Wherever you might be, the festive season is a time of coming together. Yet every part of the world brings to the table its own delicacies, rituals and customs, from a hunt for an elusive almond to a shared bucket of KFC. Our writers unwrap what Christmas means in five cities.
The Danes have a habit of taking German inventions and then going all in. They did it with Lutheranism, with the use of cinnamon in their baked goods and, boy, do they go to town with Christmas. (Then again, what is Christmas if not an almighty collision of Lutheranism and cinnamon?)
Like hygge, the classic Danish Christmas can also be seen as a natural reaction to the country’s climate and topography. There is little going on outdoors here in the months of November and December (jealous glances are cast towards the ski slopes of Sweden and Norway), so the focus is very much on the indoor sphere. Christmas is the ultimate domestic festival to ward off the winter gloom and see people through to spring. Aside from the afternoon trip to church on Christmas Eve (probably the day’s only mention of Jesus), the Danish Christmas is above all a celebration of home and family.
The ritual varies from family to family but it roughly goes like this: after church, you return home for drinks and marzipan-heavy confections. The centrepiece of the ensuing dinner is typically flaeskesteg (roast pork with crackling), the reasoning being that pork is fine for every other day of the year, so why not Christmas? Alternatives might be duck or goose. Turkey, not so much. Sides: red cabbage and boiled potatoes inexplicably rolled in caramel.
Another notable aspect of a Danish Christmas is how child-unfriendly it is, almost to a sadistic degree. Though their thoughts will naturally be fixated on presents, first the little ones must endure church, then a very adult-oriented meal, traditionally followed by rice pudding. Within this hefty dessert will be concealed a whole almond. Whoever finds it must keep shtum until the entire bowl is empty, forcing people to eat more than is comfortable in their quest to win the “almond present”.
Next comes the lighting of the tree, a magical moment to melt even the Scroogiest of hearts. A sidenote about the tree: it must be real. Since the Danes culled mink as a coronavirus precaution, the country’s Christmas-tree industry is even more vital for the national economy. Meanwhile, the candles in the Georg Jensen candleholders are real, effectively turning the things into giant indoor firelighters.
Family members then take turns to choose a Christmas hymn for all to sing as they hold hands and dance around the tree. (Careful not to trip over the bucket of water that the nervous foreign guest has placed – he thought discreetly – to one side.)
After half a dozen or so songs, someone will finally launch into “Nu är det jul igen” (“Now It’s Christmas Again”) and lead a tipsy conga through every room of the house, tramping joyfully over the beds, before returning finally, perhaps a little out of breath now, to collapse on the sofa for the present-opening orgy, all of them unwrapped long before the dawn of Christ’s actual birthday.
It hasn’t snowed in Mexico City since 1967 but the surrounding mountains have been known to get a smattering. In December, though, the weather does get chillier. I always enjoy driving along Paseo de la Reforma in the city centre on a brisk night, passing beneath the Christmas lights en route to buying a tree.
Celebrations in Mexico combine centuries of Catholic traditions with the winter holidays celebrated by the Aztecs before the Spanish arrived. Mexico has deeply religious roots but there is also a strong secular culture, which has evolved from the country’s liberal traditions and residual Marxist ideals. The season is celebrated from early December until the Day of the Three Wise Men on 6 January. The social aspect of Mexico’s winter holiday season is so deeply entrenched that it’s not particularly religious in most settings, though some families might sing a hymn at their gatherings. Many offices hold a secular posada party for their staff. The word means “hostel” or “refuge” in Spanish, a reference to the biblical Christmas story.
At family parties, the dishes are often prepared collectively or brought pot-luck-style and served around the house, rather than as a formal meal around a table. Staple dishes tell the story of the many influences at play: sweet apple salad, spicy fruit punch, roasted ham, fruit-stuffed turkey. Some have romeritos con mole, a sauce-slathered delicacy that combines stewed seepweed with a complex chocolate-and-chilli sauce, while desserts include panettone, apple strudel and flaky buñuelo pastries.
While some families attend church services on Christmas Eve, many mark the occasion by holding their biggest celebration, eating, drinking and talking until well after midnight. For generations of Mexican children, presents landed on 24 December; they would then giddily await gifts from los reyes magos (the three wise men) on 6 January. Because of the US influence, however, many people now exchange presents on 25 December. In Mexico, Christmas Day is a relaxed affair: largely for lounging around the house, playing with toys and eating leftovers.
One of my favourite memories of winter in Mexico is of several years ago, a few days after Christmas Day. I packed my crampons and snowboard into my car and hiked up the face of the Nevado de Toluca mountain to the west of Mexico City. I celebrated the holiday season carving turns in the untouched snow, high above the downtown area. That’s the closest I’ve come to celebrating a white Christmas in Mexico.
There are many clichés about Christmas in Japan, from the apocryphal crucified Santa in a department store (it didn’t happen) to the more on-the-money reports of people buying KFC party buckets instead of turkey, and fluffy strawberry shortcake in place of the fruitcake that Brits might hanker for. The origins of the “Kentucky for Christmas” tradition are murky with rival creation myths, one of which involves Takeshi Okawara, manager of Japan’s first KFC and eventually CEO, dressing up as Santa at a children’s party in the 1970s. Whatever the truth, Christmas brings bumper sales to KFC, while other shops and restaurants cash in on the association by offering their own boxes of fried chicken.
Meanwhile, confectioner Fujiya, which opened its first Western-style cake shop in Yokohama in 1910, lays claim to initiating Japan’s Christmas tradition of eating sponge cake. Its many branches still sell a classic version.
Christmas Eve is like Valentine’s Day, with couples filling restaurants. Christmas Day, however, is a day like any other. It’s not a public holiday so unless it falls on a weekend, 25 December is a normal working day; children usually go to school.
Real trees are a luxury, mostly bought by homesick expats. Everyone else makes do with a plastic version. Gift-giving is less frenzied than it can be elsewhere too. Japan has all of the Christmas lights and decorations that even the most festive of us could want; you might even find a German-style Christmas market. Yet what it perhaps lacks is the intangible feeling of Christmas.
Is it any wonder? Christmas is not a Japanese tradition but it has taken on a life of its own here. And if that involves sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries on top, so be it. The proper holiday and the more deeply rooted traditions begin with New Year. The mood then more closely resembles that of Christmas than Christmas itself: shops and restaurants close (for fewer days than they once did; Tokyo used to be a ghost town at the turn of the year), people hunker down with their families, eat too much food and watch television. Sounds pretty merry to me.
Like water flowing the opposite way down a drain, Christmas in Australia is the same as it is elsewhere but different too. In the northern hemisphere, it’s cold, dark, perhaps snowy and intensely festive. In Australia, it’s hot, sunny and arrives with a plucky pick’n’mix of customs that are loosely based on those of our northern counterparts. And with any luck, there’s a beach in there too.
Christmas in Oz marks the start of a months-long summer holiday when many workplaces close; employees dribble back to work in fits and starts. It’s a little like August in Italy: everyone has taken days off and the cafés are bustling but some of the best baristas are on holiday too. It’s also virtually impossible to get a plum restaurant reservation as everybody else is out too.
the holiday season is still, to a large extent, stubbornly celebrated along British lines. There’s roast turkey and potatoes, baked ham, gravy and other hot accoutrements that are strangely incongruous with the hot weather.
Over the past few decades, however, there has been a major shift and you’re now more likely to see barbecued seafood on the Christmas table, along with a pavlova, trifle and fresh mangoes. An increasing number of Australians can trace their heritage beyond Europe and so are bringing their own flavours to the festive season: think of a suckling pig roasted over charcoal, called lechon, which is the Filipino answer to a dry turkey. There might be sashimi, Cantonese lobster noodles or a Thai poached salmon. (I’ve been tempted to do a tandoori turkey... one day.)
This willingness to experiment is the real quirk of Christmas in Australia. We have made it our own as a country but on an individual rather than an institutional level. Christmas is a moveable feast, whether you celebrate with mince pies and port or in a paddling pool with a frosty one – and that’s perfectly OK. The one real constant is mangoes.
A few days before Christmas, Chinese in Hong Kong will get together to eat tangyuan, a clear soup full of sweet rice dumplings. There’s a symbolic meaning behind every Chinese tradition and tangyuan represents family unity. You eat together and stay together.
Sharing a bowl of these rice balls will have added meaning this year for all of the Hong Kong families who have been waving off loved ones at the airport – and I can relate to their pangs of separation. This will be my second successive Christmas in Hong Kong and the first with my son, who will not be able to meet his grandparents in the UK.
But Christmas is always more special with children around and I have added reason to go big on the family traditions. Sure, my son might be only nine months old but you can bet your life that he’ll wake up on Christmas morning with a stocking next to his cot stuffed with tangerines. I might even throw in some dragon fruit to add a taste of Hong Kong.
Years from now, when we’re back in the UK, he’ll be able to look at photos of himself in front of Hong Kong skyscrapers that are lit up like Christmas trees and visiting shopping centres decked out in fake snow with models of penguins and polar bears. It will also be a chance for him to try mashed-up turkey for the first time. Chinese don’t eat “fire chicken” (as turkey is known in Cantonese), so we have yet to feed him any.
Last year gave me my first insight into how curious culinary customs can seem to the uninitiated. We hosted Christmas dinner for my wife’s friends, all of whom are Chinese, and it was my job to plan the dinner, carve the turkey and explain what Brits eat at this time of year. Seeing the bewildered faces of my guests when they were presented with a mountain of roast potatoes, sprouts, stuffing, sausages, Yorkshire pudding, parsnips and carrots reminded me of my first run-in with one of their delicacies, chicken feet. There was a lot of gravy-soaked food being pushed around plates and little clamour for seconds.
We’ll adjust it all to regional tastes this Christmas, though I’m expecting fewer sign-ups. Several of the people at our table last year will be spending their first winter in the UK. As they settle into their new surroundings, I hope my crash course has given them a taste for this magical time of year, if not a hankering for turkey with all the trimmings.