Christmas Around the World
Christmas is an important part of global culture, both as a secular holiday and a defining element of the Christian religion. However, even though this special time of year is celebrated by millions of people around the world, not all Christmas traditions are the same. From pagan celebrations based on pre-Christian holidays through to strange European and Asian customs, Christmas can be more exotic than many people think.
The first surprising fact about Christmas is that it existed before Christ. While it had a different name and vastly different religious overtones, many of the symbols associated with Christmas come from ancient times. It's not a coincidence that Christmas lies just a few days after the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, a holiday long celebrated by indigenous cultures around the world. The modern Christmas tree is clearly derived from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors during winter, with Christmas feasts also enjoyed by ancient people who were unable to work in the fields during this cold period.
A number of gods from previous ages are also associated with this time of year, including Krishna from India, Mithra from Persia, Horus from ancient Egypt, Hercules from ancient Rome, and Dionysus from ancient Greece. According to some accounts, all of these gods and more were born on or around the solstice period of December 25th, with many of them also sharing other aspects of Christ's life such as the immaculate conception. The birth of Jesus the son of god and the rebirth of the sun in the winter sky just after the solstice are thought by many scholars to be different interpretations of the same story.
Since the rise of Christianity, different countries have merged the story of Jesus with their own pre-Christian mythologies. In many European countries, Christmas Eve is the most special time of the holiday period, when gifts are given out and families get together to celebrate. St Nicholas Day also plays a leading role in some cultures, with children in the Netherlands receiving gifts from a kindly bishop called Sinterklaas on December 6. In fact, the modern practice of gift giving at Christmas only started in the 1800s, with gifts historically given out on New Years Day.
The Christmas season starts in early December throughout most of Europe, with the week-long Feast of the Immaculate Conception in Spain from December 8, St Lucia's Day in Sweden on December 13, and St Nicholas Eve in France on December 5. Celebrations also start early in Italy, with the first Sunday of Advent taking place four weeks before Christmas Day. For the most part, however, Christmas in Europe is mostly familiar to antipodeans, unlike some of the stranger customs in other parts of the world.
Christmas is celebrated as a secular holiday in Japan, where white Christmas sponge cake is decorated with cream and strawberries and KFC is booked out for months in advance. In Guatemala, people dress up in a special ornamental hat called a Puritina and dance together in a line. In Russia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7 due to a difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, a date also observed in other Eastern Orthodox countries. While Christmas often feels like an eternal and global tradition, it seems when and where you live has a big effect on how you celebrate.