Archive This article is from our archive and might not display correctly. Download PDF
It's that time of year again - well, not quite, but uni Christmas starts on 1 November, the second the pumpkin candles have been blown out, and I won't hear a word said to the contrary. So while many of us prepare to indulge in the British traditions of draping plastic evergreens with baubles and tinsel, eating our weight in pigs in blankets, and composing 500 word essays detailing the gifts we want from our parents, it's interesting to have a look at the different traditions that have developed over the years around the world. With over two billion followers across the globe, Christianity is the largest religion in the world, but the ways of celebrating Christmas across the nations are by no means unified. And the diversity continues beyond the variation among Christians; today, it is even celebrated by non-Christians, bringing a whole new meaning to Christmas as a festival.
In Japan, for example, only about 1 per cent of the population are Christian. Consequently, Christmas is not a public holiday, nor has it been widely celebrated until the last few decades. In recent years, a tasty tradition has developed; in 1974 there was a very successful advertising campaign led by KFC named Kentucky For Christmas, which popularised the consumption of fried chicken on Christmas Day. India Angra, who studies Japanese at SOAS University of London, commented: "The majority of homes didn't have ovens large enough to fit a turkey, and the first ever Christmas meal was priced at 3000 yen (approximately 10 USD), which was steep. Now this tradition of KFC for Christmas has transformed into a goliath and Japanese families pre-order their KFC Christmas meals weeks in advance." Ever since, Christmas Day has been the busiest day of the year for fast food restaurants like KFC in Japan.
Meanwhile in Portugal, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, a very different feasting tradition takes place. The family "Christmas Dinner" is served on Christmas Eve and is known as the "Consoada", a word which derives from the Latin "consolare", meaning "to comfort". In the north of Portugal especially, it is custom to set extra places at the table for "alminhas a penar" ("the souls of the dead") to honour recently deceased relatives. Sometimes, crumbs are placed on the hearth for the souls of the dead, a tradition that stems from an ancient practice that involves entrusting seeds to the dead, something which is believed to ensure a plentiful harvest.
Christmas time is full of quirky characters, and while the British Christmas is traditionally free from anything remotely scary, leaving the witches and ghouls of Halloween behind, some countries have some rather frightening characters at Christmas. Austria and some regions of Germany share the emergence of a devil-like monster called Knecht Ruprecht, also known as Krampus, during the festive season. Krampus is a large horned monster dressed in rags who carries chains and accompanies Nikolaus (St. Nicolas) on 6 December, ready to punish those who have been bad, while Nikolaus rewards those who have been good with presents.
The people of Iceland have a different selection of quirky characters that distinguish their Christmas celebrations: the "Jolasveinar", or the "Yuletide Lads". For each of the 13 days of Yuletide starting from 12 December, 13 mischievous magical people come down from the Icelandic mountains one by one. Children put their best shoes by the window each night, and a different Yuletide Lad will leave gifts for the good children and rotting potatoes for the bad. However, the Jolasveinar were not originally benevolent gift-givers; this characterisation of them came about with the popularisation of Santa Claus. In fact, the tradition of the Jolasveinar began in Iceland in the 17th century, and they were originally thought to be the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi: child-eating ogres. Their names retain some of their mischievous qualities and reveal the trouble they liked to cause: Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod), Giljagaur (Gully Gawk), Stufur (Stubby), Thvorusleikir (Spoon-Licker), Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper), Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker), Hurdaskellir (Door-Slammer), Skyrgamur (Skyr-Gobbler), Bjugnakraekir (Sausage-Swiper), Gluggagaegir (Window-Peeper), Gattathefur (Doorway-Sniffer), Ketkrokur (Meat-Hook) and Kertasnikir (Candle-Stealer).
Meanwhile, the Norwegian Christmas is characterised by mischievous elf-like characters called "nisse", as described by Malin Elizabeth Diskin Nilssen, a University of York student who grew up in Norway. Malin commented on the traditions that her family follow at Christmas: "We celebrate 'Little Christmas Eve' on 23 December, where we eat rice porridge, and have to leave a bowl out for 'nisser', who are similar to elves, traditionally in the barn so that they won't play pranks on the farmer or ruin things. Every farm was believed to have a "nisse", in the barn, and although most people don't have barns anymore, the tradition lives on." She added: "Another tradition that makes me laugh is that every Christmas Eve, the Norwegian equivalent of the BBC play the movie Three Wishes For Cinderella, a Czechoslovakian/East German fairy-tale film from 1973. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but nevertheless, brings Christmas spirit to Norwegians on Christmas Eve."
But let's forget these magical characters for a moment, because in Sweden it's all about goats - yes, goats - or the "Yule Goat" to be specific. Not only do many families have goats made of straw in their homes to guard the Christmas tree, but a 13 metre tall Yule Goat has been constructed in Gavle's Castle Square at the beginning of Advent every year since 1966. It's a striking structure, composed of a skeleton of 1200 metres of Swedish pine, covered with 56 five-metre straw mats. And yet, emerging from the tradition of building it, another ritual has evolved: every year people try to burn it to the ground. The first Yule Goat was burnt down on the New Year's Eve of 1966, and it's been a temptation for the public ever since. Some of the most notable attacks on the Yule Goat include an attempted kidnapping using a helicopter, and another where a person dressed as a gingerbread man shot at it with flaming arrows.
Returning to some more recognisable traditions, we can see many different customs across the world when it comes to decorating the Christmas tree. In Georgia, where Christmas is celebrated on 7 January in accordance with the Julian Calandar (rather than the Gregorian Calendar), the Christmas tree is called a "Chichilaki", and is made of dried wood that has been shaved into long curly strips and then decorated with fruits and sweets.
In India, in the absence of evergreens like fir or pine trees, banana and mango trees are decorated instead. India Angra, whose family are Punjabi (a predominately Sikh and Hindu region of India) commented on the traditions of some of her Indian Catholic friends: "Indian-Christians celebrate Christmas differently depending on their local traditions. Some traditions are similar to European ones, just altered slightly. The classic Christmas trees aren't in abundance, so banana and mango trees are decorated with baubles and cotton wool in place of snow. Any Indian celebration is filled with bright lights and vibrant flower arrangements and Churches are lit up spectacularly."
One of the most interesting Christmas tree decorations comes from Ukraine, where the trees are often decorated with a fake spider and synthetic web, or spider-web themed ornaments. This tradition derives from a legend about a widow who was too poor to decorate her tree, and she and her children went to sleep on Christmas Eve sobbing at the lack of ornamentation. According to the tale, a spider overheard the sobs and wanted to help. Consequently, the widow and her children awoke on Christmas morning to find the tree decorated with a beautiful, glistening web. The widow is said to have never felt poor again, and the web is therefore seen as a symbol of good luck.
A final wacky tradition that has developed in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, in recent years is the act of rollerblading to Church for Mass. This unique tradition is so popular that the roads are closed off in many areas before eight am to ensure that the rollerblading church-goers can commute in safety. According to legend, the children of the city tie a piece of string around their big toe the night before and hang the other end out the window before they go to sleep. Skaters can then tug on the strings as they go past to let them know its time to get up and get their skates on too.
Christmas has certainly come a long way over the years in terms of fostering exciting customs from country to country. From Christmas KFC to Yuletide goats, there's no end to the cultural diversity spanning across the globe. And while many of these traditions have stemmed from religious customs, some have moved away from their Christian roots, allowing for a very inclusive period of festive fun for people from every walk of life.