Anthropology: How Christmas Is Celebrated in Different Parts of the World

Christmas. What is it you think of when thinking about this holiday? Do you think of Christmas trees? Santa Claus? Festive decorations? Whatever it is, I can assure you the answer will differ depending on the place you live. Just like it is with most traditions, they are different for everyone. But I guess it’s becoming most obvious with big holidays like Christmas, since we do have our set of expectations.

One continent is mostly equivalent with similar cultures and similar traditions. However, there are exceptions, and Christmas is one of them. I’ve collected different Christmas celebrations from several countries and organized them according to the continent.

Europe

The time around Christmas in Europe is usually packed with many sacred days. There are the advent days, which are celebrated every four Sundays before Christmas eve. Also, there’s St. Nicholas day, which is usually celebrated on the 6th of December. The main event is Christmas Eve. Most commonly, people go to the midnight mass and have a grand meal with all of their loved ones.

Norway

children wearing the crown of Santa Lucia
Credit: Rick Steves’ Europe / Rick Steves

In Norway, Christmas is a festival of light. On December 13, they celebrate Santa Lucia, the queen of light. She was a 4th century Sicilian saint and helped persecuted Christians in need. To guide them, she wore a crown of blazing candles, which is why the focus of their celebrations is the extreme decoration of light.

France

The main focus of French Christmas is food. They even call the Christmas eve feast “Le reveillon de noël”, which can be translated to awakening. It is a multi-course affair with different foods for different regions. For example, the first course in Paris is raw oysters, in Brittany it’s buckwheat cakes with sour cream, and in Provence it is Christmas bread.

The dessert is usually a cake. It is called “buche de noël” and consists of a rolled sponge cake with chocolate butter cream frosting and mushrooms with holly leaves and powdered sugar.

England

family decorating a christmas tree
Credit: Jonathan Borba / Unsplash

The British adapted many traditions of the Elizabethans and Victorians. Their main focus is children. They help choose and decorate the tree, give concerts in churches, and write letters to father Christmas (Santa Claus). These letters are thrown into the back of the fireplace and supposed to blow up and fly towards Santa.

On Christmas Day, everybody loves a good Christmas Cracker. However, these are not your usual cookie-cracker. It is a strip of paper that includes chemicals. These allow them to produce a pop when enough friction is applied. This paper is tucked inside a colored wrapper, which is additionally filled with candy, toys, and sweet notes.

Sweden

The Yule Goat is a Swedish Christmas symbol which dates back to an ancient pagan festival. Since 1966, this tradition has reached a whole new level. Someone came up with the idea of building a straw goat. Not just any straw goat, because the Swedish don’t half-ass things, they built a 42 feet high, 23 feet wide, and 3.6 tons heavy straw goat. This new Christmas symbol is now called Gävle Goat. The Gävle Goat is constructed and deconstructed every year in the same exact spot.

Denmark

Christmas Day in Denmark was originally a celebration of brighter days, at least before Christianity came around. It was called jól, since it occurred right before the winter solstice. Nowadays, people decorate their homes with nisser (superstitious characters), who supposedly provide protection. On Christmas eve, December 24, Danish families dance around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols.

Australia

people around a barbecue in front of mountains, just like on christmas in australia
Credit: Michael Kilcoyne / Unsplash

Christmas obviously falls right in the middle of summer in the southern hemisphere. However, the school holidays are from mid-December to early February, and Christmas is still one of the biggest holidays. Most families and homes hang wreaths on their front doors, and some go from door to door and sing Christmas carols. Sometimes there’s even a little competition about who has the best light display.

The Christmas bush is a Australian plant with small green leaves and cream-colored flowers. These flowers turn a deep red for a couple of weeks in the year, which just so happens to be over the Christmas days.

Most towns and cities have big festivals and Christmas parades, sometimes even with fireworks. On boxing day, most go and visit their friends and have barbecues at the beach. There’s even a famous yacht race from Sydney to Hobart in Tasmania which is held on Boxing Day. It seems as if the warmer weather brings a whole different atmosphere.

Asia

Asia is not known for its great percentage of Christians. However, since Christmas is becoming more and more popular, so are Christmas celebrations in all parts of the world. Even among those who don’t have the biggest religious connection to this (mostly) Western tradition.

Japan

modern KFC in a city, the Japanese go here on Christmas
Credit: Jason Yuen / Unsplash

Actually, Christmas is not a national holiday here in Japan. Only around one percent of the population is Christian. However, they still find it interesting and find an even more interesting way to celebrate it.

Instead of spending several hours in the kitchen making an extravagant dinner, families head out to their local KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). This special tradition has its origins in 1974, when KFC’s marketing campaign “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” or “Kentucky for Christmas!” was a wild success. Some people order their boxes months and months in advance or stand in nearly two-hour-long lines to get their not-so-usual Christmas dinner.

Philippines

Yes, the United States often goes all out when it comes to decorations. However, if you think so, you haven’t seen the Philippines during Christmas. The city of San Fernando holds the Ligligan Parul (Giant Lantern Festival), which features many dazzling and glimmering lanterns symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem. Each of these consists of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of tiny lights that illuminate the whole night sky. No wonder San Fernando has become the Christmas Capital of the Philippines.

South Korea

The estimated percentage of Christians in South Korea is around 25-30%, which is way more than in other Asian countries. For this reason, Christmas is a bigger deal here than elsewhere. It is even a public holiday and people get a day off school and work but have to go back on the 26th. Their current winter break is during New Year’s. Churches are decorated with lights and hold services on Christmas day.

Funnily, the most common gift is giving money. Most people don’t gift actual presents, but rather money.

If you live in or are visiting North Korea, Christmas will be very different. Being a Christian is officially allowed, but you can go to prison or be killed for being one or owning a bible. They have to meet in secret and any celebrations have to be held in secret as well.

America

Due to the great size of America and the many different cultures, I’ve decided to pick the US, Canada, and Mexico as my examples. And boy, although they are not too far from each other on a land map, they do differ significantly.

USA

Stockings and christmas decorations in green, red, and gold
Credit: Lynda Hinton / Unsplash

Many Christmas customs are very similar to the UK, France, or even Mexico. Christmas is celebrated on the 25th of December. Families get together for a festive meal, after exchanging gifts, of course. As many other countries are adapting as well, it is a tradition to send and give Christmas cards with family portraits.

Some Americans use popcorn on strings to decorate their Christmas tree, build gingerbread houses and drink the traditional Christmas drink Eggnog.

X-Mas is an abbreviation for Christmas. The X originates from the Greek letter “Chi”. Chi represents the word “Christós”, which can be translated to Christ in English.

Mexico

Christmas in Mexico is from December 12th to January 6th. Children perform nine posadas, which celebrate the part of the story during which Joseph and Mary were looking for a stay. They each have candles and a board with clay figures and process around the streets. During their stop at each house, they sing a song about Joseph and Mary and ask to stay the night. Obviously, most families tell them now, but eventually they are told there is a room and are welcomed inside. The children say prayers of thanks when they enter and afterwards, they have a party with great food, fun games, and fireworks.

Each night, a different house hosts the Posada party, and at the final Posada, Christmas Eve, a manger and shepherds are put on the board. Once the children find the final house, the baby Jesus is put into the manger and all families go to a midnight church service.

Popular dishes for their main Christmas dinner include Pozole (thick soup with chicken or pork and chilies topped with greens), roast turkey, bacalao, romeritos, and roast pork. As side dishes they have salads and, for dessert, bunuelos, fried pastries with sugar and cinnamon on top.

Christmas in Mexico also includes most Piñatas. They are decorated as something like a ball with peaks around them. The seven peaks represent the seven deadly sins. However, they can also be animals or birds. To play the Piñata game, children are blind-folded and take turns to hit the Piñata with a stick. Once it splits open, everybody rushes to pick up as many of the sweets it was filled with as possible.

Canada

Snowy forest
Credit: Jonathan Knepper / Unsplash

In contrast to the US, in Canada, most people open their gifts on Christmas eve. However, some leave it for Christmas day, and some even choose one gift to open on the 24th and the rest for the 25th. Canadians like to decorate their tree with lights, colors, and stockings by the fireplace. The main meal is roast turkey with veggies and mashed potatoes. Dessert is mostly plum pudding, mincemeat tarts, and a rich fruit Christmas cake.

Since you’re in Canada, chances are you will experience real snow over the holidays. And what do we do with snow? – Correctly, we go skiing. Or snowboarding. Or ice-skating. Tobogganing. Snowball fighting. Anything. And on the southern shore of Nova Scotia, they follow the tradition of Belsnickeling. People dress up in funny Santa costumes and go from door to door singing and dancing until the homeowners guess correctly who they were. Afterwards, they were served Christmas cake and treats.

Toronto is the host of the largest Santa parades in the world. They’ve been taking place for over 100 years now and have even broadcast on TV all over the world.

At the end of the Christmas season, which is on January 6th, people in the province of Quebec celebrate ‘La Fete du Roi’. They bake a cake and then place a bean in the middle of it. Whoever is the one who discovers the bean in their piece gets to be the king or queen, according to tradition.

Africa

Africa is a bright and colorful country. People have dances, songs, and rituals for everything. Even for Christmas, and most countries like celebrating it.

South Africa

The traditions around South Africa differ tremendously by region and culture. However, most families and friends get together for a cookout, which they call braaing. They eat marinated steaks, boerewors sausages, and have malva pudding with custard as a dessert. Fir Christmas trees are decorated with baubles and hand-beaded ornaments from all over Africa.

Egypt

Vegan bread breakfast options
Credit: Ella Olsson / Unsplash

In Egypt, Christmas day isn’t on the 25th of December, but on the 7th of January, just like in Ethiopia and some orthodox Christian regions in Russia and Serbia. The Coptic month which is previous to Christmas is called Kiahk. Special praise songs are sung on the nights before the Sunday service.

The last 43 days before Christmas from the 25th of November are a time of fasting. Coptic Christians adapt a vegan diet and restrict anything that comes from animals, like milk, meat, eggs. They call it the “Holy Nativity Fast”. However, if somebody is too weak, tired, or ill, they can be excused from this ritual.

On the 6th of January, they go to church. The special liturgy starts at 10.30pm and goes until midnight, but sometimes even until 4.00am. After the service has ended and people go home, they get to feast. The big Christmas meal has everything they had to deprive themselves of in the past weeks: butter, meat, eggs. Fata is a very popular bread, rice, garlic, and lamb soup.

Christmas around the world

Obviously, Christmas is celebrated differently all around the world, according to tradition, culture, and religion. However, it is very interesting how commercialized it has become in some places. Just like it is with most things in life: just because you know something from your perspective doesn’t mean it’s like that for everyone.

Feature image credit: JESHOOTS.COM / Unsplash

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