Have you ever experienced Christmas through the lens of a different culture? It’s funny how one of the things we love best about Christmas is its continuity—traditions that return year after year and mark this special time with comforting familiarity. Yet Christmas traditions in different nations around the world are as diverse as you can possibly imagine!
Join us as we travel ‘round the globe like St. Nick to peek in on the Christmas traditions that connect us all as we celebrate the same holiday in many different ways. Who knows, you may discover a tradition you would like to add to your own family celebration.
First stop? Eastern Europe!
European Christmases are, perhaps, what we think of most when we picture Christmas abroad: quaint cottages in snow-covered fields dotted with evergreens, bustling markets aglow with warm light, each stall bursting with seasonal goodies. Europe is the root from which American Christmasses grew.
Yet even Europe has its own surprising and unusual (from our perspective) Christmas traditions. Here are some of the most unique:
Keep a spider’s web in your Christmas tree!
Seriously, are we talking about Christmas or Halloween here?! But spiders are considered symbols of prosperity in Poland, Germany, and some other Eastern European countries, and it is common to see spider-themed decorations in a Christmas tree. It’s all thanks to a legend about a poor widow whose only Christmas ornaments were the spiders’ webs, which shone like gold and silver in the sunlight on Christmas morning.
No carrots for reindeer here. But how about porridge for the house gnome?
In Scandinavia it is commonly held that every home has a guardian spirit called a Nisse—sort of like a gnome or fairy—that watches over it. In Norway, children customarily leave bowls of porridge out on Christmas Eve as a way of thanks to this wee one, who, incidentally, could be a man or woman but always wears a hat!
Board our global Christmas train for the next stop on our tradition adventure—Asia.
If you don’t often think of Asia when you think of Christmas, think again! There are as many different ways of celebrating this holiday as there are countries in this expansive continent, from the Philippines, where 90% of the population is Christian, to Japan, where Christmas is more of a commercial event.
Forget the sugar plums. Try a Christmas apple!
Fun fact: the word “apple” sounds extremely similar to the word for “Christmas Eve” in Mandarin. So, in China, apples wrapped in beautifully colored cellophane are favorite gifts of the season. (Ironic to me since I always received a Mandarin orange in my stocking for Christmas.)
Speaking of food . . . see what American marketing has done!
What is the one food your Christmas would just not be Christmas without? The turkey? The Christmas cookies? Well, whatever that thing is for you, in Japan that thing is KFC. Yep, thanks to a brilliantly executed marketing campaign, nothing says Christmas in Japan like a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Some people pre-order months in advance to avoid standing in the long lines. Speaking as someone who always cooks the turkey, this is a Christmas tradition I could get behind!
And off we jet to our next Christmas tradition destination, Africa.
Since we’re crossing the equator and heading to the southern hemisphere for the rest of our journey, this is a good time to mention a fun fact we don’t think about very often—down south, our winter is their summer and vice versa. So, yes, Christmas is a summer holiday for half the world!
A different take on the traditional tree.
Most African nations share many of our familiar Christmas traditions, albeit with their own local twist. Carols, religious observances, feasting, and gift-giving are the norm. Decorating too; although you might notice one major difference with the traditional Christmas centerpiece—the tree! Evergreens are not exactly common in Africa. So what about stringing your lights on a Christmas palm or mango tree instead?
Decor as status symbol.
And since we’re on the subject of decorations . . . a colleague and friend of mine, South African born and raised, recently enlightened me on how their culture views the snowy decor we love so much here.
South Africa is still in the process of dismantling a long history of colonialism and its impact. One of the more lasting stereotypes is the tendency to think of anything “northern hemisphere” as being superior or higher class. So some people decorate with fake snow, snowmen, snowflakes, anything reflecting a northern white Christmas, as a way to broadcast status. (And many others consciously avoid those decorations because they see it as snobby!)
Next stop, down under!
Three words: beach, cricket, prawns.
Australia puts their unique spin on Christmas by keeping it a laid back, often outdoor affair. It’s summer down under after all. So heading to the beach (or at least out to the backyard for a dip in the pool) is a customary way to spend the day. And since fewer people are out on the roads, it’s also not uncommon to have a neighborhood pick-up game of cricket right out in the streets! The traditional must-have food? Prawns. Yep, nothing says Christmas like sending someone to the market for a prawn run and cooking them up on the barbie for lunch!
We finish our tour of Christmas traditions around the world in South America. Here, Christmas is heavily influenced by both strong Catholic roots and Native ancestry.
A mix of religious traditions.
Nativity scenes and midnight masses are central parts of many South American Christmases. The focus of the season revolves around the birth of Jesus, and in some cultures it is even the baby Jesus who bestows the gifts, rather than Santa. However, parades, songs, and celebrations are also injected with food, costumes, and traditions passed down from Indigenous heritages. And the day would not be complete without a spectacular fireworks display!
Thank you for joining me on our Christmas trip around the world! Did you find any traditions you would like to add to your own holiday repertoire (or wish you could)? If nothing else, learning about how other people celebrate this familiar day can open our eyes to the rich and varied fabric of our human race. It’s something to ponder as we enjoy our own Christmas traditions.
Written by Vida Mercer: Vida is a second-generation homeschooler, writer, writing coach, and curriculum developer. Born and raised in Southern Maryland, Vida met her husband, Jonathan, literally on horseback during a stint in North Texas. Now, they live in Northern California where they love to travel, day trip, and weekend with their two daughters. They, of course, incorporate their adventures into their homeschool lifestyle and wouldn’t have it any other way!