Faith News

Christmas around the World–December 2018

Have you ever wondered what Christmas is like in other parts of the world? How are their traditions, foods, and gift-giving different from what we know in the United States of America?

We asked eight of our alumni who have served in different countries around the globe to share their Christmas experiences and memories. We hope you will envision yourself in their shoes, let your mind wander to a faraway place, and enjoy your holiday trip around the world!

New Zealand—Art (’78) & Debbie (Allen ’77) Brammer

Christmas dinner is really important here, kind of like Thanksgiving dinner in the US. We’re in our summer here and sometimes it’s warm enough to go to the beach, though usually not as far south as we live. A few houses put up pretty nice light displays, but most don’t put any up. Where we live at the southern tip of New Zealand it doesn’t get dark until after 10:00 p.m., so you really have to stay up late if you want to see them. We also have Christmas carols in the park from about 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 pm. Local groups sing carols, and the audience is invited to sing along for some of them. As it gets a bit darker, close to 10:00 p.m., many people light candles as they sing during this time.

Ghana—Steve and Michelle (Tilson ’91) Volante

Christmas traditions in Ghana are quite different. First of all, no matter what day of the week Christmas lands on, all churches will have a Christmas service. It is just like a Sunday morning service. Children do not receive toys as gifts, but each child gets a Christmas outfit and shoes. Most of the time, the children will come to church in their new clothes and shoes (kind of like Easter in the United States).

Chicken and rice is a favorite food for Christmas, but they also have a special Christmas soup with fufu, one of their local foods. Christmas Day is more of a church day, but they also celebrate Boxing Day on December 26. On this day, the women cook, and then it is typical to take a portion to give to family or friends. The children may also go to houses asking for their Christmas biscuits (cookies).

Jamaica—Junior (’11,’13,’15) and Abigail (Kolar ’11) Taylor

On Christmas, vendors and stores will be on the streets in the cities all day and night.  Lots of families will go and stay the whole night.  The kids go on rides and do fun things.  Things are usually on discount as well, so people would shop.

Our traditional Christmas food would be a drink that is called Sorrel, and a meal of pork, chicken, and rice with red beans.

Mexico—Dan (’73) and Peggy (Harper ex ’70) Whitcher

Christmas in Mexico is a little different. Although “Santa Claus” has invaded Mexico to some extent, their traditions are still dominant.

What is not surprising is a big family Christmas dinner. The unique thing is that it is always held at midnight on Christmas Eve. We learned this the hard way. We invited people over on Christmas Eve, figuring they would leave later in the evening. It turns out they didn’t leave and were expecting dinner at midnight. Families will often have turkey (often a company Christmas gift from larger companies), but the real traditional dish is called “Bacalao,” which is a hot dish made with dried codfish.

As far as gifts are concerned, on Christmas, the kids may receive a small gift (like new socks). The real gift giving happens on January 6, the Day of the Kings (Día de los Reyes Magos) when the three wise men (Magi) “come in the night to bring their toys.” What the Santa Claus fable is to American kids, the Three Kings are to the Mexican kids. They go to the mall and sit on the lap of one of the Three Kings to tell them what they want. Just as in the United States, parents go into debt and go all out to get their kids what they want.

It has been our privilege to share the true focus of Christ’s birth to those who have come to trust in Him. 

Peru—Bob (’01) and Becky (Whatley ’02) Bass

Peru celebrates mainly on December 24 when families get together for a big meal late in the evening and all stay up until after midnight. The meal is usually turkey with other plates. Many people go out for Christmas shopping that night to the wee hours of the morning. They also shoot off fireworks right at midnight!

The traditional food for these special days is panetón (similar to fruitcake/sweet bread) and hot chocolate.

New Years is celebrated in a similar fashion by eating a huge meal (this time young pork). Once again they shoot off fireworks at midnight and eat panetón and hot chocolate.

Colombia—Jonathan (’98) and Holly (Davis ’98) Boyd

Here in Colombia, the families do (what we call in Spanish) a “novena.” That refers to nine nights of a Catholic, Christmas tradition. Families gather in a home for nine nights in a row to sing Christmas carols, read about the Christmas story, and eat desserts or snacks together. The kids bring homemade instruments to play. Here in Colombia, we’ve been able to adapt the novena as an outreach. We’ve changed the traditional text because it has prayers to Mary and Joseph, but the main idea of remembering the Christmas story has allowed us to share the true Christmas story with many people.

Germany—Ted (’81) and Becky (Pals ‘77) Fletchall

So many of our Christmas traditions come from Germany.  Christmas is considered to be one of the most important holidays in Germany. The weeks leading up to Christmas also involve many traditions.

My favorite German tradition is the Advent wreath.  The wreath is adorned with four candles, one of which is lit on each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas.  The Sunday before Christmas then has all four candles burning.  The term “advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “a coming.”  The purpose of the Advent season is to remind us of the coming of Jesus Christ as a baby in Bethlehem.

The first Advent wreath was made by Johann Hinrich Wichern, a teacher and the founder of an orphanage for boys in Hamburg.  God had given him the burden to care for the “street children” in Hamburg. During Advent, children at the mission orphanage would ask, daily, if Christmas had arrived, so Johann made a large wreath and placed four larger and 20 smaller candles on the wreath.  Each weekday a small candle was lit, and each Sunday a larger candle was lit to help the boys “count down” to Christmas when they would celebrate Jesus’ coming in a manger, but would also remind them that Jesus Christ will come again. The custom gained ground among Protestant churches and has since evolved into the smaller wreath with four candles known today.

The Netherlands—David (’81) and Crissie (Young ’79) Boyd

Sinterklaas in The Netherlands.

The legend or tradition goes that (Saint) Nicolas of Myra (today that is in Turkey) was bishop there in the 3rd century. He heard that a famine in The Netherlands resulted in the children not receiving any birthday presents during that year. Since this is myth and tradition, nobody knows what year that was. He determined to come to The Netherlands, to visit with the children, and give them presents on his birthday, December 6. He is assisted by helpers (not elves) who are black with soot from going up and down chimneys to listen to what children are asking for and what parents say about their children. These helpers are all called “Piet” and are fun-loving, clown like and usually dumb.

Sinterklaas is not rotund or jolly, he is tall, skinny, stately and friendly. The Pieten cause all the fun; Sinterklaas reprimands them. After Sinterklaas’ arrival in The Netherlands, children set their shoes by the fireplace or front door, filled with straw and a raw carrot for his white horse. If Sinterklaas drops by, the straw and carrot are gone in the morning, and some candy and a mandarin orange are in each shoe. In the week before Sinterklaas, 18 million mandarin oranges are sold for a population of 17 million people. Why mandarin oranges? Sint reportedly gave some poor families gold nugget, which was reported in a song as “orange apples.” As parents became more aware of the evils of candy, “orange apples” were left by Sinterklaas. The fact that mandarin oranges have been imported from Spain is a happy coincidence.

Meanwhile, Sinterklaas visits schools and hospitals, and checks the behavior of the children against his large, red book. On the eve of his Birthday, December 5, the family gathers around to sing children’s songs about Sinterklaas in expectation of his arrival. He rides his white horse along the rooftops, and drops off burlap bags filled with gifts. He is never seen, and it is left up to the parents to invent a way to get the bag of presents in the house.

All gifts are signed as given by Sinterklaas, while gag gifts are generally signed by Piet. There is also a tradition of making “surprises,” which is some kind of project the giver makes, to disguise yet give a hint as to the present inside. E.g. a box that has been fixed up to look like a camera could contain either a camera or pictures of the grandkids. Some gifts come with a poem, which usually pokes fun at something embarrassing the person has done this last year. The poem has to be read out loud to the family. Badly formulated poems with stretched rhymes, and deep sarcasm have been composed by Piet (most of mine are); the good poems come from Sinterklaas.

We prefer celebrating Sinterklaas on December 5 because it separates gift giving from Christmas. While Christmas commercialism is making its way into The Netherlands, there are still plenty of people, who do their gift exchange on the fifth. That way Christmas ends up being all about the birth of Christ.

There are no gifts under our Christmas tree, because no gifts are exchanged. Christians go to church on Christmas so Christmas is exclusively about the birth of our Savior. In our church we have a Christmas Eve service on the 24th, where I tell the story of Christ’s birth in some way. We gather for a morning service on Christmas Day, during which we sing the Christmas carols (some more), people actually dress up, and some of our folks read a short Christmas article, share a Christmas poem or thought, and I have a short Christmas devotional. Then we drink coffee and eat Christmas goodies.

Because of the business of ministry, our family (and co-workers) don’t generally have a large Christmas dinner on Christmas Day. That is reserved for Second Christmas Day (that is really how it is listed on the calendar). We gather for a delicious Christmas dinner with co-workers and other American Christians we invite, and sing American Christmas Carols in four-part harmony after clean-up and before dessert(s).

Two foods specific to Sinterklaas come to mind: Pepper nuts, which are little, nickel sized cookies, and a bit more spicy than windmill cookies, which Pieten throw around in classrooms during visits, and homes when they bring the gifts, and the children then eat off the floor. Once the children are in bed, the adults have a cup of good, strong Dutch coffee (determined to be the best in the world, sorry Brazil), with a piece of baked up “Banket Staaf,” a two-inch cylindrical pastry made of almond paste with real butter, and a flaky crust. Both can be purchased in December at the Dutch bakery in Pella, Iowa.

Each of the Christmas services and our field’s Second Christmas day caroling is closed with the singing of “Glory to God.” Not the one from the Messiah, but a classical hymn written in the nineteenth century. When our boys went to Faith Baptist Bible College, and could not come home for Christmas, or when any of us have been on furlough during Christmas, singing this hymn is the one thing we all report missing tremendously. If you are interested, just search YouTube for “Ere zij God (hymn).” So with that in mind, let me wish you “Peace on Earth, goodwill to men” as you celebrate our Savior’s Birth and “Glory to God in the highest.”