Christmas is the most celebrated holiday. Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ at this time but it’s also the day of the winter solstice people used to celebrate in Pagan times. Despite the fact that Christmas originally was a Christian holiday, many non-Christians and non-believers also celebrate it. Throughout the years, traditions have changed a lot but nowadays Christmas mainly means exchanging gifts and giving apartments a Christmassy look. Traditions are different all around the world but what’s common is that Christmas has something magical in it which brings us closer to our families, friends and loved ones.
Other holidays that are coincident with Christmas
Those Christians who celebrate the Eastern Orthodox Christmas follow the Julian calendar in which Christmas is on the 7th of January. For the Eastern Orthodox, Christmas is exclusively a religious holiday so the 24 December Christmas celebrations do not exist for them. In Russia, for example, exchanging gifts and decorating the Christmas tree takes place on New Year’s Eve.
Hanukkah, the festival of lights, is one of the most known Jewish holidays. It has nothing to do with Christmas, and it is not a major Jewish holiday. This time they commemorate the victorious rebellion and the heroes of the Maccabees. The most famous object connected to Hanukkah is the 8+1 branched candelabrum on which they light the candles every nigh. This year it started on 12 December. In this period, they give gifts to each other, and the family spends the evenings together with, for example playing with a special gyroscope, the dreidel.
Kwanzaa is primarily celebrated in the USA and in certain parts of Africa. The holiday is popular in the Afro-American communities. It is celebrated between 26 December and 1 January. They prepare a huge family dinner to which they invite their relatives. The commemoration of well-known and outstanding people of colour is typical.
Christmas in Hungary
In our country lots of traditions bound to this holiday, the pre-Christmas Advent period had and continues to have a very important role. Although nowadays not many families follow traditions, this time of the year is for preparations and shopping. The Luca stool is connected to Luca’s day (13 December) which, according to tradition, has to be carved for 13 days from 9 different types of wood. Superstition says whoever stands on it may see who is a witch.
An important part of the pre-Christmas waiting period is the making of the Advent wreath. This can still be found in most families but usually not in the traditional form. The four candles symbolize the four Sundays before Christmas; the colours of the candles used to be more symbolic. Originally there were 3 purple candles and a pink one adorning it. Fasting was also a tradition which nowadays is not so popular. The Midnight Mass of 24 December is still very important for Christians.
The Christmas dishes are the main attractions. Some traditional Hungarian Christmas dishes are the fish soup, the cabbage rolls, the Christmas roll and the Gerbaud cake, made, of course, according to our grandmother’s recipe.
The setting of the Christmas tree is a must, although in Hungary this only became popular in the 19th century. May it be a natural or a plastic, artificial tree, one thing is for sure: according to the odd Hungarian tradition, special Christmas candy (szaloncukor) must be used to decorate it.
Santa for Jesus, pudding for a roll
Christmas lasts for 3 days, too in the United Kingdom, with 24 December (Christmas Eve) usually being a workday. Office Christmas parties are usually held near this date. On December 25, which is Christmas Day they give each other gifts. Santa Claus gives the presents to the children who arrives through the chimney, which is a major difference, because in Hungary we say that Jesus puts the presents under the Christmas tree.
People usually go to church on that day. The 26 December is the so called „Boxing day”. Giving presents to the staff on the day following Christmas is a tradition in UK.
The British festive meal includes several delicious treats too. Two of which is the Christmas pudding and the Christmas cracker. The cracker is opened by two people grabbing each end and pulling it until it “explodes”. In the cracker there are little presents, a joke or quote and a paper crown they wear during the dinner.
The KFC chicken is the new cabbage roll
Even though only the minority of the Japanese is actually Christian, Christmas is still celebrated there. The so-called Hotei-Osho, a Santa Claus-like character surprises the kids with presents. Hotei-Osho is said to have eyes at the back of its head in order to make kids try to behave well all the time.
‘Tis the season to strive to do good things, so people try to engage in the works of charities in Japan, as well. Statistics show that people tend to donate more, mostly for the sick, this time of the year.
In the land of the rising sun dining is a substantial part of Christmas, just like in Hungary, but the dishes are very different from Hungarian ones. The Japanese Christmas meal consists of various KFC meals. Originally, “KFC for Christmas” was meant to be a simple slogan, but it eventually outgrew its status as a slogan. This KFC-frenzy had become so widespread throughout the years that pre-orders can be placed weeks before Christmas.
Defecating logs and old men everywhere
Out of all countries, maybe Spanish traditions differ the most from what we are used to. An odd Advent convention is, for example, purchasing lottery tickets. They draw the winning numbers every year on 22 December, but the tickets are bought weeks before the drawing, even if it means standing in line for hours. What’s even stranger is Caganer, the Spanish Christmas manger’s odd-one-out. Everyone’s familiar with the conventional scene : Virgin Mary and Joseph surrounded by the animals in the stable. In Spain this scene is completed with Caganer, the defecating figure. It is unclear when and why they started portraying him, but nowadays he is a must in the manger.
In Catalonia, a province in Spain, a weird figure named Tió de Nadal, the Christmas log defecates the presents. This log can be purchased in stores and is put in a corner of the house. The children tuck it in, feed it and take care of it up until Christmas day when they beat it with a stick until it defecates tremendous amounts of gifts. According to tradition, before they start hitting the Tió de Nadal, the kids are sent out of the room to pray so as to make the log defecate as many presents as possible.
So who is in charge of bringing the gifts?
Giving gifts to our loved ones is paramount to everyone, but the imaginary character is quite different everywhere. The map below shows who brings the presents where:
In Hungary and in some parts of the German-speaking countries it is the little Jesus (Christkind) who visits families on the evening of 24 December and places the gifts under the Christmas tree. In Austria they also “believe” in the evil twin of Santa Claus, Krampus, who is charged with punishing the naughty kids. He might also kidnap them in a bucket. Men sometimes dress up as the Krampus on 5 December and they hit others with twigs in the streets. In the remaining parts of Germany, where kids do not wait for the little Jesus, it is the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) brings the gifts.
In Netherlands, Zwarte Pete or Black Pete is the loyal partner and helper of Santa Claus. He ended up in the centre of social debate in the last couple of years because he is a blackface figure. According to some, he was born out of a stereotypical and racist motive, meanwhile others consider him an indispensable part of the Dutch culture, however, his representation has decreased in television and in school shows.
In England, Father Christmas comes during the holidays as Santa Claus. According to the tales, he arrives with a sleigh pulled by his reindeer and smuggles the gifts into the house by popping down the chimney and fills the Christmas stockings hanging by the fireplace.
In the US, they wait for Santa Claus as well. Unlike the legend in the UK, he is based in the North Pole, not in Lapland. In Australia, in the absence of reindeer, the sled is pulled by kangaroos. In certain Scandinavian countries, they believe that the presents are smuggled under the tree by Christmas gnomes on Christmas Eve.
Maybe the most interesting place is Iceland, where no less than 13 Santa Clauses set out on their journeys. Every one of them has a different story to tell. For example, Santa Claus hides the presents or potatoes in the boots of the children. These latter mean they have been naughty.
The Finnish Santa is called Joulupukki, which means ‘a Christmas goat who lives in Lapland’. This name comes from the way he arrives with gifts by cantering on a goat’s back. This sotry has changed in Scandinavian countries, for example in Finland and the traditional symbol of the holiday, the Christmas goat is made from straw even in a giant size – to the delight of arsonists. There was a Swedish city where the same straw statue was destroyed 26 times.
You might write to the real Santa Claus, Joulupukki at this address if you want your wishes granted
Santa Claus Main Post Office
FI-96930 Arctic Circle
FINLAND – Finnország
And if you are curious about what he does in his free time, you can follow him on Instagram as well.