Christmas in Different Cultures

December 1, 2019 | by johanna kennedy

Recently, my family and I had the opportunity to live with 92 people from 22 different countries for a few months. One morning at breakfast, my ears caught the tones and syllables of various languages. Korean, Portuguese, French, German, and Spanish danced across my senses as life was shared with one another at the tables around my family and me.

Instantly, I wondered how they each celebrated Christmas at home. Do they give gifts? Do they have a Christmas tree? What do they eat? Do they decorate their homes for the holidays? Do they know who Santa Claus is? During the ensuing weeks, I sat down with some of my new friends from Ethiopia, Brazil, the Philippines, Switzerland, and Egypt to ask them these questions. Here are some of their personal experiences with Christmas in their nations.

Bethel from Ethiopia

Bethel and her family love Christmas because it brings their family, friends, and anyone in need of a family or a friend together. It’s an all-day affair. The women begin early in the morning, preparing food for all the guests while the men go to the market to get the meat. The menu includes such Ethiopian foods as doro (a chicken sauce), Defo Dabo (a big, round, delicious bread), and talla (a traditional, fermented drink) to which the women are partial. Once the food is prepared, the guests retreat to dress in their habesha - a traditional clothing distinguishable by tribe. They kick off the festivities with a coffee ceremony followed by the large spread they prepared, and their guests brought to share. In the afternoon, they’ll continue their feasting with Christmas cakes, cookies, and popcorn. The evening is spent at their local church worshipping together through dramas, choreography, and the arts. They don’t exchange gifts with each other; instead, they buy one new item for their home. No Santa and no tree for Bethel and her family.

Iago from Brazil

Iago’s Christmas traditions are a little closer to the typical Judeo-Christian American holiday. Tons of family and a massive amount of food mark Christmas Eve day. All the family meets at one family member's home, each bringing something to contribute to the meal. The women do about 90% of the preparation while the men BBQ the meat. Desserts include such delights as passion fruit, chocolate mousse, pies, and ice cream (it's summer in December). The family exchanges gifts with one another, and Papai Noel (Santa Claus) makes his appearance leaving presents under the beautifully decorated tree. In the evening, the family heads to church for singing and worship. There is also dinner at the church for the homeless or those who don't have food. Afterward, they all head back to the house to partake in dinner around 10PM, followed by opening the gifts around 12AM. 

NaShil from The Philippines

I have yet to experience a culture that is as crazy about Christmas as the beautiful Filipino people. When we were there at the end of August, the Christmas decorations were already displayed in stores and strung up on houses. Incidentally, I’ve also never been involved in such joyous birthdays as the ones in the Philippines-they really know how to celebrate! NaShil’s family starts decorating in September. They make a bamboo star and light it up, one of her favorite decorations. When Christmas finally arrives, it’s an open house event where everyone – and I do mean everyone - gathers to eat their favorite dishes like Pancit (Filipino noodle) and Lechon (a FULLY roasted pig). The celebration lasts all night, with everyone sleeping over at their house. Poor children from the surrounding area come caroling to collect money for their families. Their decorations may have Santa on them (mainly American decorations), but they don’t include him in their festivities. They do have a tree.

Priscilla from Switzerland

Priscilla loves Christmas because it’s a day that brings her whole family together. They are always hoping for a white Christmas, so they can cozy up in the house with their traditional Swiss foods like fondue chinoise (meat), and guetzli (Christmas cookies). The person hosting has a tree with all the decorations being monochromatic. Priscilla loves the Swiss chocolate balls and the candles (fake when there are little ones in the house) that sit on its branches. Under the tree will be one small handmade or purchased gift for each family member. No Santa for this Swiss family. Instead, once the candles are lit, the family gathers around the tree to listen to a story, sing, and worship together.

Fady from Egypt

Christmas is a special time for Fady, his family, and his church. It’ll begin with his mother decorating their tree and making a Santa out of clothes-a new one each year. They don’t exchange gifts as a family. However, they buy gifts for the poorer families in Cairo. Their church does three services each year. Friday evening’s service is for the more affluent families, followed by one on Saturday for the poor. At this service, each family is given 50kgs (about 110 pounds) of food. On Sunday, his church hosts a mixed service, primarily focusing on children. After church, Fady’s family gathers back in their home to continue celebrating together through the night. They also make Christmas a sleepover event. Amongst the sumptuous spread will be turkey, which is a special treat they only eat once a year, and molokhia, a vegetable soup, along with Christmas cookies shaped like snowmen.

The best part of my conversations about Christmas around the world was how much my friends’ celebrations highlight the importance of their relationships. It was apparent to me that the accumulation of time together rather than material possessions hold high value for them. I began reevaluating our December. One day, when my children are adults, how will they describe their Christmases in our home? What will rise to the top of their memories? Will it be the gifts, or the time spent on the couch, around the table, with friends and family or sleeping under the Christmas tree together. I’m hoping for the latter as I’m sure you do as well. May this holiday season be filled with the sweet gift of relationship with those whom we know and love, and those who need to be known and loved. Merry Christmas. 

Originally printed in the December 2019 issue of Simply Family Magazine

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