22 December 2010

Merry Christmas - wherever in the world!

Christmas has special meaning for people in many corners of the world. While the heart of the season is the same wherever you might be, the way in which you celebrate depends on just where you happen to be. Here's just a flavour of some of the variations in the countries I’ve visited:

God Jul or Gledelig Jul (Norway)

In Norway almost everyone has either a spruce or a pine tree in their living room - decorated with white lights, tinsel, Norwegian flags and other ornaments. Children make paper baskets of shiny, colored paper, which are filled with candy or nuts. Chains made of colored paper are also very popular. 

The Norwegian "nisse" differs from both Santa Claus and St. Nicholas. The name  "nisse" probably derives from St. Nicholas. But "nisser" - which are elves (or gnomes) are old figures that existed before the birth of Christ. There are several types of "nisser" in Norway. The most known is the "fjøsnisse" who takes care of the animals on the farms. The fjøsnisse is very short and often bearded and lives in a barn or a stable. He wears clothes of wool and has a red knitted hat. The fjøsnisse often plays tricks on people. Sometimes he will scare people by blowing out the lights in the barn or he will scare the farm dog at night. He can become very friendly with the people who live on the farm, but one should never forget to give him a large portion of porridge on Christmas Eve.

There is also a Christmas nisse (julenissen) who is similar to Santa Claus. The julenisse brings presents to all the nice children on Christmas Eve. He is not as shy as Santa, since the julenisse delivers the presents in person, rather than coming down the chimney in the middle of the night.

God Jul and (Och) Ett Gott Nytt År (Sweden)

In Sweden, Christmas begins with a Saint Lucia ceremony on 13th of December (I saw one of these at my hotel in Kiruna – very lovely!). Lucia was a Christian virgin who sacrificed herself for her devout faith in Christianity in the 4th century at Syracuse. The ceremony held in her honor is quite recent and is often associated with the traditional thanksgiving for the return of the sun.

On this day, the youngest daughter from each family puts on a white robe with a red sash before dawn and wears a crown of evergreens with tall-lighted candles attached to it. Then she wakes her parents accompanied by other children and followed by star boys in long white shirts, pointed hats and carrying star wands, and serves them with coffee and Lucia buns. 

Christmas trees are set up in Sweden two days before Christmas and are decorated with candles, apples, straw ornaments Swedish flags and small gnomes wearing red tasseled caps. Christmas home decorations include red tulips and pepparkakor (gingerbread biscuits).

Christmas Eve is known as Julafton in Swedish. Traditional Christmas Eve dinner includes smorgasbord or a buffet may also be arranged featuring Julskinka or Christmas ham, pickled pigs feet, lutfisk or dried codfish and variety of sweets.
 A popular Christmas tradition is to serve risgryngrot, a rice porridge with a hidden almond. Whoever finds the almond is believed to marry in the coming year. After the festive Christmas Eve dinner, a friend or family member dresses up as Tomte or Christmas gnome who is believed to live under the floorboards of the house or barn and rides a straw goat known as julbok. Tomte has a white beard and red robes and carries a sack with gifts in it. He gives out the gifts and presents, often accompanied by funny rhymes hinting at the contents of the package. Previously, it was Julbok who gave out presents and then Tomte or Santa Claus came in. Today, Tomte and Julbok are no longer associated together, although a little brownie known as Jultomten, helps Santa Claus to give gifts to good children in Sweden.

Hyvaa joulua (Finland)

Finnish people clean their homes well before Christmas and prepare special treats for the festive holiday season. Fir trees are cut and taken to homes by sleds on Christmas Eve and are decorated. A sheaf of grain, nuts and seeds are tied on a pole, which is placed in the garden for the birds to feed on. Only after the birds eat their dinner do the farmers partake of their Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner traditionally begins with the appearance of the first star in the sky (which at this time of the year isn’t so late in the day!). Candles are lit on the Christmas tree, which is decorated using apples and other fruits, candies, paper flags, cotton and tinsel.

Just before the Christmas festivities begin, people visit the famous steam baths and dress up in clean clothes for the dinner. Christmas gifts may be exchanged before or after the dinner. Children do not hang up stockings in Finland but Santa visits the household with about half a dozen Christmas elves to help him distribute the presents.

The traditional main dish for Christmas dinner is boiled codfish (soaked for a week beforehand in a lye solution to soften it) served snowy white and fluffy, roast suckling pig or a roasted fresh ham and vegetables. It is accompanied by allspice, boiled potatoes, and cream sauce. Children go to bed right after dinner while adults chat and drink coffee until about midnight. Christmas Day services begin early at six in the morning and people visit families and reunions are arranged on this day. Star boys tour the countryside singing Christmas songs and everybody wishes each other “hyvaa joulua” or “merry yule”.

Joyeux Nöel (France)

In France, children leave their shoes by the fireplace on the Christmas Eve so that Père Nöel can fill them with gifts - and on Christmas morning, they usually find sweets, fruits, nuts and small toys for them hung on the tree. Puppets and plays conducted in cathedral squares re-enact the Nativity. Almost all French homes decorate their homes at Christmastime with a Nativity scene or crèche with little clay figures called 'santons' or 'little saints' which are made from moulds that have been passed down since the 17th century.

Figures of local dignitaries are often added to these Nativity scenes along with the Holy Family, shepherds and Magi. Christmas trees never became popular in France and the use of a Christmas “yule log” is also diminishing. However, there is a traditional yule log-shaped cake called the “buche de noel”. Trust the french to bring chocolate into the decorations!

The main Christmas feast is quite grand and is known as “le reveillon”, served as a very late supper held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Different regions have different traditional menus. Goose is served as the main course in Alsace while turkey with chestnuts is served in Burgundy.

Parisians love oysters and pâte de foie gras. Other dishes include poultry, ham, salads, cakes, fruits and wine. In South France, people burn yule logs continuously from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day and once a part of this log was used to make the wedge for the plough as good luck omen and plenty of harvest in the coming year.
 After dinner, the family leaves the fire burning and food and drink on the table for Virgin Mary. In northern France, children get gifts on St. Nicholas' Day instead of Christmas Day while adults share presents on New Year's Day.

French families also bake a Three Kings Cake (galette de roi) with a bean hidden in it on the Twelfth Day. The lucky person to find the bean in their slice is crowned the king or queen for the day.

Froehliche Weihnachten (Austria) 

In Austria, Christmas begins with the feast of St Nicholas or Heiliger Nikolaus on 6 December, when the saint and the devil ask the children about their good and bad deeds. Good children get sweets, toys, apples and nuts. Gifts under the tree are opened only after dinner on Christmas Eve. Brass musical instruments play chorale music while carol singers go from door to door carrying blazing torches and a manger.

The famous carol Silent Night was first sung in 1818 in the village church of Oberndorf and there is an interesting story attached to it: on Christmas Eve, the priest of the church found that organ was not working properly and its leather bellows were full of holes. So, the priest consulted the organist Franz Bauer and showed him a new Christmas hymn he had written. Franz was quick to compose a tune for the hymn that could be played on the guitar – and now is played all over the world!

Traditional Austrian Christmas dinner includes baked carp,  Christmas trees are put up on 24 December and are lit only when the Christ child comes and brings presents for the children. Tinkling bells announce his arrival and he is greeted by a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments, candies and just-lit candles while the family sings Christmas carols and exchange Christmas wishes.

For my new friends in Spain: feliz navidad; in Switzerland: take your pick of the German froehliche weihnachten or French joyeux nöel; and although Christmas is not widely celebrated in the middle east (other than commercially!), an Arabic greeting is idah saidan wa sanah jadidah! 

To all my English-speaking friends and family: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!

Post script (23 December): I forgot I was passing through Turkey - Noeliniz kutlu olsun!


  1. Meant to be working and just lost 30 mins to newseum.. bloody hell - but thanks for the post and the link - I had never seen the original newspaper.. travel safe

  2. Okay - just because it is funny - my authentication code to post the last message about my procrastination was ...wait for it.. WASTREL