Join us as we travel around the world with Atlas Book Club and explore the many different Christmas traditions that make up this special holiday.
Growing up in Nigeria, Christmas was THE holiday and the best time of the year! My mother is the oldest of seven kids and for the week of Christmas, all her siblings would descend on our home in Lagos, complete with all our cousins. My grandparents were Muslim, as are my uncles and aunties. However, my mom converted to Catholicism in her twenties so our home was the central space where we all gathered to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas time in Lagos is always bustling with activity! While Lagos residents are made up of a mix of Christians and Muslims, the whole city takes on a festive air and the spirit of Christmas is evident from the local markets where prices take on an absurd “holiday” markup, to the music and programming on local radio and TV stations. Christmas is celebrated by all!
Christmas celebrations growing up are easily some of my favorite childhood memories. While we didn’t put up a Christmas tree or exchange presents, and Santa was not a part of our childhood, we reveled in the joy and love of family and community. My mom would usually purchase Christmas outfits for my two brothers and I, perfect for mass on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve gatherings on the church grounds after mass was the place to be! We would hang out with our friends, show off our Christmas eve outfits, snack on puff puff and meat pies while running around with our sparklers and sneaking glances at our latest crushes. Christmas Eve mass had little to do with church and everything to do with socializing!
Christmas mornings with my family were always festive and full of hustle and bustle. We would wake up from our campout on the living room floor to the smells of a Christmas feast already underway. My favorite memories are my four aunties cooking up vats of jollof rice and frying tender pieces of goat meat in big pots of oil on our compound, while we kids darted in and out, clearly in the way and underfoot, as they swatted our hands while we tried to sneak a piece of fried goat meat or two. I remember our tradition of dishing out jollof rice, fried plantain, and stewed meat into to-go containers to be delivered to our neighbors. My mom would hand a couple of containers to each child and disperse us like little jollof minions for food delivery. This was what Christmas was to us – family, community and an endless replay of that Michael Jackson Thriller tape.
This little trip down memory lane got me wondering how other parts of the world celebrate Christmas! Atlas Book Club has explored 20 countries since launching a year ago; it was fun to dive deeper and explore how some of the countries we have featured celebrate this time of the year!
Did you know that Christmas celebrations start in September in the Philippines?! Yes! Christmas goes on for four months starting in September and ends on the Feast of Epiphany, on the first Sunday after the New Year. Christmas customs in the Philippines are typically a mixture of western and native Filipino traditions. One popular tradition is the hanging of parols in homes, schools, and other establishments. Parols are lanterns traditionally made from colorful papers, bamboo sticks, and shaped like a five-pointed star. Back in the 1920s, these lanterns were originally designed to help villagers find their way to chapels and churches to pray. Today they are hung as decoration and part of the Christmas festivities.
Another Filipino tradition celebrated on the eve of Christmas is the Panunuluyan. It is a dramatic narration of the Holy Family’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus Christ through song. And of course, a big part of any Christmas celebration is the meal! Noche Buena is a grand family feast that takes place after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. It is a gathering of family and friends to share delicious Filipino food such as lechon, pancit, ham, queso de bola, and a lot more.
For December, we are exploring Poland here at Atlas Book Club and it was fun to dive into the Christmas traditions of the Poles! Christmas traditions in Poland start with the coming of Advent four Sundays before Christmas and culminates with celebrations on December 24, 25, and 26. Because Poland is a predominantly Catholic nation, many traditions revolve around church services and other religious customs such as fasting before the Christmas eve feast. The Poles hold their Christmas feast, Wigilia, on December 24.
Some traditions include placing hay or straw under a white tablecloth prior to setting the dinner table and setting an extra plate for any unexpected visitor – a reminder that the Holy family was turned away from inns in Bethlehem and that anyone seeking shelter is welcome. This Polish feast consists of 12 dishes, one for each of the 12 apostles. Dishes can include herring in cream and oil, cabbage with peas, pierogi, and carp, the most popular fish in Poland to be served during Christmas. Tradition calls for every dish to be tried because it is said to bring good luck for the upcoming 12 months of the new year.
While mass and other religious observations are a significant part of a Polish Christmas, there are superstitions that are also part of the tradition. One is the story of the Christmas Spider, an old Eastern European story about a family who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. On Christmas morning, the family woke up to a tree decorated in golden and silver strands from a spider’s web. Families in Poland often consider it good luck to find a spider in their Christmas tree and some place an artificial spider decoration in hopes of good fortune.
Let’s not forget the amazing Christmas markets Poland has to offer! The Wroclaw Christmas Market is considered one of the best and most beautiful Christmas markets in Europe. Definitely one to explore if ever in Poland mid-November to Christmas!
Haiti is considered one of the most heavily Christian countries in the world with 98% of its population identifying as Christian. However, a significant majority of Haitians also practice traditional voodoo. Due to its predominantly Christian population, Christmas is widely celebrated. Reveillon, which comes from the French word “réveil” meaning “waking” is an important part of Haitian Christmas. It is a time to celebrate the awakening of Christ with a feast that takes after the attendance of late-night Christmas Eve services.
Traditional foods served at this feast can include rice and beans, chicken creole, fried accra, goat, and pineapple upside-down cake. Also served is Crémas (Kremas or Cremasse), a sweet and creamy alcoholic beverage native to Haiti and very similar to egg nog. The beverage is made primarily from creamed coconut, sweetened condensed evaporated milk, and dark rum. Various spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or vanilla extract can be added for additional flavor, and it is served cold. Reveillon can last the entire night as friends and family sing and dance in celebration into the early hours of Christmas morning.
Similar to the Polish Christmas Eve tradition involving straw, Haitian children place their clean shoes full of straw, under the Christmas tree or on the porch. Their hope is that Tonton Nwèl (Santa Claus) will remove the straw and put presents in and around their shoes. Another Christmas tradition similar to that of Filipinos is the hanging of lanterns as Christmas decorations. Fanals are small lantern-like homes that are part of Haiti’s Christmas tradition. A candle is placed inside that illuminates the craft creating a stained-glass effect. The fanals are a century-old tradition that many say were used to light worshippers on their way to church, again, similar to Filipino’s history of parols.
Lastly, the Haitian tradition of lighting pi detwal, similar to 4th of July sparklers, is one that brings back many Nigerian childhood Christmas Eve, post-midnight mass, memories. Children in Haiti enjoy watching the pi detwal light up the darkness of the night; pi detwal translates to “rain of stars.” This fascination with these sparklers shared by children in different parts of the world is another reminder that no matter who we are or where we are in the world, we are more alike than we are different.
As you go about preparations for your Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa celebrations and traditions during this unprecedented time, I hope this season brings you peace, joy, and lots of love and connection with the people you hold dear.
Happy Holidays from Atlas Book Club!
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