Every country has things that make it stand out and differentiate it from all others. Language, geography, food…these are just a few features that separate one nation from another. But one thing that remains constant, no matter where on Earth you go, is the near universal love of Christmas. And the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is merrily adapted and re-interpreted to reflect each nation’s beliefs and culture.
We all know the traditions of Christmas within the United States, but what happens on and around Dec. 25 in other parts of the world is quite different. Here is a “12 Ways of Christmas” roundup that offers a virtual journey, with universal themes of feasts, family, music and concerts, candles, nativity plays, trees, and, above all, togetherness.
The Belarussian festival of Kaliady dates back to pagan winter solstice celebrations. Meaning “calendar,” Kaliady encompasses three important dates: two Christmas dates of Dec. 25 and Jan. 7, and New Year’s Day in between. In a nod to its Soviet past, Belarus puts more emphasis on New Year’s than on a religious holiday. Nevertheless, some cherished traditions remain, such as New Year’s trees and the exchange of gifts. Grandfather Frost (“Dzied Maroz” in Belarussian), often accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka, arrives bringing presents for the children. The New Year’s Day feast is grand and traditionally consists of a dish called an olivier salad (right) made of green peas, potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise, and ham.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Belarus = “Z Kaljadami”
Bolivia is predominantly Catholic, so the religious aspect of Christmas is very important to the people there. On Christmas Eve, in towns across the country, large processions carry a heavy altar with a statue of Jesus through the streets. After midnight Mass, families return home to a large Christmas meal of picana (left) — a stew made with chicken, beef, and pork — tropical fruit, and salads. To help make the season bright, Bolivia and other Latin American countries have a law called aguinaldo, which requires employers to provide a bonus in December that equals 30 days of normal wages. Many families spend their bonuses on gifts and extra special groceries for Christmas and New Year’s.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Bolivia = “¡Feliz Navidad!”
Photo credit: “Picana boliviana” by Dayana Christ Martínez Carrasco is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Christmas is a cherished occasion in this beautiful tropical country. The holiday season is welcome after the long school year; Costa Rica’s academic year runs from February to November. To celebrate, Costa Ricans often create elaborate nativity scenes in their yards and wreaths made with cypress and red coffee berries. After midnight Mass, known natively as “misa de gallo,” or “mass of the rooster,” families enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner of tamales wrapped in plantain leaves and accompanied by the ubiquitous salsa Lizano, roast pork leg, rompope (eggnog), and Christmas cake.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Costa Rica = “¡Feliz Navidad!”
Photo credit: “Cena navideña tica – Costa Rican Christmas dinner” by Aleat88 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Big musical events and long nativity plays demonstrate the Congolese people’s love of theatrics and Christmas. The play begins with the biblical story of creation and goes right through to King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents. Timing is important, as the birth of the baby Jesus should occur right at midnight, after which there is more singing. (It’s a late night!) Christmas dinner is the best that families can afford, usually chicken or pork dishes, with plenty of time before and after for napping and conversing with family.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Democratic Republic of Congo = “Mbotama Malamu”
Photo credit: “A Congolese Christmas Is Just Plain and Simple” by Woody Collins is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Egyptians celebrate Christmas on two different dates: Dec. 25 and Jan. 7 (for Coptic Christians, who make up more than 90% of the Christian population in Egypt). During Advent, Coptic Christians adhere to a vegan diet for 43 days to honor the holy nativity fast. Then, on Christmas Eve, they enjoy a great feast, including beloved dishes such as roast turkey and fatteh (right), a kind of toasted pita casserole. For non-Coptic Christians, presents from Baba Noël (“Father Christmas”) come on Dec. 25, while in the Coptic tradition, gifts of money are typically given to younger family members on Jan. 6.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Egypt = “Eid Milad Majid” (literally translates to “Glorious Birth Feast”)
Trees imported from Denmark are lit up on Dec. 23 and Moravian stars shine brightly in the windows of homes in this Arctic country, where the sun does not rise all winter long. During the season, children go door to door singing carols, and on Christmas Day everyone in the village receives a gift. That evening, women enjoy being waited on by the men, who stir the food and serve them hot coffee. Plenty of roasted seal, whale, and reindeer meat are on the menu, with cobblers and Danish pastries for dessert.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Greenland = “Juullimi Pilluarit”
Hong Kong is a vibrant and beautiful city, and the residents really know how to celebrate. WinterFest is known throughout the world as one of the largest outdoor holiday celebrations and puts everyone in the Christmas spirit. During Winterfest, which runs from late November to early January, the West Kowloon Cultural District is transformed into Christmas Town, featuring a giant lit tree, a village of holiday-themed “Santa lodges,” and art and musical activities. The city’s many skyscrapers also have holiday designs on their facades made with Christmas lights. Hongkongers enjoy a nice, long break, as another national holiday, Boxing Day, is observed on the first weekday after Christmas.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Hong Kong = “Sing Daan Fai Lok”
While New Year’s is Japan’s biggest holiday, the Japanese have adopted a theme for Christmas that centers on love. Couples celebrate the holiday with a romantic dinner and stroll along decorated streetscapes. Interestingly, “Ode to Joy,” the prelude to the last movement of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” has become a universal carol throughout the country, likely introduced to Japan by German prisoners of war during World War I. Other traditions include eating strawberry sponge cake and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Japan: “Mer?kurisumasu”
This tiny island country in the Mediterranean may be small, but the Maltese celebrate big at Christmas. The holiday culminates with midnight Mass, at which a child is often chosen to deliver the sermon, a tradition called priedka tat-tifel. Leading up to Christmas, you will see elaborate cribs, or presepju (right), displayed in churches and private homes depicting nativity scenes. These are often surrounded by tufts of gulbiena, long white grasses cultivated in dark cupboards in late November. On Christmas Day, everyone gathers for a big meal of baked chicken or pork and imbuljuta tal-qastan — a beloved hot chestnut and cocoa soup.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Malta = “Il-Milied it-Tajjeb”
Mexico is rich in Christmas tradition, with festivities occurring nonstop from Dec. 16 to Jan. 6. Mexicans erect elaborate nacimientos (nativity scenes), and children often dramatize parts of the Christmas story during “posadas,” a celebration that takes place on the nine nights leading up to Christmas. Posada parties include lots of games to play, goodies to eat, and piñatas to break. One fascinating tradition is the “Noche de Rábanos” or “Night of the Radishes,” which takes place in Oaxaca on Dec. 23. Specially grown large radishes are carved into elaborate figurines of the nativity or wild animals, and prizes are awarded to the best ones.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in Mexico = “¡Feliz Navidad!”
When it comes to visits from the “jolly old man in the red suit,” the Netherlands is a double winner. St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, arrives bearing gifts on Dec. 5, while Santa Claus, or Kerstman, arrives on the evening of Dec. 24 with even more treats! St. Nicholas is said to come by boat from Spain, choosing a different harbor each time so that all children get an opportunity to see him. Santa Claus, meanwhile, hails from Lapland, Finland. Other Christmas traditions include decorated trees and a reading of the Christmas story after church services. Dutch families often enjoy a “gourmetten” meal together, which is a raclette-style heating pan put in the middle of a table with an array of meats, cheeses, and condiments.
How to say “Merry Christmas” in the Netherlands = “Prettige Kerst”
For the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish people of Palestine, Christmas marks a season of particular joy and pride, with their home country being the actual birthplace of Jesus. In Bethlehem, about six miles from Jerusalem, a parade comes through the center of the city on Christmas Eve, complete with bagpipes. The Mass of the Nativity takes place within the church that is believed to be built on the spot where Jesus was born. Families and friends look forward to superb holiday food, from qidreh (spiced meat, chickpeas, and rice) to stuffed lamb’s neck and plenty of sweets.
How to say “Blessed be your Christmas” in Palestine territories = “Eedookh Breekha”
Photo credit: “The four praying children – Nativity Church, Bethlehem” by Pierre Janineh is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0