“Merry Christmas!” – This is a phrase that will be said around the world this week. Yet, the meaning of “Christmas” can be tricky to translate across cultures and languages. The meaning of “Christmas” and how it is celebrated varies in degree and tradition from country to country making translation of the holiday highly dependent on the purpose of translating the word in the first place. Before we get ahead of ourselves though, it is important to understand how much Christmas varies around the world.
Christmas Traditions Across the World
Christmas as we know it in the U.S. is only one of the numerous ways to celebrate the holiday, though it is certainly the most known version thanks to our movies being viewed around the world. The U.S. version, or more broadly, the Western version of Christmas involves traditions such as a decorated tree, exchange of presents, caroling, a large Christmas meal, ornaments, and going home to spend time with family.
Other countries celebrate the same way, but on different days of using their own unique twist of our traditions. In Malawi, children dress up in leaves and perform dances and Christmas songs at the doors of their neighbors. If they are good, they may even get a treat or some money for their carols. In Ukraine, New Year’s is the more popular holiday, and it is celebrated in the same manner as the U.S. celebrates Christmas. That said, Ukrainians do celebrate Christmas on January 7th per the Gregorian calendar used by the Orthodox church, though the celebration is much smaller than New Year’s and is generally only celebrated by those who are religious.
In Japan, expatriates and Western visitors have increased the popularity of Christmas, but its proximity to the New Year’s means it has never been as well known. Fun fact about Japan: apparently eating KFC on and around Christmas is a huge tradition, blamed on a successful campaign by KFC in the 1970s. In fact, KFC takes reservations well in advance for a Christmas day meal (BBC).
“The Philippines has earned the reputation of having one of the longest celebrations in the world, with celebration starting as early as September.”
Christmas in the Philippines is one of the biggest holidays of the year, and the country has earned the reputation of having one of the longest celebrations in the world, with celebration starting as early as September (whychristmas). They also have some interesting traditions for the holiday, including children jumping at midnight to grow tall, displaying circular fruit and wearing clothes with dots and other circular designs to symbolize money, eating twelve grapes at 12 midnight for good luck in the twelve months of the year, and opening windows and doors during the first day of the New Year to let in good luck (Tagalog Dictionary).
When a client needs something translated which references a holiday, such as Christmas, there are several things which need to be considered. It is not as simple as translating the word, and the translator often needs background information and research to make an educated decision about how the word is translated.
The most obvious issue is that Christmas represents a Christian holiday, and many languages represent more than one religion. For the Arabic-speaking population for example, there are Christians and Muslims, and if someone decided to translate a text into Arabic which referenced Christmas, they would have to make a choice of who do they want to better understand the translation. For Muslims, the idea of Jesus being the son of God goes directly against Muslim Core beliefs. This is not to say that a translation of Christmas into Arabic wouldn’t be understood, but in order to convey the spirit, excitement, and impact of Christmas to Muslims, a more relevant holiday would Eid ul Fitr. In fact, Eid ul Fitr resembles Christmas so closely that a Malaysian television company got in trouble after viewers said an Eid advert too closely resembled a promotion for Christmas. However, with this translation of the word, Arabic-speaking Christians would instead miss the “spirit” of the translated word.
One sector which really struggles with the translation of Christmas is the tourism industry. Back in the day, Christmas celebrations stayed close to home or were reserved to European travel at the most. Nowadays, travelers are going to farther parts of the world where Christmas is not as popular a holiday (Language Connect). Tourist agencies are tasked with the challenge of finding a way to capture the spirit of Christmas when advertising destinations that do not celebrate Christmas. Also, as globalization has made it possible for more people to travel the world, tourist agencies need to find a way to may destinations which celebrate Christmas appealing to those who do not.
“For many countries, Christmas has been adapted to mesh with local holidays that fell around the same time.”
The last issue that translators may experience is the idea of “Christ” in Christmas. With globalization, most countries have some way of saying Christmas, but the idea that it is a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus is reserved for Christians. For many countries, Christmas has been adapted to mesh with local holidays that fell around the same time. In fact, scholars (including Pope Benedict XVI) widely accept that the birth of Jesus is not thought to be on December 25th, but rather the date was chosen to be celebrated on that day in order to overwhelm pagan holidays (The Week). Yule or Geol is one example of this, a Scandinavian winter holiday which included trees, feasting, treats, and eating boar. Interestingly, the word “Yule” is very similar to Swedish word Jul, Icelandic word Jól, Finnish word Joulu, and Estonian word Jõulud all of which translate into Christmas (The Week).
As you can probably deduct, translating Christmas into other languages highly depends on the target audience. A translator must come to terms that the translation cannot be perfect for everyone, though having a target audience in mind will definitely make the decision easier.