It’s a wonderful time of year right now at Royal City Nursery; the ornaments are out, the lights are up, and everything smells like Christmas trees. Being surrounded day in and day out with holiday traditions has got me thinking about traditions in general—specifically, other ones than our own.
I’m Danish by heritage, and Denmark has a whole culture around winter traditions. When I think about the Danish Christmas decorations I grew up around and the decor I see every day at the nursery, I’m struck by how equally dear they are to me. It made me wonder, what are the other ways people show their love for the season?
So, today we’ll be embarking on a holiday world tour to get to know how people around the globe get ready for the season. Strap in and grab your travel mug—we’re about to take Santa’s sleigh for a little test drive.
Let’s kick off our tour with the place we know and love: North America. Here at home, we love our LED light displays, fresh-cut Christmas trees, and abundant evergreen decorations in the form of wreaths, arrangements, and centrepieces.
Devoted Christmas lovers also cherish holiday collectibles—and we count ourselves in that category. At our garden centre in Guelph, we take a lot of pride in our Christmas collectible selection. We curate our collection year after year to bring our fellow collectors something new each holiday season.
Holiday ornaments are another one of those customs that we’ve all grown up with, so we rarely consider how much significance is attached to them. Does your family have a big box of ornaments that gets passed from generation to generation? Many Canadian families do, but we don’t always talk about how long we hold onto the ornaments we’ve received as gifts. If you think giving an ornament at Christmas is hokey, think again—it’s one of the few gifts that is virtually guaranteed to be loved and admired for years to come.
South American countries tend to go all-out with holiday decorating. Despite their lack of snow, it’s common throughout South America to decorate by spreading artificial snow on every surface.
The evergreen conifers we happily cut down every year to use as Christmas trees aren’t native to most countries in South America, so families use artificial trees instead. In Argentina, it’s actually considered bad luck if you don’t replace your Christmas tree every seven years! Just outside of Buenos Aires in the city of La Plata, it’s customary to make large paper dolls to set on fire on New Year’s Eve. Citizens compete to make the most outrageous dolls, which are often political in nature.
In Brazil, traffic jams are common throughout the holiday season because of the intricate, breathtaking light displays that decorate the city streets. Paulista Avenue in São Paulo is famous for its holiday light display, and the nearby area of Ibirapuera is beloved for its Christmas trees. In the community of Lagoa in Rio de Janeiro, the display of Christmas trees attract thousands of visitors per year.
Another wildly popular decor motif throughout South America are nativity scenes of all shapes and sizes. South America has a very large Catholic population, so religious celebrations are deeply treasured throughout the continent.
If you’ve ever visited Europe, you’ve no doubt marvelled at how different each country is despite their close proximity. Their various holiday traditions certainly draw attention to that fact!
In Germany, it’s common for folks to decorate their homes with intricately-carved wooden figurines, which are often arranged into scenes. In Portugal, families forego the Christmas tree and instead leave their shoes by the fireplace for Pai Natal (Father Christmas) to fill with gifts. In Ireland, folks ward off evil spirits by hanging clippings of holly, mistletoe, and ivy on the walls.
My family’s homeland, Denmark, has a particularly fun custom of displaying their annual release of collectible postage stamps for the holidays—even the Queen of Denmark has designed a few!
Of course, it’s hard to top the tradition in provincial France of putting out a display of thirteen desserts—mainly chocolate, nuts, and dried fruits. I love my advent calendar, but jeez, that sounds pretty nice.
Africa doesn’t get nearly enough credit here in the West. The continent is so beautiful and diverse in so many ways, and their holiday celebrations are no different.
In South Africa, families decorate the windowsills in their home with wool, tinsel, and sparkling cotton to mimic the appearance of snow. Christmas trees are rare, but it’s common for people to decorate with pine branches. In Ghana, people cover their homes and churches in colourful decorations four full weeks before Christmas Day. Liberia has a beautiful custom of using oil palms as Christmas trees, which are decorated with bells.
Nigeria is a very multicultural country, with more than six languages common to the region. However, whether you speak Hausa, Yoruba, Fulani, Igbo, Ibibio, or Edo, everyone loves Christmas! Nigerian streets, homes, and churches are covered in elaborate displays of lights, and parades of floats and costumed dancers are common in many regions.
Throughout Asia, Christmas varies a lot in terms of its cultural significance. In China, for example, only 1% of people are Christian, so families celebrate the Chinese New Year instead. This is a little ironic, considering the majority of artificial Christmas trees, plastic ornaments, and even Christmas gifts are manufactured in China!
In Japan, very few people practise Christianity but Christmas has become an increasingly popular secular holiday. Christmas lights are popular in the streets, but even more popular are the foods that Japanese people associate with the holiday. Japanese people love to eat fried chicken on Christmas Day, and a special strawberry sponge cake is enjoyed for dessert.
In regions of India that celebrate Christmas, stars are the most popular decorations. In the Goa region, people hang star-shaped lanterns from the trees. Indonesia, despite its low population of Christians, loves to celebrate Christmas with elaborate and dramatic Christmas trees made from everything from chicken feathers to edible chocolate!
As far as Christmas celebrations go, the Philippines are the polar opposites of China. With Catholics representing 80% of the population, Christmas is extremely important to the local culture. The most popular Christmas decoration in the Philippines is called the parol, a beautiful lantern made from bamboo stripes and colourful cellophane with a star in the centre.
That concludes our holiday world tour! While it may not have replaced an all-inclusive vacation, I hope you found a new appreciation for the different ways we celebrate Christmas around the world. Feel free to browse some “souvenirs” at Royal City Nursery, just a short trip from Guelph, Cambridge, and Kitchener-Waterloo.