Christmas Traditions From Around The World

(Last Updated On: December 19, 2017)

Christmas … a time to eat, drink, be merry and enjoy festive traditions. Everyone has their favourite Christmas rituals, whether going carolling or starting the day with champagne and mince pies. Countries also have their weird and wonderful customs they follow year on year. We take a look at the different yuletide customs from across the globe.

Christmas in Brazil

Due to its multicultural population, Christmas in Brazil is a melting pot of traditions from all over the world. Families eat together at 10pm on Christmas Eve before meeting friends to exchange gifts and head to Midnight Mass. When mass finishes at 1am there are huge firework displays. The festive food served is as diverse as the origins of the population. The dishes include Italian panettone, Portuguese salted cod and the African dish moqueca, a flavoursome fish strew.

In the led up to the big day, larger cities such as Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have huge displays of Christmas tree–shaped lights illuminating the streets. With highs of 30 degrees many Brazilians spend the day at the beach, making the most of the beautiful weather.

Brazil - Christmas traditions around the world
Cities in Brazil are illuminated by festive displays of lights

Christmas in Iceland

Much of Iceland’s festive traditions stems from long-established folklore. Winter solstice was celebrated in Iceland long before Christianity was introduced. The Icelandic term for Christmas is the Norse word Jól, with no reference to Christ or the church.

The Yule Lads come from Icelandic mythology and in modern times have become the country’s gift-giving symbol for the season. The 13 trolls, with distinct playful characteristics, descend from the mountains in the 13 days leading up to Christmas Eve. They distribute small gifts to well-behaving children or potatoes to the naughty ones. The impish trolls are known for playing tricks on people and have interesting names such as Hurðaskellir (door slammer) Bjúgnakrækir (sausage snatcher) and Gluggagægir (doorway sniffer).

Christmas in Japan

Only 1% of the Japan’s population is Christian so Christmas is not a national holiday. However it’s still a time of year happiness and love are celebrated, with some Western traditions making an appearance. Shops are filled with figurines of Santa and snowmen and the streets are decorated with winter light displays. Christmas Eve resembles Valentine’s Day with couples spending the day together, sharing gifts and making reservations at romantic restaurants.

One slightly bizarre tradition that has become a cultural institution is the meal of fried chicken on Christmas Day. An estimated 3.6 millions families eat KFC during the festive season. The demand for fried chicken is so high, people order their festive meal in advance. This quirky practice started in the 1970’s as a marketing campaign to get people buying KFC’s ‘party barrel’ inspired by a turkey dinner. This Christmas meal has since evolved to include premium barrels with ribs or a roast chicken with stuffing.

 KFC in Japan - Christmas traditions around the world
Image courtesy of Darren Elliott

Christmas in Norway

The main Christmas celebrations in Norway take place on Christmas Eve. Presents are exchanged and a family dinner of pork or lamb ribs is enjoyed. With just six hours of sunlight during December, Norwegians rely on festive cheer to brighten up the dark winter days. Preparations start early in the month with many different types of biscuit and cake baked. It’s also a time of year Norwegians long ago believed that witches and evil spirits appeared. To stop the mischievous spirits flying off on their brooms, all cleaning apparatus is hidden on Christmas Eve.

Another Christmas tradition of Norway is the big Christmas Tree given to the UK every year, as a thank you for the help given during World War II. The tree is selected from the forest surrounding Oslo and brought over by sea. The magnificent trees reach heights of over 20 metres tall. It has stood proudly in Trafalgar Square since 1947 with a lighting ceremony at the beginning of December.

Trafalgar Square - Christmas traditions around the world
The Christmas tree standing in Trafalgar Square has been given by Norway to the UK since 1947

Christmas in Greece

Hundreds of years ago the majority of Greece’s population were sailors. At Christmas families would decorate a small wooden boat to give thanks for the safe return of the men of the house. This tradition of decorating boats rather than a tree continues today.  The Christmas tree we know and love didn’t become popular in Greece till the 1940s. In the square of Thessaloniki a huge Christmas tree is accompanied with a huge three-mast sailing ship, covered in lights.

The showstopper dish of the Christmas meal in Greece is either lamb or pork roasted over an oven or an open spit. This meat is served with spinach and cheese pies, and plates of salad and vegetables. For desert, the sweet pastry treats of baklava, kataifi and theeples are enjoyed.

Christmas in Russia

Russia is another country which doesn’t celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December. Instead they follow the Orthodox calendar and hold their celebrations on the 7th of January. New Year is more of a significant holiday with the festivities lasting from the 31st of December through to the 10th of January.

Families gather to eat on New Year’s Eve, sitting down once the first star has appeared at dusk in memory of the Bethlehem Star. The hearty traditional fare includes beetroot soup, roasted pork and individual vegetable pies. These dishes are severed with sauerkraut, cranberries, cumin, shredded carrot and onion rings. Fruit pies, honeybread cookies and a selection of fruit and nuts are enjoyed for deserts.

Christmas tree on Christmas tree on the Palace Square, outside the Hermitage Museum , Russia
A Christmas tree on the Palace Square, outside the Hermitage Museum in Russia

Christmas in Costa Rica

Costa Rica comes alive with festive spirit during December which continues into January. San Jose is transformed into a winter wonderland with colourful lights, grand Christmas trees and manger scenes. There are many fiestas, parades, street parties and dance festivals. San Jose hosts a horseback parade on Boxing Day and many cities host parades called ‘Carnaval’ on the 27th.

Costa Ricans cover their houses in colourful tropical flowers. Nativity scenes are the focus of their decorations, putting the intricate displays together as a family. On Christmas Day after attending Midnight Mass in their finest clothes, everyone heads home for the traditional meal of chicken and pork tamales enjoyed with eggnog and rum punch.

Did you know…

St Nicholas was the patron saint of children and was born in the third century in Patara, Turkey which at the time was part of Greece. He was a man devoted to helping the poor and less fortunate. The anniversary of his death, the 6th of December, became a day for exchanging presents with loved ones. Over the years since his passing, his legend has evolved into the jolly Santa Claus we all know and love.

Fancy celebrating Christmas in another country, enjoying different traditions and customs? Browse our Christmas and New Year group tours.

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