How do they celebrate Christmas in South Africa?

This is a guest post from my lovely husband, Ian.

Christmas in South Africa is celebrated in different ways, as you would expect from a country with such cultural diversity.  The main differences are between white “European” and black “African” celebrations.  However, what they all have in common is the fact that Christmas is a holiday in the summer, as South Africa is in the Southern hemisphere.  It is one of the main holiday seasons for local people, and children have a month of school holiday.  This means that the only snow is on Christmas cards, with normal Christmas weather being hot and sunny.

santaWhite South Africans celebrate in ways that are familiar to us in Britain, reflecting the fact that the country was a British colony for many years.  People decorate their houses with fir trees, colourful lights and decorations.  They might even use cotton wool around their windows – this is as close as they can get to a “white Christmas”!  The most distinctive decorations are the beautiful South African flowers, which are in full bloom at this time of year and give a fantastic colourful look to the festive season.  Children hang their stockings up, hoping to get gifts from Father Christmas.

As in Britain, Christmas is a time for getting together with family and friends for meals and parties.  Christmas dinner is often roast turkey or beef, with mince pies and plum pudding to follow.  While the food is familiar, the difference is that most people eat Christmas dinner outside in the sunshine, and many even have a “braai”, or barbecue, a much-loved part of South African culture.  Many people make the most of the summer weather by heading into the countryside for picnics, swimming in lakes, family sports or visits to game reserves in some areas.  Some families even like to go camping over Christmas.

In rural African communities, celebrations are a mixture of Western and local traditions.  Church services and family celebrations are more important than the more commercial aspects of the festivities.  In small villages, the whole community gets together to celebrate, and the women join forces to brew beer and prepare food for everyone.  Traditionally, though, the men cook the meat to show that they have provided for their families.  Singing and dancing are a very important part of the festivities.  Boxing Day is when gifts are normally exchanged, and tend to be practical items rather than luxury goods – household products for adults, school books or clothes for children.

No matter what cultural tradition South Africans come from, Christmas is a special occasion, and an opportunity to spend enjoyable days with family and friends, making the most of the wonderful summer weather and beautiful countryside.

Ian works as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide and as a German to English translator. Even though I could be accused of being biased, I have to say that he is excellent at both! If you don’t believe me, book a place on his Tolkien coach tour in January and see for yourself!

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How do they celebrate Christmas in Russia?

In Russia the Christmas holidays run from December 31st to 10th January, with Christmas Day being celebrated on 7th January. Why 7th January and not 25th December? Well, not all countries adopted the Gregorian calendar at the same time. 25th December according to the Julian calendar falls on 7th January according to the Gregorian one, so strictly speaking they are celebrating 25th December – it’s just that they go by a different calendar.

On Christmas Eve (6th January) many Russians fast until the first stars come out. They attend church services and afterwards have a meal called “Holy Supper” which consists of 12 dishes to represent the 12 apostles. Some of these dishes are fish, borsch, dried fruit and a porridge-like food called ‘kutya’ which is eaten from a shared dish to represent unity.

After the meal they will go back to church for another service known as the All Night Vigil.

ded morozChristmas in Russia is primarily a religious occasion. The decorated trees and present giving traditions are all for New Year’s Eve. This is because during the days of communism, religious celebrations were banned and so Christmas wasn’t celebrated at all. So that they didn’t miss out, the Russians moved all the party traditions to New Years Eve, and this date is now far more important to the Russians than Christmas day, and is the day when families get together to celebrate and exchange gifts. The children, who would have been visited by St Nicholas pre Soviet Union, now receive their presents from Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz) and his granddaughter The Snowmaiden (Snegurochka). Ded Moroz looks much like Father Christmas except that he wears blue, not red, and carries a magic staff. He gets around by sleigh just the same.

To wish someone a merry Christmas, you say “Schastlivogo Rozhdestva!”

Related posts: How do they celebrate Christmas in France, How do they celebrate Christmas in Germany, How do they celebrate Christmas in Italy, Christmas in New York, How do they celebrate Christmas in South Africa, How do they celebrate Christmas in Canada

Christmas in New York

Rockefeller treeAmerica being so vast, Christmas Day will vary a little state by state, especially when you think about the traditions of the southern states and the heat of California. So my contribution to this ‘Christmas around the world series’ is concentrating on NYC. Apart from the fact that New Yorkers see themselves as a separate entity to America (in a good way), a bit like London seems to be separating itself from the rest of the UK (in a bad way).

In any case, that’s where I’ve spent more Christmas days abroad and a couple of Thanksgiving days too. Which brings me onto my first point; in my 25+ years’ experience of visiting New York, Thanksgiving is decidedly more of a family orientated day off than Christmas. As it’s only a month before, if people have to choose just one flight home, they are more likely to choose Thanksgiving. Dec 25th is the only public holiday, as there is no Boxing Day in America and the only other one is New Year’s Day so people are more likely to stay put and get then and spend NYE with their friends too.

So what I have got up to on Christmas Day in New York? For the first time, I treated myself to a stay in Waldorf Astoria. The iconic hotel, as cosy as it can be for such a huge old building, is mainly full of, well-to-do, young American families who no doubt want to get away from domestic chores for a few days.

Rockefeller ice rinkOn Christmas morning, I skip out of my room (tiny – the cheapest, but still, it’s the Waldorf!!) and the maid says ‘good morning’ as I wait for the lift. I bump into a few people and everyone politely greets me, as I do them. It’s not until I go outside onto Park Avenue that a passing soldier smiles with a ‘Merry Christmas mam.’ So that is the first time ‘Christmas’ is uttered. Had it been Thanksgiving, everyone from the door staff, coffee shop servers and drug store cashiers would have said ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ Instead of ‘good morning’.

It’s my first time away from a family Christmas and I even pre-book my festive lunch in their restaurant (upwards of $100 for a roast turkey buffet even all them years ago) which is full. I’m seated within eaves-dropping range of a Florida doctor and his young family. I told all my friends that Jude Law was on the table opposite, sitting with a large group but that could have been a doppelganger of course. (I wouldn’t really know exactly what he looks like quite frankly but they chose to believe me).

On other visits, I have seen snow although that tends to come when the winter proper comes in January/February so Christmas is relatively mild. Although, unseasonably, my very first visit to New York for Thanksgiving, it snowed – for the first time in a gazillion years if I recall rightly. It did mean I couldn’t be asked to go to Macy’s Parade with The New Kids on the Block, yes, that’s how long ago it was. But I made up for that by going to the Parade some years later on a sunny blue sky, day.

Central parkIn America, the block buster films are released on December 25th so I have seen those once or twice but one of the best Christmas evenings ever was seeing Jersey Boys on Broadway. I’d tried to secure tickets the year before and this time, I’m so determined I ask an expert to assist. The ticket is bought, the gold knitted dress is packed – trust me, it looks much better than it sounds and comes out every year – and then I have a little disaster with the boots I was going to wear.

I’d been out for traditional long walk in Central Park after brunch and came back for a refresh before going out much later for a turkey lunch in a different local diner. When I went to pop my boots back on, the zip broke! The disaster being that I’d only bought one pair as I had fully intended to shop for a couple of new pairs after Christmas. These were the years I was building up my business and didn’t have time to do these things all through the year so not taking spares forced me to go and shop!

This being New York, which has a heavy non-Christmas celebrating Jewish population, especially where I base myself uptown, I knew there’d be shops open, just not the big chains. I put my jeans on over my boots for now, and go shopping on Christmas day. There are four shops that sell shoes within 10 minute from me. Most are selling trainers and casual shoes but one has clothes and a good selection of boots. I buy not one but two pairs of boots. The night is saved!

Jersey Boys still the best musical performance I have ever seen outside of regular bands; worth every cent for a special Christmas day.

City centre dweller Rickie Josen has been writing for 5 years, spending 6 months in New York to (mostly) attend writing school and get addicted to working out of indie coffee shops. So that’s where you’ll find her most days but being a big music fan, she’ll have her headphones firmly on! Rickie travels frequently and having written a book on her great loves, music and travel, the hunt is on to find that one agent that will say ‘yes’ or at least ‘yes, you have some potential. Maybe.’ If on the rare occasion you can’t spot Rickie in a coffee shop, you can find her readily on Twitter @RickieWrites or via her blog.

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Who was Mictecacihuatl?

deadMictecacihuatl (pronounced Meekteckaseewadl), also known as the Lady of the Dead, was the Aztec goddess of Death. I haven’t been able to find out for certain whether she died as her mother gave birth to her, or was sacrificed to the gods as a small child, but either way she died young and grew to adulthood in the Afterlife.

According to Aztec legends, the human race was created from the bones of a previous race, which had been stolen by the gods. To prevent this happening again, Mictecacihuatl, who was now the Queen of the Underworld, was tasked with guarding the bones of the dead so that they could never be stolen to create a future race.

Related post: The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead

skullThis festival is celebrated in Mexico on the 1st and 2nd November. It is a day when families gather together to remember their loved ones who have died.

Despite being celebrated so close to Halloween, there is nothing ghoulish about the Day of the Dead (or el Día de Muertos as it’s known in Spanish), nor is it a sombre occasion. Families don’t get together to mourn their dead, but rather to celebrate their life. They make altars for their loved ones, or visit their graves and decorate the gravestones, often even having a picnic at the graveside.

It is said that the spirits of the dead come back to earth for one day, first babies and children who have died and later the adults. The festival coincides with All Saints’ Day (1st November) and All Souls’ Day (2nd November), but like many dates in the Christian calendar, the festival has its roots much further back in time than the arrival of Christianity in Mexico, dating back to the Aztecs.

It was a festival to honour the Goddess of Death, Mictecacihuatl, and originally lasted for the whole of the 9th month of the Aztec calendar (from around mid July to mid August). The Spanish conquistadores tried to eradicate the festival, but the Aztecs clung tightly to their beliefs.

Eventually the festival was reduced to just two days and was moved to coincide with appropriate dates in the Christian calendar. However the celebrations still have a nod towards the original Aztec celebrations, and Mictecacihuatl, in the guise of a well-dressed skeleton, still plays an important role.

Here are some links to videos to explain to children what the Day of the Dead is all about: Day of the Dead 1st video , Day of the Dead 2nd video, Oaxaca: The Day of the Dead

I also found this post about Day of the Dead in Poland.