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   » Home » Holiday Tips and Ideas » Christmas Traditions Around the World
Christmas Traditions Around the World by Heidi Richards Mooney

Belgium
On the sixth of December Sinterklaas or Saint-Nicholas is celebrated, which is an entirely different holiday from Christmas. Santa Claus in Belgium is called de Kerstman or le Père Noël and he does come around on Christmas day to bring children presents. There are different cultures in Belgium, the Northern part being Vlaanderen (speaking a Dutch dialect), the Southern part being Wallonie (speaking a French dialect) and the Eastern part speaking German.

Small family presents are given at Christmas too, under the tree, or in stockings near the fire-place, to be found in the morning. Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread called 'cougnou' or 'cougnolle' - the shape is supposed to be like baby Jesus. Some families will have another big meal on Christmas day.

Brazil
Brazilians are a mix of people from many parts of the world, and as a former Portuguese colony, they have many Christmas customs which originate from this heritage. One tradition is to create a nativity scene or Presépio. The word origins from the Hebrew word "presepium" which means the bed of straw upon which Jesus first slept in Bethlehem. The Presépio is common in northeastern Brazil (Bahia, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Maranhão, Ceará, Pernambuco, Piauí and Alagoas). The Presépio was introduced in the 17th century, in the city of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco by a Franciscan friar named Gaspar de Santo Agostinho. Nowadays presépios are set up in December and displayed in churches, homes, and stores.

Papai Noel (Father Noel) is the gift-bringer in Brazil. According to legend, he lives in Greenland. When he arrives in Brazil, he usually wears silk clothing due to the summer heat. A huge Christmas dinner, unusual in the hot summertime, includes turkey, ham, colored rice, and wonderful vegetable and fruit dishes.Devout Catholics often attend Midnight Mass or Missa do Galo. (A galo is a rooster.) The mass has this name because the rooster announces the coming day and the Missa do Galo finishes at 1 AM on Christmas morning! On December 25th, Catholics go to church, but the masses are mostly late afternoon, because people enjoy sleeping late after the dinner (Ceia de Natal) or going to the beach.
Decorations include fresh flowers picked from the garden. Fireworks go off in the skies over the cites and huge Christmas "trees" of electric lights can be seen against the night skies in major cities such as Brasilia, San Paolo, and Rio de Janeiro.

Finland
Finnish people believe that Father Christmas (Santa Claus) lives in the north part of Finland called Korvatunturi, north of the Arctic Circle. People from all over the world send letters to Santa Claus in Finland. (It is only fair to say that the people of Greenland say that really, Father Christmas lives in Greenland!) There is a even big tourist theme park called 'Christmas Land' in the north of Finland, near to where they say that Father Christmas lives.

Everyone cleans their houses ready for the three holy days of Christmas - Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Christmas Eve is very special, when people eat rice porridge and plum fruit juice in the morning. They will then decorate a spruce tree in the home. At mid-day, the 'peace of Christmas' is broadcast on radio and TV from the Finnish city of Turku by its Mayor. In the evening, a traditional Christmas dinner is eaten. The meal will include 'casseroles' containg macaroni, rutabaga, carrot and potato, with cooked ham or turkey. Many families will visit cemeteries and grave-yards to place a candle onto the burial graves of family members. Cemeteries are very beautiful at Christmas-time.

Children receive their presents on Christmas Eve, usually with a family member dressing as Father Christmas. As children grow older, they come to realise that 'Father Christmas' is really a bigger brother, sister or family member.

France
In France, Christmas is always called 'Noël. Everyone has a Christmas tree, sometimes decorated in the old way with red ribbons and real white wax candles. Fir trees in the garden are often decorated too, with lights on all night.

Nearly every French home at Christmastime displays a Nativity scene or creche, which serves as the focus for the Christmas celebration. The creche is often peopled with little clay figures called santons or "little saints." An extensive tradition has evolved around these little figures which are made by craftsmen in the south of France throughout the year. In addition to the usual Holy Family, shepherds, and Magi, the craftsmen also produce figures in the form of local dignitaries and characters. The craftsmanship involved in creating the gaily colored santons is quite astounding and the molds have been passed from generation to generation since the seventeenth century. Throughout December the figures are sold at annual Christmas fairs in Marseille and Aix.

The Christmas meal is an important family gathering with good meat and the best wine.The French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Nol, which means "Christmas Log." The cake, among other food in great abundance is served at the grand feast of the season, which is called le rveillon. Le rveillon is a very late supper held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The menu for the meal varies according to regional culinary tradition. In Alsace, goose is the main course, in Burgundy it is turkey with chestnuts, and the Parisians feast upon oysters and pat de foie gras.French children receive gifts from Pere Noel (Father Christmas) who travels with his stern disciplinarian companion Pre Fouettard. Pre Fouettard reminds Pere Noel of just how each child has behaved during the past year. In some parts of France Pere Noel brings small gifts on St. Nicholas Eve (December 6) and visits again on Christmas. In other places it is le petit Jsus who brings the gifts. Generally adults wait until New Year's Day to exchange gifts.

Germany
Germans love to decorate their houses at Christmas. Many houses will have little wooden frames holding electric candles in their windows, and coloured pictures of paper or plastic which look beautiful from the outside at night. Often too, they will have an 'Adventskranz' - a wreath of leaves with four candles. (Advent - meaning 'coming' - is the 4 week period before Christmas). On each Sunday of Advent, another candle is lit. Most homes will also have little wooden 'cribs' - a small model of the stable where Jesus was born, with Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and animals.

Father Christmas - 'Der Weihnachtsmann' - brings presents in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve (December 24th), after people have been to a church meeting. The presents are then found under the Christmas tree. One person in the family will ring a bell and call everyone to come to the room. On Christmas Day, fish (carp) or goose will be cooked.

Greece
St. Nicholas is important in Greece as the patron saint of sailors. According to Greek tradition, his clothes are drenched with brine, his beard drips with seawater, and his face is covered with perspiration because he has been working hard against the waves to reach sinking ships and rescue them from the angry sea. Greek ships never leave port without some sort of St. Nicholas icon on board. To members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as are most Greek Christians, Christmas ranks second to Easter in the roster of important holidays. Yet there are a number of unique customs associated with Christmas that are uniquely Greek. On Christmas Eve, village children travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing kalanda, the equivalent of carols. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and little clay drums. The children are frequently rewarded with sweets and dried fruits.

After 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation by adults and children alike. Pigs are slaughtered and on almost every table are loaves of christopsomo ("Christ Bread"). This bread is made in large sweet loaves of various shapes and the crusts are engraved and decorated in some way that reflects the family's profession.Christmas trees are not commonly used in Greece. In almost every home the main symbol of the season is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire is suspended across the rim; from that hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the Killantzaroi away from the house.

There are a number of beliefs connected with the Killantzaroi, which are a species of goblins or sprites who appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany (January 6). These creatures are believed to emerge from the center of the earth and to slip into people's house through the chimney. More mischievous than actually evil, the Killantzaroi do things like extinguish fires, ride astride people's backs, braid horses' tails, and sour the milk. To further repel the undesirable sprites, the hearth is kept burning day and night throughout the twelve days. Gifts are exchanged on St. Basil's Day (January 1). On this day the "renewal of waters" also takes place, a ritual in which all water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with new "St. Basil's Water." The ceremony is often accompanied by offerings to the naiads, spirits of springs.

Hungary
Santa Clause (Winter-grandfather) (Tel-apo or Mikulas) comes on the 6th of December. Children should clean and put their shoes outside next to the door or window before they go to sleep. Next day candies and/or small toys appear in them in red bags.

On 24th of December, children go to their relative or to the movies, because little Jesus brings the tree and the presents that evening to their house. It is customary to hang edible things on the tree, like golden wrapped assorted chocolates and meringues beside the glass balls, candles (real or electrical), and sparklers. Families usually cook festive dinner for that night. An example would be fresh fish usually with rice or potatoes and home made pastries as dessert. After dinner, the tree would be viewed by the children for the first time. Christmas songs are sung and the gifts under the tree are shared.

Older children attend the midnight mass with their parents. (During communism, children had to hide at the back of the church. Teachers could have lost their jobs for attending the mass. Later (in mid 1970's) most of the Communist Party leaders of the town attended it too.) Next day the children attack the edible part of the tree. Festive food is enjoyed on the second and third day too.

People from Transylvania serve stuffed cabbage on Christmas Eve, and next day for lunch. Most likely the reason for that custom is that stuffed cabbage is the best on the second and third day after it was cooked. Moms can prepare the food a day earlier, leaving more time for decorating and organizing. Very practical.

On the 25th of December, the whole family attended church and ate stuffed cabbage for lunch.

Ireland
St. Stephen's Day is celebrated in Ireland in a different way, but is similar to Boxing Day in that it also has to do with the solicitation of money. Young men is extravagant dress, sometimes wearing masks, parade noisily through the streets in the Wren Boys' Procession. They carry long pole on top of which is attached a holly bush. The bush supposedly contains a captured wren, and for whose sake the young men beg for money.

Jamaica
Christmas in Jamaica, has it own flavor based on the many cultures that make up the island. One of the most telling signs of Christmas in Jamaica is the food. Mixed fruits, which are marinated in wine for months, are now used to bake the ever-popular Christmas Fruit cake. The Christmas Drink of Jamaica is the delicious Sorrel (made from sorrel sepal - a meadow plant, cinnamons, cloves, sugar, orange peel and a little white rum) can be found everywhere. This is normally served over ice. The Jamaican Christmas dinner is a feast of all feasts with mouth-watering foods such as, rice and gungo peas, roast chicken or duck, oxtails and curried goat, ham, roast beef or pork.The Johnkano celebrations, a parade/festival of masked, dancing musicians, which was brought to Jamaica by the Africa slaves, used to be prevalent across Jamaica but over the years has now mainly been confined to the rural areas of Jamaica.

New Zealand
Christmas starts with gifts under the tree, to be opened Christmas morning. Then its onto a Christmas lunch either at home or at one's parents place. Turkey or chicken with all the trimmings is eaten, then come tea time, it is a Bar-B-Q for friends and family to get-together,and have a few beers or wines with the meal!!

Poland
In Poland, an elaborate tradition called Wigilia is celebrated. Beginning on Christmas Eve, a strict 24-hour fast is observed which ends with a huge Christmas feast. In honor of the star of Bethlehem, the meal cannot begin until the first star of night appears. Though Christmas is Poland is officially known as Bozz Narodzenie, it is most often referred to as Gwiazdka, which means "little star." Once the star appears, a special rice wafer blessed by the parish priest called oplatek, is broken into pieces and shared by all. Finally the meal can begin. The feast consists of twelve courses, one for each Apostle. The table is always set with one extra seat in case a stranger or the Holy Spirit should appear to share the meal.

Portugal
Christmas is celebrated in much the same way in Portugal as it is in Spain. The Portugese enjoy an additional feast, called consoada, in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. They set extra places at the table for alminhas a penar ("the souls of the dead"). In some areas crumbs are left on the hearth for these souls, a custom that derives from the ancient practice of entrusting seeds to the dead in hopes that they will provide a bountiful harvest.

People pretend that Father Christmas brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. The presents are left under the Christmas tree or in shoes by the fireplace. A special Christmas meal of salted dry cod-fish with boiled potatoes is eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Russia
In the days of the Soviet Union, Christmas was not celebrated very much. New Year was the important time - when 'Father Frost' brought presents to children. With the fall of Communism, Christmas can be openly celebrated - either on December 25th; or more often on January 7th. This unusual date is because the Russian Orthodox church uses the old 'Julian' calendar for religious celebration days. Special Christmas food includes cakes, pies and 'meat dumplings'.

South America
Throughout South America Christmas is celebrated in a deeply religious way. The main focus of the season throughout the continent is the presepio ("the manger"). Often a whole room is devoted to the presepio display, complete with landscape and tiny figures made to scale. Though the central feature is the manger at Bethlehem, elaborate scens will include hills full of shepherds gazing upon the heavenly host, the Wise Men crossing the desert on their camels, water mills, grottos, electric trains, and even sailboats on the sea.

United States
Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. While it is not clear when people actually began celebrating Christmas, December 25th became a federal holiday on June 26, 1870 (Central Valley). Earlier in history there were winter festivals held to commemorate the end of the harvest and the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. These winter festivals were said to include gift giving, songs, feasts, and decorating homes with evergreens (CNN Interactive), many of the same customs that are used to celebrate Christmas in America today.

Many people decorate their homes with evergreen trees and wreaths. Evergreens have been considered a symbol of everlasting life since they remain green throughout the year. The tradition of decorating evergreen trees with lights and ornaments is believed to have been a custom that began in Germany and became an American custom late in the 19th century (History Channel.com). In addition to Christmas trees many of the customs that we use to celebrate Christmas, such as Santa Claus and Mistletoe, have come from traditions that originated in other countries.

On Christmas Eve Santa Claus is said to travel all over the world bringing gifts to children. He comes down the chimney and leaves presents under the Christmas tree and in stockings that are hung for him to fill (of course if you don't have a chimney he will find another way in). It is believed that Santa Claus was derived from St. Nicholas, who was a 4th century Catholic bishop that was renowned for his good deeds and became an American tradition when it was brought here by Dutch Settlers (Harmon). This is why Santa is sometimes referred to as Old St. Nick.

Mistletoe is another Christmas tradition that began as a European winter solstice custom and later became an American tradition (Harmon). It is typically hung in a doorway or archway and whoever stands beneath it gets a kiss. The exchanging of gifts is a tradition of the holiday to symbolize the importance of giving to others. Many people make donations to charities and to families that are less fortunate than themselves during the Christmas season.

Many American families view the Christmas season as an important time of the year to come together whether they have a strong religious affiliation or not. Although in recent times Christmas has become very commercialized, Christmas is a very special time of year and many families have their own ways of celebrating this holiday.

Venezuela
Venezuelans attend a daily early morning church service between December 16th and 24th called Misa de Aguinaldo ("Early Morning Mass.") In Caracas, the capital city, it is customary to roller-skate to this service and many neighborhoods close the streets to cars until 8 a.m. Before bedtime children tie one end of a piece of string to their big toe and hang the other out the window. The next morning, rollerskaters give a tug to any string they see hanging. After Mass everyone enjoys tostados and coffee.

(source: http://www.the-north-pole.com/around/index.htm

This article was published on Friday 11 December, 2009.
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