For many of us, Christmas is often a time where we experience feelings of warmth and nostalgia as we recall happy holiday memories and anticipate creating new memories with those dear to us. We plan weeks, maybe even months, in advance to organize the perfect holiday gathering and choose the perfect gifts for those we love.
While Christmas began as a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Christ, people from all over the world have embraced this festive season and added their own traditions along the way. Celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike, Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday and a cultural event. While every family may have their own way of celebrating, Christmas is a time where families come together and share in the festivities of the season.
For millions of Americans, Christmas is synonymous with traditions like baking holiday cookies, decorating a Christmas tree, singing carols, and exchanging gifts. Stockings are hung from fireplace mantels, and people enjoy classic Christmas films and attend holiday concerts and parades. On Christmas Eve, it is traditional to leave some cookies and a glass of milk for Santa!
But what do Christmas traditions look like around the world? You’ll soon discover that many countries have their own unique traditions. In fact, Christmas isn’t even observed on December 25 in some places! However, while Christmas traditions around the world may vary, sharing a joyous spirit is a common theme. Let’s travel around the globe and learn how Christmas is celebrated within the world of Women At Risk, International!
Christmas is widely celebrated throughout both South and Central America. Most festivities include Nativity reenactments, family dinners, and fireworks. On Christmas Eve, Guatemalan families eat tamales and wait until midnight to set off firecrackers. While the sky lights up with fire and noise, a prayer is said around the Christmas tree, and presents are opened shortly after.
In Peru, December 24th is called La Noche Buena, or “Good Night,” and it is the main day for Christmas celebrations. In the evening, families go home to feast on elaborately prepared dinners and open gifts. Gifts are spread around a Nativity manger instead of a Christmas tree, and family members usually hug, kiss, and thank the gift-giver before opening their present. At midnight, adults will toast with champagne, while children toast with hot chocolate made with cinnamon and cloves. Afterwards, families go outside to watch fireworks.
Celebrating Christmas in Haiti comes with many special traditions. On Christmas Eve, children fill their newly cleaned shoes with straw and place them on the porch for Santa to replace with presents! After a late-night church service, families gather together to eat the main meal called reveillon, which means “waking,” and it is a time to celebrate the awakening of Christ with a feast. The meal normally starts in the early hours of Christmas morning and lasts until dawn!
One of the most important ways of celebrating Christmas in Italy is with the Nativity scene. Traditionally, Italian families will put out a Nativity scene on the 8th of December, but the figure of the baby Jesus isn’t put into the manger until the evening of December 24th! Families attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and if it’s cold when they return from the service they might have a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of Italian Christmas cake called Panettone which is like a dry fruity sponge cake. On Christmas Day Babbo Natale, or “Santa Claus,” might bring some small gifts, but the main day for present giving is on Epiphany. Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas, and this special holiday commemorates the visit of the three wise men to the Christ Child. On Epiphany night, children believe that an old lady named ‘Befana’ brings presents for them, and they hang stockings up by the fireplace for her to fill. If you live in parts of northern Italy, however, it might be the ‘Three Kings’ who bring you presents instead of Befana.
On the island of Cyprus, Christmas is celebrated with a set of unique local traditions, many of which center around food. Along with other traditional sweets, people bake christopsomo on Christmas Eve, a sweet bread whose name means “the bread of Christ” and typically has a cross kneaded into it. It is eaten on Christmas Day along with a huge buffet. Typically, gifts are opened on New Year’s Day rather than at Christmas, to honor Saint Vasilis, the Greek saint associated with Santa Claus. On New Year’s Eve, a traditional cake called Vasilopita can be found in every home. It is left out on the table with a glass of red wine in order to be blessed by Saint Vasilis on his way to deliver the gifts. The next day the family cuts the cake, and the person who finds the hidden coin in their piece is believed to be the lucky one of the year!
Christmas isn’t an official holiday in China, but it is becoming more and more celebrated each year. Because such a small percentage of the population is Christian, Christmas is often only celebrated in major cities. In these big cities there are Christmas trees, lights, and other decorations on the streets and in department stores. Sometimes the postmen dress up as Santa when delivering letters before Christmas! As a festive treat, people will give each other ‘Peace apples’ on Christmas Eve because, in Chinese, Christmas Eve means “peaceful or quiet evening,” and the Mandarin word for apple sounds like their word for “peace.” They package the apples in special boxes or wrap them in colorful paper, sometimes adorning them with Christmas messages.
In Nepal, Christmas is celebrated more among Christians, however, other communities will also participate in parties and nonreligious celebrations during the holiday. Believers will attend Christmas parties with friends and family, exchange presents, and decorate their homes with Christmas lights and Christmas trees. The trees will be decked with ornaments such as bells, stars, reindeer, and miniature wrapped gifts. At midnight on Christmas Eve, many Nepali Christians will attend special church services and on Christmas morning, those celebrating Christmas will visit friends to wish them a merry Christmas. In the evening, families host a special Christmas feast with traditional Nepali foods, along with pumpkin pies and Christmas puddings!
Christians love to celebrate Christmas in India! Instead of having traditional Christmas trees, families will decorate a banana or mango tree. Most families also have a Nativity scene with clay figures and endeavor to create the best one! In Southern India, Christians often put small oil-burning clay lamps on the flat roofs of their homes to show their neighbors that Jesus is the light of the world. Midnight mass is a very important service for Christians in India, especially Catholics, and the whole family will walk to the church that is decorated with poinsettia flowers and candles for the Christmas Eve service. The main Christmas meal is also eaten on Christmas Eve, and presents are exchanged.
In preparation for Christmas or Bara Din, which means “Big Day,” Christian Pakistani families decorate their homes and place a star on the roof. The crib is an important decoration, and sometimes there are crib competitions! On Christmas Eve, churches are packed for the midnight service, and the choir sings very special hymns. In some places, there are fireworks that help celebrate the start of Christmas. People wear their best colorful clothes, dance, and exchange presents. Families gather on Christmas evening and enjoy eating a special meal together.
With only a small minority of the Thai population being Christian, the celebration of the birth of Jesus is simply not the huge event it is in predominantly Christian countries. Even though Christmas is not a holiday traditionally celebrated in Thailand, you can still find shopping centers and malls decked with Christmas lights and decorations, and hotel staff can be seen wearing Christmas hats in the days leading up to Christmas. Christmas trees also appear amongst the palm trees, and Thai school children practicing their English can be heard singing “Jingle Bells.” Christians in Thailand celebrate the coming of Jesus in small gatherings, and some even invite members of their community to come hear the Christmas story. Their message is simple: Christmas is about Jesus; Jesus is about love, and we want to love you because we follow Jesus.
The Philippines has the longest and most lavish Christmas season in the world. People there like to celebrate Christmas for as long as possible, and the playing of Christmas carols can be heard as early as September! The most popular Christmas decoration in the Philippines is the parol, which is a bamboo pole or frame with a lighted star lantern on it. It is traditionally made from bamboo strips and colored Japanese paper and represents the star that guided the Wise Men. Christmas Eve is very important in the Philippines, and many people stay awake all night into Christmas Day! On Christmas Eve, Christians attend the Christmas Eve mass which is then followed by a midnight feast, called Noche Buena. The Noche Buena is a large open house celebration with family, friends, and neighbors dropping in to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! A traditional Christmas treat they enjoy is ‘puto bumbong’, tubes of bamboo stuffed with purple rice, butter, sugar, and coconut.
In Egypt, Christmas Day is celebrated on January 7 instead of December 25. During Advent, Egyptian Christians fast from certain foods and sing special praise songs. On their Christmas Eve, families go to church for a special service. When the service ends, people go home to eat the big Christmas meal. All the foods contain meat, eggs, and butter—all the yummy things they didn’t eat during the Advent fast! On Christmas Day, people celebrate together in homes and often take kahk, special sweet biscuits, to give as gifts. Santa is called Baba Noël, meaning “Father Christmas,” and children hope he will climb through a window to leave them presents!
For the people of Ghana, Christmas Eve night is when the celebrations really begin. Church services have drumming and dancing, and children often put on a Nativity play or other drama. The choirs come out to sing, and people dance in front of the priests. Songs are mostly sung in the languages the people understand best because this makes them feel that God speaks their language. Sometimes these services and dancing go on all night long! On Christmas Day the churches are very full, and people come out dressed in their colorful traditional clothes. After the church service on Christmas morning, people quickly go back to their houses to start giving and receiving gifts.
Christmas in Uganda, known as Sekukkulu, is the most important holiday of the year, and it is a joyful season characterized by time spent with family and friends. Festivities begin on Christmas Eve with a “watch night” service, and Christmas carols and church bells can be heard all across the country. Churches are decorated with candles and rich colors, creating a festive atmosphere. Preparations for the feast on Sekukkulu also take place on Christmas Eve with children traditionally helping to prepare the home and food for the following day. Christmas is not about the giving and receiving of presents as it is in the western world but instead about spending time with family, eating food, dancing, singing, playing games, and storytelling.
In Zambia, most activities at Christmas revolve around church and coming together as a community. As part of the Christmas service, Zambians will hold a Nativity play, complete with biblical figures and a crib for baby Jesus. A couple of days before Christmas, people often go caroling around the local streets for charity, and children are encouraged to bring a present for less fortunate children to church on Christmas Day. But what really makes a Zambian Christmas unique is that all the adults will typically eat and celebrate together in one house while the children have a Christmas party of their own in a different house!
Because South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas comes in the summer. The Christmas meal is often eaten outside, and if it’s really hot, they might even have a barbecue! On Christmas Eve, the community gathers to sing Christmas carols and attend candlelight church services. Families decorate traditional “fir” Christmas trees, and children leave a stocking out for Santa Claus, also known as Sinterklaas. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, people visit family and friends or travel to the countryside to play games or go for a swim. Pulling Christmas crackers is also an activity they enjoy.
Maybe learning about these global holiday traditions has given you some ideas on new ways you can celebrate Christmas with your family. From midnight firework displays in Central and South America to a “summer” barbecue in South Africa, there are plenty of ideas to choose from! As part of the Advent season, perhaps you can incorporate some of these traditions into your own activities. Not only is it fun, but it also helps us appreciate the inherent beauty and values found in other cultures. Let’s celebrate the special moments of the Christmas season with love in our hearts—for both those gathered around our own fireplace and for those in lands far, far away. At the heart of Christmas is peace and goodwill to all men. Let’s strive to make that a reality every day of the year.