Christmas, which marks the birth of Jesus Christ, is celebrated across the world with religious fervor and gaiety. Though the feasts, Santa and merriment are same throughout the world during Christmas, there are certain traditions which are followed by different countries in a different manner.
Christmas celebrations in German begin on the Sunday after November 26. This period leading up to Christmas is called Advent. Unlike in many countries, where Santa Claus gives gifts to Children on Christmas eve, in Germany children put a shoe outside a window or bedroom door or by fireplace on December five evening. It is said that St Nicholas, who goes from house to house, give rewards to good children in the form of edibles like sweets, candies, fruits and biscuits. December 6 is known as St Nicholas Day.
Another interesting Christmas tradition in Germany is St Thomas Day, which is celebrated on December 21. Any person who wakes up late or goes late to his or her office on this day is given the title of 'Thomas Donkey' and is the butt of all jokes throughout that day.
Christmas Eve is known as Dickbauch or 'fat stomach' in Germany. It is believed that demons haunt those who do not eat properly on the Christmas Eve. Fully-decorated Christmas trees, which originated in Germany, are unveiled on this day. When Christmas trees have been fully decked up, mothers ring a bell to invite children, who are generally in an another room, to see the tree and their presents.
Christmas celebrations in Mexico begin on December 16, nine days before December 24. During these nine days or Novena, as it is called in Mexico, Posadas are held in which children along with some adults enact the scene of St Joseph and Virgin Mary looking for lodging. Every family has to host Posadas for one day each. Once the host is selected, prayers are held and songs sung in praise of the Lord. This is followed by feasts for children and adults.
On December 24, everyone attends the Mass at midnight and thereafter have family dinner at their respective houses. In Mexico, gifts are given to children on January six, which is known as the Day of the Kings. Magi, Mexican version of Santa Claus, leave gifts for children, who have been at their best during the year, in the shoes kept by them near a window. On this day, Merienda and Rosca de Reyes are eaten. Rosca de Reyes is big egg bread in an oval shape which contains a little ceramic doll representing Baby Jesus. The person whose piece has the doll is declared the Godparent of the Baby Jesus.
Christmas celebration in this country ends on February 2, the day of the Candle or Light. On this day, a big party is given by the person who was declared the Godparent of the Baby Jesus. He also has to make a christening gown for Baby Jesus.
An interesting aspect of Christmas in Italy is that instead of writing letters to Santa Claus demanding gifts for them, children here write letters to their parents to express their love. The letter, which is kept under the father's plate, is read after the Christmas Eve dinner.
Like Mexico, in Italy too children are given presents on January 6 on the Feast of Epiphany. In Italy, presents are given by Le Befana, who according to the legends was an old witch who was invited by Three Wise Men and a shepherd to join them in paying respects to the Christ Child. She refused them but regretted her decision after seeing a great Light in the sky. She took some of the toys of her dead child for giving it as presents to the baby Jesus. Unable to find baby Jesus, she left gifts for other children.
In Ireland, a lighted candle is placed on the window of every house on Christmas Eve by the youngest member of the household as a symbolic gesture of welcoming Mary and Joseph. According to the traditions in Ireland, the candle has to be extinguished only by a girl named Mary.
Interestingly, after the Christmas Eve dinner is over, a table is again laid with a loaf of bread, milk and a lit candle. The door is left ajar to invite Mary and Joseph or any traveler to the dinner. Most of the Christmas decorations are not taken down before January 6, which is known as Little Christmas in Ireland, as it is considered inauspicious.
People in Poland believe that whatever happens on Christmas Eve or Wigilia, as it is known there, has an impact on the coming year. They believe good fortune will come if the first visitor on Christmas Eve is a man. They also welcome the mailman into their homes as it symbolizes money and success.
In almost all Polish houses, a vacant chair is kept for an unexpected visitor. In Poland, Christmas and Santa Claus day are not celebrated at the same time. Santa Claus day is celebrated on December 6, the day he distributes gifts among children. On Christmas Eve, the whole family gets together to see the first star. After seeing the star, they go to a table which is covered with hay and white table cloth. The eldest member of the family then breaks Oplatek, a wafer made of flour and water, into two pieces and gives one piece to his wife. All the members partake from each other's piece. Good wishes are exchanged which is followed by a meatless supper, singing of Christmas carols and pastoral and Midnight mass.
On Christmas, which is known as the First Holiday, family spends their time at home and no cleaning or cooking are allowed. The family has to eat the leftovers. The next day is St Stephen's Day when they visit their friends and relatives to greet them. Christmas carols and pastorals are sung at the night.
Many provinces in France celebrate Christmas on December 25. But in eastern and northern France, Christmas festivities begin on December 6, the St Nicholas Day. In Lyon, people put lighted candles on the windows of their house to pay homage to Virgin Mary on December 8. Children in France keep their shoes near the fireplace in the hope of getting some gifts for their good behavior.
Nativity scenes can be seen at shopping malls, entrance of homes and windows of shops. In some small towns on Christmas Eve, Nativity scenes are enacted with actors enacting role of Mary, Joseph and Three Wise Men. Like many other countries, Christmas eve is celebrated with a sumptuous family dinner with dishes like roast lamb, turkey or even seafood and Midnight mass.
Though traditions related to Christmas may differ from one country to the other, one thing that remains constant throughout the world is generosity, cooperation and the feeling of togetherness.