Christmas time in Vienna
Image by Julius Silver from Pixabay

Christmas all over the world…

Let’s fly around the world a bit on the reindeer’s sledge to get a glimpse of the Christmas traditions of different nations.

Christmas is one of the most beautiful holidays in the Christian world. It is a special day often not free from miracles. It is no coincidence that the magic of the holiday has inspired many great figures in the world literature: Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, The Holy Night by Selma Lagerlöf, and The Christmas Rose by Lizzie Deas.

The holiday is originated from the winter solstice of the Roman Calendar which was the celebration of the Sun. December 25 was proclaimed to be the day of Christ’s birth by Pope Liberius in 354, but it took centuries to make the world recognize and celebrate the day. In German-speaking regions, Christmas was officially accepted as a celebration in 813. The German term “Weihnachten” was first introduced in a text written in 1170 and it means “holy nights”.

In Austria, people get into Christmas mood by singing the Silent Night, Holy Night song while delicious scents of traditional meals spread in their kitchens… 

Their Christmas menu varies region by region. For example, in the western provinces of Austria, the festive menu is sausages while in the capital and the surrounding of it is fish, for example, carp or salmon. Fish is prepared in several different ways: as fillets, soup, but even as jelly.

Christmas holidays which begin on the evening of December 24 are usually spent with family and relatives, but people also remember the refuge seeking of the holy family from the Bible. This is the reason why families often welcome lonely single people making this day very special. In the Province of Salzburg, three weeks before Christmas, every Thursday night, anglöcklers (bell-ringers) and klöpflers (knockers) go from house to house wearing traditional clothing, walking with lanterns and sticks and cheering people with songs and rhymes. In addition to the midnight mass, Christmas tree, gifts and delicious cakes are all important parts of the celebration. 

The tradition of the Christmas tree goes back to the 16th century.

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Kittenberger’s Advent Garden Magic
© Andreas Hofer Photography & Kittenberger Erlebnisgärten

The green pine needles represent the idea that winter cannot completely extinguish life and the lights on the tree are crucial parts of Christmas. To commemorate the turn of the old and new year, it is an ancient tradition to decorate houses with evergreen branches, candles and lights, with the symbolic meaning of resisting the darkness. The tradition of setting up a Christmas tree began in 1813 when the first tree was set up in Graz. It was only decades later that the Christmas tree appeared in people’s homes as well. In the Province of Salzburg, as a symbol of mountain Christmas, ordinary spruce or fir are set up as Christmas trees.

Children are only allowed to see the beautifully decorated Christmas trees with all their lights and the gifts under the tree at Christmas Eve. Small fir trees are traditionally kept in the homes until January 6, but a lot of families keep them until Groundhog Day, that is until February 2. At New Year’s Eve, that is in the night of December 24th to 25th, some people fill their houses and stables with incense to chase away the evil spirits. Little Nativity Scenes are also part of the Christmas holiday. The first Nativity Scene was set up by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 in Greccio, Italy.

The Nativity Scenes in the Province of Salzburg mostly resemble of small Alpine huts. Many people carve out the figures or make the scenes themselves with meticulous care. There are some real master pieces among the Nativity Scenes exhibited in churches and museums during Advent.

Children also like visiting the Nativity Scenes and listening to the stories about the birth of Jesus. In the mountain villages of Salzburg, as well as in the city of Salzburg, the tradition of passing over St. Mary’s images is increasingly reviving. During the Advent weeks, statues of the pregnant St. Mary and pictures of St. Mary and Joseph searching for accommodation in Bethlehem are passed on from house to house, accompanied by carols and prayers. The adopted image of St. Mary brings protection and blessing to the house and its inhabitants. 

Nativity scene by Kittenberger’s Advent Garden Magic
© Kittenberger Erlebnisgärten

In the Salzburger Mountains, especially in the Pinzgau region, a lot of families have easel paintings of Our Lady, including several XVII. and XVIII. century original work. According to the original story the search for accommodation in Bethlehem was the nine evenings before Christmas Eve, however, the images of St. Mary which are passed over are on their way throughout the Advent period.

In the United Kingdom, the tradition of spending Christmas with the family and setting up a Christmas tree spread in Queen Victoria’s time in the 19th century following the German pattern. Christmas is the most important holiday of the year for the English. Streets, squares and shop windows are all beautifully lit up with hundreds of lights. The huge beautifully decorated Christmas tree on Trafalgar Square is an annual gift to the people of Britain by the Norwegian in thanks for the support that Britain offered to Norway during the second world war. December 24th, Christmas Eve, is the time for company Christmas parties and end of year parties.

Christmas lights in Regent Street, London 
© by martin_vmorris from Flickr

According to the British tales, Father Christmas arrives straight through the chimneys at night on the 24th. He hides the gifts in long socks hung on the fireplace ledges as according to the legend, once as Santa was climbing down a chimney when accidentally dropped a couple of gold coins that fell into the socks which were drying on the fireplace. December 25 is Christmas Day, that is the day of presents. After unwrapping the gifts, families have a traditional Christmas lunch consisting of roasted, stuffed turkey, Christmas pudding and cookies. A real Christmas specialty is the brandy flamboyant pudding, often with a small present hidden into it. The Queen’s traditional Christmas speech, broadcast on television, is also a crucial event of the day.

In Finland, Christmas starts on December 23rd, however, with work and not with celebration. In the evening, after the children have gone to bed, the parents prepare the meals for the next day and tidy up everything. At breakfast on the 24th, the family sits down around the table. The traditional breakfast is cinnamon rice porridge with a piece of almond hidden into it which brings luck for the next year to the person who finds it. If it is a young girl, she can expect marriage in the near future. The nice habit of feeding their pets and nesting birds on Christmas Day with festive meals reflects their close proximity to nature and humanity of the Finns. They prepare Christmas dinner with a great care. 

While the children are impatient, the adults drink a glass of glögg (spicy mulled wine) with raisins and almonds. It is an old tradition that Christmas peace is proclaimed in Turku, the former capital of Finland at noon on December 24, and it is broadcast by radio. Of course, Finnish people do not miss the sauna on this day either.

Christmas Dinner consists of traditional northern dishes such as Glass Masters herring, followed by ham baked in rye bread and potato casserole. Dessert is gingerbread cookies. In Finland, the table is not cleared after dinner for the night so that Christmas elves passing by can also have a bite. The first day of Christmas is strictly for the family, people don’t visit their neighbours or make phone calls. They meet their relatives and greet their friends on the 25th. 

Image by Tilgnerpictures from Pixabay 

Dublin at Christmas
© by Irish Jaunt from Flickr

In Ireland, Irish Christmas traditionally combines Irish Catholic customs, Celtic pagan, and Anglican Protestant traditions. The Irish carefully decorate their homes as the holiday approaches. Usually three candles, decorated with evergreens, are placed in the windows. The candles show the way to the holy family in the night, and the number three refers to the trinity (father, son, holy spirit). On Christmas Eve, they put bread and milk on the table, and leave the door open to express their hospitality indicating that Mary, Joseph, and their baby can go in at any time if they are tired and hungry on their long way.

Kids are excited of their Advent calendars and adults are busy preparing for the Christmas dinner. The Irish also decorate Christmas trees, especially that the evergreens, which play a sacred role at the Winter Equinox, were introduced by the Celts. Father Christmas brings the gifts to children and puts them into their socks on Christmas Eve. Following the catholic traditions, the Irish also go to a midnight mass.

Christmas dinner is similar to the British one. It usually consists of turkey, ham, cranberry sauce and flaming brandy-fooled plum pudding. Then on December 25th, Stephen’s Day, the big street festivities begin where people, especially the young ones, dress up in masquerade and perform cheerful scenes with a variety of traditional characters.

In Greece, Christmas, is a continuous 12-day-long holiday from December 25th through January 6th, including all three holidays, that is Christmas, New Year and the Epiphany. The Greeks have many legends, tales and superstitions associated with the Christmas holidays.

Their Christmas traditions are to bring families rich harvest, health, and wealth for the upcoming year. They make ‘vasilopita’, a kind of bread with a coin hidden into it which brings luck to the person who finds it. The bread is nicely decorated, and there are even women embroiderers on Crete who make sketchy dough drawings on the bread. The bread is sliced in a way that all family members can have a piece which they eat together sitting around the table. On Christmas morning, young girls go to the brook to get some water and the whole family drinks from it. In some areas, the spring is “nourished”, that is some food is left on its bank. It is important that the whole family, and even domestic animals, receive good and abundant food at Christmas. For the Greeks, pomegranate is the magic fruit which brings luck, and which is a symbol of prosperity. Kalanda is the most important of the wealth-gathering, fundraising folk traditions in Greece. Singers walk from door-to-door, wishing health and luck for the people in the houses and in return they get ham, butter and wine.

 

Christmas tree at the Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece 
© by Andy Montgomery from Flickr

Panettone the Italian Christmas cake
Image by Luisella Planeta Leoni from Pixabay

In Italy, Piper festivals are often held during the Christmas season, particularly in the southern provinces, when the “zampognari” mountain shepherds, descend from the mountains and pipers salute the day of Jesus’ birth with music. The Italian word for Christmas, “Natale” also means birth. The various representations of the Bethlehem manger are very popular in Italy. In Naples and the southern regions, people go from church to church on the 24th night just to see the little Jesus. In Italy, the traditional dinner in Christmas Eve is fish, served in several different ways. In Rome, for example, eel is the most popular. The desert is always the famous “panettone” Christmas cake.

In Poland, both children and adults watch the sky on the 24th, waiting to see the first star which symbolizes Gwiazdka, the Star of Bethlehem. Whoever spots the first star is to shout, and then the family members greet each other and the Christmas Day. 

In the spirit of Christmas fasting, no meat is eaten at the Christmas vigil, that is until midnight on the 24th. Straw and hay are laid under the festive table, reminding us that the little Jesus was born in a manger. It is an interesting superstition that the Christmas table must seat an even number of people, otherwise one of them will be unlucky. Traditional dishes include beetroot soup, poppy seed cake and fish. They also make a fruit salad for this occasion of 12 kinds of fruits, commemorating the 12 Apostles (disciples) of Jesus. When the dinner is over, they are still at the table waiting for the host’s sign to stand up together, at the same time because according to the superstition, the first person to rise from the table will be the first to die next year. 

Christmas atmosphere in Warsaw, Poland
© by Hans Permana from Flickr

Poles decorate their Christmas trees with peanuts, apples, paper or eggshell decorations. At Christmas, carol singers go door-to-door, wishing the luck and in return they are invited to go in and have something to eat and drink. The family goes together to the church for the midnight mass. There is a great tradition of ‘szopka’, that is the nativity scene ornate structures in the temples.

Christmas at Rockefeller Plaza
©
by Rob Young from Flickr

Santa Claus was invented in the United States, more specifically in New York, and since New York was founded by the Dutch, the rediscovery of the Dutch Sinterklaas was granted. Initially he was depicted in a bishop’s headdress, it was only in the 1880s, when he received his clothing which is well-known today, but it is thanks to ads from the 1920s, that now he is portrayed everywhere in the same way: a slightly overweight, smiling old man with a white beard. Kids write letters to Santa Claus in the Arctic, who, with the help of elves, makes gifts throughout the year. Then, at Christmas he gets on his sleigh drawn by reindeers, climbs through the chimney and hides the presents under the Christmas trees or into the socks hung on the fireplaces. His reward is biscuits and milk which children prepare him in return.

 

The holiday in Russia is completely different, as the gifts can only be found under the decorated Christmas tree on 1st of January instead of December. The reason for this is the Orthodox calendar, which is different and according to which Christmas is at a later date than in Europe. ‘Ded Moroz’ (Grandfather Frost) is dressed in blue or red and arrives on its trooper accompanied with its helper, ‘Snegurochka’ (Snowflake) the grandchild of Father Frost.

Moscow at Christmas time
Image by Marina Stroganova from Pixabay
 

Image by Milz from Pexels

In New Zealand, Christmas is in the heat of the summer. People decorate their Christmas trees, usually plastic ones as real pine trees would not last until the end of the holidays. Taking advantage of the good weather, many dine outdoors, relax on the beach in the afternoon, or play cricket in the back garden. In Australia, Santa’s sleigh is pulled by eight white kangaroos.