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2006-02-06 00:00

  Christmas is celebrated all over the world – Tricia Stewart takes a tour round the globe to explore Christmas traditions and festivities in different countries.

  If you've ever wondered how Father Christmas manages to make his way around the world in just one evening, it's probably because you didn't have all the facts in front of you. Christmas is celebrated in cultures all across the globe, but sometimes with traditions peculiar to their country and even on a different day! Largely English speaking nations often follow the more European traditions, with the likes of Australia and Canada similar in everything but the weather.

  Austria is one of the earliest countries to celebrate Christmas with their celebrations falling on the 6th December! The celebrations in Austria are very musical and a number of the world's favourite carols originated here. St. Nicholas and his assistant, Krampus may visit on Christmas Day but a day earlier ChristKind, who also helps with the decorating of the tree, brings the gifts.

  Belgium too holds its celebrations on the 6th December, although they also celebrate on the 25th. The earlier date is dedicated to Saint Nicholas, a bishop of a city called Myra, who was canonized and who is thought to enter all the houses through the chimney bearing gifts. Later, Pere Noel (Santa) delivers presents to the whole family in the run up to the 25the December. On this day the family gathers for a traditional meal and to open and exchange the presents.

  Ghana is one of the many places that celebrate Christmas Day on the 25th December but also one of the few in Africa that pay particular attention to the season. The preparations for this occasion are momentous and begin months before the actual event. Homes, schools, neighbourhoods and even vehicles are adorned with lights and paper decorations.

  This time is special in Africa as it is a time when all relatives and friends come together and visit each other, regardless of their own personal religion. Often families try to arrive at the ancestral home by Christmas Eve although there is a lot of fun to be had out on the streets after the church service that night. Processions are huge and often led by local bands, and the dancing, merriment and celebrations continue well into the night and for many nights after.

  On the well-attended Christmas Day services, the story of Christmas is told in the local ethnic languages before children receive presents of chocolates, special crackers and if they are very lucky, clothes or a book. Likewise in Zimbabwe, fathers give clothes and candy to their wives and children to mark the event.

  In Chile, as in all Latin America, the most important part of all decorations and festivities is the manger scene. It's a very religious affair and on Christmas Eve, emphasis is placed on the Mass of the Rooster, which is followed by a traditional meal of the country.

  Costa Rica, however, lends itself to more exotic celebrations with the hot weather and their decorations consist of colourful flowers. Trips are often arranged to the jungle where visitors will pick some of the rare and exotic plants and orchids.

  Denmark is a country that doesn't do anything by halves and Christmas, also celebrated on the 25th December, is a big event. The children receive small gifts for every day of the advent and on Christmas Eve presents are lain under the tree. The presents are only given out once the family have walked around the tree and sung many hymns and carols. A series of Christmas lunches are held for the 12 days that follow. Similarly, in Latvia, Father Christmas delivers presents for every day of Christmas starting on Christmas Eve!

  Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a highlight in Germany. The decorations are taken very seriously and candles play an important part in the celebrations. Many houses have little wooden frames with electric candles in them displayed at their windows. Sometimes you can also see a decoration which they call 'Adventskranz'. This is a simple wreath of leaves with four candles in it and on each Sunday of the Advent another candle is lit.

  It is also common to see nativity scenes in German homes. These will often feature a wooden crib or a small model of the stable where Jesus was born with Mary, Joseph and animals. Their Christmas services take place on Christmas Eve and it is only after this that Father Christmas will visit, leaving presents under the Christmas tree.

  Russia traditionally celebrates Christmas on the 6th January with church services and also their "Feast of St. Nicholas", as the saint is especially popular in this country. These celebrations were repressed around the time of the communist revolution, but have returned to make this one of the most celebrated times on the Russian calendar, which runs 13 days ahead of the British one.

  Christmas in Russia is a time to revel in old folk traditions and their culture. After the Christmas Eve church service the attendees carry candles, torches, and homemade lanterns parade around the church, before returning to their places and singing hymns until late, just as their grandparents did before them.

  They eat their festive feast after the service, of which the most important ingredient is a special porridge called kutya. The use of wheatberries and grains in this porridge is to symbolise hope and immortality, and honey and poppy seeds ensure happiness, success, and untroubled rest. The kutya is shared around the family in the same bowl, which symbolises unity amongst the family.

  In Russia there is a folktale about Babushka, an old woman who delivers gifts to children at Christmastime. According to legend she did not find accommodation or food for the three wise men during their pilgrimage to meet the Christ Child and still roams the countryside looking for him and visiting children in the season.

  China, having a largely non Christian population tends to celebrate New Year more than Christmas, which falls around the end of January but some of the popular customs are still in place such as decorating houses and trees and the yearly arrival of Santa Claus.

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