Here in Lockport, New York, like most of the United States, Christmas rituals are celebrated in a very specific way. We decorate our houses with lights and our lawns with illuminated Santa Claus. Children write letters to the North Pole. And on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, people gather as families to open gifts and eat foods from a long tradition. This week, I asked friends in other parts of the world to share their stories of how Christmas is celebrated:
“Christmas in the land of Buddha” by Mariko Takayasu and Seth Mydans in Thailand.
It’s not the nicest part of globalization, or maybe it is, depending on your love of Christmas kitsch. But here in Buddhist Thailand, gigantic artificial Christmas trees stand in front of mega-shopping centers with twinkling lights as “I dream of a white Christmas” reverberates through shops and aisles, though most people have never seen snow. You might even be lucky enough to see a socially distant Santa taking photos with sweaty shoppers who have come from the over 90-degree heat to take refuge in air-conditioned malls. Christmas offers everyone another opportunity to take selfies, this time in front of beautiful Christmas displays, and post them on social media. It is the spirit of Thai Christmas.
“Food and family” by Marcela Olivera in Bolivia
Almost all the important gatherings in Bolivia are organized around food and Christmas is very typical of this tradition. Certain meals are at the heart of our celebrations. One is called picaña navideña (it 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 the gifts. It is the only day that many children are allowed to stay up late. Families always come together to celebrate together and ensure that friends without family 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” by Marcoluigi Corsi in Italy
In Italy, it is traditional to spend Christmas at home with the family. Cities and houses become a set of decorations. Children have fun decorating the tree with their parents and making the crib representing the birth of Jesus through statuettes. The organization of Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day lunch involves the tradition of grandparents teaching children how to make homemade dishes, especially pasta and sweets. For Christmas Eve dinner, we usually eat fish dishes. On Christmas day, meat dishes are served and at the end of the meal (which can indeed take several hours!) You cannot miss the pandoro and the panettone which are typical Christmas sweets. Playing bingo is “a must”. But exchanging gifts is certainly the most eagerly awaited moment for children (and adults too) who can’t wait to unwrap the gifts deposited under the Christmas tree.
“Surfing Santas” by Nick Rees in Australia
Christmas in Australia is like nowhere on earth. First of all, it’s HOT! It was 93 degrees here in Sydney yesterday. Yet many people still have Christmas traditions more suited to a European or American climate. People still wear heavy Santa Claus costumes and sing Christmas carols over snow, sleighs and reindeer! People also eat hearty winter meals on Christmas Day, like turkey and ham! They also put fake snow in shopping center windows to give them a cold and wintry look! Here, instead of playing in the snow or sitting in front of a cozy fireplace, we go to the beach! Crowds of people flock to the beach on Christmas Day, shortly after opening the presents. People also come dressed in their Santa Claus costumes (although normally just Santa’s hat, with a bathing suit). And if you look closely you can sometimes spot Santa Claus riding the waves! The next day, the 26th is yet another holiday, called Boxing Day, where we eat all the leftovers and have fun at the beach again!
“Christmas in war and in peace” by Valentina Otmacic in Croatia
In the 1980s, when Croatia was still part of socialist Yugoslavia, religion was seen as “the opiate of the masses” and Christmas was celebrated with discretion. Christmas Day was not a public holiday, but we went to school dressed up and said “Merry Christmas” to our classmates. We also attended midnight mass. I loved Christmas carols but the sermon always seemed to last forever.
With political independence in the 1990s, Croatia began a completely different approach to religion in general, and Christmas in particular. Churches have become overcrowded as being Catholic has become the hallmark of every “proud Croat”. My mother was particularly annoyed by these new crowds in the church: “Half of them do not know how to make the sign of the cross! I laughed as I watched 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 released to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus in “grand style” with the sound of gunfire and explosions.
For 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 of the family return home at midnight mass to find their gifts under the tree, and the gifts are simple, resistant to the world of consumption. We play board games, hum Christmas tunes, and grandmothers cook delicious turkey with a special type of pasta. If we are lucky we even have snow and look forward to White Christmas.
Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, S̄uk̄hs̄ạnt̒ wạn khris̄t̒mās̄, Buon Natale and Sretan Božić everyone.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a columnist for the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. He can be contacted at: [email protected].