Special Feature
How countries across the world celebrate Christmas

By Dan Santy Sunday 23 December 2012 Updated: 29/12 09:05

WE know on Christmas Day people all over the world were celebrating with us, swapping gifts and enjoying some long awaited family time.

And while there are many similarities between countries' celebrations, there are also a few quirky differences to be found between how nations observe the festive period.

Here we take a look at the ways some of our friends in Europe and across the globe enjoy their day.

FRANCE

While British children were counting down the days to Christmas Day, some youngsters in northern France would have already received gifts three weeks earlier on December 6, the feast day of Saint Nicolas.

On Christmas Day, French children awake to find le Père Noël has visited in the night. The day is mainly for children to celebrate, with the more patient adults often choosing to wait until New Year's Eve, la Saint-Sylvestre, to open their gifts.

Traditionally a Christmas Eve feast, le réveillon, is eaten. Starters of oysters, snails, seafood and smoked salmon, followed by goose or another roasted bird are enjoyed and washed down with wine or champagne.

In French custom, Saint Nicolas has a partner, le Père Fouettard - Father Spanker - whose job it is to decide whether children have been good or bad.

GERMANY

Christmas also starts early in Germany. On the night of December 5, Nikolaustag, children leave shoes outside their front door. Those who have been good are left presents of chocolates, oranges and nuts while those who have not are visited Knecht Ruprecht and receive bundles of twigs.

On Christmas Eve, das Christkind - the Christ Child - sends a messenger in the form of an angel in white bearing gifts. Der Weinachtsmann - Santa Claus - also visits with presents.

The celebrations begin on Christmas Eve when families unwrap presents, read stories, sing carols and eat a celebratory meal. Traditionally, meat is avoided for religious reasons, although this is not always observed.

Christmas Day is marked with a feast of anything from suckling pig to white sausage.

Strangely, a big New Year tradition is for families to watch a British television comedy sketch from the 1920s. Dinner for One or The 90th Birthday has become regular New Year viewing for many Germans, even though it is unknown in Britain, where it was created.

SPAIN

Spanish tradition has it the Three Kings bring presents on January 6, el Día de Reyes, but over time this has been brought forward to Christmas Day when Papá Noel visits.

The festive period marks the time when many Spanish keep their fingers crossed for the world-renowned lottery draw, El Gordo - the Fat One. Starting on December 22 and running for two weeks, this drawn-out affair is more complicated than our Lotto and sees many winners end up substantially richer than they were before.

Sweets figure prominently. El turrón, nougat, is essential, while marzipan figurines are also popular, together with los polvorones, soft crumbly cakes made with lard, flour and cinammon.

The main meal takes place on Christmas Eve, la Nochebuena, and consists of a major dish of meat or seafood.

In Catalonia, the nativity scene is given an interesting addition in the form of el caganer - the defecating shepherd - complete with a peculiarly shaped cake topped with sugar flies.

ITALY

Most Italians open their presents on Christmas Day, although some wait until Epiphany, l'epifania, on January 6. It is traditional for children to receive a stocking - filled with colourful treats for those who have been good, or coal black sugar sweets for the naughtier youngsters.

Traditionally, rather than Santa Claus, the kind witch, La Befana, brings the presents. She is said to have followed the wise men but got lost, and has been wandering and handing out gifts ever since. However, Father Christmas, Babbo Natale, is now widely celebrated.

Family and food are the essence of Christmas in Italy. Festive meals vary between regions, but on Christmas Eve meat will often be avoided in the Catholic tradition, making way for numerous fish dishes.

Christmas Day lunch, il pranzo, is a lengthy affair with delicacies including pig's foot filled with spiced mince meat, lamb and sweets like nougat and gingerbread on the table.

In small towns, nativity scenes featuring live actors will take place on the streets, while pipers, zampognari, perform traditional Christmas songs on bagpipes, flutes and oboes.

RUSSIA

Calendar differences mean Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7. Unlike in the West, it is mainly a religious celebration with several long services held on Christmas Eve before the family returns home for the Holy Supper, 12 dishes to honour each of the Twelve Apostles. For devout families, an all night vigil at church follows.

Christmas Day, celebrated since 1992 after being suppressed by the Communist government for decades, is part of a national ten-day holiday in the country but is often secondary to New Year festivities.

At New Year, trees and homes are decorated, and presents are given during the visit of Dyed Moroz - Grandfather Frost - and his granddaughter Snegurochka - the Snowmaiden.

NIGERIA

Christmas Day is a public holiday in Nigeria and sees cities and towns empty, with people in work heading to their ancestral villages to be with those less fortunate than them. Markets are often packed with people buying live chickens, goats and cows for their Christmas meals.

Meals are prepared on Christmas Eve, with meat dishes made in large quantities including Jollof rice in the south and tuwo in the north. An array of alcoholic drinks are served alongside these, ranging from traditional palm wine to imported beers and wines.

Gift giving is focused around handing money or items to those less fortunate. 'Visiting' relatives from the towns and cities will be approached and asked for money or objects, and lavish celebrations including dancing and music are common.

JAPAN

In Japan the commercial pull of Christmas has not gone unnoticed. Although not a national holiday, gifts are sometimes exchanged and parties are held, while Japanese Christmas cake, a white sponge filled with cream and decorated with strawberries, is enjoyed.

Christmas lights are unsurprisingly found all over, while trees adorn public places like shopping malls. Christmas Eve is traditionally seen as a time for couples to spend some quality time with one another.

Bizarrely, a successful 1970's advertising campaign has made it customary for Japanese people celebrating Christmas to eat a meal at fried chicken restaurant chain KFC. Its stores are so popular this time of year they have to take reservations months in advance.

BRAZIL

Celebrations often resembling those held in European countries with decorated trees, cards and gifts common. Even with the country's warm climate, decorations in the theme of winter are a regular sight.

In some towns, decorations are taken seriously with competitions held in which judges visit houses and decide which is the best on show.

Christmas Eve is the most important day. At midnight on December 24 the churches celebrate the Missa do Galo - the rooster's mass.

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