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Unique ways Christmas is celebrated in different countries

Dec 10, 2023

By Alize Scholtz

The word “Christ” in Christmas is obviously a reference to the name of Christ. Therefore the word Christmas in fact means Christ festival. This is also why compounds with “Christ” are usually spelt with a capital.

Here are a few versions of stories about Father Christmas.

St Nicholas (Santa Claus) was a bishop in Türkiye. Not much is known about him, except that he was very good to poor children. Some of his gifts for poor families were sometimes thrown down chimneys. When he became a bishop he started wearing a red hat and coat, which is why the outfit is associated with Father Christmas. There are many legends about St Nicholas, but we don’t know whether any of them are true.  

As per tradition, Christmas is celebrated in the following ways in different countries.

Country
This is how you say “Merry Christmas” in the local language.

France

“Joyeux Noël!”

Traditions in France have changed a lot, but one that still stands is that everyone sits down for a meal on 24 December and tucks into a luxury meal called réveillon. It starts early in the evening and lasts until midnight or even later. Turkey is still a popular dish to serve, but options such as lobster, snails and oysters can also be found on the table. Dessert is a chocolate Swiss roll filled with berry jam (buche de Noël). All these rich foods are of course accompanied by a good wine or champagne for added indulgence.  

Italy

“Buon Natale”

Father Christmas has competition in pastaland and her name is Befana, a haggish old woman who visits every house and leaves candy for good children. This generosity is a form of penance – when the three wise men were on their way to visit the baby Jesus, she didn’t want to give them food and shelter, and she now wants to make up for it. In Italy gifts are only exchanged on 6 January, since it was traditionally believed that that was the day the three wise men arrived at the baby Jesus. Unlike the French, the Italians eat a light seafood meal on Christmas Eve. The types of fish and the way it is served vary between the different regions in Italy.

Austria

“Frohe Weihnachten”

This nation is known for their seriousness. The shops close at 16:00 on Christmas Eve. Most bars, restaurants and nightclubs also close. Every city has its own Christmas tree in the town square where lights are lit up and families get together to sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve. 

During the first week of December Austrians celebrate the existence of Krampus, a beast-like creature that roams the streets and punishes naughty children. Young men dress up like Krampus and scare children with clanging chains and bells. Luckily St Nicolas then comes the next day to reward good children with sweets!

The Netherlands

“Vrolijk Kersfeest”

One tradition that used to be celebrated in the Netherlands has come under a lot of fire. The Swarte Piet festival was held early in December. He was supposed to be Father Christmas’s helper and was depicted by people with black faces and red lips. He keeps tabs on all the things children have done during the past year. Good children will receive gifts from St Nicholas, but naughty children will be stolen by Swarte Piet. In recent years a lot of changes have taken place with regard to the attitude and practices surrounding Swarte Piet, due to its racist nature. The change was inevitable, and these days alternatives are used for this helper.  

Christmas Day is however celebrated more quietly by the Dutch. For the most part, it consists of a church service and a family meal.

Venezuela

“Feliz Navidad”

In Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, youngsters go to church on 25 December on roller skates. Some streets are even closed until 08:00 in the morning for them to skate there to their hearts’ content. After church they go home to enjoy a Christmas meal consisting of a mixture of meat that is wrapped in cornmeal dough. It is wrapped with twine like a parcel and then boiled or steamed. This Latin-American nation is very colourful and firework displays are very popular during Christmas.

China

“Shèng Dàn Kuài Lè”

In a country where there is only about one percent Christians, most of the people only know a few things about Christmas. Christmas is usually only celebrated in the big cities with lights and decorations. An increasing number of young people in China have started to celebrate Christmas with parties, and couples exchange gifts like on Valentine’s Day. It is rather interesting that most plastic Christmas decorations are made in China, but the Chinese do not decorate their own homes with it. Father Christmas is known as Dun Lhe Dau Ren here. It means “old man Christmas”.

Japan

“Meri Kurisumasu”

In Japan Christmas is not regarded as a religious holiday or celebration. Rather, it is celebrated as a time to spread joy. Most businesses will handle 25 December like a “normal” workday. Several Western customs is however starting to become popular in Japan. This includes sending and receiving Christmas cards and gifts. Fried chicken is a favourite on Christmas Day and for restaurants like KFC this is the busiest time of the year. The fast-food chain even creates a special Christmas Day menu and people can place their orders for the day in advance.  

Russia

“’s rah-zh-dee-st-VOHM’ (C рождеством!)”

Christmas was prohibited as a religious holiday by the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people could celebrate Christmas again. It was however a private and religious event. According to legend, one of the most well-known things about Christmas in Russia is the tale of Babuschka (it means grandmother in Russian). It tells the story of an old woman who didn’t want to travel with the three wise men to see Jesus. For this reason, she is still looking for Him and leaving presents behind for children – just in case they happen to be Baby Jesus. Most people in Russia have however never heard of this story and thinks it is a fictitious tale that was written by an American.  

Today, the Russians are more familiar with Ded Moroz (Grandpa Freeze) and he wears a blue suit. A unique feature of the Russian version of Father Christmas is that his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Girl) is his helper. She is the only female companion of similar characters in other cultures.

  

Zimbabwe

“Muve neKisimusi”

Here Christmas starts with a church service, but after the formalities it is party time. People go from home to home and they visit family and friends. At every house you will be offered something to eat and sometimes gifts are exchanged. They play their favourite music on their largest stereo speakers that are taken outside and placed in front of their houses. Everyone wears their best clothes for these parties. For some families this is the only time they ever get new clothes, therefore a party is a good place to show it off.  

How do you celebrate Christmas abroad?

If you are a South African living abroad, AfriForum Worldwide is your home away from home this December. You are welcome to share the interesting Christmas customs of the country where you live, as well as recipes of the food you prepare and photos of how your house is decorated. You can comment here on any of the legends and traditions that were discussed in the article, or you can send an email to wereldwyd@afriforum.co.za.

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