Christmas Around the World

Christmas is the annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a widely observed holiday, celebrated by millions of people, Christian and non-Christian, around the world.


Service workers receive gifts following day

“It makes me weep to think about pulling the Christmas crackers, “ says Audrey MacKenzie, Mutual 15, when asked about Christmas in England.

Christmas crackers are pulled during Christmas dinner. The cracker is pulled by two people on either end and contains a prize and a paper hat. The person with the hat puts in on and wears it during dinner, the one holding the end with the prize gets to keep it.

A traditional Christmas dinner includes two types of meat, usually goose or turkey, vegetables and sauces.

The meal is followed by Christmas pudding, usually plum, with brandy sauce. A silver coin is baked into the pudding. The person that gets the silver coin gives a big cheer, she says. Other common desserts are mince pies and pastries filled with dried chopped fruit.

Father Christmas, dressed in a long green or red robe, leaves presents for the children on Christmas Eve. Gifts are opened after the morning religious services.

Audrey said that the children tie a pillow case on the end of the bed, and an orange is left in it.

Great Britain and many British commonwealths celebrate Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, in addition to Christmas. On Boxing Day the royals and the upper class distribute gifts of appreciation to those providing services, such as postmen, garbage collectors, servants, valets, tradesmen, etc.

Boxing Day is a public holiday from work. It is known as a shopping holiday, similar to the day-after-Thanksgiving in the United States. Shops have dramatic price reductions and retailers open early.

In many small county towns clay boxes are set up in churches prior to the holiday and alms are placed in them. On Boxing Day the boxes are broken open and the money distributed among the poor.


Presents arrive on Dec. 5 from ‘Sinterklaas’

Didi Brouwer, Mutual 5, misses St. Nicholas’ evenings in Holland.

In the Netherlands (named for two countries, North and South Holland) major celebrations of the Christmas season are held on Dec. 5, St. Nicholas Day. This is when Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) brings the children presents.

The name Santa Claus comes from the name Sinterklaas.

Didi says she was scared of St. Nicholas because you always had to be good to get presents and “I wasn’t always good.”

Sinterklaas arrives in a boat and the local church bells ring in celebration. Then he rides a white horse through town wearing his red bishop’s robes. He travels with his servant called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).

One year Didi’s father installed a rail on the top of their building, three stories tall, and put a white horse on the rail that went from one side to the other. Her father rode on the horse and his helper, Black Peter, went to the chimneys and listened to see if the children were being good or bad. Hundreds of people came and watched her father and his helper that day.

Children leave clogs or wooden shoes out to be filled with presents.

“I get a little home-sick,” says Didi, who came to the United States in 1956.

Sinterklaas parties are often held on St. Nicholas’ Eve, where treasure hunt games are played with poems and riddles giving the clues. Children follow the clues to find little presents left by Sinterklaas.

Special biscuits and sweets are also eaten at the party. One type of biscuit is “banketletter” (meaning letter cake), which is made from marzipan or pastry. Biscuits are made in the shapes of the first letter of the peoples names who are at the party.

Another sweet biscuit is “pepernoot,” which is made with cinnamon and spices in a pastry biscuit mix.

Didi remembers going to church in the middle of the night on Christmas.

It was a very happy time, says Didi.

“Mr. Hank” Barto, Mutual 15, remembers having two Christmas days, Dec. 25 and 26.

Christmas Day itself is a much quieter day in the Netherlands, with a church service and family meal. Sometimes there is a special Christmas Day Sunday School, at the church in the afternoon, where the Christmas Story and other traditional stories are told.

The traditional Christmas dinner in Hank’s house was rabbit.

“My mom would always cook that,” he says. “My sister Dina did not like rabbit, so my mom would put gravy in a special bowl for her (it was the same rabbit gravy).”

Sinterklaas would come with a big sack in the evening and left gifts by the fireplace.

“My mom bought me an accordion in 1942 and I would play Dutch Christmas songs. Now I play Christmas melodies on the piano. It is much easier on the shoulders.”

“Mr. Hank” plays his Christmas music on the piano regularly at the Old Ranch Country Club and for many LW clubs and events.

Exiled Cubans celebrate on Dec. 24

Before the fall of Batista, Christmas in Cuba was a big Catholic celebration. In 1962 after Fidel Castro rose to power Cuba became an atheist country, and Christmas was officially removed from the calendar in 1969, because Castro thought the holiday interfered with the sugar cane production, the main export of the island.

Before the fall of Batista, Cubans celebrated Christmas, and most holidays, with family and friends. Holiday celebrations typically involve large groups of people socializing together.

On Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) the families gathered together and had a great feast. The big meal with roast pig, rice, black beans, plantains, and yuca was served at about 8 p.m.

Turrones, or nougats, from Spain, were imported for dessert. Xixona, a compound of almonds and honey is the most popular. “Buñuelos” or fritters and other sweets made of tropical fruits like coconut, guava, and sweet potato were very common at Christmas dinner. Nuts like “avellanas” or hazelnuts and tropical fruits were also part of the dinner.

Leida Vazquez, Mutual 15, remembers her mother preparing desserts from scratch for weeks before the big feast. “It is a very festive time.”

A traditional Noche Buena party lasts until the early hours of the morning. One interruption was “misa del gallo” or “Mass of the Rooster” at midnight. Once mass was over, many people return to the parties to continue the celebration late into the night.

Leida says the parties lasted so late because they could not go to sleep after eating such a large meal.

Christmas day was a time to visit with those who were not invited to dinner.

As a tradition, children received presents from the Three Wise Men on the day of the Epiphany, Jan. 6.

Leida says that since Cubans were so Americanized, a few small gifts were left around the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.

Many Cubans display mangers with “Los Tres Reyes” or the Three Wise Men.

The day of the Epiphany included processions with people dressed like the Three Kings and many people following.

Many of these traditions are observed in Cuban communities throughout the United States.

Traditional Italian Christmas Eve has international flare

by Janice Laine

Mutual 2

An Austrian father used to joke that he could claim to be part Italian because he had sold bananas in Italy one summer. That was good enough for me to appropriate the Italian’s traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes for our Christmas Eve celebration. Everyone was asked to bring a gourmet fish dish and they did not disappoint.

For appetizers, my clever son-in-law, who is Japanese, used his ethnic culinary expertise to contribute his authentic shashimi and sushi platter accompanied with his special wasabi dipping sauce. While it wasn’t Italian, it did help us get our quota of seven fish.

To make the ordinary, extraordinary, my son found fresh giant clams to make his “perfecto” linguini in white wine clam sauce. He arranged the emptied clam shells on his serving platter for a very dramatic effect.

Not to be outdone, my daughter “slaved” over a hot stove to present us with her take on a jumbo shrimp parmesan recipe. It was the best ever.

A highlight of the feast was digging the meat out of the steamed Alaskan king crab legs and dipping the meat in the garlic-lemon-butter sauce.

Besides the fish dishes, we dined on salads, veggies and crusty fresh-baked bread direct from the Italian bakery.

Dessert was, naturally, cannolis and spumoni. What else?

After dinner we enjoyed opening presents from the Italian traditional “Urn of Fate” and waited for the witch Befana to show up, but that’s another story.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American Christmas celebration. It typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. The celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence – refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products on the eve of specific holy days. As no meat or butter could be used on such days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil.

Filipinos attend nine midnight Masses

The Philippines is the only Asian nation in which Christianity is the religion chosen by the people.

The celebration of “Simbang Gabi” by Filipinos is a tradition handed down long ago during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. It is an integral part of Christmas.

“Simbang Gabi” or midnight mass is usually celebrated for nine consecutive nights before the birth of Christ. In the Philippines and Filipinos around the world follow the tradition of celebrating Mass in the church until the last day.

In the United States, mass is celebrated at a different church every day. At the end of the ninth day is Christmas Eve.

A Christmas festivity is prepared for all ages to participate; native dishes and sweet rice cakes are served to the faithful to enjoy.

When Ren Villanueva was a young adult in the Philippines, he anxiously waited for Christmas to come. He and his friends always attend the “Simbang Gabi” for nine consecutive nights. After the Mass they went caroling in their neighborhood and had lots of fun. The neighbors offered them money or sweet rice cakes wrapped with banana leaves.

He believes, “Christmas is the best day of the year for all of us young and old.”

Another unique tradition is making 3-D “parols” or star lanterns made from thin strips of bamboo and covered with a thin colored plastic film that symbolizes the guiding star the three wise men followed to find Jesus Christ. It is the Filipinos’ way of inviting the spirit of Christ into their home, a reverse of “no room at the inn.” The star symbolize the willingness of each home to “house” the baby Jesus.

Most Filipino grandparents gather their grandchildren on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, after church and they toss coins in the middle as extra gifts and wishes of prosperity for the new year.

In more affluent households, it is tradition to serve all kinds of food as a form of Thanksgiving to all that Jesus Christ embodied with the traditional lechon or roast suckling pig and pansit (noodles) as centerpieces.

The Filipino Association of Leisure World will host Simbang Gabi on Dec. 22 at 3 p.m. in Clubhouse 1.


Tamales are holiday delight

The preparation of tamales is labor and time intensive, so tamales are considered holiday fare, made for special occasions.

Estella Duran, Mutual 6, remembers all the neighborhood families getting together the day before Christmas to make tamales. “It was a good time,” she said. “People were so happy making tamales.”

Tamales are found all over Latin America, but are said to be from Mexico, and date back to the time of the Aztecs. The tamale takes its name from the Aztec word meaning “wrapped food.” Tamales are made of one of the most basic staples in indigenous diets—corn.

The women of the family work together to make the sauces and meats, prepare the masa, and finally assembling and wrapping the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. The process takes all day, the preparation often starting one ortwo days in advance.

It is virtually unheard of to make a few tamales. In most cases, when they are made, hundreds are made at a time. Everyone—young, old, family and friends—is invited to tamale feasts where they are enjoyed, savored and loved by all.

Estella remembers everyone taking home a bag of tamales for the next day.

Estella, 93, still has tamales for Christmas, but now she buys them. She says it is too much trouble to make them anymore.

Las Posadas is nine-day celebration of lively parties and candlelight processions that begins on Dec. 16 and continues until Christmas Eve. During this time, children gather to perform Christmas plays that tell the story of Mary and Jesus seeking for a place to stay in Bethlehem. A girl plays the part of Mary, riding a donkey from house to house. Other children play the parts of Joseph, angels, and shepherds. They carry handmade lanterns and brightly colored walking sticks. As Mary and Joseph approach each house, they are turned away. At the third house, they are offered room in the stable.

The Christmas play is followed by a lively party, complete with piñatas stuffed with fruit, sugar cane, peanuts and candies.

The poinsettia originates in Mexico and Central America, where it is known as “La Flor de Noche Buena,” or “Flower of the Holy Night.”

On Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena families attend “La Misa de Gallo,” Rooster’s Mass at midnight.

Afterwards they have a traditional Christmas supper with homemade tamales.

Due to the influence of the United States, Santa visits some families in Mexico and gifts are opened. The evening also includes piñatas and sparklers to complete the celebration.

Christmas Day is a simple day of rest and eating leftovers.

Most children receive their gifts on Jan. 6, the Three Kings Day, when Mexican children find toys left for them by the Three Kings, just like Jesus received gifts. Sometimes there are parades on Three Kings Day too, with children dressing up as the kings.

The Christmas season extends to Feb. 2, when the nativity is put away and there is another family dinner served with tamales and hot chocolate.


Celebrating Christmas is newer tradition

Because Christianity and Western culture are fairly new in Korea, most Christmas celebrations are similar to those found in Europe and the United States.

Grace Kim remembers choirs caroling at every home in the small towns. Afterward, the family shared hot soup together and tangerines.

On Christmas Eve her mother placed a hand-knitted scarf, hats and gloves on her pillow for her when she woke up on Christmas morning. “When did she do it?” she wonders.

A formal dinner is a popular way to celebrate the holiday with family members. The menu usually includes popular Korean dishes such as sweet potato noodles, rice cake soup, bulgogi (barbecued beef), and kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage).

Robert Chung, Mutual 11, remembers being in Korea and dreaming of Christmas in America.

The ringing of the Salvation Army bells on corner of the street; the joy and fun of carols and Christmas songs; “LOOK” magazine enchanted all with its photos of families dining under candle lights; a beautiful Christmas tree with glistening ornaments; Christmas cards on the mantel above the fireplace; on-and-off winter snows that looked like and white cotton; and Beethoven’s No. 9 and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” were exceptional.

The boy’s dream came true and real in God Bless America.


The first Christmas Grace Ko, Mutual 15, remembers is when she was 6 years old in a small room they rented in the countryside as refugees from the Korean War.

“In the garden, there was a lot of white snow and a pale morning moon.

“At dawn, my brothers, sisters and I found Christmas gifts near our pillows from Santa Claus. My gifts were chocolates, a tiny doll and a pair of socks. During a very difficult time living through the Korean War, my mom gave us such a warm Christmas memory.

“In high school, every year on Christmas Eve, I had a big party with a dozen of my close friends in my home. We sang Christmas carols, ate and played games all night. In the early dawn, we took cabs to Mt. Namsan near my house in Seoul and took many pictures. Everybody was in heavy coats, long boots and long mufflers, and there was white snow behind us.

“In college, my friends and I got together at somebody’s house and had a prayer meeting and practiced Christmas carols. We then went caroling at dawn. My mom always prepared warm sweet rice drinks and steamed rice cakes for the carolers. After we sang “Silent Night,” we warmly wished each other a Merry Christmas as we enjoyed sweet rice drinks and steamed rice cakes.

“I miss those beautiful and beloved days.”


Christmas is one of four major festivals

“Christmas is big celebration in Vietnam although the Catholic and Christian population is only about 15 percent,” says Mary Pham, Mutual 4.

It is one of the four most important festivals of the Vietnamese year, including the birthday of Buddha, the New Year and the Mid-autumn Festival.

Christmas began in Vietnam when the country was under the rule of the French, and the French-Catholics celebrated Christmas.

“All the churches dress up with lights, and evergreen trees are decorated with many ornaments and lights,” she says.

The Vietnamese also make lots of star ornaments and wreaths to hang on front doors.

“We build the Bethlehem cave with statues of baby Jesus, St. Mary, St. Joseph, many angels and shepherds.”

The Vietnamese Christians and Catholics attend Christmas Mass at midnight outside of the churches. Choirs perform Christmas songs and put on plays about when Jesus was born.

Hundreds and thousands of people pour into the churches to enjoy the choirs and to hear the bishop and priests, including non-Catholics.

People feel happy and peaceful in these days. Santa Claus gives candies and toys to children. Christmas presents are not very common, although some young people like to exchange Christmas cards.

“We have the same Christmas as the other countries, only we don’t have as many turkeys and hams on Christmas day,” she says.

Christmas dinner usually consists of chicken soup while wealthier people eat turkey and Christmas pudding. Like in France, the special Christmas Eve meal is called ‘reveillon’ and has a ‘bûche de Noël’ (a chocolate cake in the shape of a log) for dessert.

Polish Beet Cake

1-1/2 cups sugar 1 tsp vanilla extract

1 can (15 oz) diced beets (drained) 1-3/4 cup all purpose flour

1 cup vegetable oil 1 tsp baking soda

3 eggs 1/2 tsp salt

2 squares ( 1 oz ea.) unsweetened

chocolate, melted and cooled


1 cup softened butter 1 cup sugar

3/4 tsp vanilla extract 1/2 cup warm milk (110 to 115



In a large mixing bowl, beat sugar, beets, oil, eggs, chocolate and vanilla until well blended. Combine flour, baking soda and salt. Gradually beat into sugar mixture until blended. Pour into greased and floured 10 in. fluted tube pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-55 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan to wire rack to cool completely.


In large mixing bowl, beat butter until fluffy. Beat in sugar and vanilla. Gradually beat in milk, 1 tablespoon at a time until smooth.

Frost top and sides of cake. Refrigerate leftovers. Makes 12 servings.

P.S. Don’t tell your friends or guests what kind. Let them guess.

Victoria Toth

Mutual 10