Take a time-out from the holiday frenzy, and unwrap a few low-stress lessons in geography, history, and culture. Turn on some Christmas tunes, sit the kids down with a cup of cocoa, open up a world map and discover how celebrations play out in far-away places.
Why not start at the top? Top of the world that is! Sure, kids know where to address letters to Santa, but what does that zip code look like? They can learn lots of fun facts about the North Pole from the Ducksters™ education site. For example, in answer to “What country is it in?” the answer is “The North Pole is not in any country. It is considered part of international waters.” And while the North Pole (sort of) gets one incredibly long day because “The sun rises in March and sets in September,” the average temperatures hover around freezing (29 to 32) year-round, so all that daylight doesn’t mean summertime fun in the sun. In fact, the North Pole is covered in a layer of ice 6 to 9 feet thick, and the nearest land is 700 miles away! Santa drives his sleigh a long way before seeing anything but ice, ice, and more ice.
For a multi-national rundown, check out “11 Weird and Wonderful Christmas Traditions from Around the World,” gathered up by Momondo. Among those featured, the site describes the Giant Lantern Festival in the Philippines, held the Saturday before Christmas Eve, in the city of San Fernando, “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.” Originally the lanterns were made of Japanese origami paper, but today they are made of many materials, are bigger, and are illuminated by electric bulbs. It’s quite the competition for the best and most beautiful, kaleidoscopic creations.
Kids have sometimes heard about a lump of coal in stockings of the misbehaving, but Iceland has a slightly different take. During the 13 days leading up to Christmas, the Yule Lads, mischievous, troll-like characters swing by to visit children. “For each night of Yuletide, children place their best shoes by the window and a different Yule Lad visits leaving gifts for nice girls and boys and rotting potatoes for the naughty ones.” Ewww.
As do many families in the U.S., in Caracas, Venezuela, residents often head to church on Christmas Eve, but with one startling exception: they are on roller skates! Momondo notes, “This unique tradition is so popular that roads across the city are closed to cars so that people can skate to church in safety.” After services, they head home for a dinner of tamales—(“a wrap made out of cornmeal dough and stuffed with meat, then steamed”).
According to the website WhyChristmas.com, Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated January 7, because like other countries where the main church is the Orthodox Church, they use the old Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar) for church festivals. The site says that in parts of Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, it’s considered good luck to find a spider or spider web on your Christmas tree. They note that in Ukraine, Christmas tree are often decorated with artificial spider webs, and “the story of The Christmas Spider is very popular…” This folktale is sometimes attributed as the origin of tinsel! The website says, “All the versions of the story involve a poor family who can’t afford to decorate a Tree for Christmas…[and] when the children go to sleep on Christmas Even a spider covers the tree in cobwebs. Then on Christmas morning the cobwebs are magically turned into silver and gold strands…”
In 2015 Fox News posted, “Strange and Wacky Christmas Food Facts,” compiled by Dan Myers for the Daily Meal. For example, legend has it that candy canes were invented (minus the stripes originally) in 1670 by a cathedral choirmaster who had them commissioned to keep kids quiet! And get this, while a typical British Christmas dinner, much like the U.S. is roast turkey, back in medieval times “the preferred poultry was actually peacock!"
Last year, Bryony Hopkins, wrote “5 Weird Christmas Foods from Around the World,” for Metro News in the U.K. She notes that in South Africa, harvest of the edible mopane caterpillar “coincides with Christmas and hence these grace plenty a Christmas plate in South Africa.” On a slightly more mundane note, “In Japan they go crazy over Kentucky Fried Chicken and a staggering 3.6 million Japanese families feast on KFC every year.” In some locations, the special Christmas Dinner has to be ordered in advance!
Now there’s a finger-lickin’ good tradition. As for the caterpillars? Let the kids decide!