As the holiday season builds momentum, it becomes increasingly difficult to disassociate the holidays from seasonal traditions. When considering the customs and mannerisms passed down from generation to generation, the long-established value of the holiday season seems to grow exponentially. Whether considering the time-honored tales of Santa Claus — the fictional but jolly red-suited old chap who flies his reindeer-drawn sleigh during his early morning gift delivery — or the anticipation of a gift-opening extravaganza, the traditions followed within each culture’s version of the winter holiday, in essence, forge a sense of community into individuals around the world.
But the planet we call Earth is shrinking. Not in the physical sense of course, but as a community. The global community is a real, living entity. Once seemingly marooned on separate societal wavelengths, nearly every point of the globe now has some form of contact with another, making the world an infinitely smaller place.
Amidst this high rate of global shrinkage, however, there is an interesting phenomenon at play. Because the world seems so small and commercialized, it is far too easy for one culture to assume that its winter holiday celebrations are echoed by all other surrounding cultures. Take for example North American Christmas symbols — Santa Claus, Christmas trees, stuffed stockings and the burning of the Yule Log. Though not all families follow these traditions, the media’s portrayals of the holiday season understandably plant the idea that these traditions are universal, when in reality, that is far from the truth.
In honor of the holiday season’s perspective of tradition, it seems only fair to gain an understanding of the many winter holiday traditions outside our borders. And in order to truly break out of the North American version of Christmas, one must attempt to separate themselves from personal traditions.
For the first exploration of the world’s many winter holiday celebrations, imagine a place where winter does not even exist. As confusing as that may seem, it is a reality — if you live in Fiji.
Fiji is a South Pacific island-based country located approximately 1,300 miles to the northeast of New Zealand. One of the most economically prosperous countries of the South Pacific region, Fiji has become a favored vacation spot, and is perhaps best known for its year-round tropical weather. That being said, imagine a place where temperatures in December never drop below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That world is Fiji, and it is home to 24-year-old Akanesi Fa.
Originally from Suva, Fiji’s capital city, Fa came to Arkansas in 2008 as part of Arkansas Tech University’s International and Multicultural Student Services Office (IMSSO) student exchange program. Prior to her arrival in the United States, Fa had not personally experienced Christmas, per se.
“In Fiji, we celebrate the holiday spirit, but we don’t really celebrate Christmas,” Fa said. “What we celebrate is each other. It’s about spending time with family and friends. We’d go swimming for hours and we eat a lot of food.”
Fa said one of the highlights of the Fijian winter holiday is the building of the lovo, a traditional underground oven. But according to Fa, it is not the oven that makes the holiday special, but rather the socializing that occurs afterward.
“After digging the lovos, families and friends get together and slaughter a bunch of pigs and chickens and stuff,” Fa said. “It’s a really big feast, and it generally goes on for a long time. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas and even after, there is feasting and gatherings and more lovos.”
Though raised with a special appreciation of her culture’s winter holiday, a tradition she misses during her stay in Arkansas, Fa said she was always intrigued by the Western idea of Christmas.
“Christmas here was something new,” Fa said. “I was always really excited to learn about it. What we celebrate in Fiji is not really Christmas, but what you all celebrate here is the real Christmas. I don’t really know how to explain it.
“When I was back in Fiji, I used to watch movies about Christmas. There was always singing and there was snow and things like that. In Fiji, it is warm all the time. So when I came to the United States, it felt like I was in one of those movies.”
Another IMSSO exchange student, Tahmid Shantanu, hails from Bangladesh, a South Asian nation bordering India. Unlike Fiji’s tropical climate, Bangladesh is typically subtropical. With hot and humid summers and cold, dry winters, Shantanu was not wholly caught off guard by Arkansas’s odd winter weather, nor was he bewildered by the Christmas celebration. In fact, Shantanu said he considers the Christmas season an important time of the year.
“Christmas is indeed a holiday in our country,” Shantanu said. “But it’s more of the season that we celebrate. The whole month of December is important to Bangladeshis because December is victory month. It celebrates our separation from Pakistan in 1971.
“But I think the celebration is even more different for Bangladeshis than for Americans in that we prefer not to celebrate the day, but rather the concept. We don’t look at the religious aspect at all. It’s all about showing appreciation to those around you.”
Shantanu said on Christmas night, he and his family gather together to watch Dr. Seuss movies, bake cookies, and eat cereal and milk. Afterward, many Bangladeshis attend “Christmas bashes.”
“The last bash that I went to in Bangladesh was at a hotel,” Shantanu said. “They had rented out basically the whole hotel for the holiday season. There were people all over and they played Christmas music. Between Dec. 21-31, the food they serve is all Christmas themed.”
Shantanu said that when he was much younger, he spent many Christmas nights waiting for Santa Claus’s arrival. Now that he has grown beyond that, Shantanu said, he holds onto the idea that Christmas is a universal holiday of thankfulness to be celebrated by all.
“It fascinates me that people look back on this day, once a year, where people celebrate this one thing,” Shantanu said. “A lot of people back home in Bangladesh do not quite understand that concept — that Christianity and Islam really celebrate a similar thing during Christmas. I try to bring those concepts together.”
On the way out of Bangladesh, the journey makes yet another educational pit stop in India. Praharsha Bollam, a student at Arkansas Tech, recalls the winter holiday traditions of her homeland.
“India, being a diverse country as you know, follows many traditions for many different festivals,” Bollam said. “We have 15 holidays, starting from December 15 to January 1. We celebrate the New Year, too.”
Unlike the cultures visited so far, Bollam said she and her family take part in Christmas caroling, the Christmas tradition of publicly singing classic Christmas-based tunes.
“We have carol singing 10 to seven days before Christmas,” Bollam said. “We do it from 9 p.m. to late into the night, like 1 or 2 a.m..”
According to Bollam, pre-Christmas celebrations are similar to many of the Western traditions, such as the decorating of Christmas trees and the preparations for Santa Claus’s arrival. A Christmastime tradition unique to India, however, is a holiday cuisine known as Palaharam. Bollam said the Palaharam are “tradition, snack-type foods that are cooked in the days leading up to Christmas.”
And in a special holiday tradition not dissimilar to that of the customary gift exchange, Bollam said she and her family take time out of their Christmas season to show their appreciation for those they care about.
“One of the special things about my family’s Christmas is that my parents buy many cakes, and in the evening, we go to our all our friends and give them the cakes,” Bollam said. “It is our way of showing our love and joy.”
Though experiencing India for only a short while, it is unfortunately time to trek onward. Now to examine the winter holiday traditions of one more culture, move the pin from Bangladesh to the far northeast corner of China. Set the pin down on the city of Baoding. Located 87 miles northeast of China’s capital, Beijing, Baoding is home to Xiaohan Du.
“The Chinese culture is very, very old and its history is rich,” Du said. “But first things first — we don’t actually celebrate Christmas. The closest thing we have to Christmas is our New Year’s celebration. It’s a 15-day celebration and it’s full of tradition.”
According to Du, the Chinese New Year is to China as Christmas is to the Western cultures. Just as winter holiday traditions are observed in many ways around the world, the traditions of the Chinese New Year are equally diverse.
“I think it is very hard to try and compare the two holidays,” Du said. “But at the same time, it is hard to say they are different. They both focus on family and gift giving. But I think what makes them different is that the Chinese New Year is a longer holiday, and there are more traditions that we follow.”
Among the many traditions observed during the Chinese New Year, Du said there are many small traditions that make the Chinese New Year special and unique to her and her family.
“Each one of our traditions has a story behind it, something to explain its importance to our culture,” Du said. “For example, almost everything that we do during the festivities involves the color red. That is because of the Nian.”
“According to tradition, there was a monster, the Nian, which would attack the villages and eat the children. One day, when the monster attacked a village, it did not eat one of the kids because he was wearing red. From that time until now, we always decorate in red. It is for good luck.”
On the day of the New Year, Du said all the children run to their parents and close relatives and wish them a happy new year, at which point they will receive a red envelope with money in it.
“In the end, we almost have several holidays all at one time,” Du said. “We celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we also have something like a Halloween.”
Now, after following four individuals on an information-filled journey through their winter holiday traditions, one can no longer assume that there is only one structure to the Christmas season. From Fiji, to China, to Bangladesh, India, and back to North America — even with the realities of globalization, every culture has its winter holiday traditions. Nothing will ever change that.
That being said, to all who are beginning holiday preparations — may the holiday spirit be upon you, and may you be granted every happiness this holiday season has to offer.