Holiday Traditions Around the World: How We Celebrate the Season

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Maybe it’s because Madison Avenue is in New York City, which, theoretically at least, is a place where December bristles with the chilly arrival of winter, and thus images of Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer have dominated our vision of the Christmas holiday. Yet Christmas is celebrated all over the world, though often in places where snow is rarely, if ever, experienced. Some of the celebrations resemble those everywhere, with food, family and good times. Others are quite different, and some don’t even take place Dec. 25. Here’s a look at how the holiday season is celebrated by African cultures across the globe.

South Africa


Christmas occurs during the dog days of summer in South Africa (summer occurs from mid-October to mid-February there), so it’s often a time for vacations and barbecues. The Christmas dinner typically consists of turkey and, in a nod to the country’s British colonial heritage, plum pudding. 


Dried fruit marinating in crocks of rum is a sure sign of the approaching holiday in Jamaica. The fruit is then used to create a pudding that is an offshoot of English plum pudding. The holiday cuisine also features pork slow roasted and garnished with fruit; rice and peas, which are often called “a coat of arms”; along with plantains, roasted pineapple and sweet potatoes. The holiday season includes celebrations of Christmas, Boxing Day (Dec. 26) and New Year’s Day.


In Malawi, the heart of the Christmas celebration is a procession where groups of young children, often dressed in skirts made of leaves, go door to door and perform dances to music made from homemade instruments. The children often receive a gift or money after their performances. The parade is followed by a festive church service.




Christmas doesn’t arrive on Dec. 25 in Ethiopia. Most people there who celebrate the holiday follow the Julian calendar, which puts the holiday on Jan. 7, and it’s called Ganna. The celebration begins with a day of fasting followed by church services. After the services, there is a big traditional feast featuring a delicious stew, vegetables and sourdough bread. Gifts are not a big part of the celebration; instead, communities gather for games and sports. 


The rhythm and pacing of the holiday season in Ghana will likely feel familiar to any American. In early December, after the cocoa harvest, houses are decorated in vivid colors and bright lights to celebrate the season. On Christmas Day, there’s a big family meal, often featuring goat, fufu, veggies and okra soup. It's followed by church services, then parades.




In Nigeria, there is a buying season filled with gift purchases, and Santa is recognized as Father Christmas. On Christmas Day, there are celebrations that include knockouts and banya, which are like firecrackers, and feasts throughout the Christian communities.


The influence of the French can be found in the bûche de Noël, or yule log, that is the de rigueur dessert for the holiday meal in Guadeloupe. The Christmas feast often follows midnight Mass, and it consists of roasted pork; rice and peas or black-eyed peas; and, in another nod to the French, fine, often vintage, wines.


United States


In addition to Christmas on Dec. 25, the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa—which runs from Dec. 26 until Jan. 1—combines many of the traditions found in African countries, which makes sense, considering that the holiday was created in 1966 as a way for African Americans to connect with their African heritage. Each day is devoted to a guiding principle of the holiday: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The celebration is marked by traditional soul food, especially with collard greens and black-eyed peas on Jan. 1 for good luck in the new year.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter

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