Seven objects that say ’Christmas’ around the world

Decorated trees and Santa Claus may be ubiquitous in the modern Western holiday. But other cultures have their own adornments for the festive season – many of them rooted in local folklore.

Published 9 Dec 2020, 16:38 GMT, Updated 11 Dec 2020, 11:20 GMT
Philippine Christmas parols on sale in a store in Antipolo City, near Manila. Traditionally made with ...

Philippine Christmas parols on sale in a store in Antipolo City, near Manila. Traditionally made with bamboo and paper, the parol is a ubiquitous festive decoration throughout the Philippines. Originally thought to date from Spanish settlers in the 16th century, the Christmas parol follows a long tradition of lantern making in the Philippines. 

Photograph by danilo pinzon, jr / Alamy

Give yourself five seconds to name five seasonal objects linked to Christmas and the chances are you could. But would these five be the same wherever you are in the world? Probably not. However aesthetically distinctive the representation of Christmas has become over the years, tradition still underpins the season – particularly at home amongst family.

(Related: Toy story: a short history of awesome playthings.)

And while some of the symbols are rooted in religious beliefs surrounding the Christian festival, some have more distant origins – while others are relatively recent additions to the canon of tradition. Here is a festive bouquet of objects around the world that, one way or the other, have become synonymous with Christmas.

Nisse Doll

Scandinavia

Usually depicted as a diminutive, gnome-like creature wearing a red cap, the nisse – also known as the tomte or the tomtenisse – is often characterised as a sort of festive house-elf, or spirit. In rural mythology across Scandinavia, the nisse also had magical properties, and would guard a house and its occupants from evil spirits and misfortune – but only if it was treated with respect.

An illustration from 1895 by Norwegian artist Julius Holck, showing a nisse having eaten his Christmas Eve porridge. Decorations depicting the household nisse are common in Scandinavia. 

Photograph by Julius Holck / National Library of Norway

Sensitive souls, the nisse would be the recipient of gifts and a blót (offering) of warm porridge on Christmas Eve. It's a wise move, as a displeased nisse might cause mischief with farm animals or upend household items. The nisse is today commonly recreated as a Scandinavian Christmas decoration – usually a stout man, often with a beard or clogs, and invariably with a red conical hat.   

Parols

Philippines

The Philippines celebrate Christmas in luminous style, with its centrepiece the ornamental parola lantern traditionally made from bamboo and paper, and shaped as a representation of the Christmas star. 

The parol was thought to be a representation of the Christmas star – from the Spanish farol, meaning lantern – but over the centuries has been augmented to gather additional symbolism, representing light over darkness. 

Photograph by imagegallery2 / Alamy

The decoration is ubiquitous around Christmas throughout the Philippines, and in Filipino communities around the world – and is a central part of the Simbang Gabi procession, a nine-day public worship that culminates in the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The parol features in Disney’s 2020 Christmas video (below.)


(The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)  

Shoes

Iceland

A fine incentive for good behaviour in Icelandic children comes in the shape of the Yuletide Lads – a feature of a local Christmas folklore preoccupied with fanciful and mischievous characters descending on towns from the wilderness in the days around Christmas.

The tradition of placing shoes on the windowsill for the 13 nights before Christmas stems from the Icelandic tale of the Yule Lads. Good children will get sweets; those on the naughty list will get a potato.

Photograph by Simon Ingram

The Lads are such: a collection of pranksters with individual quirks and preferences for tricks, from the cheeky (slamming doors, stealing sausages) to the sinister (burglary, hiding under beds). Once a staple of bedtime stories so malevolent parents were banned from telling them, their legacy lives on. In the 13 days preceding Christmas children leave shoes in the window, which the attending Lad fills either with sweets or – in the case of bad behaviour the previous day – a potato.

(Read: the surprising origins of Santa Claus.)

Oplatek

Poland

The ‘Christmas wafer’, or oplatek – in Polish Catholic culture – is a biscuit made from unleavened bread that symbolises the end of Advent.

A Christmas wafer - called oplatek – is a common aperitif for Christmas Eve dinner in Eastern Europe. Traditionally the wafer is broken and passed around those attending, with messages of thanks or proclamations of good intentions.

Photograph by Joanna Dorota / Alamy

About the size and shape of a playing card and usually engraved with a Nativity scene, traditionally the wafer is eaten communally on Christmas Eve, with a piece broken off by each member of a family before dinner – with thanks given, and resolutions made.

Holly

United Kingdom, North America

This evergreen was long revered in Celtic mythology, where its vivid colours in all seasons caused it to be associated with everlasting life and fertility – and made it symbolic of winter as a counterpoint to the oak in summer. Today it has Christian undertones too, and while it is a ubiquitous Christmas plant, it actually has more kinship with Easter in terms of its significance to the faith: the sharp spines on the leaves representing Christ’s crown of thorns, and the red berries his blood and suffering.

Holly has mixed resonance when it comes to the Christmas season – and for many represents Easter equally. But its festive roots lie in pre-Christianity celebrations, where the plants brilliant colours over the darkest months made it revered as a symbol of fertility and enduring life.  

Photograph by Steve Bidmead / Pixabay

How holly became associated with Christmas is likely a blending of the two: its verdancy throughout the year makes it an ideal plant to festoon ceilings and doors with (or indeed, deck the halls with boughs of) and made the plant the decorative of choice for Roman and Celtic winter holidays, such as Saturnalia. Its resonance with Christ then chimed with the celebrations in his honour held at the same time of year.

Poinsettia

Central and North America

A Mexican fable concerns a young girl who, unable to afford flowers, brought weeds to a church altar as a Christmas offering that sprung into vivid bloom. These, the so-called Flores de Noche Buena – flowers of the holy night – are likely to have been Euphorbia pulcherrima, a plant native to Mexico and Guatemala with a penchant for flowering mid-winter.

The Poinsettia has become one of the most common Christmas plants due to its rich red colour, and folklore associations. There are many other colours of this shrub, native to Central America. 

Photograph by Gerhard G. / Pixabay

It’s not the flowers but the leaves that give this shrub its seasonal connotations, though: though long associated with Christmas in Mexico, the red variety is a staple of flower displays and indoor potted plants throughout the festive season, thanks to the man who gave the plant its popularity – and its name – in the United States. This was Joel Poinsett, a doctor and diplomat who was the first U.S. minister to Mexico. Noting the eye-catching plant, he sent samples back home, where it became known as the Poinsettia.

Spider web

Ukraine

In Eastern Europe – particularly the Ukraine – a common ornament on the Christmas tree resembles a cobweb.

The Christmas spider story, told in the Ukraine, is a folk tale concerning a helpful arachnid who decorates a tree with its web.

Photograph by Nic Hamilton Photographic / Alamy

Believed to be an ancestral link to modern tinsel, the significance spins from the story of the Christmas spider, who constructed webs across the tree of a poor family who couldn’t afford to decorate it. The next morning, so the tale goes, the sunlight touched the web and turned it to gold.

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