By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA
5 Unique Christmas Traditions From Around the World
The world is, of course, a multicultural place, with its people celebrating myriad holidays during the final weeks of the year, from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa.
With one-third of the world’s population Christian, Christmas is celebrated in many nations. Yet in places where Christians are in the minority — take Japan, for example, where less than 1 percent of the population follow the religion — many may still honor the holiday, albeit in unexpected ways.
1. The Philippines
No other country in the world celebrates the season quite like Filipinos, the third-largest Catholic nation in the world.
The Philippines one-up the United States’ propensity for immediately replacing Halloween décor with Christmas lights by commencing celebrations in September — making it the longest Christmas celebration in the world.
The southeast Asian’s Catholicism is a holdover from the Spanish colonial era of the Philippines, as are traditions like the marathon nine-day series of Christmas masses called simbang gabi.
So, too, are the festive parols, or star-shaped lanterns, that brighten windows during the entire holiday season. The lights, which are meant to reflect the Star of Bethlehem in design, are named after the Spanish word for lantern, farol.
This year, the lighting of the traditional Christmas lanterns carries particular meaning in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda.
In the Philippines, Merry Christmas is “Maligayang Pasko.”
The Yule Log is customary in European-derived Christmas traditions. It crackles brightly on many an American TV as something of a faux hearth. The French bake a confectionary version of the holiday-themed tree part. But Sweden skips the wood and goes for the goat instead.
The Yule Goat isn’t a real animal; it’s typically made almost entirely of straw. In the Swedish tongue, the Christmas goat is known as the Julbok. The Julbok’s origins are rooted in mythology, but it’s been warmly adopted by Swedes as part of modern Christian tradition — perhaps too warmly.
The Swedish town of Gävle has erected a giant version of the Yule Goat since 1966. And every year since, people have tried to torch it, kidnap it and otherwise harass the apparently rather expensive symbol of Christmas joy. At least 28 of the 45 goats have succumbed to what the authorities dub as “vandals.”
But, according to The Local, an English-language Swedish newspaper, “half of (Gävle’s) inhabitants take pride in the giant animal, while the other half take equal pride in attempting to burn it down.”
Merry Christmas in Swedish is “God Jul.”
In Australia, Christmas falls right in the middle of some of the hottest weather of the year. Because of the extreme heat, Christmas is often marked by electrical storms and brush-fires rather than gently falling snow.
But that doesn’t keep Aussies from getting into the Christmas spirit. A Canberra family recently broke a world record by stringing more than 31 miles of Christmas lights around its property.
Some Australians who celebrate Christmas honor the nation’s Anglo-Celtic influence with English-style holiday fare likely more appropriate for colder climes. Roast turkey, steamed pudding and gingerbread all might end up on the table.
But it’s not all about plum pudding, which is increasingly served with ice cream to help tolerate the Australian summer temperatures, anyway. To further beat the heat, up to 40,000 Australians flock to Bondi Beach in Sydney at Christmastime — and beaches mean barbecues.
Carols by Candlelight, derived from a 19th-century Australian tradition, has turned into a big, down-under outdoor Christmas festival. Held on Christmas Eve in Melbourne for the past 76 years, the outdoor concert is now a fundraiser for Vision Australia. Similar events are now held around the world.
Finland seems made for Christmas. Reindeer run rampant in Finnish Lapland and Joulpukki, a bearded mythical figure who looks and acts for all the world like Santa Claus, is said to make his home where those same reindeer roam.
But it’s not all snowflakes and cookies on Christmas Eve, when at noon the Declaration of Christmas Peace is read in a formal ceremony in South Finland.
The statement, which has been tweaked a bit since it was first read in the 13th century, offers a surprisingly emphatic reminder that any sort of unruly behavior that challenges the holiday “shall under aggravating circumstances be guilty and punished according to what the law and statutes prescribe for each and every offense separately.”
In other words, hooligans, don’t mess with Finnish Christmas.
The peaceful declaration goes on to wish the inhabitants of Finland a joyous Christmas feast. There, a feast is made joyous with the addition of Christmas ham, smoked and pickled fish, cheeses and sweet Christmas breads. The people in the northernmost parts of Finland sometimes even eat reindeer for Christmas.
In Finland, people wish each other “Hyvää Joulua” on Christmas.
In France, Christmas Day is always preceded by a “Reveillon”, which means staying awake to usher in the next day, according to Susi Seguret, who leads the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts in several different cities, including Paris.
“This means essentially gathering with friends, often a dozen or more, and enjoying a multi-course dinner, in company of many bottles of wine and much champagne,” Seguret says. “This is a time to dress to the nines, even if at home, and to get out the best china and silver and crystal and all the candles.”
Seguret says the meal always includes fresh oysters, a fish course, a poultry course, a meat course, an extensive cheese platter and delicate desserts.
“In the south of France, around Provence, les treize desserts — the 13 desserts, representing Jesus and the 12 apostles — figure into the season.”
The components of the dish vary by local or familial tradition, but tend to include dried fruits, nougat and other traditional sweets.
In northern France, particularly in Alsace, traditional Christmas markets abound. They burst with holiday sweets like the bredele and gingerbread as well as warming mulled wine. On Dec. 6, white-bearded St. Nicolas walks through the streets of Alsace, passing out sweets to all of the “good” children. Sound familiar?
Merry Christmas in French is “Joyeux Noel.”