“On the first day of Christmas, the UK gave us Christmas cards…on the twelfth day of Christmas, Mexico gave us the poinsettia.”
Join MEGAN HARDING on a Christmas trip around the world to see how different countries celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.
When did Santa Claus start coming to town?
In Europe, the middle of winter has always been recognised as a time to rejoice the winter solstice and mark light and birth in the dullest winter days. Before the 4th Century, Easter was the main religious holiday celebrated in England as the Bible never stated the day Jesus was born. The Christian church decided the birth of Jesus should be observed, so Pope Julius chose the 25th of December to align with the Winter Solstice to increase the likelihood of the festivities being embraced across the country. At this time, it was expected that the upper classes should repay their societal debt by bestowing the lower classes with money and gifts to give back.
Do they know it’s Christmas time?
During the religious tension in England, Puritans - led by Oliver Cromwell protesting Christian beliefs - took measures to invalidate Christmas. This hum-bug attitude spread across the seas to America in the 1600s to the extent that from 1659 to 1681 an individual in Boston would be charged five shillings if they were seen to observe the festive season. It wasn’t until the 26th of June 1870 that Christmas became a federal holiday in the USA. Nowadays, America have fully “stepped into Christmas” and are often credited (or in someone people’s opinions, blamed) for the commercialisation of Christmas that has filtrated into British culture as well.
Across the globe, the history of Christmas and how it is celebrated currently, varies drastically with a multitude of traditions and beliefs that are all special and poignant.
“Merry Christmas” - UK
I’m sure we have all experienced the dreaded Card Factory war in what feels like the entire town fleeing to the tiny and impractical shops to scramble for the best 99p cards. It is Englishman John Calcott Horsley who was largely responsible for this yearly battle as he was the first person to send a Christmas card, in 1830. Horsley can’t take all of the blame, however, as the UK and USA post offices immediately saw an opportunity and the custom of card-giving became an overnight sensation.
It was the romantic Celtics that initiated the tradition of hanging ‘mistletoe’ (a compound from the Germanic ‘mistle’ and ‘tan’- meaning ‘twig’) as they believed it had magical properties such as healing wounds, increasing fertility, good luck, and warding off evil spirits. These days, most people see mistletoe as a symbol of love, so will you be searching for a sprig of the impassioned plant this Christmas, or will you be avoiding all doorways just in case?
“God Jul” - Sweden
On the 13th of December in Sweden, the oldest daughter of the household wakes the family up early (a regular occurrence in homes across the world) dressed in a white gown adorned with a red sash to commemorate St Lucia. The daughter is named ‘Lussi’ or ‘Lussibruden’ which translated to ‘Lucy’s bride’ and to complete the costume, the young girl wears a twigged crown illuminated by nine candles to represent light (‘luv’ derived from Latin) which is the primary focus of the celebration. Like in the UK, Swedish children – and many adults – indulge in a sweet treat from an advent calendar (‘Adventskalendar’) every day in December. It is thought advent was originally constructed around the idea of ‘waiting for Jesus’ though now, most people use it as the best excuse to eat chocolate for breakfast.
“Hyvää Joulua” - Finland
Swedish tradition eventually spread across Scandinavia to Finland where it is commonplace to partake in a trip to the sauna on Christmas Eve – a good way to escape the ‘big summer blowout’ like the Oaken family in Frozen. Alongside their festive steam, families gather to listen to the national Peace of Christmas radio broadcast and then mournfully visit the gravesites of deceased family members.
“Gledelig Jul” - Norway
The Yule Log has its metaphorical roots planted in Norway where logs are gathered to construct the optimum fireplace to warm homes across the country. The word ‘yule’ translates to ‘hweal’ in Norse which means ‘wheel’. In Norway, Christmas time is an opportunity to mark the return of the sun, a wheel of fire, during the winter solstice. So, next time you tuck into a mouth-watering yule log remember, Norway planted the seed from which the festive treat grew.
“Frochliche Weihnachten” - Germany
Initially, wintertime in Germany was filled with terror and apprehension as Germans hibernated inside because they believed the Pagan god Oden would initiate nocturnal fights in the skies while observing who decided should prosper and who should suffer. Despite this, the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas began in Strasbourg, Germany during the 17th Century and then spread across the country due to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe writing about a Christmas tree in his novel The Suffering of Young Werther. In 2022, Germans are no longer afraid of Oden, and the month of December is filled with trips to ‘Weihnachtsmärkte’ (Christmas markets) while indulging in bratwurst and a Christmas tipple. Some may say Germany’s Christmas markets are incomparable, although in my opinion Chester’s markets are just as festive and magical! [See Chester Xmas market
“Joyeux Noel” - France
The word ‘Noel’ is a borrowing from French which originates from the noun ‘Nowell’ which means a joyful word or phrase that is sung to signify the birth of Christ. While the family choir harmonise singing carols on Christmas Eve, an extravagant feast is devoured. The meal is called ‘Le Réveillon’, coming from the verb ‘réveiller’, which means ‘to revive’ or ‘wake’, although many individuals will not feel very energetic after eating thirteen deserts that are customary after the main meal. It is thought that the sweet treats represent Christ and the 12 disciples at the last supper, so it is an important religious tradition that cannot be overlooked. During the supper, the French tightly knot the end of the tablecloth to prevent the Devil from sneaking under the table and causing chaos. Or maybe it is to stop small children (or intoxicated adults) ruining the carefully placed table setting.
“Buon Natale” - Italy
Originally in Rome, Christmas was a time to honour Saturn, the god of agriculture, so the winter period involved enjoying copious amounts of food and drink while the social order was reversed and the enslaved were given temporary freedom. Businesses and schools would close, and children would be glorified as the 25th of December was the day Juvenilia, an infant god, was born. As Rome is home to the Vatican City and the Pope, religion now plays a big role in Christmas celebrations across Italy. At 9:30pm on Christmas Eve, thousands gather in St Peter’s Square for a ‘midnight mass’ that is televised for those that cannot be there in person. However, some families choose the slopes over the square as they spend Christmas sipping Vin Brulé (mulled wine) to muster up some ‘Dutch courage’*, so they can hurtle down snow covered mountains on skis and snowboards.
*While England was under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, the Dutch were one of our closest neighbours and this geographical connection filtered into the English language. To have ‘Dutch courage’ means to have bravery because of alcohol, as it is believed while Dutchman Johnny Foreigner was sailing towards the West Indies, he had a few drinks to ‘prepare’ for the fight.
“Kala Christouyenna” - Greece
In Greece, on all twelve days of Christmas, people believe that goblins appear to cause mischief and trouble. Instead of exchanging gifts on the 25th of December, presents are given on the 1st of January in Greece on St Basil’s Day. Throughout the Christmas period, roast pork is enjoyed and ‘christopsomo’, a popular bread, is savoured after Christmas dinner.
Mistle-no – instead of hanging mistletoe in doorways, in Greece pomegranate adorns the homes of many Greeks until New Year’s Eve when the fruit is smashed and then stamped on as the family enter the house to bring good tidings for the New Year.
“Srozhdestvom Kristovym” - Ukraine
After the youngest member of the family in a Ukrainian household has watched for the evening star to appear, the Christmas 12-course feast is officially allowed to commence. The table that the meal is laid out on has two tablecloths, one for living family members, and another for those that have sadly pasted. A ‘didukh’, meaning ‘grandfather’, is a sheath of wheat stalks that is placed in the home to represent ancestors and bring their spirit into the family at Christmas time. After the didukh is positioned in the place of honour, the father of the household puts a bowl of ‘kutia’ (boiled wheat, with poppy seeds and honey) next to it. The kutia is the most important food on Christmas Eve, as it is seen as God’s food.
“Throw a turkey on the barbie” - Australia
Families down under swap living rooms warmed by roaring fireplaces and overworked ovens, for golden sandy beaches and coal barbeques, as they spend Christmas time cooling down in the intense sun. In most areas of Australia, temperatures exceed 25 degrees on Christmas Day - a marked difference to the freezing temperatures we are subjected to in the UK. Although, do you think it would really be Christmas if we were in a t-shirt and shorts instead of our Christmas jumpers and hats?
“Geseënde Kersfees” - South Africa
South Africa is named the Rainbow Nation as it is a melting pot of nationalities, races, languages and beliefs. So, the Christmas celebrations vary considerably across the country. Most of the traditions originated in the UK and USA and have been embraced by South Africans, but as it is summer, some customs are different. After church, it is common for families to host a ‘Bring-and-Braai’ (‘braai’ being a barbeque) where each house brings meat and a side dish to construct a decadent feast. The Christmas pudding is exchanged for a Malva pudding that concludes the Christmas day festivities before the shops and businesses re-open to the public.
“Feliz Navidad” - Mexico
The eponym ‘poinsettia’ takes its name from Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister who brought the plant to Mexico in the 1800s. Later, the red flower was sold in department stores in New York City and by the 1900s it had become a universal symbol of Christmas. The festive period in Mexico is defined by colour, parties, and family time with pinatas - good food and extremely late nights being commonplace.
“We wish you a Merry Christmas”!
As we have seen, Christmas is celebrated in an abundance of ways across the world. But it is clear each country has a certain belief in common: Christmas is a time of giving, family, friends and joy.
What are your Christmas traditions, and do they align with the common British celebrations? And if you could pick one custom from another country to bring to the UK, what would it be?
We’d love to hear from you in the ‘Comments’ section below.
Written by Megan Harding