With Christmas around the corner, many people in the US are getting ready and putting the last touches on their Christmas decorations and preparations. What about the rest of the world? With the pandemic, no one has been able to travel much. We all miss seeing and experiencing amazing places with their own people, culture and traditions. Some travelers love traveling during the holidays to see how other countries celebrate Christmas because even though there are a lot of similarities, there are also many differences. So I’m going to take you on a virtual Christmas trip around the world! Ok, maybe just a handful of countries. Hey, better than nothing, I guess. :)
Swedes are a secular people, but they still love celebrating Christmas! Who can blame them? Winter in Sweden is dark and a bit depressing. So when they have a chance to light it up with holiday cheer, the Swedish Christmas becomes all about candles, warmth, music, and light.
Sweden is one of the European countries that loves its’ Christmas markets, which fill the streets with shoppers, tinsel garlands and the scent of candied almonds and warm spiced glögg. The Swedes do not neglect their homes with Christmas decorations and is a big part of their celebration. During the holidays, their homes are filled with candles with the goal to light up their homes with the holiday spirit. In addition to the Christmas tunes and candles in every window, the Swedes have little advent chimes, or änglaspel, in every window. The heat from the four small candles moves the cherubs around in a circle, chiming and producing a lovely little background melody for the festivities.
Did you think candles were enough to light up a Swedish home on Christmas? Not so much. They also use advent stars, which represents the Star of Bethlehem. It is lit up on the first Sunday of Advent, and most Swedes do not turn them off until after then New Year. The advent stars are hung in the windows of many homes and throughout the cities.
Winters in Sweden are dreary and grey, so Christmas decorations demand a touch of green. Swedes hang wreaths (evergreen or straw), lay out hyacinths and other flowers.
Reindeer, you say? Nej, when it comes to Christmas, Swedes prefer a goat. Yes, a goat. :) The Yule Goat has its origins in pagan tradition. In more recent times, the goat has been presented as a mischievous, rowdy figure, sometimes demanding gifts and sometimes giving them. In 1966, the tradition got a whole new life after someone came up with the idea to make a giant straw goat - the Gävle Goat, which is about 43 feet high. Now that is probably a sight to see! Another tradition was to secretly hide the Yule goat in a neighbor's house. When the goat was discovered, it had to be hidden in someone else's home.
The straw theme is present throughout Swedish Christmas with straw wreaths, straw goats and many straw ornaments. These can be intricate and beautiful creations of straw that are hung on the Christmas trees and around the house.
Many know that the American version of Santa Clause came from the Dutch, and it has been gaining popularity with the Swedes, whom they call Tomten. However, Christmas in Sweden mainly embraces the traditional Swedish jultomte or tomtar, a Christmas gnome. The Swedish home is decorated with the traditional tomtar as little figurines and ornaments.
Christmas is a very important part of Filipino culture. These customs are a mixture of western and eastern traditions. They do have the Christmas trees, carols, etc, which are typical to us westerners, but the thing that stands out most during the Filipino Christmas time is the parol, which are lanterns that are seen all over the cities and inside the Filipino homes. They hold a Giant Lantern Festival (Liglian Parul). Each of these lanterns consists of many spinning lights on a pole or frame and it symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem.
The homes are also decorated with Belen, which are Nativity scenes and are a favorite with the Filipino people. On Christmas night, family, friends and neighbors gather together for the Noche Buena is a large celebration. Various traditional dishes are laid out, such as lechon (roasted pig), ham, fruit salad, rice cakes (bibingka and puto bumbong are traditional Christmas foods) and other sweets, steamed rice, and many different types of drinks.
The Philippines are not known for natural Christmas trees due their climate. Therefore, Filipinos put up artificial trees to decorate their homes for the holiday season. However, artificial trees can become expensive, and that is when the Filipinos use their DIY skills to make homemade Christmas trees that are made from dried twigs, dead tree trunks, recycled paper, or any other colorful items they can find in the home, including the parol.
Gleðileg jól! (try to pronounce that!)
For most Icelanders, Christmas is the most important time of the year. Everyday, from December 23rd to December 26th, Icelanders have a celebration. As for decorations, other than the typical Christmas tree, the most important decoration is the Advent wreath, a circular evergreen wreath (real or artificial) with four candles. On every Sunday during the Advent, people light a candle, representing the period of waiting during the four Sundays of Advent.
In Iceland, you cannot have Christmas without Laufabraud. Sometimes called “snowflake bread”, Laufabraud is a traditional kind of Icelandic bread eaten during the Christmas season. Leaf bread making at home is usually a family tradition and often an important part of the Christmas preparations, where several generations gather and take part in the decorating.
Icelandic children receive gifts from not one but thirteen Santa Clauses! They are called the Yule Lads, merry but mischievous lads who take turns visiting children on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. It kind of sounds like our Elfie the Elf that many parents have around the house here in the US before Christmas. :) And just like with the seven dwarfs, each of the 13 Yule Lads has a name that represents a personality trait. :) On each of those 13 nights, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill. For good boys and girls, the Yule Lad will leave presents for them. For the not so well behaved, the Yule Lads are not subtle in expressing their disapproval: they fill the shoe with rotting potatoes. Fancy! :)
Kαλά Χριστούγεννα (Kalá Christoúgenna!)
Christmas in Greece lasts 12 days, from December 25th through January 6th. As of recently, Christmas trees have been gaining popularity in Greece, but the Greeks have their own traditional decorations that are much more popular - a sailing ship! How awesome is that?! Instead of decorating Christmas trees, some Greeks decorate sailing ships in their homes, not to mention put up huge lighted sailing boat installations in city squares. In ancient times, wives and children of Greek sailors would decorate small boats to celebrate the safe return of their loved ones from sea voyages. This tradition continued on to the present. Nowadays, ships and boats are decorated with lights and other ornaments during the holidays.
The Greeks also place specially decorated wooden bowls in their homes, which have pieces of wire hanging across the rim, with water inside and a small wooden cross with basil wrapped around it. Everyday, the mother of the family dips the cross into the holy water and sprinkles the water into each room of the home to help keep the kallikantzaro away, which is a mischievous little goblin that only comes out during the 12 days of Christmas. I have noticed there are a lot of other countries with similar traditions. Maybe there's something to it! :) The Greeks also have a fire burning during these 12 days as another way to keep this sneaky little goblin away from their home.
Oh, and the Greeks exchange gifts on New Year's Day, just like Russians. Though unlike the Russians, Saint Basil is the Greeks' Santa Claus because January 1st is Saint Basil's Day.
Krisamas kee badhaee!
The Christian population in India is very small (a little over 2%), which is not a lot compared to the total population of India. However, that small percentage is very devout in the celebration of Christmas. As for decorations, it depends on the area of India, as customs for each region differ.
Christmas trees are not a thing in India, though artificial trees are gaining popularity. Instead, they decorate a banana or mango tree, or whatever tree people can find to decorate! They also use mango leaves to decorate their homes. Christians in India recently also started using Araucaria cooki trees, which I guess could pass off as a fir tree. :) Hey, you got to get creative in some of these arid and hot countries! Good for them!
In Southern India, Christians often put small oil burning clay lamps called diya on the flat roofs of their homes to show their neighbors that Jesus is the light of the world.
In other parts, like Kerala and Goa, which have large populations of Christians, there are various decorations inside and outside the homes, such as beautiful and colorful paper lanterns in the shape of a star (the Star of Bethlehem, of course), lights, Indian drummers, Advent stars and elaborate Nativity scenes. It becomes a festival of celebration and lights. Beautiful! As always, India surprises me. :)
Oh how we love Italy, right? As in typical European fashion, Italy lights up and is dazzling during Christmas! Italy is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, but Christmas is both a religious and a state holiday, so you get various decorations around the country. Yet, the most important decoration for Italians is, of course, the Nativity scene or presepe. As is very popular in Naples, Italians can go all out with their presepe!
Another decorating tradition is called the Yule log, known as ceppo or ciocco. No, it is not the delicious chocolate cake. :) It is a wooden tree, which actually comes from the region of Tuscany. It is a pyramid shaped structure made of wood in three tiers. Each shelf and the frame is decorated with fringe or fancy paper, greenery, nuts, fruit and presents, with the bottom shelf displaying the family's presepe. Each of these represents some kind of gift - gifts of the Earth, gift of God, and gifts of man - a very interesting concept! As with Christmas trees, an angel or star would grace the top of the ceppo, a representation of hospitality, which Italians are great at! This ceppo ultimately become the "Tree of Light."
I probably can go on and on about all the different traditions and decorations from various countries, but I'd probably loose a lot of you a third of the way. Ha! :) It was an eye opening experience to read about these customs, and oh it made me want to travel again!!! Well, someday, someday... Happy travels to all and MERRY CHRISTMAS!