Faith, food and family: Christmas around the world

Inna Butler, right, and her mother, Marina, left, dressed in traditional Ukrainian attire. In Ukraine, Christmas, known as Rizdvo-Hrustove, is the most important holiday of the year and is celebrated on January 6.

Folklore and traditions may vary, but ask any immigrant to the U.S.—faith, family and food are cornerstones of Christmas around the world.

Knecht Ruprecht and Grampus

Hedda and Klaus Marg celebrate Christmas in German fashion, though Hedda was born in Austria and Klaus in what is now Poland.

“Father Christmas came with Knecht Ruprecht on Christmas Eve,” Klaus remembered. “We had to recite a poem in front of the Christmas tree in order to get a present. Knecht Ruprecht brought coal in his sack, or a switch.”

In Austria, Santa’s assistant Knecht Ruprecht is replaced by the demon-like Krampus.

“Nikolaus had a book in which children’s good and bad deeds were written. My brothers got switches. I always got presents,” Hedda said with a laugh.

Mary Tofel displays some traditional Italian confections.

In German traditions, Christmas lasts a month. An advent wreath with candles counts the Sundays until Christmas Day. Traditional sweets include the gingerbread-like lebkuchen, fruitcake and huge plates of cookies. Christmas dinner usually consists of roast goose and dumplings.

Santa arrives on December 6—Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day). The holiday wraps up on January 6 with the appearance of the Heilige Drei Königen, or magi, at church, where children sing carols and parishioners donate money to good causes.

Grandfather Frost and Ded Moroz

“We celebrate [the] new year on December 31,” said Ekaterina Boiko, who grew up in Siberia.

“Then on January 7, Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter pound on the door to come in. He carries a big, red bag of gifts. Children must perform a poem or song to get a present, and the granddaughter hands them out.”

Usually a friend acts as Grandfather Frost to avoid the experience Boiko had at age 7.

“Grandfather Frost set me on his knee and gave me a big doll. I recognized my father’s hands. I was so disappointed to find there was no real Grandfather Frost,” she said.

Inna Butler dressed in tradi- tional Ukrainian attire.

Inna Butler grew up in Nikolaev, Ukraine, where Christmas is the most important holiday of the year.

“Christmas is called Rizdvo-Hrustove,” she said. “It’s celebrated on January 6. People clean their homes, their bodies, their thoughts and their souls.”

Churchgoers attend confession and forgive their enemies. The holiday meal features 12 dishes to honor the 12 apostles. Adults fast all day. After sunset, the table is decorated with fresh hay and sprays of grain, and cloves of garlic are placed under each corner of the tablecloth to protect from evil and disease, Butler said.

When the evening star appears, candles are lit, prayers are said and the feast begins. Afterwards, celebrants dress in traditional clothes and go house to house performing songs and plays.

In Ukraine, Ded Moroz (Father Frost) appears with his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. Children perform a song or poem to receive his gifts.

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La Befana

Italian children await La Befana, a crone who brings toys on January 6, said Mary Messina Tofel.

Tofel came to the U.S. from Sicily at age 9 but remembers Natale, as Christmas is called in Italy. She also spent time in northern Italy while her husband was in the U.S. Air Force.

Italian Christmas treats.

“Every state celebrates differently with regional food,” she said.

Jesus is the heart of Christmas and family comes next.

“We didn’t have [money] to spend on presents. Instead, the family got together for a fantastic meal,” Tofel said.

She never saw a Christmas tree before she came to America. Though Italian Christmases have become more commercialized, the nativity used to be the focus.

“People tried to outdo each other with nativity scenes, everything from small to elaborate, some with real people,” she said. “Ornaments were homemade.”

Pour the glögi

Paivi Savolainen Mosier grew up on a farm in Finland and still decorates for the holidays in the Finnish way.

“Advent is a big part of Christmas,” she said, pointing out four Advent candles. “Since it’s very dark in the winter, candles are important.”

December 6 is Finnish Independence Day. It’s also the day to bake piparkakut (gingersnaps), which signifies that Christmas is coming. As Christmas approaches, piparkakut gets more elaborate, appearing in star and half-moon shapes to honor light.

Food is prepared throughout the month and kept frozen in outdoor sheds. By the time Christmas Eve rolls around, the feast only needs to be heated. No good Finn would dream of skipping glögi, a warm drink made with spiced red wine or fruit juice.

Santa doesn’t drop by until everyone has cleaned themselves in the sauna, which is part of every household.

On Christmas morning, people attend church or listen to the service on the radio. Afterward,they enjoy leftovers.

“Because there is so much food, it’s still a very good feast,” Mosier said.

Christmas in Uganda

Ugandan Christmases bear no resemblance to northern hemisphere celebrations, said Mathias Mulumba, who spent years living on the streets of Kampala, the capital.

“There is no Santa Claus and no presents, except for the very rich,” he said. “For the poor [it] is a time for friends and families to gather, dance, sing and drink a local beer called omwenge omuganda, made from plantains.”

Christmas is the only day people buy new clothing. Christians spend the day in church.

“They take raw food with them and it’s…cooked at the church,” Mulumba said. “They dance and sing songs that glorify God.”

There are no Christmas cookies or desserts of any kind, as sugar is too expensive.

“People save up to buy meat to accompany vegetables for the meal,” he said. “This is the only day, besides Easter, when poor people eat meat.”

However and wherever you celebrate this Christmas, you’re guaranteed a wonderful time with good company and great food. Cherish these moments!

Mathias Mulumba celebrates Christmas dinner with orphans in Uganda.

Mulumba works with Father to the Fatherless, an international organization that ministers to orphans in Uganda, providing them with education, nutrition and housing. Donations may be sent to Father to the Fatherless, P.O. Box 40166, Grand Junction, CO 81504. Tax-deductible receipts will be provided. For more information visit or call 366-8191.

Jan Weeks

Jan Weeks

Jan Weeks has been writing and dreaming since childhood. She’s worked as a public school teacher, heavy equipment operator, surgical ward secretary, waitress, administrative assistant and fly fishing guide. Her articles, short stories and essays have appeared in “Outdoor Life,” “Guideposts,” “Natural Health” and other markets. Her award-winning novels and short stories include “Season of Evil, Season of Dreams;” “The Centerville Code” and “Anna, Old.”
When she isn’t writing, she teaches writing workshops and edits both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. She facilitates the Colorado West Writers’ Workshop and belongs to the Authors’ Guild. Visit her website for more information and links to her books and classes.
Jan Weeks

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