Lighting the menorah

I live in a diverse neighborhood. My next-door neighbors are an Indian family on one side, and a couple composed of a Peruvian woman and Indian man on the other. Across the street is an African-American family with four kids. Two doors down is a family with two adopted children—a girl from Ethiopia and a boy from China. Two Russian families live down the street.

We put up our Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving and it hit me—I wonder what my neighbors will do to celebrate this time of year? So I did a little homework, and learned that Christmas is celebrated by billions around the world, and is even celebrated in countries with mainly non-Christian citizens. Yet we all do it a bit differently.

Here are a few Christmas customs around the world.

In South America

Many in South America begin to celebrate Christmas in early December (on Santa Barbara’s Day on December 4th). Beginning in mid-December there are a series of nightly celebrations, culminating with a religious service on the 24th (Nochebuena). On Christmas Day, families attend a midnight or early-morning Mass to celebrate Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster).

In India

Christian communities throughout India—mostly toward the southern tip of India—celebrate Christmas with caroling and a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It’s common to see fireworks lighting up the sky late on Christmas Eve. Some families exchange Christmas cakes and sweets called “Kuswaar,” and many decorate mango and banana trees.

In Russia

Most Christian Russians are Eastern Orthodox. Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the American Christmas (January 7). Russian tradition is to fast for 30-40 days (or less), then host a big family meal on January 6th, the eve of Christmas, when the first evening star appears in the sky. The Russian equivalent of Santa Claus is Grandfather Frost, who is said to live in the woods and emerge during the Christmas season to bring gifts to the good children and not the bad.

In Ireland

On Christmas Eve in Ireland, people light candles and display them in their windows, letting them shine all night. The candle is a symbol of Irish hospitality (a “welcome sign” for weary travelers). Ireland also celebrates the Day of the Wren on December 26th, whereby families purchase a wren and carry it in a cage from home to home, singing or playing music and collecting money for the poor. At the end of the day, the wrens are released.

In Mexico

Christmas in Mexico begins on December 16th and lasts for nine days, a celebration called Las Posadas. Las Posadas commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph as they searched for a place to sleep for the night. Communities re-enact Mary’s and Joseph’s journeys, walking from door to door and singing. Each night, the children break open a piñata with fruit inside, and there’s also a feast.

Other Major Holidays

Certainly, Christmas is big here in America and all over the world—but there are many other important holidays in other traditions. Three notable examples:

Chinese New Year, also known as “Spring Festival,” marks the end of winter and begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar and ends with a Lantern Festival. In 2012, it begins January 23. People clean their homes to make way for good luck, hold various dinners with families and friends, and enjoy a variety of festivities during this 15-day celebration.

Japanese New Year (“Shogatsu”) is celebrated January 1-3. Families gather to celebrate a fresh new year. Temples across the country ring their bells 108 times on December 31 to rid the Japanese people of the 108 worldly desires. People mail one another nengajo (post cards) and eat soba noodles to ensure prosperity and longevity.

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights. It begins on the 25th day of Kislev (the ninth month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar). The celebration begins with a candle lighting, and is followed by candle lighting, prayer, a meal, and gifts each night thereafter. This year, Hanukkah is Dec. 20-28.

I love to learn about the different customs and holidays around the world—and I feel pretty lucky that I live in a neighborhood where my family and I might even be included in celebrations that are different than anything we observe. It’s one of the great things about America: we welcome different cultures and traditions.

What customs are you familiar with—both Christmas traditions and other types of celebrations around the world?


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