Written by Heidi Scovel of Mt. Hope Chronicles
Christmas is a beautiful season of celebration. I love the comfort of familiar traditions, but I also enjoy discovering new ways to share the delights of the season with my children while learning about the world around us.
We read stories, listen to music, and research online to discover how families in other countries celebrate Christmas. Often, we are inspired to go a little further, such as learning how to fold origami cranes with which to decorate our tree.
While we’ve enjoyed our brief ‘visits’ to other countries, three celebrations in particular have become family traditions that we look forward to every year.
Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th
Saint Nicholas was a Bishop of Myra (in present day Turkey) during the 300s AD. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic when Nicholas was a young boy, leaving him a large inheritance that he used to help the poor and needy.
His feast day is celebrated in many countries with various traditions. You can read about many of them at Saint Nicholas Center, where you can also find stories, recipes, and a large number of child-friendly activities.
In our family, we get together with friends each year on St. Nicholas Day to read stories such as The Legend of Saint Nicholas by Demi, make marzipan treats (a traditional European confection), and find chocolate gold coins in our shoes. This is one of my boys’ favorite Christmas traditions!
Saint Lucia Day, December 13th
Hope, like the gleaming taper’s light,
Adorns and cheers our way,
And still, as darker grows the night
Emits a brighter ray.~Oliver Goldsmith
Saint Lucia was a young Christian girl from ancient Rome who was martyred for her faith. Legend has it that she wore a wreath of candles on her head to light her way while bringing food to persecuted Christians hiding in underground tunnels.
Saint Lucia Day is celebrated primarily in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries. The eldest daughter in each family wears a white dress with a red sash and a wreath of candles on her head. She carries a tray with saffron rolls, ginger cookies, and coffee. Boys dress up as attendants, or ‘star boys,’ wearing a white shirt or robe, a cone-shaped hat decorated with stars, and a wand with a star on the tip.
Because I have a Swedish heritage, Saint Lucia Day has been a particularly fun celebration to introduce to my children. In past years, we have invited family members to join us for Swedish goodies such as orange cardamom bread and krumkake. I have even tried my hand at making a marzipan pig!
There are a few Swedish Christmas books on our book stack every December:
- Annika’s Secret Wish by Beverly Lewis
- The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren
- Christmas in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren
- Ollie’s Ski Trip by Elsa Beskow
Las Posadas, December 16th-24th
Las Posadas is a Spanish and Mexican Christmas tradition symbolizing Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging.
Processions of villagers along with a couple acting as Mary and Joseph go from home to home requesting lodging (in the form of a traditional song), where they are turned away until reaching a designated spot. There, Mary and Joseph are welcomed in, everyone is served goodies, and children break open pinatas.
The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie dePaola is a beautiful picture book about this celebration. The Legend of the Poinsettia, also by dePaola, is one of our favorite Christmas stories, as well.
Here are a few more resources for learning about Christmas celebrations in other countries:
- Brigid’s Cloak: An Ancient Irish Story by Bryce Milligan tells a story about Saint Brigid of Ireland.
- Tree of Cranes by Allen Say is a gorgeous picture book about a young boy in Japan whose mother tells him about Christmas in California and decorates a tree with origami cranes and candles.
- Christmas Coloring Book is a fun way for children to learn about Christmas traditions from other countries, including St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia Day, and pinatas in Mexico. Each detailed coloring pages has a short description of traditions from countries such as China, Australia, France, and Iraq.
- A Classical Kids Christmas is a collection of carols and poems presented in pageant style. It includes traditions and songs from around the world, and is one of my favorite Christmas recordings.
- This link at WhyChristmas.com tells about Christmas traditions of many countries including Czech Republic, Zimbabwe, and South Korea.
Adding stories, sights, sounds, and activities from other countries just might offer a richness to your holiday studies and celebrations that your whole family can enjoy.
Does your family incorporate any cultural traditions into your holiday festivities? Are these traditions part of your own heritage, or ones you have adopted to make your holiday season richer?
Originally published on December 10, 2010
my husband and i were just doing some research on st. nicholas since we’re going to that region of turkey for christmas. i can’t wait to tell my kids some of the stories about the real santa this year. 🙂
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What a fabulous Christmas adventure!
I Live in an Antbed
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The Las Posadas sounds really wonderful. Thanks for all the info!
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Thanks for these ideas. I have a Swedish heritage but haven’t ever celebrated St. Lucia. We do enjoy Swedish tea ring and Swedish pancakes, though not on any certain day.
I also learned about Los Posadas from my students when I taught ESL; it would be fun to try it with our children some time. Hopefully we can check out de Paola’s book. I love The Legend of the Poinsettia too!
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I made Swedish pancakes for my boys and they weren’t sure about them (how can that be?!), so I had to eat the WHOLE batch. Yum!
Beacause half the family is still in the old country, we celebrate that way for Christmas- except the second day of Christmas (December 26th) I do it MY way- the British way and make roast beef and yorkshire pudding- We try to have at least 3 days of quiet celebrations and visiting with friends- no malls for me between Christmas and new years (yes, I miss the great sales and I don’t care)
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That sounds like a beautiful celebration. We did roast beef and yorkshire pudding with my family a couple years ago and everyone loved it! I think days of quiet celebrations with friends sounds delightful!
Thank you for the book titles and descriptions. I was able to request some through our inter-library loan system.
renee @ FIMBY
Thanks for the great book ideas.
We celebrate St. Lucia’s Day too! Thank you so much for all the Swedish book recommendations…I just ordered several of them and I’m so excited to have them in my collection. Great post–I love learning about different traditions around the World.
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If you’re looking for a way to extend the season, Russians celebrate the Orthodox Church Christmas on January 7th (which corresponds to December 25th in the Julian Calendar).
And in Russian tradition, St. Nicholas was replaced by Dyed Moroz (a.k.a. Father Frost), the Russian version of Father Christmas and his beautiful granddaughter Snegurochka, (a.k.a. The Snow Maiden) helps him distribute the gifts.
You could put a colorful Matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting doll, in your kids’ stockings to further the Russian Christmas theme or set out a Nativity-themed Matryoshka set!
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Heidi @ Mt Hope
Thank you for sharing those Russian traditions! I would love to add a Russian-themed day to our Christmas season. We might have to stretch it out until January 7th…
Gloria @ Gold Chocolate Coins
This is the most sought after part for the year that my family is looking forward to, the merry cheers and the love that is always around during this time of the year. And most importantly this is the time of the year that the whole family gathers and just have a great time. I can’t wait for this year!
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I took my first loan when I was 32 and it supported my family very much. However, I require the short term loan as well.
Erin - The Usual Mayhem
You mentioned some of our favorite Christmas reads! The Tomten is sitting on my son’s nightstand right now, ready for bedtime reading.
Thanks for sharing all the links; we’ll be checking them out for sure.
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We were just in Belgium to see their famed Christmas markets. My kids got a kick out of learning about “Black Peter”, St Nick’s companion who would apparently “thwack” misbehaving children!
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Don’t forget to leave carrots in your shoes for St. Nicholas’s donkey!
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I totally and absolutely love your links, thank you. One year we did Christmas around the world for Advent, a country a day… you might find the links and resources here helpful… http://www.se7en.org.za/se7ens-christmas-around-the-world
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I’m from Barcelona, and one of our traditions is cagatio https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dB_N7-HXTlI You can see it here. We also have the three wise men on January the 6th. For us santa lucia is the beginning of the Christmas Market.
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I love learning about different Christmas traditions, sometimes it helps us understand the hodge podge that has become “American” Christmas. I just learned about St. Nicholas last year and we were so happy to start celebrating this year (today!). We belong to the Covenant church, which has a Swedish background, so we celebrate Santa Lucia there every year; just made my Swedish meatballs for our feast tomorrow!
I can’t wait to check out your book recommendations! We have the Las Posadas book and we love it (my hubby’s family is from MX but never celebrated Las Posadas).
I wanted to say thank you for such a fun post. I bought a few of the books since we are incorporating Christmas around the World into our homeschooling Christmas routine. I wrote a blog post about our routine and included this post that you wrote in it. I hope that it’s ok with you. If you would like, you can read it at http://www.kinderfarmhomeschool.com/2014/12/10/holiday-homeschooling-our-break-for-christmas/. Thank you again for sharing.