It’s easy to get caught up in Christmas, and all the traditions and history that goes with it. But how much do you know about Christmas in other countries? This time of year, its meaning and the way it is celebrated is vastly different depending on where you are. Let’s travel around the world and see some of those amazing differences.

Bethlehem
Bethlehem seemed like a fitting place to start, being the town where Jesus Christ was said to have been born. Bethlehem holds the Church of Nativity which, around the Christmas period is ablaze with flags and decorations. On Christmas Eve, the town holds a glorious procession which is marvelled by both residents and visitors. The church’s doorways and roofs and the streets surrounding are full of people wishing to see the galloping horsemen mounted on Arabic horses leading the way for solitary horsemen carrying the Christian cross sitting atop a coal-black steed. Following this remarkable beginning, come the gowned churchmen and government officials. The procession leads into the church and an effigy of the ‘Holy Child’ is placed inside. Down the stairs of the church lies a grotto with a silver star, apparently marking the birth place of Jesus.
Aside from the procession, Christian homes within the town are all marked with a cross painted above their front door and a manager scene on view out front and in the centre village square, a star is set on a pole for all to pray.
Image (c) www.life.com

The United Kingdom
Many of the ‘traditional’ Christmas celebrations in England, for example carolling, the ‘feast’, the exchanging of gifts and the wishing of good will to all stem from Victorian times. The custom of exchanging gifts on Christmas dates only to Victorian times. Before then it was more common to exchange gifs on New Year’s Day (January 1st) or Twelfth Night (January 5th). Santa Claus, more commonly known as ‘Father Christmas’ has stemmed from the American tradition of Santa Claus, however, his direct ancestor is a pagan spirit who regularly appears in medieval Mummers Plays (seasonal folk plays). The original ‘Father Christmas’ was depicted wearing long robes with springs of holly in his long white hair but is now more commonly recognised in his bright red suit and his long white beard. Children write letters to ‘Father Christmas’ detailing their wishes for gifts. It was originally the tradition for these letters to be tossed into the fireplace and the draft would carry the smoke up the chimney to ‘Father Christmas’. The culture of ‘Father Christmas’ also bought along the custom of hanging stockings on the mantelpiece. It is alleged that ‘Father Christmas’ once dropped some coins whilst coming down the chimney; these coins would have fallen through the ash grate and been lost had the stocking not been there to catch them.
Christmas Carols are also of English origin. During the middle ages, groups of people would travel around the houses singing carols and spreading holiday spirit. The word ‘carol’ means ‘song of joy’ and some of the most popular carols sung today are from the 19th century.
Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26th, is a holiday unique to Great Britain. Traditionally, it was this day that the alms box (collection for the poor) was opened and its contents distributed. It was also this day that the servants would have had to celebrate with their families and for working persons to break open their tip boxes. Boxing Day began in the mid-nineteenth century when the custom of ‘tipping’ by rich persons to persons in service positions had gotten out of hand. Children and others pretended to be in the trades to gain the tips. The custom soon expanded to giving to anybody that was poorer than yourself and soon the streets were full of aggressive soliciting of tips. To contain the nuisance, ‘Boxing Day’ was designated as the one day for giving to those less fortunate.

Christmas in Japan
Christmas was introduced to Japan by the Christian missionaries, and for many years only those that had converted to Christianity celebrated the holiday. Now, however, Christmas is season is full of meaning and is almost universally observes throughout the country. The concept of exchanging gifts appeals strongly to the Japanese and tradesmen have taken advantage of this, commercialising Christmas much as has been done within Western cultures. For several weeks for before the day, the stores scream Christmas spirit with decorations and displays of appropriate gifts for men, women and children. Particularly children. The nativity story is fascinating to the young girls of Japan, due to their adoration of babies. This story is probably the first time they’ll have become familiar with a cradle as Japanese babies sleep with their parents.
In Japan there is a God or priest known as Hoteiosho who closely resembles the English’s ‘Father Christmas’. He is always pictured as a kind old man carrying a huge sack. He is thought to have eyes in the back of his head so that he knows when children are misbehaving.
New Year’s Day is the most important day of the year for the Japanese culture. On New Year’s Eve, the houses are deep cleaned and are decorated. When this has been done, the people of the house dress themselves in their finest clothes (usually kimono) and the father of the house leads them through a march of the house to drive the evil spirits away. The father would throw dried beans into every corner bidding the evil spirits to withdraw and the good to enter.

Christmas in Spain
Christmas is a deeply religious holiday in Spain. The country’s patron saint is the Virgin Mary and the Christmas season officially begins on December 8th, the feast of Immaculate Conception. It is celebrated each year in front of the cathedral in Seville with a ceremony called ‘Los Seies’ or ‘the dance of six’. Oddly, this elaborate ritual is now performed by not six, but ten elaborately costumed boys. It is a series of precise movements and gestures that are said to be quite beautiful.Christmas eve is known as ‘Nochebuena’ or ‘The Good Night’. It is a time for family members to gather together to rejoice and feast around the Nativity scenes that most homes contain. A traditional Spanish Christmas treat is ‘Turron’ a kind of almond candy.
December 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents. Young boys of a town or village light bonfires and one of them acts as the ‘mayor’ who orders townspeople to perform civic chores such as sweeping the streets and refusal to comply results in fines that are used to pay for the celebration!
Spain, like most European countries, provide gifts for their children on the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th, or the Sunday that falls between 2nd and 8th January). The Magi (Three Wise Men) are particularly sacred in Spain. It is believed that they travel through the Spanish countryside re-enacting their biblical journey to Bethlehem every year at this time. In similar tradition to English children leaving carrots, milk and cookies for Father Christmas, Spanish children leave their shoes on the windowsills and fell them with straw, carrots and barley for the horses of the Magi. Their favourite is Bathazar who rides a donkey and is the one believed to leave gifts.


Christmas in Sweden

A thousand years ago in Sweden, King Canute declared that Christmas would last a month; from December 13th, the feast of St. Lucia until January 13th or Tjugondag Knut (St. Canute’s Day). Nobody is quite sure why Lucia, a 4th century Sicilian saint came to be so revered in Sweden. Some say she once visited the country, and others believe missionaries brought stories of her life which entranced the Swedish people. Her story is that in the days of early Christian persecution, Lucia carried food to the Christian hiding in dark underground tunnels. To light the way, she wore a wreath of candles on her head. Eventually, Lucia was discovered, arrested and martyred. On her day, the eldest daughter in each family dresses in a white dress with a red sash and wears an evergreen wreath with seven lit candles on her head. She carries coffee and buns to each family member in his or her own room. Many schools, offices and communities sponsor Lucia processions in which carols are sung and everybody thanks the Queen of Light for bringing them hope in the dark time.
On Christmas Eve a Christmas gnome, known as the ‘Tomte’ emerges from his home under the floor of the house or barn with a sack of gifts.