Around the World at Christmas Time
The memories and traditions we hold dear.
For centuries, the birth of Christ has been remembered by Christians all over the world. Traditions celebrating this singular event vary from country to country. Here we share glimpses of this special season as seen by people who have experienced it in various settings. They may differ from what you are used to, but are meaningful nonetheless. What traditions connected to Christ’s birth hold a special place in your heart?—Editors.
Filipino-American Christmas Joy
In America, Christmas typically begins the day after Thanksgiving, but in the Philippines the season kicks off on September 1, and continues until the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6. Christmas music floods airwaves and malls, and decorations light up offices, stores, and houses.
Filipino Christmas traditions blend the cultures of two nations that occupied the country—Spain and the United States—and this is evident in religious customs and commercial influences.
Churches conduct a Christmas worship featuring a cantata followed by a festive meal shared by all. Home decor includes a Nativity scene with stars and angels. And Christmas is not complete without a Christmas Eve family get-together for a midnight feast. Following the feast, gifts are distributed, to the delight of the children in the family.
It is widely claimed that the Philippines celebrates the longest Christmas season in the world. That carries through in our suburban Chicago life as Filipino-Americans. More important, we are Christians saved by our Savior, whose birth we bear in mind as we celebrate the season and look forward to life with Him forever someday soon!
Summer Christmas in South Africa
In South Africa, where we live, Christmas is at the height of summer. We usually celebrate with our family and share lunch together. We gather at our family cottages by the beach for a few weeks. On Christmas Day we sometimes have a “braai,” or traditional Christmas lunch. It’s a special day, during which the focus is on spending time together. We do not exchange many presents, and we focus on gifts that are useful and meaningful. We recognize the importance of Christ to us as well.
I was born and raised in Syria, in a village called Doar-Taha, located on a hill that overlooks the great Mediterranean Sea. Our village has four different religions, with most people being Greek Orthodox, and the remainder Ishmaelite, Sunni, and Shia Muslim. Christianity in our village traces its origins back to Bible times, when the name “Christian” was first used in the north Syrian city of Antioch (Acts 11:26). Despite our different beliefs, we have long treated each other like family.
Christian traditions and ritual heritage are still a big part of life and worship in this part of the world. The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates many holy days related to specific historic events during Jesus’ life on earth. Christmas celebrations center on a day of visitation among relatives and friends, wishing them a happy holiday and a prosperous new year. Of course, good food and different kinds of sweets are prepared for our celebrations that come at the end of 40 days of fasting; there is also a little exchanging of gifts, but mostly sharing of food with the poor and needy.
Significantly for us, though, Christmas is called “the small feast,” in comparison with Easter, which is called “the big feast.” Some of this relates to the weather, which is colder at Christmastime and much more pleasant at Easter time in the spring. In recent times Western traditions such as Christmas trees and Santa Claus have come to be integrated with our older and distinctive traditions.
Christmas in Guyana
Christmas festivities in Guyana include two public holidays: Christmas Day, December 25; and Boxing Day, December 26. From as early as November, Christmas carols can be heard on the airwaves and from churches. Numerous schools and churches do Nativity plays. Guyana’s six races all celebrate the season, as the variety of dishes prepared for Christmas Day meals would indicate. Many families who have migrated to Europe and the United States return to Guyana for Christmas claiming that “there is no Christmas like a Guyanese Christmas.” Street parades of West Indian music and performers on high stilts with such names as “Mother Sally” and “Mad Bulls” reflect the season as well, competing with Father Christmas [Santa Claus] for children’s attention, and sometimes their terror. Guyanese housewives expect the youth to drop in at multple homes to savor such seasonal foods and drinks as black cake, mauby, ginger beer, and sorrel drink. Buildings are decorated with Christmas lights, which Guyanese call “fairy lights,” along with scenes depicting the birth of Jesus as written in the Bible. Guyanese hospitality also shows itself in serving economically disadvantaged families on Christmas Day in ways that enable them too to revel in the joyful spirit of the day.
Florence Allen and Faith Ngondo
A Swedish Take on an African Christmas
There is one tradition I fell in love with when I was 11 years old and we had just moved to Rwanda. One of the Swedish missionaries had us dress in white with wreaths on our hair. She made pastries, and we went to all the homes singing and giving them out. It was a very simple time.
Myra Gallego Tongpo
The Holiday in a Major Chinese City
Christmas in Shanghai is interesting. Most expats leave the city during the Christmas-New Year holiday, so traffic dies down a bit. However, Christmas is not a public holiday, so schools, offices, and businesses are open. Christmas is catching on commercially, so in December, stores decorate and have sales. Many young urban Chinese will also have a Christmas celebration in the evening after work on December 25, but rarely do they give gifts to each other. Most of the Chinese I know enjoy being invited to my home for a taste of this special time. They are curious and interested to see how foreign families celebrate together.
A Thailand Christmas Celebration
We moved to Thailand in September 2010 and I remember the kids working on the Christmas program from the very start of the school year. The music teacher, Teacher Linney, wrote nearly every song for the program. It was like a scene off a Broadway show! My husband and I had been told to get there three hours early, because every seat would be taken. The AIMS (Adventist International Mission School in Muak Lek, Saraburi, Thailand) Christmas program was not to be missed! All the parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles of the Thai Buddhist kids attending AIMS would attend. Student demographics were 90 percent Thai Buddhist, so this was a big outreach to the community. On the campus at Mission College (now APIU, Asia-Pacific International University), the Christmas holiday was understated. There were no Christmas lights and wreathes decorating the school or in the faculty neighborhood. There may have been an artificial tree in a Westerner’s home, but there was no outward sign that this was the Christmas season. It struck us how differently Christians over the world celebrate this holiday. The malls in Bangkok, however, were decorated with lights, fake snow, and sleighs with reindeer. All the shops are open on Christmas Day, of course, and the beautiful decorations don’t come down for months after.
For the Love of Christmas Cookies
For as long as I can remember in our nearly 36 years of marriage, my husband has made sugar cookies at Christmas. This tradition only became more joyful when each of our three children hit the toddler years and were deemed old enough to help create a happy mess. As they grew, their designing efforts took on levels of increasing complexity. We went through a phase of ensuring that there was brown frosting for the camels and horses and reindeer, and that everything that had a face had eyes, a nose, and a mouth. When they hit their teens, there were fancily decorated ornaments and a few that looked like a Green Bay Packers helmet, along with angels adorned with a red W for the Wisconsin Badgers. As silly and secular as it may seem, we have come to the realization that our Christmas cookie tradition represents stability, family strength, and the power of God’s love to our family. For them, our Christmas cookie tradition has given them reason to come visit, but more important, because they were involved in making and decorating cookies when they were younger, they have experienced stability, family strength, and God’s love through this time together. Now we’re grandparents, and the first of our grandchildren has enjoyed his parents’Christmas cookie tradition. Not surprisingly, the grandparents and aunt and uncle were right there helping his parents show him stability, family strength, and the power of God’s love in the simple experience of making Christmas cookies. Another grandchild will be joining in the tradition this year, and may the experience be the same for her.
The Reason for the Season
There’s just something about the Christmas season that ignites a warmth in my spirit. Our traditions begin the Friday after Thanksgiving. The kids and I head to the Christmas tree farm to pick out the perfect tree. When it’s found, the three of us proudly take our Christmas card photo. After the adventure of getting the tree inside and standing straight, we head downstairs. There’s one box in particular they are looking for: la casita (the little house). It has 25 little doors, and every morning they eagerly read the message inside. From bedtime stories under the Christmas tree to creating new ways to share Jesus, each day is a new memory. I look forward to opening two boxes each year. The first holds our Christmas ornaments. Each year I buy the kids an ornament that reminds us of something God did for us that year. The other box holds a wooden Nativity scene. It’s special to me because there is a sacredness to how the artist portrayed each figure. Each has its head bowed in reverence; they know they are in the presence of holiness. That’s what ignites my spirit, and that’s what I’m trying to teach my children by revealing Him to them—Him who is the definition of love.