Christmas in History: Unique Traditions Around the World
In the Americas, we deck the halls with tree trimmings, whip up cookie magic, and unwrap gifts galore. After all, it’s one of the most universal Christmas traditions, but around the world, people spice things up in surprising ways to ring in the holiday cheer. In that sense, Christmas is a global fiesta, with each place adding its own spice. Imagine fried chicken or radishes on the festive menu or finding a pickle ornament in the tree. Despite the quirky twists, Christmas reminds us of one thing: it is all about joy and being with the people you love.
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Meet Befana the Witch in Italy
The festive magic in Italy unfolds on the night of January 5th, not December 25th. According to tales, Befana, an older woman, zooms around the country, filling kids’ stockings with sweets and leaving gifts for the well-behaved ones. She’s got the chimney routine like Santa but prefers local treats. Picture this: an old witch soaring on her broomstick, giving goodies to good Italian kids and coal to the not-so-good ones.
The witch-like figure in Italian folklore is rooted in both ancient pagan traditions and Christian narratives. In fact, the name “Befana” in Italian means Epiphany. In the legend, Befana finds the Wise Men but misses the chance to meet baby Jesus. So, she delivers gifts to children on Epiphany Eve to make amends. This mix of folklore has made Befana a cherished figure in Italian celebrations, with events like the Regata delle Befane boat race in Venice on January 6th, which is one of the most unique Christmas traditions around the world.
Pickle in the Tree in Germany
In Germany, where the global Christmas tree tradition began in the 16th Century, there is a quirky custom that involves hiding a pickle in the tree’s branches. The child who finds it receives an extra gift. This tradition is widely embraced, and it promises an additional present or good fortune for the lucky finder in many countries.
The origin of this pickle tradition is a bit fuzzy. Some think it started in 19th century Germany, with parents hiding a pickle for kids to find and get an extra gift. Others say it came from Spain and involved Saint Nicholas rescuing boys from a pickle barrel. Despite the mystery, it has become a fun holiday tradition in different parts of the world. And let’s be clear, who cares where it came from as long as there’s an extra gift?
Noche de las Velitas in Colombia
Colombians, mostly Christian, on December 7th, kick off the holiday season with Noche de las Velitas or Night of the Little Candles. It’s a dazzling celebration where millions of candles light up homes, windows, balconies, and parks with candles and lanterns. Nowadays it continues to be a big event with creative decorations, electric lights, and parties with music and fireworks.
Though the exact origin is a bit unclear, it started as a way to honor the Virgin Mary on the eve of December 8th during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. A humble family tradition blossomed into a large and imaginative celebration, spreading joy in towns and cities across the country. Not only in Colombia but also in Santa Fe, New Mexico, they’ve got their own twist with the Christmas Eve Farolito Walk.
The New Zealand Christmas Tree
In New Zealand, they have the pōhutukawa, a cool native tree with twisted roots and fiery red flowers, unlike the regular Christmas tree. It’s everywhere, as the Kiwi Christmas icon, on cards, decorations, and even mentioned in the tunes kids sing at school. A unique and festive twist indeed!
The link between this peculiar tree and Christmas goes way back. In 1833, missionary Henry Williams mentioned a service under a “wide-spreading pohutukawa.” The first time it was called a Christmas tree was in 1857 at a feast. By the 1860s, settlers were decorating their places with its lovely branches around Christmas. People even called it the “Settlers’ Christmas tree”. So, it’s been a festive favorite for quite a while!
Midnight mass in Rome
In many Western Christian customs, Midnight Mass kicks off Christmas. It’s a festive event on Christmas Eve that usually starts at midnight and welcomes Christmas Day. People come together to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The Midnight Mass tradition in Rome has a fascinating origin in the East and later spread to the West. In the late fourth century, a Roman pilgrim joined a group in Bethlehem on January 5th, Christmas Eve in the Eastern tradition. After a night vigil and torchlight procession to Jerusalem, Pope Sixtus III kicked off the tradition of Midnight Mass in the 5th century. Before only the Pope could do this, but now all priests can celebrate three Masses on Christmas Day.
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KFC for Christmas in Japan
On Christmas Day, many people typically go for the traditional Christmas dinner, often featuring a roast turkey. However, this isn’t the case in Japan, where millions of families choose KFC for their holiday meal every year. Odd, isn’t it? This tradition started in 1974 when KFC advertised fried chicken as a classic American Christmas feast. Even now, you’ll see Santa outfits on Colonel Sanders statues at KFC in Japan. So, because of this clever marketing campaign, the fast-food chain successfully turned itself into some of the most genuine Christmas traditions around the world.
Christmas Piñatas in Mexico
You know piñatas, right? Those paper animals filled with candy? Well, in Mexico, they’re a big part of celebrations too! During Christmas, they get extra sparkly and fancy, filled with treats like candy, fruits, and peanuts. The traditional ones look like seven-pointed stars, meaning the seven deadly sins, hence they break the piñatas with a stick to show faith in God.
Piñatas in Mexico have their origin in the former convent of San Agustin, more than 400 years ago. The monks from Acolman church wanted to make the December holiday, which originally celebrated the birth of the Aztec god Huitzlipochtli, more in line with Christian norms.
Celebrate Christmas diversity that unites the world
Christmas traditions around the world, from piñatas in Mexico and KFC meals in Japan to diverse customs, like Befana in Italy and the German Christmas pickle, create a festive global tapestry. Just bear in mind that, no matter how peculiar these traditions may seem, the essence of Christmas is finding joy with your loved ones.