It's a big world out there, and cultures and traditions have mingled and mixed to create an eclectic array of celebrations unifying into one much anticipated holiday. And yet Christmas is done so differently in so many countries.
In Spain, decorated trees, bright colorful lights, and a large family dinner mark Christmas, but there is one tradition not at all common anywhere else in the world. Named Hogueras (bonfires), this celebration observes the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter. People jump over the fires as a symbolic protection against illness. In addition, a custom called "swinging" exists. Swings are set up throughout the courtyards and young people swing to the accompaniment of songs and laughter. It is not Santa who comes to Spain bearing gifts, but the Three Wise Men. On the Eve of Epiphany, January 5th, children fill their shoes with straw and place them on the doorstep. In the dark of night, the Three Wise Men pass leaving gifts to be opened on Epiphany morning.
In Poland, Christmas preparations begin on the first day of December. This is the beginning of a three-and-a-half week period that combines the year's hardest work with eleven days of fasting. Sheaves of grain are placed in the corners of farmhouse rooms, representing the home's guardian angel. On December 6th St. Nicholas visits children and distributes gifts or punishment as deserved. But on Christmas Eve, the Angels bring a second round of gifts and a tree decorated with fruits, nuts, chocolate candies, ornaments and candles. From Christmas until the Twelfth Night, carolers and puppet shows move from town to town and other festivities continue until February 2nd, Candlemas Day. There are 64 days of Christmas in Poland.
There are no Christmas trees in Italy. Instead, they decorate small wooden pyramids with fruit. The children here wait until Epiphany, January 6th, for their presents. According to tradition, the presents are delivered by a kind, yet ugly witch called Befana on a broomstick. Folklore says that she was told by the three kings that the baby Jesus was born, but she was busy and delayed visiting. She missed the Star, lost her way, and has been flying around ever since, leaving presents at every house with children in case he is there. She slides down chimneys, and fills stockings and shoes with good things for good children and only coal for bad children.
In Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, it is customary for the streets to be blocked off on Christmas Eve so that the people can roller-skate to church.
An artificial spider and web are often included in the decorations on Ukrainian Christmas trees. A spider web found on Christmas morning is believed to bring good luck.
One oddity in the Nordic countries, such as Sweden, concerns the conclusion of the festival. This comes on Christmas Eve, when Christmas dinner is eaten and the presents are distributed. It takes place in the afternoon, but the day's dinner is not usually eaten until the family has watched the enormously popular Donald Duck program on TV with the classic Walt Disney films.
In Norway on Christmas Eve, all the brooms in the house are hidden because long ago it was believed that witches and mischievous spirits came out on Christmas Eve and would steal their brooms for riding around on.
Christmas in Iran is known as the Little Feast. For the first 25 days of December, a great fast is observed. It is a time of peace and meditation, a time for attending services at the church. But when the fast is over, the feast begins and plenty of food is prepared for Christmas dinner. Most boys and girls of Iran have never heard of Santa Claus so they do not exchange gifts at Christmas. But they do often receive new clothes, which they proudly wear all during the happy Christmas week.
Russia has a legendary figure named Babouschka, who brings gifts for the children. The tradition says that she failed to give food and shelter to the Three Wise Men and so she now searches the countryside looking for the baby Jesus, visiting all children giving gifts as she goes. Santa was known as Saint Nicholas but today is called Grandfather Frost, wearing a blue outfit instead of a red one.
Japan is not a Christian country, and Christmas here is more like New Years. There are family gatherings and celebrations and people visit a shrine (which honors the Emperor) or a temple (which honors the Buddha) on the morning of January 1 to wish for a healthy year. Thousands of people gather at shrines across the country. Girls and women wear a traditional Kimono, (since it isn't often worn on a daily basis any more), and it is a tradition to give gifts and eat Christmas cakes.
In Ireland, a long time tradition is Nollaig na mBan (Women's Christmas). It is on January 6., the Epiphany, and is regarded as the day on which some could rest from work after all the Christmas carry-on. During the Christmas season, candles decorated with greenery are placed in the windows of Irish homes. On Christmas Eve they light the way of the Holy Family, as well as any other poor travelers, out at night. To the Irish, Christmas is a time for religious celebration rather than revelry. A manger scene is displayed in most homes and there are few Christmas trees.
It is the height of summer during Christmas in Australia, so many Christmas celebrations will take place with a picnic with lobster and seafood down at the beach. There usually isn't the typical tree or mistletoe hanging around, and it is more a day for going to the beach and celebrating in the water. Santa has even been known to visit wearing red board shorts.
Christmas in India shows houses decorated with strings of mango leaves, lights placed on the windowsills and walls, and a star hung outside for all to see. A sweet holiday treat is made called thali and it is brought to neighbors and friends.
It is a British Christmas tradition that a wish made while mixing the Christmas pudding will come true only if the ingredients are stirred in a clockwise direction. Men and women play a popular game called Conkers, which requires each person to tie a string through a roasted chestnut. The object of the game is to hurl the chestnut, letting it fly down at another person's chestnut with the hope of eventually cracking it open. Another popular custom in England is mummering. In the Middle Ages, people called mummers put on masks and acted out Christmas plays. These plays are still performed in towns and villages. In England, the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day because boys used to go around collecting money in clay boxes. When the boxes were full, they broke them open.
Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, is the site of the Church of the Nativity, which is ablaze with flags and decorations come Christmas. On Christmas Eve, people crowd the church's doorways and stand on the roof to watch for the dramatic annual procession. Galloping horsemen and police mounted on Arabian steeds lead the parade, followed by a solitary horseman carrying a cross. The procession solemnly enters the doors and places an ancient effigy of the Holy Child in the Church. Deep, winding stairs lead to a cave where visitors find a silver star marking the site of the birth of Jesus.
But in any country, in any region, in any climate, in any religion, there is one underlying theme that stands out. Joy. Christmas is a time of joy, a time to share happiness, to hear laughter, and to relive memories. It is a time that we spend with our families making our traditions and creating our memories.