Holiday Traditions Around the World

Having grown up in Puerto Rico until I was eight years old I recall Christmas was the longest holiday ever. It literally spanned three months of the year, from November to January. Seriously!  It started sometime around Thanksgiving and culminated with Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, on January 6th. This was the day that the Three Kings are believed to have delivered gifts to the Baby Jesus on camel back.  I recall that although we had a Christmas tree and typical twinkling holiday light decorations, we would leave water and freshly cut grass for the camels under the Christmas tree on January 5th before going to bed.  When we woke up on January 6th the Christmas tree was full of gifts and the water and grass were gone.  Of course the camels took them!  So, about this time of the year I always reflect on how other cultures and countries around the world celebrate Christmas.   Here are a few observations:

South Africa
Christmas in South Africa is a public holiday celebrated on December 25th.  Despite Christmas occurring at the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer, wintry motifs common to the Northern Hemisphere are popular. It’s also a wonderful place to spend a vacation during wintery months.

In the days of the Soviet Union, Christmas was not celebrated very much. New Year was made into the important time. Following the revolution in 1917, Christmas was banned as a religious holiday in 1929 and Christmas Trees were banned until 1935 when they turned into ‘New Year’ Trees! After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people were free to celebrate Christmas again.   St Petersburg’s historic architecture is a gorgeous backdrop to holiday decorations.

Although December 25th is not a legal holiday in mainland China, it is a legal holiday in Hong Kong and Macau, former colonies of Western countries with a Christian cultural heritage.  Many decorations are in Chinese though. And the auspicious color red fits right in with the Western notion of Christmas.

Japanese Christmas cake, a white sponge cake covered with cream and decorated with strawberries, is often consumed. A successful advertising campaign in the 1970s made eating at KFC around Christmas a national custom. Its chicken meals are so popular during the season that stores take reservations months in advance.

Being a British colony until 1947, Christmas is a state holiday in India even though only 2.3% of the population of 1.3 billion are christians.   Christmas is known as “Badaa Din” (Big Day) in North and North-West India and people plant trees on this day.

Christmas is not a national holiday but is becoming increasingly popular in Vietnam.  The ever-wealthier Vietnamese are embracing Christmas precisely because of its non-religious glamour and commercial appeal. It’s not a time to have dinner at home with family and show thanks for one another. Instead, it’s a time to go out on the town, throw confetti around, shop, and take pictures with friends in front of colorful displays, especially on December 24th.

In the Turkish town of Demre, Santa Claus or St Nicholas’ birth is celebrated every year during the three-day festival held in early December. Born in the nearby town of Patara, St Nicholas is remembered not only as a famous Turkish archbishop, but also for his kindness to children.

Christmas boils down to this:  Basically if you’re good you get a present and if bad you get coal from a witch.

A typical Rwandan tradition for Christmas is a day full of relaxation, prayer, and goat brochettes (kebabs). There is also a traditional food of Isombe, which is mashed cassava leaves and green bananas cooked in tomato sauce.

Even though this is where it all started from a religious perspective, Christmas is not widely celebrated because 2.5% of the population are Christians.  However, December is a festive holiday period since it coincides with the Jewish Hanukkah celebration.

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