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#86: Christmas Celebrations Around the World

***In next week’s episode, on Christmas Eve (or maybe the day before, as a lil prezzie) we will be talking about the history of Santa Claus and his many iterations around the world. Today, however, I want to share with y’all some specific Christmas traditions from around the world. ***

The Yule Goat is a Swedish tradition, whose roots are found in ancient Germanic pagan festivals- surprise, surprise. Most Christmas traditions are founded in ancient pagan rituals. It’s origins aren’t entirely clear, but it is generally theorized that it’s connected to worship of the Norse god Thor, whose chariot was drawn by two goats. This is then combined with the old idea that the last sheaf of grain bundled in the harvest was special, and was thus traditionally saved for Yule celebrations.

This idea connects to ancient indigenous Slavic beliefs that the Koliada (or Yule, as we more commonly know it) honors the god of the fertile sun and the harvest, who happens to be represented by a white goat. Of further interest, the pagan Koliada festivals traditionally had a person dressed as a goat, demanding presents as offering.

As Christianity entered Scandinavia, 11th Century records of Childermas (Christmas) have St Nicholas leading a man-sized goat, symbolizing St Nick (and thus Christmas, and thus Christ’s) control over the Devil (associated with goats).

There are a variety of other theories and traditions associated with the Yule goat, from its popularity as a light hearted Yuletime prank to its ties to caroling and playing a very similar role to Krampus. Additionally, medieval Scandinavian depictions of their traditional version of Santa Claus see him being drawn in his sleigh by goats- once again, a pretty likely reference to the god Thor.

In the 60s, though, the Yule Goat tradition was given new life when it was made into a GIANT STRAW GOAT, more than 42 feet high and 23 feet wide, weighing 3.6 tons. What do they do with it, you ask? What’s the point? Well, they bind him with giant red ribbons and make him look pretty. That’s what. They make smaller versions into ornaments to search for in the Christmas tree (rather like a Christmas pickle in some American homes). But like, do they burn it, like Burning Man or Guy Fawkes Day? Nope. they actually enact prison sentences for people who DO burn it. It’s just a cool thing for fun, like a Christmas tree in the town square. But instead it’s a goat.

The Filipino city of San Fernando holds a Giant Lantern Festival every year, with the lanterns symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem. Each lantern, or parol, is made up of thousands of spinning lights illuminating the sky. The festival has given the city the nickname “the Christmas Capital of the Philippines”.

This tradition is rooted in an activity known as “lubenas”, where lanterns measured about two feet in diameter and were created from bamboo and other local materials. In the nine days before Christmas, the parols were paraded about in a procession. Before midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the lanterns were all brought together to the town church. Then we see the tradition evolving, with lanterns becoming larger and more intricate, and a cooperative effort of each resident contributing to the construction of their neighborhood’s lantern. These came to become symbols of unity and pride for the people contributing to them, which I think is a really beautiful story for the beginning of such a stunning tradition.

The Japanese have a super fun tradition for Christmas; with about 1% of Japan being Christian, it’s not a national holiday, but many people still celebrate in a unique way. Many families get Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas day, thanks to a wildly popular KFC marketing campaign in the 70s called “Kentucky for Christmas!”. A lot of people actually order months in advance to ensure they get their chicken. Grocery and convenience stores will have pre-fried chicken in stock as well, of course, in case you prefer that or don’t get your pre order in in time. Thank goodness because I would definitely forget and the whole fam would be mad.

Christmas in Japan is also a bit more targeted for lovers more so than for families. It’s a pretty popular time to spend time together looking at Christmas lights or going out on a special romantic date. Gift giving is much smaller, and sometimes couples exchange gifts. Kids will still sometimes receive gifts as well, and some families do believe in Santa, but he is conceptually a bit different than in Western countries.

By the way, winter illuminations are insanely popular in Japan; they’re obviously not inherently connected to Christmas, but for many the two do tie together. A lot of cities have huuuuge, and incredibly famous, light illuminations that draw tourists from all over. HerAtlas, one of my favorite youtubers, has posted videos of them before- I’ll link those in the blog post for today because y’all they’re stunning.

Christmas trees aren’t a popular or common tradition either, but many businesses and shopping centers have taken on the tradition, putting up big stunning trees. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was inspired by the incredible aesthetics of New York, London and Amsterdam decorated for the holiday because those cities are so stunning, and they probably want to be included lol.

The Danish celebrated jul (or jol) before the onset of Christianity, a celebration of the brightening of days after the solstice. Today, jul begins with either or start of the Advent or December 1, and homes are decorated with characters called nisse to provide protection, and families dance around the tree and sing carols.

Jul is originally an ancient Norse tradition related very much to the Germanic Yule. The root of the word itself is debated, but it is a cognate of alternate names for Odin. Jul also carries with it the tradition of Yule Ale and drinking throughout the season, and the Runic Calendar is even marked with drinking horns to symbolize when the beer should be brewed by and when it should be drunk by! The tradition is to honor the Aesir, friends, and kinfolk; this followed through even after the Christianization of Denmark and Norway, though it changed a bit to people drinking in honor of Christ and the Virgin Mary instead.

This is also where we see the mischievous, but gift bearing, nisse come into play that I mentioned earlier. The nisse are bearded ancestral spirits, from the Norse mythological traditions- you would recognize these guys, because we know their image as gnomes. Their tradition was eventually integrated with the figure of Sinterklaas to give a modern day interpretation of Santa Clause- even down to the traditional bowl of rice porridge and butter left out for the Jul spirits of the Nisse.

In Mexico, the Christmas season begins in December with a whole celebration reenacting the journey of Mary and Joseph, called Las Posadas. Then, the Churches put on Pastorelas, or Shepherd’s Plays, to tell the Christmas story.

So, posadas translates to “inn” in English, thus it being the journey of Mary and Joseph to find no room at the inn. This begins around mid-December usually, and each night children will usually go door to door singing carols and asking if there’s room in the inn, which I just think is absolutely precious. What a beautiful way to commemorate that! Today, a lot of the tie there will be a party held at the end of each night to continue the celebration.

At these Las Posadas parties, it’s pretty typical to find a pinata. Pinatas are actually common at a wide variety of different events and celebrations in Mexico, but specifically for Christmas they might have different spikes around the outside representing the Seven Deadly Sins, which is interesting and also gives a fun festive look to the pinata.

You might also find yourself drinking ponche, which is basically the equivalent of warm mulled wine. Or, you’ll have Rompope, which is like a perfectly spiced eggnog made of strong rum.

Nativity scenes are super elaborate in Mexico as well, because the Mexican people and culture is still sooooo heavily religious. Their celebration of Christmas is not quite as secular as it tends to be in the States. So think the elaborate, crazy attention to detail nature of the Day of the Dead, and then multiply that to celebrate baby Jesus’ birth. I think it’s super interesting, though, that they don’t typically include the Baby Jesus inside the manger until Christmas Eve.

In January, Mexico (As well as Spain and other parts of Latin America) some families will celebrate Three Kings Day. Even though Santa might visit Mexico on Christmas Eve (some people do still take part in that tradition) the Three Kings will pay a visit the night before Three Kings Day to leave some candy and maybe some small treats. To celebrate Three Kings Day, which is actually one of the most popular of Mexico’s Christmas traditions, families will gather together and enjoy Rosca de Reyes- an oval shaped bread full of fruits and with a baby figurine baked in. This is literally just like a King Cake (even means the same thing lol) in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

To round out the holiday season, February second is called La Candelaria, or Candlemas, and is typically celebrated with a tamale party. The person who got the baby in their Rosca de Reyes on Three Kings Day is traditionally supposed to host the tamale party, and it’s basically a huge blowout to end all of the celebrating and festivities.

HerAtlas Christmas Vlogs: Christmas Eve in Japan Convenient Store Christmas Finds Ramen, Christmas Shopping and ILLUMINATIONS

Last year's Christmas Episode HERE ::


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