Ah, the traditional British Christmas…. you know how it is.
On Christmas Eve, the stockings go up and the kids are early to bed. Some time during the night (but only if you’ve been good) Santa arrives on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, slides down the chimney in his signature red suit, opens his big sack of presents, and leaves a pile under the beautifully-decorated Christmas tree. Come morning, the kids are up at the crack of dawn to tear the wrapping paper off the pressies and then the whole family stuffs it face with turkey and mince pies before falling asleep in front of whatever repeats they’re showing on TV.
That’s how we do it here, but Christmas can be very different in other countries around the world.
For many people in Japan, the traditional Christmas dinner is Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). No, seriously. Historically, Japan does not celebrate Christmas and it’s not a national holiday. Millions of Japanese, however, spend Christmas Day at one of the restaurant chain’s many outlets, where they feast on… well, buckets of fried chicken. It all started back in the 1970s, when KFC noticed that many foreign countries could not get hold of turkey at Christmas and so launched a marketing campaign with a new menu that included fried chicken and Champagne. It worked so well that queuing to get into KFC on Christmas Day has become a tradition in itself in Japan. Pre-booking is essential to avoid disappointment.
The Mexican celebration of Christmas is called Las Posadas and begins on December 16. The ninth evening of Las Posadas is Buena Noche, Christmas Eve. The children lead a procession through the streets to the church and place a figure of the Baby Jesus in the nacimiento (nativity scene). Then everyone heads off to midnight mass.
In Russia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7, and wasn’t really a ‘thing’ during the 20th century, as it wasn’t allowed to be celebrated publicly. As New Year’s Day precedes Russian Christmas, it’s often celebrated as a more important holiday. These days, some Russians observe two Christmases and even two New Year’s – the first Christmas on December 25 and a second New year on January 14. The traditional Christmas Day meal may feature a main of pork, goose or other meat dish, followed by a variety of sides such as aspic, stuffed pies, and various types of dessert. The Russian Santa Claus is known as Ded Moroz and, accompanied by Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden), he brings presents to children to place under the tree. He carries a staff and, instead of a reindeer-pulled sleigh, he arrives in a troika.
Norwegian kids have two creatures they need to keep an eye out for. First is the Julebukk, who is a goat-like gnome who dishes out pressies. Then there’s Jul Nisse, who guards the farm animals and plays tricks on the children who don’t leave porridge out for him.
The Dutch celebrate the holiday on December 6 and await the arrival of Sinterklass and his trusty helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who arrive by boat and leave candy and nuts for good little boys and girls – or else a golden birch (for spanking) for those who have been naughty. In the Netherlands, Santa doesn’t hail from the Lapland – he’s from Spain! Zwarte Piet has proven controversial in recent years. Traditionally depicted by actors in black facepaint the character has been criticised by groups in Holland and even the UN for negatively portraying minorities.
December 6 is Nikolaustag (St Nicholas Day). The night before, children leave a shoe or boot outside their door, and the next morning candies or small toys appear in them. As in the Netherlands, a golden birch is placed in them if they’ve been naughty.
Single ladies perform an unusual ritual on Christmas Eve to find out if they will get married during the year ahead. With their backs turned to the house door, it involves throwing one shoe over their shoulder. If the shoe lands with the heel pointing towards the door – bad luck! – they will remain single. If the front of the shoe point towards the door, however, it’s time to start making wedding plans.
The Spanish kick off their Christmas celebrations on December 8, with the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Presents don’t get dished out until January 6 – Dia de Los Reyes (or Three Kings Day in English). The fun begins the night before, when the three kings lead their procession through the streets, throwing sweets to the children. The morning after the night before, the kids wake up to find presents have been left overnight. Christmas meals in Spain vary from region to region, but a popular tradition is to eat a Roscon (a large, sweet donut-shaped bread covered in cherries and sugar). A plastic toy is buried deep in the Roscon, and whoever finds it gets good luck for the year ahead.
Superstitious Greeks wrap fresh basil around a wooden cross, which is used to sprinkle water around the house to keep away the Killantzaroi – mischievous goblins. Some households also keep a fire lit to stop them getting up to mischief, like turning milk sour and riding on the backs of people. Presents are given on January 1.
Children get their presents on December 6, which is St Nicholas’ Day. Families get together for a traditional Christmas Eve feast, which has 12 courses, two of which are carp (a type of fish). Polish tradition has it that animals can talk and people can tell the future on Christmas Eve.