11 Christmas Traditions From Around The World

In Adventure & Discovery by The H4C Team

¡Feliz navidad! Christmas is a spectacular time of year for this happy lady, particularly because it’s a marriage of two cultures. With a Chilean father and an Australian mother, Christmas is now a lovely celebration with traditions gleaned from here and there. I begin looking forward to Christmas around August (it’s a serious problem), so to stop myself from putting up the Christmas tree, I’ve decided another form of festive spirit is in order: an international Christmas celebration.

Ever wondered how people around the world celebrate Christmas? It’s not all North Pole and six white boomers; these traditions are fascinating and steeped in centuries of folklore. Here are a few traditions from across the globe – perhaps you’ll include one or two in your festivities this year.

Puerta de Alcala at Christmas; photo: Marcelo Tourne – Flickr

1. Spain

Sticking with common Catholic tradition, Spanish Christmases usually involve ringing in the holy day with midnight mass after a sumptuous Christmas Eve feast. Traditionally, this is ‘Pavo Trufado de Navidad’ – Christmas turkey stuffed with truffles. Of course, you can head along to water-bound Galicia and feast on seafood aplenty. 

After midnight mass, people wander the streets carrying torches and playing music, letting the celebrations linger all night long. According to WhyChristmas, one Spanish saying is, Esta noche es Noche-Buena, y no es noche de dormir! Loosely translated, that’s Tonight is the good night, not the night for sleeping.

Christmas celebrations continue well into the new year for the Spaniards. On January 6, the Epiphany is celebrated, honouring the time when the Wise Men (Magi) brought gifts to the baby Jesus. This, incidentally, is when presents are exchanged! Children write their notes to the Magi on December 26, then on Epiphany Eve place their shoes on windowsills, balconies and under the Christmas tree to be filled with presents.

Gifts are left to the Magi rather than Santa: usually a glass of Cognac, a mandarin, and a bucket of water for their camels. Naughty children might wake up to find coal in their shoes, but don’t stress – it’s just a sugary treat.

Christmas Market Rush; photo: Glenna Barlow – Flickr

2. France

A French Christmas is something to behold at least once in your life, at least to experience the multi-sensory overload from all the festivities around you. Picture this: a yule log burning in the fireplace, its cherry wood exuding a tantalising aroma from lashings of red wine sprinkled over it. A midnight feast following mass, Réveillon, with rich dishes to put you well and truly into a food coma. Cutting into the traditional sponge cake, bûche de Noël, and savouring the velvety smooth chocolate as it crosses your palate. And, after a night of revelry, bidding adieu to those around you, the singsong joyeux Noël! carrying upstairs. 

The nativity scene is common in France, depicting the birth of Christ in the manger so many years ago. Leading up to Christmas, you’ll often find fairs devoted purely to Nativity figurines! French scenes add a little bit extra to the cast, featuring butchers, bakers, policemen and priests.

The French also adhere to a typical Catholic celebration of the Advent wreath, a fir and pine wreath topped with four candles to represent the four Sundays prior to Christmas. Each candle is then lit on the appropriate Sunday as a beautiful countdown to the season ahead.

Presents are received from Santa (called Père Noël), symbolising his caring nature and the gifts the Magi gave to Christ after his birth. 

Dublin at Christmas; photo: Ruth Medjber and Failte Ireland

3. Ireland

Ireland’s Christmas traditions have their own Gaelic flavour, as traditions from centuries past (both Christian and Celtic) have become intertwined throughout the years. 

On Christmas Eve, Irish families light a candle and place it in a window, acting as a welcome for Mary and Joseph as they looked for shelter. In Penal Times, the candle symbolised a safe place for priests to perform mass; during that time, it was forbidden. The candle is traditionally lit by the youngest member of the household, and is only extinguished by a girl named Mary. 

Wreaths of holly bedeck doors, a tradition lingering from the poverty-stricken families in Ireland. Holly grows abundantly around Ireland in December, and it was a frugal way for the poor to decorate their homes and get in the Christmas spirit.

When weary Santa arrives at an Irish house, there’s a delectable feed waiting. Irish families traditionally leave mince pies and a bottle of Guinness as a snack, while children hang Christmas sacks rather than stockings.

Decorations are left up until January 6, the Epiphany. Here, it’s called Little Christmas. Take decorations down before this day, and expect plenty of bad luck to come your way!

Christmas in Greece; photo: AESU

4. Greece

As the sun sets on Christmas Eve, the sounds of children singing kalenda (carols) fills the air, the beating of drums and tingling of triangles ringing into the night. In their hands are model boats, decorated with gilded nuts. For their singing, they’re rewarded by passersby, given coins, nuts, sweets and dry figs, taken home before the family attends midnight mass.

A Grecian Christmas is all about tradition, carried from aeons past until now where they receive a slightly modern twist. A Western influence is, in fact, beginning to creep into Greece; Christmas trees are slowly increasing in popularity, but more common is the shallow wooden bowl in every home. A piece of wire is suspended across the bowl’s rim, with a wooden cross hanging from it. The cross is entwined in basil. Daily, the cross and basil are dipped into some holy water, using the cross to scatter holy water in each room of the house. It’s meant to keep bad spirits, or killantzaroi, away during the 12 day period from Christmas to Epiphany. 

The Christmas feast plays a crucial role in tradition, and Greek families tuck into their traditional flavours prepared on a grand scale. Spit-roasted lamb, filo pastries field with spinach and cheese, and christopsomo (Christ bread) adorn the table. Sweet treats include baklava, theeples, kataifi and melomakarono – perfect for the dessert lover!

On New Year, children receive presents from Aghios Vassilis (St Basil). On Epiphany day, Greek Orthodox adherents celebrate Jesus’ baptism, so it’s the perfect excuse for a day on the water despite the chilly winter air! Young men dive into freezing lakes, rivers and oceans to be the first to reach a blessed cross, to ensure good luck for the year ahead. It’s a fun-filled day, with blessings, music, dancing and feasts trailing long into the night.

Christmas stars for sale in Cochin; photo: McKay Savage

5. India

Although Christmas in India is fairly small, it’s unique all on its own. As the majority of Christians in India have Catholic roots, midnight mass is a requisite, followed by a time of visiting with family and friends. 

Christmas presents aren’t exchanged in India; instead, families exchange sweet treats with their neighbours, regardless of religion. The Indian Christmas tree is also a staple (usually a mango or banana tree!) which children cover in bits of cotton to mimic snow. And, as with most Indian festivals and celebrations, it’s an explosion of colour. Churches are covered in colourful lights, twinkling festively in the night, and festooned with bright blossoms and paper streamers.

To create the sumptuous Christmas feast, the whole family gets together and crafts a menu full of sweets, inspired by India’s colonial history – Portuguese, English, French and traditional Indian cuisine all get a moment in the spotlight. Pork and chicken curries are the mainstay of Christmas lunch. After, there’s a siesta before a Christmas dance before watching the sun rise on Boxing Day. 

Winter Kiev; photo: Mariusz Kluzniak – Flickr

6. Ukraine

A Ukraine Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January – the Orthodox tradition carries over from the old Julian calendar (rather than the commonly-used Gregorian calendar).

Christmas Eve begins with a fast, except for drinking some holy water early in the morning! The main meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, but not until the first star is seen in the sky. People wait outside to spot the star the moment it appears – after that, Christmas has officially begun. It represents the Magi finding Jesus, using the stars to guide their way.

The meal (called Sviata Vecheria, or holy supper) uses 12 dishes, which represents Christ’s disciples. It’s a traditional Ukrainian feast, comprised of favourites such as sauerkraut, chute, borsch and bigos. The room is decorated with sheafs of wheat as a nod to family members no longer with them. 

People sing carols, around the table and in the street, carrying brightly-coloured stars on long poles as they go caroling.

Photo: Holland Marketing

7. Netherlands

Present-lover? You’re in for a treat: in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (or, St Nicholas. It’s pronounced similarly to Santa Claus – we actually took the name from the Dutch!) brings presents on December 5. How’s that for an early mark?

On December 5, children leave their clogs and shoes out, and sing carols to beckon Sinterklaas to their homes. They leave hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’ horse in the hopes of being rewarded with sweets. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas isn’t who comes down the chimney – instead, it’s one of his servants known as a Zwarte Piet (or, Black Peter). 

Like our own Christmas traditions, Dutch children believe that Sinterklaas knows what they’ve been doing for the year. Good children receive presents, but bad children have a worse fate. If Sinterklaas finds out they’ve been bad, he’ll put them in a sack and take them to Spain to teach them how to behave! (Maybe it’s worth being bad, if a trip to Spain comes of it.) 

St Nicholas’ Day is then celebrated on the 6th, with a parade and procession – Sinterklaas atctually meets the Queen if he visits Amsterdam! Christmas Day itself, on the 25th, is a quiet, solemn affair, with a church service and family meal. 

Beirut Christmas; photo: Robert Easton – Flickr

8. Lebanon

As the majority of Christians in Lebanon are Maronite Catholics, they too go to midnight mass – a common theme throughout the world, it seems! In Beirut, glamorous Christmas parties are attended even by those who don’t celebrate Christmas, with Western-style decorations such as Christmas lights, holly and Christmas trees. 

In the countryside, the Western display is considered a mite too extravagant – instead, the Nativity scene takes centre stage. Rather than based in a stable, the Lebanese people place their crib in a cave, which is decorated with sprouted seeds of chickpeas, broad beans, lentils, oats and wheat. This Nativity scene is a focus for prayer amongst the family.

As a treat during the festive season, people enjoy sugared almonds and strong coffee when visiting friends, and exchange an enthusiastic Eid Milad Majid (meaning ‘glorious birth feast).

Square in Zacatecas; photo: Helga Salinas – Flickr

9. Mexico

Get ready for a long celebration, because Mexican Christmases go from December 12 to January 6. From December 16 until Christmas Eve, children perform nine posada processions, celebrating the part in the Christmas story where Mary and Joseph looked for somewhere to stay. The children wander around the neighbourhood, singing a song asking for a room in the house. They’re told there is no room, and that they must leave – but eventually they are welcomed into a home! They then celebrate with prayers of thanks and a party with food, games and fireworks. 

After midnight mass on Christmas Eve, there are more fireworks to celebrate the start of Christmas. The homes are occasionally decorated with Christmas trees, but more common is the Nativity scene (or nacimiento). Baby Jesus is added into the scene on Christmas Eve, while the Magi are added in at Epiphany. These scenes are family heirlooms, and also include different animals and birds including flamingos.

If you’re in the south of Mexico, you’ll receive presents at Epiphany; otherwise, you’ll get your presents on Christmas Eve. On Epiphany, everyone also eats a special cake called rosca de reyes, which hides a clay figure of baby Jesus inside. Whoever finds the baby Jesus in their slice of cake is the ‘godparent’ of Jesus for that year.

St Basil’s Cathedral; photo: Sergey Rodovnichenko – Flickr

10. Russia

Like in the Ukraine, Christmas is celebrated on January 7 due to Russian Orthodoxy being the most common Christian religion in Russia. It’s similar to celebrations in the Ukraine – no feasting until the first star has appeared in the sky, and a very traditional meal. However, in Russia celebrations also include a drink of vzvar, a sweet beverage of dried fruit and honey boiled in water. Traditionally, it’s served at the birth of a child; on Christmas, it represents the birth of baby Jesus.

The Russians have their own version of a Christmas story, which involves the Magi meeting an old woman named Babushka. It stresses the importance of finding Jesus now, rather than putting it off. 

Children receive presents from Father Frost (Ded Moroz) and his granddaughter (Snegurochka) at New Year; for some, New Year is more important than Christmas. 

Photo: Tourism Australia/Time Out Australia

11. A Chilean/Australian fusion

It’s an interesting thing, growing up with a foot in two cultures, and most of the Chilean traditions we hold on to were probably rampant in the 70s and not long after. We celebrate on Christmas Eve, feasting madly on seafood (our Australian influence, and one I demand annually) and empanadas. My Nana’s mixtape of Spanish carols plays in the background. Down one end of the table, where I sit with my cousins and brother, it’s purely English, but at the other end of the table where the older adults sit, it’s Spanish all the way. We say prayers in English and Spanish, then Nana asks us to go around the table and mention what this Christmas means to us particularly this year.

We then go to midnight mass, heavily comatose from all our eating, but we make it through – the priest at the church has known us all since we were tiny, so sneaks us lollies at the end of the night to congratulate us. We then split up and go to our own homes, where we open our presents. It’s about 3am by the time we crawl into bed, reindeer ears still firmly attached. The next day when we join each other, it’s a lazy day of dozing, eating, and beach visits, back in our Spanglish tongue.