Here in Lockport, New York, as in much of the U.S., the rituals of Christmas are celebrated in very specific ways. We decorate our homes with lights and our lawns with illuminated Santas. Children write letters to the North Pole. And on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day people gather together as family to open gifts and eat the foods that come from long tradition. This week I asked some friends in other parts of the world to share their tales of how Christmas is celebrated:
“Christmas in the Land of Buddha” from Mariko Takayasu and Seth Mydans in Thailand.
It’s not the prettiest part of globalization, or maybe it is, depending on your love of Xmas kitsch. But here in Buddhist Thailand, gigantic artificial Christmas trees stand outside mega malls with twinkling lights as “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” reverberates through shops and walkways, though most people have never seen snow. You might even be lucky to see a socially-distanced Santa taking photos with sweaty shoppers who have come in from the 90+ degree heat to seek refuge in over air-conditioned malls. Christmas offers everyone another opportunity for taking selfies, this time in front of beautiful Christmas displays, and posting them on social media. This is the spirit of Thai Christmas.
“Food and Family” from Marcela Olivera in Bolivia
Almost every important gathering in Bolivia is organized around food and Christmas is very typical of this tradition. There are some meals that are central to our celebrations. One is called picaña navideña (this includes two kinds of potatoes, three kinds of meat, and corn). We eat this together on Christmas Eve. In Bolivia, the most important part of Christmas is Christmas Eve. Families get together to share a meal at midnight followed by the opening of presents. It is the only day when many kids are allowed to stay up late. Families always gather to celebrate together and make certain that friends without families are invited to honor this special day. And, here, our symbol of Christmas is the Nativity, the holiest of families for all of us.
“Christmas with Bingo” from Marcoluigi Corsi in Italy
In Italy, it is traditional to spend Christmas at home with the family. Cities and houses alike become a set of decorations. Children have fun decorating the tree with their parents and making the Nativity scene representing the birth of Jesus through statuettes. Organizing the dinner on Christmas Eve and the lunch on Christmas Day involves the tradition of grandparents teaching children how to make homemade food, particularly pasta and sweets. For the dinner on Christmas Eve, fish dishes are usually eaten. On Christmas Day, meat dishes are served and at the end of the meal (which might indeed take several hours!) you can’t miss pandoro and panettone which are typical Christmas sweets. Playing bingo is “a must.” But exchanging gifts is certainly the most anticipated moment by children (and adults too) who can’t wait to unwrap the presents placed under the Christmas tree.
“Surfing Santas” from Nick Rees in Australia
Christmas in Australia is like nowhere on earth. Firstly, its HOT! Yesterday it was 93 degrees here in Sydney. Yet, many people still have Christmas traditions more suitable for a European or American climate. People still wear heavy Santa Claus suits, and sing carols about snow and sleds and reindeer! People also eat hearty wintery meals on Christmas Day, such as turkey and ham! They also put fake snow in the windows in shopping malls to make it look cold and wintery! Here, instead of going to play in the snow or being rugged up by a cozy fire, we go to the beach! Crowds of people head to the beach on Christmas Day, shortly after opening presents. People come dressed in their Santa Claus suits too (although normally just the Santa hat, with a swimsuit). And if you look carefully, you can sometimes see surfing Santa’s cruising the waves! The next day, the 26th is still another holiday, called Boxing Day, when we eat all the leftovers and have another round of fun at the beach!
“Christmas in War and Peace” from Valentina Otmacic in Croatia
In the 1980s, when Croatia was still part of socialist Yugoslavia, religion was considered “the opiate of the masses” and Christmas was celebrated discretely. Christmas Day was not a public holiday, but we would go to school dressed especially nicely and say “Merry Christmas” to our classmates. We also attended the midnight Mass. I loved the Christmas songs but the sermon always seemed eternal.
With political independence in the 1990s, Croatia began a completely different approach to religion in general, and Christmas in particular. Churches became overcrowded as being Catholic became a watermark of every “proud Croat”. My mom was particularly annoyed by these new crowds in the church: “Half of them do not know how to make a sign of cross!” I giggled watching them try to say or do the right thing at the right time. In the 2000s, with the war long over, the remaining weapons were pulled out to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus in “big style” with the noise of shooting and explosions.
Through four decades, Christmas in Croatia has evolved with the winds of political change, but in our families almost nothing has changed. We decorate the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve (not before!) in the same corner of the house. The youngest in the family run home from midnight Mass to find their presents under the tree, and the presents are simple, resisting the world of consumerism. We play parlor games, hum Christmas tunes, and Grandmas make delicious turkey with a special type of pasta. If we are lucky enough, we even get some snow and rejoice at White Christmas.