Greek
Meri Kirihimete – Maori
Meri Kuirsumasu – Japanese
Craciun Fericit – Romanian
Veseloho Rizdva - Ukrainian
Melikam Gena – Ethopian
Merry Christmas – English