They are among the most-loved and well-known holidays, and no wonder! Associated with gifts, family, fabulous feasts and good cheer, Christmas and New Year are celebrated across the world by a large number of cultures and people. Seen as a time for thanksgiving and celebration, these two festivals are also a time where people reflect on the year gone by and welcome a brand-new 12 month cycle.
THE UNITED STATES
Celebrated as a religious and secular holiday by most Americans, Christmas is among the biggest holidays in the US. One major American contribution to the Christmas tradition is the turkey – a fowl native to North America – and now regarded as a Christmas dinner staple. Other Christmas treats include pumpkin pie, candy canes and eggnog.
In New York, the Rockfeller Center Christmas tree has become a top attraction. Put up since 1931, it has become symbolic of Christmas in the Big Apple. The massive spruce – which can be 30m in height – is a sight to behold, bejewelled with glittering lights and topped with an elaborate star.
When it comes to ushering in the New Year, Americans usually celebrate with a party the night before. A common theme is the masquerade ball where guests play dress up and unmask after midnight. In Times Square, New York, thousands of revelers gather for an annual countdown that has been custom since 1906. At a minute to midnight, a giant ball descends from the top of a tall pole as people count down to the New Year. A huge hit with tourists and locals alike.
With its Portuguese roots, American ties and native customs – Mexico celebrates a hybrid version of Christmas steeped in holiday’s Christian heritage and country’s cultural norms. Nativity scenes or Presepio are common in churches, homes, and stores, as is a folk play called Los Pastores (The Shepards). In the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, there is an unusual pre-Christmas festival called Noche de Rabanos or Night of the Radishes, where master veggie-carvers turn the humble but strikingly colored root vegetable into wonderfully elaborate sculptures of saints and nativity scenes. Corn husks and dried flowers are also used to create a dazzling array of intricately fashioned art pieces.
Nines days before Christmas Eve, a procession dubbed Posadas – essentially a reenactment of the journey of Mary and Joseph as they sought shelter in Bethlehem – is held where ‘pilgrims’ travel from door to door seeking shelter. It is arranged such that only the third home will welcome the ‘pilgrims’. Following a prayer session, a party is held for children, complete with a piñata, a papier-mache receptacle filled with candy, fruit and treats.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, the birth of the Christ Child is heralded with fireworks, bells and whistles. Unlike many other parts of the world, children in Mexico only get gifts on 6 January, on Dia de los Reyes Magos(Day of Three Wise Me). But increasingly, many are adopting Christmas Day as the day for the exchange of presents.
New Year in Mexico is a similarly elaborate affair with huge street festivals, complete with music, dancing, food and the clamor of fireworks held on the eve. Some New Year traditions include eating 12 grapes for luck as the clock strikes midnight!