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Christmas Traditions Observed Throughout the World


Christmas is celebrated on December 25 in much of the Western world. However, Christmas traditions observed throughout the world can vary greatly. For most Christians around the world, it is the day recognized as Christ’s birthday, however, this date is debatable. Many believe it was selected by Roman church officials to coincide with existing solstice festivals to help with the adoption and acceptance of Christianity. As a result, Christmas is a holiday with a blended past that marries pagan traditions with religious observances, as well as modern-day commercial practices. Here is an exploration of some Christmas traditions observed throughout the world.

The manifestation of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, himself is a tradition of mixed origins. He is a combination of the British Father Christmas and Dutch representation known as Sinterklaas. Both of these representations are believed to be based upon the real-life Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas of Myra was a saint and bishop with a reputation for clandestine gift giving. He was also known for putting coins in shoes left out for him, similar to a modern-day tooth fairy in the United States. According to legend, the bishop tossed bags of gold coins through the window of a poor man’s humble home in order to provide a dowry for his three daughters, which saved them from a life of prostitution. The tradition of Saint Nicholas’ Day, which is recognized on December 6 and the day marks Saint Nicholas’ death, spread to many countries throughout the world and it is celebrated via gift exchange. According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas is a Jiminey Cricket of sorts and able to make the distinction between good and bad children. The primary role of Sinterklaas is to punish bad children by taking them away in a sack. Instead of cookies and milk, Dutch tradition requires children leave their shoes by the fireplace with some carrots or hay for Sinterklaas’ horse, and in return, he leaves them chocolate coins or some other token. Moreover, a sack is also often placed outside of the house or in the living room with presents for the family. On the contrary, the British Father Christmas had nothing to do with gifts or tokens. Instead, he represented the Spirit of Christmas as the personification of good cheer for the holiday season.

While St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Sinterklaas all have a resemblance and share common traits with the modern-day archetype known as Santa Claus, other Christmas traditions observed throughout the world can very greatly from the recognized norm. For instance, a Buddhist monk called Hoteiosho visits families on New Year’s Eve to deliver gifts, according to Japanese tradition. This manifestation is said to have eyes in the back of his head, and similar to Santa Claus, he is also depicted as rotund and jolly. Another Japanese Christmas tradition that deviates from the Christian norm is a trip to Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). This tradition could be attributed in part to the fact that the vast majority of Japan is not Christian, and also to a hugely successful marketing campaign launched in 1974 that subsequently made the American fried chicken chain a Christmas Eve hotspot. In fact, the campaign worked so well that Christmas Eve sales typically outpace those of the rest of the year. It is commonplace for many Japanese natives to even order their bucket(s) of fried chicken ahead of time, similar to the Super Bowl phenomenon in the United States.

Russian Christmas traditions are also rather unique and steeped in history. According to Russian tradition, a female manifestation named Babouschka visits Russian children to leave them gifts and tokens of the holiday on January 5. Legend contends that Babouschka received the wrong directions to Bethlehem, and did not arrive in time to present Christ with gifts as the Three Kings did. According to lore, she delivers gifts on January 5 in the hopes that one of the children will be the manifestation of Jesus Christ and she will be forgiven for her tardiness.

Other Christmas traditions observed throughout the world include a Swedish gnome named Jultomten, who travels with the aid of goats to deliver presents. Similar to Santa Claus, he is stout, old, bearded, and wears a red cap/suit. Meanwhile, according to Italian Christmas tradition, there is a kind witch named La Befana, who leaves candies, figs, and other tokens for nice children, as well as dark candy for naughty ones. According to lore, parents leave her a glass of wine instead of cookies and milk. While Christmas is celebrated on December 25 in much of the Western world and many holiday rituals have similar roots, Christmas traditions observed throughout the world can vary greatly. This is because part of the beauty and majesty of the holiday season lies in its diversity and traditions shrouded in rich history.

By Leigh Haugh

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GLV–Leigh Haugh

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