Christmas around the world

Michael Dove

Australia is becoming increasingly culturally diverse. December has arrived and, with it, the festive tunes, tastes and tradition of Christmas. So, what is the place for this distinctive celebration in a contemporary multicultural nation?  

The fact is, much of what we know today as Christmas tradition is rooted elsewhere. The midwinter practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate is unmistakably Pagan. Father Christmas is a modern incarnation of age old superstitions about spirits who travel the winter skies. And carolling is believed to have developed from the festive circular dances of ancient Rome.

So, it seems the tradition of borrowing other cultural practices is as old as Christmas itself. Perhaps this makes it less surprising that Australians of diverse cultural origin embrace the celebration too. Around one in four Australians were born overseas and many have brought their own brand of this distinctive seasonal festival from home.

We used Origins data to identify some of Australia’s largest cultural groups and then looked at what happens over Christmas in each country of origin.

Country:  Italy
Main Faith:  Roman Catholic
Australian adults of Italian cultural origin:  682,770

Italian Christmas is steeped in religious tradition. Amongst the most important ways to celebrate is the Nativity Scene. Actually, the city of Naples is world famous for its Nativity Cradles. Food is intrinsic to the celebration, beginning with a meatless meal on Christmas Eve. Gifts are given and received on Epiphany, when children believe an old lady called Befana brings presents for them. 
Country:  China
Main faith:  Buddhist
Australian adults of Chinese cultural origin:  395,426

In China’s increasingly Westernised cities, trees, lights and decorations line the streets. However, especially in rural China, the Christmas story may be well known but isn’t often celebrated. One tradition gaining popularity is gifting apples on Christmas Eve. The fruit is wrapped in brightly coloured paper and given to friends and family.

Country:  Vietnam
Main faiths:  Buddhist & Folk
Australian adults of Vietnamese cultural origin:  282,710

The influence of French colonialism still exists in Vietnam, where the special Christmas Eve meal includes a log-shaped chocolate cake.  Christians are a small minority, but the streets of Ho Chi Minh City are dressed in Christmas regalia. On Christmas Eve, they close to traffic and large crowds gather to throw confetti, enjoy the lights and share a late meal.

Country:  India
Main faith:  Hindu
Australian adults of Indian cultural origin:  244,046

Hindus believe in celebrating god, regardless of shape or form. So, while Christmas isn’t a traditional festival, many join in the merriment with family and friends. Particularly in the south of India, special food, cakes and picnics are popular. Some southern Hindus even attend their local church.

Country:  Greece
Main faith:  Orthodox
Australian adults of Greek cultural origin:  282,710

Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar, so Christmas is celebrated in early January. In Greek homes, a sprig of basil wrapped around wooden cross is hung from wire to keep bad spirits at bay.  Carolling is popular with children, especially boys, who often follow the very old Greek custom of carrying a model boat.

Country:  Lebanon
Main faith:  Muslim
Australian adults of Lebanese cultural origin:  75,690

Lebanon is the only mid-eastern country where Christmas is an official holiday. Although Islam is the predominant faith, people of all creeds enjoy the large Christmas parties hosted at glamorous city venues.  Seeds like chick peas, broad beans and lentils are sprouted in the weeks prior and used as Christmas decoration.

The Christmas festival is part of life for the majority of Australians. But celebrating multiculturalism means also recognising minority cultural traditions. Perhaps, at some time in the future, the Christmas season may also become a time for Australia to celebrate its rich cultural diversity.

OriginsInfo is a niche Australian business that offers consulting and in-house licensing solutions to facilitate the measurement of an organisation’s engagement with multicultural Australia. OriginsInfo supports employee and customer profiling, segmentation, targeting and mapping.

Michael Dove is owner and principal consultant. He is a geographer and has more than 20 years’ experience helping Australian businesses improve their understanding and engagement with customers and markets.

This article was first published in OriginsInfocus on 16 December 2013. For more information about OriginsInfo, visit 

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