Christmas Traditions

Around the World

Here in the UK, Christmas takes a fairly familiar form. Although each family will doubtless have their own individual take on it, we all  tend to do largely the same things: sprouts, Santa & stockings. And, while there is something deeply comforting about the ritual of doing the same thing each year, don't we all yearn, from time to time at least, for a little variation on what can, quite frankly, become routine?

It's not as if there isn't plenty to choose from. It seems that every country has its own idea of what constitutes a traditional Christmas. And adopting a few of them means we have the opportunity of 'spending' at least a little part of Christmas abroad without actually having to leave our own front doors. And we're maintaining tradition - such an important part of the festive season … just not necessarily our own tradition … and I'm willing to bet most of us already practice a few.

In Scandinavia, for example, Christmas really starts on the first Sunday of Advent. Most homes have an Advent crown - a candelabra, if you like, with four candles. One candle is lit on Advent Sunday and on each of the remaining three Sundays of Advent another candle is lit so that by Christmas all four are lit. And Advent crown has been adapted to modern technology - with their lovely welcoming candle arches. And how many homes in Britain display at least one of these in a front window? A peculiarity of Scandinavian Christmas is the celebration of St Lucia Day on 13 December. A young girl is chosen to 'play' St Lucia, the patron saint of light, and wears a crown of candles - yes sometimes real candles - and walks, accompanied by attendants, offering saffron buns to hungry locals. Rather than Father Christmas and his reindeer, the Scandinavians  have Tomte or Nisse - a combination of both Santa and his Elves. Tomte and Nisse are white-bearded, red-clad, straw-goat riding Christmas gnomes who live beneath the floorboards, in barns and so on. But just like Santa they distribute gifts from a large sack. As for food - well, the Scandinavians certainly know how to feast but a particular feature of the Nordic Christmas table is a sort of cold and rich rice pudding. Usually served with a fruit or spicy sauce in which a small almond has been hidden. Whoever finds the almond often wins a prize.

The Greeks have to wait until 1 January to receive their presents. On Christmas Eve, dried figs and a spicy golden bread called Christopsomo are served. But before the feast can begin the sign of the cross is made over the bread and the table is lifted three times - probably not a good idea with a traditional UK Christmas meal atop. On Christmas morning Greeks often attend church, after which groups of children visit houses singing carols and receiving a sweet treat at each home. Lunch is a huge feast often finished with a particularly rich baklava as dessert.

The Germans  favour natural greenery as decoration. Masses of pine trees and assorted foliage decorate every public building and square, every shop, home and restaurant. Although the UK inherited the idea of the Christmas tree from the German Prince Albert - consort to Queen Victoria - German trees are seldom decorated, save for a few lights, before Christmas Eve when adults gather in each household to complete the  process. While British children write to Father Christmas with their Christmas list, German 'kinder' write to the Christ Child. But they also leave shoes filled with straw and carrots outside their homes in the hope that St Nicholas will feed his hungry horse as he passes by, replacing the straw and carrots with apples and nuts to thank the children. And, in common with Father Christmas, St Nicholas knows which children have been naughty - and leaves them sticks and coal as punishment. But to me the highlight of the German Christmas is the food - in particular the sweet treats from lebkuchen - spicy ginger biscuits, to roasted nuts and stollen all of which are nowadays commonly available in British supermarkets.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Canada, with its bilingualism takes on many British and French Christmas traditions, particularly where the festive feast is concerned. Brussels sprouts, trifle and Christmas crackers all play an important part. But so do tourtiere and boulettes (pork pie and meatballs for the non-French speakers amongst us). But in certain regions more individual traditions appear. Like the belsnicklers of Nova Scotia who are similar to the old medieval mummers and walk through neighbourhoods, wearing disguises and ringing bells and asking for sweets. As each besnickler is identified, he or she must remove their mask and stop ringing their bell.

In Mexico, Christmas festivities begin with las posadas, from 16 December to Christmas Eve when children re-enact the journey of Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem. They stop at each house asking for shelter, and once this has been offered, a small effigy of the couple is placed in that home's nacimiento or manger scene. Christmas treats in Mexico include bunuelos - sweet cinnamon pastries - and the Christmas meal often includes a mixture of fruit and vegetable known as ensalada de la nocha buena.  Poinsettia plants - native to Mexico - are used as decorations, and Mexican children receive their presents on Epiphany (6 January) since they are brought by the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem.

The Philippines may seem an unlikely setting for a Christmas festival but, being a predominantly Christian country, despite being part of Asia, the archipelago enthusiastically celebrates Yuletide.

Religious services play an important role but homes are decorated with colourful star lanterns, called parols - the making of which begins in July - and many neighbourhoods have competitions for the most beautiful parol. Because the Philippines has such an ethnically diverse society, the festival takes on elements from Chinese, Spanish and old tribal traditions.