Americans bedeck their homes at Christmas with Santa Claus, snowmen, and garlands of evergreen, among other traditional items. Find out how the rest of the world adorns their homes in preparation for this favorite holiday around the globe, and gather some ideas to make a multi-cultural Christmas this year.
Holland: Wooden shoe ornaments
The tradition of hanging a stocking for Santa to fill came from the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas on December 5th, when children set out their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas to fill with chocolate coins and other small presents.
England: Mistletoe and holly
Holly wreaths have their roots in English history. The druids regarded mistletoe as sacred; after Christianity was introduced the mistletoe was given a religious meaning and the tradition of hanging mistletoe continues today.
Germany: Nutcracker dolls and Christmas pyramids
Germany contributed many items to the basic tenets of Christmas decorations all over the world. Glass balls, tinsel, and nutcracker dolls are just a few that originated in Germany. The Weinachts Pyramide, or Christmas pyramid, at one time was the poor man’s Christmas tree, but now it is an esteemed Christmas decoration in every German home. Made from wood, rope, or metal, the pyramid holds candles at the base which turn a rotor affixed on the top.
Mexico: Poinsettias, luminarias, and piñatas
The poinsettia, native to Mexico, has long been considered a Christmas flower. A legend says it began when a poor boy who had no gift to give the Christ child grabbed some greenery he found along the side of the road, which then bloomed red when he offered his gift at the manger scene. Mexican luminiarias, typically punched tins in which candles are lit, are unique to the area of Mexico and the southwestern region of the U.S. On Christmas day, Mexican children are given a piñata to hit with a stick and then scramble for the hidden candy when the piñata bursts.
Austria: Advent wreaths
Austrians claim the advent wreath as native to their country, although many other countries use the tradition. Four candles are placed on the wreath, and are lit beginning four Sundays before Christmas. The first Sunday only one candle is lit, and then two are lit the next Sunday. This continues until the fourth Sunday. The four candles are also lit on Christmas day.
India: Clay oil lamps
In south India a common decoration is a clay oil lamp. These lamps are lit at night and placed around the outside of the house – on the roof and on the top of boundary walls.
Venezuela: Pesebres and angels
On December 16th, Venezuelan families display their pesebres, or nativity scenes. Venezuelan pesebres involve the traditional holy family, shepherds, and kings, but often they include nontraditional elements such as electric trains, boats, and cartoon figures. Angels are also popular in Venezuelan Christmas decorations.
Iceland: Tiny wrapped boxes, popcorn and cranberry garlands
Traditional Icelandic Christmas tree decorating incorporated fruits, nuts, candles, and garlands of popcorn and cranberries. They also hung their presents from the trees, or wrapped tiny boxes as Christmas ornaments.
Peru: Manger Scenes
The Quechua Indians carve elaborate manger scenes from wood or soapstone, with characters modeled after the time of the conquistadores. They employ 16th century carving techniques, but the manger scenes have pure Peruvian charm with the addition of llamas and local people such as the tamale vender. Each year, families add to their collection. Some sets of figures are so tiny they can fit into a matchbox.
Greece: St. Nicholas, fishing boats, and basil
St. Nicholas was a priest who came from Myra, known for helping the poor. He was also associated with the sea, and, in Greece, fishing boats are commonly used motifs. From December 25 to January 6, a shallow bowl of water is kept with a wire strung across to suspend a basil-wrapped cross. This holy water is used to sprinkle each room during the twelve days of Christmas to ward off the Kallikantzaroi, mischievous spirits.
Norway: Advent calendars
Advent calendars, either homemade or store-bought, delight children as they open a new window each day until Christmas. Each window either contains a picture, chocolate, or small present.
A sheaf of wheat is bound around the middle with elaborate ribbons, and then placed in a prominent corner of the dining area. The floor is strewn with straw to represent the birthing place of Christ.
It may be surprising to find out that many of America’s popular decorations originated in many different countries. Often the decorations were more than a way to make homes look festive; they were tied to deeper meanings, a symbol of their life, work, or what they cared about. Though the original meanings might have blurred a bit, the current use of Christmas decorations have an important role, and nostalgia will guarantee their presence in years to come.