My family is big on tradition, which is to say that they’re scared of change, and they’ve embedded this need for consistency in my head by celebrating the holidays the exact same way for as long as I can remember—until last year. Last year we spent it with a different set of relatives who had different traditions to uphold. I was shocked at how contrasting our definitions of the holidays could be despite being in the same family. I couldn’t even imagine how strange it must have been for my friend Sarah, who spent December in Australia, to respond to a suggestion on Christmas morning like, “Hey, let’s go to the beach and fire up the barbie!” Do they build sandmen and have sandball fights afterward?
Christmas, like so many other traditions, has a unique spin on it depending where we find ourselves in the world. One person’s St. Nicholas is another person’s Père Noël. Some feast on turkey; others prefer porridge. And what, if anything, we choose to decorate is definitely a point of contention. Those looking to do what my family did and break free from holiday tradition need only to look across a border or sea for inspiration.
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Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of Christmas in Greece, and he’s also the patron saint of sailors, which could explain why the Greek gift-bringer (Agios Basilis, who gives presents on January 1, St. Basil’s Day) arrives via ship instead of sled. Also, instead of helpful elves, people tell tales of kallikantzeri, little creatures that create problems during the twelve days before the holiday. The night before Christmas is a time for children to walk around the towns singing carols and they’re rewarded with sweets and nuts. Lamb and pork are the main attractions at Christmas dinner, and christopsomo (Christ bread) and kourambiethes, a type of cookie, are served as well.
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Christmas in Russia is sometimes celebrated on December 25, but for those who follow the Russian Orthodox Church calendar, it actually falls on January 7. Christians in this country usually attend church on Christmas Eve (January 6) and some people don’t eat until the first star has appeared in the sky that evening. Regardless of when people sit down to eat, the meatless meal centers on kutya, a porridge consisting of grains, honey, and poppy seeds. These ingredients represent hope, well-being, unity, and bounty. The symbolic gift-bringer is Babushka, a grandmotherly figure. What we think of as Christmas traditions, such as giving presents, occur more commonly on New Year’s Day.
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Christmas is not so much a religious holiday in Japan because the Christian population is small (about 1 percent). However, the Japanese have adopted many of the commercial customs that are popular in the U.S., such as decorating their homes with Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, and hosting parties. Many people celebrate on Christmas Eve, which has become more of a romantic holiday (similar to Valentine’s Day) with couples going out to dinner. Christmas cake, a sponge cake with whipped cream and berries, is a traditional treat during this time. Oddly enough, fried chicken is a popular choice for Christmas dinner and restaurants like KFC prepare special chicken meals for the holiday.
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French children have not one, but two Christmas figures to answer to when the holidays near. Père Noël fills shoes (not stockings) that are placed near fireplaces with gifts; for those who were more naughty than nice, Père Fouettard is the disciplinarian who tells her counterpart whether the kids deserve gifts or spankings. (In some parts of France, baby Jesus brings the gifts instead of Père Noël.) Most homes put up small nativity scenes and the use of Christmas trees isn’t very common. Instead of a Yule log, the French make a chocolate cake in the shape of a Yule log. This is a component of Christmas Eve dinner (la rveillon), which follows midnight mass. Kids receive gifts on Christmas Day (and sometimes on St. Nicholas’ Day on December 6) and adults give each other presents on the first day of the new year.
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A beachside Christmas is perfectly acceptable in the land down under, where December falls during the summer season. Due to the hot weather, the holiday feast usually includes cold cuts, salads, and similar light fare. Pavlova, a meringue cake covered in whipped cream and fruit, is particularly popular this time of year. One of the major events during this time of year is Carols by Candlelight, which is a series of outdoor concerts in towns across the continent on Christmas Eve. People sit together outdoors and sing Christmas carols while candles light up the summer night.
6. United States
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Christmas is not just celebrated by the religious in the U.S. Non-denominational celebrations center on family and presents. Those who are religious usually attend a church service on Christmas Eve. Most families decorate with Christmas trees, outdoor lights, and holiday scenes, and display holiday cards received from family and friends. Christmas Eve night or Christmas morning is when people usually open gifts with their families and stockings are often hung by the chimneys (or on the walls, if lacking fireplaces) for Santa Claus—a bearded old man wearing a white suit and characterized by a fondness for sweets. He visits after everyone has gone to sleep on Christmas Eve and eats the cookies and milk left out for him. (Some also leave carrots for his reindeer posse.) Traditional Christmas dinners are similar to Thanksgiving feasts—roast turkey, ham, stuffing, and so forth.
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Christmas is a big to-do in Bethlehem because it is the believed site of Jesus’ birth. Throughout December, there are Christmas fairs in Manger Square (located in the West Bank area of town) and the outdoors are adorned with lights. The Church of the Nativity is a popular destination on the day and night before Christmas. A yearly parade passes through the town and most of the community comes out to watch the procession of horses and city officials.
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The holiday season here is marked by street fairs with lots of festive items on display. Christmas celebrations officially kick off on December 6, and the whole month becomes one long party. Homes are decorated with pine trees covered in ornaments and lights and small nativity scenes. Kids are encouraged to write their gift wish lists to either Santa or Baby Jesus. Many attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, which is followed by a large dinner. Christmas Day is a continuation of more eating, dancing, and singing carols. The season ends with a dazzling fireworks display.
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Kids who celebrate Christmas in China hang stockings and eagerly anticipate the nighttime arrival of Dun Che Lao Ren, which translates to “Christmas Old Man.” Decorations include paper lanterns and flowers on what they call “Trees of Light.” This time of year also hosts celebrations for the Spring Festival, which is during the Chinese New Year at the end of January. This is when most people have elaborate feasts, give gifts to children, honor ancestors, and set off fireworks.
Whether we eat turkey or fried chicken, or put our shoes out instead of hanging stockings, how we celebrate Christmas in different parts of the world comes down to one crucial point: togetherness. Though traditions vary from country to country, what unites them is the notion of surrounding ourselves with loved ones and community during the holidays. During a time when conflict is running high, and our relationships with other nations, and even other friends and family members, are so easily strained, let that be the one thing we can all agree upon this holiday season.
Updated December 23, 2010