Christmas comes in all shapes and sizes and festive traditions vary enormously across the globe. So, step aside egg nog, mistletoe and frenzied gift unwrapping, here’s how they do Christmas in:
Certainly for children in the Netherlands, it’s December 5th, not the 24th or 25th, that’s the most exciting day of the festive calendar. This is St Nicholas’ Eve and the night when St Nicholas – or Sinterklass – arrives from Madrid in Spain. Dutch tradition says that St Nicholas lands in a different harbour each year so that as many children as possible have the chance to see him. Parties are held, songs are sung, small gifts are given, and the children place hay and carrots in the shoes for St Nicholas’ horses. On Christmas Day itself, families gather for a celebratory meal and often attend church. A traditional gourmetten feast at Christmas involves placing a hot plate or griddle on the table and everyone cooks their own food while seated. It’s a cosy and communal meal of meat, fish, vegetables and bread – cut up into small pieces and seared. Then the hot plate is cleaned and pancakes are cooked for dessert – the Dutch love pancakes!
A Mexican Christmas, or Las Posadas, is somewhat of an extended celebration. It officially kicks off on December 16 and, on Christmas Eve, children lead a traditional procession to church and bring with them a model of a nativity scene to be displayed before midnight mass. On Christmas Day itself, families gather for a meal of oxtail soup with beans, followed by turkey and salad. But gift giving takes place on the Twelfth Night (January 5th) as this is when the Three Kings were said to pass through Bethlehem. Then there’s a special supper on January 6th when friends and family gather to share chilli- and cinnamon-infused hot chocolate and a celebratory cake. Whoever gets the slice of cake with a miniature baby Jesus in it must host a tamale party on Candlemas Day (February 2nd). Candlemas marks the very end of Las Posadas.
The festive vibe in South Africa commences when schools break for Christmas in early December. This is a prolonged holiday season when many businesses close and everyone can enjoy a well-earned break. Because the holidays can run to as late as January 14th, many families set off on holidays to the coast or a nature reserve to embrace the “getting away from it all” spirit. Usually quiet coastal towns are transformed into busy vacation spots and it’s common for holidaymakers to reunite with friends they have made over the years at Christmas time. Despite the hot weather and long days at the beach, South Africans still enjoy a traditional roast turkey lunch with all the trimmings on Christmas Eve plus mince pies, brandy butter and a sort of sticky toffee pudding called Malva. Then it’s Christmas Day and Braai time (BBQ) when everyone heads outdoors to play games of cricket or to cool down at the pool.
It’s cold, crisp and extremely Christmassy in Iceland during December. Families gather on Aofangadagur (Christmas Eve) to enjoy a hearty meal of smoked lamb, pickled fish and a low-alcohol malt beer with orange soda (Egilis Appelsin) cocktail! Then it’s time for mass at 6pm, followed by the exchanging of book gifts – a longstanding tradition in Iceland across all generations. From picture stories to bestselling novels, everyone receives a book of some description. On Jol Day (Christmas Day) families gather to share a meal of roast game and a special bread called Laufabrauo, which is made from thin sheets of delicately pattern dough. It is tradition for each family to have their own personal pattern to put on the Laufabrauo bread. And after Christmas there’s… New Year’s Eve – a very big deal in Iceland and a night that’s steeped in folklore and tales of magic coupled with bonfires, firework displays and plenty of merriment.
In Japan it’s all about spreading happiness, love and joy at Christmas time. As it’s generally not a religious holiday, the Japanese focus their attention on Christmas Eve, which is a time for romance (a little like Valentine’s Day). Couples exchange gifts, take romantic walks to see the Christmas lights and venture out for loved-up dinners at their local restaurants. Neither is Christmas Day a national holiday here, although the Emperor’s birthday on December 23rd is, so the days around this still feel festive. And a popular Christmas Meal? Fried chicken is considered a Christmassy treat and KFC do a roaring trade on December 25th. You won’t find traditional rich fruit cake on the menu as Japanese Christmas cake is a light, soft sponge topped with cream and strawberries.