Christmas Eve Traditions from other Cultures
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Teaching children about traditions from other cultures develops an appreciation and tolerance for other people. The days before Christmas offer wonderful opportunities to introduce children to other cultures and how they celebrate the winter holidays. Together, you and your child have a whole world of amazing differences to explore—why not start with these five countries?
France: Shoes Instead of Stockings
Your children might be a little jealous to hear French children get their Christmas presents before December 25th. Christmas celebrations begin on December 5th, or St. Nicholas Eve. It’s on this day Father Christmas, or Pere Noel, leaves children presents, but he doesn’t fill stockings. Children leave their shoes out for the jolly old elf to fill with gifts.
On Christmas Eve church bells ring and people sing noels, or carols. After a midnight church service Christmas Eve, the French eat a lavish meal called Réveillon, which can include roast turkey, roast goose, lobster, cheese and venison.
The French wish each other Merry Christmas by saying “Jouyeux Noel.”
Italy: Nativity Scenes, Coins, and La Befana
The nine days before Christmas are called novena in Italy. On the first day of novena families assemble the presepio, or nativity scene. Prayers are said before the presepio with lit candles every morning and evening during the holiday season.
Santa doesn’t come to Italy. Instead, children receive gifts from La Befana, a kindly old woman who rides a broom. La Befana is covered in soot because she comes down the chimney like Santa.
Italians say “Buon Natale” to wish each other Happy Christmas.
Japan: Christmas Eve Presents and Fried Chicken
Japan only has a small Christian population, but Christmas itself has caught on as a day to spread happiness and love. Christmas Eve is a romantic day for couples to spend together and swap gifts, rather like Valentine’s Day in the US.
Japanese children find presents left on their pillows Christmas Eve, and a favorite food for Christmas Day is fried chicken—KFC restaurants see their busiest day of the year on December 25th. “Merīkurisumasu” is how the Japanese wish each other Merry Christmas, and Santa is known as Santa-san (Mr. Santa).
Norway and the Nisse
Like the Japanese, Norwegians exchange presents the night before Christmas. Presents are brought by Julenissen, the Norwegian Santa Claus, or by helpful gnomes called Nisse. Children hang Nisse decorations, and in the countryside it’s traditional to put out a bowl of rice porridge for the Nisse who guard farm animals.
Norwegians also hide their brooms on Christmas Eve, to prevent witches from stealing them for joyrides. Wish a Norwegian Merry Christmas by saying “God Jul” or “Gledelig Jul.”
Mexico and Farolitos
There’s no chance of a white Christmas in Mexico—the weather’s too warm. When Mexicans decorate for Christmas they use lilies and evergreens, and make farolitos—beautifully designed cut brown paper bags. Candles are placed in the farolitos and placed on rooftops, walls, and sidewalks. On Christmas Eve, or Buena Noche, children lead a procession to the church, where the figure of the Baby Jesus is added to the nativity before midnight mass.
Your children may recognize how Mexican’s wish each other Merry Christmas. It’s the name of a popular carol: Feliz Navidad.
The Night Before Christmas
With so many Christmas Eve traditions from other cultures, your children might want to start some family traditions of their own. Why not suggest ending Christmas Eve by reading a Night Before Christmas story that puts your child right in the action? It’s the perfect way to settle little ones into bed before the fun of Christmas Day.