Turkey, tamales, and ice cream pie: the many colours of Christmas

By Katie Stone

From ice-skating to card-playing, tamales to ugali, gingerbread houses to a share-bucket of KFC, Christmas celebrations around the world are quite a mixed bag. But no matter how it’s done or where the common thread linking every festive celebration is togetherness.

Vancouver, Canada

In snowy Vancouver, Laura Holdaway couldn’t be happier. She and her daughters - aged seven and 13 - have had their Christmas tree and stockings up since the beginning of November. “Christmas is our favourite time of year. We absolutely love it!” Laura says.

 

By Katie Stone

From ice-skating to card-playing, tamales to ugali, gingerbread houses to a share-bucket of KFC, Christmas celebrations around the world are quite a mixed bag. But no matter how it’s done or where the common thread linking every festive celebration is togetherness.

Vancouver, Canada

In snowy Vancouver, Laura Holdaway couldn’t be happier. She and her daughters – aged seven and 13 – have had their Christmas tree and stockings up since the beginning of November. “Christmas is our favourite time of year. We absolutely love it!” Laura says.

With no other family in Vancouver, Laura makes sure that her girls enjoy the festive spirit as much as possible. Ice-skating, making sugar cookies, singing Christmas carols, and visiting the massive Christmas lights display in Stanley Park are all part of the fun. And, of course, writing letters to Santa. “Canada Post is awesome at sending replies from ‘Santa himself’,” she says. “We also make and decorate a gingerbread house every year, and we’ll leave out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve and carrots for the reindeer. And I almost forgot the movies! We watch The Polar Express on Christmas Eve and A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in the days leading up to Christmas.”

 

Mulled wine in Vancouver

Laura and her friends also get together to enjoy homemade eggnog and mulled wine. But the real treat is Christmas morning. “My favourite part is seeing it through the eyes of my kids. It’s stressful being Santa and putting presents under the tree without waking them up, but once that’s done, it’s all good,” she says. “I absolutely love to see my daughters’ eyes when they come out of their bedrooms and see presents under the tree – I get teary-eyed just thinking about it! We spend the day opening presents and then playing with them. There’s no hurry and no stress.”

Turkey is their traditional Christmas fare, but they’re happy to break tradition every now and then. “We eat cinnamon buns and I always drink coffee with Bailey’s. Last year it was just the girls and me, and since they hate turkey, we had lasagna. And we always have mint cookies-and-cream ice cream pie for dessert.”

Nairobi, Kenya

For Brenda Liona, Christmas in her hometown of Nairobi is an important time for church, food, and family. Preparations are minimal, with most of the Christmas shopping usually done a day or two before Christmas Day itself. “We shop for food and small gifts for family members. The gifts range from cards to clothing, and cash gifts. Sometimes families exchange chickens as gifts.”

The morning usually begins with a church service, followed by a relaxing day with loved ones. “Everyone has to be at home – my parent’s house – unless due to unavoidable circumstances. And we must attend the Christmas church service as a family,” says Brenda.

After church, everyone heads home to eat and drink as a family with invited guests. “It’s a time to hang out and tell stories,” she says. “Most times Christmas is celebrated at home. It can be here in Nairobi or our rural home, and sometimes we are invited by relatives to their homes to celebrate.”

An important Kenyan tradition on Christmas Day is the slaughtering of a rooster for the main meal. Christmas dinner will also include chicken, rice, goat meat, fish, ugali (traditional cornmeal porridge), and chapati.

After two years of recurring lockdowns in Kenya, Brenda says that this Christmas will be smaller than usual. But she will still have her loved ones close by. “I love congregating and eating together as a family,” she says. “If I moved away, that’s what I’d miss the most.”

Tokyo, Japan

Originally from San Diego, Alexis Franks has lived abroad for the past 16 years as an English language teacher. Japan is the place she seems to return to again and again, and she currently lives in Koganei, a city on the western side of Tokyo.

“Christmas in Japan is quite unlike how it would be back home,” Alexis says. The day itself is not recognised as an official holiday (Japan is primarily a Shinto and Buddhist country), so most people go to work or school as normal. However, American foods and goods are sold commercially in stores, and German-themed Christmas markets are held in ‘posh’ areas of Tokyo and Osaka.

And then there’s the KFC. “Eating fried chicken from KFC is a Japanese Christmas tradition!” Alexis laughs. “There is some debate about the reason behind it, but it’s something to do with the idea that Americans are thought to eat turkey on Christmas Day, and somehow fried chicken is the closest thing you can find in Japan. If you want KFC on the day, you have to order your bucket in advance!”

Alexis still manages to maintain a few of her own Christmas traditions. “I do like to go to the Christmas markets in Yokohama and Roppongi Hills every year to buy new ornaments for the tiny tree in my apartment, and some mulled wine. And of course, I like to buy Christmas presents for my family and friends.”

Christmas Day itself is usually celebrated with friends – if they’re not working. “If we all have the day off, we might go hiking or to an onsen for the day. Otherwise, it’s usually just a dinner and gift exchange. Sometimes friends and I will share a KFC ‘party bucket’, too!”

Although she misses being able to spend Christmas with her family back home, there are some perks to the Japanese version. “I like that Christmas is really low-key in Japan; it takes away some of the stress of the holidays that I might feel somewhere else. And even with the ‘just another day’ feeling that Christmas has here, there’s still something festive about the crispness of the weather, and twinkle lights strung across big thoroughfares.”

Tokyo Tower

Phuket, Thailand

Che Chengsupanimit was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and has been living in Phuket for two and a half years.

As a Buddhist country, Christmas is not traditionally a religious holiday in Thailand. Phuket, however, is one of Thailand’s biggest tourist hotspots and has become highly Westernised over the past few years. Christmas is now celebrated for the sake of tourists and expats – albeit without the snow.

Since living there, Che is accustomed to getting into the Christmas spirit with his non-Thai friends to eat, drink, and give gifts. “It’s a tropical climate, so last Christmas, one of my friends hosted a BBQ by a villa with a pool and people brought in food from their respective countries,” he says. “We don’t do too much beyond that. I don’t even remember hearing Christmas music last year during the Christmas party! There are churches around that do services, but I haven’t been.”

Most Westerners in the area like to prepare a classic Christmas dinner of turkey, ham, pie, and other American holiday foods. “It’s a change of pace from the active lifestyle here! Gives us a reason to take a day or two to kick back and relax – or, in some cases, the entire week!”

Las Vegas, USA

Chicago-born Judi has been travelling on and off for the past five years and has now been living in Las Vegas for six months.

Her family Christmas is a standard American affair, although she admits it’s usually left to the last minute. “We prepare for it by going grocery shopping. We specifically procrastinate and often are scrambling to get everything on Christmas Eve!”

Christmas means exchanging presents – usually one at midnight on Christmas Eve, and the rest on Christmas Day. The rest of the day is spent cooking dinner and watching classic holiday movies such as The Christmas Story, Home Alone, Grumpy Old Men, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or The Santa Clause. Judi explains that the rule is, they must all watch at least one movie together as a family. Making cookies for Santa is also a big treat for the kids.

Christmas tamales

The traditional dinner party will usually include her husband, their parents, her brother and his wife, her niece, and nephews. Dinner is a mixture of cuisines: the roast turkey and stuffing are accompanied by macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie and/or candied sweet potatoes, and tamales. Judi explains that tamales are a traditional Mexican/Mesoamerican dish commonly served in areas with a high Mexican/Latin American population, such as Chicago or LA. They comprise corn-based masa (dough) steamed in a corn husk, with a filling of chicken, pork, beef, cheese and/or beans.

Growing up in Chicago, Judi used to love seeing the decorations in the windows of large stores along State Street, especially Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Fields. Sadly, most stores have now closed. Vegas has its moments, though. “It can be funny to see the debauchery of Vegas on Christmas Day,” she laughs.

With much of the US now open again, she expects Christmas this year to be fairly much the same as previous years. “But I plan to give my niece and nephews more gifts than usual because they’ve been stuck inside all year with no end in sight,” she says.

Las Vegas Christmas tree

Changtu, China

Kurt hails from Canada but currently lives in Changtu, a small city in the far northeast of China. He has been living and teaching in China for 11 years, in both large and small cities.

Although he misses spending a snowy Christmas Day in front of the fireplace back home, Kurt has happily adapted to a different festive season. Christmas is technically not celebrated in China, but Kurt’s local ex-pat community gets together every year for their own version of it. “Last year a group of us ordered foreign foods online, such as turkey, beer, wine, dessert. We made dinner at my bosses house – who is from Ireland – and just cooked, drank, and talked and played cards for most of the day,” he says.

“What I like about Christmas here is that Chinese people put in an effort to buy me Christmas gifts! This is something they don’t really do often, but for them, it’s fun to get involved.”

This year’s Christmas will be spent at his girlfriend’s parents’ home in Inner Mongolia, which borders Mongolia in northern China. They then hope to go to Sanya on Hainan Island to “soak in the sun.”

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