Welcome to the David Victor Vector Blog

Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Customs Around the World

While virtually all Christians celebrate Christmas in some way, an exceptionally wide variety of rituals, gift-giving practices, decoration and other traditions are practiced from location to location.

As mentioned in an earlier blog (see http://davidvictorvector.blogspot.com/2011/12/christmas-day.html), some national or religious observances celebrate only Christmas Day while others have traditions leading up to Christmas and extending through Epiphany on January 6.

Most Roman Catholic – and some Protestant –  traditions celebrate Epiphany on January 6 while still celebrating Christmas separately. Most Eastern Orthodox traditions do not follow the Gregorian calendar, remaining on the Julian calendar that predated it. Therefore, most Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the Julian calendar which corresponds to a date in the Gregorian calendar (used as the secular calendar as well) some time on or near January 7 (which is the date for 2013).  Orthodox traditions also observe Epiphany (often called Theophany among Eastern Orthodox Christians) on January 6 in the Julian calendar which corresponds to January 19 in the Gregorian or secular calendar.  For most Eastern Orthodox European traditions, the emphasis is primarily on the Theophany or “shining forth” of Jesus, as Jesus’ presence was made known. Because the holidays of Christmas and Epiphany are intertwined, they are both covered here.

Four countries have official bans on the observance of Christmas. The latest of these was Brunei which in 2014 formally banned any public observance of Christmas, with punishment for those doing so including fines and jail time. The other nations in which Christmas is formally banned are North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia (the latter of which in 2015 banned New's Year's Eve celebrations as well)

Christmas as a National Holiday

Christmas in Christian-Majority Countries

Christmas is celebrated as an official national holiday in all Christian nations which have an official state religion or an established religion. For these states, the traditions of the established state church prevail in public settings and are paid for through taxes on the general citizenry regardless of their religion. That said, nations with an established religion allow observances of Christmas for those of differing beliefs. 

The folreligions of nations with established churches (marked with a *) or give special recognition to a faith in their constitution or laws (while either disestablishing the former established church or never formally recognizing the church as such):

Anglican:
England*
Church of Scotland (Reformed): Scotland
            
Church of Tuvalu:
            Tuvalu
Eastern Orthodox:
Greece*, Georgia, Macedonia*
Lutheran:
Denmark*, Iceland*, Norway*
Roman Catholic:
Andorra, Argentina, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Italy, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Liechtenstein*, Luxembourg*, Malta*, Monaco*, Slovakia, Spain, the Vatican*
Reformed Church of Scotland:
            Scotland

Two countries have special relationship or official standing with more than one church. These are:

Finland: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and Finnish Orthodox Church

Switzerland: Each canton has its own official cantonal religion. Geneva and Neuchâtel are the only two cantons that are not either Swiss Reformed or Roman Catholic. Still, Christmas is an official holiday in all Swiss cantons.

Christmas in States With No Official Religion

Christmas is widely recognized as an official state holiday even in nations where the state religion has been disestablished and is no longer official. Thus, Christmas remains a national holiday in Austria, Brazil, Ethiopia and Sweden among others.

More significantly, Christmas is recognized in nations that otherwise have a strong tradition of separation of Church and State (such as the United States, Canada and France).

It should be noted that Christmas was not always a national holiday in primarily Christian countries. The public observance of Christmas was either banned or discouraged under Communist rule in the former Soviet Union and many of its satellites, for example.

Oliver Cromwell
banned Christmas in England
Significantly, Christmas was strongly opposed as a holiday by the Puritans in both colonial North America and England.

During the Puritan takeover of the British Commonwealth in 1645 Christmas was eliminated as a national holiday. The British ban stayed in place through 1660, when Oliver Cromwell was no longer Lord Protector.

In both colonial North America and Britain under Cromwell, Christmas was opposed for religious reasons. This is a far cry from the current "War on Christmas" arguments of many who believe themselves to be the Puritans' religious descendants.

Puritans believed (correctly) that most observances of Christmas grew out of an attempt by the Roman Catholic under Pope Julius I to Christianize pagan practices. They pointed to the Christmas tree as evolving out of tree worship, and to the time of partying and feasting as a Christianization of the ancient Roman and Greek Saturnalia festival.

Cotton Mather
preached against Christmas
Puritans also opposed the holiday’s encouragement of drinking of alcohol and the overall festive mood (and, they claimed, licentious behavior and gambling). The great Puritan leader of colonial New England Cotton Mather, for example, gave a sermon in 1712 deriding Christmas as an evil influence:

"Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty ...by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling.." 

In the December 30-January 6, 2012 issue of The Week, an excellent article gives a solid overview of this in an article entitled “When Americans banned Christmas: The original ‘War on Christmas’ happened almost 400 years ago, courtesy of our Puritan forefathers.” I encourage you to read the one page summary at http://shar.es/WqNLc   The article points out that Christmas was opposed in the United States long after Independence, with the Senate intentionally meeting on Christmas Day in 1797 and the House of Representatives doing so intentionally on Christmas Day, 1802.

In 1836, Alabama became
the first US state to recognize
Christmas as an official holiday 
Moreover, the resistance to recognizing Christmas in the United States was not limited only to Puritan-influenced New England States, but was nationwide.

The first state to formally make Christmas an official state holiday was Alabama, and it did so only in 1836, and full 60 years after Independence was declared. That said, anti-Christmas sentiment reigned in force much later in New England than the rest of the nation, and Christmas was not a state holiday in most of New England until 1850. 
U.S. Grant

Christmas only became a federal holiday when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill doing so in his first term as President. The year was 1870, almost a century after independence. In short, the official state recognition of Christmas is far from a deeply-rooted tradition in the United States.

Today, several Protestant traditions still oppose the celebration of Christmas in various forms. Several sects suggest their adherents should still celebrate Christmas but focus more on the birth of Jesus and less on celebrations and gift-giving.

Others are more opposed to Christmas in any form. For example, in a post entitled “The Plain Truth About Christmas” on the Jesus-Is-Savior.com website, opposes Christmas in any form, calling it “A PAGAN, not a Christian holiday” and going on to say that

The plain truth is, Christmas is NOT Christ's birthday at all! And this festival, important as it seems to so many, is not of Christian, but of pagan — Babylonish — origin!” 


Arguably the most strict opposition comes with Jehovah’s Witnesses. As explained on their JW official website:
False religious holidays or holidays of pagan origin cannot be celebrated by the Jehovah's Witnesses because they believe that their God Jehovah requires Christians to belong to the 'correct' religion in order to be saved.
Belonging to a 'false' religion and participating in their false holidays is thought to be wrong. Examples of false religious holidays would be Christmas and Easter.

Jehovah's Witnesses oppose any Christmas observance

Christmas Customs Around the World

Two Gift-Giving Traditions

In most nations, Christmas is a time of gift-giving. In this regard, Christian traditions divides into two general groups. In the first group of traditions, people give gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, often in association with Saint Nicholas or another gift-giving figure.

In the second group, gifts are not given in December at all, but are associated either with Epiphany or with the Day of the Three Wise Men in early January.

Countries with December Gift-Giving Traditions

The Netherlands

Sinterklass on his white horse
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' actual birthday (December 6) is celebrated. This is an important day as Saint Nicholas was historically widely revered in the Netherlands since he was the patron saint of mariners, the basis over the centuries for much of the Dutch economy. Saint Nicholas is also the Patron Saint of Amsterdam.

In Dutch, Saint Nicholas is known as Sinterklaas. It is believed that this major Dutch celebration (in which gifts are given out on the eve of his birthday) is the source of the figure of Santa Claus.

Sinterklaas is accompanied traditionally by (the now quite controversial) Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) who punishes bad children just as Sinterklaas rewards good children.

In the Netherlands, children leave their shoes outside their homes and fill them with hay and sugar on December 5 for Sinterklaas’ white horse (no reindeer there). In the morning, they find that the offerings have been eaten and that Sinterklaas has in turn filled the shoes up with candies and nuts.

Belgium

In Belgium, and especially in Flanders, Saint Nicholas is much within the same tradition of the Netherlands. Sinterklaas is quite separate from Christmas, and is recognized on his own Saint's Day of December 6. In a comment shared with me by the Belgian cross-cultural expert S. Paul Verluyten:

Sinterklaas" (or "de Sint", literally "the Saint") has nothing to do with Christmas. Children get presents from their parents or others on December 6, which is the official catholic saint's day of Nikolaus of Myra. Sinterklaas arrives "met de stoomboot from Spanje" (with the steamer from Spain), from Spain probably because originally the gifts for the children were oranges (though if nowadays you give your boy or girl just a few oranges for Sinterklaas instead of an Xbox they will be shocked and start hating you). Sinterklaas drops (?) the gifts through the chimney, so children are expected to put a shoe at the fireplace on the evening of December 5 to receive their gifts. There are also Sinterklaas(en) in shopping malls, etc, which children can go and see and be asked if they have behaved well during the year, again starting some days before December 6. And yes, there is "Zwarte Piet", the black guy (controversial also in Europe now; usually a white person with his face blackened with shoe polish or something) to punish ill-behaved children. Sinterklaas looks a bit like Santa Claus: red garments, white beard, but he always wears a bishop's mitre and a bishop's staff, contrary to Santa Claus. Sinterklaas often rides a white horse. Then gifts again, but this time not just for children, on Christmas evening or day. And more recently, "de kerstman" (Father Christmas) appeared, who looks like the American Santa Claus, but that is a recent import, just as Halloween is, for instance. Also, "de kerstman" is funny and fat and smiles a lot and comes from the north (in a sleigh for instance), unlike Sinterklaas who keeps some of his bishop's dignity.
I see no signs of any merger between Sinterklaas (Dedember 6, children only) and  "de kerstman" (Dec. 25 and around) in Belgium at least.
Germany
In northern Germany, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by Knecht Rupert who punishes bad children just as Nicholas rewards the good children.  It is from the German tradition that the concept of Santa having a list of "naughty and nice" children derives. Traditionally, Knecht Rupert visits children well before Christmas on December 6, which is (as noted above) actually Saint Nicholas’ Saint’s Day in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar.  Sometimes, Knecht Rupert is accompanied by Saint Nicholas (or vice versa).  

St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht
In Germany, Saint Nicholas differs significantly from Santa Claus, and is usually dressed in a bishops robes and miter. In some traditions in various regions of Germany, the Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) visits children on either the afternoon of Christmas Eve or on Christmas day, and in some areas, the Weihnachtsmann is morphing into the US-style Santa Claus. In other traditions, gifts come courtesy of the Christkindl (Christ Child). The Christ Child for many Germans is actually the baby Jesus; however, for others, the Christkindl is not Jesus at all but a mischievous Puck-like character.

The Christmas tree is central to German celebrations, and indeed it is from Germany that the custom spread throughout the world. Traditionally, Germans will not set up their trees before December 23 and the entire tree must be decorated by Christmas Eve the following day. Many cities and towns have a large tree in the center of town grown and maintained especially for use at Christmas.

Nuremberg's Christkindlmarkt
Christmas Quetschemännchen for sale
Throughout Germany, Christmas markets are set up in town squares that sell elaborate ornaments for the trees and decorations for the house. Many of the ornaments are hand-blown glass or intricate wooden ornaments. Two unique ornaments are stars made out of plain straw and little   Quetschemännchen (prune men and women).  Many vendors also sell gingerbread houses, spiced cakes, Stollen, sugar-roasted almonds, and dolls or angels made of  fruit all specialty for the season. The most famous Christmas Market in Germany is Nuremberg's Christkindlmarkt (Christ Child Market). The Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt has over 200 stalls annually and has attracted people to it for over 375 years. 
 
Austria and Bavaria

Centered in Austria and Bavaria and extending into the German-speaking Alpine communities of Slovenia Italy's Südtirol (Alto Adige) people celebrate the approaching season with the tradition of the demonic Krampus. The Krampus is the evil counterpart of Saint Nicholas. Like Saint Nicholas, he arrives on Saint Nicholas Feast Day (December 6) the eve of which is often called Krampusnacht  (the night of the Krampus). Where Saint Nicholas comes to reward children who have been good, the Krampus comes to punish or even kidnap children who have been naughty. 

The Krampus is a hairy devil-like creature with cloven hooves, goat's horns, reddened eyes and a long, lolling tongue.  He carries or drags chains (to which he is symbolically bound to the Devil and which he uses to tie up bad children before throwing them in the sack (or in some traditions the washtub) that he carries over his back. The chains often have bells attached to them so that children can know that he is coming. The Krampus also carries ruten or birch branches with which he thrashes (usually lightly) bad children. 
The Krampus featured
on a Krampus card ca. 1900

While the Krampus may come to houses, he is usually seen walking the streets (and even more often the central square of the town) on Krampusnacht.  Sometimes he appears by himself and other times he comes in the company of Saint Nicholas. 

In the regions where there is a Krampus tradition, people often set up decorations including images of the Krampus. These tend to have a less frightening character to them, often involving subtle (or not so subtle) sexual humor. People also exchange Krampuskarten or Krampus cards, a sort of Christmas card equivalent that features the Krampus.

On Krampusnacht, adults often participate in Krampuslaufen. This is a race of people dressed in Krampus costumes. These do not have to be held on the eve of December 6 (although they are never held earlier than that), and indeed there may be several different Krampuslaufen events held in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In several traditions, these races are accompanied by drinking strong alcohol in the form of Krampusschnaps.  The Krampus-dressed runners often pretend to chase after women (not children) and some of the events may have a good deal of ribald humor.

The Krampus was the subject of a Christmas horror film simply entitled Krampus released in December 2015 by Universal Pictures.

Alsace and the Pfalz
Hans Trapp
In France's Alsace and across the border in Germany's Pfalz (or Palatine), children are told to look out for Hans Trapp (also called Jean de Dratt). Hans Trapp is a Krampus-like figure who accompanies the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. 
Hans Trapp actually has historical origins from an overbearing Prince Elector of the region in the 1500's named Hans von Dratt. The much-disliked baron eventually morphed into a figure to keep children in line at Christmas.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom children are visited by Father Christmas. Traditionally, children write letters to Father Christmas and burn them in the fireplace so that the messages will float on the wind to reach him at the North Pole. Christmas is also the traditional occasion of the national broadcast by the Queen to her people.

Christmas Crackers are a mainstay of Christmas in the United Kingdom (as well as former British
Christmas Cracker
colonies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa). A Christmas cracker is a cardboard tube wrapped in colorful foil or paper inside which is a "snap" (a paper or cardboard strip that produces a loud cracking noise when the ends of the cracker are pulled). Each cracker traditionally contains a crown made of colored tissue paper, a "motto" (a piece of paper on which are printed short jokes, riddles and trivia facts) and a tiny toy. Christmas Crackers have featured in the UK since 1847, when London pastry cook Tom Smith invented a variation on what was then a popular custom of wrapping Christmas sweet (candied almonds, etc.). Tom Smith's company continues in operation, although many manufacturers produce Christmas Crackers as well. In 2010, the European Union passed a law much-protested in the UK banning the sale of Christmas Crackers to anyone under the age of 16 (categorizing the noise-making strip -- comparable to a  cap gun' cap-- as an firework). In 2013, the UK modified the law to allow the sale to those 12 and over. The regulation, however, has consistently been held as an example of what its opponents hold to be pointless EU regulations affecting life in the UK.

Boxing Day follows Christmas on December 26. The custom began in the Middle Ages, when priests distributed the past year's alms collections to those in need. By the Victorian Era, the custom morphed from the village priest giving charity to the rich giving boxed leftovers their servants from their Christmas feast the day before.

Traditional English foods for Christmas include Christmas pudding and mince pie. Christmas pudding is a cake made of dried fruits, eggs and suet (beef or mutton fat) that is moistened with molasses or treacle (sugar syrup) and mixed with a variety of spices, such as ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. The pudding is then aged for a minimum of a month and as long as a year, during which time the fruit ferments to create an alcohol content that strengthens with the length of
Christmas pudding
aging. Before serving, the pudding is steamed and either drenched with fruit juice or soaked in brandy (the latter which is subsequently set alight as it is served). Since Victorian times, it has been customary to decorate Christmas pudding with a bit of holly (which is not edible). Alternative names for Christmas pudding are "figgy pudding" or  "plum pudding" -- referring to the use of figs (often used) or raisins (plums are a now obsolete term for raisins -- a bit confusing as "plum" pudding rarely if ever contains the fruit that carries modern-day meaning of plum).

Mince pie is made from mincemeat. Despite the name, mincemeat  
Mince pie
contains no meat but instead is (usually) made from dried raisins and citrus fruit peels mixed with nutmeg, clove, mace and cinnamon held together with vegetable shortening and soaked in liquor or brandy. If the mincemeat is homemade, it is traditional for everyone in the home to stir the pot for good luck before it is added to the pie. One recipe for mince pie can be found at the Leo Network (an English-learning site): http://www.learnenglish.de/recipe/mincepies.html

Iceland

Jólasveinar in Iceland  
In Iceland, people receive visits not from one Santa Claus but from thirteen trolls, the  jólasveinar (or Yule lads). Each troll has his own name, physical traits and personal characteristics, which are well-known by most Icelanders. The tradition predates Christianity and in earlier times held the threat that the trolls might do not only good things but mischief as well (including carrying away children who misbehaved).

In current times, children leave out an empty shoe on December 12 and one of the 13 jólasveinar will bring a gift if the child has been good (bad children receive a potato).  The trolls often parade through the streets of the town. The jólasveinar do not leave all at once, but rather leave one at a time over the 26 days of the traditional Icelandic Christmas season. The season ends on January 6, a night when according to polls a substantial percentage of not only children but grown Icelanders believe elves may be present.


Saint Thorlakur Skate with potatoes
The traditional Christmas fare begins early in Iceland -- two days early to be more precise. December 23 is the Saint's Day of  Heilagur Þorlákur Þórhallsson (St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson).  Although Iceland has been officially Protestant, the former Bishop of Skálholt remains Iceland's patron saint and the traditional custom of eating skate (a flat sole-like fish) in his honor has held for centuries. Heilagur Þorlákur skata (Saint Thorlakur skate) is a meal of pickled and semi-rotting skate -- yes, putrifying skate is preferred. The meal is usually accompanied boiled potatoes. Often the meal is eaten at a restaurant for two reasons. First, after a day of last minute shopping in many cases, people can relax and be served. The more commonly held reason though is that rotting fish smells very bad and this keeps the smell of putrification out of the house.

On Christmas Day,  Icelanders customarily turn to something a bit more appetizing. The standard meal is ptarmigan (a local game bird in Icelandic called rjúpa) that is often caught and hunted by family members. Another Christmas standards is smoked lamb (hangikjöt). The highpoint of the meal, though, is a dessert called a Möndlugrautur. This is a special Christmas rice pudding with an almond hidden inside. Möndlugrautur is often accompanied with Laufabrauð (or snowflake bread), a round and very flat fried cake usually about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) in diameter decorated with geometric patterns. Decorating the Laufabrauð is often a family activity associated with Christmas preparations.Icelanders on Christmas customarily eat a traditional dessert called a Möndlugrautur.

Norway
 Norwegian Julenisse

In Norway, people are visited not Santa either (nor by trolls, for that matter) but rather by a julenisse (a Yule elf or gnome) who visits the house after the family has exchanged their gifts on Christmas Eve. The julenisse brings the household good fortune and luck rather than material gifts. In traditional households, children leave a bowl of porridge and a glass of milk for the julinesse over night. If the porridge and milk disappear over night (as they usually do), then the children know that the julenisse has come.

Malta

In Malta, one of the central events for Christmas is the "Sermon of the Child"  (in Maltese Il-Priedka tat-Tiel). Maltese traditionally attend Midnight Mass as a highpoint of Christmas. During Midnight Mass, a child (usually 10 years-old or younger) is selected to give the sermon. Being selected as the child to deliver the sermon is a great honor and for months leading up to the mass, the child's family and others help him or her edit and rehearse the sermon.  After Midnight Mass while still at the church, the congregation customarily partake of strong Maltese coffee and mqarut (singular impart). Mqarut means "diamond-shaped", because these deep-fried pastries are traditionally that shape (though many people make them rectangular as well despite the name). The pastries are filled with dates and the dough is flavored with bay leaf and anise.


Maltese Christmas Mqarut


Slovakia

 Traditional Stedry Vecer meal
In Slovakia, Christmas Eve similarly has associations with good fortune. In Slovak, Christmas Eve is called "Stedry Vecer" or Bountiful Eve. Here the good fortune comes not with an elf as in Norway, but with a special meal. For Roman Catholic Slovaks, it has become customary to eat a fish meal, with the fish scales representing wealth. In some Slovak traditions, efforts are made to keep away evil spirits through placing garlic on the table or to keep evil spirits preoccupied with picking up poppy seeds that have been sprinkled on the doorway.  


St. Lucia girl in Sweden
Sweden

In Sweden, the holiday season begins on December 13 with the Celebration of St. Lucia. On this day, the youngest girl in the house gets up before dawn to dress in a special St. Lucia white dress with a red sash. She then is crowned by the other children of the family with a wreath of evergreens with long, white lighted candles. She then leads the other children in a procession to wake up her parents. The other children also often dress in white and traditionally special pointed Christmas hats and carry stars on the ends of wands. The whole family then proceeds to the table where they welcome the dawn with coffee and special St. Lucia sweet buns called Lussekatter (Lucia’s cats).

Tomte with the Julbok
On Christmas itself,  the Christmas gnome Tomte traditionally visits children on his magical straw goat Julbok (literally, Christmas buck-goat). Traditionally, Julbok gave out the presents on Christmas Day and Tomte supervised.  The Julbok predates Tomte or Santa Claus, with the tradition rooted in the goat that pulled the ancient Norse mythological god Thor’s chariot.  Similarly, the St. Lucia ceremony also predates Christianity, going back to ancient Norse rites welcoming the return of the sun at the Winter Solstice. The pagan myths were co-opted to Christian tradition following the Christianization of Scandinavia in the 1100’s (although the Sami people of northern Sweden continued to practice the Norse religion as late as the 1700’s).

Julbok in Gavle, Sweden
Today, with the influence of other traditions mixing into Sweden, the two traditions of Tomte and Santa Claus are beginning to merge. This has been helped by the fact that both  Tomte and Santa Claus are traditionally dressed in red with white trim and both have white beards. Today, for many Swedish children, Tomte is growing to more human size but is accompanied by the Jultomten or Christmas elf/brownie who is more gnome-sized and helps Tomte hand out the gifts. In turn, the Julbok is increasingly becoming a separate tradition from Tomte altogether, with straw goats becoming popular Christmas ornaments and decorations. In many towns and cities in Norway, a giant straw Julbok is erected in a city square for Christmas.

The traditional Christmas meal is known as a Julbord (Christmas table) which traditionally consists of a smorgasbord of Christmas dishes. Among these are Julskinka (Christmas ham) served with dopp i grytan (sopping up the ham's broth with pieces of bread), lutefisk (cod soaked in cold water and lye and then air-dried) and a special Julost (Christmas cheese) usually served on knäckebröd (Swedish crisp bread). Another Christmas dish on the Julbord is Jannsons frestelse (Jannson's temptative) which is a casserole of potatoes and onions, bread crumbs, cream and either anchovies or pickled sprat fish. While much debate exists as to how the dish got its name and who Jannson was, one common suggestion is that it was named for the 19th Century opera singer Pelle Janzon who was known for his gluttony. Desserts usual feature Julgröt (the Swedish version of the Icelandic Möndlugrautur rice pudding and almonds), Knäck (a sort of hard toffee) and Pepparkakor (a Swedish type of gingerbread). A non-alcoholic drink akin to stout beer called Julmust (must means fermented fruit but there is not fruit in the drink) is common. Finally, as with most Nordic countries, mulled wine is traditional and is called Glögg in Sweden. 
Swedish Julbord


Finland

Joulupukki
The Finnish equivalent of Santa Claus is Joulupukki. Unlike many other national traditions, there is nothing secret about his visit. Instead, he traditionally comes through the front door and greets the children on Christmas Eve. He asks each child if he or she has been good, and if the answer is yes, he has a gift for them.

At Christmas time, Finns also traditionally visit the cemetery to remember those who have passed away. Many Finns light candles for the dead as a way of remembering them. Christmas is also a time for a festive meal, usually of ham, salmon and rice porridge. After the meal, many Finns take a family sauna together. them on Christmas Eve.



Haiti

Haiti celebrates Nwèl (Haitian Creole for Christmas) with many of its own unique traditions. The main celebration comes on Nwèl Eve, where parties take place accompanied by street musicians and cars with speakers playing Haitian Christmas music until midnight when people attend Midnight Mass. After the mass, for many people, the party continues on for several more hours.

Haitian man with a Nwèl fanal
The central decoration of a Haitian Nwèl is the fanal -- a house-shaped lantern. Restavek Freedom Foundation's Djougine Saint-Hilaire explains fondly:


Decorating with Fanal is so much fun! Fanals are Haitian originals. Kids or adults usually spend months cutting paper boxes, gluing, and shaping the Fanals into whatever shape they want. Sometimes they make them in the shapes of animals, churches, or houses. The Fanals are lit up with candles or Christmas lights at night time. We usually had at least five of them on our porch. http://restavekfreedom.tumblr.com/post/70493939213/nwel-ann-ayiti-christmas-in-haiti
Haitian kremas
Nwèl cake is traditionally eaten. For many who are economically challenged in Haiti, this is the only time in the year when people have the opportunity to eat cake. The cake is washed down with Haitian Nwèl kremas, an alcoholic drink made of coconut milk, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and evaporated milk. An illustrated recipe for kremas is available at the website A L'Haitiènne: 

http://www.alhaitienne.com/2012/03/kremas-recipe-and-pics-included.html

On Nwèl Eve, before going to bed, children fill their freshly-cleaned shoes with hay and place them on the doorstep or porch for  Tonton Nwèl (the Haitian version of Father Christmas). In the morning (they hope), the hay will be removed and a treat or toy will be left by Tonton Nwèl in its place.  

Palestine

Bethlehem in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories is the birthplace of Jesus, and is the location of the Church of the Nativity.  For millennia, Bethlehem has been a center of solemn Christian worship on Christmas. This continues to the present day, even though Bethlehem's population has dwindled under Palestinian governance from 30,000 in 1964 to roughly 11,000 in 2011 (for the reasons for this, see CBS 60 Minutes 2011 special report on the "Christians of the Holy Land" at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/christians-of-the-holy-land/ ). In 2015, the Vatican estimated that the number of Christians in the West Bank had shrunk to about 5000. http://www.news.va/en/news/asiaholy-land-the-percentage-of-christians-in-the 

The current Church of the Nativity dates to 565 AD and stands in Bethlehem's Manger Square on the site of an earlier church that was erected in 327 AD. It is one of the oldest Christian buildings anywhere and has a 14-pointed silver star with a hole at its center marking what Christians believe is the exact spot of the Nativity. Pilgrims stick their hands through the hole to touch the spot (I know, having personally done so myself!). The Church of the Nativity is shared and co-maintained by the Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, each with their own officiants at the site.

Each year on Christmas Eve, Christians parade through the streets to the sound of bagpipes (a traditional Palestinian Christian instruments dating to ancient times). The streets are decorated with lights. People of all faiths participate, particularly with politicians of all Christian denominations as well as Jewish and Muslim leaders.

Christmas parade ending at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The parade ends at the Church of the Nativity where, the Christmas Midnight Mass is led by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Jerusalem. The parade and Mass are repeated again on January 6 or 7 which is the date that the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Christians celebrate Christmas.

Liberia

In Liberia, a unique street performance is associated with Christmas: the antics of not only Santa Claus but of Old Man Bayka (Old Man Beggar) or sometimes simply the "Country Devil".  Santa is dressed as an elegant man of means while Old Man Bayka is dressed in rags and often on stilts. All of this is accompanied by the Speaker, who serves as an emcee and explains the Christmas story.

Old Man Bayka, Liberia
Rather than giving gifts to others (à la Santa Claus), people give the gifts to Old Man Bayka with calls of "my Christmas on you." The pageant includes an introduction from a well-dressed Speaker welcoming Christmas as the birth of Jesus, and then Santa Claus and Old Man Bayka perform various songs, chants and dances, cheered on by the crowd.

Santa Claus is less the European saintly version but a bit of a rascal who flirts with the girls and sings flirtatious songs along with Old Man Bayka.  In some traditions, one of Santa's nicknames even is YGC for "Young Girl Chaser."

The street performances are themselves seen as a gift, spreading joy and cheer. The Speaker in his introduction, in turn, makes certain that the religious elements of Christmas are understood and respected.

India

Banana tree decorated 
for Christmas, India
India's 25 million Christians have varied Christmas traditions. One fairly widespread tradition is that
banana trees are decorated rather than pine trees. Although imported firs have a following too, they are not particularly native to India.

The Christian community in Kerala dates to the time of Saint Thomas the Apostle who brought
Kerala fish molly
Christianity to what is now there soon after the time of Jesus. Some of the Kerala Christmas  traditions are fairly new (Father Christmas, for instance). Others, though, go back to the earliest days of Christianity.  Among these is the use of frankincense, which is native to India and was one of the gifts of the three Magi and the eating of fish molly (a fish curry, recalling Christ as the fisherman of souls).

In northeast Mizoram, Christians celebrate the holiday with three-day-long community-wide feasts called Lengkhawn Zai. Traditional Mizo Christmas carols are sung to the beating of drum accompaniments.

Goa has one of India's highest concentrations of Christians, a legacy of centuries of Portuguese rule. Christmas Eve begins a festival of music and dancing that lasts through the night and Christmas Day, ending in a solemn midnight mass. 


National Traditions With A January Gift-Giving Tradition

It should be noted that many Christian national traditions have no Santa Claus. For example, there is no tradition of Santa Claus in Italy, France (apart from the Alsace), Spain or Latin America. Also, in many Eastern Orthodox traditions, the giving of gifts is associated not with Saint Nicholas but with Basil the Great.

Italy 

An Italian ceppo
In Italy, the celebration of Novena starts eight days before Christmas and continues through Christmas Day. The season goes on through Epiphany on January 6, when children receive gifts from the witch-like Befana. The tradition goes that the Three Wise Men had asked her the way to the manger in which Jesus lay but she was too busy cleaning her house to stop to give them directions. Ever since, she has regretted failing to do so, and so flies from house to house on her broomstick delivering gifts in the stockings of good children (bad children receive lumps of coal) so that the baby Jesus will welcome them.  Some regions of Italy also have an "urn of fate" in which wrapped gifts are placed and picked at random.

In many parts of Italy, people have a ceppo instead of a tree. A ceppo is a wooden pyramid-like set of shelves that hold a manger scene and gifts. People often decorate it with colorful pennants and ribbons, pine cones and colored paper. At the top, people often place a star or an angel.

France

Child with Père Noël and Père Fouettard
In France, Père Noël and his assistant Père Fouettard go from house to house on their donkey after the children have gone to sleep on January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

French children leave carrots for the donkey in their shoes. These were traditionally the French wooden shoes called sabots, but today any shoes will do. That said, it is a tradition to give children chocolate-shaped sabots as gifts. In any case, if Père Noël determines that the children have been good, then on January 6, he leaves them small gifts in their shoes in place of the carrots.

Spain

In Spain, the Christmas season traditionally begins on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception each year in Seville is especially elaborate where special ceremonies and the famous choirboys’ “Los Seises” dance (or dance of the sixes) in special costumes and plumed hats have attracted celebrants and tourists for centuries. Christmas Eve itself is called La Nochebuena (“The Good Night”). Traditionally, people light small oil lamps in each window of their house to represent the stars that marked the birth of Jesus. The main Christmas meal comes in the wee hours of the morning, following Midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, people traditionally eat Turron (an almond paste candy) and dance the centuries-old Jota to celebrate the day. However, the celebrating does not end on Christmas day.
Dance of Los Seises, Seville Spain

On December 28, Spaniards traditionally celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents.. This is the day in remembrance of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod attempted to kill all male children two or under born in Bethlehem to prevent the fulfilling of the prophecy of the birth of a King of the Jews. The Feast of the Holy Innocents today in Spain is much more lighthearted than the Biblical story associated with it. People play minor tricks on each other and shout “Innocente” in much the way that people in the US should April Fools after tricking someone on April Fool’s Day. In addition, in some Spanish villages, the mayor traditionally is allowed to demand that citizens perform small civic duties (picking up litter, etc.) as innocents on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The holiday season concludes with Epiphany on January 6.

On the eve of Epiphany, Spanish children traditionally leave their shoes outside the house and fill them with carrots, barley and straw for the camels of the Three Kings. The Three Kings, in turn, leave the children gifts in exchange.

Latin America 
 The Three Kings riding through the Lima, Peru

For many Latin Americans, January 6 is celebrated as El Dia de los Reyes (the Day of the Kings). On this day, in this tradition, the Three Wise Men came bearing gifts to the newborn Jesus.  In these traditions, children often leave things for the caravans of the visitors on the night before.  For instance, in many areas of Mexico, children leave their shoes outside filled with hay for the camels of the Wise Men, while in Puerto Rico the children leave grass under their beds for the camels.


Eastern Orthodox Traditions

In several Eastern Orthodox traditions, Santa Claus visits children on New Year's Day. However, as most Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar, this corresponds with January 14 in the Gregorian calendar. The giving of gifts in many Orthodox traditions is identified with Saint Basil the Great, who died on New Year’s Day, 379. 


December 25 as a National Holiday in Non-Christian Countries

As Christmas

Christmas is a state holiday in several nations in which Christians are a minority. These include Albania, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Singapore, none of which are majority Christian countries, but all of which officially recognize Christmas on December 25 as a national holiday.

As a National Holiday But Not Christmas

December 25 is also an official holiday in Pakistan, although there it is not for Christmas but for the birthday of that nation’s founder Quaid-e-Azam's Birthday. Likewise, December 25 is Constitution Day in Taiwan, marking the anniversary of its signing in 1947 as a public holiday.


Christmas in Japan

Although Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan and most Japanese are not Christian, it remains a very popular practice to celebrate on December 25.  To do so, the Japanese decorate with lights and Santa Claus displays, sing European carols,  eat Christmas cakes and to go to Christmas concerts (notably Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which has become associated with Christmas in Japan).  Since the 1970's following a major advertising campaign, it has become a tradition to eat KFC on Christmas. 

Christmas trees in Tokyo
Celebrations in Japan often begin with December 23, which is the national holiday of Emperor Akihito’s Birthday. Celebrations continue through the first two weeks of January, which is Shogatsu – the national  Japanese New Year celebration based on the Gregorian calendar.  Shogatsu is actually a Buddhist celebration, in which visitors go to Buddhist temples to get a fresh start on the year by ringing bells (once for each sin, in some traditions).  Cards are exchanged, in-home altars are often set up, and decorations of bamboo, pine and other symbols considered to be auspicious for the coming year are set up on either side of people’s doorways. 

A Few Concluding Thoughts 

As in past messages, I am summarizing a complex and deeply held set of beliefs here, but I still hope that you continue to find these messages of value. Christmas is a rich and important holiday. If I missed one of your traditions, share it with me. If I misstated one of your traditions, please let me know that as well.

As always, the errors in this description are mine... and I welcome corrections. I also welcome your comments -- positive or otherwise -- of any sort.

Clipart Sources

Opening Merry Christmas greeting, Christmas tree: http://www.christmas-graphics-plus.com/

Oliver Cromwell: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_Cooper.gif

Cotton Mather: http://www.havelshouseofhistory.com/Cotton%20Mather.jpg

In 1836, Alabama became the first US state to recognize Christmas as an official holiday:  http://www.celebratehiltonhead.com/article/659/it-could-be-worse-christmas-trivia-edition
Ulysses S. Grant: http://www.shmoop.com/media/images/large/ulysses-grant.jpg


St. Nicholas with Knecht Ruprecht: http://s2.hubimg.com/u/2151561_f520.jpg




Tomte and the Julbok:






Christmas Parade ending at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem: http://www.voanews.com/content/christmas-bethelehem/1572032.html


Banana tree decorated for Christmas (photo by WagonMaker): http://xenlife.com.au/18-strange-customs-around-world/ 





Dance of Los Seises, Seville, Spain: http://rilm.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/seises.jpg




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