How People Celebrate Christmas Around the World, with Studs Terkel

Daniel Hautzinger
Studs Terkel Christmas and Holidays

Every family has their own Christmas traditions, many rooted in cultural customs going back centuries. Christmas is celebrated in myriad ways around the globe, yet there are also surprising similarities across the holiday traditions of different cultures. In these excerpts from two separate radio programs by legendary Chicago broadcaster Studs Terkel, courtesy of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which is a partnership between the WFMT Radio Network and the Chicago History Museum, hear about some of the different Christmas customs of people around the world.

First, in a conversation dating from 1970, Studs talks to Charlemae Hill Rollins, an influential librarian who headed the children's department of the Chicago Public Library for 31 years and pushed for positive portrayals of African Americans in children's literature, about her book Christmas Gif', An Anthology of Christmas Poems, Songs and Stories Written by and about Negroes. The pair discuss the slave custom of the title and read a delightful, storytelling recipe included in the book.

Next, in 1961, Studs convenes a group of folk singers from around the world at the beloved Old Town Mexican restaurant Azteca Cafe: the Cafe's owner Federico Camacho, an American with German ancestry (Old Town School of Folk Music co-founder Win Stracke), an Englishman (the Chicago city planner and architect John Cordwell), and both a Yugoslavian and a Brazilian woman. They all share stories of their home countries, describing their traditions and finding unexpected commonalities.

Enjoy these anecdotes of how other people celebrate Christmas – maybe you'll find your own shared traditions.

Charlemae Hill Rollins describes how the slave custom of the "Christmas gif'" works, and how it eventually became a Southern custom celebrated by both white and black people.

Rollins and Studs read a recipe for "Scripture Cakes," which takes all its ingredients from Bible verses.

Orthodox Christians in what was formerly known as Yugoslavia celebrate Christmas in early January, as Studs's Yugoslavian guest explains.

In Brazil, Christmas is the hottest time of the year, so much of the celebration takes place outside, Studs's Brazilian guest says. She also describes the "burning of the straw" tradition that caps off the days of Christmas festivities on the feast of the Epiphany.

Those ubiquitous Christmas symbols, the holly and the ivy, have a surprising origin and meaning that has been lost, as Cordwell relates.

Several cultures have similar traditions for Christmas, as is revealed in this conversation about festive foods in Yugoslavia, France, and Britain.