Every holiday is associated with particular traditions. Valentines Day (the origin of which is far more somber than you’d expect) typically involves tooth-rotting and cavity-inducing amounts of sugar, whether it be in chocolate or candy heart form. You’re supposed to pinch people not wearing green on Saint Patrick’s Day. Thanksgiving, first celebrated by the Pilgrims and enacted into law by President Lincoln, is when we give thanks, eat pumpkin pie, and avoid the scales.
Christmas, too, has traditions. Christmas Eve Candlelight service; manger scenes; Christmas carols; trees topped with stars or angels; presents tucked beneath the tree or hidden away from those certain snoops who try peaking before Christmas Day; candy canes and hot chocolate; and, most importantly, celebrating Christ’s birth.
The fun thing about Christmas is that it’s celebrated universally, but certain countries have quite distinct traditions and ways to honor the holiday and what it represents.
Iceland: Jólabókaflóðið/Jolabokaflod (yo-la-bok-a-flot)
One of the ultimate traditions where everyone receives a new book and spends the day reading and drinking hot chocolate.
According to jolabokaflod.org, “This tradition began during World War II once Iceland had gained its independence for Denmark in 1944. Paper was one of the few commodities not rationed during the war, so Icelanders shared their love of books even more as other types of gifts were short supply. This increase in giving books as presents reinforced Iceland’s culture as a nation of bookaholics”.
Philippines: Giant Lantern Festival
This tradition is held in San Fernando the Saturday before Christmas, where “Eleven barangays (villages) take part in the festival and competition is fierce as everyone pitches in trying to build the most elaborate lantern. Originally, the lanterns were simple creations around half a metre in diameter, made from ‘papel de hapon’ (Japanese origami paper) and lit by candle. Today, the lanterns are made from a variety of materials and have grown to around six metres in size. They are illuminated by electric bulbs that sparkle in a kaleidoscope of patterns” (Momondo.com).
The Christmas Star was what led the wise men to Christ. I don’t know the origins of this tradition, but it’d be amazing if those who started it wanted to celebrate Christmas in a way that reminded people of the Star.
Scandinavia: St. Lucia’s Day
St. Lucia’s Day is held on December 13th, instead of the 25th, but it paves the way for Christmas Day. According to whychristmas.com, “The celebration comes from stories that were told by Monks who first brought Christianity to Sweden. […] St Lucia was a young Christian girl who was martyred, killed for her faith, in 304. The most common story told about St Lucia is that she would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head so she had both her hands free to carry things”.
Britannica.com adds, “The festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavia, and it is meant to bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year”.
While this celebration does not celebrate Christ’s birth, it honors a defender of the faith. The lights, bringing hope during the darkest time in that area of the world, are symbolic. Christ is the Light, and from Him we draw hope during our darkest of times.
Brazil: The Generous Papai Noel
Papai Noel is the Brazilian version of Father Christmas. In the U.S, we leave stockings by the fireplace. In Brazil, children leave stockings by the window. If Papai Noel, on his nightly stroll, finds a stocking, he’ll exchange it for a present. This is a great way to get rid of your partner-less socks.
Mexico: Posadas (Inns)
This tradition spans nine days, and “commemorate[s] the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph’s search for a place to stay where Jesus could be born” (journeymexico.com). Mary and Joseph’s search is reenacted as the outside group, representing Mary and Joseph, travel to nine inns. At each inn, they sing the Posada litany. The inside group, or innkeepers, deny them room until they reach the ninth inn. There, they are allowed inside.
Must-haves for Posadas include piñatas, little bags of candies called bolos, a Mexican Christmas fruit punch called Ponche Navideno, tamales, and singing.
Finland: Last Minute Christmas Trees and Almonds
Jokes galore are made about last minute shoppers, and for good reason. They abound everywhere you go. Despite doing this every Christmas, they never learn from their procrastination. However, there is one place where this is celebrated – and expected.
Christmas Eve is very important in Finland. This is the day (and sometimes the day before) when Christmas trees are purchased (real—no fake trees for the Finnish, no siree) and breakfast is rice porridge and fruit juice made of plums. At noon, a special radio show is broadcasted. Graves of family members are visited. The main Christmas meal is consumed on Christmas Eve. This consists of lutefish (salt fish), pork, casseroles, salmon, and riced pudding. Within the pudding is one almond. It is believed that whoever finds the almond will have a year of luck.
Croatia: Candles of Christmas and a Meat Fast
In my town, Walmart had Christmas decorations up in September. Croatia’s Christmas celebration doesn’t begin that early, but they start earlier than us Americans. Christmas in certain parts of Croatia begins November 25th, which is St. Catherine’s Day. Advent wreaths are a big deal and typically include four candles. These symbolize creation and hope, embodiment and peace, redemption and joy, ending and love.
On Christmas Eve, most follow a meat fast—fasting from meat. Because of this, they eat fish, mainly dried cod. Apparently fish meat isn’t considered, well, meat. Another odd tradition is the popular Christmas Day side dish, sarma, or cabbage rolls filled with minced pork meat. Foods normal humans consider tasty are included, like cookies, cakes, and donuts.
Christmas is universally celebrated, but fortunately, certain traditions are not (sarma, anyone?). Still, it’s fun to know what others are doing on these special days. Whether it’s reading books while sipping hot chocolate, walking around with a candle-laden wreath on your head, or purchasing your Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, traditions are part of the Christmas experience that will forever stick with us and create countless memories.
What traditions does your family celebrate? Which of the ones listed above piqued your interest? I know I certainly wouldn’t mind borrowing Iceland’s. There are few things better than the entire family sitting in the living room while reading and enjoying peppermint hot chocolate.