Here at Globetrotters HQ in the United Arab Emirates, we have been reflecting on what exactly is Christmas and how best to explain it to our Our Globetrotters – growing up far from our own cultural upbringing and without strong religious influences in our own lives.
Mr Globetrotter and I were both bought up in Australia which is a predominantly Christian society and our childhoods are full of fabulous memories of hot summer days, shopping centre Santas, Carols by Candlelight and of course unwrapping gifts left under the Christmas tree on the morning of 25 December, by a fat bearded man named Santa (who in fact looks remarkable like the Grandad Globetrotter – seriously!)
We do not strongly identify with the religious aspects of Christmas but we do like to uphold Christmas traditions and the spirit of family and giving.
As the years have gone on, the Globetrotters have become more curious as to whats and the whys – understandable when about half your classmates actually don’t observe Christmas (or have picked up on only a handful of our weird and wonderful customs!)
So I’ve been doing a lot of digging for appropriate answers and explanations. If like me you have struggled to find the right word to help explain Christmas to your kids growing up in a multi-cultural environment, I hope you will find this guide useful (if nothing else we have found a load of quirky facts that are bound to help you at the next school quiz night you attend…)
1. Who is celebrating today?
Christmas is a Christian holiday, marking the birth of Jesus Christ – the Son of God according to Christianity – so assuming all Christians celebrate, that’s about 31.5% of the world’s population or just a cool 2.2 billion or so people. Christmas is literally the Mass of Christ – when Christians attend mass and remember that Jesus died for us. But not all of them are celebrating on 25 December using the Gregorian calendar.
2.What’s in a date?
Now the exact date Jesus was born was never recorded (there is no 0AD, so go figure?), but during the 4th century, Pope Julius declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December. This also fits during the pagan midwinter festivals – called many different names across Europe. It’s thought the early Christians gave new meaning to these festivities to celebrate the birth of Christ.
There are, however, many different denominations or Churches that fall under Christianity. The predominant Church in each Christian country generally dictates the day Christmas is celebrated (or at least when the occasion is formally marked). Whilst most of the world’s largest Christian countries mark the occasion on 25 December, most Orthodox and Coptic Churches (think Russia, former Russian States, Ukraine, Serbia, Jerusalem, Ethiopia) use the Julian Calendar, which marks Christmas Day as 7 January; Some mark the holy occasion on 25 December but gift-giving is seen as a separate occasion with its own traditions.
3. What’s all the gift giving about?
Many young children are no doubt completely unconcerned with the religion and background of Christmas and are highly focused on the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas time. But who is this big fat jolly guy coming down your chimney with his reindeer, or is it an elegant, noble old man riding in on a white horse?
Just as there’s no one date for Christmas, there’s no one day or person who is delivering presents. It’s believed that the modern day or American “Santa Claus” was in fact as an adaption of the European Father Christmas, which in turn was actually based on Sinterklaas, the Dutch word for St Nicholas. So who are they all – or are they each and one of the same?
Well firstly, St Nicholas was a REAL person! The 4th Greek Christian bishop Nicholas (Nikolaos of Myra) became famous for his secret giving of gifts – and was in fact from Greece (now modern day Turkey) not the North Pole. He was declared a saint around 900AD. For centuries he has been portrayed as a gift-giver during winter solstice festivals, and this is the spirit of giving that has continued to live on to modern-day celebrations.
Recognised by children in Holland, Belgium and parts of northern France is depicted as a tall, relatively skinny guy, wearing a bishop’s robe, a red mitre on his head and holding a staff. He rides a white horse while his assistant Zwarte Pieten (Black Peter) actually does the hard work going up and down the chimneys in children’s homes. You can read more about this tradition on Kid World Citizen.
A well-fed bearded man who lives in the mountains of Korvantunturi in Lapland. He wasn’t traditionally a gift giver but the spirit of good tidings and joy of Christmas. (And with a green fur coat, not red!!) Over time he has merged with Santa Claus and St Nicholas as the bringer of gifts, coming down the chimney of children’s homes and leaving treats in children’s stockings.
Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) are the gift-givers for children in Russia. Ded Moroz gives out gifts to reform his former evil ways of kidnapping children and demanding presents as a random and freezing people (so not a nice chap really….)
4. How did the modern Santa Claus come about?
So how has most of the world ended up celebrating with this jolly old fat bearded guy, apparently hailing from the North Pole with his supersonic sled and reindeer?
Much of the imagery at least can apparently be attributed to the book “the Night Before Christmas“ by Clement Clarke Moore, illustrated by Thomas Nast. And the red suit? Some try to attribute this to Coca-Cola (great marketing ploy!) though even the corporate giant agrees Santa was wearing red well before their 1920’s advertising campaign, and in fact, their Santa was very much taken from the early drawings of Thomas Nast.
The modern Santa has certainly been the result of many twists turns and cultural interpretations (and to a large degree in the last century commercialization) over time; but the core facts that remain fairly consistent, regardless of country or beliefs is that he is a kind old man who gives gifts to good children. Parents around the world help his legend live on through secret present giving and monitoring of children’s behaviour, particularly as Christmas or St Nicholas Day approaches.
5. Why do some kids already have their gifts?
While kids from Holland & Belgium are already well finished unwrapping their gifts – Sinterklaas arrives on the night of 5 December (if they’ve filled their shoes with hay and sugar for his horse!) – those in the Czech Republic, Germany, Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary wait patiently for the morning of 6 December (St Nicholas Day).
Many children are also opening up their gifts on Christmas Eve! – traditional in many parts of Europe, even Korea. If you’re not opening presents Christmas Eve, how about partaking in the Estonia Christmas Eve tradition of heading to the spa together? Or maybe you pull on your skates to get to Christmas Mass like they do in Caracas, Venezuela? You can be one of the first to rip off the wrapping paper in El Salvador where present opening happens right after midnight mass.
In Greece, the Catholic holiday of Christmas is marked on 25 December, but kids await receiving their gifts from Aghios Vassilis (Saint Basil) on the 1st January – St Vasilis’s Day. And think of those kids from Orthodox Church countries, waiting patiently until 7 December to start unwrapping their presents!
6. Why is there a witch in my chimney?
Italian kids may receive a small gift from Babbo Natale on the 25th of December, but they must patiently await the 12 days of Christmas for the arrival of La Befana – a friendly witch that delivers sweets and toys – on 5 January. She is a witch-like old lady riding a broomstick who will climb down your chimney with a gift – or leave you a lump of coal if you’ve been naughty! The great news is she cleans your house but she doesn’t like to be seen and will whack you with her broom if you’re caught. I think this is one of my favourite legends! Italian Mama Marta expands on the story of Le Befana here.
Oh, and on the subject of witches, I hope you don’t get any spillages on your floor in Norway over Christmas. Brooms are put away on Christmas Eve to avoid witches and evil spirits riding them off into the skies, of course.
7. Gifts as a ransom
Now Serbia seems to have a different take completely on the Christmas tradition of gift giving. Gifts are not exchanged on Christmas day, but on the three Sundays prior. Children give gifts on Detinjci, married women on Materice, and married men on Oci. The most festive of these holidays is Materice, where the mother, preparing the family feast is tied up and held “ransom” until she pays over with presents. Similarly, children are tied up on Deinjci and Fathers on Oci. This is likely only followed in small parts of the country – but still – bizarre!
8. And why are some kids not getting anything?
Although Christianity is the world’s largest religion, it’s by no means the only one. There are literally billions worldwide who do not celebrate Christmas. A great concern to many expat kids living in Muslim countries (the world’s second-largest religion) is “why doesn’t Santa leave them presents?”. Of course, this is difficult to explain when the concept of religion itself can be vague. Most Muslim children we know will receive gifts at Eid, the religious celebration held at the end of the Holy month of Ramadan (based on the Hirji calendar so the date varies every year). Like Christian children, they also receive gifts on their birthday’s. We explain more about Eid celebrations here.
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah also falls around the same time as Christmas each year. Based on the Jewish lunar calendar dates vary year to year but their celebrations of “The Jewish Festival of Lights” begins on the 25th day of Kislev and lasts for 8 Days. In 2017 this will be celebrated 12 – 20 December. It’s not actually one of the most significant holidays in the Jewish calendar but its proximity to Christmas in the Western world has lead to an increased emphasis on gift-giving during the 8 days. I found this article helpful in explaining Hanukkah gifts if in doubt!
Children of other religions living in predominantly Christian countries where Christmas is celebrated will frequently join in with traditions such as tree decorating in their home and a small gift may also be given at Christmas. It’s my personal observation that we now live in a much more multi-cultural society than even 20 years ago when I was a child and there is far more recognition of the fact there are different religions with different celebrations.
The emphasis has moved to “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” – though at times political correctness can go too far…. this is another topic completely that I will cover on another occasion!!
9. Who’s been naughty or nice this year?
Has the modern tradition of Elf on the Shelf hit your household? Love it or loathe it, the basic premise is that only the good or “nice” kids will get gifts for Christmas. Elf is sent as a helper from the North Pole (or Lapland if you prefer!) to report back to Santa. I’ve seen a lot of naysayer posts doing the rounds this year about poor Elf “bringing out the wrong behaviours” or “why should you only be good at Christmas?”. Seriously, it’s just a bit of fun for the kids! Put a bit of magic in your home while the belief in Santa is still there and give mum and dad an interesting task after a few too many glasses of wine of an evening…. heaven forbid you go to bed though and forget to move the bl**dy Elf!!
And in this modern day and age of course time has moved on, you don’t necessarily need to send an elf all the way from the North Pole when there are perfectly good cameras that can immediately transmit all wrongdoings back to Santa’s HQ.
The earliest interpretation of the “nice” list seems to date back to The Book of the Righteous – effigies of St Nicholas show him holding this.
So how does modern day folklore say those not on the nice list are to be dealt with? Forget cute little elves working away in Santa’s workshop, apparently, Santa was traditionally followed by little black devils called Krampus. Maybe you should be glad you’re not in Austria where the Christmas Devil Krampus will chase naughty children with branches. In other parts of the world, Santa is far less sinister, only leaving a lump of coal in the stocking for those kids who do not appear on his nice list.
Now don’t think you’re spared in Holland or Belgium either, Black Peter will kidnap the worst children and take them to Spain as punishment – well I can think of worse…
10. What’s this Boxing Day business?
Originating from the UK over 800 years ago, boxing day was when alms boxes, collections for the poor often kept in churches were opened and distributed to the poor. For years when I was little I had the image of a boxing kangaroo flag being flown at a cricket match in my head – and in modern-day UK and Australia, it’s certainly a day associated with sports – and door-busting shopping sales (much like Black Friday in the US after Thanksgiving). Another modern conjecture is its the day you box up everything you don’t want or doesn’t work and return it to the shop…. It’s an extra public holiday in most Commonwealth countries. Awesome!
11.Why is there a tree in our living room?
I do find this actually the most comical of traditions – yet it’s probably one of the oldest, and in fact not directly related to Christmas but likely the winter solstice. Decorated fir trees have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years – exactly how these became Christmas trees and placed indoors there are many varying theories.
At first figures of baby Jesus were placed on top, then angels that told the shepherds about baby Jesus. In modern times, the most common tree topping ornament is now a star, symbolising what the wise men would have seen the night baby Jesus was born (now let’s not get into a debate about the date of Christmas again as apparently the star of Bethlehem can only be seen during spring or autumn…)
12. And what’s on your tree?
Traditional trees were lit with candles – but due to fire risk, the first Christmas lights were invented in 1895 – what an innovation!! Now the fir tree might still be the most popular “real” tree used worldwide but since the 20th century, artificial trees started to become popular, made from feathers, paper mache – even metal, glass and now plastic!
If you’re looking for some inspiration on what to put on your Christmas tree, Multicultural Kids Blog has a great selection of international inspired ornament crafting ideas. I must let you in on our favourite Christmas tradition though; we collect our ornaments from all over the world when we travel throughout the year. It’s something we’ve really been able to involve the kids in too and its so much fun reliving our travels when we pull the Christmas box out every year!
Did you know the most expensive Christmas tree ever erected was right here in our very own Abu Dhabi? (Not bad for a Muslim country hey?!) The Emiratis do love a good biggest and best title. Adorned with gold ornaments and precious gems, the 2010 masterpiece in Emirates Palace Hotel cost a reported 7.2mGBP. They still erect one of the most spectacular masterpiece every year – well worth a visit if you’re in the UAE in December – in fact most hotels put on a pretty stunning Christmas display and feast.
Much better than the spiders and spider web traditional decorations used in the Ukraine. Or how would you like to be involved in the German tradition of adorning your tree with a pickle ornament?
13. Unique delicacies and unusual feasts
Now we’d be remiss not to talk about Christmas traditions without mentioning food! There are so many different traditional Christmas dishes this topic really deserves a post all of its own, but it’s getting close to midnight and this Santa has to get to work! If traditional dishes like turkey, ham or goose are not your thing and you want to go a bit more exotic this year how about trying the South African delicacy of deep-fried caterpillar? Or what about the traditional dish of Mattak from Greenland – raw whale skin served with blubber?
14. Bring me some deep fried KFC!
Although Christmas isn’t a recognised holiday in Japan, many families will still observe the occasion as a time to spread happiness and exchange Christmas cards. It is also tradition to have a “Christmas Bird” or fried chicken on Christmas day. Buckets of chicken are ordered from KFC months in advance, and get in early if you want an actual table booking!! This is apparently all thanks to a 1974 advertising campaign that has become a tradition in its own. An estimated 3.6 million Japanese will be hoeing into their KFC today at a cool 5000 yen ($41USD) for a Christmas bucket – including cake and champagne!
This is apparently all thanks to a 1974 advertising campaign that has become a tradition in its own. An estimated 3.6 million Japanese will be hoeing into their KFC today at a cool 5000 yen ($41USD) for a Christmas bucket – including cake and champagne!
15. The nativity scene with a difference
Now I had a hard enough time trying to explain this one to Miss 5, apparently up to this point her life I’ve failed to even mention who Jesus is (yeah my bad).
So how do you reckon I went trying to explain a little gift an Aunty brought back from Catalonia “El Caganer” also known as “the fertiliser” or “the shitter”; A small defecating statue that’s added to the nativity scene – apparently signals a good harvest for the year ahead.
Or maybe it’s due to the naughty kids in Holland being sent to Spain by Black Peter…
What are you Christmas Traditions?
Are there any Christmas Traditions you have struggled to explain or wish you knew the reason why? Let us know when you celebrate and what makes it special in your household!
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From our family to yours, whether you are celebrating or not, have a joyous festive season, enjoy time with your loved ones
Facts sourced from: visualisation.com; whychristmas.com; Santas.net; huffingtonpost.com; todayifoundout.com; thehistoryofchristmas.com. This post contains affiliate links that may earn us a small commission to keep this website funded as a free resource for international families. You can see our full disclosure policy here.