Christmas around the world

SHERYL NANCE-NASH | 12/17/2020, midnight
This time of year the world celebrates the holiday season. Each country has its own cultural twist.
Christmastime festivities in Belize Photo courtesy of Belize Tourism Board

This time of year the world celebrates the holiday season. Each country has its own cultural twist.

Here’s a glimpse of festivities going on around the globe.

Belize

The Christmas season in Belize is typically celebrated during the entire month of December after the Christmas Tree Lighting which marks the opening of the season. One highlight is the Christmas Bram, a celebration with roots in the Belize district specifically in old Belize City and the surrounding villages, and it is native to the Belize Kriol culture. The Bram is similar to “caroling,” where people make their way through the streets singing and playing Brukdong music while dancing from house to house to spread the good cheer. “Bramming” is the Creole cultural form of dancing done in collaboration with the “Brokdong” music which entails the town’s participation and is dependent on a lively music created with numerous musical instruments, including a shaker (maraca), gombay (two-sided) drum, harmonica and an accordion to list a few. It starts from one end of the town/village with residents offering the dancing crowd food and drinks in large amounts. Throughout this feast the dancing continues and the celebration mood is enjoyed by all. Another highlight takes place in Dangriga, Christmas afternoon. It’s reserved for Wanaragua or Jankunu. The Jankunu dancers get dressed in white long-sleeved shirts and pants with belts of shells tied around their knees and pink masks bearing European features. These costumes are made to imitate the slave masters. The dance became common during Christmas time because it was the only time that the families had free to come together and make fun of their European slave masters. Now, days after Christmas, there is a Jankunu competition in Dangriga which is a competition between the senior Jankunu dancers of Southern Belize, namely Dangriga and Seine Bight.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a rich, vibrant culture rooting from Spanish, Taino Indian and African heritages, dating back 500 years, and there’s no better expression of this than in the Island’s holiday season.

The Island’s holiday season lasts around 45 days, starting after Thanksgiving, and extending through mid-January, culminating with the San Sebastián Street Festival, (Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián), known locally as “Sanse.” From early morning church services called “misas de Aguinaldo,” to late-night “parrandas” (Christmas caroling), Puerto Ricans love any excuse to celebrate and share the holiday spirit with a traditional “coquito” (similar to eggnog) always in hand, of course. During parrandas friends and families gather and play instruments such as panderos, maracas, guitars, etc. The idea is to surprise the household, so the parranderos round up as quietly as possible and then break into song with the intention of waking people up with joyful and jubilant music. It is a tradition for the household to offer refreshments and then join the group to bring the party to the next house. Sometimes, parrandas can last until sunrise.

Noche Buena for some folks trumps Christmas Day. Family and friends gather to eat lechon and arroz con gandules, drink coquito, and sing trullas (Christmas songs). Some people drive around to enjoy the Christmas decorations around town, and most people attend midnight mass known as Misa de Gallo.

On Jan. 6, Puerto Rico celebrates el Día de Reyes, a commemoration of the visit the Three Wise Men made after Jesus was born. The night before, children gather grass or hay in shoeboxes and place them under their beds or Christmas tree for the Mago’s camels to eat, in exchange for presents. The tradition is carried Island-wide, but no one does it like Juana Diaz. For over 135 years, the town of Juana Díaz has celebrated a festival and parade that gathers over 25,000 people for the occasion. The main attraction during the festivities is the Three Kings riding on horseback, which are depicted by actors wearing colorful robes and thick beards. The season ends with “Sanse” on the third weekend of January—it’s one of the most anticipated parties of the year. During the day, the old city’s plazas and streets are filled with local artists and artisans, selling everything from paintings to hand-made jewelry. Once the sun goes down, there are multiple concerts and parties. You can find people dancing bomba, a traditional style of Puerto Rican music and dance that reflects the African heritage of the Island.

Switzerland

Bettina Staerkle, founder of The Next Trip, who was born and raised in Switzerland, shares her favorite Swiss holiday celebrations. She starts with the Swiss Santa, Samichlaus and Schmutzli. Every year on Dec. 6, she says Samichlaus pays a visit and it is something every kid looks forward to. Samichlaus brings bags full of chocolate, mandarin oranges, peanuts and other edible goodies for those who have been good all year. However, Samichlaus does not give out goodies to the kids without having them first sing a song. “His intimidating sidekick Schmutzli wears a long black robe and his role in the past was to intimidate kids and punish them if they have not been good all year with his whip. Nowadays however, Schmutzli helps Samichlaus to distribute the goodies and is usually accompanied by a donkey,” she says.

Advent windows (Adventsfenster) are another highlight. She explains that advent windows work very much like an advent calendar, but instead of being designed for one person only, it’s an advent calendar for an entire town. In most small Swiss villages, it is customary to have Advent Windows around town. Each year, 24 residents volunteer to decorate one window in their house with extravagant Christmas decorations. On each day between Dec. 1 and 24, one window is revealed, while the others remain covered with closed shutters so that nobody can peak ahead.

Decorations can be anything from stars, candles, a Christmas scene, or anything festive. The advent windows are lit from the inside so that they are visible from the outside of the house and once they have been revealed, they are lit every evening until Christmas. Each night villagers are invited to the new window being revealed and they count down the days until Christmas. Often mulled wine and cookies are served to celebrate the reveal. Some towns even have the tradition to revisit all 23 windows on December 24th, prior to the reveal of the 24th window.

South Africa

Christmas occurs during the height of the summer holidays in South Africa and so Christmas Day often involves al fresco dining and activities like camping and swimming at the beach or at home says travel journalist Elise Kirsten. She says most homes are decorated and there’ll be a Christmas tree, which could be a real pine, a fake tree or even a quirky artistic interpretation of a tree which can be bought from hawkers at unofficial roadside stores in late November and December. She says European and American traditions have filtered down to South Africa, and typical Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals include roast meat such as chicken, turkey, beef, lamb or glazed gammon. Some people will opt to braai (the Afrikaans word for barbeque) at the poolside or at a campsite on Christmas Day. Caravans and tents will be decorated with tinsel and Christmas lights during this season. Fruit mince pies can be found in nearly all the shops and you’ll also find Christmas cake and pudding for sale.

One tradition is to hide sterilized coins inside the Christmas pudding which is heated, doused in brandy and set alight. Once the flames disappear, the pudding is sliced and served with custard. Children are encouraged to chew carefully and find the hidden money in their pudding (which they get to keep). Another typical dessert is Christmas trifle. This pudding consists of sponge cake soaked in liquor, layered with fruit, nuts, jelly and custard and topped with cream and glacé cherries.

Many South Africans who live in informal settlements and townships choose to join a stokvel (an informal savings group or society, where members contribute a set amount monthly throughout the year and then get an annual lump sum payment) so that they’ll have a bit of cash for food, gifts or travel over the festive season, she says. Church services take place throughout South Africa on Christmas morning.

Denmark

For big fun there’s the Lucia Day Parade on Dec. 13. It’s the annual celebration of light, which is sparse in Scandinavia in the winter months. All over the country, people dress in white gowns and walk in parades carrying candles and singing a special song about bringing light to people’s homes. In Copenhagen, the kayak clubs have their own parades where they sail through the canals with their boats covered in fairy lights, says Katinka Friis, a spokesperson for VisitDenmark. Unlike the U.S., Denmark celebrates Christmas on the 24th rather than the 25th. “An important part of the evening is that we all hold hands and walk around the Christmas tree singing carols and other songs. We also have a special song that requires us to dance around our houses all holding hands. This will happen after our dinner, which usually involves roasted duck and an indulgent rice and almond pudding called risalamande,” says Friis. One of the most popular Christmas decorations in Denmark is the braided Christmas heart made from shiny paper invented by fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen. Tivoli Gardens is perhaps the most festive place in Denmark, with a million LED lights, 1,000 Christmas trees and 7.5 tons of fir branches.

Costa Rica

Costa Ricans celebrate Christmas Eve (Noche Bueno) by gathering for a family feast that includes roast pork leg, tamales, and eggnog (rompope) spiked with rum. More important than a Christmas tree, says James Kaiser, author of “Costa Rica: The Complete Guide,” is an elaborate Nativity Scene (portal). Not a quaint tabletop affair—some portals can take up half a room. After dinner, the family puts Niño Díos (baby Jesus) to bed in the manger and then heads to midnight mass. The ceremony, locally called Misa de Gallo (“Rooster Mass”), generally lasts until 2 a.m. Says Kaiser, “Christmas Day is spent relaxing with family. Children play with the presents they received from Niño Díos. In Costa Rica children traditionally write letters to Jesus, not Santa, asking for presents.”

Spain

Karen Rosenblum, the founder of Spain Less Traveled, says visitors to Spain around the holiday season are often surprised to see how different some of the traditions there are to those in the United States. For starters, children are normally given their presents on Jan. 6, which is Día de Reyes, or Three Kings Day, instead of Christmas Day. This day is normally marked by Cabalgatas, which are massive parades in each city, with Madrid’s being the largest.

There are elaborate displays of lights in each city. In Madrid, the double-decker tourist buses are used as Naviluz buses, which bring locals and visitors alike on a tour of the lights. Other Spanish cities that are famous for their displays of holiday season lights are Málaga, where there are shows of music to accompany the lights on Calle Larios, Seville, and Barcelona.

Starting on Dec. 8, children in Catalonia look after their Tio, a log propped up on sticks on which they paint a smiley face and which wears a barretina hat. The painted log is then stored at home and the children feed Tio candy every day until Christmas. They believe that the more they feed Tio, the more presents he will give them on Christmas day. When Christmas Day comes along, the children take Tio de Nadal to the fireplace. The kids gather together and chant different songs while hitting a now covered Tio on the back with small sticks. It helps him bear down and push out the presents.

On New Year’s Eve, or Nochevieja, people gather at one of the plazas in each city or village with 12 grapes and cava. The clock chimes 12 times before midnight to count down, and with each chime, everyone eats their grapes one by one. It’s harder than it sounds, and those who successfully eat their grapes are said to have good luck for the next year.