Hey fellow adventurers! Happy Belated Christmas! Wow! Guys, Christmas has passed already! Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope you had a great day! This post is a special post where I talk about the Christmas traditions celebrated in every country I have talked about this year.
Joyeux Noël! In France, the Christmas celebrations begin on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. To prep for his arrival, grandparents tell stories about St. Nicholas. The most popular being about three children who wander away and get lost. Cold and hungry, the children get lured into store by a wicked butcher (named Père Fouettard) who attacks the children, traps them in a bathtub and then proceeds to salt them. But in the end, St. Nicholas comes to the rescues, saves the children are returns them to their family. That story is why St. Nicholas is known as the protector of children. This story is often portrayed in statues, paintings, songs, and even yummy baked treats. On December 5th, children put their shoes near the chimney and sing a song to St. Nicholas. When they wake up on December 6th, the shoes are overstuffed with treats- chocolates and cookies for the good kids and twigs for the naughty kids (though most kids get a combination of both).
A few days before Christmas, families set up nativity scenes (crèche) in the corner of the living room. And in France they don’t just have your typical figurines in their crèche, you might also find figures such as vegetable sellers, bakers, police officers, local dignitaries, pretty much anyone you can think of.
On Christmas Eve, you’ll find cathedrals across the country packed with people ready for midnight mass. After families get home from midnight mass, they indulge in le réveillon. Le réveillon, the main Christmas meal, is a giant feast that typically includes (depending on where in France you live): roast turkey with chestnuts or roast goose, oysters, foie gras, lobster, venison, and cheeses. For dessert, they serve bûche de Noël (Yule log), a buttercream filled sponge cake. Typically, the filling is coffee flavored and the outside is chocolate. I’ve been making bûche de Noël every year since 2006 (This year’s pic below). Yule log cakes are meant to resemble Yule logs that are typically burned in French homes. It’s typically burned on Christmas Eve and sprinkled with a bit of red wine, so it smells nice when burning. It’s also customary to leave a candle burning in case Mary and Baby Jesus visit during the night. The kids who didn’t leave their shoes out on St. Nicholas day, set them out on Christmas Eve to be filled with sweets by Père Noël or Baby Jesus.
Another popular Christmas tradition is Christmas markets. The most popular and oldest Christmas market in France is the Strasbourg Christmas Market in Northeast France. The market has been around since 1570!
And then finally the celebrations end on January 6th with the New Year’s réveillon. Families gather to eat a feast on Epiphany, and eat a flat, round cake, called galette. Typically, a prize is hidden inside the cake (a little china doll or baked bean), and whoever finds it gets to be King or Queen for the day. As church bells ring, the celebration of the Christmas season comes to an end.
क्रिसमस की बधाई (krisamas kee badhaee)! Very few Indians celebrate Christmas. A census taken in 2001, found that only a little over 2% of the population identify as Christian, a little over 13% as Muslim, and a little over 80% as Hindu. For those Christians that attend Christian school, nativity plays will be performed in school. Christian churches hold midnight mass and afterwards families go home to have a feast and open presents. Often, you’ll see nativity scenes in Christian houses around Christmas.
Though India does have some customs that are unique to India. Since they are no pine trees in India, people decorate banana or mango trees instead. Mango leaves are another popular Christmas decoration. Churches are decorated with poinsettias (Mexican Christmas flowers) and candles. Sometimes you’ll see paper star lanterns strung between houses.
No Islamic holidays are observed in December in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the celebration of Christmas is extremely discouraged and it’s illegal for Christians to celebrate Christmas in public spaces or at work. Any Christmas decorations put up un public spaces will be forcibly taken down.
¡Feliz Navidad! Just like in France, Mexican celebrations start in the middle of December and end in February. They kick of celebrations with the Celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Fiestas are held in honor of Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, on December 12. Catholics from across Mexico and other countries pay pilgrimage to see an image of Mary (Virgen Morena), believed to be authentic, in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Some boys dress up like Juan Diego to be blessed at church. Apparently, the story behind this holiday goes like this: “It is believed that a man named Juan Diego encountered the Virgin Mary twice in Mexico City, on December 9 and December 12 in 1531. According to legend, Mary told Juan to ask the bishop to build a church on Tepeyac Hill. However, the bishop needed proof of Juan’s encounter and asked for a miracle. Juan returned to the hill to see roses in a spot where there were previously cacti. When Juan Diego returned, he showed the roses to the archbishop and also revealed an image on his cloak of the Lady of Guadalupe. The bishop was convinced of the miracle and built a church in honor of the event.”
From December 16th-24th, people participate in Las Posadas, a celebration that originated in Spain but that has been celebrated in Mexico for over 400 years. The tradition commemorates Mary and Joseph’s difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a warm place to stay the night (Posadas translates to inn or lodgings). It was originally brought over from Spain to teach the indigenous people of Mexico about the Catholic religion. The celebration lasts nine nights because Mary’s pregnancy lasted nine months. Every night, one family agrees to host the pilgrims. The festivities begin with the group representing the Holy Family visiting a series of houses, singing songs and asking for lodging. They are refused at every house until they arrive at the chosen house. Finally, they are welcomed in. Once inside, the prayers and singing continues, festive foods are eaten, and a piñata is brought out for the children to play with. The piñata is typically a circle with seven points, each point represents one of the seven sins. For those of you not familiar with piñatas, they are typically filled with candy and covered with cardboard and paper. Children (typically blindfolded) hit the hosted piñata with a bat until it breaks open and the candy falls out, at which point it turns into a mad dash to collect as much candy as possible. This continues at different houses for the first eight nights. On the ninth night, they add baby Jesus to their nativity scene and then attend midnight mass.
Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, they have a giant feast with tamales, ponche (con piquete), buñuelos, and Revoltijo de Remerita. And at night they attend midnight mass. After church, they set off fireworks to celebrate the start of Christmas. In some parts of Mexico, Santa Claus delivers presents on Christmas Eve, and in other parts of Mexico the three kings bring presents on January 6th (I’ll talk more about the 6th later).
Dia de los Santos Inocentes, or Day of the Holy Innocents, remembers the biblical story of King Herod’s orders to execute male babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill baby Jesus. As grim as that sounds, this holiday is actually very similar to April Fool’s Day. Mexicans play jokes and pranks to trick friends and family members. The media also get involved by reporting news that is too ridiculous or funny to be true, all in good fun. Some Mexicans visit cemeteries with offerings to souls of departed children, in line with a pre-Hispanic tradition.
El Día de Reyes, or Three Kings Day (also known as Epiphany), commemorates the arrival of the “wise men” who arrived with gifts for baby Jesus. Any kids who didn’t get presents from Santa on Christmas, receive presents today. And some kids who did receives presents on Christmas, receive treats (candies and/or cookies) today. It’s customary for families to gather and drink hot chocolate or atole (a warm, thick, grain-based drink) and eat Rosca de Reyes (a sweet bread shaped like a wreath, with candied fruit on top). A figure of baby Jesus is baked into the Rosca de Reyes and the person who finds the figurine is expected to host a party on Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas), celebrated on February 2nd.
Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus, and marks the end of the Christmas celebrations. Whoever got the figure of Jesus in their slice of Rosca de Reyes, brings tamales to the feast.
Flor de Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve flower, is indigenous to Mexico, and is a popular decoration around Christmas time.
Though what Mexico is probably most known for is their nacimientos, or nativity scenes. Nacimientos remain the most important Christmas decoration in Mexico, and boy do they get into it! Mexicans are known for having some of the most lavish nativity scenes. Like France, they sometimes have non-traditional figurines in their scenes (such as bread sellers and the like).
Maligayang Pasko! In the Philippines, Christmas can begin earlier than the other countries mentioned so far. Apparently stores begin playing Christmas carols as early as September, and carrolers start appearing in November.
Simang Gabi is a Filipino tradition that begins on the morning of December 16th lasts until the 23rd. For eight days, they have mass at dawn. Church bells used to ring at 3am to prepare church goers for mass at 4am. Some places still have mass that early. After mass, traditional delicacies are enjoyed. There are food stalls right outside the church, popular favourites are bibingka, puto (rice cakes), puto bungbong, suman sa pasko, suman sa ibos, and usually served with tea or coffee. Hot pandesal (breakfast rolls) are also very popular. On the 24th, Nochebuena, people attend a special mass called misa de gallo (midnight mass). Although in someplaces misa de gallo has recently started taking place at late evening to accommodate people’s work schedules.
Panunulúyan is a street pageant based on the Mexican tradition Las Posadas. For the pageant, actors dress up as Joseph and Mary, visit pre-determined houses, and request lodging. At every house they get cruelly turned away until finally, Joseph and Mary make their way to the parish church where a replica of the stable has been set up.
On Nochebuena, after midnight mass, they have a giant feast with queso de bola, tsokoláte, noodles and pasta, fruit salad, pandesal, relleno and hamón (Christmas ham). Some families would also open presents at this time. Christmas Day is a day for family, not religious customs. Typically, it’s the day people visit extended relatives. According to Wiki, the “custom of giving respect is enacted through the “Págmamáno”. A supplicant takes the back of an elder’s hand and presses it against the forehead, while giving the greeting, Máno, pô (lit. “[Thy] hand, please”). The elder often responds by reciting a blessing or simply acknowledging the gesture, and in return gives “Aguinaldo” or money in the form of crisp banknotes, often placed in a sealed envelope such as an ang pao. Godparents in particular are socially obligated to give presents or aguinaldo to their godchildren, to whom they often give larger amounts compared to other younger relatives.”
A parol is an ornamental, star-shaped lantern, traditionally made from bamboo and paper. It comes in various sizes and shapes, but generally the basic star pattern remains the most popular. The design of the parol evokes the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Kings to the manger. It also symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and the Filipinos’ hope and goodwill during the Christmas season.
Another popular Christmas decoration is the belen, or nativity scenes. They can be seen at homes, churches, schools and office buildings.
On Bisperas ng Bagong Taón, or New Year’s Eve, Filipino families gather for the Media Noche a lavish midnight feast that supposedly symbolizes their hopes for prosperity in the coming year, and lasts until the following morning. Filipinos make noise both to greet the New Year and in the belief that the din exorcises their surroundings of malevolent spirits. In spite of the ban, people in most towns and cities customarily light firecrackers, or employ safer methods of merrymaking such as banging on pots and pans and blowing car horns.
For most, the Christmas festivities officially end with Three King’s Day, or the Feast of Epiphany. Like in France and Mexico, some kids leave shoes out the previous night in the hopes of receiving treats and money, however this is a dying tradition in the Philippines. Though for some the Feast of Santa Nino (on the third Sunday of January) or Candlemas (on February 2nd) is the end of the Christmas festivities.
¡Feliz Navidad! Just like with France, Mexico and the Philippines, Ecuador has a mix of religious and family celebrations. Novena, a Catholic tradition that helps devotees to prepare for the birth of Christ, begins on December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve. During Novena, families and friends get together for nine days to pray, read bible verses and sing villancicos around the pesebre.
Ecuador has several Christmas parades and processionals during December. One of the more popular parades is the Pase del Niño parade, or Passing of the Child. The parade illustrates scenes of the Nativity story with music, dance, animals and colorful displays. Often times several communities put on parades at the same time so they blend into what appears to be one large parade.
People put up pesebres, or nativity scenes, all over the place during December. They are often quite elaborate, with traditional scenes of the manger, and figures clothed in local or Ecuadorian costumes. And sometimes, the figures in the pesebre are real, men, women, and children performing the ancient story.
On Christmas Eve, families get together and enjoy the cena de nochebuena, the big family dinner, which typically includes either turkey or ham, many side dishes and panettone for dessert (Side note: we bought panettone for Christmas Eve dinner and it’s very yummy. Pics below.). Once the kids go to bed, El Nino Jesus or Papa Noel delivers presents at the foot of their beds. Adults then go to misa del gallo, or midnight mass (which is sometimes done earlier than midnight when safety concerns are an issue). Often people bring their ceramic figurines of the Christ child from their pesebre so the priest can bless them. And after misa de gallo, some spend the rest of the night dancing and drinking.
Unlike other heavily catholic countries, people in Ecuador don’t celebrate King’s Day on January 6th, however, it is typical to remove decorations on this day.
That’s it for today’s post! Sorry about the inconsistency of my posts recently. I’ve been busy with Christmas related events and I was working on this article. I hope you enjoyed it! Have any traditions that you’re fond of? Let me know in a comment below! And as always, until our next adventure!