By Linda McClain, CTA
Nearly a century ago, many of our ancestors arrived on Ellis Island and brought with them the customs of their homelands. Because of the many different nationalities, Christmas celebrations, including music and food, vary between regions of the country. For example, many Italian families sit down to a seven fish dinner on Christmas Eve, while the Polish celebrate “Wigilia” a 12-course dinner that includes different fish, fruits, breads, etc.
But, do you ever wonder how people in other countries celebrate Christmas, or if they even have a Christmas? Below are a few customs from around the world. Do any of them seem familiar? Read the descriptions and check the answers at the bottom of the page to see if you’ve guessed the correct country.
Unlike the red and green seen in American décor during the holidays, bright, tropical flowers are the decorations for Christmas in this country. Special trips are made to gather the wild orchids that bloom in the jungle areas. The manger scene is called a “portal” and is decorated with brilliant flowers and colorful fresh fruit. Wreaths of cypress leaves and red coffee berries are also very popular. The supper after Midnight Mass consists of tamales and other local dishes. Children leave their shoes out for Baby Jesus to fill the night before Christmas, called “La Noche Buena”, while they are sleeping. The same time Baby Jesus appears at the portal, the gifts appear under the tree on December 25 in the morning. Everyone in the house gathers around the tree and prays, thanking Baby Jesus for the good year that has passed, followed by the opening of the gifts. During Christmas week everything shuts down so that people can attend religious services and spend time with their families.
Christmas in this country lasts several days, giving them something warm to celebrate in the cold, dark mid-winter. Celebrations last until January 6th, the celebration of the Three Kings. The most celebrated day, however, is December 24. Gift exchanges could be a pair of tusks or even a sealskin mitt wrapped in bright colors. On Christmas Day everybody gets Mattak, which is whale skin with a strip of blubber inside. In villages, children go from hut to hut singing songs. Christmas trees are imported and decorated with candles and bright ornaments. People dance all night long and sing carols. Mattak tastes like coconut, but is tougher to chew and is sometimes swallowed whole. The traditional Christmas food is Kiviak, the raw flesh of an auk, (sea bird) buried whole in sealskin for several months. On this day, tradition has it that men have to wait upon women! “Juullimi Pilluaritsi” means Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.
Feliz Natal! Christmas is on December 25 and most of the celebrations are on Christmas Eve. Traditions in this country include the Christmas Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of the Holy Innocents that involve sharing of gifts. After attending Midnight Mass, families gather for the Christmas Eve feast called ‘Consoda’, consisting of codfish with boiled potatoes and cabbage. Traditional fried desserts are served, such as “filhoses or filhós” which are made of fried pumpkin dough and “rabanadas”, similar to french toast and “azevias”, round cakes made of a crust filled with a mixture of chick peas, sugar and orange peel. Another traditional dessert is “Bolo Rei”, a fruitcake that is typically a New Year’s cake, but is becoming popular during Christmas holidays. Inside the cake are two surprises: one is a little present like a fake ring, a little doll or a medal. The other is not as welcomed – it is a raw broad bean. Whoever gets this bean has to buy the “Bolo Rei” the following year. Extra places are set at the table for the souls of the dead. It is believed that gifting food to ancestor’s souls will make them bless the household with good fortune for the coming year.
Traditional burning of Cepo de Natal (the Christmas log) is also custom. On Epiphany Eve (January 5th), children keep their shoes along windowsills and doorways and fill them with carrots and straw to lure the horses of the Three Wise Men to their household during the night. The Three Kings (not Santa) then leave gifts and treats for the children in their shoes (candied fruits and sweet breads), which they find in the morning. (Portugal)
It was in the late 18th century, when Father Christmas came here with the English settlers. In the last two or three decades, traditions have changed to resemble American or Irish Santa customs. Dinner is usually roast turkey, vegetables and sauces. Desserts consist of rich, fruity Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, mince pies and pavlova, the national dessert. The Maori, the indigenous people of this country, believe spirits and creatures of their culture resemble the elves and gnomes of European Christmas traditions. They influence an important role in Christmas celebrations. “Nga mihi o te Kirihimete me te Tau Hou” translates to Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in Maori.
Christians decorate banana or mango trees, light small oil-burning lamps to decorate their homes and use red poinsettias in their churches. Christmas gifts are purchased for friends and family and ‘baksheesh’ or charity is given to the poor. Christians here have adopted many of the Dewali traditions (a three-day festival of lights during October and November that celebrates Hindu faith) while celebrating the Christmas season, which lasts 10 days from December 24 to the New Year Day. This includes decorating rooftops and walls of houses with clay lamps.
As the holidays approach, here’s a wish for peace and prosperity in your corner of the world!
Disclaimer: Some of these traditions may vary based on the regions of each country. n
Linda McClain, CTA, is owner of Capital Region-based Linda McClain Travel Services “From The Islands To The Highlands, No Dream Is Too Far From Here!” For more information call 372.7657 or visit www.lindamcclaintravel.com.