In the spirit of the holiday season, we asked some of our staff around the world what their favorite holiday traditions are. Some of their answers will surprise you, but one thing is always true. No matter what holiday or where they are in the world, we all hold our loved ones close with good food, songs, and prayer during the holidays.

Read on to hear more from our staff and their loved ones about how they’re celebrating this year!

Holiday Traditions in Colombia

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Lina Marcela Hernandez Valencia, our communications officer in Colombia, shared the tradition of the novenas navideñas that our team in Colombia celebrates both at the office and at home.

Our team in Colombia smiles together as they celebrate the novenas navideñas!

Lina and the team say,

In Colombia, we celebrate Christmas to the sound of prayer, music, and good food.

December nears, and for our team in Colombia, that means Novenas Navideñas!

Novenas navideñas are a tradition that is about uniting families, colleagues, friends, and neighbors to commemorate the birth of Jesus. For 9 days (from the 16th to the 24th of December) we pray as a community and remember how Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, or Belén.

In the Colombia offices, we enjoy this time. First, we set up a mini-Christmas tree and nativity scene. Each office participates in the novevas for 2 or 3 days. We coordinate to make sure each day of the novena is led by different people. Once the novenas start, we pray and sing carols. We sing using maracas and tambourines.

The novenas are also a perfect time to eat, play, and spend time together which is what we love most.

Everyone brings a traditional dish like:

  • Natilla: A flan with dulce de leche or coconut, with a little brown sugar glaze.
  • Buñuelos: A round fried dough with cheese.
  • Tamales: Cornmeal dough filled with meat and veggies and wrapped in banana leaves.
  • Arroz con leche: Rice pudding that is creamy, sweet, and delicious.
  • Empanadas: Fried cornmeal dough filled with different meat and veggies.

Many of us find the novenas to be something fun that gives us the chance to share time and food with others. It’s actually the norm to participate in novenas at work and then again at night with our families!

Holiday Traditions in Ukraine

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Margarita Kyrychuk, in Ukraine, shares how Ukrainians celebrate this special season. With a meal full of symbolism and a lively parade of carolers, there’s no shortage of cheer in Ukraine at Christmas!

Margarita and the women in her family wear traditional Ukrainian clothes during the holidays.

Margarita says,

Ukrainian woman in traditional dress
Margarita, in Ukraine, enjoys the carolers each holiday season.

In Ukraine, Christmas is the most beloved winter holiday. Traditionally, on this day, when the first star appears, everyone gathers for a festive dinner with family. A straw didukh, a wheat bouquet, is brought into the house on Christmas, and the table is covered with hay.

There are 12 meatless dishes, and the main one is kutia – made from wheat with poppy seeds, honey, nuts, and raisins. There are coins under the table, and children collect them by crawling on their knees (like chickens’ grain) to help ensure there are chickens in the household next year.

One of the most striking traditions of this holiday is carols. Christmas carols are special verses and songs. People go around to houses and wish the owners health, prosperity, and good luck. Caroling is done by mummers. The group includes a stargazer who goes first and carries a star, a bell-ringer who notifies everyone with a bell that carolers are coming, as well as a mezhnosha, who makes up all the caroled treats in abundance. Carolers go from house to house, asking the owners for permission to sing carols. They sing carols, and the owners give them gifts in gratitude like sweet treats and coins.

Here’s a classic song:

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas carol!
Cold in winter does not matter
Hurry up and open us to you
Run everyone who is in your house
They will be very rich
In the garden, both potatoes and cabbage will be richly harvested
Tomatoes and cucumbers
And for my son and daughter,
Here is our song, you are preparing 5 hryvnias!

Olha Utkina, also in Ukraine, shares her family’s favorite part of the holidays. She also acknowledges, though, that it’s been hard since so much in their lives have changed since the conflict in Ukraine began.

Olha says,

Olha Utkina and her family love spending time together during the holidays.

New Year’s holidays are our favorite holidays in my family. They begin with St. Nicholas Day, when our children, even adults, receive gifts under their pillows. We prepare for the New Year holiday in advance: we clean the house, buy gifts, install a Christmas tree, decorate it, and light garlands.

On New Year’s Eve, we sit down at the table, listen to the President’s greetings, watch New Year’s concerts, and talk to our relatives and friends. At Christmas, on January 6, the whole family gathers for the Holy Evening. We sit down at the table when the first star rises in the sky.

On the festive table we put twelve dishes and an extra plate, spoon and glass for those from the family who have passed on for this dinner. Obligatory dishes on the table are always kutia, compote, dumplings, and donuts. We do not remove kutia from the table, it stands until the morning so that the deceased members of our family can taste it.

Carolers always come at Christmas, singing the song A New Joy Has Come. Carolers sing carols and sow the house with wheat, peas, barley, for which my husband thanks them with money, and me – the wife – put gifts for them in their bags. When the children were small, the next day, January 7, we went to their godparents. Our godchildren came to us, and the children were given gifts. Also, during the New Year’s holidays we visited the main Christmas tree and the theater in Mykolaiv. This is how we celebrated the New Year before the conflict. Unfortunately, now there is a “before.”

Holiday Traditions from Tanzania

Ezekiel Shilili, a Medical Teams driver, is eager to share the unique Christmas celebrations from his village in northwest Tanzania. He sends warm wishes to all for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in 2024!

Ezekiel celebrates the holidays with his family in his village in Tanzania.

Ezekiel says,

Ezekiel, in Tanzania, goes home to his village for the holidays.

Each year in December, my Christmas starts with a journey to my family in the village. It’s a longstanding tradition for the entire family to come together for this joyous occasion. This well-coordinated event, planned well in advance, involves collective contributions to ensure its success, particularly at the church. The festivities begin with Christmas Eve mass at 8:00 p.m.

Following the church service, we dedicate time to singing and spreading the word of God to every household in the village until morning.

On Christmas morning, we attend church for another meaningful Christmas mass. A cherished tradition in our celebrations is when the church leader graciously serves all of us with cake, adding a delightful touch to our festivities. We all come together for a joyous feast. We share food and drinks, spend quality time in each other’s company. We invite those outside our congregation to join us in celebrating this special day of the season. Upon returning home in the evening, we continue our festivities with family, expressing love through shared meals and drinks.

Persons Petro serves as a Human Resources Officer with Medical Teams in Tanzania and takes joy in celebrating the Christmas season with his family. Though occasionally they’re able to go back to the village they’re from, he usually celebrates at home in Dar es Salaam or Morogoro.

Persons says,

Persons Petro, in Tanzania, loves saving a special bottle of wine for the holidays!

It’s a special day for us, and I prepare to make the most of it by spending quality time with my wife and children. I ensure that everything is ready and well-prepared in advance.

I consistently reserve the finest wines for these special occasions to maximize our enjoyment. I selected kinds of wines and stored them at home for an extended period, often up to five years. With meticulous preparation, the wines become perfectly aged and serve a delightful addition to our Christmas day celebrations. Our preparations last until Christmas day, when we shop and slaughter a goat at home.

I attend either a nighttime or morning mass on Christmas day. In the afternoon of Christmas, we dedicate the entire day together, enjoying shared meals and drinks. In the afternoon, we allocate a few hours outside the house, taking the children to the beach for a swim and play, providing them time to enjoy themselves. We return home in the evening and continue our festive celebrations.

Once we’re home, we spend time with relatives and friends who visit. We drink, share stories and extend warm wishes for a Merry Christmas and respond to the greetings of our loved ones. I sometimes have a touch of “blue Christmas” because I miss being home in the village, but it is always wonderful to be with my family.

Holiday Traditions from Ethiopia

Habtamu Gebremedhin, one of our grant coordinators in Addis Ababa, shares the traditions of his family during his favorite holiday – Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr – both important holidays celebrated within Islam!

Habtamu’s son was born on Eid al-Fitr, making it even more special for their family!

Habtamu says,

I like the social aspect, spiritual commitment, fasting and food feast of Ramadan. Ramadan (which means “month” in Arabic) is a very hot season. During Ramadan, we fast for a full day and eat when the sun is down.

I like that there is this tradition called Zeka where everyone in the family (even extended family) donates money and goods based on income and family size to the most vulnerable communities. Ramadan is special because of the colorful clothes, the donations, the mass celebrations, and the unity, not only within Ethiopia but with the Muslim community across the world. And of course, my favorite – the feasts of food!

In Addis, mass celebration is also organized where everyone from different walks of life gather at the heart of the city to pray and then eat together. I also like that it’s a season where children get very excited! It’s the simple things.

I will never forget that three years ago, my boy was born on the day of the Eid celebration. My wife had contractions when we were leaving for prayers, so we rushed to the hospital. My wife safely delivered our son. Everyone was joking that he was a King as he was the only one born at the hospital that day.

During Ramadan, the last ten days are very special as they are where you feel most connected to yourself through prayer, fasting, and listening religious songs called menzuma. Ethiopia is a country of equality. Everyone respects each other, especially the Muslim and Christian communities. Neighbors, colleagues, and community members from all religions also reciprocate the feeling and holiday celebrations. Different foods are exchanged between communities, and everyone shares good wishes.

Eden Dagnachew, a MEAL assistant in Ethiopia, shares that her favorite holiday is Easter! The celebration of Jesus’s resurrection is a powerful part of Eden’s faith.

Eden says,

Eden Dagnachew in Ethiopia shares her favorite holiday traditions.

For me Easter is exceptional from other holidays for several reasons. The religious significance and Easter as a foundational element of Christianity is very important. Food plays a central role in Ethiopian holiday celebrations. Traditional dishes such as injera (a sourdough flatbread), doro wat (spicy chicken stew), kitfo (minced raw meat), and various vegetarian dishes are commonly prepared and shared with family and friends. Ethiopian coffee, known for its distinct brewing process and traditional coffee ceremonies, is also an integral part of holiday gatherings.

Festive music, dance, and cultural performances are an essential part of Ethiopian holiday celebrations. Traditional instruments like the Masinko (single-stringed bowed instrument) and the Kebero (a traditional drum) are often played during these festivities. Ethiopians participate in traditional dances such as Eskista, a lively shoulder-shaking dance, adding to the vibrant and Joyful atmosphere.

My all the time favorite memory during Ethiopian holidays is often celebrated with extended family and community members coming together for meals, prayers, and socializing. It is a time for reconnecting with loved ones, exchanging gifts, and strengthening community bonds.

One of my favorite holiday memories stands out from the typical Ethiopian celebration of gathering and socializing. It was a unique experience when my family and I visited Kurifetu resort in Deberezeyit town two years ago. The resort boasted a stunning location surrounded by a picturesque lake. We were captivated by the breathtaking sunrise. We savored the delicious food, relishing the flavors and aromas of local dishes. The opportunity to enjoy a meal together in such a calm and scenic environment elevated the dining experience, making it even more memorable, enjoyed swimming, and savored the flavors of traditional Ethiopian coffee that is renowned worldwide. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee permeated the air as we sat together, savoring every sip and engaging in heartfelt conversations.

During my time as a midwife, I had a memorable experience during a holiday shift at the hospital. On that day, I was attending to a woman in labor, and our team was working tirelessly throughout the day. Despite the demanding workload, some of our colleagues from another ward organized a coffee ceremony and kindly invited us to take a momentary break and enjoy a cup of coffee. After completing our shift, I returned home to my family, carrying the holiday spirit with me. The rest of the day was spent in the company of loved ones, cherishing the precious moments together. We immersed ourselves in the festive atmosphere, enjoying quality time, sharing meals, and partaking in traditions that made the holiday even more special.

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