Christmas Traditions

Christmas in America has familiar rhythms and traditions, but have you ever wondered about celebrations in other countries? We’d like to take you on a world tour, beginning with a visit to the jolly old elf himself, Santa Claus. But we won’t be going to the North Pole; we’ll begin where he arguably did, in the Netherlands.

Sinter Klaas and Company

Santa Claus comes from Sinter Klaas, who wears bishop’s vestments, but has the white beard, sack of gifts for children, and other features we see in Santa. In turn, he is based on Saint Nicholas, who was a bishop in the 4th Century and has December 6th as a feast day. He was known for secret gift-giving, and one legend—that he helped the poor by leaving bags of coins in stockings they hung to dry—is the origin of our Christmas stocking tradition.

You might say Sinter Klaas helped found America. The Plymouth Pilgrims lived among the Dutch for a time, and one reason they decided to leave for the New World was Sinter Klaas and all that Christmas hoopla. They considered it quite unchristian.

Every European country has a Santa figure, usually named for Saint Nicholas or simply called Father Christmas. One notable exception is the Finnish “Joulupukki.” He looks like Santa, but his name means “Christmas Goat.” In some countries, the Santa figure is accompanied by Krampus, a devilish figure who punishes naughty children.

Shoes, Trolls, and Potatoes

In Iceland, children leave shoes by the bedroom window for the 13 nights of Jol. Each night one of the 13 Yule Lads—mischievous trolls from the mountains—leaves the child sweets or small gifts if they behaved well that day, and a rotting potato if they misbehaved!

On Christmas Eve, Iclelanders give books as gifts and spend the evening reading and drinking hot chocolate or jólabland, a holiday ale. Giving books is so much a part of their culture that Icelandic publishers launch almost all new books during the Jolabokaflod, or Christmas Book Flood, from September to November.

Southern Climes

Latin America has a number of rich Christmas traditions. In El Salvador, ads with Santa encourage children to write devotional letters to the Christ Child. Christmas Eve fireworks are a favorite part of the celebration, and families eat sauteed turkey sandwiches and wait until midnight to open presents.

In Guatemala, celebrants wear a festive hat called a puritina, and line dance. Brazilians wait until around 10pm to feast and open presents, then attend Missa do Galo, or The Rooster’s Mass, at midnight.

One of Mexico’s many interesting Christmas traditions is Las Posadas, or The Inns. Neighbors form processions led by two people dressed as Mary and Joseph. They knock on doors in the neighborhood and are refused until they reach a particular house where all are welcomed in for refreshments and prayer. Mexico is also the source of poinsettias as a traditional Christmas decoration.

In the Southern hemisphere, Christmas is a summer holiday, so many Australian and New Zealander families celebrate during a beach vacation. South Africans celebrate with a cookout called braaing, eating marinated steaks, boerewors sausage, and a moist cake called malva pudding.

A Frozen North Brimming with Warmth

In the dark, frigid weeks leading up to Christmas, the Inuit citizens of Nunavut territory in Canada hunt extra game, freezing it and putting it aside for a special meal. On Christmas Eve, large gatherings are held to share this “country food” the hunters have provided. This includes elk, fish, and muktuk, which is seal or narwhal blubber dipped in soy sauce or other flavorings. There’s no alcohol, though; nearly all Nunavut communities are dry because of the dangers of drinking too much when the temp can reach -60F with wind chill.

Singing, storytelling, and games make the night fly by. Later, everyone attends midnight church services, some Catholic, some Anglican, but all conducted in both Inuktitut and English.

Kentucky for Christmas

Where do Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants see 10 times more business on December 24th than any other day of the year? Surprisingly, in Japan!

In the 1960’s, Christmas was promoted by Japanese confection companies as a time to give children sweet gifts. Shortly after expanding into Japan in the early Seventies, KFC launched Kentucky for Christmas, a marketing campaign to give parents a gift, too. The original promotion was a special deal on a bucket of chicken and a bottle of wine. Soon it became a national phenomenon. KFC locations begin taking preorders in late October, and place statues of Colonel Sanders in a Santa suit outside each store.

Season’s Greetings from SWITS

Our world tour is done, but no matter what holidays you celebrate or how you celebrate them, we wish you the best in this joyous season!