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From cold turkeys to white kangaroos

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(CNN) -- The pervasiveness of western culture means that perceptions of Christmas are in many ways dominated by western customs. Santa Claus, roast turkey, carols, decorated Christmas trees, nativity plays -- these are the defining images of Christmas in Europe and the U.S., and as a result have become the images most commonly associated with the festive season.

Christmas, however, is celebrated in many different ways around the world, with each country and culture marking the occasion by mixing familiar celebrations with its own colorful traditions.

In India, for example, people decorate banana and mango rather than fir trees, while in Greenland the Christmas meal concludes not with minced pies and plum pudding, but with mattak, a slice of whale skin with the blubber still inside (apparently it tastes like coconut.)

In some places, Christmas is not even celebrated on December 25. Thus for Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Christians -- who still operate on the Julian (as opposed to Gregorian) calendar -- Christmas (or Ganna as it is known in Ethiopia) is held on January 7.

For those for whom Christmas extends no further than stuffed turkey and television repeats, therefore, we offer a brief overview of some of the other less well-known yuletide customs from around the world.


  • In parts of Portugal and Spain, seafood dishes figure prominently -- salted sea bass in Spain; bacalhau, or salted cod, in Portugal. Norwegians also traditionally celebrate with cod, in their case soaked in lye, a solution more commonly associated with soap making.
  • Elsewhere, specially baked breads form the culinary centerpiece of the Christmas season. Thus Greece has Christopsomo, or Christ Bread, while Poland has Oplatek, a thin white wafer, often with a religious image pressed into its surface. Belgians begin their Christmas breakfast with a sweetbread called cougnou.
  • In Lebanon a festive meal of chicken and rice will be accompanied by kubbeh, a dish comprising wheat, lamb, pine nuts, onion and spices. In Egypt, the main meal for Coptic Christians is fata, which consists of rice, bread and boiled meat.
  • In Brazil the main Christmas meal consists of chicken, turkey, ham, rice, salad, pork, fresh and dried fruits.
  • Russians enjoy a 12-course feast in honor of each of the 12 disciples, including fish, borsch, and stuffed cabbage.
  • Decorations

  • In Liberia in west Africa, families decorate a palm tree with bells.
  • In Bangladesh banana trees are replanted along paths to churches and outside homes, bent together to form archways and decorated with oil lamps.
  • In China Christmas trees are called "trees of light," and decorated by children with paper lanterns and chains.
  • In Germany it is traditional to place an Advent wreath with four candles on a table, lighting one each week in the run-up to Christmas.
  • In Poland straw and hay is sometimes spread on the floor under the dinner table or in the kitchen as a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable.
  • In countries in South America with strong indigenous traditions, such as Bolivia and Peru, nativity scenes will often feature figurines in traditional native dress, while sheep and goats are replaced around the crib by llama and alpaca.
  • Presents

  • In many countries including Sweden, Finland and Germany, presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve. Many European countries also mark the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, an occasion when children traditionally receive small presents.
  • In Latvia presents are given out throughout the 12 days of Christmas.
  • In Germany children leave letters on their window sills for Christkind, the infant Jesus who they believe distributes the presents on Christmas Eve.
  • In Italy children must wait until Epiphany -- January 6 -- to receive their gifts. According to tradition, the presents are delivered by a kindly witch on a broomstick called Strega Buffana who leaves treats for good children and lumps of coal for bad ones. Russian children also believe in an elderly Babushka who visits each house with presents.
  • In Greece, it is traditional to send small gifts to hospitals and orphanages.
  • Santa Claus

  • The exact location of Santa Claus', or Father Christmas', grotto remains the subject of intense international disagreement. Finns claim he lives in Rovaniemi in Lapland, home to a massive theme park called Christmas Land.
  • But Santa has also maintained a postal address in the Greenland capital of Nuuk since 1934 when Donald Duck and his nephews visited him there in a Disney cartoon. Greenland's Santa was also voted the real one at the 2003 Annual Father Christmas World Congress.
  • St. Nicholas, the fourth century Christian figure now popularly identified with Santa Claus -- whose birthday is widely celebrated on December 6 -- actually lived and died in what is now modern day Turkey.
  • Confusingly, Dutch children believe that Sinterklaas -- the abbreviation of Saint Nicholas from which Santa Claus derives -- lives in Spain.
  • In Ukraine, Santa Claus is known as Father Frost and assisted by a young girl called Snowflake. In China he is called Dun Che Lao Ren, meaning "Christmas Old Man."
  • In Australia Santa's sleigh is pulled by white kangaroos, a tradition commemorated in the Rolf Harris song, "Six White Boomers." In California and Hawaii he rides a surfboard, while in Brazil he wears silk clothing because of the summer heat.
  • Ritual

  • In Mexico an annual pre-Christmas tradition is the procession of Las Posadas, a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph's search for a room at an inn, with families and friends visiting each other's houses.
  • In Australia Christmas dinner usually takes place outdoors with either a picnic or a barbecue -- often on the beach.
  • In the Czech Republic it is traditional for young women to put a cherry twig in water on December 4. If the twig blossoms by Christmas Eve, the woman will marry the following year.
  • In Denmark families leave out a bowl of rice pudding or porridge for a mischievous elf called Nisse who lives in old houses and enjoys playing tricks on people. In Greece similarly mischievous figures are known as Killantzaroi.
  • In Finland, it is traditional for families to take a sauna before sitting down together for Christmas dinner.
  • Farmers in the Netherlands blow long horns over water wells at sunset each evening during Christmas to announce the coming of Christmas and to ward off evil spirits.
  • In Portugal, the feast of consoda takes place on the morning of Christmas Day at which families will sometimes leave space at the table and serve extra food in memory of the dead -- a tradition that is supposed to bring good luck in the New Year.


    Australians celebrate Christmas Day on Sydney's Bondi Beach.



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