One of the fascinating things about travelling and visiting new countries is learning about the unique festivals that are held there. Now I am not able to travel as much as I used to, but I can explore the world vicariously, through my job on iTalki, and my online wanderings. It has become clear to me that Christmas is now a global event, celebrated on every continent. The way it is observed differs starkly, however, depending on the country you are in.

Not every country has a Santa Claus, and Santa doesn't always ride in a sleigh.

In Spain the Three Wise Men deliver presents to children, which kind of makes sense, since they gifted gold, frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus in the Bible. In Holland they have a Santa but he lives in Spain and sails to and from the Dutch homeland by boat. Go figure. Russian children send letters every year to Ded Moroz, a bearded old wizard whose name means "Father Frost". He walks with a long magic staff and sometimes rides a troika.

I believe there is a relationship between Christmas and New Year's Day in that they offer a glimmer of hope in the cruel midst of winter. They both arrive just after the winter solstice, the most desperate time of all, but they promise that the light/sun/Son will return. It might be faint and distant, but the light is there and can be seen, twinkling through the hoary boles. The rebirth has begun...

Aslan has landed.


THE WIERDIST thing about Christmas in Australia is that it falls in the middle of summer. Therefore, for most Australians Christmas means not snow but SUN....SURF....SHOPPING. In the Sydney region, Christmas beetles appear in their metallic hues, banging against the windows at night. On Christmas Day in Australia, it is quite possible to relax in a spa or swimming pool, or go to the beach, or even play golf. I have done all of the above, and more.

Christmas 2019 at Breezy

A typical Australian Christmas menu could include seafood, glazed ham, cold chicken, duck or turkey, cold deli meats, cheeses and nibblies, salads galore, desserts of all types, fruit salad, pavlovas, ice-cream plus Christmas edibles of all varieties such as mince pies, fruit cake, shortbread, chocolates, etc.


AS IN AUSTRALIA, Christmas is celebrated in summer in Brazil, and therefore the weather is hot. One custom dating from colonial times involves the eating of salted cod, or bacalhau. They have a similar custom in Italy, according to one of my students, as well as Portugal.



THE SPANISH region of Catalunya wins the award, in my book, for having the strangest Christmas traditions in the world. As in other Mediterranean states, nativity scenes are popular, and I saw a few during my visit there in 1993, just after my Christmas in Amsterdam. The Catalan nativity scenes, however, are so comprehensive that they depict the entire city of Bethlehem at the time of Christ's birth, capturing every facet of civic life. As fate would have it, El Caganer was taking a crap at the exact moment when the Messiah descended. With his red barretina (peasant's cap) and disdain for authority, El Caganer has become a Catalan folk hero. His excrement is said to fertilize the earth, and he thus symbolizes the rebirth of spring following the desolation of winter.

El Caganer, and El Tio, in the Halfway House!

El Caganer is accompanied by a deconstructed Christmas tree make that read log with matching barretina and eyes, Tió de Nadal. Children have to hit him (or her) until he/she shits out some presents. Classy, but cool. El Caganer is one subversive figure, and they say that the Franco regime tried to have him banned.


BELIEVE IT or not, China is home to one of the largest Christian congregations in the world, estimated to comprise more than 100 million souls. That said, the government has tried to discourage Christmas in recent times, dismissing it as a foreign vice. In some places, it is popular to give apples embossed with the Chinese characters for "peace".


THE CHRISTMAS feast in Denmark is held at midnveryone looks forward to dessert when a special rice pudding i


THE CHRISTMAS feast in Denmark is held at midnight on Christmas Eve. Everyone looks forward to dessert when a special rice pudding is served in which a single almond is hidden. Whoever finds the almond will have good luck for the coming year.

Santa is called Julemanden (jul being related to the English word, "yule") and arrives in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, a sack over his back. He is helped by elves called Juul Nisse, who are said to live in attics. Children leave out saucers of milk or rice pudding for them so they can be eaten.


IN HOLLAND Santa Claus is called Sinterklaas, who lives in Spain. Every December 5 Sinterklaas sails from Spain to Holland. Children fill their shoes with hay and sugar for his horse and awake to find it transformed miraculously into gifts like nuts and candy.

Sometimes Sinterklaas appears in person in the children's homes, bearing a striking resemblance to the children's father or an uncle. He questions the children about their behavior during the past year. In the past he carried a birch rod to discipline the children, but these days he is more kindly.


EVERY DAY feels like Christmas in Iceland. Even in summer it is chilly, and the trees look like Christmas trees. It is close to the North Pole, not Arctic per se, but definitely subarctic. Þhorláksmessa, held two days before Christmas in honor of Iceland's native saint, kicks off the Yuletide festivities. Many Icelanders decorate their Christmas trees on this date, and eat a dish which is centred on rotten shark. Nasty.


It is believed that there exist 12 "Yule lads" who play mischief before Christmas, the sons of two trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði. Each lad his own day. On December 17 you better hide your bowls, because Askaleikir ("Bowl Licker") is around.


Boxing Day (December 26) is known as St Stephen's Day or Lá an Dreolin.


JAPAN IS NOT a Christian country by any means, but Japanese have adopted Christmas with a particular gusto, and made it their own. The LED light displays (Illuminations) erected in Tokyo and other cities make the decorations in many Christian countries, such as Australia, drab in comparison. Curiously, Christmas in Japan is a time for couples, not for children. Huge queues form outside Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets on Christmas Eve, where roast chicken is served, along with wine and cake.

New Year's Day is the most important day of the year in Japan, and both functions and feels like Christmas, in my opinion. On December 31 homes are cleaned from top to bottom, and families will put on their finest clothes. After a visit to the temple they usually eat osechi ryouri, trays of dishes including black soybeans, herring roe, candied chestnuts, and simmered shrimp. It is not my cup of tea, but it is supposed to bring good luck. More appetising are the mochi rice cakes, which can be stuffed with any number of fillings. I like ice cream mochi the best, although it is not particularly old school.


AN INTRIGUING blend of Soviet and Turkic influences, Kazakhstan is populated by people who look Chinese, but sound Russian. Despite being Muslim, Kazakhs have maintained the Soviet tradition of New Year.



WITH ITS fir forests and ice, Russia seems custom-made for Christmas, you might say. They have many stories and ballets devoted to the festival, like The Nutcracker Suite and The Silver Hoof (from the Ural Mountains). Their Santa, Ded Moroz, is blue instead of red. He has a granddaughter, named Snegurochka, who is supposedly made of snow. Ded Moroz wears a heel-length fur coat, a semi-round fur hat, and valenki on his feet.

As in Japan and east Asia, New Years Day is the most important holiday in the Russian calendar. This might be a hangover1 from the Soviet days, when Christmas was banned. Russians eat Olivier salad, and drink champaign, or vodka. At midnight they walk outside in the snow, indulge in a spot of bobsledding, and watch the fireworks.


I CELEBRATED Christmas once in Hồ Chí Minh City at the Notre Dame Cathedral, the spiritual heart of the nation's Catholics. Vietnamese people welcome any opportunity to party, and by evening the streets of the city were jammed with couples and whole families on two wheels. Close to the cathedral, crowds of youngsters hurled confetti at each other and sprayed shaving cream into the air. Some of them even tossed cans of said shaving cream aloft, Dangerous. When I got back to my hotel room, I found that my clothes and hair were covered in confetti.

How is Christmas celebrated in your neck of the woods2? Let me know in the comments box below.

1. Hangover .......... Aftermath, after-effect.
2. "Your neck of the woods" .......... The region where you live.

1. Where would you most like to celebrate Christmas?
2. What do you want for Christmas?
3. How do you celebrate Christmas in your family?
4. How do you deal with a Christmas hangover?

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