The festivities begin with the arrival of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) on a boat from Spain. History alludes to a Catholic priest in fourth-century Myra – in modern Turkey. Under protestant rule, celebrations of Sinterklaas moved from the public into the private sphere.
Jan Schenkman’s 1850 novel ‘Saint Nicholas and his Servant‘ popularised many modern Sinterklaas traditions. Schenkman’s writings reflected the culture – Sinterklaas interrogated children about their behaviour and religious knowledge. Rewards came in the shape of gifts and food. Naughty children were sometimes carried away by the servant in a large sack.
One of the most controversial legacies involves Zwarte Piet or ‘Black Pete’ – a character who accompanies Sinterklass. White people put on blackface makeup, with exaggerated lips, curly wigs and costumes. The United Nations has called on the Netherlands to ditch Black Pete due to its racist and negative stereotyping. In recent years, the anti-racist response to Black Pete has received more mainstream attention.
Christians account for less than 2 per cent of the population in Jerusalem. For many in the city, Christmas is just another day in the city. Christmas Day falls on the Sabbath so individuals will be off regardless.
In some parts of Jerusalem, you will find Christmas trees on display. At the New Gate to the Christian Quarter of the Old City they lit up a Christmas tree opposite Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.
On December 21, Santa Claus helped residents select Christmas trees distributed by city hall.
When it comes to Christmas Day, individuals, of all faiths can enjoy services in multiple languages. From Jerusalem, pilgrims make the short walk to Bethlehem in the Occupied West Bank.
The violence that grips Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories harmed Bethlehem’s tourism trade. Hotel bookings have not hit the 40 or 50 per cent mark. In 2014, hotels had sold out. Decorations will not extend to entire downtown district. Authorities will only decorate Manger Square and two nearby streets.
Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun has also accused Israel of taking more land to complete the separation wall at Bethlehem’s perimeter. Patriarch Emeritus Michael Sabbah, who was the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem between 1987 and 2008, wrote a critical article about the situation in Bethlehem for Haaretz.
Some Palestinians decorated an olive tree with tear gas canisters and grenades near the Church of Nativity.
Israeli authorities issued 600 travel visas for Christians in the Gaza strip. Yet there are age restrictions so younger families miss out. There is an estimated 3,000 (or more) Christians in this area and around 300 or so Catholics, compared to about 1.4 million Muslims that live in the Gaza strip.
For those able to attend – there’s a carnival atmosphere at central Manger Square. Vendors sell sweets, watches, and balloons. Scout troops play bagpipes and drums.
In Iceland, a historic tradition involves the giving of books. This tradition has its own name ‘Jólabókaflóð’ or the ‘Christmas Book Flood’.
Individuals exchange gifts on Christmas Eve and spend the evening reading books.
According to Hildur Knútsdóttir, the tradition dates back to World War II. War affected Iceland’s ability to import goods outside of paper. So the book became a viable gift.
For gifts, relatives receive hardcover editions as individuals tend to buy paperbacks for themselves. So bookstores ensure they are well stocked with hardcover books before December.
Iceland also prints more books per capita than any other nation.
In the southwestern city of Oaxaca, individuals partake in a number of traditions. One tradition concerns the procession that re-enacts Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter. They are received at a pre-arranged where the godparents (padrionos) of that posada welcome the pilgrims with songs and blessings.
The Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) begins on December 23. Farmers arrive and make elaborate sculptures of kings and nativity scenes from the vegetables. Winners of this competition are greeted with fireworks.
On Christmas Eve, residents will gather statues of Jesus Christ from godmothers, who then donate them to local parishes. Beyond celebrations, they return to celebrate the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) – the first celebration meal before Christmas.
The tradition of plate smashing continues until December 31.