Christmas Around the World

The Christmas season is upon us!  It’s a time of gifts, giving, family and friends.  Even as young professionals we can trace back to a time when we looked forward to opening our Christmas presents underneath the Christmas tree.  We looked forward to a wonderful holiday feast, and Christmas carols, going to the shopping malls and seeing the various Christmas decorations and Santa impersonators; both the good and bad ones.

We Americans have our own way of celebrating Christmas, but we are not the only country that observes this wonderful Christian holiday.  All over the world in many diverse countries, Christmas is celebrated each year, and each country has their own “twist” with respect to their culture.  This month, the Diversity blog will explore how Christmas is celebrated throughout the world.

Christmas in Brazil

Brazilians are a mix of people from many parts of the world, and as a former Portuguese colony, they have many Christmas customs which originate from this heritage.

One tradition is to create a nativity scene or Presépio. The word origins from the Hebrew word “presepium” which means the bed of straw upon which Jesus first slept in Bethlehem. The Presépio is common in northeastern Brazil (Bahia, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Maranhão, Ceará, Pernambuco, Piauí and Alagoas). The Presépio was introduced in the 17th century, in the city of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco by a Franciscan friar named Gaspar de Santo Agostinho. Nowadays presépios are set up in December and displayed in churches, homes, and stores.

The people of Northern Brazil, as in Mexico, enjoy a version of the folk play Los Pastores or “The Shepherds.” In the Brazilian version, there are shepherdesses rather than shepherds and a gypsy who attempts to kidnap the Christ Child.

Papai Noel (Father Noel) is the gift-bringer in Brazil. According to legend, he lives in Greenland. When he arrives in Brazil, he usually wears silk clothing due to the summer heat.

A huge Christmas dinner, unusual in the hot summertime, includes turkey, ham, colored rice, and wonderful vegetable and fruit dishes.

Devout Catholics often attend Midnight Mass or Missa do Galo. (A galo is a rooster.) The mass has this name because the rooster announces the coming day and the Missa do Galo finishes at 1 AM on Christmas morning! On December 25th, Catholics go to church, but the masses are mostly late afternoon, because people enjoy sleeping late after the dinner (Ceia de Natal) or going to the beach.

Decorations include fresh flowers picked from the garden. Fireworks go off in the skies over the cites and huge Christmas “trees” of electric lights can be seen against the night skies in major cities such as Brasilia, San Paolo, and Rio de Janeiro.

Christmas in Greece

St. Nicholas is important in Greece as the patron saint of sailors. According to Greek tradition, his clothes are drenched with brine, his beard drips with seawater, and his face is covered with perspiration because he has been working hard against the waves to reach sinking ships and rescue them from the angry sea. Greek ships never leave port without some sort of St. Nicholas icon on board. To members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as are most Greek Christians, Christmas ranks second to Easter in the roster of important holidays. Yet there are a number of unique customs associated with Christmas that are uniquely Greek. On Christmas Eve, village children travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing kalanda, the equivalent of carols. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and little clay drums. The children are frequently rewarded with sweets and dried fruits.

After 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation by adults and children alike. Pigs are slaughtered and on almost every table are loaves of christopsomo (“Christ Bread”). This bread is made in large sweet loaves of various shapes and the crusts are engraved and decorated in some way that reflects the family’s profession.

Christmas trees are not commonly used in Greece. In almost every home the main symbol of the season is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire is suspended across the rim; from that hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the Killantzaroi away from the house.

There are a number of beliefs connected with the Killantzaroi, which are a species of goblins or sprites who appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany (January 6). These creatures are believed to emerge from the center of the earth and to slip into people’s house through the chimney. More mischievous than actually evil, the Killantzaroi do things like extinguish fires, ride astride people’s backs, braid horses’ tails, and sour the milk. To further repel the undesirable sprites, the hearth is kept burning day and night throughout the twelve days.

Gifts are exchanged on St. Basil’s Day (January 1). On this day the “renewal of waters” also takes place, a ritual in which all water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with new “St. Basil’s Water.” The ceremony is often accompanied by offerings to the naiads, spirits of springs.

Christmas in India

Christians in India decorate mango or banana trees at Christmas time. Sometimes they also decorate their houses with mango leaves. In some parts of India, small clay oil-burning lamps are used as Christmas decorations; they are placed on the edges of flat roofs and on the tops of walls. Churches are decorated with poinsettias and lit with candles for the Christmas Evening.

Christmas in Japan

Christmas was introduced in Japan by the Christian missionaries, and for many years the only people who celebrated it were those who had turned to the Christian faith. But now the Christmas season in Japan is full of meaning and is almost universally observed. The idea of exchanging gifts seems to appeal strongly to the Japanese people. The tradesmen have commercialized Christmas just as our western shops have done. For several weeks before the day, the stores shout Christmas. There are decorations and wonderful displays of appropriate gifts for men, women, and children — especially children.

The story of the Child Jesus born in a manger is fascinating to the little girls of Japan, for they love anything having to do with babies. In the scene of the Nativity they become familiar for the first time with a cradle, for Japanese babies never sleep in cradles.

Many western customs in observing Christmas have been adopted by the Japanese. Besides exchanging gifts they eat turkey on Christmas Day, and in some places there are even community Christmas trees. They decorate their houses with evergreens and mistletoe, and in some homes Christmas carols are sung gaily.

In Japan there is a god or priest known as Hoteiosho, who closely resembles our Santa Claus. He is always pictured as a kind old man carrying a huge pack. He is thought to have eyes in the back of his head. It is well for the children to be good when this all-seeing gentleman is abroad.

New Year’s Day is the most important day of the whole calendar in Japan. On New Year’s Eve the houses are cleaned thoroughly from top to bottom, and are decorated for the morrow. When everything has been made clean and neat the people of the house dress themselves in their finest clothes. Then the father of the household marches through the house, followed by all the family, and drives the evil spirits out. He throws dried beans into every corner bidding the evil spirits withdraw and good luck enter.

-Darold Ingram

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~ by daroldingram on December 9, 2010.

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