How Christmas is celebrated around the world
Cultures around the world have celebrated the midwinter end of the season's darkest days and rebirth of new life for centuries. Now, in much of the world, it's simply known as Christmastime. While much of the West celebrates Christmas with nativity scenes, church services, candy canes, and Santa Claus, the world is filled with a seemingly endless variety of Christmas traditions, feasts, celebrations, and rituals.
For many people, Christmas falls on Dec. 25, but hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians celebrate on Jan. 7. Some people and cultures follow traditional religious themes, others incorporate folklore or regional customs, while other Christmas celebrations are entirely secular. Sometimes familiar, sometimes foreign, often odd, and sometimes downright strange, these 30 traditions from around the world have one thing in common: they're all about Christmas.
Christmas will undoubtedly look and feel different in 2020 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, especially as cases ramp up in the U.S. and in other places around the world. While some families will continue to welcome relatives and friends into their homes to celebrate the holiday, others will heed warnings from medical experts and keep get-togethers small or skip them altogether. Church services, including the popular midnight Mass, and other large gatherings may be limited—even Santa is steering clear of Macy's stores in some major U.S. cities including New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Some countries, like the U.K., are still discussing what restrictions will look like come Christmastime, but a decision is not expected until mid-December. Germany, which entered a partial lockdown on Nov. 2, warned the country could be in some form of lockdown for four or five more months, well after Christmastime.
Despite restrictions and overall hard times, people around the world will still find ways to celebrate the holiday. Read on to learn about how Christmas is celebrated around the world—perhaps it will inspire new traditions your family.
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Iceland: 13 Yule Lads
In Iceland, Christmas includes a blend of religious and regional folklore. Traditions like gift-giving are familiar, but instead of a single Santa Claus-esque figure, Icelandic children are visited by 13 trolls known as the Yule Lads. Each troll leaves either sweets or rotten potatoes each night, depending on whether or not the child has been on their best behavior.
Philippines: Giant Lantern Festival
The city of San Fernando is known locally as the Christmas capital of the Philippines, thanks to its colorful, glowing "parol of star" ornament. The ornament is central in the Giant Lantern Festival, which began in the early 1900s, but really took off in 1931 when the city got electricity. Each neighborhood fashions its own massive lantern through a collective effort, and all the lanterns are fastened together before Christmas.
One of the less-festive Christmas legends is the story of Krampus, Santa's evil counterpart, who Austrian children believe will whisk them away in a basket if they're naughty. Each year, people dress up in their scariest Krampus costumes, and terrify onlookers in Hollabrunn Market Square.
Germany: St. Nicholas Day
In Germany, Santa Claus generally still takes the appearance of the traditional Roman Catholic bishop St. Nicholas. Kids prepare for his arrival by placing freshly polished boots outside their doors, along with carrots for the bishop's horse. On Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day, the bishop goes house to house with a book describing the children's deeds. Depending on whether they were naughty or nice, he fills their boots with either something good, like sweets, or something not so good, like twigs.
Colombia: Day of the Little Candles
A sea of lights marks the start of the Christmas season in Colombia, on the eve of the Immaculate Conception. Inside and outdoors, everything from paper lanterns and votive candles to massive candle pillars are lit for Día de las Velitas, or Day of the Little Candles.
Catalonia: Caga Tio
Caga Tio is certainly one of the world's more unusual Christmas traditions. Caga Tio is a log that children feed scraps of food. As a show of gratitude, Caga Tio "poops" out presents when children hit it with a stick while singing the traditional Caga Tio song.
New York City: Televised Yule log
One of New York City's most enduring Christmas traditions is the televised burning of the WPIX yule log. The broadcast debuted on Christmas Eve 1966, live from Gracie Mansion, and was re-filmed in 1970. That's the version revelers have been watching every year since.
Wales: Mari Lwyd
Translated as "gray mare," the Mari Lwyd tradition dates back before the adaptation of Christianity. Revelers craft a horse using an actual horse skull, then decorate it, give it reins and bells, drape it in white cloth, and affix it to a pole. Taking the horse door-to-door, they challenge their neighbors to a traditional Welsh insult contest known as pwnco: not unlike a festive rap battle.
New Zealand: The pohutukawa tree
The first mention of a crimson-flowered Kiwi Christmas tree in New Zealand dates back to an 1833 missionary report. The pohutukawa tree is still an iconic piece of Christmas culture in New Zealand, particularly the ancient specimen perched on a Cape Reinga cliff. Some believe that the souls of the dead travel through the tree to the afterlife.
Portugal: Consoada feast
In Portugal, many Catholics still fast before Christmas. After midnight Mass, the fast is broken with the Consoada feast. Signaling the official beginning of Christmas, Consoada consists of meat, pudding, and traditional sweets. Seats are reserved at the table for loved ones who have recently passed away.
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