treats and traditions of christmas around the world

As the wonders of Christmas and the holiday season are upon us, we thought it would be fun to explore some of the traditions that abound around the world at this time. While there are differences that we can explore and learn about, there are also many common elements to be found. Just for fun, we'll include a few recipes for holiday foods and drinks along the way.

Africa

Christmas preparations in the Congo begin when a group is designated to prepare the annual Christmas pageant. Christmas Day starts with carolers strolling throughout the village. Many attend a Christmas service, bringing gifts. After the service, many families prepare tables of food in front of their homes, inviting friends and neighbors to share with them. In South Africa, Christmas is a summer holiday. Schools are closed in December, and sunshine, beaches and camping are popular. Homes are decorated with pine branches and have the decorated Christmas fir in a corner, with presents for the children around the tree. At bedtime on Christmas Eve, children may also hang up their stockings for presents from Father Christmas. Many South Africans have a Christmas dinner of either turkey, roast beef, mince pies, or suckling pig, yellow rice with raisins, vegetables and plum pudding. In Ghana, on Africa's west coast, most churches herald the coming of Christmas by decorating the church and homes beginning in the first week in Advent, four weeks before Christmas. This season happens to coincide with the cocoa harvest, so it is a time of prosperity, with workers returning home from mines and farms. In the evening, people flock to churches which have been decorated with Christmas evergreens or palm trees massed with candles. Hymns are sung and Nativity plays are presented. On Christmas Day, children and older people, representing the angels in the fields outside Bethlehem, go from house to house singing. After church service there is a feast of rice and yam paste called fufu with stew or okra soup, porridge and meats. Families eat together or with close neighbors and presents are exchanged. On the west coast of Africa, in Liberia, most homes have an oil palm for a Christmas tree, which is decorated with bells. On Christmas morning, people are awakened by carolers. Presents such as cotton cloth, soap, sweets, pencils, and books are exchanged. Dinner is eaten outdoors with everyone sitting in a circle to share the meal of rice, beef and biscuits. Games are played in the afternoon, and at night fireworks light up the sky.

Plum Pudding with Hard Sauce

Ingredients

1 cup light molasses
3/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup whole milk, warm
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus additional for tossing fruit
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 pint candied mixed fruit (or diced dried fruit such as pineapple, pears, apples, and plums)
1 cup raisins
1 1/2 ounces brandy
Holly sprig, for garnish
Hard Sauce, recipe follows

Directions

Combine thoroughly the molasses, butter, milk and eggs in a large mixing bowl. Combine the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves in another mixing bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients gradually, making sure to blend the dry ingredients thoroughly before adding more. Toss candied fruit and raisins lightly with flour to prevent sinking and add to batter. Stir in brandy.

Pour into a greased and sugared steam pudding mold and place on a rack in a large covered pot with water that comes halfway up the sides of the mold. Cover and steam for 2 hours, checking occasionally to make sure water hasn't boiled out. Let cool for 5 minutes on a rack before turning out. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with a sprig of holly and hard sauce.

Hard Sauce:

1/4 pound butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ounce brandy or rum

Beat all ingredients together until very well combined. For thinner sauce you may add a little bit of extra liquor or liquor/water mixture. Serve with pudding.

China

The Christian children of China decorate trees called "Trees of Light" with colorful ornaments. These ornaments are made from paper in the shapes of flowers, chains and lanterns. They also hang muslin stockings hoping that Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) will fill them with gifts and treats. The non-Christian Chinese call this season the Spring Festival. They celebrate with many festivities that include delicious meals and paying respects to their ancestors. Children are the main focus of these celebrations, and they receive new clothes and toys, eat delectable food and watch firecrackers displays. In Hong Kong, Christmas cards are sent, many of them exquisitely decorated to show the artistic side of the sender.

 

Iraq

An unusual ceremony is held in the courtyard of Christian homes on Christmas Eve. One of the children in the family reads the story of the Nativity from an Arabic Bible. The other members of the family hold lighted candles and when the story has been read, a bonfire is lit in one corner of the courtyard. The fire is made of dried thorns and the future of the house for the coming year depends upon the way the fire burns. If the thorns burn to ashes, the family will have good fortune. While the fire is burning, a psalm is sung. When the fire is reduced to ashes, everyone jumps over the ashes three times and makes a wish. On Christmas day a similar bonfire is built in the church. The Christmas service ends with the blessing of the people. The clergyman reaches forth and touches a member of the congregation with his hand, putting his blessing upon him. That person touches the one next to him or her, and so on, until all have received "the Touch of Peace."

France

In France, Christmas is a time for family and for generosity, marked by family reunions, gifts and candy for children, gifts for the poor, Midnight Mass, and le Réveillon.

The celebration of Christmas in France varies by region. Most provinces celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, which is a bank holiday. However, in eastern and northern France, the Christmas season begins on December 6, la fête de Saint Nicolas, and in some provinces la fête des Rois* is one the most important holidays of the Christmas season. In Lyon, December 8 is la Ffête  de lumières, when Lyonnais pay hommage to the virgin Mary by putting candles in their windows to light up the city.

*Epiphany (la fête des Rois) is usually celebrated the 6th of January, but in some places in France it is celebrated the first Sunday after January 1st.

French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, in the hopes that Père Noël (Father Christmas) will fill them with gifts. Candy, fruit, nuts, and small toys will also be hung on the tree overnight. In some regions there's also Père Fouettard who provides spankings to children who have been naughty. In 1962, a law was passed decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard. When a class writes a letter, each student gets a response. Although fewer and fewer French attend the church service la Messe de Minuit on Christmas Eve, it is still an important part of Christmas for many families. It is followed by a huge feast, called le Réveillon (from the verb réveiller, to wake up or revive). Le Réveillon is a symbolic awakening to the meaning of Christ's birth and is the culinary high point of the season, which may be enjoyed at home or in a restaurant or café that is open all night. After Réveillon, it's customary to leave a candle burning in case the Virgin Mary passes by. Each region in France has its own traditional Christmas menu, with dishes like turkey, capon, goose, chicken, and boudin blanc (similar to white pudding). Throughout the French Christmas season, there are special traditional desserts:

    * La bûche de Noël (Yule log) - A log-shaped cake made of chocolate and chestnuts. Representative of the special wood log burned from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day.
      
    * Le pain calendeau (in southern France) - Christmas loaf, part of which is given to a poor person.
      
    * La Galette des Rois (on Epiphany) - A round cake which is cut into pieces and distributed by a child, known as le petit roi or l'enfant soleil, hiding under the table. Whoever finds la fève - the charm hidden inside - is King or Queen and can choose a partner.

Mistletoe is hung above the door during the Christmas season to bring good fortune throughout the year.

Yule Log Cake

Ingredients

Cake and Filling:
3/4     cup cake flour
1/2     teaspoon baking powder
1/2     teaspoon salt
5        eggs, separated
1        cup granulated sugar, divided into 2/3 cup and 1/3 cup
1        teaspoon vanilla
1/2     cup powdered sugar
1        cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4     cup heavy whipping cream
1        tablespoon rum

 Cocoa Frosting:
1       cup whipping cream
2       tablespoons unsweetened bakers cocoa powder, sifted
1/2    cup powdered sugar, sifted
1       teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

Cake and Filling:

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Grease 15-1/2X10-1/2-inch jelly-roll pan; line pan with waxed paper. Grease waxed paper; set pan aside. Place flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl; stir to combine. Beat egg yolks and 2/3 cup granulated sugar in a small bowl with an electric mixer at high speed for about 5 minutes or until thick and lemon-colored, scraping down side of bowl once. Beat in vanilla; set aside.

2. Beat egg whites in a large bowl using electric mixer at high speed until foamy. Gradually beat in remaining 1/3 cup granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until stiff peaks form.

3. Fold flour mixture into egg yolk mixture; then fold into egg white mixture until evenly incorporated. Spread mixture into prepared pan. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched with finger.

4. Lightly sift powdered sugar over clean dish towel. Loosen warm cake from edges of pan; invert onto prepared towel. Remove pan; carefully peel off waxed paper. Gently roll up cake in towel from short end, jelly-roll style. Let rolled cake cool completely on wire rack.

5. For chocolate filling, place chocolate chips and whipping cream in heavy 1-quart saucepan. Heat over low heat until chocolate is melted, stirring frequently. Pour into small bowl; stir in rum. Cover and refrigerate about 1-1/2 hours or until filling is of spreading consistency, stirring occasionally.

6. Prepare Cocoa Frosting. Refrigerate until ready to use. (see below for frosting instructions)

7. Unroll cake; remove towel. Spread cake with chilled chocolate filling to within 1/2 inch of edge; re-roll cake. Spread Cocoa Frosting over cake roll. Sprinkle with cocoa.

Cocoa Frosting:

Beat cream, cocoa, sugar and vanilla with electric mixer at medium speed until soft peaks form. Do not over beat. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Iran (Persia)

Christmas in Iran is known as the Little Feast. For the first 25 days of December, a great fast is observed, during which no meat, eggs, milk, or cheese is eaten. It is a time of peace and meditation; a time for attending services at the church. When the fast is over, a great feast with meat is prepared for the Christmas dinner. Christmas Eve is the last day of the fast. The boys and girls of Iran have never heard of Santa Claus, so they do not exchange gifts at Christmas. But they do receive new clothes, which they proudly wear all during Christmas week. A dish eaten for Christmas day is a kind of chicken stew. It is cooked in large quantities and lasts several days.

Russia

In Russia the religious festival of Christmas is being replaced by the Festival of Winter but there are some traditions that are still kept up in some parts of the country. In the traditional Russian Christmas, special prayers are said and people fast, sometimes for 39 days, until January 6th Christmas Eve, when the first evening star in appears in the sky. Then begins a twelve-course supper in honor of each of the twelve apostles - fish, beet soup or Borscht, cabbage stuffed with millet, cooked dried fruit and much more. Hay is spread on the floors and tables to encourage horse feed to grow in the coming year and people make clucking noises to encourage their hens to lay eggs. On Christmas Day, hymns and carols are sung. People gather in churches, which have been decorated with Christmas trees or Yelka, flowers and colored lights. Christmas dinner includes a variety of different meats - goose and suckling pig are favorites. Babushka is a traditional Christmas figure who distributes presents to children. Her name means grandmother and the legend is told that she declined to go with the wise men to see Jesus because of the cold weather. However, she regretted not going and set off to try and catch up, filling her basket with presents. She never found Jesus, and that is why she visits each house, leaving toys for good children. A traditional Christmas figure is Snegurochka. She is granddaughter of Dedushka Moroz or Grandfather Christmas.

 

Scandinavia

In Scandinavia a little gnome called Julenisse puts the presents under the Christmas tree during the night. The children leave a bowl of porridge out for him. It is from Scandinavia that most of our Yule log traditions derive. The dark cold winters inspired the development of traditions concerned with warmth and light. Yuletide, meaning "the turning of the sun" or the winter solstice, has traditionally been a time of extreme importance in Scandinavia. For a long time, it was considered dangerous to sleep alone on Christmas Eve. The extended family, master and servant, alike would sleep together on a freshly spread bed of straw. The Yule log was originally an entire tree, carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony. The butt end would be placed into the hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. The tree would be slowly fed into the fire and the entire process was carefully timed to last the entire Yule season. In Scandinavia an important part of Christmas is the candles. It is said that the presents are brought by gnomes who live in the attics of houses all the year round.

 

 

Germany

In Germany, preparations for Christmas begin before December. But the real celebration starts from December 6, St. Nicholas Day, known as "Nikolaustag." On the night of December 5 (St. Nicholas Eve) children put their shoe or boot outside their door. As legend has it, the spirit of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, goes from house to house on this night carrying a book of sins in which all the actions of the year of all children are written. It is said that St. Nicholas fills the shoes of good children with delicious treats and places twigs in the shoes of the naughty children. During Advent, advent wreaths (made of Holly flowers) are placed on a table and four red candles are placed in the center of it. One of these candles is lit on each Sunday preceding Christmas and the last one is lighted on Christmas Eve. Advent calendars, containing pictures beneath each window, are used by children to count the days until Christmas. The Christmas tree, which originated in Germany, is an integral part of German Christmas celebrations. The Christmas story is usually read and carols are sung. The Christmas Eve dinner menu traditionally comprises of delicious dishes such as suckling pig, white sausage, macaroni salad, "reisbrei" (a sweet cinnamon) and many regional dishes. The Christmas Eve is popularly called here as "Dickbauch" (meaning "fat stomach") because of the myth that those who do not eat well on Christmas Eve will be haunted by demons during the night. So everyone tries to stuff their belly to the fullest on this day. The feasting continues on Christmas Day with a banquet being held on this day. Traditional Christmas dishes consist of plump roast goose, "Christstollen" (long bread loaves stuffed with nuts, raisins, citron and dried fruit), "Lebkuchen" (spice bars), marzipan, and "Dresden Stollen" ( a moist, heavy bread filled with fruit). Music is also an important part of the German Christmas tradition. The most famous of all German language Christmas songs , "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! (Silent Night! Holy Night!) was first heard during Christmas 1818 at the small church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf (Austria), which is near Salzburg and the German-Austrian border.

Gluhwein (Hot Mulled Wine)

To enjoy a bit of a great German holiday tradition try some hot mulled wine. Germany is better known for its white wine than red. But the darker vintage used here makes  a terrific holiday beverage.

Ingredients

1 bottle of dry red wine
1 lemon
3 tbsp of sugar
3 cloves
2 sticks of cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom or ginger

Directions

Heat the wine slowly, being careful to avoid bringing it to a boil. Slice the lemon finely and add when the liquid is hot. Then add the sugar and spice. Allow the mixture to cool to just above room temperature. Serve by pouring into cups through a strainer. Top with cardamom or ginger. A traditional mug can be used, or if you have one a ceramic boot. You can make a holiday tradition by decorating the mug or boot and giving it to those with whom you share the drink as a present.

Nicaragua

Christmas in Nicaragua begins officially on the 6th of December. On December 7th with the Nicaraguans celebrating "La Purisima"(meaning "the most pure") or the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary. Thousands in the country, especially the young, sing as loudly as they can and go from house to house. Someone from the crowd loudly asks what the cause of their happiness is and the chorus answers, "The conception of the Virgin Mary!". For such performances, every house rewards the performers with generous treats including items like rosquillas, leche de burra (a sweet called donkey's milk) nacatamal (tamal stuffed with meat) oranges, lemons, and chopped cana (sugar cane). In the weeks leading up to the festival, people come out on the streets to buy candles, images of Nativity, presents, small Nativity figures, toys, flower bouquets and various types of food items. Children carry beautiful bouquets to the alter of the Virgin and sing carols. The whole family decorates the Christmas tree. The festival, however, actually begins on December 16 with the performance of the lodging difficulties of Mary and Joseph. Every home carefully constructs a manger scene for this purpose. The home where lodging is found, supplies wine and food. From December 16 until Christmas Eve Mass, prayer is held each evening in the home, followed by refreshments and the singing of carols. Christmas Day is celebrated with feasts, fireworks and dancing. The main streets are decorated and have loud-speakers broadcasting Christmas carols. On the morning of December 24th, all in the family work together to prepare the Christmas dinner. The Nicaraguan Christmas celebration is largely influenced by ancient Spanish traditions. Hence, the menu traditionally consists of Valencian style rice similar to Paella, stuffed chicken, nacatamal, and freshly baked bread. Spanish biscochos are served for dessert. In Nicaragua, the extended members of the family and friends are invited to each others' homes to celebrate Christmas. On Christmas Eve, church bells are rung which signify the start of the Midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, while the adults go to the market to purchase the food to be prepared for the Christmas dinner, kids look for toys on their pillows or rush to find gifts placed under the Christmas tree by Papa Noel. Here, children write letters to Papa Noel, the Nicaraguan equivalent of Santa Claus, asking him to bring them the toys and gifts they want to receive at midnight on December 24th.

Rosquillas

Ingredients:

4 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped
2 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup white sugar, confectioners sugar, or sugar and cinnamon mixed, to taste

Directions:

Pour the vegetable oil into a medium-sized skillet. The oil should be about 2 inches deep. Heat to about 370 Degrees F. Dissolve the yeast in the warm (not hot) water.

Mix the eggs with half of the flour, the sugar, dissolved yeast, almonds, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, almond extract, butter and milk. Beat until the dough begins to thicken. Add the remaining flour and mix well. If the dough is not stiff enough to knead, add more flour, 1/4 cup at a time.

Flour a flat surface and remove the dough from the bowl. Knead the dough until it is pliable and smooth. Roll out the dough about 1/2-inch thick and cut into doughnut shapes.

Put 2 to 3 fritas in the hot oil at a time. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown. Flip and fry for 2 to 3 minutes on the other side.

Place on paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Sprinkle with white sugar, confectioners' sugar, or a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Makes about 2 dozen.

 

Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Christmas known as Ganna is celebrated on January 7th. This celebration takes place in ancient churches carved from solid volcanic rock and also in modern churches that are designed in three concentric circles. Men and boys sit separately from girls and women. Also the choir sings from the outside circle. People receive candles as they enter the church. After lighting the candles everyone walks around the church three times, then stands throughout the mass, which may last up to three hours. Food served at Christmas usually includes injera, a sourdough pancake like bread. Injera serves as both plate and fork. Doro wat, a spicy chicken stew might be the main meal. A piece of the injera is used to scoop up the wat. Beautifully decorated baskets are used to serve the wat. Gift giving is a very small part of Christmas celebration. Children usually receive very simple presents such as clothing. In Ethiopia Christmas day is January 7, so on Christmas Eve the city is crowded with pilgrims from all parts of the country. They remain outdoors all night, praying and chanting. In the morning, a colorful procession makes its way to a nearby hilltop where a service is held. Three young men march at the head of the crowd, lashing whips from left to right to keep the people in line. Those who worship are fed with bread and wine that has been blessed by priests. After the service is over the rest of the day is spent dancing, playing sport and feasting.

 

Spain

In Spain, the Christmas season officially begins with the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. It is a public holiday in Spain. Every year, the occasion is celebrated before the great Gothic cathedral in Seville with a ceremony called "Los Seises" or the "dance of six." It is literally a dance performance, though not of six, but ten boys in elaborate costumes making beautiful rhythmic movements. The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Spain and hence, Christmas is observed with great devotion and piety. It is a religious festival with an adequate measure of festive excitement. In the main cities, stores are beautifully decorated with Christmas lights and stuffed with Christmas supplies from the first week of December. Christmas trees come up in almost every home across the country from the second half of December. Also to be found in every household are beautiful mini-sized "Belénes" or Nativity scenes. The Belén typically includes baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. Christmas Eve in Spain is known as "Nochebuena" or "Good Night." It is a time for family gatherings. Family members come together for joyous feasting and merrymaking during this time. In the evening, people go out to have a few drinks with friends and rush back to enjoy a delicious meal with family. Christmas dinner is never eaten until after midnight. A typical Spanish Christmas dinner begins with the serving of prawn followed by a roasted lamb. The dessert is traditionally a Christmas sweet, either the Turrón - a nougat made of toasted sweet almonds or the Polvorone, made from almonds, flour and sugar. The meal is consumed to the accompaniment of fine Spanish wines. Cava, a Catalan champagne, is generally the chosen drink for the Christmas toast. The feast is followed by family members gathering around the Christmas tree and singing Christmas carols and hymns. The merrymaking often continues until daybreak. On Christmas Day, families visit local churches to attend the religious services. Families have a grand lunch on the afternoon of Christmas Day. A unique custom here is the hanging of swings throughout the courtyards and young people riding them with much joy. Children receive a small gift on the Christmas morning but they have to wait until the 6th of January (Epiphany) to get their actual presents, supposedly from the Three Wise Men (not Santa Claus) who are said to leave gifts for children on their shoes the previous night.

Merry Christmas to all, wherever you are!