Joy to the World: The Geography of Christmas

by Adriana Watkins


It’s early December. You’re in the car. The radio DJ announces that “Silent Night” is playing next, with a verse in the original German. “German?” you think to yourself. You often forget this classic carol wasn’t written in English—and perhaps you feel a sense of discontent. Do you even know what Christmas looks like in Germany? Or in Kenya? Or in the Philippines? Your own traditions and memories of the holiday bring you plenty of joy—but what does this joy look like for others?


Here are a few ways other nations commemorate the birth of our Lord:

In Finland, many families visit a cemetery on Christmas Eve to honor the dead. Often, they leave candles or lanterns on the gravestones—likely a pretty sight on the dark December days in Scandinavia! So many people visit the cemetery that police often have to control traffic to accommodate them all.


In Haiti, some Christians participate in a tradition where children leave out shoes filled with straw, hoping that Santa Claus will replace the straw with presents. (This is similar to another common custom around St. Nicholas Day.) As in many other countries, Christmas Eve is busier than Christmas Day, and in some places celebrations can go on into the early hours of the morning.


Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines, too, where approximately 80% of citizens are Catholic. The festivities are lively and long-lasting—a novena of Masses begins on December 16th, culminating in a Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, feast (enjoyed after the midnight Mass). Many families also keep a beautiful star-shaped Christmas lantern (or parol) in the window.


In Zimbabwe, Christmas Day is the main event, filled with joyful parties. A traditional Zimbabwe Christmas dinner is chicken and rice—as chicken is a rare and expensive dish in the country.


In Germany, many towns celebrate with a Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market, which may begin in late November and last until New Year’s. Often set up in the town square, these events feature stalls peddling bratwurst, mulled wine, toys, ornaments, and candles. The markets are unique to each city, with many designing their own unique mug for drinks. The markets have become more widespread in recent years—for proof, visit the one in downtown Boston!


In Kenya, Christmas is a time for feasting and family, when relatives make a point to travel and visit one another. Kenya also has some unique liturgical traditions. For example, some people keep a Christmas vigil (Kesha) where bells are rung to celebrate Christ’s birth.


In Argentina, the festivities are loud and joyful, with urban celebrations resembling those that Americans typically associate with New Year’s Eve. Of course, because Argentina is in the southern hemisphere, Christmas is a summertime event! The Christmas festivities end with the celebration of the Epiphany in the first week of January, a common tradition around the world.


As the Advent wreath grows brighter each Sunday, it’s comforting to think of the ways in which people all around the world are preparing themselves to celebrate the birth of Christ. While no two families celebrate Christmas the same way (even within the same culture), the purpose is universal. The body of Christ contains every diversity—and what a pleasure it is to see the hope of Christ arriving in the courts of every nation.

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