Finland to Italy
On Christmas Eve morning, families enjoy rice porridge and plum juice. Some families hide an almond in one of the dishes and the recipient can make a wish! All Finns know that Santa Claus (aka Jouloupukki) lives in northern Finland near the Arctic Circle - a short jaunt to the homes to good Finnish boys and girls. He arrives while children are still awake, so they have the chance to greet him!
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are celebrated throughout the country; some regions also celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6 and Three Kings Day on January 6. World-renowned for sublime cuisine, traditional foods vary from region to region and include goose, turkey and boudin blanc (white pudding). Especially popular is la buche de Noel (yule log cake). Pain calendau is a bread that is traditionally shared with those who are underprivileged and galette de roise (king cake) is served on January 6.
Christmas markets or Christkindlesmarkts are found in most major German cities (the oldest and most famous is in Nuremburg) and boast traditional holiday delicacies, plus toys, crafts and clothing. Most markets open the first day of Advent and end at noon on Christmas Eve. Though many Germans refrain from eating meat on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day's feast often includes roast pig, goose and sausage, plus spiced cakes, cookies, gingerbread and stollen.
For many years, Athens was home to the largest Christmas tree in Europe! On Christmas Eve, Greek children visit neighbors singing kalanda (carols) and playing music. They are rewarded with treats and coins. Many families in Greece bake a traditional Christopsomo (Christ bread). The crust is decorated with the family's profession. The season also brings such delicacies as roast lamb and pork and kourabiedes (a powder-sugar covered nut cookie).
The Posada, a procession of Mary and Joseph's statues, takes place the nine evenings before Christmas Eve. Each night, a different neighbor welcomes them into his home. The culmination, and the largest celebration of all, takes place on Christmas Eve. At midnight, people embrace and fireworks are launched. A typical Christmas Eve meal includes homemade tamales filled with rice, beans, turkey and dried fruit.
St. Nicholas Day (December 6) is an important winter holiday celebrated in Hungary. Children leave their boots or shoes out to be filled with goodies - especially chocolate in red wrappings - by Mikulas (St. Nicholas). A devilish creature with a switch accompanies the saint, punishing those who have misbehaved.
Thirteen days before Christmas, 13 troll-like, elfish pranksters (each with a different personality and prank) known as Yulemen descend upon Icelandic towns. In years past, these mischief-makers would steal and cause trouble, but today, they leave small gifts in the shoes of deserving children.
Shubh Naya Baras
India's Christian community celebrates Christmas by attending Midnight Mass and decorating their homes with ornate nativity scenes, lights and clay lamps perched atop the roof. Many Indians also hang a star on the front of their house until January 6, Three Kings Day. Diwali is a holiday celebrated by Hindus across India. The five-day festival of lights honors the goddess Lakshmi. The date changes every year based on the lunar calendar.
Nollaig Shona Duit
The first step in preparing an Irish home for the holidays is a top-to-bottom housecleaning. Holly and mistletoe add to the décor and a candle is set in the window to welcome Mary and Joseph. Children place pillowcases or stockings at the end of their beds with the hope that Father Christmas will fill them with treats.
La Befana is the female, Italian equivalent of Santa Claus. She is an elderly, witchlike woman who flies above the country on broomstick, giving gifts to children on January 6 (Epiphany Day). Legend tells that La Befana declined an invitation from the Wise Men to join them in Bethlehem, and to this day and for all eternity, she continues to search for the baby Jesus.