The holiday season moves forward apace, and with the Thanksgiving feast now solidly in our rearview mirrors, it's time to look ahead to the most wonderful time of the year.
Unlike Thanksgiving, which is (for the most part) only celebrated in North America, Christmas is a near-worldwide holiday. As you'd expect, the various national traditions that have developed around the Christmas celebration are as diverse and colorful as the countries themselves.
Some hew close to our own mixed-up tapestry of ham, Santa Claus, babies in mangers, and tinsel-covered trees, while others have traditions that might seem amusing or even horrifying to Americans.
So, in the spirit of the season, we've rounded up our favorite Christmas traditions from around the globe.
While technically a state holiday in India, Christmas is only really celebrated by the country's Christian minority (making up 24 million, or about 2.3%, of the national population). Those that do choose to take part in the festivities do so in a manner similar to most Western nations, with one exception: the Christmas tree. Considering that India is largely tropical, fir trees are hard to come by. Fortunately, that hasn't stopped the local population from adapting the tradition by using banana and mango trees as a substitute.
Food of choice: Chicken Biryani
The predominantly Christian island state of the Philippines lays claim to the world's longest holiday season. Christmas caroling begins in early September, while the Santo Niño de Cebú festival rounds off the official celebrations in late January.
Food of choice: Bibingka
On the surface, the Japanese celebration of Christmas is pretty similar to our own... albeit with all the Christian iconography removed. Christmas in the Land of the Rising Sun is a purely commercial affair, with a great deal of emphasis placed on shopping. Meanwhile, Christmas Eve is a day for couples to spend together, and is celebrated in a manner similar to our own Valentine's Day.
We associate Santa Claus with the holiday, while in Japan a similarly bearded gentleman from Kentucky acts as the official spokesperson. Yes, as the result of a well executed marketing blitz, KFC has become the "traditional" food of choice during Christmas. The fried chicken is so popular that customers are advised to order their meals months in advance.
Food of choice: KFC Party Bucket or Japanese Christmas Cake
Australia and South Africa
Anyone living in the southern regions of the United States is probably familiar with the strange combination of wintry Christmas iconography and blisteringly high temperatures. Australia and South Africa embrace this contradiction wholeheartedly. With summer temperatures in the 90s, most families discard the usual holiday roasting foods in favor of barbecuing.
Considering the fact that 95% of the 12.8 million strong Senegalese population is Muslim, the country's placement on this list comes as quite a surprise. But despite Christmas being a Christian holiday, the predominately Islamic population celebrates the holy day alongside their religious minority. It's a gesture of solidarity and tolerance, which the country's Christians return the favor during Ramadan.
Put simply, in Senegal secularism is not defined as simply tolerance of other cultures and faiths, but also a cause for celebration.
Food of choice: Grilled Moroccan chicken
Why have one Father Christmas when you can have 13? The answer to this rhetorical question is of course, the Icelandic Yule Lads. These Santa Claus-type figures visit homes and leave rewards (sweets and toys) or punishments (rotting potatoes) for children.
Food of choice: Möndlugrautur
Based on the popularity of Krampus, we’re going to assume unruly children aren't much of an issue during the Austrian holiday season. In America, jolly old Saint Nick "punishes" naughty children with gifts of coal. Krampus, on the other hand, viciously beats them with branches, stuffs them in a sack, and steals them away.
This pre-Christian figure lives on in contemporary Austria: Every year, an alcohol-fueled procession of Krampuses marches through the streets of Salzkammergut on the evening of December 5th, the day before The Feast of St. Nicholas.
Food of choice: The tears of psychologically scarred children, or failing that roast goose
Considering its rich heritage of Scandinavian history and mythology, it's not at all surprising that Sweden draws upon Norse legends to celebrate the big holiday. And perhaps the most iconic symbol of Sweden's pagan roots is the Gävle Goat. The goat is a large-scale version of the traditional Swedish yule goat—most likely representative of the goats that pulled Thor's chariot in Norse myths.
The giant goat is erected every year and it's a local, very unofficial tradition for local scamps (also known as arsonists) to try and burn it down.
The Wikipedia entry—the most unintentionally humorous thing we have seen this week—chronicles the various attempts to destroy the beast. Of the 57 goats built thus far, 34 have been destroyed by fire, vandalism, or, in one particularly eventful instance, a car. One year, the 40+-foot-tall goat was even "kicked to pieces." That must have taken a while.
Food of choice: Dopp i grytan ("dipping in the kettle”)
[Hero image: Flickr user "theogeo"]