There’s nothing quite like Christmas. The lights, the snow, the presents. The stories passed down generation to generation in front of a cozy fire, blankets wrapped tight and cocoa piping hot. Feelings of warmth and togetherness, and most of all, the feeling of giving. Carols, classic films, and treasured family favorites are shared throughout the holiday season. Every family, every culture, every person sees Christmas through a unique lens of wonder and splendor. Oh, what a wonderful time of year!
I remember fondly my own Christmas traditions growing up smack dab in the middle of America. Each year, the very day following Thanksgiving, we would decorate the tree while my brothers and I eagerly shared our wants and wishes. In the weeks that followed we would each get our own special day with Mom to do our Christmas shopping, carefully selecting the perfect gift for those we were closest to. We’d even get to wrap them ourselves!
Slowly but surely our Christmas Tree would fill up with beautifully wrapped packages, each with a coordinating bow (or two)! Then, the night before Christmas we would gather around the tree, Mom, Dad, my brothers, and me, to select one gift to open early. We’d wake as early as Mom and Dad could bear Christmas morning, excitedly exchanging gifts. Then we’d head over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I remember many a Christmas staring up at the perfectly fluffed, carefully tinsel-coated tree that sat in Grandma’s living room; the very same tree that will fill my home with joy and wonder this year.
Christmas Traditions in America
Here in America Christmas can look a thousand different ways as we are a land of many cultures. Traditionally, families begin celebrating and preparing starting the day following Thanksgiving. They will typically adorn the outside of their home with bright, holiday-themed lights and deck the halls with garland and Saint Nick-nacks. Over the course of the season there are parades, TV specials, and caroling groups. Perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of an American Christmas, However, is the giving.
Charities such as Marine Toys for Tots give us the opportunity to make Christmas bright for those outside of our family. Created and governed by Veteran Marines, Toys for Tots gives us the opportunity to “bring the joy of Christmas and send a message of hope to America’s less fortunate Children.” On the Toys for Tots webpage you can donate money to sponsor Christmas gifts for children, which are then distributed by U.S. Marines.
Now that we’ve revisited some of our most loved traditions for American Christmas, grab your cocoa and some Christmas cookies and let’s take a trip around the world to see how other countries celebrate the holiday season!
Unique Christmas Traditions Around the World
Our first stop around the world is our close neighbor, Mexico. Christmas in Mexico is celebrated beginning in December and running through January 6. While Mexican Christmas does include many similar traditions, such as Christmas trees and large family dinners, it has some features that are unique to Mexican Culture. In a Mexican home, El Nacimiento, or nativity scene, is the primary focus of decoration. Additionally, much of the celebration focuses on the Virgen de Guadelupe, or the Virgin Mary. Mass is held on Christmas Eve, much like the American Catholic tradition, and then the final celebration is the arrival of the three wise men on January 6.
The Czech Republic
Our next stop is the Czech Republic, where a unique Christmas tradition reveals the future of your love life. On Christmas day, a person will sit with their back to the door. They will then throw their shoe over their shoulder. If the shoe lands with the toe to the door, they will marry soon!
One of the biggest things that makes an Australian Christmas unique is the weather! When Christmas is celebrated it is actually summertime for Australian children. This means that typical snowman building and sledding traditions are traded up for a day at the beach with family. Traditional hearty Christmas dinner is often substituted for a barbeque and light salads. The American tradition of caroling is shared, however, in one of the biggest events of the season “Caroling by Candlelight.”
Ukrainian Christmas is celebrated for an extended amount of time, beginning December 6 and ending January 19. Both December 25 and January 7 are considered national holidays. Ukrainians celebrate Sviatyi Vechir, or Christmas Eve, and use this day to decorate and have a Sviata Vecherya (holy dinner). A few pieces of hay are left on the table to represent the manger during this twelve dish meal. Koliadky, or caroling, is the traditional way to end the night. In fact, the famous “Carol of the Bells” is based on the Ukrainian song “Shchedryk.” Among other treasured traditions are the Shopka, or nativity scene, and Didukh, or “grandfather spirit.” The grandfather spirit represents the family’s ancestors during this special time of year.
Christmas traditions in India usually begin on December 24th and run until New Year’s Day. Similar to American traditions Bada Din, or Christmas Day, is celebrated by attending a Christmas Day mass, decorating a tree, and caroling. In larger cities Christmas is celebrated by people of all devotions. In many areas, clay lamps are lit on rooftops and walls of homes to represent Jesus as light of the world. Much of the tradition celebrated by Indian Christians stems from American influence through media, marketing, and churches.
Christmas in the Philippines is one of the largest holiday celebrations of the area, and also the longest celebrated Christmas season in the world. Caroling can begin as early as September, and can run as late as The Feast of the Santo Nino on the third Sunday of the new year. Filipinos all over the world start the Christmas Countdown, or Ber Months, on September 1st, making this Christmas season over four months long! Office parties begin in the second week of December, and are celebrated through theatrical performances, parlor games, potlucks, and fireworks. Simbang Gabi is a series of night/ early morning masses held from December 16 to Bisperas ng Pasko, or Christmas Eve. Following mass, breakfast outside of the church is shared among families. On Bisperas ng Pasko, mass begins at midnight, followed by a midnight feast, and often gift exchanges.
Christmas day is family focused, with another mass called Misa de Gallo at night. In the morning hours, Pagmamano is celebrated. This is a ritual where elderly extended family members are greated with “Aguinaldo po” (hand please) as they outstretch their hand and press it against the forehead of the younger family member, typically while reciting a blessing. Money is often given as a gift following this exchange.
Ninos Inocentes, or holy innocent’s day, is celebrated on December 28, and would be considered comparable to the American April Fool’s Day. The Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, Marks the official end of the holiday season.
While Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, it is often celebrated with similar traditions to the rest of the world. Heavily influenced by commerce, much of Japan’s Christmas season mirrors that of America. However, two traditions are uniquely Japan’s own when celebrating Christmas. The first is Stollen Cake, a white sponge cake covered in cream and strawberries. The second, is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes, you read that right. An overly successful marketing campaign from the 70’s has created a satirical tradition of serving KFC or another form of chicken dinner as a holiday feast for Christmas.
German Christmas tradition takes a sharp turn from its American counterpart. On Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, German children check their shoes for either a gift or a rod. If the child has a gift, then they have had good behavior, whereas if the child finds a rod, Krampus may be coming for them. That night, known as Krampusnacht, Santa’s wicked counterpart roams the streets, punishing and taking away naughty children.
Cultural Twists on a Classic Celebration
While Christmas can look different through the lens of each culture of the world, classic features such as hearty meals, caroling, family, and giving are common throughout every country. Though each culture has its own belief systems and grounds for celebration, this time of cheer, joy, and laughter is shared globally. Though our own American traditions of decorating, cooking, caroling, gifts, and charity are beloved and respected throughout our country, we can be inspired by the way Christmas traditions around the world are created and coveted. What is your favorite holiday tradition?
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