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Glittering pine trees, Santa Claus and stockings are part of many people’s ideas of Christmas, but the holiday can look vastly different around the globe.
From Europe to Asia to the depths of Antarctica, here’s how Christmas is celebrated in nine places around the world — and one place orbiting around the world.
Christmas celebrations in Croatia begin early, with some traditions starting in November.
Like other Europeans, Croatians also celebrate St. Nicholas Day in early December, whereby children leave their shoes out, expecting St. Nick to leave them candies and small gifts, according to the Christmas resource website St. Nicholas Center.
In some parts of Europe, children believe St. Nicholas leaves chocolates and gifts in their shoes if they have behaved well. Otherwise, Krampus, a monster-like creature, may leave coal or dried twigs.
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“As a child I used to leave out a shoe on the window,” said Antonio Zdunich, who was born in Croatia. “Someone would fill it up with gifts and candy during the night, and I would wake up and be all happy,”
Many families in Croatia plant wheat on Dec. 13 with the belief that if it grows well, the next year will be prosperous for them, he said.
The people of Sweden decorate Christmas trees and exchange presents, similar to other parts of the world, said Swede Patrik Kerttu.
The Disney special entitled “From All of Us to All of You” is regularly Sweden’s most watched television show of the year, competing only with the country’s try-outs for the Eurovision Song Contest.
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They celebrate with Donald Duck too. Last year, more than 4.5 million people — almost half of Sweden’s population — watched the 1958 Disney special “From All of Us to All of You,” according to the English-language European news network, The Local. The show has aired there every year since 1959.
Popular foods during this time of the year are meatballs, ham, smoked or marinated salmon, pickled herring and a potato and anchovy casserole called Jansson’s temptation, said Kerttu.
While parts of the country celebrate in different ways, Christian families in India typically combine western traditions with customs unique to India.
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“Christmas is a pretty important celebration for my family because it’s the one time in a year that most of the family gather together,” said Isha Meleth, who is Christian and from the south Indian state of Kerala. “We build a Christmas crib [nativity scene] in front of the house … on Christmas Eve.”
Two popular Christmas dishes are kheer, a type of sweet milk pudding, and kallappam, a coconut and rice pancake which is more common in southern India, Meleth said.
For most in Japan, Christmas is a secular affair, rather than a religious one.
Many Japanese people celebrate the holiday much like Valentine’s Day, with couples spending the day together, according to JR Pass, a Japanese rail travel company. It is common for people to go on dinner dates and stroll around looking at Christmas lights with their partners.
One of the most discussed traditions — at least outside of Japan — is the culture’s fascination with having fried chicken for Christmas, often from the U.S. fast food chain KFC.
One theory behind Japan’s custom of eating KFC on Christmas is that it was a foreigner’s food of choice for the holiday since turkey wasn’t available. This inspired the company to market it as a Christmas food, a KFC Japan representative told CNBC.
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A 1974 holiday marketing campaign called “Kentucky Christmas” launched a practice that is now celebrated by millions of Japanese people, said Tatsuya Noguchi, a KFC Japan representative.
According to Noguchi, pre-orders for meals like the “Party Barrel” or “Christmas Pack” begin around seven weeks in advance. The restaurant chain also sees its highest sales of the year between Dec. 23 and 25, he said.
“Every year, the busiest day is Dec. 24 — which is about five to 10 times busier than the annual average,” said Noguchi.
Some 92% of the Philippines’ 110 million people are Christian. Christmas is the most important time of the year in the Philippines, and the country is said to celebrate the holiday longer than anywhere else — from September to January.
“Like many Latin cultures, my family in the Philippines celebrates Nochebuena, which is a big celebration on the night of Christmas Eve,” said Siena Klinzing, who is half-Filipino. “It involves getting together with family, having a big feast and sharing gifts.”
For many Filipino families, Christmas is incomplete without lechon, a whole crispy-skinned roasted pig.
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She said her family stays up, much like New Year’s Eve, to wish everyone “Merry Christmas” as soon as the clock strikes midnight, she added.
Another important tradition is Simbang Gabi, which means “mass at night,” where people wake up before dawn to attend mass for nine days from Dec. 16 to 24. It is believed that those who complete all nine days can ask for a blessing, Klinzing said.
Though the official state religion of the UAE is Islam, Christmas is celebrated in some parts of the country.
It is a particularly big affair in the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where a large number of expats reside.
Dubai has lighting ceremonies of large, elaborately decorated Christmas trees, like this one at the Al-Wasl Dome at the heart of Expo 2020 Dubai.
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Malls and hotels are often heavily decorated with Christmas trees that span multiple floors, according to Visit Dubai, the emirate’s official tourism site.
Christmas markets, performances and special holiday menus at restaurants are also common during December.
Christmas in Mexico is marked by large parades with colorful floats and costumes, candy-filled pinatas and nativity scenes. But one of the country’s most popular customs is Las Posadas, a celebration during the nine days leading up to Christmas.
Dancers in costume participate in a traditional Christmas and New Year parade in Chilpancingo, a city in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
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“Every night, people form a singing procession that is meant to represent Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem,” said Mexican food blogger Mely Martinez.
Those processions typically culminate at someone’s house, where everyone gathers for a party with food such as tamales, Christmas punch and candies, she said. Other popular Christmas foods include pozole, sweet fried dough fritters called bunuelos, and a hot chocolate drink called champurrado, Martinez said.
Christmas is a time for migration for many in Kenya. Cities, including the capital of Nairobi, experience an exodus in December as droves of people travel to their hometowns and villages to reunite with their families.
Believers of Legio Maria, a religious movement that sprung among the Luo people of western Kenya, attend an overnight Christmas mass near Ugunja, Kenya on Dec. 25, 2017.
Fredrik Lerneryd | AFP | Getty Images
Most churches hold a night vigil on Christmas Eve, where people sing carols and hymns for hours, said Shikriti Mandal, who grew up in Kenya.
Come Christmas Day, families and friends have a feast which often includes barbecued goat or lamb meat called nyama choma, said Mandal.
Currently, the South Pole is home to 70 permanent research stations representing 29 different countries, according to Oceanwide Expeditions, an Arctic and Antarctic tour company.
Since the usual commotion of Christmas is missing, stations find creative ways to celebrate among colleagues.
A man dressed as Santa Claus is en route to visit the cruise ship Seabourn Quest on Christmas morning at Cuverville Island in the Antarctic Peninsula region.
Wolfgang Kaehler | LightRocket | Getty Images
“Each of our five Antarctic research stations celebrates Christmas in their own way, dependent on the weather,” said Kathleen Maclean, a representative of the British Antarctic Survey. Some may roast a turkey and eat tinned and frozen vegetables, while others sing carols, watch Christmas films and play board games, she said.
Despite the festivities, research continues since “long-term monitoring data still needs to be collected,” said Maclean.
Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenk speak on Jan. 7, 2019 — Christmas Day according to the Russian Orthodox calendar.
Mikhail Japaridze | TASS | Getty Images
Celebrations on the ISS include decorating the station, enjoying plastic pouch versions of traditional foods like turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and cookies, and filming videos of holiday greetings which are sent back to earth.
Christmas also comes twice on the Space Station since it falls on Jan. 7 on the Russian Orthodox calendar, which many Russian astronauts follow.
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