Wherein we learn that Christmas traditions around the world are not always what we think they are going to be…because people are not always the same everywhere. That’s why we travel. To learn the differences!
You probably take the Christmas traditions of your family and your country pretty much for granted. I know I always did… before I started to travel internationally. Once I spent my first Christmas away from home, I realized that the Santa Claus of the Coca-Cola ads, turkey and ham on the table, and stockings by the fireplace were neither the universal nor the only ways to celebrate the holiday around the world.
When I lived in London in 1970, I learned about Father Christmas, stirring the Christmas pudding and Boxing Day. In Amsterdam, I learned about Sinterklaas and Zwaarte Piet and giving gifts to children on December 5th. When I moved to Mexico, the importance of the posadas was a new lesson, and then I learned about Three Kings Day on January 6th. All these new and different Christmas traditions enriched my life.
The celebrations of the holiday are rich and varied, and Christmas traditions around the world run a very wide gamut of food, fun and the frankly odd. Traveling is one of the best ways to experience them. But you can read about them too. Here is a round two dozen you may not have heard about:
1 – A Spicy Drink with a Funny Name in ChileThe most traditional and very popular Christmas drink in Chile is a smooth and creamy concoction called Cola de Mono, or Monkey’s Tail, and not even the locals seem to know where it got its name. It is made with coffee, milk, sugar, spices and aguardiente. Egg yolks are sometimes added. You can buy it pre-made in supermarkets all over Chile at this time of year, just like you can buy eggnog in U.S. supermarkets, but it’s easy to make from scratch at home. Cola de Mono is often drunk with Pan de Pascua, a special holiday fruitcake. You can find a recipe to make your own Cola de Mono on my friend Gloria’s blog, The Nomadic Chica.
2 – Fried Chicken in Japan
Ever since the mid-’70s, fried chicken from KFC has been THE traditional Christmas Eve meal in Japan. The chain’s holiday “Kentucky for Christmas” TV commercials feature pop stars and smiling kids in Santa hats dancing with full boxes and buckets of the holiday treat. The company does so much business on this one day that company execs have to leave their desks to help keep the lines moving in the stores. Many people reserve their buckets of fried chicken months in advance to avoid the waits of up to two hours in line.
3 – A Christmas Tradition of Books and Respect for Reading in the Icy North
In Iceland, it’s a wonderful holiday tradition to give gifts of books on Christmas Eve. And then of course you want to get right into them, so you stay up all night reading them. Of all these Christmas traditions, this one might be my favorite!
4 – Girls’ Luck for the Year Ahead?
The Czech people have a tradition or superstition related to Christmas: A young unmarried women will throw a shoe over her shoulder on Christmas Day. If it lands with the toe pointing towards the door, she will soon be married. If not, she is destined to remain a spinster for another year…. which I don’t actually see as a piece of bad luck myself!
5 – What a Web They Weave
In the Ukraine, the most common decorations for the Christmas tree are spiders and spider webs. This comes from a folk tale about a family too poor to afford any decorations for their tree so they had to go to bed on Christmas Eve with its branches bare. The spiders living in the house felt so bad for them that they worked through the night spinning their webs around the tree. When the children awoke on Christmas morning, the tree was covered with filmy webs, which then turned to gold and silver, assuring the family’s fortunes forever more. These kinds of feel-good Christmas traditions show up all over the world.
6- Heather and Driftwood in the Arctic
And speaking of Christmas trees…. In Greenland, Christmas trees have become popular, just like in so much of the rest of the world, but every single one of them has to be imported. No trees will grow this far north! Instead of imported trees, many Greenlanders decorate a driftwood “tree” with heather.
7- Home of the US Trees
And still speaking of Christmas trees…. In the U.S., the largest number of Christmas trees are grown in the state of Oregon. Of those, some 80% come from the Willamette Valley, south of Portland… which is also where most of the state’s best wines come from!
8- Keeping the Goblins Away
In Greece, one of the oldest Christmas traditions is to keep a fire burning in the house for the entire 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany (January 6th). This is meant to keep away the killantzaroi or bad spirits. These little bad guys creep in through the chimney, only at this time of year, to wreak such havoc as making the milk spoil and putting the fires out!
9 – Apples for Love
In Croatia, it is a very old tradition for young men to give beautifully decorated apples to their girlfriends on Christmas Day.
10 – Mass and Hockey
In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas, called Ganna, on January 7th. The people dress all in white, usually in a traditional toga-like garment called a shamma. The people begin arriving early for the Ganna mass, which starts at 4:00 am and can go on for hours. After mass, the men play a hockey-like game, still in their long white shammas.
11 – Unique Transportation
In Caracas, Venezuela, the normally busy streets take on a unique look early on Christmas Day. They are closed off to traffic before 8 am so people can roller skate to early mass! Yep, people don roller blades to glide through the streets to church by the thousands.
12 – Pooping Presents!
Sometimes Christmas traditions are downright silly and even a bit gross. In Catalonia, in the northeastern part of Spain, there is an ancient and popular tradition called Caga Tió, which translates as the “Poop Log” (and yes, it means just what you think it does). It’s a log, traditionally hollowed out, with a happy face on one end and wearing a bright red Catalan hat. Beginning December 8th, the log is pampered by the children and draped with a blanket to keep it warm. On Christmas Eve, they hit it with a stick while singing a special song instructing it to “poop presents” for them. Then the blanket is removed to reveal presents (stealthily placed by mom and dad) of candy, tourrón nougat and small gifts.
13 – Burning the Dirt Devils
Guatemalans want their homes really clean for Christmas. They also want to be very sure the devil is not allowed inside. So one of their main Christmas traditions is to sweep the houses very clean just before Christmas, pile up all the dirt and dust and bring it to a communal pile in the neighborhood. Then they add an ugly devil’s head to the top of the pile and burn that sucker up. Ah, the neighborhood is not only clean but safe for another year!
14 – Christmas Specials in a Muslim Land
Indonesia is 80% Muslim, but there are still 20 million Christians in the country and the spirit of Christmas has taken hold throughout the land. Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas, is a holdover from the days when the country was a Dutch colony, and all the kids quite expect him to bring them presents on Christmas Day. Oddly, Christmas music is broadcast on most Indonesian TV stations, and the state-owned channel always shows a big Christmas celebration put on by the Indonesian Government.
15 – Fancy Bread in Hungary
The main Christmas meal in Hungary is eaten on Christmas Eve. It’s a hearty meal of fish and cabbage and also features a special Christmas poppy seed bread/cake called beigli. Another very traditional Hungarian Christmas treat is gingerbread, often wrapped in brightly colored paper and decorated with Christmas scenes and figures.
16 – A Cleanse to Prepare
In Estonia, Christmas Eve is the big event, and it begins with a trip to the sauna! It is important to both relax and cleanse oneself for the celebrations ahead. Whole families will often go together. This is one of the Christmas traditions around the world I think I could really get into. After the sauna, you’re ready for Christmas Eve mass… for which the children will usually receive new clothes and shoes.
17 – Beach Party Holiday
In Australia, Christmas falls in early summer. The only chance for a “White Christmas” is on a white sand beach! And so on Christmas Day, many Sydneysiders do what they do so well… they head to Bondi Beach for the Sunburnt Christmas Festival. About 4000 party-goers will show up for a day of DJs and dancing, surfing, bikini contests and lunch from the barbie.
18 – The Rooster Mass
Most people in Brazil will go to a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster). It’s named for the bird because the rooster announces the coming of day and the mass doesn’t usually finish until 1.00 am. After the Rooster Mass, there are usually big fireworks displays in the larger towns and cities. Since it is summertime, and usually quite hot on Christmas Day, the best of all Christmas traditions often means a trip to the beach!
19 – Christmas Witches on Brooms
In Italy, the big day for presents is Epiphany (January 6th) and it’s a witch who brings them! La Befana, complete with hooked nose and long black shawl, rides around on a broom. On the eve of Epiphany, she slides down chimneys to leave candies and gifts in the stockings of good children and lumps of coal for the naughty ones. She will also often use her means of transportation to sweep the floor while she’s at it!
20 – Weird Radishes
In the city of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, December 23rd is known as the Night of the Radishes. For more than 100 years, the city has held this huge festival and competition, where artisans carve scenes and tableaux from giant radishes! The tradition started in 1897 as a way to attract customers to the city’s Christmas Market, held in the zócalo, the town’s main square. Now, the one-day event draws over 100 contestants and thousands of visitors every year and is one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Mexico.
21 – Christmas Traditions for the Dead
Christmas Eve dinner in Portugal is the night to invite the whole family—including those who have passed on. Yes, inviting the ghosts of loved ones lost is a tradition there. Extra places are set at the table for these missing loved ones and some crumbs from dinner are also spread across the hearth to honor them.
22 – Eating Emperors???
A traditional part of the Christmas feast in South Africa is deep-fried caterpillars of the Emperor Moth. Since this is the season for harvesting the bug, which is preserved to eat throughout the winter, there is an abundant fresh supply at Christmas time. The caterpillars have three times as much protein, by weight, as beef! Munching on them is a beloved Christmas tradition. Well…to each his own, I guess.
23 – Lucky Santa
Although you may have grown up leaving milk and cookies out as a treat for Santa—and perhaps as a bribe so he will leave you lots of goodies, even if you’ve been naughty—in Ireland, the traditional Santa snack is mince pies and Guinness Ale. I’d say that was a pretty fine bribe!
24- Kissing Bough Christmas Traditions
The tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house figures in many Christmas traditions around the world. It also goes back many centuries, at least to the time of the Druids and the ancient Greeks. It has always been considered a sacred plant and was often believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. It has also been associated with fertility, since it remains green all year long. Kissing under the mistletoe may have come from the old Norse belief that it is a symbol of Peace and enemies can safely lay down their arms if they meet beneath it. Today, many countries maintain the custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe for luck and romance.
I hoped you’ve learned a couple of new things about Christmas Traditions Around the World. Have you got other Christmas traditions and stories to share? I’d love to hear them, especially things you’ve learned on your travels throughout the world. Leave them in the comments below and we can all learn more about how the world celebrates this magical holiday. The more we know about each other, the more we understand… and the more we are able to share, to care, to love. And then perhaps the world will know peace.