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Christmas Cheer Around the World

How do people in other countries celebrate Christmas? Discuss and share these customs and activities with your students.

The Netherlands

Netherlands flagDutch children are given presents on 5 December, which is known as Sinterklaas Eve (St Nicholas Eve). According to legend, the presents are brought by St Nicholas, who arrives on a boat from Spain and, riding on a white horse, visits each child’s house. His servant, Swarte Piet (‘Black Pete’) accompanies him.Children often leave out their shoes for St Nicholas to fill with presents.

On Christmas Day, Dutch families share a special meal with each other and sometimes presents are exchanged. The day after Christmas is seen as a second Christmas Day and is usually spent visiting family and friends.

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Mexico

Mexico flagOn each of the nine days before Christmas, many Mexicans take part in a religious procession called a ‘posada’ that re-enacts Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter before Jesus was born. The procession is usually led by children carrying images of Mary and Joseph. The group knock on the doors of houses, where they are at first refused entry but then accepted. After each procession, a feast is held. During the feast, the children are blindfolded and try to break a clay pinata filled with lollies and presents. Traditionally, children also receive Christmas presents on Epiphany (6 January) from the ‘three wise men’ (the Magi), although it is now common for Mexican children to receive gifts on Christmas Day as well.

The traditional Christmas flower in Mexico is the poinsettia. This is because of a legend about a child who gave green branches or weeds as a gift to the baby Jesus during a Christmas service. The bright red poinsettia flowers miraculously bloomed from the poor offering.

France

France flagMany French people decorate their homes with nativity scenes. These scenes contain small clay figures called ‘santons’ (little saints).

On Christmas Eve, French children leave out their shoes for Père Noel (Father Christmas) to fill with presents. Père Noel is accompanied by Père Fouettard, who knows how well-behaved each child has been during the year. In some parts of France, Père Noel also brings presents on St Nicholas Eve (5 December). In other regions, children believe that ‘le petit Jesu’ (baby Jesus) brings their presents.

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Russia

Russia flagThe Russian Christmas falls on 7 January, due to the use of the Julian calendar. Most Russians begin fasting in November, eating no animal products except seafood, in preparation for Christmas. The fast ends on 6 January (St Nicholas Day) with a Christmas feast containing 12 courses in honour of the 12 apostles. The meal does not include any meat. Some foods eaten at the Christmas feast include beet soup and ‘kutya’ (a type of porridge). On Christmas Eve, some Russians have their homes blessed by a priest.

Russian children believe that an old woman called Baboushka brings them presents on Christmas Day. Baboushka is a character from a legend that tells of her reluctance to go with the Magi to see Jesus or, in other versions, refusing to offer them shelter. Since that time, she searches eternally for the baby Jesus and delivers presents to good children as she roams.

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China

Flag of ChinaChinese Christians celebrate Christmas by lighting their houses with paper lanterns and decorating their Christmas trees (called ‘trees of light’) with chains, flowers and lanterns made from paper. Children hang stockings for ‘Dun Che Lao Ren’ (Christmas Old Man) to fill on Christmas Eve.

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Denmark

Denmark flagDanish people eat a feast at midnight on Christmas Eve, ending with a special rice pudding dessert called ‘julgrot’. Hidden in the pudding is one whole almond. It brings good luck or a prize for the person who finds it. A bowl of rice pudding is also left out for the ‘Juul nisse’ – mischievous attic-dwelling elves. Many Danish children believe that these elves bring them presents from Santa Claus (‘Julemanden’) on Christmas Eve.

The Danish also celebrate Advent by lighting one candle on a special wreath on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. The candles stand for joy, hope, faith and peace.

On Christmas Eve, Danish parents decorate the family Christmas tree in secret. Children are not allowed to see it until dinnertime, when the tree is lit up. The family then gathers around it to sing carols and hymns.

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Venezuela

Venezuela flagMany homes in Venezuela are decorated with lights and display a nativity scene during the Christmas season. It is also the custom to attend one of nine carol services that are held before Christmas Day. The last of these takes place on Christmas Eve, after which families return home for a special dinner. A traditional Christmas dinner includes ‘hallacas’, dumplings filled with meat, vegetables and spices. Some families also sing and pray for the baby Jesus before presents are exchanged around midnight.

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Greece

Greece flagGreek people make and eat special Christmas bread called ‘christopsomo’ (Christ bread). These are large sweet loaves made into a range of shapes with decorative crusts. The decorations usually symbolise the family’s profession.

On Christmas Eve, children often travel from door to door singing Christmas carols, sometimes also playing drums and triangles. People give the carol singers small presents or food. The main Christmas presents are not exchanged until 1 January, St Basil’s Day.

In the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany, the ‘kallikantzaroi’ are supposed to appear. These fantasy creatures are variously described in different regions of Greece as resembling goblins, wolves or monkeys. According to legend, the kallikantzaroi get into people’s homes through the chimney where they cause all sorts of mischief, like eating all the Christmas food and making milk go sour. One tradition the Greeks follow to keep the kallikantzaroi out of their houses is to dip a wooden cross covered in basil into a bowl of water and then sprinkle the water around the house. This is done once a day by one member of the family.

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