Fasting and feasts, legends and games

Blog > Fasting and feasts, legends and games

There’s no denying it: The festive season is upon us in full force. In fact, the retail industry was so kind as to start motivating us for Christmas shopping as early as the beginning of October. (And first prize to the person who actually starts buying gifts then and does not leave it for the week before Christmas.) While the festive season in South Africa may mean warm summer nights around the braai with family and friends, festivals such as Christmas are celebrated in diverse ways in other countries. Join us on a journey to traditional celebrations all over the world.


In Finland everyone cleans the house before the three holy days of Christmas – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. On Christmas day people eat rice porridge and a sweet soup made of dried fruit. They decorate a spruce tree in their home. At midday, the Christmas peace declaration is broadcast on radio and TV from the Finnish city of Turku by its mayor. In the evening, a traditional Christmas dinner is eaten.

Interesting words: 

Rosolli – a cold salad made from peeled, cooked and diced potatoes, carrots, beetroot and diced apples, onions and pickled cucumber.


On 6 December Santa Claus visits family homes. Children clean their shoes and put them outside next to the door or window before they go to sleep. The next day candies and/or small toys will appear in the shoes in red bags. For children who don’t behave well, a golden birch is placed next to the sweets, a symbol for spanking (just for fun). On 24 December, a festive dinner is cooked and children see the Christmas tree for the first time. Older children attend the midnight mass with their parents.

Interesting words

Winter-grandfather/Tel-apo or Mikulas – Santa Claus


The Belgians celebrate Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas on 6 December, which is an entirely different holiday from Christmas.

Interesting words:

De Kerstman or le Père Noël – Santa Claus

Cougnou or cougnolle – special sweet bread eaten for Christmas breakfast, with a shape that is supposed to be like baby Jesus.


To members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christmas ranks second to Easter in the roster of important holidays. Yet there are a number of unique customs associated with Christmas. On Christmas Eve, village children travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing carols, often accompanied by small metal triangles and little clay drums. After 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation. Pigs are slaughtered and on almost every table are loaves of christopsomo. Christmas trees are not commonly used in Greece.

Interesting words

Kalanda – carols

Christopsomo – Christ bread, made of large sweet loaves of various shapes; the crusts are engraved and decorated in a way that reflects the family’s profession


Christmas is a deeply religious holiday in Spain. The country’s patron saint is the Virgin Mary and the Christmas season officially begins on 8 December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is celebrated each year in front of the great Gothic cathedral in Seville with a ceremony called the ‘dance of six’, performed by elaborately costumed boys. It is a series of precise movements and gestures and is quite moving and beautiful. Christmas Eve is a time for family members to gather together to rejoice and feast around the nativity scenes that are present in nearly every home.

Interesting words:

Los seises – dance of six

Nochebuena – Christmas Eve or the ‘good night’

Turron – a kind of almond candy, a traditional Christmas treat


Several weeks before Christmas, elaborately decorated market stalls are set up in the plazas of every town and city. The market offers crafts of every conceivable kind, food such as cheese, bananas, nuts and cookies, and flowers such as orchids and poinsettias. The poinsettia is indigenous to Mexico and is believed to have first been used in connection with Christmas in the 17th century. There is a legend connected with the flower. A little boy named Pablo was walking to the church in his village to visit the nativity scene when he realised he had nothing to offer the Christ child. He saw some green branches growing along the roadside and gathered them up. Other children scoffed, but when he laid them by the manger, a brilliant red star-shaped flower appeared on each branch.

Interesting words:

Puestos – elaborately decorated market stalls

Las posadas – the main Christmas celebration in Mexico, which entails processions re-enacting Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem


In Poland, an elaborate tradition called Wigilia is celebrated. Beginning on Christmas Eve, a strict 24-hour fast is observed, which ends with a huge Christmas feast. In honour of the star of Bethlehem, the meal cannot begin until the first star of night appears. Once the star appears, a special rice wafer blessed by the parish priest is broken into pieces and shared by all, and the meal can begin. The feast consists of twelve courses, one for each apostle.

Interesting words:

Bozz Narodzenie – official name of Christmas in Poland, but it is most often referred to as Gwiazdka, which means “little star”.

Oplatek – the special rice wafer blessed by the parish priest


Formerly Persia, Iran is the land where the three wise men are believed to have lived when Jesus was born. Today Christians in Iran begin fasting from animal products on 1 December. This is called ‘Little Fast’. ‘Big Fast’ occurs during Lent, the six weeks preceding Easter. After the church service on 25 December they enjoy a Christmas dinner called ‘Little Feast’. Gifts are generally not exchanged, but children get new clothes that they wear proudly on Christmas Day.

Interesting words:

Harasa – a traditional chicken stew dish


Ethiopia follows the ancient Julian calendar and therefore Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on 7 January. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s celebration of Christ’s birth is called Ganna. It is a day when families attend church. The day before Ganna, people fast all day. The next morning at dawn, everyone dresses in white and attend the early mass at four o’clock in the morning. Twelve days after Ganna, on 19 January, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ. The musical instruments make the Timkat procession a festive event. Ethiopian men also play a sport called yeferas guks, where they ride on horseback and throw ceremonial lances at each other. Ganna and Timkat are not occasions for giving gifts in Ethiopia. Religious observances, feasting, and games are the focus of the season.
Interesting words:

Shamma – a thin white cotton wrap with bright stripes across the ends, worn somewhat like a toga

Wat – a thick and spicy stew made from meat, vegetables and sometimes eggs

Injera – flat sourdough bread

Sistrum – a percussion instrument with tinkling metals disks

Melekets – musical chants for the ceremony

Other religious celebrations


Pancha Ganapati is a winter solstice celebration that lasts five days, from 21 to 25 December. It is a modern Hindu festival celebrating Lord Ganesha, the Five-Faced Maha Ganapati (Lord of Categories).
Makar Sankranti (also known by other various names and celebrated on 14 January) is the only Hindu festival that is based on the solar rather than the lunar calendar. The festival is celebrated by taking dips in the Ganges River or any river and offering water to the sun god.


Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE (before the current era). Hanukkah starts on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar. This year Hanukkah is celebrated from 21 to 29 December.

The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special candelabrum, the Menorah or Hanukiah, one light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. An extra light called a shamash (Hebrew: ‘guard’ or ’servant’) is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher or lower than the others.

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