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Christmas Day is celebrated by billions of Christians and non-Christians each year to observe the birth of Jesus Christ and seasonal holidays. Though the sentiment and spirit is often the same—a time to bring individuals and families closer and often to exchange gifts—the holiday is celebrated with many different traditions, rituals, foods and folklore by various countries and cultures. In the United States it isn’t uncommon to decorate pine trees, leave cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve or exchange lavish gifts. Countries outside of the U.S. do things a little bit differently but have just as much fun.
Though Japan doesn’t have a very large Christian population, Christmas is still widely celebrated as a time of happiness and coming together. Most interestingly, Christmas Eve takes precedence over Christmas day because it is perceived as a time for couples to spend time together and exchange gifts. What Christmas Eve is in Japan is much like what Valentine’s Day is in the United States and the U.K.
In Belgium Santa Claus or Sinterklass doesn’t ride a sleigh with reindeers, he rides a horse and has a sidekick named Black Peter or Zwarte Piet. Sinterklass arrives at children’s homes with gifts but if they have misbehaved, they’re put into Zwarte Piet’s bag and taken back to Spain. On Christmas Eve a popular dessert is eaten called Kerststronk. It is a chocolate sponge cake roll, layered with cream and covered in chocolate butter cream. It is meant to resemble a Christmas bark log.
In Finland many Finnish people believe Santa Claus resides in Korvatunturi located in northern Finland. People from all over the world send letters to Santa addressed to this region where there is also a “Christmas Land” theme park. Prior to the holiday many will clean their homes to prepare for the three holy days of Christmas: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. On Christmas Eve, families decorate spruce trees, drink plum juice and eat porridge. Traditionally one almond is hidden in the porridge and whoever finds it is said to have a lucky year. During midday the “Declaration of Christmas Peace” is broadcast on television and radios. It is ritual that asks people to be more well behaved and mindful on the holiday as in the 13th century Scandinavians who committed crimes on Christmas Day were punished more harshly.
Santa Claus doesn’t visit Armenian children until New Year’s Eve! Christmas Day is for more religious practices in Armenia. Christmas Day is celebrated on January 6th or Epiphany Day (the revelation that Jesus Christ was the son of God). Some Armenian’s even fast the week before Christmas, initiating the ritual with a light meal (khetum) of a yogurt and wheat soup named tanabur, designed to ease the stomach.
5. The Philippines
Christmas celebrations in the Philippines begin in September and formal Christmas celebrations begin December 16 each year. It’s no surprise since around 80% of the population is Catholic. Though Christmas traditions are a mix of Western and Filipino culture, one unique aspect is parol. Parol is a popular decoration made of a bamboo pole or frame with a lighted star lantern affixed to it meant to represent the star the Wise Men followed.
6. Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka only 7% of the population is Christian but Christmas is a public holiday celebrated by most. Christmas celebrations kick off December 1st by lighting firecrackers at dawn.
Christmas wasn’t celebrated often during the Soviet Union era of Russia but recently it has become more common to observe the holiday. In Russia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th as the Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian Calendar. Some Russians fast on Christmas Eve until the first star becomes discernible at night, while others eat a porridge called sovicho or kutia made of wheat or rice, honey, poppy seeds, berries and nuts. Others eat sauerkraut as a main dish. Many celebrate with midnight church celebrations that may go on until as late as 5AM.
8. South Africa
In South Africa, Christmas occurs during summer! Many South Africans celebrate by going camping, swimming or visiting the countryside.
Haitian children clean their shoes, fill them with straw and place them under nearby trees in hopes that Santa will leave gifts in them. On Christmas Eve houses remain open as late as 3AM and young children are allowed to roam without parental supervision. Many even drink an alcoholic beverage called anisette made of rum and sugar. Most folks spend Christmas Day sleeping off the previous night’s festivities.
10. South Korea
The most popular Christmas gift in South Korea is cold, hard cash.
While only around 2.3% of the Indian population is Christian, with a total population of 1 billion, that’s around 25 million people. Christmas is celebrated with a midnight mass and instead of Christmas trees, banana and mango trees are decorated.