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Christmas around the world

by Felicia & NiamhReading time: 7 min.
Christmas around the world
Santa Claus is coming to town! Or shall I say Saint Nikolaus? The Christmas holidays are the most beautiful time of the year and even if the whole world seems united during this period, you may not be surprised by the fact that there are plenty of traditions, according to where you are, and that people all around the world celebrate Christmas differently. 
As an Au Pair, you will get the chance to live a new and different Christmas in your Host Family, that’s why we gathered a brief history of Christmas, together with special celebrations all around the globe. Find out more about the international Christmas customs and share yours with us!

The origins of Christmas

Christmas is a centuries-old custom which, according to the Christian tradition, celebrates the birth of Jesus on 25th December. Did you know that it is a conventional date, though? Three centuries after Christ, the Catholic Church decided that the 25th had to be dedicated to Jesus birth; therefore all the pre-existing traditions in Northern Europe, such as the Saturnalia, had to be replaced.
But not everybody celebrates Christmas on the same day: the Orthodox Church follows another calendar (the Gregorian), therefore they celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January

Santa Claus or Saint Nikolaus?

Does Santa really exist? While you are struggling making up stories for your Host Kids, thinking about how to make them believe in Santa, you may find this information quite interesting. 
Santa really existed somehow: Nikolaus was a bishop of Myra (a city in Turkey) who was known for his charity towards kids in the IV century. His character melted with other pre-existing characters, forming the current Santa.
Today the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Northern Italy celebrate Saint Nikolaus on the 6th December: the day where Nikolaus brings gifts and sweets to the good kids, whereas the bad kids are captured by the evil  Krampus, St. Nikolaus accomplice.
What about the big man with the white beard? Clement C. Moore, an american author, claimed to have written the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas in 1822. The poem describes Nicholas who came down the chimney, dressed in fur with toys on his back, with rosy cheeks, his cherry nose and his unforgettable round belly. Does it ring a bell? This poem directly influenced our chubby and sweet Santa! And the Coca Cola ad from 1930s had a great impact on the representation of the character too.

Getting into the traditions - Christmas symbols

The Christmas tree

Christmas trees, cribs and mistletoe are all symbols of Christmas but did you know that they have really ancient roots? As Christmas was “invented”, replacing already existing traditions, the Christmas tree comes from the ritual of pre-christian people in Northern Europe, who used to celebrate evergreen trees during their winter festivals. They also used to decorate the sacred trees with fruits, as a symbol of fertility. 
But when did people begin to bring Christmas trees into their homes? We have to thank Prince Albert of Saxony-Coburg, the husband of Queen Victoria. The prince introduced the typical customs of his country in the XIX century into the Royal Family and since then, every home began to decorate their Christmas trees at home.

The mistletoe

I won't ask for much this Christmas
I won't even wish for snow, and I
I just wanna keep on waiting
Underneath the mistletoe
Why is Mariah waiting underneath the mistletoe? Well, she has named a plant which was known among the Celts, the Norse and the Native Americans because it remains green during the whole winter. The perfect metaphor of love, isn’t it?

The Crib

The crib represents the nativity scene with little figures who gather around baby Jesus: traditionally, Mary, Joseph, the three wise men and a bunch of shepherds. But who created the first crib?
Saint Francis of Assisi did in 1223 at Greccio (Italy), basically to worship Christ.
Nowadays, you may find cribs in churches and Christmas markets, malls and on the streets and some of them are actually live-cribs! Who has ever been the sheep during the Christmas school play?

Christmas around the world

Let’s have a look around and find out fun facts and how people celebrate Christmas all around the world.
  • In most west countries, Santa Claus leaves presents for children on the 24th of December. Children usually leave a carrot (for Rudolph) some mince pies and a drink for santa. Stockings hang on the fireplace where Santa Claus leaves some sweets in the anglophone countries. In the weeks before Christmas children write letters to Santa Claus explaining what toys they would like for Christmas and they are then posted to the North Pole. 
  • What about the Royals? Queen Elizabeth broadcasts a message on Christmas Day, and it is heard by millions of people all over the world. In England most people watch or listen to it whilst digesting their Christmas Dinner! 
  • On the 26th December Boxing Day is celebrated in England and in Iceland where presents are usually exchanged between friends. This originates from medieval times when wealthy people would indulge in big feast and give their remains in boxes to the servants. 
  • Did you know that in 1647, the English parliament passed a law that made Christmas illegal? All festivities were banned by leader Oliver Cromwell, who considered feasting on a holy day to be immoral. The ban was lifted only when Cromwell lost power in 1660.
  • In Ireland, as well as in Italy and many other european countries, Christmas officially starts on the 8th of December. Most people wait till this day to put up their Christmas trees and decorations. 
  • In the Christian tradition, many people attend mass on Christmas Eve at midnight. This is often a huge social event where the whole community attends with christmas carols being sung by a choir. 
  • Many houses in Ireland have a candle in the window which is known as the wanders candle and is to welcome guests into the house and also Mary and Joseph. The lighting of the candle originates from the time when it was prohibited in Ireland to attend catholic mass. Catholics would leave a candle lit in the front window so priests knew they were welcome. 
  • On Christmas morning in Sandycove, Dublin you will see many brave souls bearing the chilly temperatures and swimming in the Irish Sea to raise money for charity. 
  • The 6th january (feast of the epiphany) is known as womens christmas or Nollaig na mBean and is a day of rest for the women in Ireland. On this day the men must do the housework, cook dinner and take down the Christmas decorations while the women rest and meet friends. Whereas in Italy, a very old lady (la befana) flies on a broom bringing candies to all the good kids and sweet coal to the bad ones. In Spain you can find the Fiesta de los tres reyes magos, when children open their presents the 6th January, as Jesus did with the wise men. 
  • In Denmark, kids dress up as little elfs, doing tricks in the house, waiting for Julemann, who brings gifts. At the end of the Christmas meal, Danish families prepare a famous dessert where a whole almond is hidden and whoever finds it receives a gift!
  • Where does Santa live? Well, the Finnish are very close to it! Korvatunturi is the mountain where he lives together with his wife, his helpers, and Rudolph, of course! Ps. Finnish people go to the sauna on Christmas Eve. Isn’t that relaxing?
  • Sweden has nothing to envy to the US when it comes to bright decorations. In fact, the Swedish build a 13-metre Yule Goat in the city of Gävle, following the traditional belief of the Yule Goat. Fun fact: the goat gets usually burned by vandals.
  • In the 13 days before Christmas, 13 trolls come out from the mountains to play in Iceland. The Jólasveinar visit the children, leaving gifts for nice girls and boys and rotting potatoes for the naughty ones. 
  • Christmas = evil spirits? Yes, in Norway, where people hide their brooms because it was believed that witches arrive on Christmas Eve stealing brooms. 
  • If you think about Germany and Christmas, the first thing that will come to your mind is the tradition of the Christmas Markets, or Weihnachtsmarkt. Every German city has beautiful markets during the whole advent period, where you can find decorations, ornaments and delicious food (Lebkuchen, Zimtsterne and every kind of cookie you can dream about)!

Christmas and beyond

  • Far away from the “traditional” Christmas, China celebrates Dongzhi on the 22nd December, welcoming the winter season. Families gather during the day, eating the Tangyuan, typical rice balls which represent the reunion between the yin and yang.
  • The night of Yalda in Iran is somehow connected to the ancient pre-christian traditions, since the people celebrate the victory of light over darkness.  It comes from the birth of Mitra, god of the Sun after the longest and darkest night of the year. Something similar happens on the other side of the world, where the Indians in Arizona celebrate the Soyal (solstice).
  • Let’s now turn to Oaxaca (Mexico) where people celebrate the Night of the Radish for three days from December 23rd. They create pieces of art from radish, including scenes from the nativity!
  • Enjoy the light during the Giant Lantern Festival in the Philippines, the Saturday before Christmas. Very elaborate lanterns are built creating a beautiful light show. Whereas, in Venezuela we have the Little Candles’ Day when people put candles and lanterns outside their homes to celebrate the nativity.
  • Hanukkah: even if it’s usually related to Christmas, because they fall in the same period (22-30th December this year), Hanukkah isn’t its equivalent. Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday which celebrates the victory of the Maccabean army against the Syrian Empire in 165 b.C., when they freed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Historically, the victory of the Jews symbolises religious freedom and the fight for one’s belief. In order to celebrate the event, the Jews lit a candelabra, the Menorah, with 9 candles. Since didn’t have enough oil back in the days, the candelabra was supposed to extinguish soon but instead it lasted for 8 nights, becoming the symbol of the victory and of the miracle, the eternal flame. Nowadays, Jewish families light one candle every day of Hanukkah, celebrating the holidays with their family, exchanging gifts, and playing with spinning tops. 

It’s your turn now! 
What does Christmas mean to you? How are you going to celebrate? Are you staying with your Host Family or are you going home? Share your experience and your sweet memories about Christmas with us. Leave a comment and… maybe you’ll get something special from Santa Au Pair! 
The staff of wishes you a very Merry Christmas and Happy holidays!
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Some Thoughts...
Dec, 25, 2019 - 08:12 pm
First Am wishing all of you a merry Christmas and happy New and nice holiday , the way celebrate Christmas we cook , we go to church , because we celebrating the birth of Jesus , once done with prayer, mum stat serving food and drinks and we chill at home and getting some rest and in the evening watching TV so that is the way we celebrate Christmas at home.
Jan, 01, 2020 - 02:01 pm
I'm interested
Dec, 16, 2022 - 04:12 pm
Je fête avec ma famille et mes amis
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