Christmas Traditions on Four Continents
Diana and I have traveled a little bit in our time. In that time, we’ve experienced a lot of different cultures and traditions. One of those is Christmas traditions, which I had the joy of celebrating on four continents while I was working as an English teacher. First, where I was born in South Africa, then in the US in various cities. After that I spent a few years in Asia, and finally I live now in Europe.
There are some very strong differences between the Christmas traditions in these locations, from one day of Christmas to three days, from Santa Claus to Ded Moroz, the 24th as the most important, or the 25th, or even the 7th of January. So let’s check out all these different Christmas traditions.
Africa – Cape Town, South Africa
The first few Christmases I celebrated were in Cape Town. I guess it is similar in a way to Christmas in Miami because it is hot there during that day. Because South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, December is the first month of summer. Luckily, Cape Town has no extreme climates (nothing above 35°C or below 0°C), so the summers are very pleasant.
My parents are religious, so we had no Christmas trees at home or any real Christmas decorations that were not Christian. There is Christmas day on the 25th, then Boxing Day (Day of Goodwill) on the 26th.
We would get dressed on Christmas day, for some reason, in what we called our ‘church clothes’ and go around the neighborhood in the mornings and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. They would then give us some money (like a weird, very happy Halloween), and we would have our big Christmas meal in the afternoon.
The next day, Boxing Day, is a day for the beach. We would always go to the beach in Muizenberg or Simon’s Town. Lots of people on the beach, lots of activities, braais (barbecues) and generally a good time.
North America – Miami & Indiana, USA
Christmas traditions in Miami are, as I said, not too different from the Cape Town one. American Christmases are seemingly quite standard throughout the country—Miami, to New York, to California, it’s all the same, just different behavior depending on the climate.
In Miami, we didn’t go to the beach on Christmas, or on the 26th (which is not a holiday in the US). We probably went a few days later, but most probably we went back to work. Everyone works in Miami, everyone works in America in general. It’s a country where most workers don’t take their full vacation days, choosing instead to work more.
When I was studying in Indiana though, I picked up a nice American Christmas tradition. On Christmas in the evening, after everyone’s eaten till their stomachs hurt, we would go to the movies. It’s actually a great tradition, because everyone’s still in that good spirit, you have nothing else to do anyways, so why not enjoy a fun movie?
Asia – Mongolia and Taiwan
For Christmas in these countries, I should probably state that there is no actual Christmas in these countries. Mongolia is a mostly shamanistic and Buddhist country, so they don’t celebrate Christmas.
They do celebrate New Year though, and they have a New Year’s tree which is exactly the same as a Christmas tree (although sometimes you can find money stuck on the tree instead of ornaments). Their “New Year’s” decorations start from about the second or third week of December (much like Christmas) and last until New Year’s. They have a figure in Mongolia, the grandfather of the New Year, whose role is similar to Santa Claus for Christmas. He’s pretty much the Ded Moroz character from Russian New Year’s celebrations.
In Taiwan, which is a very western Asian country, they don’t really celebrate Christmas either. However, they do love the capitalistic form of Christmas, which makes it similar to Christmases around the world. They wear Santa hats, they play (non-religious) Christmas music in stores, have Christmas sales and all that. I was working in a kindergarten in Taiwan, and every class had to put on a Christmas show filled with reindeer, Santa Claus, Jingle Bells and all kinds of secular Christmas traditions.
While I was still working in Mongolia, though, my friend and I traveled to Siberia for New Year’s. It was originally meant to be for Christmas, but because our travel agent messed up our visas, we were kicked off the train at the Russia-Mongolia border and had to take a taxi all the way back to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. On our second try, we managed to be somewhere across the Russian border on the Tran-Siberian Railway, alone on the train with a French couple and a nice but angry Russian train-lady.
Before we went to Lake Baikal (our destination), we stopped in Irkutsk and Angarsk and saw some of their Christmas celebrations. Russians have a long Christmas, and it seems to go from the 25th of December until well after the 7th of January. They have two, in fact, and although we missed the first one, we realized that the first one wasn’t the big one. With -35°C temperatures and strong winds, however, we didn’t stay around too long to check out their Christmas traditions.
Europe: Vilnius & Kaunas, Lithuania
And lastly, my present home: Vilnius, Lithuania.
Lithuanians are spoiled when it comes to Christmas traditions. They don’t just have one day, they have three, and I’m still not so sure why. On Christmas Eve (the 1st day of Christmas apparently, and the most important Christmas day), they don’t eat any meat. That’s right. No meat. It’s absolutely horrible.
It seem to be the family Christmas day. They have to have 12 dishes on the table. These are usually some stuffed eggs (which I think isn’t traditional), fried fish, some other herring dishes, the always-present potato salad, and wafers. The wafers are important (still not so sure why), and you take one before you eat your non-meat food, and you break each other’s wafers. Then you say something good about the person, although I can’t remember exactly. Usually I’m too hungry and angry about the non-meat thing.
One Christmas, I had some strange poppy drink at a friend’s place. It was milky white but tasted like water and sugar and nothing else. Usually you sit at the table for a few hours (at least) and talk with family and have a good time. Although—how good of a time can it really be when there’s no meat?
The second day of Christmas (our real Christmas day) doesn’t seem so important. You visit other people, such as friends and family, and you eat duck and more food and exchange presents. It’s the more relaxed Christmas day, and one I enjoy because…well, there’s meat.
On the third Christmas day people just sleep, I think. People might go around and visit more friends, or just go into the city and see the Christmas tree. I really don’t remember, because I had eaten all the meat on the 25th and am usually fast asleep throughout the 26th.
This Christmas, we hope to have as many good times as possible. This will be my daughter’s first Christmas that she’ll actually celebrate, as last year she was just too young to understand something was going on. So I’m sure she will have a great time, as will Diana, especially with all the family we have here in Vilnius and in Kauans.
As for me, I will try my best to survive through that unholy, non-meat Kūčios day.
How do you guys celebrate Christmas? Did I get anything wrong about your Christmas traditions (I’m an old man, I forget a lot of things). Let us know in the comments below!