By Craig Busst, Managing Director, City Numbers
Living in the UK makes it all too easy to become preoccupied by our own Christmas traditions. The last minute panic on the 24th, excessive eating on the 25th and chaotic “Boxing Day” sales on the 26th, are all part and parcel of the UK holiday season. As Christmas approaches, UK business owners could therefore be forgiven for focusing all their attention on their local market.
But there’s a whole world out there; a world in which many countries and cultures don’t celebrate Christmas, and if they do… well it’s not like any Christmas we’ll ever experience. The 25th December might mean a more or less total shutdown for businesses across the UK, but in other markets it’s just an ordinary working day and customers expect your services to be readily available.
So for those UK business owners yearning to break into foreign markets, it’s vital to take note of local customs at this time of year. With that in mind, here’s my guide to what’s happening around the world at Christmas.
You don’t have to look far beyond our shores to find quite different Christmas traditions. In Spain and Portugal for example, the biggest day for festivities is Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day itself. Families gather for large meals on the evening of the 24th, before attending Midnight Mass. Presents are also not traditionally given on the 25th. Instead, Children write letters to the Three Kings on Boxing Day and receive presents on the day of the Epiphany, 12 days later. Some businesses can remain closed from the 24th up until this time, 6th January. If you choose to close your business during this period, then make sure to have a proper business voicemail system in place to ensure you don’t miss important sales.
Did you also know that in Sweden, one of the biggest celebrations actually arrives on December 13th? St. Lucia’s day celebrates a young Christian girl killed for her faith in 304AD. It’s not an official public holiday, but it is something to bear in mind when conducting business in the region because there will be many processions, parties and events taking place that mean work won’t be the focus for a lot of people.
South and Central America is predominantly made up of Catholic countries, and therefore similar traditions to Spain and Portugal are followed here. Christmas is celebrated at midnight on 24th December with people going to mass at midnight and then having Christmas dinner after that. Gifts are given at this time, but this isn’t as popular a phenomenon here as it is in Europe and North America.
As it’s the summer in the region during the festive period, many people are eager to spend time at the beach. This is particularly true in Brazil, with people taking time off between Christmas and Carnival in February. More people than usual take time off from work during these two months but businesses will remain open.
As ex European colonies turned modern states, the Christmas traditions of the old dominions were drawn directly from British, French and Dutch culture. That said, time and outside influence have warped how these festivals are celebrated.
The USA has become a beacon of Western festive culture. It places a large emphasis on religion, and an even larger one on commercial sales. ‘Black Friday’, the day after Thanksgiving in November, is traditionally the start of the Christmas shopping period. A quarter of the USA’s annual spending takes place in the month leading up to Christmas after Black Friday so if you want to maximise sales, then that’s the day to do it. For customers wanting to contact you on this busy sales day, make sure to have a memorable phone number in place that consumers can easily remember and dial by heart.
Overall, the similarity of North American and European culture means businesses can feel relatively comfortable when applying tactics developed at home. Recent imports to the UK Christmas period, such as Black Friday itself, is a perfect example of the cross Atlantic business applicability.
The low numbers of Christians in Asia might suggest there is little to gain for companies at Christmas. From a business perspective however, Asia provides massive opportunities at this time of year. There is no shutdown of services but an imported gifting culture pervades.
In ‘atheist’ China, where Christmas is not a legal holiday, retailers and small groups of Christians have had a large effect in influencing the rise of winter festivities. In Malaysia too, the government overtly supports a consumeristic Christmas, encouraging spending on gifts in December but limiting displays of religious commitment. Japan’s non official and secular ‘Christmas’ has also been encouraged by commerce, and the streets of major cities and towns are adorned with trees, lights and artificial snow. Even in India, where Christians account for just 2.3% of the population, a huge population means Christmas still affects 28 million people (5 million more people than the population of Australia!). In general business carries on as usual in Asia, but the influence of Christmas as a commercial holiday can be exploited to drive sales.
Middle East & North Africa
The Islamic countries of the Middle East are perhaps the least affected by Christmas traditions, and the festival is all but absent in North African countries Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Businesses should be sensitive to this, but capitalise on the continued economic activity during this period.
Much more Christmas spirit can be found in the Levant; Lebanon hums with over-the-top Christmas activity and decoration, religious sites in Palestine such as Bethlehem and Nazareth experience a huge surge in tourism. . In the UAE, the large amount of British expats and tourists that flock to the region ensures businesses are thriving during the festive period.
Africa’s recent history means that the majority of the continent’s population practise Christianity, and have adopted many of the European traditions associated with Christmas. Importantly though, these traditions have been incorporated into traditional practices, and the exchanging of commercial goods takes a back seat to meeting with family and friends.
In Nigeria and its neighbouring countries, cities empty during December as people return to their ancestral villages. Christmas shopping is still hectic, but gifts take the form of chickens, goats and cows, rather than the latest technology or clothing. Religion plays a huge part, and businesses should be careful not to inflame religious, ethnic or political tensions by marketing specifically to majority, or indeed minority, groups.
It’s not all about Christianity though…
There are also a number of other religious festivals taking place throughout the winter to be aware of. Buddhism celebrates Buddha’s reaching of enlightenment on the 8th December, while Judaism’s week-long ‘Hanukkah’ can fall at any point between late November and Early January (in 2014 it will be December 16th to December24th ).
Making sure religious, cultural and commercial holidays and traditions are observed does require a big effort on your part. But demonstrating that you understand when your customers will need your services, and putting in place systems that enable them to contact your company – even when it’s a public holiday here in the UK – can be worth its weight in gold, frankincense and myrrh.