Christmas is observed in all kinds of places around the world – from the privacy of a single home to public worship in a cathedral, in the smallest villages and the largest cities, in the jungles and in the deserts. In many places however, it looks much different than a North American Christmas. Do they have Santa Claus in China, for example? What’s for Christmas dinner in Sweden? What happens when Christmas arrives during summer vacation? Here’s a sampling of global traditions, to answer some of these questions and more.
Christmas in Europe
As a general rule, the Christmas season in Europe begins in early December and lasts through January 6. The celebration is marked by beautiful expansive Nativity scenes, delicious feasts, and the observance of Epiphany. Though each culture has its unique customs and rituals, there are elements that unify the holiday for all within a given country.
For the French, the winder holiday (known as Noël, from en expression meaning “day of birth”) begins on December 6, St. Nicholas’ Day. St. Nicholas’ Day is celebrated most heartily in the provinces, particularly in Lorraine, as it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave Lorraine to Nicholas as a gift; he is its patron saint. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children; little ones throughout France leave out their shoes in the hope that St. Nicholas will leave gifts of nuts and candy during his night visit.
French homes are known for their Crèches, or Nativity displays, which are meant to look as realistic and beautiful as possible. Some contain santons (little saints) representing people in the Nativity. Santons came to France in the 1800s from Italy, by way of Italian merchants. The figures are made of clay, and in most cases, are clothed with fabric.
Flowers are another staple decoration in the French home during the holiday season. Lush arrangements of roses, gladioli, carnations, and snapdragons are often found on the table or next to the fireplace, as are poinsettias, hyacinths, azaleas, and Christmas begonia plants. Some houses assign a special place on the table a bouquet the hellebore, or Christmas Rose.
The arrival of Christmas Eve sees the infant Jesus taking his place in the family creche after a small ceremony. Little children are put to bed, hoping the gifts they ask for will be left by Père Noël. Previously, Petit Jesus, or Little Jesus, was the one who came to children on Christmas Eve. Later, the visitor was the spirit of Christmas, Père Noël. In present-day France, most children believe Jesus sends Père Noël in his place.
After the children are in bed, the older members of the family head off to midnight Mass. Along the way there are often processions re-enacting the Nativity, some of which end in living creches (where people play out the manger scene). The midnight mass itself is very important in France, and almost everyone attends.
At the conclusion of Mass, all head home to begin the reveillon (awakening), which is the grand Christmas Eve feast. The feast may have as many as fifteen courses, ranging from soups, fruits, salads, meats, fish, and chicken to cheese, breads, nuts, pastry, and candy. The reveillon often lasts the entire night, with no time for the adults to sleep before the children wander down to open their gifts. The adults wait to exchange their gifts on New Year’s Day, though some villages near the Spanish border mix Spanish and French traditions and open gifts on January 6.
Gift giving in Belgium traditionally takes place on December 6, In French-speaking areas, it’s Père Noël who brings the gifts, while in Walloon-speaking areas, it’s more likely to be St. Nicholas himself, who makes a quick visit two days before-hand to take a look around and gauge children’s behavior. On December 6, good children can expect special treats, while bad ones look for sticks in the shoes that they’ve left out to be filled.
An area of the country known as Flanders is famous for its Nativity plays, which are performed with great care and attention to tradition. Three men who are chosen for their good behavior during the year dress as Magi and walk through the town. They sing songs at each house and are rewarded with snacks. Belgium is also known for its processions on Christmas Eve, which wind through town until they reach the church for midnight Mass.
Italy is the birthplace of the manger scene, or presepio, which is filled with clay figures called pastori. It rightfully holds a place of distinction int he Italian Christmas, dating back almost eight centuries to the time of St. Francis of Assisi.
The ceppo is an Italian version of the Christmas tree. Made of wood, the ceppo gives the appearance of a ladder, with shelves linking two sides. The bottom shelf contains a presepio; other shelves contain gifts and decorations.
Italian children receive gifts twice during the season. The Christ Child is said to bring small gifts on Christmas Eve, but the more anticipated gift giving is from La Befana, who comes down the chimney on Epiphany Eve to leave goodies in shoes. Legend has it that La Befana was the woman who declined the Wise Men’s offer to accompany them on their journey to see the Christ Child. Regretting her decision later, she set out to bring the Christ Child gifts, but as she never found Him, she leaves gits for other children instead. (The tradition has variants in many other countries as well.) Santa Claus is also a familiar figure in Italy, where he’s known as Babbo Natale.
The Christmas season in Spain begins on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This includes Los Seises, the Dance of Six, an ancient custom whereby six boys perform a dance that symbolizes Christ’s birth and life. This is celebrated annually at Seville’s cathedral.
The manger scene, or nacimiento, has a place of reverence in the Spanish Christmas. This manger scene contains all the traditional elements, along with a few distinctly Spanish ones, including a Spanish bull and a stream of water. Sometimes bullfighters are part of the onlookers. These scenes are set up in public squares and in homes, taking precedence over Christmas trees, which are not common.
The Spanish refer to Christmas Eve as Noche Buena (Good Night). On Christmas Eve, family members gather in the room containing the nacimiento to sing hymns and pray. Late in the evening, the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) is attended. Many Hispanic countries refer to midnight Mass as the Mass of the Rooster; it has been said that the only time a rooster ever crowed at midnight was the moment when Christ was born. After Mass, a big meal is consumed.
Adults exchange gifts on Christmas Day. Anotehr treat is the Urn of Fate, a bowl filled with the names of everyone present. Two names are picked out at the same time; those whose names are chosen together are supposed to enjoy a lasting friendship or romance.
There is much dancing and other festivities through Epiphany, the day that children receive presents in their shoes from he Three Wise Men. (There is no Santa Claus figure.)
(Jeffrey, Yvonne; The Everything Family Christmas Book)