Christmas is historically a Christian holiday, meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ (even though the actual date is not certain). Those who reject the idea of religion still enjoy celebrating Christmas in many ways, even though they celebrate in a secular way rather than with any observance of nativity or angels. Whether or not it is celebrated religiously, Christmas is one of the most universally observed holidays in the world, with different traditions in different areas of the globe.
Because the earthly ministry of Christ and the missionary journeys of His apostles began in Asia, most of the people there do commemorate the birth of Christ, even though the predominant religion is no longer Christianity in many Asian countries.
Specific traditions pop up in different places due to family traditions, church traditions, and oral history passed down from generation to generation. Some of these can be very common, while others are incredibly unique. Either way, though, these traditions are what make it Christmas for many people.
While in the United States people mostly see January 1 as the end of the Christmas season, in Armenia the season extends until January 13. They celebrate the nativity, Christ’s baptism, and the epiphany (the traditional date when the Magi visited). The feasts and gift exchanges continue throughout the entire season. Children often find presents under their pillows on New Year’s Day.
Because China has not historically been friendly to Christianity, Christmas has not been a common holiday there. However, because China has become a large part of the world stage and many of its people have begun to celebrate a secular and commercialized form of Christmas on December 25th. Gift-giving is a big part of their celebration, which is generally more of a focus on friends and dating rather than a family time. Apples are traditionally given, often in decorative boxes with sayings. This tradition is likely because the Mandarin words for apple (pingguo) and Christmas Eve (ping’anye) sound similar. They call them peace apples and represent peace and Christmas.
Christmas carols on Christmas Eve (December 24th) are a common tradition, and the singing of carols is accompanied with fruit and candy and cookies. A Christmas morning service is followed by a holiday feast and the celebration continues through January 6th, when Epiphany is celebrated by visiting grandparents. However, the main holiday during the season is New Year, which is visited by Saint Vasilis. Because the forty days before the holiday are fast days, the feast on Christmas Day is extra special. The feast table usually includes poultry, kurabe (almond cakes with powdered sugar), and Koulouri.
January 7 is the traditional date for Christmas in the country of Georgia. The traditional march known as Alilo (also the name of the chant which is sung as they march) begins after the service that ends Christmas morning. Thousands join the procession, from many different churches, wearing traditional Stikari robes of gold, white, or red. They collect donations of food and other things that are later given to orphanages and people who need it. The service begins the night before, quite late, and continues until nearly daybreak.
India celebrates with much color, beginning on Advent Sunday and culminating on Christmas Day, December 25, which is also called “Badaa Din” (which means “Big Day”). Churches play a large part in the holiday. Christmas trees are put up in many homes, often decorated with handmade ornaments, many stars, and sometimes cotton to represent snow, which is rarely seen in India. Sweets are a favorite treat, from fruitcakes, cookies, and a sort of small funnel-cake type cookie, among others. Making these treats is a tradition enjoyed by extended family together as the women work together to make them. The treats have roots in many other cultures.
Nativity scenes – called Christmas cribs – are also traditionally made, with competitions among neighborhoods to make the best one. The manger is left empty until Christmas Eve. People meet at church for a midnight service, followed by socializing with those there, then home to prepare for the next morning – when neighbors, family, and friends are treated to handmade goodies that each family hands out personally.
In Indonesia, several Christmas traditions are unlike other countries’. One of these is the traditional puppet show, using leather puppets. Another tradition takes place when they finish celebrating with relatives and use white powder to cover each other’s faces to represent eliminating mistakes prior to beginning a new year. Fireworks, similar to the Independence Day celebration in USA, are used to celebrate Christmas in Indonesia.
A primarily commercial celebrations, Christmas in Japan has a few traditions. One of these is the Christmas cake – a sponge cake topped with whipped cream and fruit. The gift deliverer is Hoteiosho, who is old and has eyes in the back of his head, to see if children misbehave. Christmas Eve is viewed as a romantic day, not unlike Valentine’s Day, and gift exchanges are done then by most couples. KFC is a popular Christmas meal.
Korea’s Santa Claus is called Grandfather Santa or Santa Haraboji. He wears a blue suit instead of the red seen in most places, and he wears a hat that is traditional in Korea that looks similar to a top hat, though it is narrower at the top than at the brim. A common Korean tradition on Christmas (on December 25) is to have a party or a special date. Lights and ornaments and decorated trees are often seen in Korea, though usually inside houses rather than outdoors, as many homes are multi-family units such as apartments.
The Philippines start celebrating early – or preparing for celebrations. Many begin counting down on September 1. A traditional decoration is a pole with a lantern on it to represent the star the Wise Men followed to find the Christ child. Most people pull an all-nighter on Christmas Eve, with a midnight service followed by a feast.
Russia observes Christmas on January 7 and is not as big a holiday as the new year. Russian traditions focus on family, church, and food, in ways that are common with other celebrants around the world: a church service, visits with family, and feasting. While Russia was the U.S.S.R., Christmas was not allowed, so many of the celebrations are still less ebullient than in other locations.
Christmas is a commercial holiday, featuring shopping and eating. Traditionally, the shopping district – Orchard Road – is lit with colorful lights. Fake snow makes an appearance, and holiday dishes are added to menus at restaurants.
Of the four main holidays of Vietnam, Christmas is celebrated with a Christmas Eve service which follows a light show. Confetti fills the air, pictures are taken for posterity, and decorations are admired and enjoyed.