Christmas Around the World
Around the world Christmas is a well known Christian tradition, although it varies in importance within the Christian calendar from culture to culture. From the desert of the Middle East, to both poles Christmas is observed on every continent. Over the 2000+ years of Christianity, Christmas traditions have developed and spread through many cultures.
Perhaps the best known Christmas traditions are those in America, where Christmas is a major holiday highlighted by immense gift giving. It is not uncommon for economists to consider a retail company’s fortunes based on its Christmas season sales. American’s are familiar with Santa Claus, a character who derives from other cultures traditions regarding Saint Nicholas. Also popular are Santa Claus reindeer; Blitzen, Comet , Cupid, Dancer, Dasher, Donner, Prancer, Rudolph, and Vixen. While Santa Claus and Reindeer are most popular in America, many other American Christmas traditions derive from those of other cultures.
Christianity has been practiced in England since at least the first century. While England Shares many of the same traditions as America, some are unique to England. For instance in England a character similar to Santa Claus is referred to as Father Christmas. The English also celebrate Boxing Day, the day after Christmas which is named for a tradition of collecting money into clay boxes, which one full are broke open.
Dutch Christmas Traditions have inspired those of many other cultures. Though Santa Claus is a combination of many winter season gift giving legends, his name in part derives from Sinterklaas, a pre-Christian Dutch tradition. Another Dutch tradition however is leaving out wooden shoes for gifts. Saint Nicholas of Myra was known for random acts of kindness, and was the inspiration of this tradition, although his Feast Day is celebrated elsewhere in the Christian calendar.
German Christmas traditions have also affected those of other cultures. The popular Christmas-Tree derives from the Pre-Christian German tradition of Yule, which was celebrated around the same time. The Yule Log, and the red and green colors associated with Christmas are also derived from Yule traditions.
Japan is not historically a Christian nation, however Christmas is a popular holiday there. While many of their traditions are borrowed directly from western traditions they have some of their own. Because the New Year is a very big holiday in Japan, Christmas has a different character than in the west. It has a romantic connotation almost like Valentine’s Day in the west. Also the Japanese celebrate Christmas Dinner with a ‘Christmas Cake’.
Historically Russia has celebrated Christmas differently than western countries. As it is in Japan, New Years is a big holiday, in part also because the Soviet Occupation of Russia banned religious celebrations. Russians have many New Years traditions such as a Yolka Tree, which comes from pre-Christian traditions as does the Yule Tree. The Russians also associate Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost, and his granddaughter Snegorochka or Snow Maiden, with the New Year. Russian Christmas is celebrated according to the Orthodox Julian Calendar and falls on January 7th. While there is a growing observance of the day it is generally celebrated as a solemn religious holiday and contrasts with the commercialized Russian New Year. The weeks prior to Christmas are marked with Orthodox Fasting practices which strictly limit what foods may be consumed. Shortly after Christmas, though related, is Epiphany which Russians celebrate by swimming in cold water through Cross shaped holes in the ice.
Greece is one of the oldest Christian cultures, dating to the days the New Testament was being written, As in Russia, Greece celebrates Christmas according to the Orthodox Christian calendar, on January 7th. Also like Russia the time before Christmas, or ‘The Nativity’, involves Fasting. After this season of fasting Greeks celebrate Christmas with a festive meal, and fried cakes. Less common now, early traditions involved gift baskets similar to easter baskets used for Greek Pascha.
Ukraine is located between Russia and Poland. Traditionally Poland has been a Roman Catholic country, where as Russia is an Eastern Orthodox country. Poised between the two the Ukrainians practice many of the same traditions as their neighbors but do have some unique traditions. Ukrainians have a traditional Christmas wafer similar to the Polish tradition, but it is smaller. On Christmas day this is crushed up and eaten with honey.
Poland has a number of Christmas traditions not shared by other traditionally Catholic Countries. One is the Oplatek, which is similar to the Catholic Eucharist. Others are Wycinanki Paper which originated with pre-Christian holidays, and Krakowian Creche which is a midnight mass. Poles & Ukrainians both sing carols and collect alms for the poor during Christmas. The three kings and the epiphany also figure heavily into Polish Christmas traditions.
Rome is historically one of the 5 major centers of Christianity (which included Jerusalem (Israel), Antioch (In Modern Day Turkey), Alexandria (Egypt), and Constatinople (In Modern Day Turkey) as well. Roman Catholicism originated in Rome, and like Poland the Three Kings figure into their Christmas traditions. Rather than Santa Claus, Italian Children anticipate Befana who in lore gave the Three Kings directions to the birthplace of the Messiah. Catholic Italians engage in 24 hours of total fasting before Christmas. Manger scenes also are an important part of Christmas in Italy.
St Nicholas of Myra (in Modern Day Turkey) is the inspiration for many Christmas traditions. Like other Saints, such as St Basil the Great, St Nicholas was known for giving anonymous gifts and aid to others. Ironically St Nicholas lived in the desert near the sea, and likely never saw snow or reindeer. The Turkish government limits many religious practices but there are many Christians in Turkey, which occupies much of the former Byzantine Empire. Turkish Christian traditions are very similar to Greek Christmas traditions.