Categories: Sanger Life24 December 201911.2 min read


For our advent calendar on Twitter, this year we celebrated our staff from around the world. Each day, someone told us how they celebrate the festive period in their home country. Here are their heart-warming entries in full:

Hayley Francies – Wales
Senior Staff Scientist in Mathew Garnett’s Group, Cancer, Ageing & Somatic Mutation Programme

Christmas is an opportunity to be in Wales spending time with family and friends. It’s about fairy lights, mulled wine and ridiculous Christmas jumpers! It really is my favourite time of the year!

Roser Vento – Spain
Group Leader, Cellular Genetics Programme

We usually spend Christmas at home surrounded by family (and extended-family). We usually celebrate dinner on the 24th where we eat lot of shellfish – although my uncle is vegetarian so we are an exception for this! -and stay until quite late talking and laughing as some of us are abroad and it is the perfect time to catch up. Lunch on the 25th is a special Christmas meal that is meat-based. On the 25th we bring presents to other people in the family so it’s also quite a lot of fun. We also have “Turron” that is a special desert made of almonds, nuts, honey, sugar and eggs.

Pavlos Antoniou – Cyprus
Principal Software Developer, Human Genetics Informatics Group

During the festive period, we decorate Christmas trees with ornaments and lights as most of the rest of the world. Every household has a large stock of Christmas honey biscuits (melomakarona) and chocolates.

On Christmas Eve we bake sesame bread and pies called “Christ’s bread”.
On Christmas Day families tend to go to church for the morning for mass and then gather back home to prepare for the family lunch. On Christmas day lunch, we have egg and lemon soup (avgolemono) for starters followed by stuffed turkey as the main dish and christmas pudding for desert.

Christmas presents are delivered on New Year’s Eve late at night by Saint Vassilios. Every household prepares a pie called Vasilopitta (pie of St Vasilios) and places the pie together with a glass of red wine on the table for the Saint Vasilios to have and bless when he comes late at night to deliver the presents. Kids wake up on New Year’s Day to their presents from Saint Vasilios under the tree!

Velislava Petrova – Bulgaria
Postdoctoral Fellow in Carl Anderson’s Group, Human Genetics Programme

Velislava Petrova, from Bulgaria, Postdoc in Carl Anderson's Group, Human Genetics Programme

We celebrate Christmas Eve on 24th with an odd number of vegan dishes because this is the last meal of the Orthodox 40-day Advent fast.  The dishes include different grains and vegetables which are symbols of abundance – some very traditional ones are stuffed peppers, bean soup, pumpkin and walnuts filo pastry and baklava. There is always a Christmas Eve round loaf which has a coin baked inside. The eldest member of the family gives a piece of the bread to each person at the table and whoever gets the coin will be the luckiest and wealthiest next year.

Starting at midnight on Christmas Eve, your house can be visited by ‘koledari’, our version of Christmas Carols who are usually young men dressed in traditional costumes. They go from house to house through the night and are rewarded with food in return for their singing. While Christmas Eve is all about humility and tradition, Christmas Day is time for a feast with the entire family over a range of meat dishes and exchange of Christmas presents.

Maliha Chowdhury – Bangladesh
Sanger Prize Winner

Christmas is an occasion that is only celebrated in the central metropolis, Dhaka, in Bangladesh. And that too in the fancier parts of town, in the towering boutique hotels, upper end cafes and such, with the traditional Christmas tree surrounded by fairy lights, decorations and presents of all shapes, sizes and colours. I remember going to one of these events as a kid, and my sister got a special gift from 'Santa' since her birthday was the day after Christmas. There were small rides like a makeshift merry-go-round for younger kids and stalls of baked goods and trinkets. But for most of Bangladesh, winter is really about celebrating the harvest that our richly fertile land generously brings at the end of the year. It is about cozy cuddles with your siblings under a warm blanket by the stove as your grandma bakes traditional rice cakes called 'Pithas' made with syrup from ripe dates. It is about winter picnics with your entire clan (we Bangladeshis have very large families!). It is about celebrating the calmer side of nature in the tropics and enjoying it before the sun returns to its fiery glory the rest of next year.

Valerie Vancollie – Belgium
Advanced Research Assistant in Mouse Genetics

In Belgium we celebrate Sinterklaas on the 6th of December and kids can expect to find tangerines, chocolate and speculoos as well as gifts. For Christmas itself, the main celebration is on Christmas Eve when the presents and main meal are held with close family. Christmas Day is when you visit friends or other relatives.

Michal Szpak – Poland
Visiting Scientist, Human Genetics Programme

Christmas Eve supper is full of superstitions, symbolism and traditions in Poland, as it's the most celebrated part of Christmas. It's traditionally a fasting day, so no meat apart from fish! Carp is the main dish and you're supposed to keep the carp scale in your wallet to bring you a good fortune in the next year. There should be 12 dishes on the table and you must try every single one, otherwise you'll struggle with bad luck in the upcoming year. There's also an empty table seat and a plate for an unexpected guest, and a pile of hay under the tablecloth and a decorated Christmas tree. And you strictly start the supper once the first star shows up on the sky!

Sophie Adjalley – France
Postdoctoral Fellow in Marcus Lee’s Group, Parasites & Microbes Programme

We usually decorate the Christmas tree all together a couple of weeks before Christmas and the big event happens on Christmas Eve with a big family dinner. As a child we would wait until the following morning on Christmas day to see what Santa had left for us by the Christmas tree. I remember my brother and I waking up very early to open our presents and jumping on our parents’ bed (and obviously waking them up!) to show them what we got!

When it was just my partner and I, we would cheat and stay up past midnight to open our presents on the night of the 24th to the 25th, which to be honest was sometimes quite an achievement after a very rich and long dinner (we’re French after all!). Now that we are ourselves parents we have to behave (!) and will therefore wait until the morning of the 25th to open our gifts!

This year, we plan to have a nice dinner at our place with some friends, who are staying around for the holidays. There’ll be the usual Christmas tree -a small one to fit in our London flat - but we have tried to convince our son that it’s a big one! And we’ll eat a lot of chocolates during the Christmas break!

Boxing day is completely foreign to us and to be honest the first time I heard that expression, I was very confused: I thought for a second that there might be a big boxing match happening after Christmas, which really did not make sense!

Kenichi Yoshida – Japan
Visiting Scientist, Cancer, Ageing & Somatic Mutation

Kenichi Yoshida, from Japan, Visiting Scientist in the Cancer, Ageing & Somatic Mutation Programme

In Japan, we celebrate on 24th with Christmas dinner of roasted chicken and Christmas cake. We also love to walk through the streets with Winter illuminations.

Dave Adams – Australia
Senior Group Leader, Cancer, Ageing & Somatic Mutation Programme

Cold and frosty is not Christmas in Australia and we don’t “do” reindeer either - Santa’s sleigh is pulled by kangaroos! Christmas is all about family and the holiday time is filled with BBQs and pool parties and trips to the beach. While some Australian families have turkey for Christmas dinner many families have seafood, usually outside in the shade. There is also a tradition of having people around to your house who don’t have family so they are not alone. Traditions in common with the UK include the Great Escape on TV and the Queen’s Christmas message.

Nicole Wheeler – New Zealand
Data Scientist, Centre for Genomic Pathogen Surveillance

Christmas in New Zealand is in many ways the same as in the UK - we hang up Christmas lights, sing carols and have a roast lunch or dinner. But for us, Christmas happens in summer so it doesn’t get dark enough to enjoy the Christmas lights till 10 or 11 at night, and we might eat Christmas lunch out in the sunshine and go for a walk on the beach after.

Mihir Kekre – India
Operations Lead, Centre for Genomic Pathogen Surveillance

Back home, Christmas is more of a summery affair! Our family tradition is a Christmas crawl where we stop by relatives’ houses for dinner throughout the holiday period sharing in the festivities and exchanging gifts.

Maria Duque – Colombia
Marie Sklowdoska-Cure/NC3Rs Fellow, Parasites & Microbes Programme

Christmas is a great party in Colombia! Our Christmas time is sunny and warm and we celebrate the entire month! From the 16th to the 24th, we meet with friends and family every night to have a special prayer (novena) accompanied by carols and lots of nice food.

Melissa Konopko - USA
Technical Program Manager for GA4GH

and Sarion Bowers - England
Head of Policy

Melissa Konopko, from the USA, Technical Program Manager for GA4GH and Sarion Bowers, from England, who is Head of Policy

Hanukkah isn't a major Jewish holiday, but it is an opportunity to see friends, have fun and get into the spirit of the season.

Francesco Iorio – Italy
Cancer Dependency Map Analytics Team Leader

Despite many Christmas trees being seen nowadays in Italian houses, for many Italian families (especially from the south) a Christmas without a Presepe would be inconceivable.

This is an artistic representation of the Holy Nativity that usually the whole family prepares together with great care around the 8th of December, including both biblical and profane elements.

Making a Presepe is a real ritual: freshly harvested moss, smells of glue and fake snow, and every figurine has his own story. There are shepherds, innkeepers, hunters and fishermen, and usually a grandpa tells their stories crossing them together, while assembling the scene.

No wise men are added though until the Epiphany (which is celebrated on January the 6th), and most importantly no baby Jesus figurine in the crib until the 24th December. This is added, usually by the youngest in the house, while the whole family sings a traditional Christmas Carol.

Iraad Bronner – Netherlands
Senior Staff Scientist, Scientific Operations

A Dutch tradition is the fireworks at New Year. Many people set them off from midnight to the early hours of the morning, and we eat Oliebollen as a snack.

Austra Jenner-Parson – Latvia
Impact and Evaluation Analyst

I come from Latvia so I always associate Christmas with snow. In fact, one of my favourite memories from my childhood is the whole family skiing through the forest – if the sun is out, it’s dazzlingly bright and magically quiet. The only sound is the odd tree branch cracking under the weight of the snow, and it’s so beautiful. As children, my siblings and I made the most of the short days, getting into snowball fights, sledging from a hill or clearing snow from the nearby lake so we could skate. We’d come home red-faced, cold and bruised from constantly falling over on ice, but these are sweet memories. And then there’s food, of course… Tradition dictates having 12 different dishes on the Christmas table, but I have a sweet tooth so my favourite tradition was making “piparkūkas” (gingerbread cookies) – something I now do with my own girls, trying to ensure we don’t eat all the dough in the process!

Vladimir Kiselev – Russia
Cellular Genetics Informatics Team Leader

Due to the old calendar, Christmas in Russia is celebrated on 7 January, and lots of people focus more on New Year. On Christmas Eve, there is a night Liturgy, and a big feast after a long lent.

Leo Parts – Estonia
Group Leader in Human Genetics

Leo Parts, from Estonia, who is a Group Leader in Human Genetics

In Estonia, it's all about the Ss - Santa, snow, skiing, sleighing, skating, sauna, singing, sauerkraut and sausages!

Mirjana Efremova – Macedonia
Postdoctoral Fellow in Sarah Teichmann’s Group, Cellular Genetics Programme

Christmas celebrations in Macedonia start on 5 January, with children singing carols in the morning, and a bonfire gathering in the evening. We have vegan family dinner on 6 January.

Christine Boinett – Kenya
Principal Bioinformatician on the JUNO Project

December is very warm in Kenya and Christmas day is usually spent with Family and friends eating ’nyama choma’ (barbecued meat over an open flame/charcoal grill), a local must try, accompanied with ‘katchumbari’.

Burcu Bronner Anar – Turkey
Technician Commitment Manager

In Turkey, we don't celebrate Christmas since most of the population is Muslim, but New Year's Eve is a big celebration where people come together with family, friends, and lots of food.