Christmas is a magical time of year for millions of people across the world. Different cultures celebrate the holiday season in their own ways, and Australian expats may see some unusual traditions, depending on where they happen to live. We’ve investigated the holiday festivities that take place in just a few top expat destinations, to help you decide where to spend your Christmas this year!
The country that gave us much of our own Australian Christmas culture, the UK still has unique and world-renowned celebrations today. One feature of the British Christmas season is some of the world’s most fabulous light displays. London in particular boasts an illuminated Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, as well as several streets with celebrated light displays, with Regent Street and Oxford Street being the most famous. Thousands of people are drawn to the ‘switch on’ event to see the streets lit up for the first time, usually in November. This year, Oxford Street alone will feature 1,778 decorations, incorporating a whopping 750,000 LED light bulbs!
Christmas is a time for family and the British theatrical tradition of pantomime is a great family-friendly activity all year round, but especially at Christmas. A style of musical comedy show that evolved in England, pantomimes are usually performed around the holiday season, although the storylines may or may not be Christmas themed.
Australians have Germany to thank for several of our most important Christmas traditions. The Christmas tree was originally a German tradition that became popular when members the British monarchy married members of the German royal family. It’s debated whether the first British Christmas tree was decorated in 1800 by Good Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III or Price Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria in 1840. In any case, we have a lot to thank Germany for when it comes to Christmas!
Germany also contributed the first advent calendars, with this tradition originating in the 19th century. The four weeks leading up to Christmas constitute the advent and this is an important part of a German Christmas. It’s also during the advent that the famous German Christmas Markets are held, selling decorations, gifts, food and drinks such as mulled wine. Christmas markets can be found everywhere around Germany during the advent, but of course the biggest and grandest are in the big cities, the ones in Berlin, Nuremberg, Munich, Stuttgart and Dresden among the most celebrated.
Since mainland China is an officially atheist country and a historically Buddhist one, Christmas isn’t a public holiday, nor is it widely celebrated. Over recent years, the Chinese have become more interested in Christmas however, and many businesses even in small, non-westernised towns have taken to putting up a few decorations in December. It’s common to see cardboard Santa heads stuck to the windows of shops and restaurants (though these often stay up all year and become quite neglected as it seems they’ve been forgotten) and perhaps even a plastic Christmas tree. Christmas is largely viewed as a Western holiday equivalent to Chinese New Year and most Chinese approach it with a secular knowledge of Santa (Sheng Dan Lao Ren) without necessarily being aware of the festival’s religious significance. Rather than exchanging presents, most Chinese give each other decoratively wrapped apples on Christmas Eve because the day’s name (Ping An Ye or ‘peaceful night’) sounds like the word for ‘apple.’
First tier cities like Shanghai and Beijing are generally home to a greater number of Chinese Christians as well as international expats, so Christmas naturally gets more attention. Shanghai’s large German community has lead to a tradition of holding small Christmas markets throughout December, where people can buy Western foods, mulled wine and gifts, as well as meeting Santa Claus. Meanwhile, the Beijing Playhouse features a Christmas themed show every year.
The difference between Christmastime in Hong Kong compared to Mainland China really highlights Hong Kong’s history as a British colony. Churches are far more numerous in Hong Kong and the local Christian community celebrates with church services in Cantonese and English. You don’t have to be Christian to celebrate the festive season in Hong Kong, however, as the holiday is fairly secular and commercial. Public Christmas trees and light displays decorate the streets, as well as the city’s many, many shopping malls in WinterFest celebrations. In fact, such shopping centers design elaborate exhibits, such as aerial Christmas trees at the IFC Mall. Normally busy streets are closed down for pedestrians leading up to Christmas Day, which can cause traffic issues but adds to the overall festive atmosphere. Rather than staying at home with family, the Christmas season is generally busy, with shops, restaurants and hotels serving up special menus and long open hours.
Victoria Harbour is an impressive sight no matter when you visit, with its nightly Symphony of Lights show held all year round. Christmas is particularly spectacular, however as the skyscrapers are lit up with Christmas themed lights. Stanley Market is another popular tourist site that receives a holiday themed makeover, transforming into a German style Christmas market. Disney fans and families should also check out the Disney resort, which displays extravagant decorations down Main Street.
A true cultural melting pot, Singapore pulls out all the stops at Christmas time. With a Christian population of around 20%, Singapore’s ‘Christmas in the Tropics’ has a largely secular bent, though the grand decorations are a huge tourist attraction that light up the whole city in the festive spirit.
The entire length of Orchard Road, which happens to be Asia’s most famous shopping street, is lit up with Christmas displays. Known as Christmas on A Great Street, the road is transformed with twinkling lights, pop-up stores, Christmas trees and elaborate decorations for the festive season. The street opens up with a November lighting ceremony and continues until the start of January. with a Grand Concert on Christmas Day.
The Gardens by the Bay are another home to cheer as they create an entire Christmas Wonderland, transforming the marina with light sculptures, a European style festive market and even an ice palace.
As a Muslim country, Dubai doesn’t have much in the way of Christmas traditions, but the large community of Western expats has created a market for some festive celebration. Like n China and even Hong Kong, much of the Christmas celebration is commercial, with shopping plazas and hotels putting up decorations and tress, while restaurants offer holiday themed menus.
There are a few churches in the emirate, which traditionally hold mass prayers and sometimes a free lunch for the poor. A few festive fairs litter the city, while The Irish Village holds a tree lighting ceremony, complete with carol singing. Anyone looking to sing some carols in a unique setting can also attend the free Carols in the Desert event, held outside the city.
Christmas: Taking on a New Life
Christmas is celebrated all over the world, though the holiday means something different to every community. No longer a festival only for Christians, Christmas is taking on a whole new life as a secular holiday with non-religious imagery recognizable no matter where you are: Santa Claus, decorated trees and coloured decorations. No matter what your opinion of the religious versus secular celebrations, at least Aussie expats can find some Christmas cheer wherever they happen to live.