Christmas Stories from Around the World
Updated: Dec 27, 2022
Christmas is the time for hot chocolate, presents, and holiday cheer. The winter season, touted as the most wonderful time of the year by Andy Williams, fills us with joy as we close out the year and look toward starting anew in the weeks to come.
But have you ever wondered how your favorite Christmas traditions came to be? Often, the answer to that question is in the stories that have inspired our traditions, songs, decorations, and entertainment.
Take Santa Claus for example. We have songs about Santa, little Santa figurines and big Santa lawn inflatables, movies starring Tim Allen dressed as Santa, and the tradition of leaving cookies and milk for Santa as a refreshment for when he delivers our gifts. But where did Santa come from? You may find this hard to believe, but Santa wasn’t born at the North Pole. It was in New York.
Old Saint Nicholas has been around for centuries, but not as you know him now. It wasn’t until 1823 when Clement Clarke Moore wrote the now-famous poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas that Santa Claus became the American icon that we know him as today.
Moore’s story helped define Christmas in our culture. It is a pillar upon which modern Christmas tradition stands.
Likewise, many cultures around the world have their own Christmas traditions that have grown out of beautiful holiday stories. Here are four of our favorites:
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King – Germany
This Christmas classic was written in Germany during the early 19th century by author ETA Hoffmann. It tells the story of young a child with a wonderful imagination named Marie and the adventures of her Christmas toys.
The story begins on Christmas Eve. Seven-year-old Marie and her brother Fritz observe their godfather, Papa Drosselmeyer carrying a large box down the hall, which they deduce to be a present. The next morning they are proven right and receive many fantastic gifts; however, the only toy that catches Marie’s attention is the family nutcracker. Since it interests her so much, her father gives it to her.
That night, the evil seven-headed Mouse King appears with his mouse army and attacks Marie. The Nutcracker defends her that night and many more until Marie breaks the Nutcracker's curse by promising to be kind to him. The next day, the Nutcracker, who has been transformed into a boy, comes to Marie’s house and marries her.
The story is a fun tale of the powers of a child’s imagination. Perhaps the largest mark Hoffmann’s work made on the Christmas tradition is the Nutcracker play performed by the Russian Ballet and set to music composed by the famous Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Since then, there have been numerous adaptations in a variety of formats.
Day of Little Candles – Colombia
The Day of Little Candles is a popular Christmas tradition in Colombia. This holiday tradition finds its roots in the Christian story of the Immaculate Conception and is sometimes referred to as Immaculate Conception Eve.
In Christian tradition, the story goes that a young woman named Mary was given a son by God via the Immaculate conception. The son borne to her is Jesus Christ, who is the central figure in the Christian religion and from whom the religion gets its name. Mary is known as the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic sect of Christianity.
The Day of the Little Candles came to be on December 7th, 1854, when Pope Pius IX published his Ineffable Deus, which declared that the Virgin Mary was free of the original sin. Catholic followers in Colombia, which consists of a large portion of the population both then and now, lit candles that night to celebrate.
Today, the story of the Immaculate Conception is still celebrated by lighting candles and paper lanterns in Columbia. The holiday is accompanied by light shows and dazzling fireworks displays. Streets are closed for traffic, and families walk about the cities and participate in festivities.
Many Colombians consider the Day of Little Candles to be the unofficial start of the Christmas season.
The Legend of Old Befana – Italy
You might notice more than a few similarities to everyone’s favorite old jolly elf in this Italian story. However, Old Befana The Christmas Witch is much older than our modern Santa Claus.
Like many Christmas stories, the legend of Old Befana is steeped in Christian tradition. This particular one begins in the days following the birth of baby Jesus. According to tradition, three magi – or wise men depending on the version – saw a strange star in the night sky signifying the birth of Jesus. Being wise, they set out to bring gifts to the infant Savior. On their journey, they stop at Old Bafana’s house to ask for directions. Unable to point them on the right path, she instead gives them rest in her home. The next morning, the Magi invite her on their quest, but Old Befana is too busy with her housework and declines their offer.
As the day passes, she changes her mind and leaves her house to find the Magi and baby Jesus. However, despite her best efforts, she cannot find them, and so La Befana continues to search for them every year on January 5th, which is known as Epiphany Day Eve in Italy.
The soot-covered, broom-riding Old Befana visits every house in Italy that has children, climbing down the chimney and leaving presents for good children and coal for bad children. It is tradition to leave out socks for Old Befana to fill on Epiphany Day Eve, similar to the practice of hanging stockings above the fireplace on Christmas Eve in the United States.
Old Man Bayka – Liberia
Old Man Bayka, also known as Old Man Beggar, comes to us from the African nation of Liberia. He is a sidekick of sorts to Santa Claus, although his popularity makes him the main attraction.
In Liberian English, he is sometimes called the Dancing devil or a bush devil; however, don’t think of him as an African Krampus. Old Man Bayka is much more kind. According to Liberian tradition, Santa Claus is well-dressed and distributes presents, while the Old Man Bayka dresses in rags and asks for gifts. It is common for both characters to dance to loud music in the streets, competing with each other for favor of the crowds.
The story behind Old Man Bayka cannot be traced to a single source, but some scholars and journalists have cited Liberia’s unique history as a possible point of inspiration. The Republic of Liberia is a small nation located on the west coast of the African continent. Before the year 1821, the land was inhabited by indigenous ethnic groups like the Kpelle, Bassa, Brego, and others. That same year, the American Colonization Society founded a colony for freed American slaves, which they named Liberia. It is estimated that about 15,000 freed slaves migrated to Liberia between 1822 and 1862.
The freed slaves brought with them their Christian traditions, which intermingled for years with indigenous African culture and has resulted in Santa Claus and Old Man Bayka dancing together in the streets of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city.
Today, Liberians don Old Man Bayka costumes during the holidays, perform street skits to entertain their neighbors and ask for gifts from wealthier Liberians. If they refuse to give a gift to Old Man Bayka, then the Christmas devil will perform a satirical skit at the expense of their greedy behavior. To avoid public ridicule, it is best to buy Old Man Bayka food and drink.
Where You Can Learn More about Cultures from Around the World
If you found this article interesting, consider checking out the ReDefiners World Languages website. We believe that learning languages is the most powerful tool for building connections between cultures around the world.
Our communication-and-conversation approach is proven to be the most effective method for learning a new language. Each class is taught by teachers with native-like proficiency, and the small classes allow for unique curriculums that are molded to your learning speed. We offer online classes in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin.