I just got back from one of the best road trips I think I have ever been on! At the end of some of the days I think we hurt from laughing too much.
I also learned a lot! Being around so many people from different countries, one of the most interesting things for me during this trip (and also this entire holiday season) has been in finding out more about:
What are the different traditions around the world regarding Christmas, Santa Claus, and New Years?
Background of the Road Trip
Five of us from 5 different countries traveled above the arctic circle and among other things we: all went skiing for the first time together, had spontaneous snow fights and dance parties at night, were asked to speak in a school about our countries (the kids laughing when we told them Russia was kind of in a nervous state right now, worried about the potential threat that Finland might invade them and take over), gave an impromptu on-stage band performance to an applauding crowd (through which the name emerged “The University of Joensuu International Publicity Band” – or JIB for short), celebrated Antony’s birthday with a surprise party, enjoyed a “smoke sauna” in the middle of the woods, ate reindeer stew (which we were informed after was actually found right after it was killed by a bear), learned a ton about each other, met the real-live “Joulupukki” (Santa Claus), and even had a police escort us in our beautiful Audi A3 rental car for part of the way home (after they made me take a breathalyzer test to see if I was intoxicated at 2am).
Because we were from 5 different countries (Malidives, UK, Rwanda, USA, and Russia) and from 5 different religious backgrounds (Islamic, Buddhist, Presbyterian-Christian, Mormon-Christian, and no religion) – we ended up having some very interesting conversations about what holidays each celebrated as we were kids, and how even the same holidays were celebrated differently.
Finland: The Finns know that Santa doesn’t live in the North Pole – he lives in northern Finland. On one of our stops we visited Rovaniemi, called “Christmas Town”, where Santa Claus (called “Joulupukki” in Finnish) has an office. He has elves (which aren’t short), a wife, and Reindeer that pull his sleigh (which doesn’t fly because it doesn’t need to – there is enough snow). There are charter flights from Asia, Europe and all over the world to an airport nearby so that people can visit the “real” Santa. And if you want your picture taken with him it will only cost you about 30 Euros.
Russia: Even though Christmas is more for those who are religious in Russia – there is a tradition of a gift giving Santa Claus (“Father Frost” or “Ded Moroz” in Russian), which they hold lives in a town in northern Russia (Veliky Ustyug). He has no reindeer and doesn’t come through the chimney in secret. Instead, he visits children in person at New Year’s Eve parties and brings them gifts. He doesn’t have a wife, but he’s accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). Now how he gets a granddaughter without a wife is up for you to decide? There are also two different New Year celebrations based on two calenders (the Roman and the Orthodox ones).
Rwanda: So Myriam said that Christmas traditions were strong in Rwanda, but absent of a lot of the Western ideas associated with Sana Claus, etc. (until perhaps recently with more media influence and Westernization). There is carol-singing, and people often decorate their home with pine branches or fir trees – but there is not the same gift giving tradition.
Maldives: Because it is a largely Islamic country, obviously Christmas is not celebrated hardly at all in the Maldives. Shujau told me that there are, however, two New Years days – one on January 1st, and the other one from the Arabic calender (which is based on moon cycles so it changes each year). Another big holidays is the feast day after the month of Ramadan.
UK: So Santa doesn’t have a wife or a granddaughter in the UK – but he does live in the North Pole, has reindeer that fly, and he does come down the chimney to deliver presents on Christmas eve. Christmas morning usually starts by opening presents, having a big feast, and then listening on the TV to the British monarch give a traditional Christmas speech. Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) is a lot bigger deal in the UK and a lot of other countries than it is in the US. There is also often a tradition of having a “Christmas cake” – but I personally recommend staying clear of it.
In many countries, it seems the Santa figure is not always associated with Christmas day – but sometimes brings presents earlier (December 1st or 6th) or later (on New Years) – or it is even someone entirely different from Santa that brings the gifts.
Czech Republic: Roman and his wife were telling me about how in the Czeck Republic St. Nicholas is called “Svaty Mikalas” and comes on the 6th of December with his two companions – an angel and a whip-carrying devil – who give you a good gift or scare you to death depending on how good you have been. But he is not the main person who brings gifts. The person who is the gift-giving figure on Christmas eve is really the baby Jesus (Ježíšek) – putting the presents under the tree on Christmas eve when the children are looking for him elsewhere. Also there is the tradition of foretelling the future year in different ways (e.g. with a floating walnut shell) and you should not eat meat on Christmas eve if you want to see the flying golden pigs out the window during that night. (but maybe in addition to not eating any meat you have to also consume a lot of alcohol in order to ensure that you will see the “flying golden pigs” 😉 )
Spain: Javier was telling me how fast Christmas traditions have changed in Spain. Before the streets on Christmas eve would be silent, and everyone would be at home with family – but in the 90s it completely changed. Everyone now goes to the clubs on Christmas eve – and sometimes even with your whole family. So if you are in Spain during Christmas be careful you are not hitting on someone else’s mom.
Ethiopia: Temtim informs me that people in Ethiopian traditional culture celebrate Christmas by playing hockey. Here is a picture of boys Temtim took two years ago during the Christmas celebration.
So – anyway – there are a lot of different traditions. Listed here are only a few of them.
Does anyone else know of any other interesting differences in holiday traditions around the world at this time of the year?
I’m fascinated to hear more of them.
I know that the Germans celebrate “St. Nikolaus Tag” on December 6th where you leave your shoe at the door and you get treats or something like coal in them depending on if you were good or bad. It sounds similar to the Czech Republic.
What I am amazed by though… the length of Santa’s beard in your picture! Holy Rapuzel Santa!
I know of a unique tradition observed in one small corner of the U.S. It involves breakfast cooked in the bathroom on an electric skillet and eaten picnic style on the floor of my (erm, I mean somebody’s) bedroom floor on Christmas morning.
They must be crazy in Switzerland around Christmas time. They have a 100-meter swim in the freezing waters of Lake Geneva in what they call the Christmas Cup Race.
Here are two other interesting holidays to check out near Christmas time.
Malaysia: Hari Raya Aidil Adha – 20th December 2007
The term “Hari Raya” literally means “Day of Celebration” — and is the Malay term for the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr which concludes the fasting month of Ramadan. The main greeting used by Muslims in Malaysia and Singapore is “Selamat Hari Raya” which means “Happy Eid” in Malay. Another greeting is “maaf zahir dan batin” which translates loosely to “I seek forgiveness (from you) physically and spiritually”, for Hari Raya is a time to reconcile and renew relationships with others.
China: Dong Zhi Celebration – 22nd December 2007 (6 weeks before the Chinese new year)
“‘Dong Zhi’ literally means ‘arrival of winter’. Coinciding with the winter solstice, it is an occasion for the family to get together to celebrate the good year they have had. Tang Yuan, sweet soup of glutinous rice flour balls, is indispensable during this festival. ‘Yuan’ (literally meaning ’round’) signifies ‘yuan man’ (complete) and Tang Yuan means ‘tuan yuan’ (family reunion). Eating Tang Yuan is symbolic of family unity and family prosperity. For good luck, families prefer to have some pink tang yuan to mix with the white ones.”
Japan: My friends from Japan tell me that Christmas there is mainly for couples, not so much for families or kids as much. If you have a significant other, you will spend the day with them. If you don’t, then they said you are likely to just spend the day at work. One more reason to find a significant other, I guess.
Also, I have now included a picture in the main entry from Christmas day in Ethiopia, where a different kind of hockey is played than the kind here in Finland.