How Christmas is celebrated 'back home'

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Danielle Wright meets Auckland families and hears about their Christmas traditions ‘back home’.

Some 1,000 volunteers clad in Santa Claus costumes gather to deliver gifts for the poor in downtown Seoul, South Korea.
Some 1,000 volunteers clad in Santa Claus costumes gather to deliver gifts for the poor in downtown Seoul, South Korea.

A Danish Christmas

In Denmark, Christmas Eve is the biggest day of the season. The tree is put up and presents arrive. Hot mulled wine is served and everybody has a big Christmas dinner of roast duck or goose with sugar-glazed potatoes and a hot red cabbage salad.

"It's winter, so we have a heavy meal," says Danish mum-of-two Trine Glad Romlund, who moved to New Zealand with her Kiwi husband eight years ago. She describes a Danish Christmas as an inside Christmas.

After dinner, rice pudding is served with one whole almond hidden. It comes with hot cherry sauce and whoever finds the whole almond in their bowl wins a prize.

"My grandfather always got the almond and he would sneak it over to me," says Trine.

"A Danish Christmas is all about eating and drinking," admits Trine. "We also hold hands and dance around the Christmas tree while singing Danish hymns.

Afterwards, the presents are opened. As a child I remember my grandmother insisting on all the verses."

Danish Christmas trees often have the Danish flag on them, as well as lit candles. A traditional song involves everyone holding hands and going into every room of the house in a kind of chain-dance.

"The song is called 'Nu Er Det Jul Igeu' and we walk into every room and over every bed," says Trine.

"My husband Richard was pretty shocked the first time he spent Christmas in Denmark, but it's fun and all Danish people do it."

At last, it's present-opening time and the youngest children take turns handing out the presents.

"It goes on for a long time and we usually break for coffee," says Trine. "We might also go for a walk. It gets dark around 3pm so all the fairy lights are out and it's very pretty."

There's a special seasonal Danish Christmas beer and they also drink schnapps, which is put in the freezer before being served as a shot of strong alcohol.

"On Christmas Day, it's more low-key. We have a lunch of pickled herrings with curried egg sauce, rye bread and cold meats," says Trine. "There's also white Christmas cabbage."

And after Christmas Day? Trine says: "Then, we all go on diets."

A Russian Christmas

For a country that banned Christmas celebrations after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution until 1992, Russia is making up for lost time with multiple Christmas celebrations. A long public holiday lasts from New Year's Day to the Russian Orthodox Christmas Day on January 7. A second New Year is celebrated on January 14, which is the old Gregorian New Year.

Russian Aliona Polozkova has been in New Zealand for eight years but she still remembers Christmas back home fondly.

A meatless meal is eaten after the first star appears in the sky on Christmas Eve, with a low-key event on December 25. The tree is ready on Christmas Day, but no presents until January 1.

"New Year's is the big family celebration," says Aliona. "The President speaks on television and we watch a clock counting down every second to midnight.

"After midnight, everyone goes into town to a big party," says Aliona. "There's usually a concert and lots of snow for children to make snowmen. There's a real Christmas feeling."
Food traditions differ greatly from village to village, but one thing each village has in common is that there's no cooking for a while after New Year.

"For a long time, Christmas wasn't allowed, so we all got used to the New Year celebration," says Aliona. "When the clock strikes12, everyone has champagne. We make a wish and write it on a piece of paper, then burn it and put the ashes in the champagne. If we do all of that and drink the champagne within one minute of midnight, our wish will be granted."

In New Zealand, Aliona and her family celebrate Christmas with fireworks at a get-together with friends. She admits her children are longing to visit Russia over Christmas after hearing the stories.

"One thing I didn't like about Christmas in Russia,"says Aliona, "is that the kids were meant to fall asleep during the day. It was so we could stay awake for the big meal at 11pm and grown-ups had time to put the presents under the tree. I remember it being impossible to sleep during that time, it was too exciting."

A Korean Christmas

South Korea is one of the few Asian countries to celebrate Christmas because of the many Christians living there but, instead of Christmas cards, they tend to text each other Christmas messages.

Regina Yo has been in New Zealand for two years and remembers Christmas in Korea as a time families go to churches decorated with lights. She says department stores put on big displays and Santa (known as Santa Grandfather - perhaps to explain his white hair to Korean children) might be wearing blue instead of red.

"Every corner subway station is covered in Christmas lights and festive things but we only have fake trees, never pine," says Regina. "Many people in cities live in small apartments so the decorations are mainly in the streets."

Christmas Eve is the big celebration, ending with midnight mass and Christmas Day is time to recover. Presents are exchanged and money is a popular gift.

In North Korea, where Christians can be arrested for celebrating Christmas, any festive celebration will be held in secret, if at all. It's hard to imagine that in the early 1900s Pyongyang was known as the Jerusalem of the East.

A South American Christmas

Christmas in Argentina is celebrated on Christmas Eve. The Mena-Palacin family remember dinner preparations being long, featuring a big pig, kilos of beef and a few chickens to be cooked on a barbecue by the hosts. Guests bring entrees, salads and desserts.

"Dinner is quite late, around 10pm, and we have a big toast at midnight," says Argentinian mum-of-three Cynthia Mena-Palacin.

"Then we all kiss each other and someone dressed up as 'Papa Noel' delivers the presents."

After dinner, foods such as nuts, dried fruit, Spanish turron (nougat), chocolate, ice cream and fresh fruit are served.

"The main dessert has to be panettone, which in Argentina is called Pan Dulce,"
says Cynthia.

"After the toast, we light fireworks. In small towns there are no big displays and regulations for selling fireworks is relaxed," says Cynthia. "Everybody has a good stock of fairly powerful stuff and almost everybody across town will light them at midnight for a good 30 minutes.

"December 25 is a very relaxed day for recovery where people spend time in the swimming pool and eat leftovers," says Cynthia. "Just like in New Zealand, we're blessed with warm weather for Christmas."

Share how you celebrate Christmas in the comments section below.

- Herald on Sunday

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