If you celebrate Christmas, you probably have your own set of traditions. Whether it’s baking cookies, opening presents at a specific time, attending a church service, visiting family, picking out a Christmas tree, or eating a certain meal.
This year, I decided to look at Christmas traditions from around the world, and got some help from fellow travel bloggers and expats.
I learned that in many Central European countries, St. Nicholas visits families on December 6 instead of Christmas Day, leaving presents and candy in children’s shoes. (My family actually follows this tradition too).
Similarly in Iceland, Yule Lads fill the children’s shoes with gifts. Yule Lads are the sons of two Icelandic mountain trolls, and they’re known for mischievous acts like eating candles or stealing milk.
Estonians also receive a visit from elves, or päkapikud, throughout the month. On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus, or Jõuluvana, delivers gifts, which children must sing for.
In Ukrainian homes, Sviata Vecheria, or the “Holy Supper,” is one of the most important parts of Christmas. Children look for the first star to appear in the eastern sky, symbolizing the trek of the Three Wise Men, and then the dinner can begin. Wheat crops are important in Ukraine and thought of as the staff of life, and stalks of wheat often decorate the Christmas table.
In Sweden, Luciadagen, or Saint Lucia Day, marks the first of advent and also the first major Christmas celebration. Traditionally, the oldest daughter wakes up early and delivers saffron buns to her family while wearing a white robe with a red sash and a whortleberry-twig crown topped with nine candles. (Embarrassingly, my mom made me do this too!)
Saint Lucy’s Day, or Giorno di Santa Lucia, is also celebrated as a Catholic holiday in Sicily, where Santa Lucia is patron saint of the city of Syracuse. It is said that during a famine in 1582, Santa Lucia brought a flotilla of ships carrying grain to Sicily, where people hungrily ate the wheat without grinding it into flour. Today on Giorno di Santa Lucia, Sicilians do not eat anything made with wheat flour, and instead eat cuccia, a type of cooked wheat.
In Germany and elsewhere around Europe, Christmas markets are a huge part of holiday festivities. Glühwein is served across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and food, homemade gifts, and sweets fill markets across the continent.
In Ireland, friends and families gather in each other’s homes or at local pubs for a Christmas drink, and white candles decorate people’s windows to symbolize room for Mary and Joseph. Instead of leaving cookies out for Santa Claus, families leave mince pie and Guinness.
In a warmer climate, in the Bahamas, Christmas is celebrated outdoors with Junkanoo festivals, featuring parades, music, dancing, colorful costumes, and feasting on black cake, apples, ham, and ginger-beer.
Mexico has many traditions, with more than 30 found only within the country. In one example groups of people go door-to-door symbolizing Mary and Joseph looking for shelter, and are called inside homes to break a candy-filled piñata. The Feast of La Guadalupana kicks off Christmas celebrations on December 12, and festivities end on January 6 with Epiphany. Santa Claus, or Santa Clos, brings gifts, while the Three Wise Men fill children’s shoes with candy, oranges, and money.
In the Middle East, Assyrians–the indigenous people of northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran–fast from December 1 until December 25, when the fast is broken with a traditional meal. After the feast, families visit friends and relatives to exchange Christmas greetings and eat desserts like Kadeh, a stuffed pastry, and Killeche, a date and walnut cookie, along with tea or Turkish coffee. In Iraq, Assyrian children read the nativity story aloud outside their homes, and families sing pslams around a bonfire. According to folklore, if the thorns burn to ashes, good luck will come to the family.
In Lebanon, families butcher a sheep in honor of the birth of The Shepherd Jesus Christ, which they eat during a Christmas Eve feast. Santa Claus is known as Papa Noël, who bring gifts to church or people’s homes.
According to Ethiopian legend, shepherds were playing Gena, a type of hockey, the night Jesus was born. The game is still played on Christmas in Ethiopia and Eritrea after a morning church service.
The Philippines has the longest Christmas season. Some people start celebrating with carols as early as September 1, and the season ends with Epiphany on January 6.
I asked some of my fellow travel bloggers and expats to tell me about their Christmas experiences abroad. Here’s what they had to say.
“Last year Eric and I were thinking about new traditions, being that we are still a new family unit and the topic around gifts came up. How much emphasis should be placed on gifts? What is a gift really? Does it have to be a physical object? What were we grateful for? How could all of that play into a new holiday tradition?
Inspired by the anticipation built from the advent calendar + Yoko Ono’s wishing tree concept + our own twists, together we created… *The Gifting Tree*”
Read more about it here.
“Our nomadic way of life has meant that we are pretty much always spending the holiday season abroad. So far, we have spent Christmas abroad in Vietnam, India, China, Mexico and Barbados! Each country has different customs and traditions during this time, with India not celebrating, and Vietnam and China only having events and celebrations for the foreigners and tourists. Barbados and Mexico are very festive feeling countries to celebrate Christmas. Last year, we spent Christmas and New Year’s in the small surfing town of San Pancho on the west coast of Mexico. Some of the shops were decorated, locals were out shopping for gifts and everyone was in the “mood”. But what really made it special was when hundreds of Mexicans descended on the little town for 3 days and camped out on the beach! Most of the people were from the city of Guadalajara, and they traditionally spend Christmas down by the beach. Campfires were blazing, music was blaring and there were loads of tents set up on the sand. It was awesome to be surrounded by locals during Christmas and see how they celebrate the holidays.”
“Spain, unlike my native England only has one day off for the festivities, 25th December. When first living in Andalucia I thought it a little odd that the main family get together celebration was on Christmas Eve. Everybody finishes work early on ‘ Noche Buena’ and travels to visit family for a celebratory feast. Christmas Day is then the day off (to recover) after a very late night or early morning. Then it’s back to work the following day.
Nowadays I love the way it works as my sons can celebrate with their girlfriends family on Christmas Eve, although Noche Buena – Good Night sounds more welcoming. Then they can join us and our celebration, a late lunch, on Christmas Day. Perfect for us, not quite so for them!”
“We spent the last 2 years travelling in Asia and last year’s Christmas in Bangkok. In Thailand, a Buddhist country, Christmas day is just another day of the week.
However, we befriended an awesome bunch of Filipinos who invited us to spend Christmas together making it very special day. As Catholics, they share similar traditions to back home, such as food eaten, presents given and of course plenty of alcohol!”
“In Tokyo, most locals are not Christian – but Japan is such a visual culture, and they love the lights, festivities and decorations of Christmas. Every year in Shinjuku southern terrace, there is a big display with big trees all strung up with lights, and adorable penguins! The Japanese love everything cute or “kawaii”, and Christmas is no exception – I always see lots of cute round faces in holiday ads and store displays around the city. I recommend walking around the malls and main districts to see all the creative decorations, always with a distinct Japanese twist.”
How do you celebrate Christmas in your corner of the world? Have you had any new holiday experiences outside of where you’re from? I’d love to hear them!