Christmas around the world (Italy, Australia, France, Canada, England)

Guest post, compiled by Hannah Silverman

At the risk of getting all Grinch on you and “stealing” Christmas as you know it, I’m about to state the obvious. Christmas is celebrated completely differently all around the world. I know, you’re gobsmacked – it’s like I’ve just told you Santa Claus doesn’t exist. (If you are reading this and you’re under the age of 10, I’m kidding, of course.)

You see, Christmas has become so ritualistic within our own families that we can forget not only its holy origins but that the international traditions are so varied. From beachside barbies to hot tubs in the snow to the 13 Desserts of Christmas (it’s actually a thing!), is it better the Christmas you know?

Here we climb down virtual chimneys in Italy, France, Australia, Canada and England to celebrate the diversity of Christmas present.

Which country will you be in this Christmas?
Which country will you be in this Christmas?

Matera, ITALY – by Candice Keller

1. What is the traditional way to celebrate Christmas in Matera, Italy?

This will be my first Christmas in Matera so I’m equally excited to find out! I was in a small medieval town near Rome last year (Valmontone) and the general feel for Italian Christmas was to celebrate the best way Italians know how – with a healthy dose of food, wine and family.

The main celebration, including gift giving and church services, was Christmas Eve when all the family gathered for a multiple-course feast and games. One of the most traditional is Tombola, a version of Bingo, or card games using walnuts or dried beans as betting material. Oven baked pasta is very common and special at this time to ward off the winter chill while sweets such as panettone, pandoro and cartellate are consumed by the kilogram.

2. Talk us through your Christmas Day for this year, including pre and post festivities.

I will begin celebrating on Christmas Eve with a wonderful Materan family, an indulgent dinner and a church service at midnight. Christmas Day will be more about relaxing with family, including two young children in this family, perhaps with a traditional “passeggiata” – walk through the town centre to meet others and help digest the food! The 26th is the celebration of St Stefano – the day the birth of Jesus was announced and the Wise Men arrived with gifts – so it is equally important and often involves a visit to see nativity scenes and nearby towns.

3. Why is Christmas magical in Italy and how does this differ from the ways you’ve seen it celebrated in different countries?

One interesting tradition is the arrival of Le Befana on January 6. Le Befana is a “kind old witch” who was invited to the birth of Christ but chose not to go – so now she visits children in every Italian home on January 6 looking for the Saviour. She delivers toys to well-behaved children and pieces of coal to the naughty ones.

Italian families put up their Christmas trees after December 8, the celebration of Immaculate Conception, so it is a full month of festivity. Italians are very focussed on family and sharing, this makes Christmas extra special and it’s wonderful to see people be together.

Candice is a travelling journalist who currently lives in Matera, Italy. She recently launched Talk Edit Type (http://www.talk-edit-type.com/) offering assistance for the English language challenged. Candice also runs a very fabulous blog, Frockingbird (http://frockingbird.blogspot.it/). This is her first Christmas in Matera.

Candice Keller in Matera at Christmas time, 2013.
Candice in Matera at Christmas time, 2013

New South Wales, AUSTRALIA – by Helen Isbister

1. What is the traditional way to celebrate Christmas in New South Wales, Australia?

The tradition is that there’s not just one tradition; Australia is such a melting pot so there would be hundreds of different Christmas traditions lurking across it. However, if you were going to boil it down to two the categories would be traditional English and what the English think is traditional Australian. My family subscribes to the first. That means a big slap up roast with all the trimmings, sitting around a big dining room table and just one step away from lighting the fire despite it being 30 degrees outside. The second category is how a ‘Pom’ having an Orphan’s Christmas in Australia would be much more likely to do – Bondi Beach, half naked, shrimp on the barbie, mates and lots of beer. Probably much more sensible for our climate.

2. Talk us through your Christmas Day for this year, including pre and post festivities?

My Christmas festivities this year have sadly been a little hijacked by my job as a journalist. Normally, the silly season is officially kicked off by an amazing work Christmas party or two where you suddenly decide, after a few champers, that you work in the best office ever with the best people ever. I had to work both of mine this year, since I’m the new kid, which threw somewhat of a spanner in the works of the big Christmas build-up. Fortunately, I managed to salvage operations by putting on a big spread for some of my closest friends.

Christmas Day has also been hijacked by work so the small team of us will be custodians of the news cycle for the day (religious messages, preview to Boxing Day sales as well as the reactive headlines) while expecting management to have organised a stellar roast lunch for us.

The post-Christmas festivities are thus going to be the peak of this year’s silly season. Four days of wine and trifle in the beautiful Megalong Valley with my family, including my exceptionally beautiful and talented two nieces and nephew. It’ll also include the annual Isbister golfing day (known as the Megalong Classic) where the farm is temporarily transport into a golf course, with the trees being the targets, and cows being the obstacles. Can’t get much more Aussie than that.

3. Why is Christmas magical in Australia and how does this differ from the ways you’ve seen it celebrated in different countries?

The Christmas magic in Australia is a different breed to what I’ve experienced living in London during the past couple of years. While we try to recreate the white Christmas by having a big hot lunch, it’s impossible to capture the same spirit Christmas has overseas. I supposed it’s just different. In London, I would get shivers from the lights lining the streets, a hot cinnamon-infused mulled wine on a freezing day, and the cosiness of Christmas jumper-clad Londoners piled into pubs with red wine and a roast chook. Fabulous.

While it’s my family that makes a Christmas at home so magical, there’s a lot to be said for an Orphan’s Christmas. It’s the perfect combination of people bringing their speciality and a slippery slope into lots of alcohol and dancing around the kitchen to your favourite songs.

Helen is a freelance journalist for SBS Australia and Channel 7 Australia. She returned home to New South Wales earlier this year and will be celebrating Christmas with her family for the first time in two years. England’s loss was certainly Australia’s gain.

Provence, FRANCE – by Camilla Coste and Jenny Coste

1. What is the traditional way to celebrate Christmas in Provence, France?

Christmas in Provence traditionally starts on December 4 (the day of Saint Barbara) when we put wheat or lentil seeds to germinate on damp cotton cool on a saucer. If they grow well they predict prosperity for the year to come – “when the wheat grows well, all goes well”. They’re then put in the Nativity scene (crèche) which is found in most homes and is made up of little clay santons (little Saints). The crèche is kept in place until February 2 (Candlemas).

The traditional way to celebrate the heart of Christmas in the south of France is to have all the family gathered on December 24 and to have a dinner where we open presents that evening.  Children are usually near the window on the 24th, looking out in the dark sky to see if they can see Father Christmas arrive.

2. Talk us through your Christmas Day for this year, including pre and post festivities.

Although Christmas Day has become more Europeanised now (so there is turkey, or capon or goose etc, too), my family and I continue to uphold many of the classic regional traditions. The feast on December 24 will usually include oysters, foie gras, gambas, smoked salmon and chapon followed by by Bûche de Noël, which is like a Christmas log made out of chocolate.

Midnight Mass is very special here, it starts at 11:45pm with hymns and songs in Provençal (the language spoken in this part of France, which unfortunately is spoken less and less). Then there is a procession with shepherds and Arlésiennes (local ladies dressed in typical costume) and a little cart lit by candles in which there is a baby lamb symbolising the new born Child. The church is always packed for Midnight Mass. People come to see the procession and there are usually quite a lot of foreigners and people who have holiday homes in St Rémy. It is a full Catholic Mass.

In Provence more specifically, we have what we call the 13 desserts, they are the traditional Christmas desserts and represent Jesus Christ and the 12 Apostles. We usually set them out on Christmas Eve (or even before) and they stay on the table three days until December 27, or later depending on how much there is to begin with. The desserts include: walnuts, quince paste, almonds, dates, raisins, Calisson of Aix-en-Provence, Nougat blanc, Nougat noir au miel, apples, pears, oranges, winter melons and fougasse (basically oily brioche with lots of sugar on top).

3. Why is Christmas magical in Provence, France and how does this differ from the ways you’ve seen it celebrated in different countries?

What is different in Provence, I guess, is that people kind of act as if Jesus was born here. We have a lot of Nativity scene re-enactments that really feel as though Jesus once lived in Provence.

I would sum up that the magic of Provence is that it has managed to conserve its very strong traditions both culinary and symbolic – even though, of course, there is Father Christmas and the hype of all the presents in the shops – but generally it is more intimate and low key.

Camilla Coste has been living in London for many years but looks forward to going home to Provence at Christmas. She works in the wine industry and is extremely well travelled. This post has been co-written by her mother, Jenny, who continues to enjoy the lifestyle of Provence year round.

The darling and very intricate Crèche de l'Eglise St Martin.
The darling and very intricate Crèche de l’Eglise St Martin.

Prince Edward Island, CANADA – by Kara MacKenzie

1. What is the traditional way to celebrate Christmas in PEI, Canada?

There are many Christmas traditions in Canada and many vary family-to-family. Most commonly families go all out both inside and outside their homes to decorate. We put up a tree (real or fake), garlands, wreaths, lights, and other festive or wintery scenes.

Most people buy presents for family, loved ones and friends, maybe even the postman or a teacher. We wrap our presents with colour paper, bows, and ribbons and display them under the tree. We usually hang stockings up by the fireplace, which are filled for Christmas morning.

Lots of families attend Christmas concerts, children’s Christmas plays or special church services around Christmas time. Work places often throw a Christmas party and lots of people get time off during the holidays. Some traditional Christmas food and beverages include plum pudding, candy canes, chicken, ham or turkey dinners with all the fixings, eggnog, fruitcakes, cookies, cakes and lots of other yummy things.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is usually spent with immediate and extended family or lots of shuffling between both. Presents are exchanged, carols sung, food eaten and general Christmas happiness is had.

2. Talk us through your Christmas Day for this year, including pre and post festivities.

This year I’m abroad and missing my white Christmas. Although I’m excited for this year’s celebrations in Victoria, Christmas in Canada is definitely special.

For my family the festivities start on Christmas Eve where we all dress up and head to a Christmas sing along at the church, then it’s back home for munchies and chocolate with the extended family. We usually spend the rest of the evening wrapping any last gifts and listening to Christmas music.

In the morning we wake up to the wonderful smells of Mom and Dad cooking our traditional Christmas brunch. Many families do a Christmas dinner but we’ve always enjoyed our delicious brunch. Stockings are usually opened first, then we sit down to eggs, bacon, biscuits and fruit. Afterwards we sit around the living room by the tree and start opening presents. This usually takes a while because we open each present one at a time to ensure we catch all the great reactions. The rest of the day is spent trying things on, playing with gadgets and just hanging out. Sometimes we’ll put on a Christmas movie or go in the hot tub outside and watch the snow. It’s a great way to spend Christmas.

This year I’m celebrating in Australia so the weather will definitely be different. The Christmas lights here are more colourful and flash and they also still use more real Christmas trees, but of a different variety than at home which makes Christmas “smell” different. We will also be going swimming on Boxing Day which is quite exciting! 

3. Why is Christmas magical in Canada and how does this differ from the ways you’ve seen it celebrated in different countries?

Christmas in Canada can be magical because of the happiness it brings to kids and families and the time they spend together celebrating. All the decorating and picturesque Christmas snow scenes can be quite magical as well.

I’ve noticed in the United States Christmas seems a bit more commercialised. When I was in Thailand during the festive season, instead of our regular Christmas Eve service we experienced a ladyboy musical! They also had not just Santa, but Santarita as well (a female version of Santa). Canada puts almost everything on hold for Christmas, whereas in Thailand things went on as usual, but with a bit more music and definitely more food. In South Korea and Japan the day is more for romantic couples as opposed to families and in Japan the food is mostly based around a Christmas cake.

Kara is one seasoned traveller and continues to travel around the world. She has enjoyed many Christmases abroad and is counting down the sleeps until her first Christmas Aussie-style. Kara is equally excited at the prospect of a warm Boxing Day on the Victorian beach.

London, ENGLAND – by Hannah Silverman

1. What is the traditional way to celebrate Christmas in London, England?

Christmas in London is just like the movies, complete with the pouring rain (and occasionally, snow), hideously fabulous jumpers and more mulled wine than you can poke a cinnamon stick at. But while no one has knocked on my door with an ‘I love you’ sign a la Love Actually, the vibe is still very much reminiscent of Christmas cinema.

High Streets around London, including the power players of Regent St and Oxford St as well as the local thoroughfares, hang lights above the bustling traffic while department stores tempt shoppers with elaborate displays and million pound animated commercials (it happened, watch it here). Meanwhile every pub in town entices passers-by with promises of Christmas in glass. Also like the movies is the manic Christmas rush as shoppers race around town to the melody of live carollers and Mariah Carey soundtracks.

By December Ice skating is all the rage, with several man-made rinks built around sparkling Christmas trees including Somerset House, the Tower of London and the Natural History Museum – perfect for a hot date on a cold night, or a day out with friends and or family.

Throughout the country a Bavarian influence is markedly present, with Christmas markets lining the Themes along the South Bank in London as well as mini markets in shopping centres and the like. Here you can buy everything from German sausages to country crafts, much like the Manchester Christmas Markets, but on a smaller scale. For theatre lovers there’s the annual colourful pantomimes which are staged across London while Dickensian festivities bring the classic “A Christmas Carol” to life in various forms.

When it comes to Christmas Day, many Londoner’s leave town, surprisingly, so in the final days leading up to Christmas the roads are noticeably quieter (a nice treat for last minute shoppers!). Christmas Day is spent with family who feast on traditional turkey, minced pies and pudding et al complete with seasonal fruits like cranberries. Many also enjoy Christmas Eve carolling and a morning Church prayer. Transport comes to a halt on Christmas Day so preparation is key in this city.

See also Selga Berzin’s Christmas account from 2012 here.

2. Talk us through your Christmas Day for this year, including pre and post festivities?

My Christmas will be a lot less like Love Actually, but not quite Home Alone. Although It’s my first Christmas away from my immediate family, I have an extended family in London, too. This year I’ll be spending the day with my Uncle and Aunt at their Essex home where no doubt there will be a spread of festive proportions. As this side of the family doesn’t subscribe to Christianity, Christmas Day marks the holiday rather than the origin. I suppose it’s an excuse for family time and in many ways that’s just as valuable.

In the lead up to Christmas I enjoyed many parties at work and at play, including an Ugly Christmas Jumper shindig at my flat and a work celebration on The Eye with champagne. Post Christmas will be social with friends, enjoying the public holiday with a mulled something-a-rather and a laugh. I will also attempt to not get blown away by the ferocity of the foretasted storms, which might be my greatest challenge if you believe the weatherman.

3. Why is Christmas magical in England and how does this differ from the ways you’ve seen it celebrated in different countries?

Christmas feels like Christmas in England, perhaps because of the wintery climate which is a stark contrast to the sunny season in Australia where I have previously spent the holidays. Maybe this goes back to the pop culture of cinema again and its portrayal of the winter wonderland we have come to associate with Christmas. But regardless of any preconceived ideas, there’s something undeniably enchanting about the freezing cold when you know that behind many a doors is a crackling fireplace and an eggnog waiting for you.

It’s this same magic that makes the season all the more sentimental. It’s cosy and it’s comforting to be around people, which is equally London’s festive downfall when you consider the homeless and others experiencing seasonal loneliness.

Christmas in London is mainly different to other countries in its preparation, rather than the roll out of the day which tends to be a more universal and familiar affair. However, without cars families tend to play and stay together, rather than cram a Christmas Day itinerary as people might if the weather were warmer and cars more accessible.

While I’m not expecting Santa Claus to slide down my chimney this year (I’ve moved around a lot this year), it feels like he might find a way, and that’s thanks to the magical extravagance of London and all it’s (sleigh) bells and whistles.

Hannah is the editor and creator of Not in Kansas Anymore. After spending every Christmas in Adelaide, Australia, she is spending her first Christmas at her home away from home in London. Hannah hopes the mulled wine is kind to her hips, particularly as she’s not so good at committing to New Year’s Resolutions. But that’s a story for another post.

Where are you celebrating Christmas this year?

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