Sometimes with all of the Christmas shopping and family togetherness, it is hard to remember that Christmas is actually celebrated in different ways all around the world. Christmas is, at its most basic element, a celebration of Christ's birth. Of course, over time it has spread from this fundamentally religious base to become more mainstream with Santa Claus and Frosty. But regardless of our version, there are many ways Christmas is celebrated all over the world.
American and Canadian Christmas
The Christmas we are most familiar with is, of course, our own. In North America, Christmas has become a blend of religious aspects, such as nativity scenes and church services, with familiar icons such as Rudolf and Santa. Of course, it wouldn't be America without opposing sides trying to find a happy ground between holiday displays, shopping, and the true meaning of Christmas, but most folks overlook that and enjoy the season.
Christmas for many, but not all, families which celebrate the holiday usually begins with setting up the Christmas tree and decorating the home. Baking and special treats are part of the fun as are the gifts. Making lists and shopping for gifts to give to friends and family are at the root of the season, and the great sales at the mall certainly don't hurt anything either. Of course, it is very important to whisper in Santa's ear or send a letter or email with your gift ideas so the jolly ol' elf gets it right.
Some families celebrate and open presents Christmas Eve, but most wait anxiously until Christmas morning. Overnight, Santa has visited, eaten the cookies and milk left out, fed the waiting carrots to his reindeer, and left all kinds of goodies in your stocking and under the tree. Once the family has assembled, there is a mad rush to open all the gifts, thank everyone profusely, and then play with your new toys like you've never played before. All of this is followed by a hearty meal and family togetherness.
In Europe, traditions vary by country. Europe, however, has many of the oldest Christmas traditions that have contributed a great deal to what we are familiar with.
In Italy, Father Christmas (Babo Natale) does bring some gifts on Christmas day, but usually La Befana, an old woman on a broom comes around to fill children's stockings. Most gift giving is also done on the Twelfth day of Christmas, or Epiphany, which is the day the Wise Men visited the Baby Jesus with gifts. Almost all holiday decorations in Italy are nativity scenes or crèches. Other Italian traditions include bagpipes and meatless dinners on Christmas Eve – including one tradition of eating seven fish.
Germany, Switzerland, and Austria
Many aspects of our Christmas originated in the area surrounding and including Germany.
The Christmas tree, or Tannenbaum, first originated in Germany almost five hundred years ago, and is a custom which has spread throughout the world. Germany also celebrates two days of Christmas – Christmas day and the following day, der zweite Weihnachtstag. Finally, Santa Claus appears in the area occasionally, but Christkindl, or Christ Child, otherwise known as Kris Kringle, brings presents on Christmas Eve. One of our favorite carols, Silent Night, also came from this part of the world.
The biggest difference between our traditional Christmas and the season in Australia is the heat. Of course we are used to snowy, or at least brisk, Christmas celebrations, but in Australia, they are actually in the middle of summer. It has been known to reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas day. Santa arrives on a surfboard or boat, and many Australians celebrate Christmas with a picnic or on the beach.
In Mexico, many Christmas traditions are shared with the Spanish. The centerpiece of the season is the La Posada in which a procession of people reenacts the search of Mary and Joseph for shelter. The poinsettia, a plant with bright red flowers, is the traditional evergreen of the season, and Santa is not common. Most children are blindfolded on Christmas day and have an opportunity to break a piñata. The piñata is full of candy and small gifts for all the young people present. Especially good children also receive gifts on January sixth from the Three Wise Men.
Of course every country, and every family within a country, has their own unique holiday traditions. It would be a shame to think that this short list includes all important customs and stories. Rather it is simply a sample of holiday aspects that differ from our own, but might be worth adapting. Merry Christmas!