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Global Christmas Traditions

December 1, 2017 | Rachel Hurley

Around 2 billion people celebrate Christmas worldwide across over 160 countries. Despite a quarter of the world celebrating this festival, Christmas traditions rarely look the same from home to home, let alone country to country. In much of Europe there is a simple variation on traditions familiar to us in the UK, such as the shoe throwing of the Czech Republic or the spider web decorated trees of Ukraine. However, many countries have their own unique take on Christmas that may seem a little bit strange to outsiders.

For example, thanks to a clever marketing campaign in the 1970s, the traditional Christmas meal in Japan is a bucket of KFC. The campaign featured the slogan ‘Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii!’, meaning ‘Kentucky for Chrsitmas!’, and 40 years on families’ order buckets of chicken months in advanced to get them on time for Christmas Eve. Japanese Christmas cake is also quite different from the UK version. Rather than it being a rich fruit cake, it’s a sponge cake covered in strawberries and whipped cream. Overall, Christmas in Japan is less about religious celebrations and is not a national holiday. Many workplaces and offices remain open and it is treated as a normal working day. Christmas is seen more as a chance to bring happiness to everyone and enjoy time with loved ones.

The Christmas food in Greenland is slightly less appetising than KFC. The festive delicacies include Mattack, raw whale skin, and Kiviak, an auk (a small sea bird) wrapped in seal skin which is then buried several months before December to ferment. Meanwhile in Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on the 7th January with many Christians fasting for up to 40 days before the celebrations.

In America it’s all about being merry, especially on the nation-wide bar crawl ‘The Running of the Santas’. What began in Philadelphia with only 40 Santas has now grown to a 10,000 strong Santa festival across 5 states. However, due to America being such a big country, each state has its own Christmas traditions. In the southwest states, such as California, Arizona and Texas, tamales are made with the family. Made of masa, a ground corn dough, filled with meat, chillies and cheese, the tamales are wrapped in a corn husk when they are ready to be cooked. The whole process takes a while to make from scratch and everyone in the family is roped into the tamale-making production line.

Even in countries where the minority of the population is Christian, the Christmas traditions hold strong. India is a largely Hindu and Muslim country with around 2.3% of the population being Christian. While this doesn’t seem an astounding figure it translates to roughly 28 million people, and with 18 major languages and about 1600 dialects, there’s a fair few ways of saying ‘Merry Christmas’. The majority of traditions are not dissimilar from more ‘western’ ones, but rather than fir trees they decorate banana and mango trees. Father Christmas also has a different mode of transport, preferring the horse and cart to a sleigh and reindeer.

Potentially one of weirdest traditions comes from the Catalonian region of Spain. The Catalonian ‘Caga Tió’ is a Christmas ornament which roughly translates to ‘pooping log’. This hollow log has a cartoon face and a blanket draped over it which is gradually filled with presents leading up to Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve, the log is put by the fire and beaten with sticks until it ‘poops’ out the presents. However, in Spain these presents won’t be opened until January. Children are given a small present to be opened on Christmas day, with the rest of the presents being saved until the 6th January. This day is known as ‘Epiphany’ and celebrates the arrival of the three Kings who brought gifts to Jesus. As a result, many children believe it is the Kings who bring them presents, rather than Santa.

Our in-house German translator Sev told us about some of the traditions celebrated in his home country: ‘Christmas in Germany is quite different to Christmas in the UK and most of the English-speaking world. Children typically receive their presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Morning and the ‘supplier’ is also much lighter in build, especially in the South of Germany where Santa’s jurisdiction ends. Children here are supplied by ‘Christkind’ who is an angelic, child-like representation of Jesus, so quite a contrast to Santa. ‘Christkind’ is said to be very shy and only shows himself to adults. Children must leave the room when parents open for him and ‘Christkind’ then rings a little bell when he is leaving to let the children know that they can come back and see what has been left for them.

German traditions are also different when it comes to food. Turkey, for example, is not typically served and goose or duck are much more common on Christmas day. On Christmas Eve many families only have a simple meal, for example sausages and potato salad.’

One thing that is true of most Christmases, no matter what country you’re in, is that it is a time to eat great food and enjoy yourself with loved ones. So if you fancy a different kind of Christmas this year it’s worth taking some weird and wonderful inspiration from overseas.