Christmas is a holiday that is celebrated in many countries around the world. Quite frequently, local pagan rites blended with the Christian tradition of Christmas, the festival that marks the birth of Jesus. Sometimes new elements were incorporated into the occasion in later centuries. For this reason, Christmas celebrations differ in countries and regions across the world. Although globalisation and (over)commercialisation have led to the export of some local traditions, for example the advent calendar or Father Christmas and Rudolph the Reindeer, Christmas celebrations still take different forms around the world due to their particular rituals, characters and artifacts. Some examples of Christmas artifacts used in different cultures are shown below:
Gail Robinson’s interrelated categories of products, behaviours and beliefs to describe cultures (1985) can also be applied to Christmas, as shown in the illustration below:
Elements of Christmas – Products, Behaviours and Ideas – adapted from Gail Robinson’s Elements of Culture (1985)
The pictures shown below depict some traditional characters, rituals, artifacts and food that form part of Christmas in different cultures. Do you recognise any of the traditions shown in the pictures?
The following traditions are shown in the collage:
The Christmas cracker is an English tradition that dates back to the Victorian time (19th century). It consists of a cardboard paper tube wrapped in coloured paper that is twisted at both ends to make it look like a huge wrapped sweet. Inside the cracker is some chemically impregnated paper. When the cracker is pulled apart, normally by two people, this causes a bang. Inside the cracker is a paper crown, a joke on a slip of paper and a little gift.
Bûche de Noël
The Bûche de Noël is a French Christmas cake that is shaped like a log. It is based on the tradition that a log was burnt on Christmas Eve in the hearth in families’ homes. This was thought to be lucky. When the hearths were replaced by stoves, the tradition of eating a log-shaped cake instead of burning a wooden log started.
The tradition of Advent wreath dates back to the 16th century, when it was used for the first time by German Lutheran Protestants. It consists of four candles fixed on a wreath of pine branches that is decorated with cones, berries, dried flowers and Christmas ornaments. The Advent wreath represents a kind of countdown to Christmas: three weeks before Christmas, one candle is lit, then two candles, then three and finally four are lit at Christmas.
The Olentzero is a legendary character in the Basque Country, a region located partly in Spain and France. He probably has a pagan origin. According to tradition, on December 24, the Olentzero comes down from the mountains to visit the Basque villages and towns and give presents to the children.
The Caga Tió goes back to a pre-Christian tradition in Catalonia and Aragon in Spain. It is a tree trunk covered with a blanket that has a painted face and sticks as legs. Children "feed" it, for example with sweets and fruits. At Christmas, they hit the Caga Tió with sticks while singing Christmas carols to make it “poop” gifts (that have previously been hidden under the blanket).
La Befana is an old woman on broomstick who fills children’s socks with gifts in Italy on Epiphany Eve, the night of January 5. The well-behaved children get sweets, while naughty children receive a lump of (sweet) coal. Another name for La Befana is Christmas witch. The origin of the tradition is probably a Christian legend.
The posadas are nine religious festivals that are traditionally organized in Mexico before Christmas from December 16 to 24. They refer to María’s and José’s trip to Bethlehem and their search for accommodation. The Posadas have their origin in an ancient Aztec cult known as Panquetzaliztli that was celebrated in pre-Hispanic Mexico between December 17 and 26.
In the modern posadas, the guests are divided into two groups, one group stays inside the house and represents the innkeeper while the second group is outside the house and asks for a place to stay. This involves singing between the two groups with the people outside asking for an inn and the innkeepers denying it. After a few verses the innkeepers let the others in.
The Yule goat is a Christmas tradition in Scandinavia and Northern European. It delivers presents together with the Jultomte (the Swedish version of Father Christmas) on Christmas night. The goat probably goes back to the pagan tradition of Yule, a festival celebrated by Germanic people. Today the Yule goat is typically made of straw.
There is a tradition in Sweden on December 13 that a girl dresses up in a white robe and wears a crown of candles on head. She leads a procession of other white-clad students. Although the Lucia festival is named after a martyr who was killed by the Romans, it is not much of a religious celebration in today's Sweden. Its most important elements are the white robes and candles, traditional saffron buns (Lussekatter) and singing songs.
The video Christmas Around the World Song (3.49 min.) presents some of the above traditions and can form part of a
Christmas activity. Matching the pictures of the collage with the descriptions of the traditions can be done as a pre-viewing activity (see downloadable worksheet).