In America, we have Santa Claus. He’s big and rosy-cheeked, all decked out in red and white, and easily recognized due to his famous facial hair. We leave him cookies and milk to munch on before he climbs back up the chimney to his reindeer. But our notion of Santa Claus is really the combined effort of many old traditions and folklore. There’s a little bit of the Dutch figure of Sinterklass, a dash of Norse mythology’s Odin, and British folklore’s Father Christmas.
The story of how Santa came to be got me thinking about how kids in other countries are going to be celebrating Christmas this week -- and why it is important to teach our kids about different holiday traditions around the world (by the way, The Museum of Science and Industry has a must-see annual exhibit that highlights various cultural holiday celebrations).
I asked the folks at Cultural Care Au Pair to share the cultural traditions from the home countries of some of the au pairs living with families here in Chicago. This leading au pair agency knows very well the many benefits of cultural exchange for the families and au pairs in their program. Au pairs introduce children to the culture of their home countries through language, songs, games and more. And our little "global citizens" get a unique look at what the world is like outside of the United States.
While we prepare for Santa's arrival, I thought you might be interested to hear how other countries are celebrating Christmas around the world.
Patricia Togoro, age 25 from Pindamonhangaba, Brazil currently living with a host family in West Town.
Christmas Eve is a special day where families enjoy a meal together of delicious meats. After midnight, well wishes of “Merry Christmas” as well as fireworks abound throughout the city. A traditional Christmas Day meal includes turkey, dried fruits, walnuts, chestnuts and panettone (a type of Italian brioche containing raisins). Secret Santa gifts are exchanged amongst friends, coworkers and family members. Papai Noel comes bearing gifts in his silk Santa suit as the traditional dress would be too warm for him during Brazil’s summer months.
Austria & Germany
Jacqueline Schwab, age 21 from Schwarzach, Austria living with a host family in Lincoln Park & Maren Hotz, age 18 from Boeblingen, Germany living with a host family in Wicker Park.
December 6th is St. Nicholas Day in Germany and Austria. On this day, all the children wake up to find the candies and chocolates that “der Nikolaus” left in their boots the night before. In some parts, a big horned monster called “Knecht Ruprecht” or “Krampus” accompanies St. Nicholas. This scary figure punishes the children who were bad, and gives them a birch branch as a present. In other parts of the country, St. Nicholas is followed by a little character called “Schwarz Peter” (Black Peter), who carries a small whip. And in northwest Germany, St. Nicholas is joined by Belsnickel, a man dressed all in fur.
Christmas Eve is the most special day with families going to church and eating a meal together. While the family is at church the Christkind, a young girl with Christ-like qualities, arrives to decorate their tree and leave gifts.
Nina Pitulec, age 23 from Wroclaw, Poland living with a host family in Roscoe Village.
Santa Claus visits homes in Poland on December 6th as St. Nicholas. On December 24th, Polish families decorate a tree, clean the house and prepare a feast for the following day. Families also exchange the oplatek, which is a thin wafer broken first by the patriarch and matriarch then passed around to the family as they wish each other many good things in the coming year. A meatless family dinner is consumed before a midnight service is attended. Christmas Day is reserved for time with family and celebrating Christ’s birth. Families in Poland also celebrate St. Stephen’s Day on December 26th by visiting with friends, exchanging Christmas greetings and caroling.
Rachel Gray, age 20 from Smithton, Australia currently living with a host family in the Ukrainian Village.
Australians celebrate Christmas similarly to Americans by decorating their houses and yards with lights and decorations. They eat a family meal of meats, seafood, vegetables and desserts. Since Christmas is celebrated during Australia’s summer months, Santa usually changes his warm suit for cooler clothes and gives the reindeer a rest while he lets kangaroos, called the six white boomers, pull the sleigh around.
Nacha Videla, age 27, from General Roca, Argentina, living in Roscoe Village with her host family.
In Argentina, the Christmas season begins on December 8th with the children recreating a nativity scene. Families also decorate a tree and on Christmas Eve, they attend church and enjoy a meal together and share their wishes for the world. After dinner, family pictures are taken and presents are exchanged including presents from Papa Noel (Santa). Many families will display fireworks in the street at midnight to celebrate Christmas.
Fanny Janten, age 19, from Holt, Sweden, living with a host family in North Center
In Sweden, the Christmas festivities begin on December 13 with St. Lucia’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of light. On this day, the oldest daughter in the family wakes up before dawn and dresses up as the “Queen of Light,” putting on a long white dress and a crown of leaves. She then goes to every bedroom in the house, singing the traditional “Sankta Lucia” song and serving coffee and treats to the members of her family. Later in the month, just a day or two before Christmas, the whole family helps to pick out a Christmas tree.
No matter how you are celebrating, I wish you you and your family happy holidays!