The concept and celebration of Christmas is deeply culturally embedded across the world. Different cultures and countries have created, adopted, and preserved a diverse range of rituals and traditions to celebrate the holiday. Many traditions have evolved from even older customs that were rooted in different beliefs and attitudes. Even in countries where the majority of the population isn’t Christian, secular traditions are often enjoyed by many people. More importantly, the holiday focuses on hope, peace, gratitude, kindness and sharing – values that transcend languages and religions, and can be celebrated and appreciated by all people.
Western Christian Churches celebrate the Nativity of Jesus on Christmas on December 25th, while many Eastern Christian Churches celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord on January 7th. Advent is the four-week liturgical season that precedes Christmas. In Western Christian traditions, common Advent practices include lighting Advent candles on Advent wreaths, keeping Advent calendars, reading daily Advent devotionals, putting up Christmas decorations, and setting up a Christmas tree. In Eastern Christianity, the equivalent of Advent is called the Nativity Fast or the Fast of December, which differs in length and observances and doesn’t mark the beginning the liturgical calendar. (Wikipedia, 2019) Many different cultures and countries maintain unique Advent and Christmas traditions. Here’s some of the diverse ways that these holidays are celebrated:
Austria: During the Advent period, in the first week of December and often on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, young men dress up as the Krampus, walk the streets or in processions, and frighten children with clattering chains and bells. Krampus is a goat-demon and also St. Nicholas’ evil companion. Krampus punishes children that misbehave. (Momondo, 2017)
Colombia: The Christmas season starts on Día de las Velitas (Little Candles Day), which honors the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. People decorate their windows, balconies and front yards with candles and paper lanterns. (Momondo, 2017)
El Salvador: On December 24th and 25th, people celebrate with fireworks displays and playing with fireworks. (Alleyne, 2020)
Germany: On December 6th, Nikolaus Tag, St. Nikolaus travels around Germany by donkey and delivers little treats to children in the middle of the night. He travels with his evil companion, Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert), who whips children that misbehave. Sometimes St. Nikolaus visits children at schools, where he expects children to sing him a song or recite a poem in exchange for gifts or sweets. (Momondo, 2017)
Iceland: Instead of the 12 nights of Christmas, Iceland celebrates 13 nights. Each night, children places a pair of shoes by a window before going to bed. Each morning, they check their shoes to see if they received any gifts. Good children receive candy while bad children receive rotten potatoes. (Alleyne, 2020)
Japan: Many families enjoy a Christmas dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, specifically the bucket meal. In 1974, KFC ran a successful marketing campaign, "Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!" ("Kentucky for Christmas!"), which started the new tradition. Across Japan, which is home to 4,000 Colonel Sanders statues, KFC restaurants dress their Colonel Sanders statues in Santa outfits. (Alleyne, 2020)
Martinique: Many people continue the historic tradition of la ribote, visiting neighbors during Advent and on New Year’s Day as well as bringing holiday foods like yams and pork stew. During these gatherings, people often sing Christmas carols that combine creole verses with traditional lyrics. Singing often continues all night and into the early hours of the morning. (Alleyne, 2020)
Mexico: In early December Las Posadas (religious processions re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph) mark the start of the Christmas season. Church members act out Pastorelas (Shepard’s Plays) to retell the biblical Christmas story. Red poinsettia flowers are used as Christmas decorations across the country. (Alleyne, 2020)
Norway: Julebord (Christmas season) begins on December 3rd. On December 23rd, families celebrate Little Christmas. Each family has their own special traditions and rituals. Popular rituals include decorating Christmas trees, making gingerbread houses, and eating risengrynsgrøt (hot rice pudding). (Alleyne, 2020)
Palestinian Territories: While only about 20% of Palestinians are Christian, many Muslim Palestinians are proud that Jesus was born in a Palestinian Territory. The main town square is decorated with lights and a large Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve, there is a parade through town featuring bagpipe players and people dressed as Santa Claus giving out treats. On Christmas Eve afternoon/evening/midnight, the Mass of the Nativity is held in the Church of the Nativity. (Cooper, 2020)
Philippines: The city of San Fernando holds Ligligan Parul (Giant Lantern Festival). The festival features parols (lanterns) that symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. Each parol consists of thousands of spinning lights that illuminate the night sky. Lubenas was a religious activity and predecessor of the festival. The city has been nicknamed the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines" because of the festival. (Alleyne, 2020)
Poland: On Christmas Eve, dinner isn’t eaten until the first star appears in the night sky. Traditionally, an extra place is set in case anu unannounced guests show up for the dinner. At the start of dinner, many families share oplatek (unleavened Christmas wafer), breaking off a piece and wishing each other Merry Christmas. (Alleyne, 2020)
Portugal & Brazil: On Christmas Eve, families start eating dinner very late in the evening. At midnight, they exchange gifts and toasts. Then, families attend the midnight mass, Missa Do Galo (Rooster Mass) and take the opportunity to spend time catching up with neighbors and relatives. Fireworks in the town square often follow the church service. (Alleyne, 2020)
Sweden: The Christmas symbol of the straw goat dates back to ancient pagan festivals. Since 1966, the town of Gävel has been constructing the Gävle Goat (Yule Goat), a giant goat made out of straw, and displaying it in Castle Square. The straw goat is constructed on the first Sunday of Advent and deconstructed after the New Year. (Alleyne, 2020)
The Netherlands: The first Saturday after November 11, marks intocht van Sinterklaas (arrival of Sinterklaas). Sinterklaas "arrives" by a steamboat at a seaside town, supposedly from Spain. This takes place in a different port each year in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) disembarks and parades through the streets on his horse, welcomed by children cheering and singing traditional songs. His Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) assistants throw candy and gingerbread-like cookies, either kruidnoten or pepernoten, into the crowd. On St. Nicholas' Eve (December 5th) and St. Nicholas' Day (December 6th). Children put their shoes near a chimney or back door overnight and find treats and candies from Sinterklaas inside their shoes the next morning. (Wikipedia, 2019)
Ukraine: For Orthodox Christian, January 6th is Christmas Eve. One tradition is to throw a spoonful of kutya (cooked wheat mixed with honey, ground poppy seeds, and nuts) at the ceiling. If it sticks to the ceiling, it is a sign of a good harvest in the new year. On January 7th, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day by dressing in traditional clothing, walking through town in a procession, and singing carols. (Alleyne, 2020)
Venezuela: In Caracas, residents roller-skate to church on Christmas Eve. Many streets are closed to traffic to allow people to skate to church and back home safely. After attending church, many families enjoy a Christmas dinner of tamales (a wrap made of cornmeal dough, that is stuffed with meat and steamed). (Momondo, 2017)
To find out more about how many more countries celebrate the Christmas holiday, please check out https://www.whychristmas.com/cultures/ .
Written by: Emily Kawasaki
- “Advent.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 3, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent.
- Alleyne, Caleigh. “20 Christmas Traditions Around the World That May Surprise You.” Country Living. the Hearst Corporation, September 17, 2020. https://www.countryliving.com/entertaining/g4933/christmas-traditions-around-the-world/.
- Cooper, James. “Christmas around the World on Whychristmas.com.” Whychristmas.com, November 2000. https://www.whychristmas.com/cultures/.
- Cooper, James. “Christmas in the Palestinian Territories on Whychristmas?Com.” Whychristmas.com, 2000. https://www.whychristmas.com/cultures/palestinianterritories.shtml/.
- Momondo Team. “The Top 11 Christmas Traditions around the World.” Momondo, October 25, 2017. https://www.momondo.com/discover/christmas-traditions-around-the-world.
- “Sinterklaas.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 11, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas.
- Tantingco, Robby. “Lubenas Is Pampanga’s Precious Cultural Gem.” Indung Kapampangan, December 13, 2006. https://kapampangan.wordpress.com/2006/12/13/lubenas-is-pampangas-precious-cultural-gem/.