Rachel Lanz worked as a social-media specialist for World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland, and continues to volunteer on the WYD social-media English team. She has a B.S. from Benedictine College in Journalism and Mass Communications. After taking a year to teach English in Spain, she went back to writing, working as the journalism intern for EWTN in Rome. She is now a Register staff writer based in Rome.
Christmas is one of the most celebrated holidays in the world. In the United States radio stations air nonstop Christmas tunes. Christmas trees are spotted on car roofs. Front yards blink with colored lights and blown-up snowmen. Streets fill with Christmas shoppers. Bells ring from Salvation Army volunteers. The Secret Santa gift exchange. The Hallmark channel Christmas movie marathon and home-baked cookies.
Catholic parishes spread the Christmas message by focusing on Nativity scenes, Advent retreats and Adopt-a-Family gift giving campaigns.
The United States contributed Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf to the world, however, each country has its unique traditions.
Christianity is a minority religion in India and Christmas is a time for evangelization. In areas with a dense population of Christians, streets are lit and decorated for Christmas and churches keep their doors open late in the night for nativity peeking. “This gives people of other faiths a chance to participate in the festivities,” says Fr. Joshan Rodrigues, priest of the Archdiocese of Mumbai, India.
Every parish creates a nativity, usually by the youth group, that highlights an important social issue calling it A Crib with a Message. “These cribs are located in accessible places, sometimes facing the street for passersby, most of whom are non-Christians, to have a chance to see the crib.”
They also play a video on a big screen sharing the nativity story in the local languages with volunteers available to explain the significance of Christmas and answer questions.
Churches are decorated with poinsettia flowers and candles, similar to North America, for the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, which is very important for Catholics in India. It is followed by “a massive feast of different curry delicacies” and gift giving. Sweets include fruitcakes, “kidiyo,” deep-fried curly dough balls dusted with powdered sugar, and sweet dumplings stuffed with palm sugar, grated coconut and sesame seeds called “newrio.” Other savory foods include banana chips, “chaklis” deep-fried spiral crisps made with lentils, and cardamom and cashew macaroons.
Rodrigues remembers another momentous meal on Christmas Day which is celebrated with extended family specifically serving chicken, beef or pork matured curries served with “sannas,” steamed rice cakes fermented overnight for “soft, fluffy breads, perfect to soak up all those curries.”
Traditions vary depending on the region, but most people decorate banana or mango trees and use mango leaves to spruce up the house. Typically every Catholic home is found a star shaped lantern outside the windows. However in Southern India, small oil burning clay lamps are displayed on the flat roofs of their homes to signify that Jesus is the light of the world.
Hong Kong is a city within the mainland of China where Christians are free to celebrate Christmas, whereas it is banned in other parts of China except for those authorized by the government. Since Hong Kong has a different ruling system under the governing power of China, most employees work as soon as Christmas ends and often during the holidays.
Nevertheless, Catholics in Hong Kong keep their own culture and Christmas rituals, explains Margie Chan, a civil servant in Hong Kong. They have adopted many Western traditions, not only because it is a non-Christian city, but also because of their history being a British colony for almost 100 years. This creates “a special cultural mix of the East and the West.”
Christians in Hong Kong naturally prepare for Christmas with the weekly Advent candle lighting, even though Christmas shopping and decorations are up by November. Unfortunately, Christmas “trends” in Hong Kong’s society are slowly declining, such as Christmas trees, a big family dinner, and even the spectacular Light Show at the Waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, where people used to attend the week before and after Christmas. “It’s always hard work to remind people of the true meaning of Christmas,” Chan states, “but we still have chances to do so.”
Chan’s diocese holds a vocation walk to pray for youth’s vocations and for more religious vocations. Usually, each parish plans their own route leading to the Holy Spirit Seminary, but this year they are doing something special. They are postponing the walk to Dec. 30 to stay overnight in tents at the seminary for Eucharistic adoration and Mass on Dec. 31.
Germans are very formal when it comes to Christmas preparations and celebrations. “Things have to be done at their proper time and place,” says Fr. Anton Vogelsang, professor at the Novitiate of the Legionaries of Christ in Neuötting-Alzgern, as he gives insight to the Christmas season in the life of Germans.
Like every Catholic parish worldwide Advent, the official new year in the Church’s liturgical calendar and “a time of preparation and clearly distinct from Christmas,” begins with the lighting of the first red or purple candle of the Advent wreath the Saturday evening exactly four weeks before Christmas Eve. In Germany, this season is coincided by a bought or homemade advent calendar and small packages with candy, gifts or prayer cards are opened every day. Once a week, a traditional, candle-lit Rorate Mass is celebrated in the morning, followed by breakfast before school.
“Everything is supposed to create a serene feeling of expectation and not a superficial joy,” Vogelsang explains. Advent hymns are sung rather than Christmas carols, and “baby Jesus is forbidden from the manger until Christmas Eve.” Decorations are modest using wreaths and white lights only, and candles are placed in every room of the house. Even the Christmas trees are carefully lit with real candles!
You may be familiar with Germany's traditional “Christkindlmarkt” market, meaning Christ Child Market, which has spread to many cities in the United States. Almost every city in Germany have stands selling trinkets, decorations, toys and food accompanied by “Glühwein,” mulled wine and a band playing traditional advent hymns.
Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day in Germany. Families come together, sing songs, light lots of candles (are you seeing the theme), and prepare a big goose or ham dinner followed by the opening of gifts and concluding with midnight Mass.
Egyptian Christians vary between the Eastern Catholics, Orthodox and other ancient Churches of the East, giving a unique atmosphere to the Christmas season.
“The majority are Coptic Orthodox, followed by Coptic Catholics,” Marianne Ayad says, Presales Network Manager for Nokia in Cairo, Egypt. Mass is held in either Latin, Arabic or Coptic, the ancient Egyptian language that was spoken and written in the Greek alphabet with seven additional letters.
“Christmas is very special and important for Christians even in a country where they are a minority,” Ayad states. Regardless of the strong Muslim influence, Christmas decorations are put outside shops, hotels and schools starting toward the end of November. Many choirs and church concerts are sung in different languages and many nonprofits, organizations, schools and churches organize Christmas bazaars for charity to “remember those who are less fortunate.”
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day resemble that of Western countries enjoying midnight Mass and large family turkey dinners with stuffed vine leaves and “fatta,” a middle eastern flatbread dish. These dinners are very special for Christians in Egypt since they fast during Advent and are not allowed to eat animal based products such as meat, dairy and eggs. They fast in this same way during Lent and in August for the Blessed Virgin Mary.
With Mexico not so far away, many traditions are shared with North America and Europe. However, Christmas customs are lived in a very particular way for two months, starting with the “Posadas.” “Families and communities start a novena Dec. 16 and gather spiritually to accompany Joseph and Mary on their pilgrimage through prayer every day of the novena,” Eduardo Rios Herbert says, engineer from Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
The prayer consists of a rosary as the communities go door to door to assigned homes with candles asking by song if they have “room in the inn.” At the end of the song, a colorful piñata with seven points, representing the seven deadly sins, is hit until broken and candy flows out signifying that the grace of God is stronger than sin. “It unites and prepares us as families and friends for the coming of Jesus and has been a means of evangelization,” Herbert expresses.
In addition to Advent retreats, Mexicans prepare spiritually for Christmas with mission trips where young people go to communities in need to teach catechesis and share the joy of the Posadas.
Epiphany, Jan. 6, is when families exchange gifts, rather than Christmas Eve or Day. The children wait for either the Three Kings or Baby Jesus to bring gifts instead of Santa Claus. They also share in a Spanish and French tradition of eating the “Rosca de Reyes,” a circle-shaped bread representing the infinite love of God. A small Baby Jesus figure is hidden inside signifying the escape of Herod’s mission to kill the newborns. Whoever finds it has the mission to care for him as a Godfather until Feb. 2, the Presentation of the Lord.
Every country prepares and celebrates Christmas in unique ways but become universal in the underlying theme to be a One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic people, sharing the joy of the gift of Baby Jesus to the world.