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As Christmas comes each year we settle in to our Christmas traditions that are unique to this country. Some are quite odd, like mall stampede the day after Thanksgiving, but others are classics. There are Christmas trees, eggnog, and letters from Santa Clause. These are the things that we just have to have every year to make Christmas complete. Even children know you must have a Christmas tree and Santa Clause letters. But in places around the world it is celebrated differently but the general theme remains the same.
Japan, for instance, was not introduced to Christianity till much later than the West. But when Christian missionaries brought the religion to Japan, Santa came along for the ride. There he melded with a Japanese god, Hoteiosho, who was always pictured as a kind old man carrying a pack and that became their Santa. What is the one big difference between our Santa and theirs? Theirs has eyes in the back of his head! It is closer than India has gotten as it is a Hindu and Muslim country. They do have a period of gift giving about the same time and give baksheesh, gifts to the poor. The few Christians there do, however, decorate Christmas trees, but because of the climate they don’t look like ours. They use mango and banana trees.
In Russia, things are very different. For one, they have the right weather; Russia gets a bit nippy in winter. And two, they love Saint Nicholas. They celebrate both Saint Nicholas day, December 6, and Christmas, which under the Russian Orthodox Church, is in early January. Santa there has had rough time. He was Saint Nick since the 11th century when Prince Vladimir was baptized. Upon his return he told stories of Saint Nicholas of Myra and the miracles he preformed. When Russia went to Communism (and therefore secular) He was transformed into Grandfather Frost and traveled with the Snow Maiden. The Snow Maiden was a rebirth of Babouschka who brought gifts to all the children. After the fall of Communism Russia reverted back to Christmas, now with a little more Western flare but even today, Nicholas is one of the most common names for boys.
We think of a lot of our Christmas traditions coming from Northern Europe and places like Sweden but some of their customs might seem odd to our version of the holiday. There the Christmas season starts on Saint Lucia day. They do enjoy a Christmas Eve feast before the gifts are handed out, but theirs tends to have a lot of pickled cod (yummy). After dinner, the children dress up a little Christmas gnomes and await their Santa Clause, called Tomte. He doesn’t live with Santa at the North Pole but a little closer, under the floorboards of the house or barn. And there are no reindeer. No, he rides a mule made of straw. That is really no odder than our reindeer flying.
Every country has their own way of celebrating Christmas. In fact, there was a "Christmas" before there was even a Christ. There were days to celebrate the winter solstice and the longest night of the year. And did they have big Christmas dinners? They sure did but it was because the just slaughtered most of the cows and pigs so they didn’t have to feed them through winter. So next time you unwrap a fruit cake by a Christmas tree, think of what you could be doing.