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Illustration with Santa Claus on a sleigh

‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’

Christmas traditions around the world

15.12.2020

by Evdokia Prassa

Christmas is more than a Christian religious holiday: over the years, it has evolved into a massive festival whose cultural resonance has expanded well beyond Christian-majority countries, and is now celebrated with diverse festivities across the globe.

Every year, Christmas is arguably the most festive and eagerly anticipated celebration worldwide. A once religious observance for Christians, strictly revolving around the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas has nowadays acquired an undoubtedly secular character (which might explain its enormous global appeal). As such, it tends to invoke as diverse images as the ubiquitous custom of the Christmas tree, the fatherly, benevolent figure of Santa Claus dressed in red and white, but also little-known traditions that vary per country. And whilst the hassle of last-minute shopping for Christmas presents (in the midst of the holiday consumerist frenzy nonetheless) and planning family dinners is often accompanied by seasonal stress known as “Christmas blues,” this is still the most “decorated” (pun intended) celebration of the year. Here’s how three different countries rejoice in the Christmas spirit.

Germany

Let us begin with *the* Christmas tradition of all Christmas traditions: the Christmas tree. This is a custom that is pretty much universally identified with the holiday. Whilst every culture tends to have its own local traditions that are virtually unknown to outsiders, the custom of the Christmas tree knows no borders. However, its omnipresence has obscured the fact that the tradition of celebrating Christmas by decorating a fir tree with elaborate ornaments (often in round shape) stems from 16th century western Germany. By the 18th century, the Christmas tree had been cemented as a German Lutheran tradition, and by the 19th century, it had been established as a Christmas custom amongst Germans irrespective of religious denomination. Subsequently, the German-born husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, popularized the tradition in England, and from there, the Christmas tree gradually took over the world.

Similar to the Christmas tree, open-air Christmas markets originated in Germany, but are now synonymous to the Christmas experience across many countries (even though they are definitely not as widespread a Christmas tradition as the Weihnachtsbaum). The city of Dresden boasts the oldest Christmas market in the world, the Dresden Striezelmarkt, established in 1434 and still going (albeit taking a break this year due to the coronavirus pandemic). However, the first documented Christkindlmarkt goes back even further, namely in 1384 in the town of Bautzen, Saxony.

Greece

Greeks love the good ole glistening Christmas tree (like everybody else). The Christmas tree was introduced to the newly independent modern Greek state in 1833, when its appointed ruler, the Bavarian-born Prince Otto, who reigned as the first King of Greece from 1832 to 1862, decorated the first Christmas tree in his palace in the city of Nafplio, the first capital of modern Greece (which he famously moved to Athens). In the decades that followed, the Christmas tree was adopted by upper-class households, and only became a widespread Christmas tradition in Greece after World War II. Up until that time, a prominent Greek Christmas tradition involving interior decorating was the adorning of a ship model, a “karavaki,” with lights and ornaments. As a culture with a long nautical history, decorating small-scale models of sailing vessels for Christmas was a festive way to welcome seafaring relatives back home for Christmas. Whilst nowadays this tradition has been largely overshadowed by the Christmas tree, people who make a living from the sea, such as fishermen, still decorate their real-sized boats with strings of lights, and often, public Christmas decorations at the main squares of Greek cities involve side-by-side installations of illuminated boats and Christmas trees.

Finland

Finland is famous for being the birthplace and home of Santa Claus. However, Christmas in Finland wouldn’t be proper Christmas without the annual Declaration of Christmas Peace at the former capital of Finland, Turku, on Christmas Eve. This heartwarming tradition dates back to the 1320s and has continued to this day with almost no interruptions in its long history. Its roots can be traced back to ancient Germanic legislation, whose aim was to guarantee civic harmony during religious holidays by handing severe sentences to offenders who committed crimes during the festivities. In time, Christmas was incorporated into Finland’s religious holidays, and nowadays, the reading of the Declaration of Christmas Peace serves as a reminder for citizens to respect each other and thereby ensure a safe and peaceful Christmas for everyone. The reading of the declaration is televised live, and households tune it to listen as the declaration is read in Finnish and Swedish, and is followed by the Finnish national anthem sung in both languages by the public that is present in the live festivities in Turku.

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