One of my favorite things about my job is that I get to visit friends around the world and worship the one, true God together. In anticipation of Christmas, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the holiday traditions Christians observed in each of the countries where The Boaz Project serves.
Christmas in Russia is observed on January 7th, according to the Russian Orthodox calendar. For years—under Soviet rule—Christmas celebrations were banned, and the faithful who decided to acknowledge the holiday were forced to do so in secret. As a result, New Year’s festivities have long overshadowed Christmas.
But the following traditions remain in Russia and have regained popularity in recent years:
- Christmas trees: In 1935, during the ban on Christmas observances, Soviets made “New Year’s trees” legal, and most Russians decorated an evergreen. So while this tradition is observed, many still consider the adorned trees a tribute to the New Year, rather than to Christmas. The one in Moscow’s Red Square is impressive!
- A Santa figure: The Russian Santa Claus is named Dyed Moroz, or Father Frost. He and Snegurochka, the snow maiden, bring presents to children and place them under the New Year’s tree. He carries a magical staff, wears valenki(felt boots), and is carried across Russia in a troika, or a sleigh pulled by three horses instead of 12 reindeer.
- Traditional Christmas foods: In the Orthodox tradition, believers fast on Christmas Eve until the first star is seen in the sky. This star, a reminder of the one which led the wisemen to Christ’s manger, ushers in a vegan feast.
The meal typically features twelve dishes to represent the twelve apostles. Lenten bread dipped in honey and garlic is considered a symbol of Christ, the Bread of Life, and is shared by all.
Kutya, one of the main dishes, is a concoction of grains and poppy seeds sweetened with honey. Soups such as a vegetarian version of borsch or solyanka are often served along with salads, sauerkraut, dried fruit, potatoes, and beans.
Once Christmas Day arrives, the family is likely to enjoy a meal of pork or other meat dish, along with sides of salads, stuffed pies, desserts, and chocolates.
- The holiday greeting: счастливого Рождества (pronounced srod-zshest-vum krist-o-vum) is exchanged the way we would say, “Merry Christmas!” But it means, “with the birth of Christ.”
- Religious customs: The father begins the Christmas Eve meal by saying The Lord’s Prayer. Then he says, “Christ is born!” and the family replies with, “Glorify Him!”Next, the mother uses honey to draw a cross on each family member’s forehead, as she speaks a blessing over them for sweet things in the coming year. The bread is then dipped first in honey, representing the sweet things in life, and then garlic, representing the bitter, and each person eats a piece.
Following those rituals, the rest of the meal is eaten on a white tablecloth which represents the Christ child’s swaddling clothes. Hay is placed in the center of the table to remind all of His humble birth, and a candle signifies that He is the Light of the world.
Following the Christmas Eve meal, the family goes to a church Christmas Eve service which will last beyond midnight.
They return to church for a liturgy on Christmas morning and then gather at home to exchange gifts and share a Christmas meal.
Evangelical Christians account for less than one percent of India’s population of one billion. So while these traditions exist among church-goers, they are not a part of India’s culture at large.
Also worth noting: due to decades of occupation by European colonists, India’s Christmas traditions are a melting pot of Eastern and Western customs. You’ll likely see pieces of each in the categories below.
- Christmas trees: Mango or banana trees are decorated, typically with handmade, paper ornaments.
- A Santa figure: In India, Father Christmas goes by several different names, depending upon the region where he’s believed to have delivered gifts to children. But each is translated to mean Father Christmas.
- Traditional Christmas foods: Like most Indian food, Christmas treats vary widely by region and people group. Nearly all, however, include a version of fruitcake and rose cookies (a light and crispy waffle made using a flower-sharped iron).
The women of extended families gather to bake in anticipation of the holiday, amassing stores of foods to eat and share .
Favorite sweets include newrios (fried pastries stuffed with dried fruit, sesame seeds and coconut) and dodol (toffee with cashews and coconut).
The main Christmas feast is eaten on Christmas Eve and—unlike the vegetarian diet of India’s Hindus—it often includes chicken.
Spiced banana chips, crisp chaklis (of fried lentils), and cardamom and cashew macaroons round out the meal.
- The holiday greeting: While each local language has its own greeting, Hindi for “Merry Christmas” is क्रिसमस की बधाई (pronounced krisamas kee badhaee).
- Religious customs: In Southern India, many Christians place oil burning lamps on their rooftops to testify to their neighbors that Jesus is the Light of the World. They also hang paper stars above the sidewalks.
Homes and churches typically arrange a nativity, which they refer to as a Christmas crib, outdoors on their property. It often becomes a friendly competition to see whose is the most elaborate.
After the sumptuous Christmas Eve meal, Christians in India attend a midnight church service.
In the morning, they eat a hot and spicy breakfast, then go door-to-door sharing their trove of Christmas treats with neighbors—Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Christian alike.
Kenyans are obligated to return to their hometown for Christmas, despite the price gouging they often endure on the transportation to get there. Once home, family members are expected to assist with preparing food and decorating the home.
Because it may be the only time family gathers throughout the year, it is common to hire a photographer to chronicle the day.
- Christmas trees: Less popular than in many countries, the Christmas trees which are decorated in Kenya are often Cypress.
- A Santa figure: Kenyans call him “Santa,” but he’s reported to arrive by camel or even Landrover! At times, he is seen with his elves, portrayed by local children.
- Traditional Christmas foods: Christmas dinner is sometimes provided at church by a missionary organization. Popular menus include barbecued goat, sheep, beef, or chicken, along with rice and chapatti (flat bread). The Christmas feast is called “nyama choma.”
- The holiday greeting: Merry Christmas in Kiswahili is “Krismasi njema.”
- Religious customs: In anticipation of Christmas, most churches are decorated with ribbons, balloons, and flowers.
On Christmas Eve, groups often form to go caroling. The families in the homes visited will offer the carolers some gift (typically money), which the carolers donate to the church.
Christmas Eve church services are called “Kesha.” It is the highlight of the year, as worshippers sing praise songs, dance and cheer in commemoration of the arrival of the Christ child.
Most services include a dramatization of the Biblical Christmas story.
It is customary to return to church on Christmas morning and everyone who can afford to wears new clothes to celebrate the occasion.
As you celebrate Christmas this year, consider incorporating one or more of their traditions into your festivities and rejoice that we are part of one global church family.
And have the merriest of Christmases!
The Boaz Project, Inc.