Holiday Traditions Around The World – Part 1
Travel around the world with Chang-Castillo and Associates as we explore holiday traditions in various countries.
Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, dreidel spinning and feasting on fried foods.
The Hebrew word Chanukah means “rededication”. The Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids, who tried to force the people of Israel to accept the polytheistic Greek culture and beliefs instead of belief in a single God. A small band of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, were able to reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicate it to the service of God. Later, the lore of the Chanukah miracle was added to the tradition. In this legend, when the Jews reclaimed the temple and went to light the flame of the menorah, they found only enough oil for one day of light. Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days.
At the heart of the festival is the nightly lighting of the menorah or hanukkiah, which holds nine flames, one of which is used to light the other eight lights. On the first night, one flame plus the shamash is lit, and each successive night another candle is added, until the 8th night when all the candles are lit. Usually traditional songs are sung after the lighting.
Since the Chanukah miracle involved oil, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil. The Eastern-European classic is the potato latke (pancake) eaten with applesauce or sour cream, and another favorite are the jelly-filled sufganiot (doughnut).
On Chanukah, it is common to play “dreidel” (a four-sided spinning top bearing Hebrew letters). The game is usually played for a pot of coins, or chocolate coins (gelt), which is won or lost based on which letter the dreidel lands when it is spun.
Today, people tend to place great importance on giving Chanukah gifts but this was not always a part of the traditional celebration and in fact is not practiced in Israel. Happy Hanukkah!
Travel with us through Eastern Europe and the Baltic to learn about some holiday traditions there! The city of Riga, Latvia holds the claim to fame as home to history’s first decorated Christmas tree, back in 1510. However, some historians dispute this claim and say the Christmas tree actually originated in 16th-century Germany.
Spider webs are common Christmas tree decorations in the Ukraine and Poland because, according to legend, a spider wove a blanket for Baby Jesus. Many Polish people consider spiders to be symbols of goodness and prosperity, and Christmas spider webs may be the origin for silver tinsel on trees.
In Soviet Russia, Christmas customs were not closely followed. Traditional, their version of Santa Claus, known as Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), predates Christianity in the region, and has origins in Pagan mythology. He delivers presents to children at midnight on New Year’s Eve with the help of his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden.
There are 12 traditional dishes in the traditional Ukrainian Christmas eve dinner, called Sviaty Vechir, each of them dedicated to one of Christ’s apostles. Because most Ukrainians are Eastern Orthodox, Christmas eve comes later, January 6.
The midwinter festival of Yule has been celebrated by the Germanic peoples since at least the 4th century. Yule, which is also called Winter Solstice, is the longest night of the year and the time of greatest darkness. In Austria, farmers traditionally chalk the initials of the Three Wise Men on the archway above stable doors.
The tradition of tinsel, which is believed to have been invented in Germany, is based on a legend about spiders whose web turned into silver when they were spun in a Christmas tree (see previous post on Poland).
According to legend, the first person to decorate a Christmas tree was Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). He wanted to recreate the beauty of stars shining between branches of a fir tree, and brought one home and decorated it with candles for his children. Germans made the very first artificial Christmas trees, using dyed goose feathers to look like needles of a pine or fir tree. Long before there were Christmas trees, the pagans revered evergreens as symbols of eternal life and rebirth.
In Norway, Christmas festivities have their origins in the druid Yule celebrations. King Haakon I of Norway decreed that Yule celebration should coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time.
The important Norwegian tradition of “Julbukk”, or Christmas goat, carries on today. It was originally a goat slaughtered between Christmas and New Year, and a spiritual being overlooking the Christmas celebrations. It later turned into men dressed in a goat mask and fur cape travelling from house to house, receiving thank you gifts from the towns folk for protecting them from the winter ghosts. This became a children’s tradition of going door to door in costume singing songs for treat, similar to modern Halloween. It may have influenced the modern Christmas traditions with regard to presents and caroling. These days in Norway, the Julbukk is often represented as a straw figure ornament under the Christmas tree. For fun it is brought from house to house and hidden as a surprise to its finder. God Jul! (Merry Christmas)
Each country in South America has its own unique set of Christmas traditions, due the variety of influences and cultures found in each nation. Here are a few examples.
In Argentina, Christmas is a blend of American, European, and Hispanic traditions. Celebrations typically include the boots of Father Christmas, red and white flowers, and putting cotton on Xmas trees to simulate snow. Most family gatherings take place on Christmas Eve, with huge feasts, gifts exchanged at midnight, and children going to sleep to the sound of fireworks.
In Peru, the main festivities are on December 24th, known as “La Noche Buena” (the Good Night). Families crowd the plazas and visit markets, leading up to the evening mass. Then families go home to feast, open gifts, and toast each other. While Christmas trees are commonplace, most important traditional decorations are “pesebre” – nativity scenes intricately carved from wood or stone, and “retablos” – portable diorama-like nativity scenes.
Bolivians celebrate “Misa del Gallo” (Rooster Mass) on Christmas Eve, with people bringing roosters to midnight mass to symbolize the belief that a rooster was the first animal to announce the birth of Jesus Christ. Small offerings will also be brought, like a baby Jesus and a small figure representing their profession. Christmas celebrations continue until Epiphany, on January 6th.
In Brazil, December 25th is the main day of celebration, with children receiving gifts from Papai Noel on Christmas Eve and from the Magi on Three Kings Day, or Epiphany. With no use for chimneys in the tropical climate, they believe Papai Noel enters via the front door, and travels via helicopter rather than on a reindeer-drawn sleigh.
On Christmas Eve in Iceland it is common to exchange books, then spend the rest of the night reading them and eating chocolate. The tradition is part of a season called Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood.” Iceland actually publishes more books per capita than any other country, with the majority sold between September and November.
Many of Iceland’s Christmas (Jól) traditions are similar to those we are familiar with in the US. Houses are decorated festively, including Christmas tree and Advent lights. In Iceland all 13 days of Christmas are observed, beginning on Christmas Eve and concluding on January 6th (Epiphany.) Historically, the traditional Christmas dish was called “Kjötsúpa”, and was made from lamb. Now, families usually dine on ham, smoked lamb, or ptarmigan, which is a type of grouse. At Christmas time, Icelanders have the benefit of only about 4 hours of daylight.
Middle East and Africa
In the Middle East, many of our familiar Santa Claus traditions have their basis in the stories of Bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra, in modern-day Turkey. In one story, he saved the three daughters of a destitute man from a life of prostitution by filling their stockings, which were hanging to dry by the hearth, with gold coins. Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country where Christmas is an official holiday. Santa Claus is referred to as Baba Noël, and the nativity scene is extremely important in the Lebanese Christmas tradition, with cribs in caves rather than in a manger.
Fruitcake originated in ancient Egypt, where it was considered essential for the afterlife, and later became a staple for Roman soldiers and Crusaders. Egyptian Christians account for 15% of the population; the belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church and celebrate Christmas on January 7, following a 43-day advent. In January 2003, after a decree of authorization by then-President Hosni Mubarak, Christmas was observed as a national holiday. This marked the first time in the nation’s modern history that a Christian holy day was formally recognized by the Egyptian government.
In Ghana about 40% of the population are Christian and celebrate Christmas. Many people observe the libation ceremony, a folk ritual where people drink from a cup and pour some of its contents on the ground as a symbolic offering to their ancestors. A traditional Ghanaian Christmas meal will include chicken stew, rice, and goat dishes.
Traditions in East African countries such as Kenya and Uganda are much more religious and less commercial than in the west. The most common gift is a new outfit to wear to church, and many people collect stones, leaves, and other natural items as a birthday present for Jesus. Roasted goats are often the center of the Christmas feast.
In spite of Ethiopia’s Christian heritage, Christmas is not an important holiday there. Most people actually call the holiday Ganna or Genna after a hockey-like ball game played only once a year, on Christmas afternoon.
South Africa is home to some of the world’s most unusual holiday food fare. Locals feast on a seasonal delicacy – the deep-fried caterpillars of Emperor Moths! Besides the fact that Christmas occurs there during the warm summer, many of South Africa’s Christmas traditions will be quite familiar to those in the US or UK.