The United States and Canada celebrate in similar fashion.
Christmas trees are decorated and stockings are hung on the fireplace for Santa Claus to fill with gifts. Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, with certain of the French Canadian communities preferring December 24th. Many families celebrate on Christmas Eve with presents, family feasts, and midnight Mass. Cards and gifts are exchanged with friends and relatives. Nativity scenes, once an annual appearance is even small town public squares have now been moved in certain communities to church grounds. In addition to the typically Catholic, and Protestant themed celebrations, there are also massive public celebrations of the Christmas season with non-religious themes. Additionally, in both the US and Canada, the people are known for massive outreaches to the poor and homeless during this Christmas celebration period.
The Christians in China light their homes with beautiful paper lanterns during Advent. Santa is called Dun Che Lao Ren. The children are encouraged to hang stockings like their counterparts in the US. Many of the traditions for celebration among the Christian communities in China were imported by the missionaries that delivered the message of Advent.
The children in Belgium are always excited by the approaching Christmas season, and they celebrate the primary gift giving early, December 6th. Saint Nicholas, riding a horse, and carrying great bags of gifts, somehow makes the entire journey in one evening, and after gift giving and celebration, the theme of Christmas switches to the Holy celebration of the Christ Child.
The Czechs celebrate Christmas by feasting, and gift giving. They also traditionally set a place at the table for the Christ Child. In as much as possible, the extended family celebrates Christmas together.
The Danes celebrate the tradition of Saint Nicholas with Santa, known as Julemanden. He arrives as in the US, in a sleigh pulled by reindeer gifts for children of all ages. An additional tradition among the Danish children concerns Santa’s helpers, the Elves. They are encouraged to believe that they may live in the attic of their homes, and actually leave milk and rice pudding for the helpers, to make sure they send the word to Santa.
England exported several customs to the United States that we now take for granted in our Christmas Celebrations. Prince Albert imported from Germany the tradition of bringing in a fir tree and decorating it with ornaments and fruits during Queen Victoria’s reign. It quickly spread throughout England, as if the “royals” are doing it, it must be good.
Other imported features of the English Tradition include the making of Christmas lists, the giving of boxed gifts the day after Christmas to visitors, the hanging of stockings by the fireplace, and the general appearance of Santa with bright red robes. One tradition that even many in England now ignore is waiting until late in the day on Christmas to actually open gifts.
Few countries have more caroling groups then the English. The week of Christmas, and particularly the weekend before the actual Christmas day seems to pull every person with the slightest ability to carry a tune into the public square and on walk about singing troops singing the traditional Christmas melodies.
The French celebrate Christmas throughout the month of December, with many families actually beginning the gift giving on December 6th, having additional gifts on December 25th, and often opening other gifts on New Years Day, particularly for adults.
Many households have a type of Christmas Eve watch time, and actually celebrate Christmas day right after the stroke of midnight with a meal and celebratory cakes. When the children go to bed, they place their shoes rather than their socks by the fireplace for the receipt of special gifts, and rise early to celebrate Christmas on Christmas day.
Especially among Parisians, the manger scene figurines are dressed in modern French fashion provincial clothing. The preparation and selling of this years manger scene costumes is a big retailing event every year in France.
The Italians are well known for celebrating Christmas throughout the month of December, by do not actually have the significant exchanging of gifts until the traditional day of the arrival of the Wise Men (January 6th) for the first Christmas family. Italy claims the first nativity scene was actually demonstrated in Italy by Saint Francis as an object lesson for children and today, in nearly every town and village they have regular award as a result of contests the “best nativity scene.” Because of this type of focus, it is said that there are more animals in public squares in Italy during Advent, then perhaps in the rest of the world combined.
Only a small percentage of the Indian households celebrate the Christmas faith, and yet decorating for the season seems to permeate even non Christian households in every village. Houses are typically decorated in greenery, mango leaves, strings of light and the “Star of Bethlehem” is hung inside the home. Small personalized gifts are the norm and are exchanged even in non Christian homes.
Mexico and other Central American Countries
Mexicans celebrate Christmas, Navidad for a full nine days leading up to Christmas or Holy Eve. Costumes are the norm, and either in the public squares, or from house to house, families enjoy the theatre of knocking on the door, being turned away as the “Inn is full”, and then moving the party to either the back yard, or the public square. Music is played throughout the celebrations, great regional dishes are served, and the children are given sticks to strike the Pinata, a paper mache creation, often in the shape of a nativity animal, filled with candy, is made of paper mache and filled with all kinds of goodies. On the ninth night they celebrate the Joseph and Mary were welcomed by God, Angels, and shepherds into the Stable, enjoy a great feast, and when completed, the entire family of all ages moves the celebration to the church to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.
The traditions of celebration in the Netherlands are a combination of traditions that even address their geography. They celebrate the tradition of Saint Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas, and determined that he originally visited Sweden by boat, setting out on December 6th, the traditional day reserved in the church calendar, from Spain. Once onshore, he immediately mounts a horse, and makes his gift deliveries of candies, nuts, and small hard bread treats to the waiting shoes of children. Old Sinterklaas is a very tricky person, able to appear, whenever he is “accidentally witnessed in the act, as the father or grandfather of the child. Very tricky indeed.
Poland has a rich tradition of reserving space on the village and city squares for carnival like stalls or booths, called Joselki. The booths are decorated in the themes of Christmas, are celebrated from Christmas Day to New Years day. Families and businesses make special efforts to make their booth the favorite, featuring one of the many scenes from the biblical Christmas story. Small gifts, candy, and Christmas Cards are distributed from the booths to the passer-bys, and normally caroling troops move from booth to booth on Christmas Eve, after which the entire village makes their way to the Church to celebrate late evening Mass.
The citizens of Spain, largely Catholic, have traditionally celebrated all the great themes of Christmas but the gift giving tradition assumes that Wise men on horseback actually give the gifts to the children in some type of annual reenactment of the first Christmas gift giving. Special care is made to provide food for the horses and treats for the wise men.. They typically celebrate Christmas Eve, Nochebuena, with their families and friends with a meal. Nearly every family will have a Nativity scene, and some are incredibly elaborate. Families move from home to home to see their neighbor’s nativity scene
The Swedes have created a number of unique perspectives around the Christmas celebration, not the least of which is referring to their version of Santa, Tomte, as a type of actually unattractive, and some children would say scary gnome, who only appears from out of a barn, or from under a building to deliver gifts. No reindeer here. Instead, the rather diminutive sleigh is drawn by a magic goat, and the gifts, only for the very good children are left sometimes well hidden throughout the house. The packages are typically wrapped in several layers of paper to make the opening of the gift more of an event.
The eldest daughter has the privilege of serving the entire family a special treat on Saint Lucia’s Day, December 13th. She dresses for the part with traditional white robe like dress, special jewelry for headdress, and wakes the family to a very traditional celebratory breakfast of fresh baked buns, and cookies. Later in the same day, the traditional dinner of fish is topped off with Christmas rice pudding.
The celebration of Christmas in Russia changed dramatically after the Revolution of 1917. Many are not aware that the many traditions of celebrating Christmas observed pre-1917 that were church based were actually made illegal. Long Christmas parades with costume, the star of Bethlehem on poles, and meals celebrated together before attending Christmas Mass after visiting the Nativity scenes in the public squares were all banned.
A different gift giver personality was created, and Saint Nicholas was replaced with Grandfather Frost.
The Russian communities now seem, in a more relaxed post USSR atmosphere to have a mixed theme celebration during the Christmas New Years season. The celebration with decorated tree takes place typically on New Years, and special children’s parties are sponsored by parents, grandparents, and even some churches. Gifts, when delivered come from Grandfather Frost, and his helper, the Snow Maiden.
The Swiss celebrate Christmas as a holy extended celebration, with the spirit of gift giving directed by a character called Christkind, who is a spiritualized present day incarnation of the original Christ Child. Though the gift giving, which all children look forward to, is certainly helped by his assistant Saint Nicholas’s spirit in the form of a brightly dressed helper, the Swiss have been careful to maintain the central figure of the holiday celebration is Christ. Plays, and music fill town squares, and the usually quiet, and somewhat reserved Swiss people get into the spirit of the holiday with living nativity scenes, street side theatre, and general good will flowing from walk by samplings of Christmas fruits, cakes, and cookies.