Aside from the usual family gatherings and gift-giving, there are tons of unique ways people around the world celebrate Christmas.
Some of these may be ‘weird’ to most but Christmas celebrations have as much to do with culture, as it would with religion. So it’s interesting, more than anything, to find out how various cultures have given their own signature bell-chime to this beloved holiday celebration. And, of course, you’re dying to know what kind of especially mouthwatering dishes are prepared on this gastronomical day.
The bell-chime: “Jul”, is the Norwegian word for Christmas; and before Jul can be celebrated with a family feast, tradition calls for 7 specific types of cookies to be prepared. These cookies are known as follows: Pepperkaker (Gingerbread), Ingefærnøtter (Ginger Nuts), Fattigmann (Poor Man), Krumkaker (Curved Cake), Kokosmakroner (Coconut Macaroons), Goro (a variation of the Poor Man), Tykklefser (sandwich-like, soft cookie), Sandkake (Sand Cake), Sirupsnipper (Syrup Snaps). Yup, that’s more than seven. This is because there’s some debate as to which ones are truly part of the Seven Sorts or Småkaker tradition. So you may get quite a variety from household to household.
What’s on the table: Ribbe (Roasted Pork Belly), Pinnekjøtt (Dried, Salted and/or Smoked Lamb Ribs), Lutefisk (Baked Pickled Fish).
The bell-chime: Also called Jul in Sweden, the unique ritual here is quite modern, actually. At 3 pm on the 24th of December, the people of Sweden (most, if not all) glue their eyes to their TV screens to watch…Donald Duck cartoons. “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas” is a Disney special that has aired at 3 pm on Christmas Eve, without fail, since 1959.
What’s on the table: Herring and Beet Salad, Gravlax (cured Salmon), Jansson’s Temptation (Potato and Onion Casserole), Julskinka (Christmas Ham), and, of course, Kottbullar med Potatismos (Swedish Meatballs with Mashed Potatoes).
The bell-chime: “Hygge” is a word the Danish might use to explain the Christmas experience. It is a word that may literally translate to, simply, “fun”; but the Danes take the meaning to a whole different level with attributions to spiritual elation and a whole new sense of enjoyment from participating in Christmas activities. A cute little tradition that the Danes practice is performed during dessert. “Ris á la Mande” is a Danish dessert made primarily of rice pudding and almonds. The almonds in this dessert are all chopped up – except for one. The finder of this whole almond gets to win a prize – as if a serving of sweet Ris á la Mande isn’t a prize in itself.
What’s on the table: Roast Pork, Roast Duck, and/or Roast Goose, potatoes, red cabbage, and of course Ris á la Mande for dessert.
The bell-chime: The Icelandic version of a happy Santa Claus is delightfully broken down into 13 parts. So that’s 13 Santa Clauses, or actually, trolls that originate from Icelandic folklore. Starting off as evil beings who eat children that misbehave during the Christmas season, this ugly gang may have learnt a thing or two from Santa as their modern versions are more…child-friendly. With names like Spoon-Licker, Door-Slammer, Meat-Hook and Candle-Stealer; these trolls come down to town one by one from their mountain homes to carry out their mischief. Oh, and instead of eating children nowadays, they simply leave spoilt potatoes in children’s shoes.
What’s on the table: Smoked Lamb, Salted Pork Ribs, Smoked Puffin, and Roasted Goose.
The bell-chime: Want to find out if Santa exists? Head over to Finland where the locals believe that he lives in Korvatunturi, which is in the northern part of the country. Apparently, even letters to Santa are addressed here and they start to flood in around Christmas time. On a melancholy note, the long nights in Finland are complemented by mass visits to the grave of dead loved ones by their living counterparts.
What’s on the table: Lutefisk (Preserved Fish), Gravlax, and Veggie Casseroles.
The bell-chime: A pretty literal bell-chime; on the last day of the year, people come together wearing cow bells and making all sorts of noise with things like drums to deter evil spirits with their noise. This age old traditional parade is called “Urnäsch Silvesterkläuse” and carries on for 13 days.
What’s on the table: Chestnut Stuffed Turkey, Gratin of Cardoons, Christmas Ham, and Endives Baked in cream.
The bell-chime: In Germany, Santa’s got quite a few mischievous companions on his gift delivery routine. One of them, made famous by Dwight Schrute from The Office (USA), is Belsnickel. Belsnickel whips impish children with a fig. Another character is the infamous Krampus who doesn’t only loathe Christmas, as the movies would have you believe, but gives as a gift to naughty children…a birch. Also, on the bright side, and in contrast to the spoilt potatoes left by the 13 Yule Lads of Iceland, Father Nicholas does leave sweets and other little gifts in children’s shoes on December 6th, St. Nicholas’s Day.
What’s on the table: Roasted Duck, Rabbit or Goose with sausage Stuffing, and Potato Dumplings
The bell-chime: Santa may be living in Finland, but his helpers (in the Letters department) are surely based in France. France apparently had a law passed down in the 1960’s which required that all letters addressed to Pere Noel (Santa) be replied to. This is in the empathetic notion that writing should be encouraged among children and with letters to Santa being one of the first letters that children write, they should be responded to.
What’s on the table: Foie Gra, Oysters, Snails, Smoked Salmon, Chest-stuffed Turkey, Venison.
The bell-chime: In Hungary, children are told that their presents are delivered by Jesus himself. Though the kids do anticipate a Santa-like figure called Mikulas on December 6, the day of the Feast of St. Nicholas. When the children are to receive their gifts, they’re first told to wait outside. They then adorably await the sound of bells from inside the room or house, signaling that that gifts are ready to be received.
What’s on the table: Bejgli (Poppy Bread with Walnuts/Poppy), Fisherman’s Soup, Stuffed Cabbage, Christmas Cake.
The bell-chime: The Czech word for Christmas Eve literally translates into “Generous Day”, and it’s said to be more exciting than Christmas Day itself. Christmas Eve is also believed to be Adam and Eve’s birthday in the Czech Republic, hence the overwhelming generosity to all things in nature, as animals are sure to be well-fed after the early Christmas dinner. Superstitions are rampant this time of year, there’s even one which requires that lights be off at sunset and they shouldn’t be turned on until the very first star can be seen in the evening sky. The appearance of the first star would also serve as the greenlight for Christmas Dinner to begin.
What’s on the table: A healthily sized meal, many Czech households call for a 9-course meal for Christmas Dinner. There’s Sauerkraut, Mushroom or Fish Soup, Fried Carp, Potato Salad, and Apple Strudel to name a few.
The bell-chime: Many Russians don’t celebrate Christmas around the same time as the rest of the world. As it is a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, a different calendar is followed. The Julian Calendar puts Christmas on January 7th. Some Russian Orthodox Christians see Christmas as a time to fast or abstain from eating meat. The tone is definitely mellower compared to the way the rest of the world celebrates Christmas. However, things get even on New Year’s as this is the time that “Ded Moroz” or Grandfather Frost, the Russian equivalent of Santa, comes to deliver the gifts.
What’s on the table: Sochivo Porridge (contains wheat, lentils, peas, etc), Roasted Goose, Beans, Potatoes, Pagach (Lenten Bread).
The bell-chime: The home of Roman Catholicism is, as you’d expect, absolutely alight with festivities during the Christmas season. Roaming the streets at night, you may find yourself surrounded by carolers and bagpipe players called Zampognari. Just like the Russian Orthodox Christians, there are Catholics who abstain from eating any meat on Christmas Eve. It’s on Christmas Day that the Italians get to luckily gorge on their amazing food. Some households leave the dishes on the table after supper’s done to symbolically allow Jesus and Mary to have a taste of their food.
What’s on the table: Stuffed Turkey, Pasta in Bordo (Pasta in Broth), Panettone (Sponge Cake), Pandoro, Clams, Calamari, Baccala (Salted Cod).
The bell-chime: While, in other places you’d hear of Santa coming down chimneys to deliver gifts, in Greece it’s the ‘bad spirits’ that have taken the job. An old Greek tradition calls for the house to be regularly sprinkled with holy water that is whipped around from a Basil-wrapped cross to keep the evil entities away. These entities are said to be more rampant during the holiday season. Along with Christmas Trees, brightly decorated boats are also a common sight in Greece during the holiday season.
What’s on the table: Roasted Lamb, Roasted Pork, Spinach and Cheese Pie, Salads, Baklava (pastry filled with honey-sweetened nuts).
The bell-chime: Filipinos are probably the people who are the most excited when it comes to Christmas. Preparations are made as early as September but it could even start as early as June, as some families would claim to start their Christmas decoration routines at such a time. As ‘Pasko’ (Christmas) gets nearer, things get even more intense, in terms of festivities, with December being filled with daily house-to-house caroling, erratic nightly fireworks, night-long karaoke, near-daily dinner feasts with family, and churchly activities. Beautifully designed Parols (star-shaped lanterns) also light up the houses and streets.
What’s on the table: Christmas Ham, Dinuguan (Pork Blood Stew), Pancit (Noodles), Sweet Spaghetti, Lechon (Roasted Pork), Crispy Pata (Deep Fried Pig’s Feet) and Leche Flan (Crème Caramel).
Despite being a predominantly Muslim country, Malaysia does not hold back at all in terms of public decorations during Christmas time. The malls are lavishly decorated for the holiday season with red carpets, towering Christmas Trees, and brightly lit reindeer decors. As it’s just the local Christian minority and expats who mostly celebrate Christmas, there’s more of a unique vibe than a tradition that occurs during Christmas in Malaysia. People flock to the perfectly chilly Cameron Highlands to get a more climate-appropriate feeling of the season, or visit some of the artificially snowy tourist destinations like i-City’s Snowalk, and Queensbay Mall.
Read more about Christmas Around the World Part 2.