Christmas is the most “global” of all holidays, for it brings together different cultures and societies and is celebrated in every corner of the world, even though with different traditions and symbols. Who are Hoteiosho and Dun Che Lao Ren? How was the “panettone”, the traditional Milanese cake, first invented? Tales and trivia starred in a special Advent Calendar installed in the spaces of our Foundation in 2015: each window of the Calendar revealed the Christmas traditions of the countries around the world where Pirelli operates. Viewers thus found that Christmas in England is celebrated with the traditional Christmas pudding, which has 13 ingredients that need to be mixed anticlockwise by all members of the family.
It was in Great Britain that the tradition of Christmas cards started, in 1843, the same year as when Charles Dickens published his famous A Christmas Carol. In the United States, also the Christmas tree has its place next to Santa Claus: the 25,000 light bulbs of the majestic Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center in New York were lit up for the first time in 1933. In Germany, 24 December is the day of Frau Holle – Old Mother Frost – and 6 January comes on the night of Berchta, a pre-Christian divinity who flies over the city and countryside surrounded by elves and pixies that cling to her cloak of fog and snow. But rather than Frau Holle or Berchta, Santa Klaus is undoubtedly the true symbol of Christmas. Star-shaped zimsternen biscuits, flavoured with ginger, anise or cinnamon, are eaten under the Tree, the origins of which are claimed by the Germans, as is the Stollen cake, which is made with candied fruit, nuts and marzipan. Towards the middle of November, the Christmas Pageant, a sort of Christmas carnival, is held in Australia. On Christmas Eve, people gather to sing by candlelight: the tradition started in the city of Melbourne in the late 1930s. Boxing Day brings the start of the Sydney-Hobart race, a must-see yachting race from Sydney to the port of Hobart, 630 miles away in Tasmania. At Christmastime in France, the first to arrive is Saint Martin, on the night of 10 November. Then it’s the turn of Saint Nicholas, who comes on 5 December: if a glass of milk and some straw is left by the door on the evening before, he will reward the families with a chocolate and gingerbread cake. The last to come is Père Noël, on Christmas Eve. The festivities end on 6 January and pastry chefs in the north bake Galettes des Rois for those with the sweetest tooth. This sweet bread garnished with almond frangipane cream is dedicated to the Three Kings.
Until 1917, Christmas in Russia was celebrated as one of the most important days of the year: complete fasting was required on the eve until the first evening star appeared in the sky, when the feast of the Svyata Vecherya began: twelve courses, starting with kutia, a sweet porridge to propitiate health and prosperity. After the Revolution, Saint Nicholas became Ded Moroz, the secular Father Frost who leaves gifts under the tree on New Year’s Eve. Christmas Eve is now celebrated on 7 January. In Romania, Moș Crăciun brings gifts on 25 December, but already on the eve of 5 December children leave their little shoes outside the door, hoping that Moș Nicolae, Saint Nicholas, will bring sweets and candies. In Spain, the traditional El Gordo de la Navidad, the oldest lottery in the world, is held on 23 December. Christmas Eve is known as the Noche Buena, and 25 December is the Navidad, to be sanctified at the feet of the Belèn, the Nativity scene with saints and shepherds. Gifts are unwrapped on 6 January and the Rosca de Reyes, a ring-shaped cake with a bean and a porcelain figurine of the Child hidden in it: whoever finds the bean will have to buy the cake the following year, and the one who finds the Baby Jesus will have to perform an act of courage.
Ever since 1520, Las Posadas has started up in Mexico nine days before Christmas: the event recalls Joseph and Mary’s wanderings around Bethlehem in search of an inn for the night of the Nativity. Every evening the people form a procession, going from house to house while singing traditional carols. The chief attraction of the festivity is the piñata, a clay or papier-mâché pitcher in the shape of a Star of Bethlehem containing the colaciòn: sweets, fruit, toys, and coins, which blindfolded children try to break by hitting it with a stick. Gifts arrive on 6 January, the day of Los Reyes, the Three Kings. In Brazil, Papai Noel does not travel in a sleigh drawn by reindeers but comes in a helicopter, flying over the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro and throwing a shower of sweets down to the thousands of children packed together in the stands. On 31 December, the goddess of the sea, Yemanja, is also celebrated, with votive offerings of fruit and bracelets made of wool and flowers, which are placed on small rafts that drift out into the ocean with lighted candles illuminating terracotta statues of the goddess. Christmas in Egypt comes on the twenty-ninth day of the holy month of Kiahk – our 7 January. This is the day that ends a forty-three-day fast, with no food from midnight to the ninth hour. At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the faithful receive Qurban bread cut with the sign of the Cross surrounded by twelve dots that represent the Apostles. Among the skyscrapers of Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong, Dun Che Lao Ren, or Old Man Christmas, appears in the windows of shopping malls and the Tree of Light shines with lanterns, paper flowers and colourful garlands.
The Spring Festival – known in the West as the Chinese New Year, is held from 21 January to 19 February: fifteen days of candle-lit banquets and visits to friends and relatives, strictly in auspicious red attire. In Japan, Hoteiosho brings gifts to children on New Year’s Eve, which has been celebrated on 1 January since 1873. At Christmas people enjoy Kurisumasu keki, a light sponge cake with a layer of cream and strawberries. In Italy, panettone is possibly the quintessential Christmas treat: it is said to have been invented by a kitchen assistant named Toni, at the service of Ludovico Sforza, to replace the sumptuous dessert that the cook had burnt. Toni’s bread – or Pan-di-Toni – was acclaimed by all the diners. On 6 January, the smiling hag Befana comes with the Three Kings, and the Nativity scene, which is said to have been invented by Francis of Assisi, has its moment of triumph.
So many traditions that all say: “Happy Christmas!”. In all the languages of the world.