All over the world, Christmas celebrations reflect local culture and traditions. The festivities can be startlingly different from country to country, focusing on different aspects of the nativity story.
But whether you're celebrating Sheng Dan Jieh in China or awaing Pere Noel in France, you're sharing in the wonder and magic of the Christmas season. In the following pages, we'll take a look at Christmas traditions in countries around the world, from Sweden to Australia, from England to China.
Here's a preview of what we'll cover:
- Christmas Traditions in Australia In Australia, December 25 falls during summer vacation, so many of the country's Christmas festivities take place outdoors. The most popular event of the Christmas season is called Carols by Candlelight. People come together at night to light candles and sing Christmas carols outside. The stars shining above add to the sights and sounds of this wonderful outdoor concert.
- Christmas Traditions in China The small number of Christians in China call Christmas Sheng Dan Jieh, which means Holy Birth Festival. They decorate their homes with evergreens, posters, and bright paper chains. Families put up a Christmas tree, called a "tree of light," and decorate it with beautiful lanterns, flowers, and red paper chains that symbolize happiness. They cut out red pagodas to paste on the windows, and they light their houses with paper lanterns, too.
- Christmas Traditions in England It is cold, wet, and foggy in England at Christmastime. The day before Christmas is very busy for families in England. They wrap presents, bake cookies, and hang stockings over the fireplace. Then everyone gathers around the tree as someone tells a classic holiday story, "A Christmas Carol." Children write a letter to Father Christmas with their wishes and toss their letter into the fire so their wishes can go up the chimney. After the children fall asleep on Christmas Eve, Father Christmas comes to visit.
- Christmas Traditions in Ethiopia Ethiopia follows the ancient Julian calendar, so Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church's celebration of Christ's birth is called Ganna. It is a day when families attend church. Everyone dresses in white. Most Ethiopians don a traditional shamma -- a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly colored stripes across the ends. Twelve days after Ganna, on January 19, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ.
- Christmas Traditions in France Christmas celebrations France begin on December 5, which is St. Nicholas Eve, but Christmas Eve is the most special time in the French celebration of Christmas. Church bells ring and voices sing French carols, called noels. On Christmas Day, families go to church and then enjoy an abundant feast of wonderful dishes, ending with the traditional buche de Noel, a rich buttercream-filled cake shaped and frosted to look like a Yule log.
- Christmas Traditions in Germany German families prepare for Christmas throughout cold December. Four Sundays before Christmas, they make an Advent wreath of fir or pine branches that has four colored candles. They light a candle on the wreath each Sunday, sing Christmas songs, and eat Christmas cookies. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, homes are filled with the delightful smells of baking loaves of sweet bread, cakes filled with candied fruits, and spicy cookies called lebkuchen.
- Christmas Tradtions in Holland Dutch children in Holland, or the Netherlands, eagerly await the arrival of Sinterklaas on St. Nicholas Day on December 6. Sinterklaas is a kindly bishop. He wears red robes and a tall, pointed mitre on his head. Sinterklaas travels by ship from Spain to Amsterdam's harbor every winter. He brings his white horse and a huge sack full of gifts for the children. Families celebrate St. Nicholas Eve at home with lots of good food, hot chocolate, and a letterbanket, a "letter cake" made in the shape of the first letter of the family's last name.
- Christmas Traditions in Italy The Christmas season in Italy begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas. Christmas fairs feature fireworks and bonfires along with holiday music. Families go to the Christmas markets to shop for gifts and new figures for the manger scene. Some families set up a Christmas tree and decorate it. Families set up their presepio, or manger scene, on the first day of the novena. They gather before the presepio each morning or evening of novena to light candles and pray.
- Christmas Traditions in Mexico The weather is warm and mild in Mexico during the Christmas season. Families shop for gifts, ornaments, and good things to eat in the market stalls, called puestos. They decorate their homes with lilies and evergreens. Family members cut intricate designs in brown paper bags to make lanterns, or farolitos. They place a candle inside and then set the farolitos along sidewalks, on windowsills, and on rooftops and outdoor walls to illuminate the community with the spirit of Christmas.
- Christmas Traditions in Spain The Christmas season begins in Spain on December 8, with a weeklong observance of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Evergreens decorate the churches and outdoor markets throughout the Christmas season. Tambourines, gourd rattles, castanets, and miniature guitars are offered for sale to enliven the singing and dancing in the streets. Children go from house to house reciting verses or singing carols for sweets, toys, or small instruments.
- Christmas Traditions in Sweden In Sweden, the Christmas festivities begin on December 13 with St. Lucia's Day, which celebrates the patron saint of light. The eldest daughter gets up before dawn and dresses as the "Queen of Light" in a long white dress. She wears a crown of leaves. Singing "Santa Lucia," the Lucia Queen goes to every bedroom to serve coffee and treats to each member of the family. The younger children in the family help, too. The whole family helps to select the Christmas tree just a day or two before Christmas.
Christmas Traditions in Australia
Australians live on the world's largest island, which is also the world's smallest continent. Most of Australia's immigrants came from England and Ireland, bringing their Christmas customs with them.
Australia is the Land Down Under, where the seasons are opposite to ours. When Australians celebrate Christmas on December 25, it is during summer vacation. Most of Australia is a hot, dry desert, known as the Outback. The grassy or marshy savannas are called the Bush. But most people in Australia live in the green coastal areas of the southwest.
The most popular event of the Christmas season is called Carols by Candlelight. People come together at night to light candles and sing Christmas carols outside. The stars shining above add to the sights and sounds of this wonderful outdoor concert.
Australian families love to do things outside. They love to swim, surf, sail, and ride bicycles. They like to grill meals outdoors on the barbecue, which they call the "barbie."
Families decorate their homes with ferns, palm leaves, and evergreens, along with the colorful flowers that bloom in summer called Christmas bush and Christmas bellflower. Some families put up a Christmas tree. Outdoors, nasturtiums, wisteria, and honeysuckle bloom.
Christmas festivities begin in late November, when schools and church groups present Nativity plays. They sing carols throughout the month of December.
On Christmas Eve, families attend church together. Some children expect Father Christmas to leave gifts, and others wait for Santa Claus to visit and deliver gifts.
After opening presents on Christmas morning, the family sits down to a breakfast of ham and eggs. Then the family goes to church again.
On Christmas Eve in families that observe Irish traditions, the father sets a large candle in a front window of the home to welcome Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. The youngest child in the family lights the candle. The family goes to midnight mass and attends church on Christmas Day, as well. Afterwards there are parties and festive visits.
Christmas Day is when families and close friends gather together from all over Australia. The highlight of the day is the holiday midday dinner. Some families enjoy a traditional British Christmas dinner of roast turkey or ham and rich plum pudding doused in brandy and set aflame before it is brought to the table. The person who gets the favor baked inside will enjoy good luck all year round.
Other families head for the backyard barbie to grill their Christmas dinner in the sunshine. Many families even go to the beach or to the countryside and enjoy a picnic of cold turkey or ham and a salad. Father Christmas has been known to show up in shorts to greet children at the beach on Christmas!
The day after Christmas, December 26, is Boxing Day. Australians with British and Irish backgrounds leave tips for the grocer, postman, newspaper carrier, and others to thank them for their help in the past year.
New Year's Eve is always a special time, with dinners, dances, and parties. On Twelfth Night, January 6, there is one last party to end the Christmas season.
In China, Christmas is called Sheng Dan Jieh, or Holy Birth Festival, and is celebrated with beautiful lanterns, flowers, and red paper chains that symbolize happiness. See the next page to learn more about Christmas traditions in China.
Christmas Traditions in China
The small number of Christians in China call Christmas Sheng Dan Jieh, which means Holy Birth Festival. They decorate their homes with evergreens, posters, and bright paper chains. The family puts up a Christmas tree, called "tree of light," and decorates it with beautiful lanterns, flowers, and red paper chains that symbolize happiness. They cut out red pagodas to paste on the windows, and they light their houses with paper lanterns, too.
Many Chinese enjoy the fun and color that Christmas brings to the drab winter season. Big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are gaily decorated at Christmas.
Many people give parties on Christmas Eve, and some people enjoy a big Christmas dinner at a restaurant. Shops sell plastic trees and Christmas decorations for everyone to enjoy, and Santa Claus is a popular good-luck figure.
The Christmas season is ushered in with fireworks. Jugglers and acrobats entertain, and people enjoy the merriment and feasting. In Hong Kong, which recently was restored to Chinese rule, Christmas Day is just one of seventeen public holidays.
At this time of year, people in Hong Kong also celebrate Ta Chiu, a festival of peace and renewal, by making offerings to saints and reading the names of everyone who lives in the area.
On Christmas Eve, Christian children in China hang up their muslin stockings that are specially made so Dun Che Lao Ren, or "Christmas Old Man," can fill them with wonderful gifts. Santa Claus may also be called Lan Khoong-Khoong, "Nice Old Father."
The Chinese lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, begins in late January or early February. The celebration lasts for three days. While not part of Christmas, the New Year is the most important celebration of the year for the Chinese people. People travel long distances to be with their families. They decorate their homes with brightly colored banners. These banners carry messages of good wishes for the coming year.
Many people exchange gifts at the New Year. Following tradition, very expensive, special presents are given only to close family members. Token gifts are given to friends and distant relations. Children especially enjoy their gifts of new shoes and hats.
People put on new clothes for the New Year celebration. They prepare many special holiday dishes, and families come together at one house to enjoy them. The younger sons of the household serve dinner to the head of the household.
For the first celebration, on New Year's Day, people offer rice, vegetables, tea, and wine to heaven and earth. They burn incense and candles to pay tribute to their ancestors and to all living members of the family.
Chinese families turn out to watch the spectacular New Year's fireworks displays and the exciting lion dance. Several performers dance inside an enormous costume. They make the "lion" walk, slither, glide, leap, and crouch along the street as it leads a colorful procession.
The greatest spectacle takes place at the Feast of the Lanterns, when everyone lights at least one lantern for the occasion. Other special events of the New Year include the Festival of the Dragons and the Fisherman's Festival.
Throughout the three days of New Year's celebrations, everyone speaks only cheerful words to each other so they will have good luck in the coming year.
You might think Christmas traditions in England would be very similar to those in America. Well, in some ways, they're quite different. On the next page, we examine England's Christmas traditions.
Christmas Traditions in England
It is cold, wet, and foggy in England at Christmastime. Families welcome the warmth and cheer of a Yule log blazing on the hearth. They decorate their homes with holly, ivy, and other evergreens and hang a mistletoe "kissing bough."
Throughout the holidays, carolers go from house to house at twilight ringing handbells and singing Christmas songs. "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" are English favorites. People give the carolers treats, such as little pies filled with nuts and dried fruits.
The day before Christmas is very busy for families in England. They wrap presents, bake cookies, and hang stockings over the fireplace. Then everyone gathers around the tree as someone tells the favorite story, "A Christmas Carol."
After hearing their favorite Christmas story, children write a letter to Father Christmas with their wishes. They toss their letter into the fire so their wishes can go up the chimney. After the children fall asleep on Christmas Eve, Father Christmas comes to visit. He wears a long, red robe, carries a sack of toys, and arrives on his sleigh pulled by reindeer. He fills the children's stockings with candies and small toys.
On Christmas Day, everyone sits down to the midday feast and finds a colorful Christmas cracker beside their dinner plate. A Christmas cracker is a paper-covered tube. When the end tabs are pulled, there is a loud crack. Out spills a paper hat to wear at dinner, small trinkets, and a riddle to read aloud to everyone at the table.
The family enjoys a feast of turkey with chestnut stuffing, roast goose with currants, or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Brussels sprouts are likely to be the vegetables. Best of all is the plum pudding topped with a sprig of holly. Brandy is poured over the plum pudding and set aflame. Then family members enjoy a dramatic show as it is carried into the dining room. Whoever finds the silver charm baked in their serving has good luck the following year. The wassail bowl, brimming with hot, spiced wine, tops off the day's feast. It is said that all quarrels stop when people drink wassail.
After dinner, the family gathers in the living room to listen to the Queen of England deliver a message over radio and television. At teatime in the late afternoon, the beautifully decorated Christmas cake is served.
The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day. This day has nothing to do with fighting. Long ago, people filled church alms boxes with donations for the poor. Then on December 26, the boxes were distributed. Now people often use this day to give small gifts of money to the mail carrier, news vendor, and others who have helped them during the year.
Beginning on Boxing Day, families can enjoy stage performances called pantomimes. This activity originally meant a play without words, or actors who mimed or entertained without speaking. Pantomime now refers to all kinds of plays performed during the Christmas season. Such familiar children's stories as "Cinderella" and "Peter Pan" delight young and old alike. In some towns, masked and costumed performers called mummers present plays or sing carols in the streets.
Unlike the English, Ethiopians celebrate Christmas, or Ganna, on January 7. To learn about Christmas traditions in Ethiopia, go to the next page.
Christmas Traditions in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in Africa. It still follows the ancient Julian calendar, so Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church's celebration of Christ's birth is called Ganna. It is a day when families attend church.
The day before Ganna, people fast all day. The next morning at dawn, everyone dresses in white. Most Ethiopians don a traditional shamma, a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly colored stripes across the ends. The shamma is worn somewhat like a toga. Urban Ethiopians might put on white Western garb. Then everyone goes to the early mass at four o'clock in the morning. In a celebration that takes place several days later, the priests will dress in turbans and red and white robes as they carry beautifully embroidered fringed umbrellas.
Most Ethiopians who live outside the modern capital city, Addis Ababa, live in round mud-plastered houses with cone-shaped roofs of thatched straw. In areas where stone is plentiful, the houses may be rectangular stone houses. The churches in Ethiopia echo the shape of the houses. In many parts of the country there are ancient churches carved out of solid volcanic rock. Modern churches are built in three concentric circles.
In a modern church, the choir assembles in the outer circle. Each person entering the church is given a candle. The congregation walks around the church three times in a solemn procession, holding the flickering candles. Then they gather in the second circle to stand throughout the long mass, with the men and boys separated from the women and girls. The center circle is the holiest space in the church, where the priest serves Holy Communion.
Around the time of Ganna, the men and boys play a game that is also called ganna. It is somewhat like hockey, played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball.
The foods enjoyed during the Christmas season include wat, a thick, spicy stew of meat, vegetables, and sometimes eggs as well. The wat is served from a beautifully decorated watertight basket onto a "plate" of injera, which is flat sourdough bread. Pieces of injera are used as an edible spoon to scoop up the wat.
Twelve days after Ganna, on January 19, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ. The children walk to church services in a procession. They wear the crowns and robes of the church youth groups they belong to. The grown-ups wear the shamma. The priests will now wear their red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas.
The music of Ethiopian instruments makes the Timkat procession a very festive event. The sistrum is a percussion instrument with tinkling metal disks. A long, T-shaped prayer stick called a makamiya taps out the walking beat and also serves as a support for the priest during the long church service that follows. Church officials called dabtaras study hard to learn the musical chants, melekets, for the ceremony.
Ethiopian men play another sport called yeferas guks. They ride on horseback and throw ceremonial lances at each other.
Ganna and Timkat are not occasions for giving gifts in Ethiopia. If a child receives any gift at all, it is usually a small gift of clothing. Religious observances, feasting, and games are the focus of the season.
In France, meanwhile, children prepare for Christmas by leaving their shoes by the hearth so Pere Noel, or Father Christmas, will fill them with gifts. Keep reading to learn more about Christmas traditions in France.
Christmas Traditions in France
Christmas in France is a family holiday. The celebrations begin on December 5, which is St. Nicholas Eve. It is a day for gift-giving between friends and relatives. On that cold night, children leave their shoes by the hearth so Pere Noel, or Father Christmas, will fill them with gifts.
Christmas Eve is the most special time in the French celebration of Christmas. Church bells ring and voices sing French carols, called noels.
The family fasts all day, then everyone but the youngest children goes to midnight mass. The churches and cathedrals are beautifully lit, and most display a lovely antique creche. Afterward, the family returns home to a nighttime feast that is called le reveillon. The menu is different in the various regions of France. In Paris, it might be oysters and pate, while in Brittany, the traditional midnight supper is buckwheat cakes and sour cream.
A few days before Christmas, the family sets up a nativity scene, called a creche, on a little platform in a corner of the living room. Some families also decorate a Christmas tree with colorful stars, lights, and tinsel, but the creche is much more important.
The tradition in Provence, in the south of France, is to include, along with the Holy Family, the Three Kings, the shepherds, and the animals, delightful little figures from village life dressed in old-fashioned costumes. These figures might include a village mayor, a peasant, a gypsy, a drummer boy, and other colorful characters. Another tradition in Provence is for people to dress as shepherds and take part in a procession that circles the local church.
To complete the elaborate creche in their home, children bring moss, stones, and evergreen branches for the finishing touches. When the candles are lit, the creche becomes the centerpiece of the Christmas celebration. The children gather around it to sing carols every night until Epiphany, on January 6.
Christmas plays and puppet shows are popular entertainments at Christmas, especially in Paris and Lyons. The shop windows of large department stores have wonderful displays of animated figures that families like to visit.
If any children did not leave their shoes out to be filled with gifts by Pere Noel on St. Nicholas Eve, they leave them out on Christmas Eve to be filled by Pere Noel or the Baby Jesus. Before going to bed, some families leave food and a candle burning, in case Mary passes by with the Christ Child. In homes that have a Christmas tree, Pere Noel hangs little toys, candies, and fruits on the tree's branches for the sleeping children.
On Christmas Day, the family goes to church again and then enjoys another abundant feast of wonderful dishes, ending with the traditional buche de Noel, a rich buttercream-filled cake shaped and frosted to look like a Yule log.
On New Year's, grown-ups visit their friends to exchange gifts with them and enjoy yet more feasting at the New Year's reveillon. The family gathers together again for a final feast on Epiphany on January 6. They eat a special flat pastry, a galette, that has a tiny old-fashioned shoe, a very little china doll, or a bean baked in it. Whoever finds the prize in their serving gets to be King or Queen for the day. As church bells ring, the celebration of the Christmas season comes to an end.
In Germany, people make an Advent wreath of fir or pine branches that has four colored candles. They then light a candle on the wreath each Sunday leading up to Christmas. For more on Christmas in Germany, check out the next page.
Christmas Traditions in Germany
German families prepare for Christmas throughout cold December. Four Sundays before Christmas, they make an Advent wreath of fir or pine branches with four colored candles. They light a candle on the wreath each Sunday, sing Christmas songs, and eat Christmas cookies. The children count the days until Christmas with an Advent calendar. Each day, they open a little numbered flap on the calendar to see the Christmas picture hidden there.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, homes are filled with the delightful smells of baking loaves of sweet bread, cakes filled with candied fruits, and spicy cookies called lebkuchen.
Bakery windows are filled with displays of lovely marzipan confections in the shape of fruits and animals. Best of all are the famous outdoor Christmas markets. The stalls overflow with all sorts of holiday toys, gifts, decorations, and delicacies.
Many German children write letters to St. Nicholas asking for presents. St. Nicholas Day is December 6. Other German children write their letters to the Christ Child. In some areas, the Christ Child brings gifts to children on St. Nicholas Eve and in other areas on Christmas Eve. He is dressed all in white, with golden wings and a golden crown.
Christmas Eve is the most important time of the Christmas season for families. Some even say it is a magical night when animals can speak. The wonderful tradition of the Christmas tree, which started in Germany, is the heart of the celebration. Grown-ups decorate the evergreen tree with beautiful ornaments of colored glass and carved wood, silver stars, and strings of lights. A golden angel is placed at the very top of the tree.
Under the Christmas tree, the family arranges a manger scene to depict the stable that Jesus was born in. Parents may also pile presents from the Christ Child beneath the Christmas tree's richly decorated boughs. Just after dark, a bell rings, and the excited children run into the room to see the beautiful lighted tree in all its glory. The family members exchange gifts, recite poems, and sing Christmas carols. "Silent Night, Holy Night" is an old German favorite. Then everyone enjoys a Christmas feast of roast goose, turkey, or duck.
In some parts of Germany, families still follow an old tradition. The children leave their shoes outside the front door. These shoes are filled with carrots and hay to feed St. Nicholas' horse as he rides by. If the children were good all year, St. Nicholas leaves apples, nuts, and candy for them.
On Christmas Day the white candle of the Advent wreath is lit. This day is quietly focused on family. They attend church together, and then they eat a delicious Christmas dinner together.
But for the following Twelve Days of Christmas, people in some parts of Germany beat drums to drive off spirits. On Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, on January 6, boys dress up like the Three Kings who visited Baby Jesus in the manger so long ago. They carry a star on a pole and go through the town singing Christmas carols. Then the family puts away its Christmas decorations for another year, until December comes around again.
In a different European country, Holland, children eagerly await the arrival of Sinterklaas on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. Go to the next page to learn how Christmas is celebrated in Holland.
Christmas Traditions in Holland
Dutch children in Holland, or the Netherlands, anxiously look forward to St. Nicholas Day on December 6. While they eagerly await the arrival of Sinterklaas, the people around them shop for gifts, write a little poem to accompany each one, and carefully wrap each gift to keep the contents a surprise to the receiver.
Sinterklaas is a kindly bishop. He wears red robes and a tall, pointed mitre on his head. Sinterklaas travels by ship from Spain to Amsterdam's harbor every winter. With him he brings his white horse and a huge sack full of gifts for the children. The mayor and all the people of Amsterdam flock to the harbor to greet Sinterklaas as he arrives. Bells ring out, the people cheer, and a brass band leads a parade through the streets. The parade stops at the royal palace, where the Queen welcomes Sinterklaas.
Families celebrate St. Nicholas Eve at home with lots of good food, hot chocolate, and a letterbanket. This is a "letter cake" made in the shape of the first letter of the family's last name. In some families, each person gets a little letterbanket with their first initial.
Then out come the carefully chosen and wrapped "surprises." Every gift is accompanied by a personal verse written by the giver about the recipient. And even though the gifts are from family and friends, they all are signed "Sinterklaas." No one is supposed to know who really gave the gift. The way they are wrapped adds to the surprise. A small gift might be hidden in a potato. A big gift might be kept a surprise by being hidden in the attic. The recipient opens a smaller gift that contains a note telling the recipient where to find the real package.
Finally, at the end of the evening, the children set their shoes by the fireplace. The shoes are filled with hay and carrots for the horse Sinterklaas rides through the streets on St. Nicholas Eve. The children sing a song about how much they hope the cold, wet, foggy weather will not keep Sinterklaas away that night. Then they tell their parents how well, or how badly, they have behaved throughout the past year. When well-behaved children awake in the morning, their shoes are filled with nuts, candy, and other surprises.
In the eastern part of Holland, farm families announce the coming of Christmas from the first Sunday of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas, until Christmas Eve by blowing a horn made from hollow elder-tree branches. The horns make an eerie noise as they are blown at every farm in the neighborhood.
Later in December, Dutch families decorate a Christmas tree and trim the house with candles, evergreens, and holly. Some children hang up a stocking from the fireplace mantel on Christmas Eve, but there are no more presents after St. Nicholas Day for most Dutch children.
Families go to church together on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas morning. They gather together for a family dinner of roast hare, venison, goose, or turkey. Eggnog and a mulled drink are specially made for this celebration. After dinner, the family gathers before the fireplace to tell stories and sing carols.
December 26 is called Second Christmas Day. Often the family goes out to a restaurant to eat on that day. Many concerts, recitals, and other musical performances make this Christmas Day special.
In Italy, families begin to celebrate Christmas on the first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. Go to the next page to learn about Italian Christmas traditions.
Christmas Traditions in Italy
The Christmas season begins in Italy on the first Sunday of Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas. In the cold winter weather of the northern mountains and in the mild weather of the south, Christmas fairs feature fireworks and bonfires along with holiday music. Families go to the Christmas markets to shop for gifts and new figures for the manger scene. Some families set up a Christmas tree and decorate it.
During novena, the nine days before and including Christmas Day, children go from house to house reciting Christmas verses for coins. The family sets up its presepio, or manger scene, on the first day of the novena. They gather before the presepio each morning or evening of novena to light candles and pray.
Some families put life-size figures of Mary and Joseph in their front yard. Both manger scenes and Christmas carols originated in Italy.
During this time, children write letters to their parents wishing them a merry Christmas, promising good behavior, and making a list of the gifts they hope to receive. The parents read these letters aloud at dinner. Then they toss them in the fireplace. The children chant to La Befana, the mythical Christmas witch, as their wishes go up the chimney.
When the first star appears in the evening sky on Christmas Eve, every family sets lighted candles in their windows to light the way for the Christ Child. They light candles around their presepio and pass the figure of the Baby Jesus from person to person, finally placing it tenderly in the manger. Then they enjoy a lavish meatless supper featuring fish or another type of seafood, vegetables, salads, antipasto, bread, pasta, and sweets. Later that night, everyone goes through the torch-lit streets on their way to Christmas Eve mass.
Christmas Day is reserved for church, family, and feasting. Some Italian children receive gifts from Baby Jesus or from Babbo Natale, as Father Christmas is called. Then everyone sits down to a big Christmas dinner. This often includes capon or another roasted meat. Pannettone, a yeast cake filled with fruit, and panforte, a dense honey cake spiced with cloves and cinnamon, are popular sweets, along with cassata, which includes ice cream and fruit.
New Year's Day is when friends get together and visit. It is also the day when Italians exchange gifts with each other. The children have to wait until January 6 to get their gifts from La Befana, whose name comes from the Italian word for Epiphany.
January 6 is also called Three Kings Day, because it is the day the Three Kings visited the Christ Child in Bethlehem long ago. The legend says that old Befana was too busy cleaning house to help the Wise Men. Now the aged wanderer flies through the air on her broomstick looking for the Christ Child on the eve of Epiphany. Children set out their shoes by the fireplace on that night, hoping for the gifts they asked for during novena. La Befana leaves candy and gifts for children that are good.
During the Christmas season, Italian families sing a special song called Shepherds' Carol in honor of the zampognari, or real shepherds who came to town at Advent and went from house-to-house playing bagpipes and singing songs about the birth of Jesus. In some towns, bagpipers dressed as shepherds still play and sing in front of the neighborhoods' presepios.
Mexicans celebrate Christmas by decorating their homes with lilies and evergreens, and families cut intricate designs in brown paper bags to make lanterns called farolitos. Keep reading to learn more about Christmas traditions in Mexico.
Christmas Traditions in Mexico
The weather is warm and mild in Mexico during the Christmas season. Families shop for gifts, ornaments, and good things to eat in the market stalls, called puestos. They decorate their homes with lilies and evergreens. Family members cut intricate designs in brown paper bags to make lanterns called farolitos. They place a candle inside and then set the farolitos along sidewalks, on windowsills, and on rooftops and outdoor walls to illuminate the community with the spirit of Christmas.
The Mexican celebration of Christmas is called las posadas and begins on December 16. The ninth evening of las posadas is Buena Noche, Christmas Eve. The children lead a procession to the church and place a figure of the Christ Child in the nacimiento or nativity scene there. Then everyone attends midnight mass.
After mass, the church bells ring out and fireworks light up the skies. Many Mexican children receive gifts from Santa Claus on this night. The children help to set up the family's nacimiento in the best room in the house. The scene includes a little hillside, the stable, and painted clay figures of the Holy Family, shepherds, the Three Kings, and animals. The children bring moss, rocks, and flowers to complete the scene.
Families begin the nine-day observance of las posadas by reenacting the Holy Family's nine-day journey to Bethlehem and their search for shelter in a posada, or inn. In some parts of Mexico, for the first eight evenings of las posadas two costumed children carry small statues of Mary and Joseph as they lead a candlelight procession of friends and neighbors from house to house. They sing a song asking for shelter for the weary travelers. When at last they find a family that will give shelter, the children say a prayer of thanks and place the figures of Mary and Joseph in the family's nacimiento. Then everyone enjoys a feast at the home of one of the participants.
For the children, the pinata party on the first eight evenings is the best part of las posadas. The pinata is a large clay or papier-mache figure shaped like a star, an animal, or some other object and covered with colorful paper streamers. The pinata is filled with candy or small gifts and hung from the ceiling. The blindfolded children are spun around and given a big stick.
They take turns trying to break open the pinata with the stick while the pinata is raised and lowered. Everybody scrambles for the gifts and treats when the pinata shatters and spills its treasure.
Christmas Day is a time for church and family. After church services, Christmas dinner begins with oxtail soup with beans and hot chili, followed by roasted turkey and a special salad of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Many children receive gifts on the eve of Twelfth Night, January 5, from the Reyes Magos, the Three Kings who pass through on their way to Bethlehem. Children leave their shoes on the windowsill and find them filled with gifts the next morning. At a special Twelfth Night supper on January 6, families and friends enjoy hot chocolate flavored with vanilla and cinnamon, and a ring-shaped cake. Whoever gets the slice of cake containing a tiny figure of a baby will give a tamale party on February 2, Candlemas Day.
The whole family helps to prepare the tamales, which are a meat or chicken filling wrapped in corn dough. The tamale is then wrapped in corn husks and steamed. A religious service held on Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season in Mexico.
Spanish families begin their Christmas celebrations with a weeklong observances of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Go to the next page to learn more about Spain's Christmas traditions.
Christmas Traditions in Spain
The Christmas season begins in Spain on December 8, with a weeklong observance of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Spanish families may travel to Seville, in the southwest, where the warm weather encourages flowers to bloom in December. In Seville's great cathedral, they watch ten costumed boys perform an ancient dance called Los Seises to honor the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Spain. In northern Spain, families decorate their balconies with colorful carpets, flags, and flowers. They burn candles all night in the windows.
Evergreens decorate the churches and outdoor markets throughout the Christmas season. Tambourines, gourd rattles, castanets, and miniature guitars are offered for sale to enliven the singing and dancing in the streets. Children go from house to house reciting verses or singing carols for sweets, toys, or small instruments.
Life-size nativity scenes called nacimientos are set up in public places, and every family has a small nacimiento in the best room in the house. In some villages, families send their sons to bring in a Yule log. As the boys tug the log home, they stop at homes along the way for chocolates and nuts.
Christmas Eve is La Noche Buena, the Blessed Night. When the first star shines in the evening sky, people light bonfires, called luminarias, in public squares and outside church walls. Traditional plays called Las Pastores depict the shepherds' adoration of the Christ Child in Bethlehem.
At home, each family places a burning candle above the door and lights candles around the nacimiento. People fast all day and then go as a family to midnight mass. Then they return home to enjoy a feast of almond soup, roasted meat, baked red cabbage, and sweet potato or pumpkin.
Christmas Day is set aside for family reunions, when relatives get together for more feasting. The children sing and dance around the nacimiento. Family members exchange gifts, and friends and neighbors exchange holiday sweets. Some families add to the fun with the traditional Urn of Fate. Names are written on cards and placed in a bowl. Then two names are drawn at a time. Those two people will be friendly to each other throughout the coming year.
Children believe that on Epiphany Eve, January 5, the Three Kings travel through Spain on their way to Bethlehem. That night children set out their shoes filled with straw for the Three Kings' camels. The Kings, passing in the night, fill the shoes with gifts. The next day, families enjoy a feast of almond soup, turkey, and roasted chestnuts. Sweets include a special nougat candy called turron and Kings' cake. A small prize baked in the cake brings luck to the person who finds it.
In some villages on Epiphany, January 6, children march out to the city gates carrying special cakes for the Three Kings and other foods for their servants and camels. They are hoping to meet the Three Kings on their way to the Holy Land. Always disappointed in their hopes, the children eat the good things they have brought with them. Then they are directed by their parents to the nacimiento in the village church. There they find the Three Kings presenting gifts to the Christ Child in a manger.
The Christmas season ends at Epiphany with the "Cavalcade of the Kings," a wonderful parade of the Three Kings and live animals.
On December 13, Swedish families observe St. Lucia's Day, which celebrates the patron saint of light. Keep reading to learn more about Christmas traditions in Sweden.
Christmas Traditions in Sweden
It is dark, cold, and snowy in Sweden in December. The days are short and the nights long. Families begin the Christmas season by attending church on the first Sunday of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The children count the days from the first day of December until Christmas with an Advent calendar. Each morning, they open a flap in the calendar's Christmas scene to see the charming picture behind it.
But the Christmas festivities really begin on December 13 with St. Lucia's Day, which celebrates the patron saint of light. The eldest daughter gets up before dawn and dresses as the "Queen of Light" in a long white dress. She wears a crown of leaves and lighted candles. Singing "Santa Lucia," the Lucia Queen goes to every bedroom to serve coffee and treats to each member of the family. The younger children in the family help, too.
Many families go to the Christmas market in the old medieval section of Stockholm to buy handmade toys, ornaments, and candy. Gift-givers like to seal the package with sealing wax and write a special verse that will accompany the gift.
The whole family helps to select the Christmas tree just a day or two before Christmas. Then they use papier-mache apples, heart-shaped paper baskets filled with candies, gilded pinecones, small straw goats and pigs, little Swedish flags, glass ornaments, and small figures of gnomes wearing red hats to decorate the tree.
The delightful smells of gingerbread cookies in the shape of hearts, stars, or goats fill the house. Many families set out a sheaf of grain on a pole for hungry birds.
At the midday meal on Christmas Eve, families follow the tradition of "dipping in the kettle." To remember a time when food was scarce in Sweden, the family eats bread dipped into a kettle of thin broth.
After this modest beginning, they enjoy a bountiful smorgasbord of lutefisk, which is dried fish, Christmas ham, boiled potatoes, pork sausage, herring salad, spiced breads, and many different kinds of sweets. It is said that whoever finds the almond in the special rice pudding will marry in the coming year.
After dinner, the Christmas tree lights are lit. Then the Jultomten, the tiny Christmas gnome, comes on a sleigh drawn by the Christmas goat, Julbokar. In some families, a friend or family member dresses up in a red robe and wears a long white beard to bring toys for the children. In other families, the Jultomten's gifts are left beneath the tree. After the gifts are opened, the family dances around the tree singing a special song.
In the predawn darkness of Christmas Day, candles illuminate every window. Bells ring out, calling families to churches lit by candlelight. Back home again, the parents kindle a blaze in the fireplace to light the darkness. The following day is Second Day Christmas, a day of singing carols.
On January 5, the eve of Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, young boys dress up as the Wise Men and carry a lighted candle on a pole topped with a star. These boys go from house to house singing carols.
Then on St. Knut's Day on January 13, there is one last Christmas party. The grown-ups pack away the Christmas decorations while the costumed children eat the last of the wrapped candies left on the tree. Then out goes the tree to the tune of the last song of Christmas.
No two countries celebrate Christmas exactly the same way. But while people around the world might have different traditions, Christmas is always observed with a sense of wonder and reverence, with friends and family gathered. That's a Christmas tradition we all share.