For obvious reasons, Christmas is the most exciting date on the calendar for small children. But teenagers and adults also place great importance on a season that brings light and warmth to the darkest months of the year in the northern hemisphere and sun-kissed family time south of the equator.
At International British Schools overseas, Christmas is also a chance to enrich students’ cultural lives with a cocktail of customs.
At King’s College Latvia, Headteacher Adele Stanford explains that the traditional British Christmas shows performed by the students are topped and tailed by Latvian songs. And while the menu is predominantly British, the children are also served speka piragi, a diminutive Latvian Christmas pie filled with bacon and onion.
For centuries, Latvia has celebrated the season with a mix of pagan winter solstice practices and Christian traditions and it was here, in Riga’s main square back in 1510, that the very first Christmas tree on record was put up.
Common to almost all winter solstice traditions, the evergreen Christmas tree is brought into people’s homes in Latvia to remind them that their crops will soon be flourishing once more.
The first tree in Riga was said to be decorated with paper flowers by men in black hats and then burned straight after the ceremony with possibly a toast to the future.
Nowadays, Santa Claus puts his presents under the Christmas tree and to get your hands on one, you have to recite a poem, do a dance or sing a song, ensuring a certain restraint and a healthy “you don’t get nothing for free” attitude.
Christmas fare in Latvia also seems less than extravagant with a typical Christmas dish consisting of grey peas, which are in fact brown, eaten with barley, onion and bacon sauce.
In general, Germany is the most closely associated country to Christmas, with its Christmas markets and its tradition of St Nicolas coming by on December 6th to fill the shoes left out by children with small gifts.
Rather like Grimm’s fairy tales, St Nicolas’ visit has a dark side. The patron saint of children is said to come accompanied by a raggedly clothed monster called Krampus – the protagonist of a 2015 comedy horror film – or Black Peter who wields a whip to be used on those whose behaviour needs cracked into shape.
Christmas Eve is the moment in Germany to exchange gifts, and goose or carp is the traditional Christmas dinner with a fruited yeast bread called stollen eaten during the season.
On the other side of the Atlantic in Panama, Christmas is a hot and humid affair with the rainy season coming to an end and summer kicking in with temperatures of 30º.
According to Alison Donnelly, Head of Administration at King’s College Panama, this does not deter locals from going all out to celebrate, with Christmas Eve as the focal point.
Families tend to go to mass in the early evening and then prepare a meal of roast turkey or ham with rice and pigeon peas and potato salad, which is eaten at midnight. A present opening session with children playing with their new toys until the small hours. Needless to say, Christmas Day itself is something of a wash out!
This is, of course, not unlike Spain, which colonised Panama back in the early 16th century. Known as Noche Buena – a night too good for sleep, Christmas Eve once saw Spaniards staying up for hours to carry torches through the streets and play various instruments after midnight mass.
As in Panama, Christmas Day itself is a low-key affair. Though Santa Claus has crept into the culture, presents are traditionally delivered by the Three Kings on January 6th – the Epiphany – which is, of course, when the Brits are taking their decorations down.
Floats manned by each of the three Kings – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – trundle through the streets of Spanish towns while local children on board throw fistfuls of sweets to the crowds and upbeat carols blare from loudspeakers!
Their sugar levels soaring, children buzz about putting food out for the Kings and their camels who are expected to come in the night to fill their shoe.
While seafood is the dish of choice over Christmas in Spain, King’s Day is celebrated with a cinnamon-flavoured bun shaped like a large donut, known as roscón, which, like the traditional British Christmas pudding, contains small surprises that are meant to bring luck.
Every country loves Christmas, but the British seem to be the only nationality intent on making up endless pop songs on the subject; Paul McCartney in fact told BBC radio 4 recently that he composed a whole album of Christmas tunes for his family’s ears only as he couldn’t bear the others!
As though intent on standing out from the crowd, Britain is one of the few countries to put Christmas Day at the heart of the festivities, relegating Christmas Eve to second place. Presents and dinner are both dealt with on the 25th while the 24th is often spent singing carols or at the pub!
Boxing Day is another British speciality. Originating in the UK 800 years ago, it was the day the collection boxes for the poor were opened and the money distributed to those in need. Nowadays, however, it is used to recover from the excesses of the day before.
Curiously, in Scotland, Boxing Day only became a public holiday in 1974. But far stranger is the fact that Christmas Day was considered an ordinary working day until 1958!
Known for their no-frills demeanour, the Scots actually banned Christmas in 1580 after Scotland turned its back on the Catholic Church during the 1560 Reformation.
Though Christmas had always been a combination of both Catholic and pagan customs, the Scots decided it was too Catholic to be tolerated and chose Hogmanay – New Year’s Eve – as a date to celebrate new life.
Christmas remained outlawed for more than 100 years in Scotland with any holding fast to the tradition made to repent in public. Even now, Hogmanay remains Scotland’s chief celebration with people from around the world flying in to experience the all-night partying that can last for days as revellers go “first-footing” – a ritual that involves being the first to bring neighbours a piece of coal for prosperity in the new year.
Like the first-footers, King’s students around the world have been showing solidarity with their neighbours through various charitable initiatives.
At King’s College Murcia, Year Five and Year Six students made Christmas cards for the long-term patients at Santa Lucía and Los Arcos hospitals, though the main charitable event was the annual Christmas Fair towards the end of term, which raised €2,230 for selected charities such as Save the Children and Project Lombok.
Meanwhile, the infants at King’s College Chamartín came up with the impressive idea of asking Santa not to bring them gifts on his end-of-term visit, so they could spend the money saved on sending animals and plants to an area of Zambia suffering the effects of climate change through the Send a Cow NGO.
But the main project among the Madrid schools was the Christmas Shoes Boxes to which students, families and teachers all contributed, with Bomberos Ayudan collecting them before the term broke up.
In Latvia, King’s College focuses every December on charity and gratitude and to raise money this year, they organised a Christmas Jumper Day and a Bring and Buy Sale.
Meanwhile, down on the Spanish coast in Alicante, King’s College has been gathering toys for local families in Vegan Baja who were affected by the recent flooding while money raised from various events during this term is to be distributed between Save the Children, Caritas Practical Action, Anar and Salud Mental.