Christmas is probably the most celebrated holiday in the world. It’s when billions of Christians around the globe celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, observed most commonly on December 25.
More than 160 countries celebrate Christmas although some may call it by another name, as in Uruguay and Angola where it is called Family Day. However, it should be noted that not all Christian faiths observe Christmas including Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the Church of Christ.
Throughout the USA, Europe and Australia, Christmas celebrations include special religious services like Midnight Mass or Vespers on Christmas Eve.
We all love Christmas — gathering together with family and friends to share gifts, good food, music and happiness. And, depending on our heritage, each country has its own rituals of customs to make their holiday season unique to them.
Holiday seasons also have their own color palette. Halloween colors are usually orange and black and Valentine’s Day is known for its reds, whites and pinks. The colors associated with Christmas, are red and green. It goes right back to ancient times when Celtic people believed the red berries and shiny green holly leaves were meant to keep the Earth alive during the dead of winter. When they celebrated the winter Solstice, they decorated their homes with holly to bring good luck to families in the New Year.
In Mexico, the poinsettia was originally cultivated by the Aztecs, who called it the “flower which wilts.” The plant’s brilliant red color symbolized purity and they use the plant to reduce fever. “The Night of the Radishes,” also bright red, is used in an annual Christmas custom in Oaxaca. Each Dec. 23, competitors carve nativity scenes into large radishes, which are then displayed at the Christmas market.
When we think of Christmas, we think of family gathered by a cheerful flickering fire in the hearth and children’s stockings, the dining table laden with food, gingerbread, egg nog, mulled wine and candy canes; but the centerpiece of the room would be the lighted Christmas tree.
A fire in the hearth is in virtually every Christmas scene. This dates back to the ancient Norse who burned a Yule log to celebrate the return of the sun at winter Solstice. This is also why we make log-shaped desserts for the holidays.
Decorating Christmas trees first became popular in Victorian times thanks to Prince Albert, the Germanic husband of Queen Victoria. Then it spread throughout Europe and then to the USA. The Celtic people also used to bring mistletoe into their homes because they considered it to have magical powers. They believed it had the ability to heal wounds and increase fertility and it would bring them good luck and ward off evil spirits. It was only in the Victorian era, that the English would hang sprigs of mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways. If someone was found standing under the mistletoe, they would be kissed by someone else in the room, behavior not usually demonstrated in Victorian society.
Again, in Victorian times, an Englishman named John Calcott Horsley helped popularize the tradition of sending Christmas greeting cards when he began producing small cards featuring festive scenes and a pre-written holiday greetings.
There are so many places around the world, however, where they do something totally different on Christmas Day. In Australia, for example, when Christmas comes during one of the hottest months of the year. You’re more likely to find everyone here on the beach or enjoying a barbecue. No traditional turkey, ham or goose for them. They go to the local seafood markets for fresh fish and seafood.
In France, the season is called Noel and begins on Dec. 6. Their favorite food during Christmas is oysters, foie gras and lots of Champagne. French children don’t hang up their stockings for Santa, or Le Pere Noel as he is known in France. They leave their shoes out for Pere Noel to leave gifts. Festivities culminate with Le Reveillon on Christmas Eve with feasting and family gatherings.
The Portuguese eat codfish and broiled potatoes for their traditional Christmas-eve meal but they more than make up for it with sumptuous pastries and sweets. Bolo-Rei escangalhado, or broken-king-cake, just dripping with cinnamon and chilacayote jam. Some are strands or balls of light, spiced dough, dusted with icing sugar, others are a sweet, sticky blend of nuts, honey and raisins.
In England, the Christmas meal is served early afternoon so the population can watch the Queen’s traditional 3 p.m. broadcast. Just as in the US, it’s normally roast turkey, roast vegetables and ‘all the trimmings’ which means vegetables like carrots & peas, stuffing and sometimes chipolatas and apples, served with cranberry sauce and bread sauce.
For dessert, the English eat Christmas pudding, The pudding is made months beforehand with dried fruits, nuts, honey and spices and then saturated with brandy or whisky. An old coin or charm is usually baked into the pudding, giving good luck to whoever finds it, unless they break a tooth. It’s then steamed, doused with brandy and set alight.
In Puerto Rico, the national dish is lichen, a roast suckling pig. Unfortunately, it needs the constant attention of two people to turn the outdoor spit from as early as two in the morning.
Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine all offer variations on an intricate twelve-dish Christmas Eve feast. Meat, eggs and milk are all kept off the table by the regulations of the Nativity Fast practiced by the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. The holiday meal consists of 12 separate dishes, one for each Apostle. Typically, herring with carrots or mushrooms is one of the main dishes or dumplings stuffed with sauerkraut.
No cooking for Japanese families at Christmas time. They flock to KFC for a Christmas-themed bucket or a premium roast-bird feast.
KFC launched their 1974 Christmas Chicken campaign in Japan after learning of Western expats turning to buckets when they couldn’t find turkeys in Tokyo. Now, 40 years on, it’s so popular, orders have to be placed weeks in advance.
Greenland has to have the most unusual foods on their Christmas menu— Mattak and Kiviak. Mattak is strips of whale blubber encased in whale skin. It is supposed to taste like fresh coconut but it’s so tough to chew and is usually swallowed whole. Winning the award for longest preparation time, kiviak, takes a full seven months to prepare. It begins with hollowing out a seal skin and stuffing it as tightly as possible with 500 baby auks (a sea bird) with feathers and all, to ferment.
As much air as possible is then removed from the seal skin before it is sewn up and sealed with seal fat, which repels flies. It is then hidden in a heap of stones, with a large rock placed on top to keep the air out.
For three months, it’s allowed to rot and ferment, and then it’s dug up and eaten straight from the seal skin. Considered a delicacy, the taste of kiviak is similar to strong Gorgonzola cheese.
On that note and as the song says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”