Joy to the World

Christmas traditions around the world

News | Darko Gacov, Marlies Dachler, Lenka Rombova, Isabella Vatter, Margaret Childs, Anna Claessen | December 2007 / January 2008


Christmas in Orthodox Macedonia is on Jan. 7th, 14 days later than most others celebrates. This is a mixed blessing. The upside, especially if you are a student in a foreign country, is that you get to celebrate twice.

The downside is that it makes you different. But being different is not always a bad thing, because in Macedonia we don’t have the shopping hype and chaos, at least not for Christmas. We value the New Year more and exchange our presents then.

At our Christmas – celebrated on what is the feast of Epiphany in the Christian West in honor of the visit of the Three Kings – the importance is placed on the 6th of January rather than on the 7th. On the morning of  the 6th, small children traipse around the neighborhood, knocking on doors singing songs and receiving gifts of money or candy in return. It’s something similar to the "trick or treat" of American children on Halloween. Nowadays, though, children prefer money, since they know they can buy themselves the candy afterwards.

On the night before Christmas, people gather with their closest friends and light a big fire. There you drink warm Schnapps with sugar, or maybe sangria, make a barbeque and listen to music till early in the morning, or till you get drunk enough so it is no longer safe to be close to the fire, or to the other drunk people.

So, we welcome Christmas with a hang-over; but unlike other hangovers, this is a happy Christmassy hangover, which makes all the difference. And although there is more emphasis on the day before, Christmas too is extremely important for the family. We usually do not leave home and have a formal dinner that has to include some Macedonian dishes – beans, fish, posna sarma (meat and rice wrapped and boiled in cabbage leaves), some fruits and of course at least one bottle of good red wine.

Across a festive table of luscious food and drink, we settle into a blush of good feeling, to find deeper values in family ties and family itself. So what better way to reach this deeper sense of family values than through gambling yourself silly over a game of  Bridge? After the dinner is over, we sit down at the table, deal the cards and start the first hand. Sometimes I wonder how is it possible for a card game to get so strategic. Every year I have to face the Parents’ Alliance, where my mother and father join forces to take every cent of my brother’s and my money.

But we are not naïve. We form a counterstrike Brother Block immediately, in order to oppose this dire threat. Fortunately, the Parents’ Alliance has a weak spot: My mother does not cheat… And in Christmas gambling Bridge, if you do not cheat, you are cheated, since the rules are made by the majority. Last year my brother and I won enough for our ski holiday on that game. As I said, this holiday is all about finding deeper values in family.

by Darko Gacov



A thrill of Christmas anticipation is in the air. It’s only a few hours before the handing out of the presents. Excitement is brought to the boil by the door pasted up with wrapping paper. I try to peek through the keyhole, but all I can see are the huge green branches of the awe-inspiring fir tree. The magical and long awaited moment comes in late afternoon, right after Christmas mass. As soon as I enter the house, the mellifluous sound of a small bell signals that the Christchild has just finished setting up the presents. As fast as a world champion runner, I rush up the stairs and push the door open.

For me, Christmas is the most meaningful celebration in the Christian calendar. It begins when we light the first candle on the Advent wreath, a tradition in Austria at least since the mid-19th century. When my grandmother was young, there were three purple and one pink candle, but today they come in many different colors and shapes. The circular wreath is meant to represent God’s eternity. The first candle is called the prophet’s candle, and the hope of Jesus’ arrival. The second is called the Bethlehem candle, commemorating Jesus’s birth in a humble manger in the territory of one of the least powerful tribes of Israel. The third candle is the shepherds’ candle, representing the joy that more than half of Advent is over. The final pink candle is the angels’ candle, symbolizing peace and the message of good news.

The advent calendar dates from about the same time but gained new popularity in Austria in the 1960s as prosperity returned after World War II. They are usually made of cardboard or cloth with 24 little doors or pockets for the days leading up to Christmas, with little presents, chocolates, or pictures to discover inside. The giant Advent Calendar on the façade of the Viennese town hall is one of the most famous in Europe and features sponsored original paintings, with proceeds donated charity.

But for me, Christmas is mostly about music. One year, I remember sitting right next to the organ in the local church on Christmas Day. Awed by its power, I told my parents I wanted to learn how to make that glorious sound. It was only later that I learned how a country organist near Salzburg came to write the most famous Christmas carol of all.

On Christmas Eve, 1818, the Chapel organ of the St. Nicola in Oberndorf, Province of Salzburg, failed just as it was time to begin the midnight mass; some mice had apparently eaten through the bellows and the air was leaking away. So the priest Joseph Mohr took out a poem he had written earlier and asked organist and school teacher Franz Xaver Gruber to compose a melody Mohr could play on his guitar, and in the hush of a clear night, made up a simple hymn that was to become known the world over: Silent Night, Holy Night (Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht) – now translated into more than 300 languages, probably the most famous Christmas song in the Christian world.

What I love most is how at the end of mass, the organ becomes silent, and the lights are turned off. From my seat on the gallery, I can see the sea of candlelights, and as people start singing the first  stanza of Silent Night, Holy Night, deep inner peace overcomes me, and I realize Christmas day has finally come.

I have celebrated Christmas in different countries, but I have always added an Austrian dimension to the festivity, which is by far my favorite holiday of the year, not only because I believed in the Christchild until I was almost ten years old.

When I bake Christmas cookies, like the traditional Vanillekipferl or Linzeraugen, this year, it will remind me of how I baked tons of cookies for my host family in Ireland. My mom and I will also play duets on the flute and the piano, and I look forward to seeing the sparkle in my grandmother’s eyes when she hears us play, as my father’s low voice hums along.

 by Marlies Dachler


Czech Republic

A Czech Christmas officially begins four weeks early, on the first Sunday of Advent. We buy a wreath with four candles and light one each week leading up to the momentous day. Our family bakes Christmas sweets on the third weekend using my Great-Grandma’s recipes – about eight different kinds – and we wolf them down non-stop throughout the holidays.

We also buy a tree, of course. In Prague, as in most cities, farmers harvest the trees and truck them to town, where they stand on wooden racks in front of the supermarket waiting for buyers. It looks – and smells – wonderful, a forest suddenly appearing in the middle of the parking lot. But you have to get there early to get the best ones. And last year, well, my father had decided that the kids were old enough to take over this important responsibility, which I promptly delegated to my brother; which he nearly fumbled, by failing to make it to the lot until the afternoon of the 23rd. We feared the worst, some mangy, twisted reject that nobody could love…

But Christmas is a time of miracles, and my brother came home with a lovely blue spruce, tall, symmetrical and full, that drew "ahhs" from all assembled.  It was in fact so tall that we had to cut off about 30cm to fit our crowning ornament, a spire of piled silver mushroom cap-rings, topped with a narrow pointed cone. We even had to narrow the bottom of the trunk to fit our old tree holder.

There are some families that can’t wait and decorate the tree a week before Christmas Eve, but my brother had saved us from this failure of tradition, and we set about the task, hanging ornaments in many colors and shapes so the tree would look lively. Then Grandma pulled out her special collection, ornaments my brother and I made in kindergarten, funny drawings or animals out of plasticine. Whenever we see them, we groan, recognizing our complete anti-talent. But it is really sweet of her to keep the wretched things for so many years. Toward evening, we make Christmas braided coffeecake, sweet, twisted into a long loop and decorated with candied fruits, for the following morning.

The 24th is our Christmas Day. We wake up full of anticipation. We eat the Christmas bread and discuss the day’s plans. We have a myth that we shouldn’t eat any meat until dinner in order to see a golden pig. The entire family respects this discipline, and so we end up eating sweets all day long. Increasingly manic from this undiluted sugar high, we cannot wait for dinner.

So we begin cooking around noon. We start with two types of soups – fish soup, typical for Czechs, and cabbage soup for Slovakia, where my dad grew up. My brother and I hate fish soup.

Then we start preparing the main course, which is fried carp and potato salad. We bring a live carp home and keep him in the bathtub for a few days. When my brother and I were younger, we made up a name for our victim - Arnost. Since then, every carp has the same name, which becomes increasingly ridiculous with each passing year. Although it is sad watching Arnost die, the entire situation is hilarious because his skin is slimy and it’s absolutely impossible to hold him in your hands. When we take Arnost out of the tub and carry him into the kitchen, he always slips out of our hands a few times, so the floor is covered with puddles of water. Then my dad or my brother kills the carp and my brother cleans it, chops the head off and cuts it into filets.

We have dinner around six and it lasts for hours. Since we don’t believe in the Christkind any more, we all put the Christmas presents under the tree. The dinner table is right next to the tree, so we try to sneak a glance out of the corner of our eyes at the colorful boxes. Also, once dinner begins, we are not supposed to get up from the table before it’s over. If we do, legend has it, someone from the family will die during the coming year. So we have everything prepared before dinner starts.

Last year, right after dinner started, we found out that someone forgot to get the bottle-opener. We all stared at each other; we knew that we shouldn’t get up. For a while we thought we would have to go without drinks. But my dad is very practical and found a different way to open wine. He took the wooden salad spoon and used the other end to push the cork inside. We all sighed a huge sigh of relief and carried on with the meal.

In between courses, each of us opens four nuts – representing spring, summer, autumn and winter. If they are healthy, it means that we will stay well during that season. We also cut an apple in half to see the ‘star,’ also a sign that the upcoming year will be full of health. And then we are finally allowed to get up from the table and head off to the Christmas tree to open presents.

At midnight, it is time for church. This is a very old tradition. The pastor gives his sermon, which is followed by the congregation singing carols. Four years ago, when we went to church, it was really cold. The church near our house is very small, so we gather outside while the pastor and the organ are inside. The temperature went down to -15°C, and we were freezing. So after the sermon, we listened for our cue from the organ. But no sound came out – only weird, wheezing noises. We could hear the footsteps and creaking of people climbing around trying to adjust the pipes to the cold. But people were impatient and getting colder, and after 15 minutes, we gave up and sang without the organ – revealing the truth of our human frailties.

The 25th and 26th are days of recovery, national holidays filled with visiting family and friends.

by Lenka Rombova



In Bavaria, my home, festivities around Christmas are still very much religious, even if over the past years it has become more and more commercial and we are bombarded with kitschy American Santas and Rudolphs.

Traditionally, Christmas time begins during Advent, a time of fasting and prayer in preparation for the coming of the Christ child.  Never having been that religious as a child, the days before Christmas were thoughtful, sure, but more because I was worried about being good enough not to receive a spanking from Knecht Ruprecht – but more on that later.

It all begins with the Adventskranz, a wreath of luscious green fir branches decorated with nuts and four bold candles. On each Advent Sunday, a new candle is lit, counting down the weeks until the big day. On the night of Dec. 5, the principal concern of each German child is to find the largest possible boot that exists in the house. It’s all tactics! Then the shoe is placed outside the front door, where during the night, Saint Nikolaus will fill it to the rim with nuts, chocolate, oranges, and if you’re really lucky, even a little toy. To children, it seems like a warm-up Christmas event, but again, it has its roots in history, where the generous Saint Nikolaus gave gifts to three virgins.

Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, is the day of greatest excitement. In the morning, the grand fir tree that has been perfuming the air with its woodland scent for several days needs to be decorated. Here, tastes vary greatly and often the colors of this year’s tree have been discussed heatedly for days. The parents will go to the cellar where the ornaments have been wrapped and stored in boxes. The colorful balls made from delicate glass and painted with fine twirls each get "oohhs" and "aaahhs" when unwrapped. Additionally we add dried gingerbread, miniature wooden stars and of course the slim beeswax candles that need to be meticulously placed on the outer branches of the tree. And yes, we do still use real candles!

The rest of the day will be spent bustling about, baking more butter cookies and often going ice skating or building a snowman. The Christmas meal is usually prepared by the women of the house. In our family, it’s mostly my mother, although for the past few years I have taken on this chore because I love to cook. I start early with preparations; the four kilo goose is stuffed with onions, apples and herbs, patted, kissed and cajoled. We accompany this fine bird with potato dumplings, red cabbage scented with cloves and cinnamon, apples stuffed with marzipan and, most importantly, a delicious dark sauce.

As a child, dinner would be served early and usually gorged down in excitement – before being sent to one’s room to wait. Then parents need to be really quick, lighting the candles of the tree and placing the wrapped presents underneath. And then a little silver bell is gently rung which is the children’s cue to come racing down, straight to the window in the hope of still catching a glimpse of the Christkind. 

In some German homes, it’s Saint Nikolaus who brings the presents, accompanied by a nasty fellow called Knecht Ruprecht who carries Father Christmas’ jute bag. Now is the time to fret: Have I been good? Did someone tell the two guys about my cheating on that math test? Saint Nikolaus will read from a large golden book in which he keeps track of all the children’s doings and then decide whether to give presents… or whether the poor kid will be stuffed into the bag and beaten with the Ruprecht’s birch rod.

Whichever way the assessment goes, the following hours are reserved for the unwrapping of presents and a lot of hugs, smiles, thank-you’s and even tears. After all, it is a day of giving and of being thankful. In the late evening, my father used to read the Christmas story to us and some years we even sang Christmas songs to the horrible tones of my plastic Xylophone.

Although plastic Santa Clauses, tinsel and even stockings have invaded Germany, Christmas Eve is still a very holy time, rich with tradition, a night of prayers, poems and loving care, where even the strictest atheist will cherish the deeply rooted Christian customs and celebrate the birth of Christ.

by Isabella Vatter


The United States

 Christmas in the United States is probably the most kitsch-filled holiday in the world. Now, when I say "kitsch" I do mean glitter, lights, mistletoe and candy canes, but also a partially artificial feeling of general joy and splendor. I do not mean the chocolate Santas and hearing "Last Christmas" by Wham! on heavy rotation.In the United States, celebrations begin Christmas Eve, the 24th, an evening of family, feasting and a ceremony of hanging the stockings.  In my grandmother’s house, they hang from hooks on the mantelpiece, in order of age, waiting to be filled by Santa. In the morning the stockings are opened, as are the gifts under the tree.An important part of the tradition is gathering the extended family. More so than in much of Europe, where it is generally immediate family only, perhaps inviting a grandmother or two, Americans see the holiday as an opportunity to reassemble with relatives they have been avoiding all year. The smart ones get this done on Thanksgiving, in which case a smaller (and cheaper) Christmas gathering can fill the bill.

Children are an especially important part of Christmas Day. They are, after all, our reason for maintaining the collective delusion. Young ’uns go to sleep with "visions of sugar-plums" and a conviction that the creaks and crackles they hear in the darkened house must be Santa Claus, landing with his enormous sleigh and nine reindeer, whose names are common knowledge to anyone under 10.

Alighting on the roof, he lugs his enormous belly and sack overflowing with gifts a-plenty over to the chimney and by a fluke of nature, he manages to squeeze it all down the shaft into your living room. (This proportional misconception may have something to do with the current obesity crisis in the United States, but that’s another issue.) He then stuffs the stockings of those who’ve been good all year. Children who have behaved badly are threatened with a lump of coal.

The only instance I know of this actually happening was when my Grandmother, to her childhood alarm, received coal in her stocking for reasons that were never quite clear.

Nonetheless, it is, a "celebration of giving." On Christmas Eve, the anticipation, combined with the kitsch, evokes a halo of expectancy. In the morning, watching your aunt smile at the hand-made earrings, or seeing your cousin, sibling or child revel in their new playthings – these are the priceless gifts.

Most of the gifts, however, inescapably include the ritual of "getting and spending." This entails many stressed days of packed shopping malls and exhausted parents desperate to find the Malibu Stacy or a remote-control truck that their child must have.

This is the point at which "Last Christmas" takes it’s effect. Perfectly reasonable hard-working Americans have been known to morph into animalistic, ruthless shoppers, implementing elbows, feet and complicated expletives to reach their goal gift.

After the first bowl of X-mas punch, however, it becomes clear that all the preparation is finally bearing fruit. The kids are busy, the bachelor uncle is drunk enough to be pleasant and Grandma can’t take her eyes off her newest granddaughter toddling over the mountains of wrapping paper.

It is the festival of family and friendship, of giving in a world that seems to have turned it all upside down, the only reminders of the creator are the revelers outside, who trudge through the cold singing Christmas carols, too often to a closed door.

In my mind, and I’m sure in that of many Americans, the human condition requires a sufficient amount of kitsch to – as one of American’s great novelists, William Faulkner, put it – "to endure and prevail."

After enduring the hectic month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, surrounded in kitsch, after we tear open the goodies in the stockings and piles of gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, somehow love and goodwill – more often than not – still prevail.

by M.T.M. Childs



In Iceland,  Christmas begins with the First Sunday of Advent, when candles appear in people’s windows and carols sound from the loudspeakers in the stores. There’s no caroling outside – it’s just too cold. And anyway, Icelanders wouldn’t dream of spending time and effort on something that doesn’t pay. Not exactly the Christmas spirit.

But we need the candles, because it’s already dark all the time; in fact, it has been since September. The darkness, snow and cold are thus a big part of the holiday.

Kids in Iceland really know how to exploit Christmas for all it’s worth. First, they have their advent calendar, where they receive a piece of chocolate a day. And Icelandic tradition provides them with thirteen different Christmas Gift Givers – Stubby, the Candle Beggar, the Spoon Licker, the Sausage Stealer, the Sheep Worrier and many more – each of whom brings a present from Dec. 11 until 23. If the kids are bad, they receive potatoes in their stockings, or according to legend, a black cat will kidnap them and carry them off to the trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, parents of the Gift Givers, who live high up in the mountains.

On Dec. 23 is Þorláksmessa, St. Thorlac’s Day, in honor of the patron of Iceland. On that day, everyone cleans the house, and preparations for the Christmas meal begin. Many people eat cured skate (a fish) and gather downtown to meet other people and officially celebrate the holidays. My family stays at home decorating the tree, if my mom hasn’t done that already.

We celebrate Christmas on Dec. 24, beginning with a visit to the graveyard, putting flowers on the graves of relatives who have passed away. Then we jump in the car with the presents to visit the ones who are still alive. After this hectic morning, we head home and my parents start cooking dinner, while the rest of us fight over the shower and get dressed for the evening. We are normally a little late, especially when my mom goes on the treadmill to burn the Christmas calories she’s about to eat.

We do get very dressed up, though. Women wear long or short evening dresses and high-heels while the men wear a suit and dress shoes. This can complicate things as there is nothing more challenging than running through the snow and icy streets on high heels and in a long dress on Christmas Eve.

At six o’clock the church bells ring and we wish each other Merry Christmas, "Gledileg jol." We get to open one present before dinner, and then dig into tartlets, in which my dad hides an almond. The person who gets the almond wins a prize – in the form of a board game, which we then play later in the evening. This tradition was passed down through my dad’s side of the family, where they used to hide almonds in a soup and the winner would receive a deck of cards. Times were simpler then, before consumerism hit Iceland.

Our main course is a ham – while others eat ptarmigan, small birds the size of quail. After dinner and an extended photo session, we open our presents and listen to recordings of Christmas music, Icelandic and English. To end the evening, we go and celebrate with my mother’s family, where my brother dresses up as Santa Claus (American style) for the children, and we receive even more presents. Then we all go home by car, which is the only way anybody gets anywhere.

Since I’m a December child myself, born on Dec. 20, Christmas is my favorite holiday. Not just because of the extra presents, but also because Christmas is when everybody stops complaining and enjoys each other’s company, all the good they have in their lives. Because Icelanders are Lutherans and complain a lot, a few days off are well worth the effort.

Gleðileg jól!

by Anna Claessen

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