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Christmas Traditions from Around the World

Christmas Traditions look VERY different around the globe. At Families Magazine, we thought it would be a fun idea to reach out to a variety of travel bloggers to ask them about how Christmas looked in their neck of the woods. Below you’ll see a long list of experiences that might inspire you to travel over the festive season. 

Christmas Traditions – KFC in Japan

Christmas Traditions - KFC in Japan

Gordon from Short Holidays and Getaways shares Christmas in Japan!

To have a traditional Japanese Christmas is not what you would normally associate with this country, but yes, it is KFC, or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Christmas is a relatively new thing for the Japanese bought on mainly because of their interactions with people from the West. They started to embrace the tradition, and particularly those with small children. Unlike western counterparts, there was no tradition to fall back on so in effect they emulated American consumerism and celebrations. After hearing an expat complaining about not being able to find traditional turkey in Japan nor chicken as a substitute, KFC decided to go into total and complete overdrive and advertised their chicken.

Now, Japanese people need to place their orders 3 months in advance, as well as queue around the blocks for hours, to get the ‘barrel chicken’ which is a barrel full of fried chicken and a cardboard divider, with a Christmas cake underneath, because you cannot have a celebration without cake.  Colonel Sanders has also been referred to as Colonel Kami-sama, normally reserved for Shinto deities.

Christmas in Germany

Thanks to Carolyn Schonafinger from Holidays to Europe!

For anyone from the southern hemisphere, not only is the weather at Christmas time totally different in Germany, but so are the customs. Christmas markets play a big role in Christmas festivities in Germany.  From late November, towns and villages begin to set up their Christmas markets.  Most feature wooden chalet-style huts that sell everything from food and drinks to Christmas ornaments and gifts. Germans don’t just visit the Christmas markets for shopping, though.  They are a great place for socialising and many workers head to the market at the end of the day to catch up with friends over a mulled wine and freshly roasted chestnuts. What better way is there to get in the Christmas spirit?

Whilst many Australians insist on putting up their Christmas tree on December 1, in Germany it’s not until the morning of Christmas Eve that the tree is displayed and gifts are then placed under it to be distributed after dinner. Our tradition of Santa Claus visiting on Christmas Eve is also very different to what German children experience.  They receive a visit from St. Nicholas on December 6 and if they’ve been good, he leaves treats in their shoes.

St. Nicholas is often accompanied by the ‘bad Santa’ (Knecht Ruprecht) who is dressed in dark clothing and serves as a warning to children to be good. And whilst we gather on Christmas Day to celebrate with family and friends, Germans enjoy an evening meal on Christmas Eve before exchanging gifts.  This is sometimes followed by a visit to Midnight Mass.

Christmas in Italy

Christmas Traditions - Italy

Danita from Travelling Dany shares her Italian heritage with us!

Italy loves to dress up for the occasion, especially at Christmas. Our cities, in fact, get decorated quite heavily, mostly in the South. Salerno is in fact one of the most beautiful (and crowded) cities at Christmas because every year they recreate a different “Winter village” with neon lights: both kids and adults love it. Naples follows right after, not only with neon lights decorations in subways and in every part of the city, but also “Christmas Alley”. San Gregorio Armeno is in fact a narrow street in the old part of Naples. Here artisans build “presepi” (nativity scenes), unmissable in our houses at Christmas.

For us Christmas is all about good food, family and presents. We generally keep these under our Christmas trees and open them with our relatives and loved ones on the 24th December in the evening, or on Christmas morning. It’s an important tradition and not only for the kids! Food, as you might guess, also plays a key role in every Italian Christmas. Because our food culture is so varied, every region has a specific menu for festivities. In the South we mostly eat a lot of fish dishes like spaghetti with clams or prawns, while in the North they go for risotto and finish their Christmas meal with Panettone or Pandoro.

Czech Christmas Traditions

This is from Faye from Delve Into Europe!

The main Christmas celebration in the Czech Republic takes place on Christmas Eve, like in many other European countries. Dinner can last up to nine courses, and usually includes carp soup followed by fried carp with potato salad, and vanocka – Christmas bread – for dessert. Some fast all day, partly to make room for the feast but also in the hope that they get to see a vision of a ‘golden pig’ on the wall, which is supposed to bring good fortune.

The children get to open their presents straight after dinner.

Christmas is also a wonderful time to visit the Czech Republic – its markets enjoy some of the most beautiful settings in Europe. We spent several days in Prague, and the best of the city’s markets are in the Old Town Square, where the stalls are surrounded by a medieval town hall, a Baroque church and the fairytale spires of the Tyn church overlooking the whole scene.

Austrian Christmas Traditions

christmas traditions austria

Thanks to Linda from Tyrol Travel Guide

Glühwein, Lebkuchen, Kiachl and Kastanien. These are treats to be found in Austrian homes and Christmas markets from mid-November until New Year. You may know Glühwein and Kastanien as mulled wine and chestnuts, but Kiachl and Lebkuchen have no English names – you will just have to see and try it personally. Christmas celebrations in Austria generally kick off in mid-November with the opening of the Christmas markets in Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, and other bigger cities and towns.

On the first Sunday of Advent, the first candle on the Advent wreath is lit in almost every Austrian home, with another three candles for the remaining Advent Sundays. Children look forward to December 6 when Saint Nicholas visits with his angels to deliver treats and small gifts to the well-behaved. Those whose behaviour was less exemplary may also fear a visit by Krampus, a beast-like helper with a whip.

The Christmas highlight in every home remains the evening of December 24, when the Christkind (Christ Child) delivers presents. Traditionally, the Christkind visits while families attend Christmas Eve mass. They return to find presents under the Christmas tree.

Dutch Christmas Traditions

christmas traditions dutch

Thank you to Iris from  Mind of a Hitchhiker

December is a little busy for Dutch people, as just 19 days before Christmas they celebrate the competing holiday Sinterklaas. Albeit very racist, Sinterklaas (December 5th) remains the most popular holiday in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people will even argue that the American-style Christmas is a total rip-off of the Dutch celebration in the name of Saint Nicholas. As many people have already done some massive gift-giving during Sinterklaas, not everyone can afford to celebrate both holidays.

Not a single Dutch child believes in Santa Claus (‘de Kerstman’), but the majority has believed in Sinterklaas at some point. Often as adults, people stop celebrating Sinterklaas (until they might procreate) and focus more on Christmas. It’s one out of two times in the year that the churches fill up to maximum capacity – the other being Easter. Many people visit their family or friends during the three days of Christmas. Children of divorced parents will spend one day at each parent’s home. There will be lots of food and elaborate cooking, like gourmetten, a form of raclette. Since a few decades it’s also accepted to dine out for the occasion. Some folks buy a real tree, but more and more people opt for the buy-once fake tree.

Serbian Christmas Traditions

christmas traditions serbia

Thank you to Glimpses of the World for these insights!

According to the old Julian calendar, Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in Serbia on January 7th. The key day, however, is the day before, known as the Badnyi Dan. The tradition says that men are supposed to go to the woods early in the morning to cut an oak branch, the holy tree for Slavic people, while women make a special Christmas bread with a small coin and few seeds put in the dough. The family stays in on Christmas Eve with a great dinner dominated by fish and vegetables, while fruits and nuts are shared to children afterwards.

The first person who comes in on Christmas morning is the one who is going to bring luck to the family. People usually bring a male child to do the honour. He lights the oak branch a bit in order for the household to have prosperity and health (as much as there are fire sparks from the branch). The special bread is shared among family members during lunch. The one who gets the coin is believed to have money the upcoming year, the other with the seed will have good health.

Even though Serbia is decorated from early December until the end of January and Belgrade resembles any other European city during the Christmas season, families tend to cherish the Badnyi Dan tradition. Almost every house decorates a Christmas tree according to the Western tradition, but has its own oak Christmas tree branch as well. Still, the tradition has changed in urban areas. So nowadays, the branch is bought in city markets (not cut in the woods), and instead of burning it in the stove, it’s been taken to the Saint Sava Church on the Christmas Eve – where oak branches burn together in a huge festive fire.

Christmas in Finland

Thank you to The Crowded Planet for this beautiful glimpse into Finnish Christmas Traditions!

christmas traditions finland

Many people are afraid of visiting Northern Europe in winter, but in my opinion it’s the best time to be! Helsinki in winter is a true fairytale town, but the most fairytale time of the year in Finland has to be Christmas. Naturally, it has to be, since everyone knows that Santa lives in Finland!

Similarly to many places in Northern Europe, Christmas isn’t celebrated on the actual day, but on Christmas Eve. It’s a Finnish tradition to start the day with rice porridge and plum juice for breakfast. At midday, a TV message is broadcast from Turku declaring the beginning of ‘Christmas Peace’ – an ancient tradition referring to a period of peace lasting for 20 days from Christmas Eve.

It gets dark very early, so often people visit cemeteries before Christmas Eve dinner and bring candles to light the graves of their family members. Then dinner is served, usually including a roast ham on the bone with vegetable and a variety of smoked fish dishes. Children receive presents from Santa – but strangely enough, the Finnish name for Santa is Joulupukki that means ‘Christmas Goat’!

Christmas Traditions in Belgium

christmas traditions brussels

Thank you to Geert from Inspiring Travellers for this account!

In Belgium, Christmas is a time to be with family.

If you are a Christian, you go to the mass on December 24th, traditionally at midnight, and we always celebrate with a large family dinner on Christmas day with roasted turkey, baked apples, cranberry sauce, and potato croquettes on the menu! After dinner, we gather around the Christmas tree to exchange gifts.

In the weeks around Christmas, it’s also tradition to visit a nearby Christmas market. Almost every town has its own Christmas market and every year Brussels organises one of the biggest Christmas markets in Europe.

Most people visit the Brussels Christmas market for the great atmosphere, the lights, the chalets full of Christmas presents and, of course, the genever, beer and gluhwein! And on Saturday, there’s a large Christmas Parade!

So if you are thinking of visiting Europe in Winter, I would suggest visiting some of the many Belgian Christmas markets!

Christmas in India

Here’s Abby from Abby’s Hearth take on Christmas in India!

Christmas in India is not as Christmassy as the Christmases’ I’ve spent in Europe. Kids still feel the Christmas excitement – they get gifts, and attend games and carol signing competitions. Adults don’t really exchange gifts, they’re too busy working till the 24th evening, then rush home to attend mass as a family, followed by a Christmas dance or party.

Every home is decorated with the Christmas tree and the star hanging outside. Some also make a crib and hang out Christmas lights. Christmas is also the season for Christian weddings in India, with the majority of weddings happening in winter because it’s cooler weather than the rest of the year. (Mind you, cooler in Bombay means 20 degrees Celsius. Ha! Summer averages around 30 to 35 degrees.)

Christmas day is usually spent at your grandparents or cousins place where the booze flows and the sweets and food never run out – sorpotel, vindaloo, stuffed ducks, roast piglings, dark fruit cakes, marzipan, vanilla cream, sojee sweet, kulkuls, jujips, and so much more. On Boxing Day of course it’s back to work and sharing of sweets with friends and co-workers, or visiting relatives and friends to exchange sweets.

Christmas traditions in Poland

christmas traditions poland

Thank you Aga from Woldering Around!

Poland has a lot of different traditions associated with Christmas. One of the biggest is to celebrate Christmas Eve. That is when the whole family gathers together for a festive meal. The beginning of Christmas Eve dinner is set by the time when the first star appears in the sky (usually 4 pm). The tradition is, that there need to be 12 different dishes on the table, symbolising 12 apostles. The meal is vegetarian, with no meat – we eat it the next day. Dishes include typical Polish dumplings – pierogi, beetroot soup – barszcz, carp fish, poppy seeds and dried plums. Before eating, everyone shares “oplatek”, a blessed wafer, wishing good luck to each other.

After the food, there’s time to open presents, which are usually already lying under the Christmas Tree. At midnight, the whole family goes together to the big mass in the church, which lasts several hours and is full of singing and happiness. Christmas is a special time for everyone in Poland and celebrated for several days.

English Christmas Traditions

christmas traditions england

Many thanks to the beautiful Amy from Toothbrush Travels for this piece from England!

When it comes to Christmas, England has got it nailed. The crisp winter air combined with the dark evenings and the banquet that is a Christmas dinner, make it the cosiest time of year. But one of the best Christmas traditions in England? Decorating the Christmas tree.

It’s rumoured that the first tree to be decorated dates back as early as 1510 where trees and leaves were placed inside as a Pagan tradition to celebrate life during bitter winters. Nowadays however, evergreen fir trees such as Norwegian Spruces are bought into the home in early December and decorated by families, using an assortment of ornaments, beads, ball-balls, lights and tinsel with either an angel or a star sitting at the top of the tree.

The Christmas tree typically stays up until the 12th day of Christmas but up until then it serves as a Christmas centrepiece filling homes with warmth and festive cheer. But my ultimate Christmas tradition? Exploring Christmas markets before going home, popping on a pair of festive pyjamas and watching Elf in the dark with a huge mug of hot chocolate, whilst the Christmas tree twinkles in the background. There’s nothing cosier!

Christmas Traditions in the US – Dirty Santa!

Here’s a bit of a different take. Peter has given us the low-down on this game that’s often played around Christmas Trees in the United States!

christmas traditions presents

Similar to other countries that celebrate it, Christmas in the US is an intimate family affair. But there is an extension of Christmas that has become a favourite holiday tradition beyond the home hearth. The White Elephant gift exchange game is played at office holiday parties, house or cocktail parties around Christmastime, and in some fun-loving households even on Christmas morning. Also known as Yankee Swap or Dirty Santa, the point of the game is to steal great gifts from other participants. The rules of Dirty Santa can get quite convoluted but there is one simple principle: players choose gifts and can steal other people’s gifts, often multiple times, until all the gifts are opened.

The key to a fun and engaging White Elephant gift exchange party is for everyone to buy a funny gift that’s perhaps a little weird but definitely something other players would want. Often people buy ridiculous gag gifts, say a Yodeling Pickle, or quirky gadgets, such as a rug carpet alarm clock, or amongst friends even naughty gifts like a middle-finger umbrella. One of the best parts of a Dirty Santa Game is watching people squirm after they got stuck with a weird gift or panic after someone stole a gift from them they really wanted.

If you’re American, you are bound to attend at least one White Elephant party before every Christmas.

Christmas traditions in YOUR home

So tell us… what does Christmas look like in YOUR house? We’d love to hear about the unique way you celebrate with your family and friends. Let us know in the comments!

Inspired to make the most of Christmas in Brisbane this year?

We’ve got your comprehensive list of where to see the BEST Christmas lights in Brisbane here.

Wanting to head out to some festive Christmas Markets? We’ll tell you where you can buy the ultimate gifts for your loved ones this Christmas from your local community markets!

If you’re ready to belt out a few carols at one of Brisbane’s many Christmas Carol events read this article.

Photo of author

Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

2 thoughts on “Christmas Traditions from Around the World”

  1. In my country ( Colombia) one of the important celebrations is called ” Little Candles Day”. It is celebrated on the 7th of December at night, in honor of Virgin Mary.

  2. This is such fun to read! It’s so interesting to see how people are celebrating this holiday all around the world.
    Great idea, Janine! So glad I was able to contribute, thank you! 🙂


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