Christmas in the Toughest Places

How People Celebrate Around the World

By Amanda DeWitt

For a few days in December, most of us pause to celebrate. We hang lights. Gather with family. And give gifts to friends and loved ones.

The way Christmas is celebrated is tied to one’s faith and to the culture in which one lives. For millions of people around the world, Christmas may be celebrated on a different day, in a different way, or not celebrated at all.

Recently, local Unto® staff teams and partners, who serve in the toughest places, shared how Christmas is celebrated in their region.

The Middle East

Steeped in history and rich tradition, the city of Bethlehem is situated in the heart of the Middle East. Even though the area is extremely diverse, Christmas is still widely celebrated.

For most of December and January, the city is abuzz with festivities. There is a large Christmas festival held in town. Musicians from across the city come together to play the sounds of the season. On Christmas Eve the Church of the Nativity hosts a special prayer service.

Those who follow the Western and Catholic traditions celebrate on December 24. People typically set aside three days to visit family and friends. They enjoy special meals, cookies, and other treats. 

For those who follow the Orthodox or Armenian church traditions, their celebrations are held in January. These groups enjoy smaller Christmas festivals, church services, and family gatherings.

Bethlehem is one of the most diverse religious communities in world. But in most other places across the Middle East Christmas is also celebrated. Some focus on the Christmas tree lightings and gift exchanges while those within Christian communities focus more on the nativity and special church traditions. 

Africa

For most people in Africa, Christmas is a time of great celebration. Starting on December 15, the calendar is filled with carnivals, dancing, parties, and gift exchanges.

Many people who are able decorate with lights and garland. On Christmas Day they enjoy a special meal of foods like pork, chicken, pepper stew, fresh vegetables, and desserts for the children. Everyone, both rich and poor, are expected to participate in the gift giving.

In Sierra Leone and in many other parts of Africa, Christians also attend a special church service on Christmas Day. Families put on their best clothes and gather after the service in someone’s home. They enjoy a big meal together and exchange gifts. They also give to those who are in need within their communities.

For those who do not follow Christian traditions, moonlight picnics are common. These large parties begin on Christmas Eve, run through the night, and end midday on Christmas Day.

“People who receive gifts always say that it is not the size of the gift but the fact that you remembered me at Christmas time that matters. No one is too poor to give, and no one is too rich to receive,” our in-country team member shared.

Latin America

In much of Latin America and the Caribbean, people cannot wait for Christmas to arrive. Families start decorating for the holidays in September. The month of December is filled with special gatherings, family activities, and church services.

Most families enjoy a special meal on December 24. They cook pork, tamales, and other traditional foods. Then on December 25 they rest after all the festivities. Most people focus on family and being together more than giving gifts.

Those who follow the Catholic tradition attend mass on Christmas Day. Other churches host a special service on New Year’s Eve. Those who live in places like Costa Rica spend the holidays at the beach as it is the beginning of the summer season.

Families across the region look forward to Christmas Eve and the special holiday activities shared throughout the season.

Central Asia

Across Central Asia Christmas is not widely celebrated. Only those who follow Jesus participate in church services and celebrations around the nativity.

Instead New Year’s is widely celebrated across the region. Pappa Frost, modeled after Santa Clause, was introduced by Soviet and Russian influences. He traditionally brings gifts and treats to children on New Year’s Eve. 

Although there are few Christians across the region, those who follow Jesus often attend special church services and family gatherings on Christmas Day. Others who follow the Russian Orthodox tradition celebrate Advent, culminating in a Christmas celebration on January 7.

For Russians in Central Asia, Christmas tables are full of chocolates, fruits, nuts, baursak, salads, naan, and a traditional rice dish called plov. For most other families in Central Asia, they share a large meal around New Year’s and focus on the opportunity to start afresh with another year.

Make the Maximum Impact This Christmas

For many people in the toughest places, Christmas can be a challenging time. Without access to food, clean water, or other basic necessities, it can be hard to celebrate. You can help relieve their suffering — and reveal the hope of Jesus. Every gift to the Unto Maximum Impact Fund will be DOUBLED by matching funds, through December 31, to help provide more lifesaving humanitarian aid for people living in the toughest places on earth.

Published December 1, 2023

Amanda

Amanda is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Gift for Leadership, Kindred Spirit, and Christianity Today publications. She holds a M.A. in Media and Communication from Dallas Theological Seminary.