Christmas around the world: Diplomats reveal how they celebrate the festive season

PHOTO: Beautiful Christmas lights compensate for limited daylight in Denmark during the festive season. (Supplied: Ole Neustrup)

What does Christmas mean to you?

It is a question that 666 ABC Canberra has asked a number of foreign ambassadors, high commissioners and embassy staff this festive season.

Their responses — comparable to the experience of unwrapping a present — were all pleasantly surprising.

Here we detail how diverse and unique the countries' traditions and cultures are at this time of year.


Despite many Australians celebrating Christmas on December 25, Danes predominately celebrate Christmas on the evening of December 24.

Ole Neustrup is the deputy head of mission for the Royal Danish Embassy in Canberra, and said December was an eventful month for him filled with gatherings involving friends and family.

PHOTO: Danes are known to join hands and sing carols around the Christmas tree. (Supplied: Ole Neustrup )

"The entire house will be filled with the familiar smell of roast duck, pork roast, red cabbage, caramelised potatoes and, of course, the gravy," he said.

"After this, everyone sings Christmas carols whilst walking hand in hand around the tree, which by now will have lit candles all over.

"Finally, the time has come for the presents."

Mr Neustrup said Danes also continued to celebrate Christmas on December 25 and 26.

"The tradition is to once again gather the family — or by this time, perhaps your spouse's family — and enjoy the traditional Christmas luncheon foods: pickled herrings, salmon, battered fish fillets, shrimps, caviar, eggs, liver, sausages and much more; all with typical Danish rye bread, of course."


Armando G Alvarez, the Ambassador of Mexico to Australia, said:

"As a deeply religious country, Mexicans are proud of their Christmas traditions and embrace them strongly.

"It is an opportunity to reaffirm our identity, but most importantly to get together and reflect upon the year past in the company of our families."

Mr Alvarez said besides the Christmas dinner, some traditions remained uniquely Mexican during the season.

"I like to describe them as the three Ps: posadas, pastorelas and piñatas."

PHOTO: Piñatas are popular in Mexico during the festive season. (Supplied: Jediknight1970)

He said posadas were group re-enactments of the journey that Mary and Joseph undertook searching for a place to stay in Bethlehem.

"They are held in Mexico on each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas, from December 16 to 24."

Pastorelas are dramatic plays that represent, often in a farcical and comical way, stories centred around Christmas.

"Finally, no Mexican Christmas would be complete without a piñata.

"They are said to represent the seven deadly sins ... as the piñata is broken, sin is vanquished and the candy, fruit and toys are showered on the person who broke the piñata."


Instead of Santa, baby Jesus is the one who brings presents to the kids in Colombia.

"Children write and leave the letters to baby Jesus with their wishes for Christmas at the manger ... from there the letters mysteriously disappear creating great excitement," Maria Teresa Mendoza from the Colombian Embassy said.

Colombians commence their celebrations on December 7 for Noche de Velitas, which translates to Night of the Candles.

PHOTO: Illuminated Christmas decorations at Monserrate church in Bogota. (Reuters: John Vizcaino)

"Families gather together to light up candles and paper lanterns, placing them on windowsills and balconies and decorating parks and roads," she said.

"The tradition is that this will illuminate the path for the Virgin Mary.

"That night, families and friends share traditional food such as bunuelos [which is] round fried dough. And if you live in Bogata, the capital of the country, you accompany those with a big mug of hot chocolate."


Tirfu Kidanemariam Gebrehiwet, Ethiopia's Ambassador to Australia, said Christmas to her was a day of joy and happiness.

"Christmas in Ethiopia is celebrated according to the Ethiopian calendar on 29th Tahsas, which corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar," she said.

PHOTO: Tirfu Kidanemariam Gebrehiwet (left) celebrating Christmas in Ethiopia with her friends.

(Supplied: Jemal Beker)

"We call this time around Christmas Ganna."

She said most people in Ethiopia went to church on Christmas Day and participated in religious ceremonies commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ.

"At Christmas, Ethiopians celebrate by coming together with their family and friends and spending time together.

"It is customary to bring food and drinks with you and it is a must to visit the parents of your spouse as well as your own on Christmas Day.

"We prepare special cuisine including varieties of wat — a thick spicy stew of meat, vegetables and/or eggs."

The Philippines

HE Minda Calaguian-Cruz, the Philippine Ambassador to Australia, said her country boasted the longest Christmas celebration in the world.

"Christmas decorations adorn houses and public places all over the Philippines starting as early as September and lasting until January.

PHOTO: The residence of the Philippine Ambassador to Australia is decorated with

three Filipino Christmas lanterns.(Supplied: Minda Calaguian-Cruz)

"In San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines, a giant parol or lantern festival is held where villages compete by displaying their biggest, most colourful and most creative lanterns.

"These lanterns are 20 feet high with a minimum of 10,000 lights.

"Various lanterns are seen all over the country signifying light for hope and are iconic images of Christmas for Filipinos.

"On Christmas Eve or noche buena, Filipino families come together for a large festive meal which usually includes lechon — roasted whole pig — as the highlight of the Filipino dishes, followed by gift giving.

"Christmas Day is a more quiet celebration with the family spending time together with friends and guests coming in and out from house to house to greet each other."

The United Arab Emirates

Dr Obaid Al Hairi Salem Al Ketbi, the UAE Ambassador to Australia, said Christmas was a time to reflect upon what we have in common as human beings.

"I have friends from all religion dimensions," he said.

"Christmas teaches us tolerance, acceptance and respect for others' faiths and helps us to search for our commonalities rather than our differences.

PHOTO: Christmas decorations feature in many places in the United Arab Emirates.

(Reuters: Fahad Shadeed)

"The UAE is a Muslim country, but at Christmas time, shops, malls and hotels are decked out in Christmas trees, lights, decorations and Christmas parties are held around the Emirates."

The United Kingdom

Menna Rawlings, the British High Commissioner, said Christmas was widely celebrated in her home country because the United Kingdom was a predominantly Christian country.

"Sixty-five per cent of people identify as Christian, according to the 2010 census," she said.

"But it goes wider than this — Christmas gives us something positive to celebrate in the middle of the cold, dark, miserable days of winter. We need it."

For Ms Rawlings, Christmas Day was all about family.

PHOTO: The British High Commissioner to Australia, Menna Rawlings, says Christmas is about family.

(Supplied: Menna Rawlings )

"However busy I am, whatever job I'm doing, wherever in the world we're living, we make time just to be together.

"Like all families, we have our own rituals on Christmas Day — opening presents from Santa, then Buck's fizz and smoked salmon for breakfast, and later a giant roast dinner to end all roast dinners.

"We turn the Christmas music up loud and dance like no-one is watching, play board games and argue over the results, and pull Christmas crackers, tell jokes and wear silly hats."

The United States

James Carouso is the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Canberra.

PHOTO: James Carouso is the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Australia.

(Supplied: James Carouso )

Mr Carouso said regardless of faith, Christmas was a time of the year when American families gathered together to share each other's company, goodwill and delicious food.

"My family and I have celebrated Christmas all around the world.

"I will always remember seeing the excitement spread across my daughter's face when she first started to discover and recognise the holiday as special; she was about three years old."

Some of Mr Carouso's fondest memories of Christmas are from New York City.

"Every Christmas, my parents, brother and I would walk along Fifth Avenue to see all the shop windows and marvel at the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Centre.

"I especially remember visiting the most magical place of all, the FAO Schwartz toy store. This store was every child's Christmas fantasy come true."

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