Christmas – Unique Celebrations & Traditions in Alaska, Africa & Australia!


Christmas is a celebrated event in many countries world-wide. Here are three countries, Alaska, Africa and Australia all located in vastly different regions of the world and each has their own unique traditions and celebrations. Here are some of their fascinating traditions and celebrations.

Alaska – “Carrying the Star” is a traditional Christmas procession. Young and old carry elaborately decorated tinsel trimmed wheels with eight points, usually as big as umbrellas. They are highlighted with a centre picture of either an angel or the nativity scene. They are carried for three nights from January 7th over icy snow topped roads. The stars represent the angels who announced the birth of Christ. Families lovingly maintain the stars. Some are more than a hundred years old!

Africa – There are approximately 350 million Christians in Africa who celebrate Christmas. Emphasis is more on the religious celebrations of Christ’s birth rather than gift giving. Although the most common gift (if nothing else) is new clothes which will be worn to the church service. People in many countries of Africa such as Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo believe it is an absolute must to attend church on Christmas day, even if they never attend the rest of the year. An annual Christmas pageant as well as groups of carolers singing Christmas carols within villages is now part of the festivities.

Churches in Africa start intense preparations for Christmas many months prior. Nobody escapes the yuletide feeling as it has been said that it feels like the whole country is preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus with so much joyful and active community preparation taking place! The streets are alive with music as well as on the radio, television and just about where ever you look! People joyously visit their friends and relatives in the spirit of community celebration regardless of religious persuasion. It is usual to see brightly colored and decorated trucks, cars and buses as well as homes, schools, churches and neighborhoods often boasting creative festive displays made with colored crepe papers. Colorful and alive with joyous celebration is Africa! Ancient and spectacular masquerades locally called “Agugu” now play a major part in Christmas celebrations. Usually held after the Christmas Eve service is a joyous procession of dance and music through the streets lead by local bands with dancing masqueraders (usually young boys dressed in fancy and colorful costumes) and Christmas revelers. People parade with large intricately made lanterns called “fanals” usually in the shape of houses or boats.

In Ghana Christmas dinner is not complete without fufu (a thick dough like food) and okra soup and in Liberia rice, beef and biscuits are the order of the day. Zimbabwean’s make sure there’s plenty of bread, jam and tea to eat with their prized goat meat which is their traditional Christmas roast. On the west coast of Africa most homes have an oil palm for a Christmas tree.

Austria – St Nicholas is widely honored and appears on his feast day December 6th. In Austria this is a holiday separate from Christmas. He appears in his traditional dress of flowing robe and tall Bishop’s miter carrying a shepherd’s staff and a thick book. It is believed the good and bad deeds of children are recorded in his book! It was once tradition to hold an elaborate Christmas Eve ceremony where St Nicholas and the feared Ruprecht (demonic creature, who wears a hide, has glowing eyes and a long red tongue) both appear on Christmas Eve. Children gather together and sing a hymn to welcome the Saint. Then one by one the children join the Saint at a family table where he checks their lesson books then asks them to repeat a prayer he says. This ends with the children kissing his Bishops ring while he tells them to go place their shoes outside then look at them when the clock strikes ten! Ruprecht stands over the door watching the childrens every move! Before St Nicholas leaves he blesses the children as he sprinkles them with holy water then quietly and swiftly departs. The children with great excitement then hurriedly run to place their shoes outside their homes. At the stroke of ten children run outside to find their shoes filled with treats of apples and nuts!

Austria is a predominantly Catholic country renowned as the land of the sound of music and home of Mozart, Strauss and Schubert. Included in Christmas celebrations is the “Advent Concert Series” in Innsbruck. It features groups of family singers and instrumentalists similar to the famous “Trapp Family” from “The Sound of Music”. Another famous Christmas festivity is in Salzburg where the hottest ticket for the season is for the “Salburger Adventsingen”. It is a program of advent music and folk lore which began more than half a century ago. They get more than a 100,000 requests each year for the prized 30,000 tickets available for admission. The fish carp is served for the traditional Christmas dinner.

Austria is famous for its miniature crèche figures. Nearly all families have a crèche with miniature figures of the holy family and often a few animals are included. Many creches are hundreds of years old, treasured heirlooms handed down from one generation to the next!

Austria’s Epiphany celebrations – boys and Girls on the day of the Epiphany (which remembers the Three Wise Men from the east who were looking for the newly born Jesus) dress in oriental costumes and sing traditional songs. They move from house to house receiving small gifts including gifts of money. They carry a lantern referred to as the “lighted star of Bethlehem” to guide them on their way. It is popular to see people chalk the initials of the wise men “CMB” (Casper, Melchior, Balthasar) on the transoms of their doorways!

Austria’s fun Krampus Day tradition – in Salzburg December 5th is known as Krampus Day. Krampus is believed to be an evil spirit. He is usually clad in frightening fur, wearing deer horns, a mask with a long red tongue and bulging red eyes and carries a birchwood rod. He storms down the street with a loud racket using huge cowbells and rattling chains as he shouts menacingly at the onlookers. Thousands, including many children crowd the streets to watch the medieval event. With much laughter and merry making, whenever children and adults see Krampus, they throw snow balls at this menacing figure. In the city each year a “Krampus Run” is held with fun and much teasing, poking and laughter. It is said that the purpose of Krampus is to remind children to be good!

In recent times in some communities the Krampus actors have to wear a number so they can be identified under their masks in case they loose control. It has been known for some to get carried away after downing a few too many schnapps or beers. A prominent Austrian child psychiatrist has been arguing for a ban on Krampus. He suggests he’s “a jolly old fright” for children. However there have been few known cases of “Krampus trauma”!

Australia – Christmas falls in the middle of summer and the heat can be more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is common for people to hold out-door barbecues for the main Christmas feast and often parks and beaches are alive with family feasting taking place. It is not uncommon to see thongs, shorts, a beer in hand and a Santa hat on the head chef (usually the father in a family) at the Christmas day BBQ which is almost always followed by Australia’s best loved desert “Pavlova”. It is as light and delicate as Anna Pavlova the famous Russian ballerina for which it is named after.

Australian Carols by Candlelight – an Australian Christmas Eve carol service started in 1937 by radio announcer Norman Banks. Famous performers gather to sing at “Carols by Candlelight” held in Melbourne each year. A hugely popular annual event televised throughout the nation. Carols are performed on a stage to a huge audience where thousands attend outdoors holding lit candles.

Beach visits Christmas Day in Australia – up to 40,000 people visit Bondi Beach in Sydney on Christmas day! It is the middle of summer in Australia and with soaring heat levels beach barbecue lunches and swimming is popular while waiting for Santa to arrive on a boat on Christmas day!

Chinese Customs In Gift Giving


Purchasing a gift is not always easy especially it is for someone from a different culture. This article provides some interesting information if the gift is for a Chinese.

As China is a big place with many provinces, the culture can vary depending on which province the person comes from; but there are some general themes that can be followed to avoid some embarrassments.

What you need to know?

To the Chinese, anything that brings prosperity, longevity or good fortune are fine and anything related or ‘sounds like’ death must be avoided. This rule applies to both numbers and colors that are being used in almost any occasions.

Note: The pronunciation is referring to Cantonese.

Bad numbers – number 4 is the most unwelcome number simply because it has a similar pronunciation as ‘death’.

Good numbers – number 8 sounds like prosperity and number 9 for longevity. Series of 8’s or 9’s such as ‘888’, ’99’ are even better. Numbers ‘168’ and ‘138’ are also very popular for they sound like ‘continuous fortune’.

Bad colors – black and white are usually for funeral or mourning. Therefore, you should only send white flowers to a funeral and the gift wrapping paper should not be plain white or black.

Good colors – red and gold are for celebrations such as birthday and wedding.

Items to avoid – sharp objects such as knives or scissors as they would ‘cut-off’ a relationship. Umbrellas resemble separation. Clock sounds like “attend a funeral”. Handkerchiefs are for mourning. Books are not for Cantonese people who love gambling because it sounds like “loss”, otherwise is fine.

Exceptions: although wearing black or white to a wedding is not a tradition, it is acceptable if the wedding ceremony is held in a church which follows the western style.

Do not be offended if your hosts do not open the gift in front of you as it is not polite in the Chinese culture unless you insist. Also, they do not normally accept your gift immediately in case you feel they are greedy.

What are the popular items?

Cash

Cash can be used in almost all occasions. For happy occasions, it should be put inside a ‘red envelope’ that has some words of blessing pre-printed on it. Red envelopes can easily be found at most Chinese grocery stores; always check with the staff to find one for the occasion you want if you do not understand the Chinese characters on the envelope otherwise you might give away one for the wrong occasion.

The amount inside the envelope should follows the numbering rules as mentioned before i.e. use even numbers except number 4. Also, if you are a couple then you should give two envelopes instead of one to cover for both.

If it is used in a funeral, which is normally used for donation to the charity or assist the grieving family financially, you can put small amount of cash in ‘odd’ number in a normal ‘white envelope’.

Food

There is no doubt that Chinese love foods, this is always a good bet especially for older people. When visiting someone in person, it is always a good manner to bring a food basket containing fruits, biscuits or nice table wine. If he or she is a smoker then a good brand cigarettes is also fine. In the upper range you can give away food such as dried oysters, dried seafood, mushrooms or bird’s nests. For individual fruits such as oranges or apples, count them in even numbers e.g. 6, 8 or 10 pieces.

Jewellery or ornament

Normally given in big celebrations such as wedding, new born baby, 21st birthday, 60th birthday, 90th birthday and so forth.

Baby – parents like to host a banquet for their new born baby after one month of birth. Jade, gold or silver bracelet or necklace is a good gift, otherwise baby clothes.

Birthday – If you know the person’s Chinese zodiac sign, another hot item is a gold plated Chinese zodiac figurine represents the animal sign of the person.

Wedding – jade or gold bracelet or necklace resembles long lasting relationship.

What sort of gifts for festivals?

There are many festivals in China, but you will most likely be invited to join a family celebration in the following festivals:

Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) – this is the most important festival for the Chinese people which brings family members, friends and relatives together. It is a custom to give money in a red packet from married couple to single people or children. If you are single it is considered to be polite to bring a food/fruit basket to your hosts.

Mid-Autumn (Moon) Festival – This is the day when people would sit down with family and friends to watch the full moon and serve moon cakes and other type of food. Therefore, bring some moon cakes or food along to your hosts is the best gift you can offer.

Dragon Boat Festival – Rice parcels as big as a purse are made during this festival to honor a patriotic scholar named Chu Yuan who drowned himself to protest against the emperor. Before his body was recovered, people make the rice parcels and threw them into the water to stop any fish eating his fresh. Another saying is dragon boats were used to scare away ‘water spirits’ because dragon is the God of the oceans. Rice parcels are made out of glutinous rice, pork and egg yolk wrapped with bamboo leaves which are sold in most shops during the festival.

If you are interested in cooking, bring along some home made rice parcels will surely impress your hosts.

Other occasions

Return from a vacation – small souvenirs to your neighbors, friends, colleagues and relatives when returning from a trip.

Farewell – cash in a red packet or small gift such as a sailing boat meaning smooth sailing to the new destination.

Visiting someone at home – food basket.

Visiting someone in the hospital – food plus health drinks (e.g. Ginseng) that will help speedy recovery.

Conclusion

Generally speaking, dealing with people from a difficult culture requires understanding. Some of the traditions have been practiced for a long time but are diminishing in the new generations. Chinese people are normally understandable in terms of culture conflict since they have over 2000 years of history and have different culture from different province. It is beneficial to know the customs but do not need to be strictly followed so long you stay away from the ‘death’ business you should be safe.