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
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The Independent Online


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 way."


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 Day.


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 sweets.

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 church.


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 children.

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 lights.

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

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