Roar writer Charmaine Tan discusses Christmas traditions of different cultures.
With Christmas just around the corner, many keep their fingers crossed as Covid-19 numbers climb. No one wants to cancel Christmas. Whether it’s an excuse to indulge in delicious home-cooked meals, to blast “Last Christmas” on repeat, or to splurge on gifts, ‘tis the season many have been looking forward to. Here’s a glimpse into the many Christmas traditions around the world.
Christmas traditions vary drastically from country to country in this continent. Starting from the West, the UK celebrates Christmas over two days: Christmas Day and Boxing Day. On Christmas Eve, children hang up stockings, hoping to wake up to “Santa’s” gifts the next morning. Holiday cards and gifts are also exchanged during this time. Every year at 3 p.m. local time, the Queen’s Speech is also broadcasted. Her Majesty recaps significant events from the past year, wishing everyone “a very happy Christmas.” In terms of food, a British Christmas is not complete without a turkey and Christmas pudding (plum pudding), along with Christmas crackers on the table.
In Switzerland, Samichlaus (Swiss Santa) and his helper, Schmutzli, visit on St. Nicholas Day (6th December). As opposed to the green elf, Samichlaus’s helper is dressed entirely in black. He carries a sack and hands out nuts, chocolates and mandarins to children. During this time, Adventsfensters (advent windows) are a common sight in villages. Christmas cookie baking is also very popular among Swiss families.
Up in the Nordics, the Christmas season officially kicks off on 13th December, with a procession to commemorate St. Lucia’s Day. In Iceland, it is customary for children to leave shoes on windows; in Sweden, a Gävlebocken (yule goat) structure is set up every year. Mulled wine (glögi/glögg/gløgg) is also a very common drink in December.
Further to the East, pigs are sacrificed on St. Ignatius Day (20th December). Romanian families turn them into a variety of pork-based dishes for a hearty Christmas meal. Conversely, most Serbians observe a 40-day fast: meat, dairy, and eggs are avoided until Christmas day.
In most Asian countries, Christmas is celebrated secularly and decorations are still seen in public areas. This is also the case in China and Japan, countries that do not recognise Christmas as a public holiday. In other countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, people see this special day as a chance for families to spend time together.
However, with approximately 92% of the population being Christian, Christmas is huge in the Philippines. In fact, it is believed that they have “the longest yuletide season in the world”! With malls and public transport decorated since September, Christmas is essentially a four-month long party in this country.
The Philippines has several unique traditions, including Ligligan Parul and Simbang Gabi. Ligligan Parul (Giant Lantern Festival) refers to the tradition of making giant star lanterns with bamboo strips and washi. On the other hand, Simbang Gabi (Dawn Mass) refers to the nine consecutive days of Mass that precede Christmas Eve. The final Mass, known as Misa de Gallo (Rooster’s Mass), is followed by a feast (Noche Buena) to welcome the big day. Traditional festive delicacies include puto bumbóng and bibingka, both of which are different types of rice cakes.
As a “melting pot” of cultures, it should come as no surprise that the United States shares similar traditions with the UK: exchanging Christmas gifts, turkey for dinner, and so on. Additionally, each state in the US has their own unique traditions, but Christmas movies, Black Friday sales and ugly sweaters are consistent on a national level.
A little down South, Christmas celebrations have a more religious nuance to it in Mexico. Similar to Simbang Gabi in the Philippines, Las Posadas is a nine-day event leading up to Christmas day. Instead of Mass, Mexicans reenact Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Christmas carols and piñatas. Nacimientos (Nativity scenes) are also an important tradition.
With Christianity being the main religion in this continent, most countries have a nine-day Mass preluding Christmas, leading up to Misa de Gallo and Noche Buena. Nacimiento displays are equally popular.
In Venezuela, popular Christmas meals include hallaca (masa and meat) and pan de jamón (ham bread). Its neighbour, Colombia, is renowned for its Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles) that marks the start of the Christmas season. On this day, people place candles and paper lanterns on their porches and windowsills.
Unlike South America, Christmas is not as huge in Africa. Nonetheless, there exists some differences in traditions: For one, Christmas of 2020 is already over in Ethiopia and Egypt – they celebrate it on 7th January, instead of 25th December.
Despite boasting a 95% Muslim population, Christmas is as festive as ever in Senegal, with decorations everywhere. Also predominantly Muslim, there is an annual Fanal parade in the Gambia. Boats are made from bamboo and lit with candles; it is comparable to the Philippines’ Ligligan Parul.
South Africa has a tradition of braai (traditional barbecue). A former British colony, this country shares traditional dishes from the UK; don’t be too surprised if you find a Christmas pudding on the dinner table!
That being said, Christmas 2020 is going to be a little different, but that’s okay. Whilst some age-old traditions may not take place this year, there is no reason why we cannot embrace the season of love and joy from our homes.