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It is interesting to see how different countries celebrate Christmas. We asked some of our friends to explain what happens in their countries.

This is what they told us:

Belgium

On 6th December Sinterklaas or Saint-Nicholas is celebrated, which is an entirely different holiday from Christmas. Santa Claus in Belgium is called de Kerstman or le Père Noël and he does come around on Christmas day to bring children presents. There are different cultures in Belgium, the Northern part being Vlaanderen (speaking a Dutch dialect), the Southern part being Wallonie (speaking a French dialect) and the Eastern part speaking German.

Small family presents are given at Christmas too, under the tree, or in stockings near the fire-place, to be found in the morning. Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread called 'cougnou' or 'cougnolle' - the shape is supposed to be like baby Jesus. Some families will have another big meal on Christmas day.

Brazil

Father Christmas is called Papai Noel. Many Christmas customs are similar to USA or UK. For those who have enough money, a special Christmas meal will be chicken, turkey, ham, rice, salad, pork, fresh and dried fruits, often with beer. Poorer people will have chicken, rice and beans and will also drink beer and coke. For dessert people enjoy some Brazilian sweets Brigadeiro made of condensed milk and chocolate. Both rich and poor have Christmas trees. A poor person's Christmas tree is made of plastic or is just a dry tree branch. As we don't have snow in Brazil, poor people put cotton over their Christmas tree branch to simulate snow. Christmas time varies a lot from south to north region.

Finland

Finnish people believe that Father Christmas (Santa Claus) lives in the north part of Finland called Korvatunturi, north of the Arctic Circle. People from all over the world send letters to Santa Claus in Finland. (It is only fair to say that the people of Greenland say that really, Father Christmas lives in Greenland!) There is a even big tourist theme park called 'Christmas Land' in the north of Finland, near to where they say that Father Christmas lives.E veryone cleans their houses ready for the three holy days of Christmas - Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Christmas Eve is very special, when people eat rice porridge and a sweet soup made from dried fruits (plums, raisins, apples, pears, apricots and figs). It´s eaten in the morning or at lunchtime. They will then decorate a spruce tree in the home. At mid-day, the 'Christmas peace declaration' is broadcast on radio and TV from the Finnish city of Turku by its Mayor. In the evening, a traditional Christmas dinner is eaten. The meal will include 'casseroles' containing liver, rutabaga, carrot and potato, with cooked ham or turkey. Some families eat liver pate. Rawpickled slightly salted salmon, herrings and salad called "rosolli". Mushroom salad is also common. Rosolli is cold salad made from peeled, cooked and diced potatoes, carrots, beetroot and diced apples, onions and pickled cucumber. Season with salt (some people use also pepper). Whipped cream (+ salt, vinegar and beetroot colour to make it pink) is served with rosolli. Food traditions during the Christmas period depend on which part of Finland people live. In Lapland and in Finland's islands there are different foods. Other foods include cooked peas, different kind on salads, roe, cold fish-dishes, pates, other casseroles such as beetroot casserole with cheese or with blue cheese, sweet and spiced breads, carelian pies, and cheeses. Gingerbreads, spiced cakes, different kind of cakes and cookies and others to eat with coffee or milk. You eat these at "day-coffee" time on the Christmas eve (after the Christmas peace declaration which everybody watches on TV, or before going to the church and graveyard), in the evening. Christmas smells include mulled wine, gingerbreads, spices - cinnamon being the most common - Christmas tree, burning candles and hyacinthe. Poinsettia and hyacinthe are the most popular Christmas flowers. On Christmas eve many go to church, on the afternoon or late afternoon (time depends of local churches) - this is new tradition. The "real" and old Christmas church is early on the morning of Christmas day. Many go there too. Graveyards are very beautiful places on the Christmas eve, since there are lot of soft white snow and the only lights come from candles people bring to the graves of loved ones. If relatives are buried in other graveyards, there are places in graveyard you can lit your candle to remember them. Sauna of course is part of celebration. People go there before church and graves, or after them. After sauna is the festive dinner. The high moment! After that comes Santa Claus (if there are children) or the presents that are under the Christmas tree are opened. In some families where there are no small kids, the presents are not put under the tree, but collected to big sacks, which are carried near the front door. Then a family member might say, Did I heard sound of reindeers and bells... Or Did I hear Santa Claus... When they go to check, there are big sacks full of presents there. So it was Santa after all. Then people drink coffee and eat cakes, cookies and other sweet things. Enjoy present and play games. Small kids go to bed but others stay up late. Many families will visit cemeteries and grave-yards to place a candle onto the burial graves of family members. Cemeteries are very beautiful at Christmas-time.

Children receive their presents on Christmas Eve, usually with a family member dressing as Father Christmas. As children grow older, they come to realise that 'Father Christmas' is really a bigger brother, sister or family member.

France

In France, Christmas is always called 'Noël. Everyone has a Christmas tree, sometimes decorated in the old way with red ribbons and real white wax candles. Fir trees in the garden are often decorated too, with lights on all night.

Father Christmas is called Père Noël. The Christmas meal is an important family gathering with good meat and the best wine. Few people send Christmas cards. More people send New Year cards to wish everyone good luck and joy for the New Year. These days Christmas lunch is a starter of fois gras (a strong tasting pate made from goose liver) followed by lunch of seafood - usually including lobster and oysters. Decorations in houses are minimal but British traditions are catching on here and all the big shops and town centres have Christmas decorations including trees.

Germany

Germans love to decorate their houses at Christmas. Many houses will have little wooden frames holding electric candles in their windows, and coloured pictures of paper or plastic which look beautiful from the outside at night. Often too, they will have an 'Adventskranz' - a wreath of leaves with four candles. (Advent - meaning 'coming' - is the 4 week period before Christmas). On each Sunday of Advent, another candle is lit. Most homes will also have little wooden 'cribs' - a small model of the stable where Jesus was born, with Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and animals.

Father Christmas - 'Der Weihnachtsmann' - brings presents in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve (December 24th), after people have been to a church meeting. The presents are then found under the Christmas tree. One person in the family will ring a bell and call everyone to come to the room. On Christmas Day, fish (carp) or goose will be cooked.

Hungary

Susanna Denes, a Hungarian friend contributed the following:
Santa Clause (Winter-grandfather) (Tel-apo or Mikulas) comes on the 6th of December. Children should clean and put their shoes outside next to the door or window before they go to sleep. Next day candies and/or small toys appear in them in red bags. For children, who don't behave well, a golden birch placed next to the sweets, a symbol for spanking... (but don't worry, it is just for fun, and not for actual punishment.)
On 24th of December, children go to their relative or to the movies, because little Jesus brings the tree and the presents that evening to their house. It is customary to hang edible things on the tree, like golden wrapped assorted chocolates and meringues beside the glass balls, candles (real or electrical), and sparklers.
Families usually cook festive dinner for that night. An example would be fresh fish usually with rice or potatoes and home made pastries as dessert. After dinner, the tree would be viewed by the children for the first time. It was very exciting. Christmas songs are sung and then the gifts under the tree are shared.
Older children attend the midnight mass with their parents. (During communism, children had to hide at the back of the church. Teachers could have lost their jobs for attending the mass. Later (in mid 1970's) most of the Communist Party leaders of the town attended it too.) Next day the children attack the edible part of the tree. Festive food is enjoyed on the second and third day too.

Latvia

Latvians believe that Father Christmas brings presents on each of the 12 days of Christmas starting on Christmas Eve. Usually the presents are put under the family Christmas tree. (What a good idea to spread Christmas out longer!) It was in Latvia that the first Christmas tree was decorated. The special Latvian Christmas Day meal is cooked brown peas with bacon (pork) sauce, small pies, cabbage and sausage.

New Zealand

Lou from DownUnder writes: Christmas starts for us with gifts under the tree, to be opened Christmas morning. Then its onto a Christmas lunch either at home or at one's parents place. Turkey or chicken with all the trimmings is eaten, then come tea time, it is a Bar-B-Q for friends and family to get together,and have a few beers or wines with the meal!!

Portugal

People adhere to the tradition that Father Christmas brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. The presents are left under the Christmas tree or in shoes by the fireplace. A special Christmas meal of salted dry cod-fish with boiled potatoes is eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Romania

On the 6th December St Nicholas comes and puts small gifts in children shoes that have been polished and placed near the windows and if children have been naughty they get a little stick. Usually people in the country side grow their own pigs which are sacrificed for Christmas on the 20th of December, and the meat is cooked in different ways for the Christmas meal, like home made smoked/unsmoked sausages. Each part of the pig is used in different ways to make different dishes. Mince is made and together with rice, onions and spices is used for the stuffed cabbage or vine leaves, which are called 'sarmale'. So pig is traditional for Christmas meal. On Christmas Eve usually children go around houses and sing carols and get fruit, sweets or money in exchange. On Christmas Day everyone has a big family meal and visit relatives. In the country side people dress as bears and goats and go and sing special traditional songs at each house in the village. People from Transylvania serve stuffed cabbage on Christmas Eve, and next day for lunch. Most likely the reason for that custom is that stuffed cabbage is the best on the second and third day after it was cooked. Moms can prepare the food a day earlier, leaving more time for decorating and organizing. Very practical.
On 25th December, the whole family used to attend church and ate stuffed cabbage for lunch.

Russia

In the days of the Soviet Union, Christmas was not celebrated very much. New Year was the important time - when 'Father Frost' brought presents to children. With the fall of Communism, Christmas can be openly celebrated - either on December 25th; or more often on January 7th. This unusual date is because the Russian Orthodox church uses the old 'Julian' calendar for religious celebration days. Special Christmas food includes cakes, pies and 'meat dumplings'.

Sweden

The most important day is Christmas Eve. A special Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve - ham (pork), herring fish, and brown beans - and this is the time when families give presents to each other. Many people attend a church meeting early on Christmas Day.

United States

The USA is so multi-cultural that you will find many different ways of celebrating Christmas. A friend writes about Christmas meals, "Our family (Eastern European origin) favor turkey with trimmings. My grandparents and their relatives preferred keilbasi (Polish sausage), cabbage dishes, and soups. My husband's Italian family insisted on lasagna!"
Another friend wrote:
All year long children are told to behave, or they will get coal in their stocking. On Christmas Eve, they hang highly stylized stockings on the mantle of the fireplace, then go to bed early so that they will find presents in the morning. They are told that at midnight Santa will come, bringing a huge bag of toys. He will come down through the chimney, leave candy in the stockings and presents under the Christmas tree (anything from a Pine or Fir to a Spruce), then 'plug one nostril' and shoot up through the chimney. (This comes from the story " A Visit From St. Nicholas," where St. Nick laid a finger "aside of his nose." He wasn't plugging up his nose - he was making a sign for secrecy.) Cookies are traditionally left for him, and a carrot is commonly left for Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer, very much a part of Christmas tradition (Santa will land on the roof with his sleigh and nine reindeer). On Christmas morning, things such as cinnamon rolls or coffee cake are served for breakfast, and for dinner there is typically ham (and occasionally regal plum pudding). That is it for celebration — Boxing Day is never celebrated, Epiphany is only celebrated by Catholics, and Advent not commonly celebrated. Another American reader wrote in with the following:
Advent is celebrated in almost all Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. I was RC until I was 15, as were my grandparents, and we always followed the four weeks of preparation before Christmas in our church services. I found the same to be true in my father's Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my friend's United Methodist Church, my in-law's Presbyterian USA congregations, and for myself as a member and pastor of the United Church of Christ for the last 16 years. We also recognize Epiphany in mainline Protestant churches. On the first Sunday following January 6, our service tells again the story of the Magi who came to Jesus presenting their gifts following his birth. As a child, I fondly remember leaving carrots and sugar for all of the reindeer, along the milk and cookies for Santa!