From leaving stockings out for Santa Claus to fill to attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve, Christmas traditions are different all over the world. Not only do Christmas traditions differ from place to place, but for many cultures the 25th of December isn't the main event. From St. Nicholas Day to Epiphany Day, and all the festivities in between, here is the rundown on different holiday traditions:
St. Nicholas Day
Christmastime festivities in many countries begin with St. Nicholas Day, which is December 6th. In Holland, children believe that Sinterklaas comes to visit on the night of St. Nicholas Eve, so they leave their shoes out for him to fill with presents.
St. Lucia's Day
Saint Lucia is the patron saint of light, and in Sweden where the winters are cold and very dark, wintertime festivities honor her. Before the institution of the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century, the winter solstice-the time of year when the days are the very shortest-fell on December 13th. For that reason, December 13th is still celebrated as St. Lucia's day in Sweden and in other Scandinavian countries. For St. Lucia's day, the oldest daughter of each family dresses up as a "queen of light" in a long white dress and a wreath with candles on her head. She sings the song of Saint Lucia and serves coffee and sweet buns to every member of the family.
Novena or Las Posadas
The nine-day period beginning December 16th and ending on Christmas Eve is called Novena in Italy and Las Posadas in Spain and Latin America. It commemorates the Holy Family's nine-day journey to Bethlehem and their search for lodging there. The Spanish word for "inn" is posada, and during Las Posadas, processions are held in which villagers acting as the Holy Family go from house to house asking for a place to stay. This culminates in Noche Buena, the night of Christmas Eve when the children lead a procession to the church and place the Christ child in the nativity, or nacimiento, there. Then everyone attends midnight mass; the church bells are rung and fireworks are lit, and everyone goes home for a middle-of-the-night feast.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
December 25th marks the first of the twelve days of Christmas, also known as Christmastide or Yuletide. Christmastide lasts until January 5th; the night of January 5th is Twelfth Night, and the Twelve Days of Christmas are followed by Epiphany.
January 6th, the Day of Epiphany, marks the day that the three kings presented their gifts before the baby Jesus. Thus on the night of January 5th, known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve, children receive gifts from the three kings who are traveling on their way to see the infant Jesus.
In Spanish tradition, the three kings were named Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar. They represented Europe, Arabia, and Africa, respectively. According to this tradition, Melchor arrived on a horse and brought gold to give the baby Jesus; Gaspar rode on a camel and brought frankincense; and Baltazar rode on an elephant and brought myrrh for his gift. (In reality, frankincense and myrrh were both grown on the Arabian peninsula, and gold was commonly traded along the desert trading routes there, so the three magi were probably Arabian.) Because of the tradition of the magi, the 6th of January is also called El Día de los Reyes, or the Three Kings' Day, in Spanish tradition.