The American version of Christmas seems to have the most attention, what with all the movies made to reflect the holiday spirit and the emphasis on getting the best deals on gifts at your local retailer, but there are a wide number of traditions all over the world. Whereas the lighting of a large tree in the town square is one way many signify the start of the season, other places treat the holiday as a days- or weeks-long Christmas festival. Dancing, storytelling, and merry-making are the focus of the celebration, creating a party atmosphere around the birth of Jesus.
The Christmas Festival All Over the World
For Australians, Christmas is a summertime activity. This means they are able to enjoy great weather and sing Carols by Candlelight under starry night skies. And, because the sun is shining, many head to places like Bondi Beach in Sydney for large public gatherings involving local bands and DJs.
In China, Christmas is called the Holy Birth Festival. It looks similar to what the Western world has, except traditional signs of happiness, like red paper chains, are used to decorate the tree. They go further, though, using paper lanterns and flowers on the branches as opposed to glittering lights and glass ornaments.
In Sweden, the festival begins on December 13th – St. Lucia’s Day. Commemorating the patron saint of light, the oldest daughter gets up before sunrise and goes from bedroom to bedroom wearing a white dress with a crown of leaves, singing to each member of the family while delivering coffee and pastries. The day itself centers around a feast of homemade foods, particularly a rice porridge in which a single almond is hidden – the one who finds it in their bowl is believed to get married in the next year.
Ethiopians still use the Julian calendar, which means January 7th is the day they celebrate Jesus’ birth. Parents and children put on a white robe with bright stripes on the ends called a shamma, then walk to a pre-dawn mass. After taking in the traditional church service, extended families gather to play ganna – a game similar to field hockey – and eat sourdough bread with a time-honored stew of meat and vegetables.
Mexico has several customs surrounding the holiday, beginning on December 12th with the Virgin of Guadalupe’s birth and ending January 6th with Epiphany. Christmas Eve is a major celebration, complete with fireworks and singing at midnight before the Misa de Gallo – a “mass of the rooster” because tradition holds one crowed at the birth of Jesus, the only time it didn’t happen at sunrise. As a way to further separate themselves from their neighbors to the north, children receive gifts on Epiphany instead of Christmas Day, and get them from the Three Wise Men instead of Santa Claus.
Though the Communist government in Russia suppressed the observance of Christmas for many years, the tradition has been given new life by the Orthodox Church in recent years. Reviving previous traditions, the holiday is celebrated on January 7th and is built around a meal of pirog (pies with cabbage and meat) and pelmeni (meat dumplings). During the period leading up the holiday, priests travel from home to home accompanied by altar boys with holy water, then go from room to room sprinkling a blessing upon the whole house for the coming year.