Santa rides a camel? How the rest of world celebrates the holidays

A man dressed as Santa Claus rides a camel in Cairo.  Photo by Sudarsan Rhagavan-The Washington Post

Christmastime is upon us. For some people, that means it’s time to break out the gaudy decorations, twinkling lights and holiday shopping lists. For others this is a deeply religious time, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Hanukkah miracle or other festivals. From Egypt to India, Brazil to Japan, Washington Post correspondents around the world share how the holidays are being celebrated where they live.


London is a magical place to be over the Christmas holidays. Lights sparkle above the streets, outdoor parks are transformed by Christmas markets with wooden chalets, and ice rinks pop up outside iconic buildings. Dubbed “Britain’s most festive pub,” the Churchill Arms in Notting Hill, a neighborhood in West London, is decorated with 90 trees and 20,000 lights.

– Karla Adam, in London

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Christmas markets are common across Europe, but Brussels puts a fantastical twist on the tradition with a pair of carousels filled with Jules Verne-like deep-sea creatures and a rocket ship that blasts through the roof. Parents can sip champagne and slurp oysters at the Sainte-Catherine Market while their children twirl on the carousels, which were built in the 1990s by a French artist.

– Michael Birnbaum, in Brussels


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In Japan, where only 1 percent of the population identifies as Christian, Christmas is a purely commercial affair. The master of Christmas commercialization here is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes, for more than four decades, Japanese families have been tucking into a bucket of finger-licking goodness from KFC at Christmastime. This year, more than 3.5 million Japanese families are expected to enjoy one of the “Kentucky Christmas” party barrels, which range from the $32 set of fried chicken to the $42 version complete with green salad and tiramisu.

– Anna Fifield, in Tokyo


Christmas is taken seriously in Lebanon – very seriously. Unlike its neighbors, the tiny Arab country has a large, vibrant and confident Christian community that holds especially festive Christmas activities during the holidays. In the Geitawi neighborhood of Beirut, a predominantly Christian area of the Lebanese capital, religious iconography can be seen on just about every street.

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– Hugh Naylor, in Beirut


In Russia, gift-giving, holiday trees and garish ornaments are all associated with New Year’s Eve rather than Christmas. It’s a leftover tradition of the atheist Soviet Union. Post-Soviet Russia now celebrates Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, but it is entirely a religious holiday. Bright holiday lights and characters from Western Europe and the United States populate Moscow as the new year approaches. Traditionally, Russia’s Grandfather Frost is a lanky figure in a blue suit who symbolizes winter’s cold. Roly-poly Santa in his red and white suit is a more recent addition to Russian holiday celebrations.

– David Filipov, in Moscow


In Egypt, Santa is called Baba Noel, meaning Father Christmas. Around Cairo, stores and hotels put up Christmas trees and decorations, which are also sold in supermarkets. Many middle- and upper-class Muslims view Christmas as a time for festivities and gift giving, especially for their kids.

About 10 percent of Egypt’s 94 million people are Christians. Most belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose Christmas traditions are different than much of the world, including celebrating the holiday on Jan. 7.

The Coptic month leading to Christmas is called Kiahk. Special praise songs are sung by followers before the traditional Sunday service. From November 25 to January 6, many Christians partake in a special “holy nativity fast,” where they don’t eat any animal products, including chicken, beef and eggs.

Coptic Christmas Eve is on January 6, when followers attend a special night service. Afterward, they go home and break their fast. The next morning, Orthodox Christmas Day, Christians celebrate in their homes, and people often hand out sweet biscuits known as “kahk” as gifts.

– Sudarsan Raghavan, in Cairo


Christmas celebrations take place primarily along that coast, in the states of Kerala and Goa, as well as in Catholic neighborhoods of Mumbai such as Bandra. India’s northeastern states are also heavily Christian, and generally Protestant, having been converted by English, Welsh, and U.S. missionaries in the 19th century. In cosmopolitan urban centers like Mumbai, the commercialization of Christmas familiar to those in the West has lately begun in earnest. In December, beggars hawk Santa hats and felt reindeer antlers. Despite a resurgence of Hindu nationalism, it has become more common every year to see these Christmas trinkets for sale at India’s streetlights and in its bazaars.

– Max Bearak, in Mumbai


In December, most of Brazil is melting in intense tropical heat – or sheltering from huge rainstorms – but that does not stop people in this largely Catholic nation from reaching for the same Yuletide icons as many other countries. Father Christmas, sleighs and even reindeer are all part of the decorations, though they are often given a tropical twist. This is a family time, with many people coming together for late-evening meals and prayers on December 24. Others host big family lunches for dozens on December 25, when samba, speeches and piles of meat, rice, cod and desserts are all on the menu.

– Dom Phillips, in Rio de Janeiro


Known as the Festival of Lights, Hannukah celebrates the rededication of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago, when a one-day supply oil for the temple’s lamp miraculously burned for eight days. In Israel, over the eight-day festival, Jews celebrate by lighting candles, exchanging gifts and eating foods cooked in oil. In anticipation of the not-so-healthy holiday, sweet and sugary “sufganiyot,” (doughnuts minus a hole) hit the stores weeks before the festival. These delicacies are filled with all types of delights. The classic doughnuts are jelly, chocolate or creme caramel flavored. In recent years, gourmet doughnuts have also appeared.

– Ruth Eglash, in Jerusalem

United States

Christmas is just one of a plethora of holidays celebrated in the United States. Whether it’s Christmas, Hannukah or Kwanzaa or other nondenominational celebrations, the theme and spirit across the country is giving and gratitude. The year ends on an uplifting note, with people giving time to others to reflect on what they have done in the past year and how they can move forward and better themselves in the new year. With such a diverse population, holiday decorations come in all shapes and sizes. One holiday symbol is everywhere, both in public and in many homes: the Christmas tree. The National Christmas Tree in Washington is lit every year by the president in celebration of the holidays.

– Tauhid Chappell, in Washington