Alternative Christmas messages: Get the party started

As Britain prepares for the festive season, how will
the many migrant groups living here choose to
celebrate? Maxine Frith reveals some of the different
traditions from around the world 
Published: 16 December 2006


The Advent wreath is a German tradition, which expats
living in Britain still keep up. The wreath, which is
hung from the ceiling or displayed on a table,
contains four candles around the circle with a larger
one in the middle.

The first candle is lit at the start of Advent, four
weeks before Christmas, with the others lit in the
following weeks and the final one in the middle is lit
on Christmas Day.

The traditional German gift-bringer is not Santa Claus
but the "Christmas child", a symbolic figure who is a
mixture of an angel and the infant Jesus.

The most important day is Christmas Eve, when the
close family members gather in the evening, exchange
presents and sing traditional songs.

Karl Pfeiffer, of the Goethe Institute, which promotes
German culture worldwide, said: "Christmas Eve is a
private time, when you are just with your immediate
family. Christmas Day is for extended family such as
aunts and uncles, but things are changing and young
people will often go out to nightclubs on Christmas
Eve and Day.

"Traditions do merge. Now German children do believe
in Father Christmas and if I am in Britain over
Christmas with friends, we celebrate in the British


Christmas comes early to the Dutch, who have their
main celebrations on 5 December, the eve of St
Nicholas's Day.

Instead of Father Christmas, it is a character called
Sinterklaas, pictured right, who delivers the presents
to children. For adults, the festival also includes
practical jokes, poems - and a lot of marzipan. Saskia
Cerwey, who comes from the Netherlands but now lives
in London with her British husband and daughter, says:
"It sounds a bit a strange when you try to explain it
to a British person but it is very good fun.

"You sort of make fun of people; you might knock on a
person's door and run away - that kind of thing.

"We also write poems about each other, which are nice
but also take the mickey. We give presents and poems
but you don't say who they are from because they are
from Sinterklaas."

People also drink hot chocolate and eat marzipan
sweets on 5 December, while Christmas Day is spent
more sedately with the family.

Mrs Cerwey said: "I take my dau-ghter to a St
Nicholas's party but because my partner is British we
also celebrate Christmas now as well."


Spaniards enjoy one of the longest party seasons. It
starts on 8 December with a religious festival: the
feast of the Immaculate Conception. But children have
to wait a little longer for their presents. According
to Spanish tradition, gifts are not given until 6
January. And presents come not from Father Christmas,
but from the Reyes Magos, or Three Kings.

Juan Pedro Aparicio, the director of the London
Cervantes Institute, said: "Very traditional families
still stick just to giving gifts on 6 January, but now
a lot of Spanish people here give presents on
Christmas Day and in January so that the children
don't miss out on playing with their new toys before
they go back to school."

Another big tradition carried on by ex-pat Spaniards
in Britain is the obsession with El Gordo - the huge
lottery known literally as "The Fat One". Ticket
numbers in a big drum are matched with balls with
million-euro prizes in a smaller drum. The complex
system of drawing takes place on 22 December. Mr
Aparicio said: "It's a massive thing and everyone buys
a ticket, even if they are living here. I don't buy
one but I still watch the draw."

Families gather to eat fish on Christmas Eve followed
by meat, although not usually turkey, on Christmas


Instead of baubled fir trees, Greek families decorate
a small wooden boat with lights for Christmas and
display it in the window of their homes.

Easter is considered more important by the Orthodox
Church, but expats in the UK will sit down to a
festive lunch with a Greek twist, eating turkey
stuffed with mincemeat and spices, and traditional

Areti Gourgouli, of the Greek embassy, said: "We don't
give presents until the New Year - that is the big
celebration. Greeks living in Britain do have Father
Christmas for the kids and more are having trees."


The Philippines is the only Asian country in which
Christianity is the dominant religion. Carol singing
begins as early as September, but the real start of
the season is today, known in Spanish as the Misa de
Gallo (the Rooster's Mass).

It is the first of nine masses which are held at dawn.
However, in Britain, the chilly mornings make dawn
masses less acceptable to the expat community, so
churches hold them in the evening instead. Homes are
decorated with star lanterns that are made of
lacquered paper and bamboo.

Linda Gulman, who now lives in Britain, said: "The
community is very close so we have kept our traditions
but we have some of the British traditions as well."


Jamaican Christmas traditions are a mixture of African
and European rituals, with a touch of reggae added to
the combination. Carols such as "Silent Night" and "O
Come All Ye Faithful" are sung to reggae tunes.

One of the most tasty features is the traditional
Christmas drink of Jamaica - a mixture of sorrel,
cinnamon, cloves, sugar and orange peel, with a splash
of white rum and served over ice.

Another important festive feature is the Jonkanoo in
which masked musicians and dancers dress in wild and
colourful costumes or parade around on stilts.


Expat Mexicans living in the UK still keep up some of
the more overt religious traditions of their homeland.
One of the biggest takes place two weeks before
Christmas Day and is known as the Posada, which
recreates the attempts by Joseph and Mary to find
somewhere to stay in Bethlehem. A Mexican family will
gather in two groups; one will stay in their house
while the other knocks on the door to represent Joseph
and Mary.

Children are given a traditional piñata - a papier
mâché figure filled with sweets, which they hit with a
stick till it breaks open - while adults drink a
festive punch.

Cynthia Prida, from the Mexican embassy, said: "We
don't give cards but we have trees and decorations and
presents and a big meal on Christmas Day."


Palm fronds representing peace are used to decorate
houses and a traditional play called the Ekon takes
place, in which performers dance with a doll in hand.

On Christmas Eve people visit their family and
neighbours, often eating a meal at every home they go
to. At midnight, the dawning of Christmas Day is
celebrated with fireworks before people head off to


Norwegians in Britain stick to their country's
tradition of having their main festive celebrations on
Christmas Eve.

The family Christmas tree is decorated on this date,
with lights and home-made decorations, often made by

Then the festivities start with the eating of a
special rice and milk porridge. An almond is hidden in
the porridge and whoever finds it is given a present.

A bowl is also put outside to appease a Christmas
goblin known as Nisse, a character that dates back to
pagan times and who, like Santa Claus, has a white
beard, red hat and fur coat.

The legend goes that if the mischievous Nisse doesn't
get his porridge, then he will play tricks on the
children and bring bad luck to the family.

John Petter Opdahl, a Norwegian living in Britain,
said: "We have a big meal at around 6pm, which is
something like pork rib and sausages, smoked lamb and
poached cod, and then we have presents and games in
the evening. Christmas Day itself is very quiet.

"Many of our traditions are based around eating and
drinking a lot - just like Britain."


On each of the four Sundays of Advent, Poles attend
4am church services known as Roraty.

On Christmas Eve, bees' wax is poured on water so that
fortunes can be told from the shapes that emerge.

Traditional decorations include Pajaki, hand-made
mobiles featuring star shapes and painted egg shells.
These are more prevalent than baubles and Christmas

Trees are an important feature and they remain
standing until 2 February, which is a religious feast

Carp is the traditional food, and Christmas Eve, or
Wigilia, is the most important day of celebrations. 


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