The night Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Mary and Joseph wouldn’t have found themselves gazing wistfully at an evergreen tree festooned with tinsel and ornaments. There were no wrapped gifts, no sugar cookies, no eggnog. But there was a star—a brilliant light shined in the east announcing the birth of a king. The blaze of light beckoned those who would come and worship.
Over the centuries, Christmas traditions have evolved. In some places, they’ve blended cultural practices with pagan roots and in others, they’ve become a marketing scheme. But still, on Christmas Eve there are many who marvel at the side of a manger, kneeling to worship.
This year we asked photographers to document Christmas celebrations around the world during the month of December. The images testify to the global appeal of the beauty of Christmas while reminding us that there are still many who don’t yet know the meaning at the heart of the holiday.
In Vienna, Austria, children spend the evening of December 5 making sure their shoes are scrubbed clean, placing them ever so carefully outside their doors, and wishing with all their might that they were good enough this year to get treats in their shoes when St. Nicholas comes to visit that night. December 5 is St. Nikolas day in the Catholic church. In European Catholic countries like Austria, Czech Republic, and Germany, this day is treated a lot like our traditional Christmas Eve—minus the flying reindeer and the sack full of toys.
European Christmas markets like this one in Germany draw tourists from around the world. On December 11, after a gunman shot and killed three people at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, heightened security went into effect at markets across Europe, but the lights stayed on. Even an act of terror cannot extinguish centuries of tradition.
The European incarnation of Saint Nicholas is the catalyst for our American version of Santa Claus, but the differences are stark. In Europe, Saint Nicholas looks more like the pope than a jolly old elf with a round belly. He doesn’t wink, laugh, or bring copious amounts of toys. Instead, he metes out judgment in the form of approval with treats like chocolates and oranges, or rebuke with a lump of coal (or usually today, a potato). Although most Europeans are practical atheists, they see religion as merit-based—the best we can do is hope our good deeds outweigh our bad. They tend to think of God as a stern judge, not a personal savior.
In Austria, Christian and pagan traditions coexist. During the first week of December, wild beasts wearing jangling bells and chains parade through Christmas markets. Smoke billows around them while hard rock music plays in the background. Two kinds of beasts appear—Krampus is a devil-like creature with a switch and chains that accompanies Saint Nicholas in order to punish naughty children, and Perchten are beasts from the alpine regions that carry bells to drive away the winter and ghosts.
At a shopping area in Thailand, children play in a glowing emoji sculpture installed beside a traditionally decorated Christmas tree. The ornaments and flourishes of the holiday fused with contemporary digital imagery reveal that Christmas is more a marketing event than an opportunity for spiritual reflection and devotion. Although Thai Buddhists don’t celebrate Christmas in their home, they may visit public spaces with Christmas decorations.
Christmas is not a national holiday in East Asia, but many shopping centers and hotels decorate for the new year in hopes of wooing vacationing tourists. These sculptures reflect that in Asia, 2018 was “The Year of the Dog” (on the left) and 2019 will be “The Year of the Pig” (on the right). The one constant of holiday decorations around the world is that they are bathed in light.
In Taiwan, public parks are transformed into winter wonderlands in December. Dazzling Christmas trees and lights add sparkle to the landscaping around the Liuchuan Riverside Walk in Taiwan.
Pedestrians stroll by a storefront in Istanbul, Turkey, displaying decorations that appear to be for Christmas. But in this Muslim country, Santa Claus, reindeer, trees, lights, and even gift exchanges are associated with New Year’s celebrations, not with Christmas. Although the cultural trappings of Christmas have been imported into cultures around the world, the meaning of the holiday is still obscure to many.
Gingerbread, peppermint, eggnog—those are the flavors Americans associate with Christmas, but holiday treats vary around the world. In Poland, pierogi is among the favored holiday dishes. The dumpling comes in more varieties during the holiday markets than any other time of the year—steamed or fried, filled with savories like meat, potatoes, vegetables, mushrooms, or with sweet berries.
In Kraków, Poland, Saint Mary’s Cathedral presides over the largest medieval square in Europe. Every Christmas season for the entire month of December, the square transforms into an idyllic holiday scene where booths sell the best of local handicrafts and delicious local specialties. Afternoon fades into night remarkably early in Poland, giving the glow of Christmas lights even more time to shine.
A man sells traditional Erzgebirge Schwibbogen Arches at the Streizelmarkt Christmas market in Dresden, Germany. The Schwibbogen is a traditional, handcrafted candle holder that originated in the Ore mountains of lower Saxony in Germany. As shoppers browse for gifts, they may be unaware that the simple gesture of giving a good gift reflects the reality that God gave the very best gift to humanity—his son Jesus, our Savior.
In Southeast Asia, a grandmother shares a precious moment with her granddaughter at a mall where the two posed for a picture. The joy of reuniting with family and friends during the holidays transcends cultures.
Missionaries serving in Europe bake and decorate Christmas cookies to give to West African migrants. As they share coffee and cookies with the vendors, they also share truths about the significance and meaning of the holiday.
Residents of Kraków, Poland, bring their handmade nativity scenes—called szopki krakowskie—to a competition that takes place every year in the historic city center. Incredible color and detail are trademarks of these Polish nativity scenes, which are traditionally styled with local architectural details and can take the entire year to build. Szopki krakowskie are so idiosyncratic that they were added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2018.
Statues of baby Jesus dressed as a king crowd a shop window in the Czech Republic. In parts of Eastern Europe, it’s not Saint Nicholas who delivers gifts on Christmas Eve—it’s Jesus himself. Children in the Czech Republic often write letters to baby Jesus enumerating the gifts they’d most like to receive.
Children at a European Christmas market gaze at a nativity scene. All the glitz, glitter, and gifts of the season cannot outshine the beauty of this moment—the birth of the Messiah, the one who saves people from their sins, the one who heals the nations.
The sun sets over one of London’s Christmas markets as commuters head home over Hungerford Bridge.
Tonight we remember the evening a heavenly host filled the sky over Bethlehem. To the shepherds on the outskirts of the city, the angels proclaimed, “Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David” (Luke 2:11 HCSB). More than two thousand years later, we sing along with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest.”
Merry Christmas from all of us serving with the International Mission Board!
Eliza Thomas is a writer and editor with the IMB. She has served with her family in Central Asia for more than a decade.