The Old City of Jerusalem as seen today

The Old City of Jerusalem as seen today



If you lived in Estonia that could very well be a choice you would make. Estonian families often go to a sauna on Christmas eve where the entire family strips off and soaks aux natural to welcome in Christmas day. If you lived in Norway you would probably find yourself hiding your brooms on Christmas eve lest the wicked witch who roams about on Christmas eve might find yours and proceed to ride it. If you lived in Caracas Venezuela you would probably get out your roller skates and make your way down roads temporarily deserted of cars to celebrate midnight mass..


In a moment I will tell you about yet other strange encumbrances that have attached themselves like barnacles to the bottom of a boat, to the simple story of the birth of the Savior. One of the highlights of our holy land tours is our visit to the Church of the Holy Nativity in the heart of Bethlehem. Local tradition pointed to this location when Helena the mother of the “Christian” emperor Constantine first came here in the 4th century AD and caused this church to be built. Under its present structure (been destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times) and under the alter is a cave where most agree that this is where Jesus was born.


Most people who have not traveled abroad are under the mis-impression that the way they celebrate events is the way everyone does so. That is clearly not so. Local culture and traditions often get all tangled up in the fabric of the historic event. We can see how that happened to our own celebration of Christmas as pagan symbols from Europe like mistletoe and Christmas trees and Easter bunnies and eggs all attached themselves to the celebration of important days in the life of Jesus.

Dome of the Rock Muslim shrine

Dome of the Rock Muslim shrine


In the Holy Land where we take holy land tours annually, Christmas in Bethlehem is a grand celebration that begins with a crowded manger square lined with restaurants and peddlers selling their goods, and a procession with Arabian horses followed by a single horseman riding a coal black horse and carrying a cross, followed by a host of dignitaries who proceed into the Church of the Holy Nativity where mass is celebrated.


But if you were to poke your head inside that church it would not much resemble your church at home. No seats. Huge rough textured chandeliers festooned year long with round colored Christmas glass globes. You would also notice that the local Christian Arab homes (of which there are fewer each year as the Muslims continue driving the Christian families out) have a cross painted on their doors and often a nativity scene outside. Local craftsmen carve such from local olive wood and many who travel with us on our holy land tours buy such to display at home. On our Holy Land tours we go into the church and are able to go below the alter where the cave is located that is reputed to be where “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. So to their credit the Orthodox and Catholic denominations that predominate there make the important connection between the birth and the death/resurrection of Jesus.



So what other strange customs have been added to the Christmas story around the world? Here are a few, perhaps bizarre details. I am moved to ask the rhetorical question: What on earth do these have to do with the simple yet profound story of the incarnation? In Japan on Christmas eve you would probably celebrate by getting a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I kid you not.


In Greenland you would probably “enjoy” a delicacy that has been in the preparation since the past summer called kiviak. It is made by killing about 500 birds, sewing them up whole complete with entrails and beaks, in a seal skin, placing a heavy rock on top to squeeze out the air and allow it to ferment for 6 months. Said to smell like cheese.


In Catalonia Spain you would see statues called “caganers” of famous politicians and personalities shown defecating. Families hide these graphic statues in their nativity scenes and invite their guests to discover them. These cagners are thought to attract prosperity. Also they have what they call a “Christmas crapper” which is a piece of a tree trunk with 4 stick legs and with a face painted on it and a hole cut out into which the kids stuff candy over the days leading up to Christmas and then on Christmas day the small section of log is placed in the fireplace and the kids are instructed to beat it until it “poops candy” all the while singing Christmas carols. You can’t make this stuff up now can you.


In the Ukraine you would find the Christmas trees decorated with artificial spider webs remembering the local legend of a poor family who could not afford to decorate their tree and so the spiders did it for them and those webs later turned into gold and silver threads. In La Befana Italy, instead of awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus you would be waiting for the arrival of a witch who flies into town on a broom stick and gives out candy to the kids.


In Bangladesh you would see the villagers cutting down banana trees, tying them together in pairs and replanting them alongside the path they take from their home to church. The huge leaves are bent over to make an archway. Pieces of bamboo have holes drilled in them and candles inserted and provide light for the journey to church for the late night service Christmas eve.


In Turkey, an officially Muslim country which tolerates a degree of freedom of religion (unfortunately this appears to be diminishing under the current regime), the birth place of Saint Nicholas in Patara is celebrated in the nearby town of Demre with a 3 day festival in early December.
In Viet Nam a strongly Buddhist/Confucian country, the influence of the French occupation there is to be seen in the large number of Roman Catholics who, following midnight mass on Christmas eve go home to a huge meal of chicken soup, if you are poor, or of turkey with all of the trimmings if you are wealthy. And the kids do not hang up stockings but place their shoes outside in the hope of finding gifts there in the morning.


In Labrador the kids are given turnips saved from the previous summer harvest. A hole is drilled in the turnip and a lighted candle inserted.
In Iceland a central character in the celebration of Christmas is a scary cat like figure that eats children who have been lazy and not studied hard enough. If you have performed well in your studies you get new clothes to wear on Christmas. That is to protect you as the hungry cat is said to only eat people with old clothing on.


In parts of Mexico like Oaxaca you would find locals making and buying nativity scenes carved out of huge radishes and sold in local stores.
In Sweden you would probably share a bowl of rice pudding in which a peeled almond has been placed knowing that the one who finds the almond is assured of good fortune and of getting married in the following year.


If you were a Christian living in Iraq (yes a few still survive there) you would probably make a fire outside your house from thorns. Tradition says that the way your fire burns will determine your future prospects. If the thorns turn to ash then the future will be good for you and then everyone jumps over the ashes 3 times. Why 3?

holy land tours

Dr Robert Grant the Holy Land Guru


Such is the interesting variety to the human experience. One does wonder how the story of Christmas gets so interwoven with such often bizarre customs and practices.


Question: Should you be considering coming with us when we next return to the Holy Land in December 2014 (11 days to Israel, Jordan and Turkey) or in January 2015 for 10 marvelous days in Israel? Special arrangements are provided for pastors and Bible teachers to underwrite most if not all of their cost.


For 46 years now I have been going to the lands of the Bible (over 120 times) and in the process taking thousands of friends with me and I am committed to helping pastors to have this inspiring experience that will transform their preaching and teaching ministries. I can be reached at (386) 447 9473. 

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