As we gather to celebrate the holidays with family and friends, longstanding global traditions cultivated throughout time merrily spring to life. Whether you are enjoying sweets like kourabiedes and melomakarona at your big fat Greek Christmas, or leaving rice pudding for the mythical Nordic tomte and his yule goat in Sweden, it's fun to learn how other cultures enjoy the season.
On the first Thursday of December at 6:55 p.m., Canadians kick off their holiday season by lighting public trees, parks and buildings simultaneously. On Christmas Eve, you’ll find tourtiere, a meat pie filled with pork, onions and potatoes, on many Canadian dinner tables. In the United States, we decorate trees and exchange gifts while breaking bread with our loved ones over turkey, chicken, duck, goose or ham.
For those celebrating Hanukkah, the eight-night festival of lights, Jewish families gather for potato latkes and jam-filled sufganiyot. African-Americans who recognize Kwanzaa will spend the week after Christmas lighting candles in a kinara, reflecting on family, community and culture. In Mexico, friends and family will eat turkey stuffed with ground meat, pork tamales, roasted pork leg and bunuelos, a sweet treat of fried dough and powdered sugar. Starting on December 13, houses will be decorated with poinsettias, evergreens and paper lanterns.
The United Kingdom
Most of the American holiday traditions—including the first Christmas card exchange—can be traced back to Britain. In many British homes you’ll find confectionary treats shaped like mice and candy-filled noisemakers. Brandy or similar warming drinks will be left out for Father Christmas to enjoy. In Ireland, the age-old custom of Feeding the Wren takes place mostly in small villages on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas. Young men and women dressed in masks parade loudly though the streets with a wren in a holly bush and attempt to collect money for the poor. At the end of the day the bird is released.
In Greek culture, families gather for massive feasts, with multiple cooks in the kitchen preparing favorites such as pastitsio, moussaka and keftedes. Mary Colias Carter, marketing director for the Greek Food Festival of Dallas, recalls the holidays filled with Greek music, dancing and an endless bounty of treats made from phyllo dough.
“You would get to the point where you couldn’t look around the house without seeing pastry because my mother made so many,” she says. In Lebanon, friends and family visit on Christmas morning. Guests are served coffee, liqueurs and sugared almonds. The family gathers at the grandparents’ or eldest son’s house for a Christmas lunch of chicken, rice, bulgur and kebbah.
On December 13, many of the Nordic countries participate in the St. Lucia celebrations. Young girls, usually of Swedish descent, wear long, white gowns with red sashes. The eldest girl picked to represent “Lucia” will be adorned with a crown of candles, a welcoming light in the darkness of winter, and will serve sweet saffron buns and coffee. Many Scandinavian households celebrate Christmas Eve with a smorgasbord, a buffet-style meal that includes a mixture of hot and cold dishes.
The Julbordet, or Christmas table, plays an important role in Scandinavian tradition, with hand-embroidered tablecloths and Porsgrund Norway Nisse flatware, which is only to be used on Christmas.
The Japanese share Americans’ enjoyment of rockabilly music, baseball, and yes, Virginia, even Christmas. While they focus less on the spiritual aspect of the holiday and more on the festivities, the Japanese have their own version of Santa Claus known as the Hoteiosho, a gentle old man who carries a large sack of gifts. Be sure to be on your best behavior, because this jolly fellow has eyes in the back of his head to see who has been naughty or nice. In India, those who celebrate Christmas (mostly in the Southern region) prepare a special meal called the vindaloo, a popular curry dish with pork and saffron rice, and drink homemade ginger wine. Sweets are exchanged, and sounds of carolers and firecrackers fill the air.
The holidays are meant for spending time with the ones who make you happy. So from our family to yours: Joyeux Noel, Feliz Navidad, I’D Miilad Said Oua Sana Saida, Christmas ke Shubhashai and Kala Christouyenna.
Chris Libby is the section editor at Live Happy.