The story of Christmas around the world

Published December 20, 2006

Across desert, jungle, plains, mountains, forests, towns and cities, Christians pause in the rush and bustle of everyday life to visit, to give, to worship and to share in celebration of the birth of Christ.

From North, South, East and West, there are more beliefs and traditions that unite rather than divide people, especially around the meaning of Christmas. The Anglican Journal gives a sampling of Christmas traditions around the world, which demonstrates that while countries have their own unique celebrations, a common theme still emerges: No matter the frenzy and materialism in some parts of the world, there is an inescapable moment when peoples’ hearts recognize the special grace that comes with this season – the certainty that love, peace, hope, family, faith, charity and community are possible.


The gates of the homes of Syrian Christians are locked on Christmas Eve, commemorating the persecutions of the past, when worship had to be held in secret. Everyone in the family carries a lit candle and stands around an unlit bonfire in their yard. The youngest child reads the Christmas story, and the bonfire is lit, after which hymns are sung and everyone steps on the dying embers to make a wish.

Another bonfire is lit in the middle of the floor at church on Christmas morning and ancient hymns are sung as the celebrant of the Eucharist carries a figure of the infant Jesus around the room. The celebrant touches the nearest person in a sign of peace that is passed from one to another until everyone in the room has received it.

The traditional Christmas dinner consists of roast chicken, nuts, dates, pastries, and other Syrian dishes like hummus and baba ganouj.

There is more emphasis on prayer and communal gatherings among the five million Christians (some of whom still speak Aramaic) in this predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. Nonetheless, Syrian children receive gifts at Epiphany from the smallest camel of the Wise Men (ASK TESS TO EXPLAIN). Legend has it that when the Wise Men traveled to Bethlehem, it was the smallest camel who refused to give up the long journey and was most eager to see the Christ Child. The story emphasizes how the faith of the smallest and most vulnerable can, at times, be greater than most.

Joanne Chaytor is the first Volunteer in Mission from the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. She began working as an administrative assistant to the provincial secretary in the office of the Anglican Church of Tanzania in Dodoma in September 2005. The following is an abridged version of her account, which appeared in her blog (Web log).

“We did have a Christmas tree. It was an artificial tree like those at home. It was much smaller and simpler than most of the ones at home but was nice and made me feel a little more at home. It was strange to have Christmas and not have any snow … There is not a huge emphasis put on commercialism which I have to say I found to be a refreshing change. The big emphasis on Christmas for Tanzanians is a nice meal and being together with family and friends … We had pilau (rice seasoned with chicken and vegetable broth), chicken, rice, sweet banana, beans, various vegetables made in sauce with meat and salads. There was soda and ice cream too … It is so nice to have such an emphasis put on the true meaning of Christmas – the birth of the Christ child.”


A couple of days before Christmas, buses and cars are loaded with people leaving the city to go to big celebrations in rural areas. Preparations are a communal event: On Christmas Eve, men slaughter a cow and goat and the women clean and prepare the meat for the next day’s festivities. On Christmas morning, church is the first order of the day and children wear their new clothes. Traditional Christmas fare includes beef, goat and chicken stew served with rice or sadza (corn meal), vegetables and salads. After a hearty meal, grandparents tell stories around the fire, ensuring that the country’s oral tradition is passed on. Celebrations often go into wee hours and people move from house to house.


Christmas is ushered in by the lighting of scores of candles to outline the streets on the night of Dec. 7, the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. A wish is made to the Virgin Mary for every candle lit.

Medellin is easily the most beautiful city in Latin America in December, when its major thoroughfares, tourist attractions and even rivers are bathed in colourful lights. The annual spectacle, called Los Alumbrados (Festival of Lights), is impressive around the Rio Medellin, where large statues made of lights are found.

Praying the rosary for nine days before Christmas and singing villancicos (Christmas carols) around the nativity scene are beloved traditions in this country, where 90 per cent of the population are Roman Catholic.

Christmas Eve followed by a Christmas meal that typically includes Ajiaco, a favourite soup in Colombia which contains chicken, corn, potatoes, sour cream, capers, avocado, cilantro and guascas, an aromatic herb. Dinner may also include breads, roast pork, tamales (pork, rice and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves), and natillas, a cold, heavy custard with hints of cinnamon.

When they wake up on Christmas morning, children find gifts at the foot of their beds from El Nino Jesus.

Trinidad and Tobago
Christmas here would not be complete without parang – indigenous carols with Spanish and Venezuelan influences. Paranderos (carolers) hop from one house to the next, singing songs that echo the spirit of the island: lively, joyful and infectious. They are often accompanied by a wide variety of musical instruments: cuatro, bass box, mandolin, maracas, flutes, guitars and tambourines.
The black fruit cake is prepared days (even weeks) in advance to ripen the flavours of dark Jamaica rum, currants, dried figs, prunes, angostura bitters, maraschino cherries and other ingredients. Drinks are likewise prepared in advance: plantain wine, ginger beer and ponche de creme (the Trinidadian version of eggnog). The Christmas meal can include chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, rice and calaloo (a Caribbean version of gumbo).


From an account by Rev. Stanley Isherwood, an Anglican Volunteer in Mission (VIM), who began working for St. Joseph’s Anglican Church in Punta Gorda, which appeared in his blog (Web log), “In (Punta Gorda) there are Christmas lights here and there, carols are being played on the radio, but more important, the Christmas spirit is starting to show! … When the Christmas spirit reaches the local boys it means that firecrackers are set off right outside my window. It’s in their yard but that’s right outside my window. They have really been quite good about it lately after an initial outburst that almost gave me apoplexy. But I have been warned to expect more as the day approaches … The Advent wreath provides a wonderful opportunity to talk about the love, joy, peace and hope that are so much part of Christmas.”


The lighting of candles has a deep religious meaning in Ireland and is heightened during Christmas, when it symbolizes hospitality for the Holy Family. To light a candle (or even holiday lights) is to say that there is room for Mary and Joseph in one’s home, even though there was none in Bethlehem. The hospitality is extended to others at dinnertime, when extra plates are set on the table for unexpected visitors. Many decorate their doors with holly for the holidays and may not realize that this custom originated in Ireland.

Christmas begins on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and lasts until Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Familiar Christmas carols are still sung on the streets of some cities, by choirs big and small; street musicians play timeless Christmas classics on flutes, violins, harps and guitars.


French homes often display a creche or Nativity scene, a tradition that began as early as the 17th century. Some creches are elaborate – they include not just the Holy Family, Magi and shepherds, but also local dignitaries and characters. Creches can be bought at shops and at the annual Christmas fairs held throughout December in Marseilles and Aix.

In Southern France, an ancient tradition of burning a log from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day lives on. It is said that farmers then used part of the log to attract a good harvest for the year.

Some people make a traditional log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel, or Christmas log. The log cake is served alongside many other pastries during Le Reveillon, a late supper held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. This tradition started as a simple meal of biscuits and a hot drink but eventually evolved into a grand feast. The meals vary from region to region but are all equally lavish. It may include goose, turkey, oysters and foie gras, ham, fruit, sweets and wine.

Before bedtime, children leave their shoes by the fireplace and wake to find them filled with gifts from Pere Noel.


Filipinos, perhaps, celebrate the longest Christmas. As early as September, Christmas carols are played on the radio and shopping malls set up decorations; the festivities do not end until Jan. 6, the feast of the Three Kings. Most homes display a parol outside their windows (usually a star-shaped lantern signifying the Star of Bethlehem that can be made simply from bamboo sticks and colourful cellophane or the more elaborate capiz shells) and decorated Christmas trees (mostly plastic).

The daily pre-dawn mass (Simbang Gabi) begins Dec. 16 and ends with a midnight mass (Misa de Gallo) on Christmas Eve. Sleepyheads (church bells can start ringing as early as 3 a.m. for the 4 a.m. mass) are rewarded at the end of the church service with the joyful sight of festive food stalls in the churchyard that sell puto bumbong (purple sticky rice steamed in bamboo cylinders and topped with grated coconut and mascovado or brown sugar), bibingka (steamed rice cake) and salabat (hot ginger tea) or tsokolate (hot chocolate).

Most churches stage the Panunuluyan, a dramatization of the Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem, on Christmas Eve. After midnight mass on Christmas Eve, families gather for the Noche Buena (midnight feast) and the opening of gifts. There is a great divide between the Noche Buena of the rich and the poor in this predominantly Roman Catholic country in Southeast Asia. While the rich can feast on as many as 20 dishes, including ham, lechon (whole roast pig), ham, stuffed chicken, tiger prawns, paella, imported fruits and chocolates, pastries and native delicacies, the poor often have to rely on the kindness of neighbors and strangers. Most, strive, however, to save for what is considered the most important feast of the year and commonly serve pancit (noodles), embotido (stuffed ground pork) or morcon (rolled beef flanks) and leche flan (custard with caramel glaze).


The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Gerald Bowler, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2000.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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