Christmas Traditions of the Southern Hemisphere

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Christmas Around the World – Part 1: Christmas Traditions of the Southern Hemisphere

When North Americans and Europeans think of Christmas, we think of white snow, warm dinners, and festive evergreens.  But in the southern hemisphere, in countries like South Africa and Australia, these seasonal associations hardly make sense.  When Christmastime comes to the Congo or to Melbourne, it is summer – bright sun, backyard picnics, and festive flower arrangements are more likely to be seen than any holly or mistletoe.  These seasonal differences as well as many cultural differences make for some very unique and beautiful Christmas traditions of the Southern Hemisphere.

Many African cultures that celebrate Christmas will do so by honoring baby Jesus with gifts, as well as their own children.  Villagers wake up early, participate in pageants, and sing carols all throughout the morning (activities we usually save for blustery evenings).  Then a procession begins to deliver the gifts to the nativity scene in honor of the Christ Child.

The African home is sometimes decorated with the branches of firs, and many English or European traditions are observed indoors.  Gifts for the children are piled together and opened at the end of the day’s festivities.  There will also be a Christmas dinner with some familiar dishes like roast meats and porridge – but there will surely be some distinctly African treats as well, such as okra soup and yam paste.

An Australian Christmas can be even hotter than an African Christmas, but there is more pressure in Australia to continue to observe English Christmas traditions.  Until recent years, Australians would cook up meats and puddings just as their ancestors did, despite the extremely warm weather.  Lately, however, because of the mixed heritage of many Australians and society’s increasing acceptance of breaking with tradition, Aussies have begun their own new traditions, such as the Christmas barbeque or a Christmas trip to the beach (since the kids are freshly out of school).  Festivities and activities we would normally associate with summer holidays like the Fourth of July are enjoyed with fruit salads, cold cuts, and seafood.

Just like in Africa, Christmas in Australia might look much more familiar to us if we peek indoors.  Gum tree branches are brought in and decorated, stockings hang on the wall (fireplaces are uncommon), and children write letters to Santa.  However, Australians know that these traditions are only holdovers for their culture, and they make conscious attempts to come up with new ways to celebrate the holiday.  There has been talk of replacing Santa with a more locally meaningful character, and they even refer to what we like to call the “giving season” as the “silly season.”

Whether it takes the form of a harmonious mix of cultural traditions, as in Africa, or acts as a source of cultural growing pains as it seems to do in Australia, Christmas traditions of the southern hemisphere are very different from what we are used to in the United States.  But while the outward appearances of celebration and tradition may be very different, Christmas around the globe seems to keep a few things in common.  It is – everywhere – a time to share, a time for family, and a time to come together.

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