When we think of Christmas, we tend to imagine Santa Claus, Christmas trees, holiday decorations, eggnog and of course, turkey. But while we know so much about our own American traditions, how similar is our Christmas to the rest of the world? From celebrating St Lucia’s day in Sweden to traditional pre-Christmas cleaning in Poland, the people at language learning app Babbel can fill you in on all of the wonderful ways people celebrate the beloved December holiday around the world.
Did you know that in Belgium, there are two kinds of Santa? For French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgians, Santa Claus is called Pere Noel; however, for Belgians who speak Walloon, he is called Sinterklaas or ‘Saint Nicholas.’ Sinterklaas has a slightly different back story. He is said to live in Spain rather than Antarctica and he makes two visits on horseback to see children with his assistant, Zwarte Piet. The first trip is made on December 4 to check if children have behaved that year, then Sinterklaas returns on the night of the 5th with presents to leave for the good children (and twigs for the bad children). Children leave out tangerines, gingerbread, and mokjes (cookies shaped like letters) for Sinterklaas to eat, and instead of leaving out stockings, they leave out shoes for him to fill with presents. Gifts are opened on December 6, which falls on a celebratory feast day in honor of Saint Nicholas. The more traditional Christmas meal, however, is held on December 24, the day before Christmas, and afterwards presents are exchanged. A traditional Christmas dinner usually consists of a seafood starter, roast turkey and to conclude, a dessert known as Kerststronk which resembles a yule log. On Christmas Day, families wear Advent crowns made of fir, parade around the town singing carols, and travel to see friends.
In Sweden, an important day leading up to Christmas is Saint Lucia’s Day on December 13, which commemorates the young martyr Lucia, killed in 304 AD for providing aid to persecuted Christians in Rome. Schools, towns and villages choose someone to play Saint Lucia in processions which take place across the country. The actor playing Lucia wears a crown of lingonberry branches, to symbolize new life in winter. In Sweden, the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. This normally consists of a julboard, a buffet eaten at lunchtime, which includes cold fish and meats such as herring and turkey. Presents are also exchanged on this day. Christmas officially lasts until January 13th, known as Tjugondag Knut– or the “Twentieth Day Yule,” and it’s only then that Christmas trees are taken down.
Christmas in Italy begins on the 8th of December, known as the “Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.” On this religious day, many offices and shops close, Christmas decorations officially go up and Christmas markets begin. The time from December 17 through to December 25 is known as Novena and, during this period, carolers sing traditional songs around the neighborhood and nativity scenes are displayed in churches and piazzas. Italians traditionally have a light Christmas Eve Dinner, (often consisting of no meat) in order to ready their stomachs for their Christmas Day feast, which usually lasts all day. Christmas does not officially end in Italy until January 6, known as the “Day of the Epiphany.” The night before this, families gather once again to have a large dinner to mark the end of the Christmas holiday. When it comes to presents, some regions of Italy exchange gifts on Christmas Day, while others believe that Saint Lucia delivers gifts on December 13. Other regions even wait until the Day of Epiphany, when it is believed that presents have been delivered by Befana, an ugly but kind witch.
Nativity scenes are popular Christmas decorations in France and, in addition to traditional nativity figures, also include figures such as a Butcher, Policeman, Priest and Baker. On Christmas Eve, a cherry wood log is brought into the house, sprinkled with red wine, and then burned. Tradition dictates that the log and candles be left burning all night along with food and drink, in case Mary and Jesus visit during the night. The main Christmas meal is known as Réveillon and is eaten in the early hours of Christmas morning, once people have returned from the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
Christmas in Norway is known as jul and celebrations begin in early December, with familiar traditions such as tree decorating and carol singing. Christmas decorations in Norway, which are believed to have been invented by the famous Hans Christian Andersen, are called Julekurver, which are small paper baskets in the shape of hearts. December 23rd is known by some families as “Little Christmas Eve,” and traditions for this day include eating risengrynsgrøt or “hot rice pudding.” Christmas Eve is the most important day of the holiday for Norwegians, when families gather together for a large Christmas dinner. In the late afternoon, normally around four or five o’clock, church bells ring throughout cities and towns to signify the official beginning of Christmas. Norwegian Christmas dinners normally consist of ribs and cod served with surkal – a white or red cabbage cooked with caraway seeds and vinegar. Rather than waiting until Christmas Day, after dinner on Christmas Eve, children unwrap presents from Julenisse or “Santa Claus,” who is believed to be helped by small gnomes called Nisse. After the celebrations on Christmas Eve, December 25 through to December 30 is normally spent seeing friends and family, and enjoying more food.
For Poland, the beginning of Christmas is marked by Advent. This is a time of fasting and prayer in preparation for Christmas. During this time, many people give up their favorite food or drink and celebrations are kept to a minimum. Many people spend this time with family, preparing for Christmas by making handmade decorations and baking Christmas foods to ready for the upcoming celebration. It is believed that your home should be especially clean at Christmas, and so, cleaning has also become a bit of a ritual at this time of year. Christmas Eve is generally considered to be the most important day of the year, due to its religious significance as the day of Jesus’ birth, and religious families will not sit down to eat dinner on this day until the first star has appeared in the eastern sky. Polish tradition dictates that before the meal begins, a large wafer known as Oplatek is passed around and broken between those at the table. Before it can be eaten, family members turn to one another and wish each other a long and happy life for the future. The Polish Christmas meal normally consists of twelve vegetarian dishes, believed to bring luck for the following twelve months, or Jesus’s twelve disciples. Dessert follows with dried fruit compote and pastries. Celebrations continue on December 25 when families attend church, and later consume even more food and wine throughout the day.
Miriam Plieninger is Director of Didactics and part of the Management Team at Babbel, the language-learning app that empowers users to speak from the beginning. In language learning nothing is more rewarding than a real conversation — and 73% of surveyed customers feel that they’d be able to hold one within five hours of using the app.