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How does ‘place’ impact the symbols and traditions of Christmas around the world?

By Matt Hiland
December 22, 2008

Almost 90 percent of the world's population lives north of the equator. Only Australia, the southern portion of Africa, and most of South America are south of the equator. The celebration of Christmas was scheduled on December 25 in the fourth century CE. This date was chosen because it was already recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various Pagan gods. In particular, it was the celebration of Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”), occurring on the date of noticeable lengthening of daylight after the winter solstice.

Many of our Christmas traditions have been adapted from much older Pagan rituals observing the winter solstice. Also, most cultures and religions around the world celebrate holidays around the winter solstice, and most of these share the theme of rebirth or reversal. Thus, this discussion of “Christmas traditions” includes all traditions surrounding the observation of the significance of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Obviously, a complete exploration of this topic can’t be made in this space, but here are a few of my hypotheses.

First, the relative latitude of a place seems to have some impact on its traditions. The Christmas tree (decorating an evergreen tree as a symbol of eternal life) and the Yule log (a fire that is kept burning throughout the longest night of the year) appear to be more prevalent in areas further north such as northern Europe and Scandinavia. Of course, there are exceptions and bonfire traditions appear in places like Spain and Syria. This could indicate that the correlation is more with altitude or climate.

Second, and ironically, the patterns of empire building and colonization seem to have a strong influence in the distribution of traditions celebrating peace and generosity. The northern extents of the Roman Empire approximate a boundary between the relative importance of the more Christian traditions such as the Nativity story and the more Pagan traditions such as the Yule. Similarly, the traditions in Latin America closely resemble those in Spain, and the traditions in Australia closely resemble those in Great Britain.

Finally, it is very interesting that some common themes run through all traditions and seem to have developed completely independently of each other. The Incas in South America and the Hopi of North America observed winter solstice rituals to encourage the return of the sun, as did ancient cultures across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Also, there are common themes of exchanging gifts, receiving gifts anonymously from a very kind mythical person, and of feasting with family and friends.

Whatever your tradition, I wish for you that the spirits of peace, joy, and hope will fill your heart and that you and those dear to you will have a festive and safe holiday season.

Matt Hiland is an IT/GIS consultant living in Austin, TX. If you have questions or would like a list of sources used for this article, you can email him at