Six biggest and most unique Christmas celebrations around the world
From Brazil to Ethiopa, here are the most festive Yuletide celebrations with a difference
29 October 2018
While not as high-spirited and rollicking as its world-famous Carnival celebrations, Christmas is still an important holiday in Brazil.
In early December, the world’s largest floating Christmas tree is lit up in Rio de Janeiro. Floating on the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, surrounded by the city, the tree is covered in millions of LED lights and decorated in a different theme every year.
The most raucous festivities take place in Salvador, Brazil’s third largest city. Fireworks, Christmas lights and concerts are held during the Christmas period, culminating in a feast and parade where people dress in costume, play instruments and follow men dressed as the three wise men through the streets in honour of the Epiphany.
For families, the highlights of their celebrations — midnight mass and a Christmas feast — take place on Christmas Eve. Some families have a celebratory toast, exchange gifts and eat before heading to mass, while others feast after mass, which can end as late as 1am.
As Brazil is an immigrant nation, the Christmas feast varies according to the family but is often centred on European traditions of turkey, chester (a hybrid, extra- meaty chicken) or salted cod, but with a Brazilian twist.
As Christmas falls in summer in the country, the traditional meats are often served with a cold salad of potato, apples and raisins, white rice flavoured with walnuts, beans and farofa (a toasted cassava flour mixture). Instead of roasted vegetables, the turkey is served surrounded by fresh and dried tropical fruit that are in abundance at that time of the year.
For dessert, passionfruit mousse, Italian panettone (a sweet bread cake with candied citrus fruit), German strudel and stollen (a dense, sugar-covered fruit bread) are common features at the Christmas table. But for many, rabanada, a kind of French toast covered in a thick syrup made of port, cinnamon and honey, is a must-have for a Brazilian Christmas. The feasts can last well into the early morning, so Christmas Day is often spent relaxing with friends and families and recovering from the night before.
In Italy, Christmas officially begins on 8 Dec, the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In Rome, dozens of Christmas markets pop up — the largest is in Piazza Navona — and presepi (nativity scenes) are displayed in most churches and piazzas. Art gallery Sale del Bramante in Piazza del Popolo hosts a presepi exhibition featuring 100 works from Italy and other countries from 24 Nov to 8 Jan.
In the eight days leading up to Christmas, the streets are filled with traditional carollers, pifferai (flautists) and zampognari (bagpipe players) who perform traditional folk songs. Classical music concerts are also performed in churches.
On Christmas Eve, people sit down to a festive, multi-course meal of fish, seafood and vegetables. After the meal, they attend midnight mass at the local church. Some head to St Peter’s Square for the Pope’s midnight mass.
It is incredibly difficult to get tickets to see the mass from inside St Peter’s Basilica — you have to apply for a free ticket via the Vatican’s website months in advance — but thousands make their way to the square, where the service is screened on large screens. Those who miss seeing the Pope’s service on Christmas Eve can return on Christmas Day for Urbi et Orbi, when he gives a special blessing to the gathered crowd at noon. They can also try to catch a glimpse of him on the Spanish Steps when he goes to Piazza di Spagna at 4pm on 8 Dec, in honour of the Virgin Mary. The Pantheon, the famous Roman temple, also hosts a midnight mass on Christmas Eve and attendees get to hear Gregorian chants reverberate in the ancient dome.
On Christmas Day, Italians enjoy a hearty lunch with family and friends that usually lasts all day. While some families exchange gifts on Christmas Day, others wait till Befana, the Day of the Epiphany on Jan 6, which marks the end of the Christmas season. The day is named after a uniquely Italian figure, La Befana, a good witch with warts and a hooked nose who is the traditional giver of gifts, not Santa Claus. She flies around the country on a broom filling stockings with candy for good children and coal for the bad. Families often leave her a glass of wine and some food to eat during her “visit”, and she is said to sweep the floors before she leaves.
Americans celebrate Yuletide according to their location and ancestry.
Italian families often have a pasta dish as part of their Christmas meal, while Western European families enjoy turkey with cranberry sauce. Eastern European families dine on cabbage soup and turkey, while those in the American south-west eat tamales, a traditional Meso-American dish made of a meat-stuffed corn-based dough that is wrapped and steamed in a corn husk.
In the tropical state of Florida, Christmas is celebrated with lots of lights. Twinkling fairy lights decorate palm trees; a lighted boat parade is a highlight in Key West; and more than three million Christmas lights are used to decorate the Spanish colonial architecture in St Augustine, America’s oldest city, which was founded in 1565.
In 1983, philanthropist Jerry Shechtman started Santa’s Enchanted Forest in Miami — a festival of holiday lights and handcrafted Christmas displays — to give Floridians a warm winter wonderland.
Since then, it has become the world’s largest holiday theme park and South Florida’s No. 1 holiday attraction, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Open from 3 Nov to 8 Jan, the park boasts more than 100 rides, shows, games and attractions, including an aerial circus and one of the state’s biggest light displays.
Down Under, Christmas means hot weather, barbecues and days spent at the beach for most Aussies. Brisbane, which has held its Christmas Carols by Candlelight concert in the City Botanic Gardens since 1944, hosts one of the largest celebrations in the country. Each year, about 150 Christmas events are organised by the city’s government, with others held by churches and community groups throughout the city.
Celebrations kick off with the official lighting of the Brisbane City Christmas tree on the steps of City Hall in King George Square, where it has stood every year since 1954. Other events include community carol concerts, The Enchanted Garden twinkling light display in Roma Street Parkland, Christmas markets and parades. The parades run nightly at 7pm from Dec 16 to 24.
There is also the Gold Lotto City Hall Light Spectacular, where an animated Christmas story is projected onto the façade of the City Hall building every 15 minutes from 7.30pm till midnight. This year’s story, an Australian version of The Night Before Christmas, set in a backyard during a hot Brisbane summer, will run from Dec 9 to 24.
Another highlight is the Christmas Beach Cinema at Streets Beach, Australia’s only inner-city, man-made beach and lagoon. Families go to watch Christmas film favourites such as Home Alone (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Miracle On 34th Street (1947). The movies are screened every evening at 6 and 8pm from Dec 16 to 23.
Some say Ethiopia was the first nation in the world to accept Christianity when it was declared a state religion in 330AD.
Today, more than 60 per cent of Ethiopians are Christian.
As they follow the ancient Julian calendar, instead of celebrating Christmas on Dec 25, they celebrate Jesus’ birthday, called Ganna, on 7 Jan.
Observance begins with fasting the day before. In the morning, people get up early to attend mass, which is typically held around 4am. While city folks may be dressed in modern clothes, most Ethiopians will wear a shamma, a traditional garment made of thin white cloth with a brightly coloured band at the ends that is loosely wrapped around the body and head like a sari or Roman toga.
In Ethiopian cities, churches are often built in the basilica style, but in the countryside, they may be hewn out of rocks or carved into caves. No matter the style, many Ethiopian churches feature three concentric circles.
Before mass, each member of the congregation is given a lit candle, he or she then joins a procession, walking around the church three times. They then file into church, standing around the second circle, men and women in separate groups.
The central circle is where the priest, dressed in a red and white robe, conducts mass and offers holy communion, as the choir sings in the outermost circle. After mass, the men and boys play games. Everyone breaks fast with honey wine and wat, a thick and spicy meat and vegetable stew eaten with injera, a type of flatbread that is used as a plate or a spoon to scoop up the wat.
On 19 Jan, Ethiopians celebrate Timket, the baptism of Jesus and the Orthodox celebration of the Epiphany. The three-day festival features ceremonial baptisms, the renewal of baptism vows, and a procession of the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant that is present on every Ethiopian altar. The Tabot is wrapped in colourful embroidered cloth and paraded through the streets on the head of the priest, who is covered by fringed and embroidered umbrellas, and surrounded by children wearing brightly coloured robes and crowns.
The world’s longest Christmas season is found in the Philippines – Christmas decorations go up as early as September and last well into January. Officially, the Catholic Church in the country celebrates Christmas from 16 Dec to the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 Jan, though some provinces may keep the celebrations going until the Feast of the Black Nazarene on 9 Jan or the Feast of the Santo Nino on the third Sunday of January.
16 Dec marks the beginning of Simbang Gabi (Tagalog for night mass), one of the oldest and most popular Christmas traditions in the Philippines. For nine days leading up to Christmas, churchgoers attend services at dawn, held any time from 3 to 5am.
After mass, they have breakfast outside the church, where vendors sell local treats such as bibingka, a rice flour and egg-based cake; and puto bumbong, a sticky rice cake steamed in bamboo, then buttered and sprinkled with brown sugar and shredded coconut.
A pantomime called the Panuluyan, re-enacting Joseph and Mary’s hunt for a place to rest, is performed in some churches. Pangangaroling, when children go door to door carolling, is a common sight.
Nativity scenes, called belen, decorate homes, churches and office buildings. A star-shaped lantern called parol — it represents the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men to baby Jesus — is the most common Christmas decoration. Homes, offices and public spaces are covered in these lanterns, which come in many designs, sizes and colours.
On Christmas Eve, after midnight mass, families have a traditional Noche Buena (Spanish for goodnight) feast. Lechon (roast pig) or a ham, and queso de bola, edam cheese sealed in red paraffin wax, are often served. Other dishes include fried noodles, stuffed milkfish, rice and adobo (a popular dish of meat, seafood, or vegetables cooked in vinegar, soya sauce and garlic). There are also cakes and pastries such as ensaymada, which is topped with sugar and shredded cheese.
Christmas celebrations begin to wind down on Jan 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the day the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem. On this day, three men dressed as the wise men will ride horses or donkeys to church, giving out gifts to children.
This story is first published on The Peak Singapore.