The first time I spent Christmas abroad I was nineteen years old, backpacking in Paris. I celebrated Christmas Eve (which is the day we Swedes celebrate Christmas) by going up the Eiffel Tower, attending mass at the Swedish Church and spending the night playing billiards in a bar in Montmartre, trying to find the elephant by Moulin Rouge (it burnt down ages ago).
Fast forward a couple of years, and I was celebrating Christmas Eve by falling sound asleep in Tenerife after breaking up with my then boyfriend and escaping to the sun. A few years later I was barbecuing a turkey in the Hollywood Hills, as there was a power cut in all of Beverly Hills on Christmas Day, and the only way to get the turkey done was the BBQ. Luckily, a few hours later, the electricity came back, so we all got to sit in the hot tub under the stars.
Some years after that, I was tanning on a beach in South Africa. I must say though, that I never really immersed myself in any of the cultural celebrations as I traveled the world – I had my unique Christmas moments, celebrating in my own way (that night in Paris, for example, changed my life as someone asked me if I was looking for a job – I randomly said yes, and then went and found myself a job a few days later) – and the other day I decided to look up where Christmas really originated, and how it’s celebrated around the world.
I love the magic of Christmas, so why not discover as much about Christmas traditions around the world as we can, so that we feel closer to people from other cultures at this happy time?
The origins of Christmas
This can be debated. All over the world, there were winter festivals happening around Christmas time, to celebrate the longest night of the year, long before Jesus was born. There was less agricultural work to be done and people had time for a party. There were also certain myths about evil spirits, and protecting yourself against these on the longest night of the year. There was also the Roman Saturnalia being celebrated around that time.
This might be why the church decided to place Jesus’ birthday on the night of the 24/25th of December, as there was no real reference to it in the bible. Some believe the church wanted to celebrate it to get rid of the notion that Jesus was mainly a spirit, something that was widely believed for a while.
It may also be that the church assumed Jesus was born that day as he was “The Sun of Righteousness” (the sun was born as the longest night of the year passed) and also because he was thought to have been conceived on the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere (where night and day are approximately equal length and then day becomes longer as we move into spring) and nine months later would be around Christmas time.
Some people claim the bible is simply a spin-off of other mythological tales about people being born on the 25th of December and dying and resurrecting around Easter, when they were also conceived.
Various traditions from around the world finally merged to become Christmas as we know it today.
The origins of Santa Claus
As for Santa Claus himself, well, he’s a merger of many different people and traditions. One person he was modeled on was Saint Nicholas, a Greek priest who was known for his generous gifts to the poor. Traditionally he was celebrated on December 6th, as it was his name day.
There is also the story of the Magi bringing gifts to Jesus, which probably played a part in gift giving around Christmas becoming popular.
In pagan Nordic traditions, on the other hand, there was Odin, who used to ride across the skies in midwinter, hooded in a long blue cloak and with a white beard, bringing gifts to people.
In the Nordic countries, however, it was at first a yule goat that used to bring the presents for Christmas. The goat itself dates back to pre-Christian times and could have been one of Thor’s goats, as he was said to ride across the skies with his two goats. It was often a part of pranks. Boys going from house to house enacting plays and pulling pranks would have this yule goat character that demanded gifts.
In some countries, it was considered more of a spirit which ensured Christmas celebrations went well. People would also have a small straw goat they tried to place in other people’s homes without them noticing, as a prank, and once you ended up with the goat, you had to place it in someone else’s home.
In the Nordic countries in the 19th century the goat got mixed up with stories of Saint Nicholas and turned into a gift bearer, which ensued in men getting dressed up in a goat mask, delivering gifts for children. This tradition in turn was later replaced by the idea of a small elf like Santa and either the gifts were delivered when the children could not see it, or a man got dressed up like Santa to deliver them.
Finally, all traditions were mixed together to bring you what is known today as Santa Claus or Father Christmas, and thanks to Charles Dickens’ tale of Scrooge, Santa got his modern day clothing, which was slightly altered by famous illustrators and authors at the time. One of those portrayals also included his home as being the North Pole. Later, a massive ad campaign by Coca-Cola led to Santa looking exactly as we know him today.
The traditions vary slightly in different Nordic countries, but they have a lot in common. Being Swedish myself, I will give you an account of the traditional Swedish Christmas celebration.
Christmas celebrations generally start with the 1st of advent, when shops put up their Christmas decorations, you burn the first advent candle, advent calendars are opened and the Christmas TV advent calendar starts airing (a short episode is shown every morning and it’s a show generally made for children). Around this time, glögg parties start happening as well, as do julbord.
Glögg is a form of gluenwine, and many people serve it with gingerbread biscuits and invite friends and family to come over.
Julbord (direct translation: Christmas table(s)) is what you eat for Christmas, but people often get together before Christmas Eve with friends, or colleagues to go to a restaurant to have a julbord. A julbord is a combination of salads, fish (from pickled herring to gravadlax and smoked eel), ham, meatballs, sausages, potatoes, various breads including vörtbröd (a sweet spicy bread) and Christmas cheese.
The 13th of December is also a part of the celebrations leading up to Christmas in Sweden. It’s the celebration of Saint Lucia – a girl in Italy who they tried to burn as she believed in God. Consequently she is celebrated by having a girl or woman (Lucia) walking with a crown of candles wearing a white gown with a red ribbon (symbolizing martyrdom), singing songs and handing out cakes (lussekatter – a bun made with saffron – and gingerbread biscuits) and coffee.
In her wake there is a train of other women/girls and boys/men, all wearing white. The girls have glitter in their hair and usually hold a candle in their hands, whilst the boys wear what can only be described as wizard hats with stars on them. It sounds very peculiar when you try to describe it, but see the video below for a better explanation.
The Lucia tradition is probably yet another example of a pagan ritual turned Christian as it used to be the celebration of the winter equinox – the shortest day of the year – before the calendar was changed to the Gregorian one, and the winter equinox fell on another date. It was also a night when it was believed that supernatural powers were around (some believed there was a Lucia demon about) and they tried to stay awake all night as a result. All Christmas preparations should be done by this night.
Having achieved this, people would eat and drink a bit more than usual and also serve their animals extra food. Youth also started a tradition of going from house to house, singing songs and asking for gifts. All of this eventually merged into Lucia as it is celebrated today – a train of people dressed in white, wearing candles and singing songs, often going from house to house, serving coffee and cake.
Actual Christmas is celebrated on the 24th of December. Usually, people gather with their families to eat their julbord, drink some schnapps and watch Donald Duck on TV at 3pm sharp (it’s a show with snippets from old Disney movies, and watching this has been a tradition in Sweden since the dawn of television pretty much). Most families hand out Christmas presents in the evening – usually after dinner.
When there are children, it’s common for a man in the family to disappear to buy the newspaper, or something similar, only to re-appear dressed as Santa, handing out gifts to the whole family. If there are no children who believe in Santa around, the family might simply gather their gifts under the tree and hand them out.
In North America, you celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December. Usually, the traditions start with kids and adults alike jumping out of bed to check what Santa left for them in the stockings overnight. The idea is that at night Santa and his reindeer fly across the skies, jump down your chimney and fill oversized socks with Christmas presents. Traditionally, those Christmas stockings would hang by the fireplace, but today, you find them anywhere in the household.
As a general rule, Americans decorate their houses with Christmas trees and lights long before Christmas Day, to bring some Christmas cheer during winter. There is also a tradition of going from house to house, singing Christmas carols and spreading joy.
Many Americans are Christian or Catholic, so they celebrate the birth of Jesus and attend church. Nativity plays are common in schools and churches. Jews on the other hand do not celebrate Christmas traditionally, but Hannukah falls in December each year. However, many people in America, no matter what their religion, celebrate Christmas today as a local tradition as opposed to a religious event.
On Christmas Day, most families celebrate by coming together to eat turkey, often served with sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce and a variety of other dishes.
Christmas traditions and rituals in other parts of the world
Italy: Many cultures have some variation of Santa Claus or St. Nicholas who brings gifts for the holiday. Some countries even have both. Italy, however, has a unique variation. They do get gifts from Father Christmas, sure, but that’s not all. They also get gifts from Befana, an old woman who delivers gifts on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5).
Folklore says that Befana visits the children of Italy to fill their socks with either candy and presents or a lump of coal, depending on whether they’ve been good or bad. And before she leaves, she sweeps the floor, which is meant to represent sweeping away the problems of the past.
Like many leave out cookies and milk for Santa, the family will often leave a treat for Befana as well – a glass of wine and local food. Befana is represented by the image of an old woman riding a broomstick through the air – and she’s covered in soot since she comes down the chimney.
Venezuela: In Caracas, Venezuela, they stop all traffic on Christmas Day so people can roller-blade to church.
Colombia: The festivities start on December 7th in Colombia, a day they call Dia de las Velitas or “Day of the Candles.” Streets, sidewalks, porches, driveways, you name it, are all decked out with candles and paper lanterns, lighting up cities and towns in honor of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th.
People get together and decorate their entire neighborhood, and radio stations often hold contests for the best lighting displays, making this celebration a serious event. On Christmas Eve, the most important day of the Christmas season, presents are opened at midnight and parties are held that last until sunrise.
Fireworks light up the nighttime sky and kids will stay up all night playing with their new toys. Little is actually done on Christmas Day, but on December 28th, they celebrate Dia de los Santos Innocentes, which is a day to remember the children slaughtered by King Herod. While the meaning behind the day sounds very serious, the day itself is often celebrated much like April fool’s Day in America with people playing pranks on one another.
Argentina: Feliz Navidad! The main language of Argentina is Spanish, so that’s how they wish each other a Merry Christmas. Many Argentinians are Catholic, and they not only celebrate Christmas, but also Advent as well. Just like in the US, houses are decorated with lights and wreaths and are adorned in traditional Christmas colors.
Christmas trees are also common, and most are decorated by the 8th of December (the feast of Immaculate Conception). The main meal is often eaten on Christmas Eve, and popular dishes include roasted turkey, pork, Christmas bread and Panettone.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, there are fireworks and some people head to midnight mass while others just enjoy the fireworks and opening the presents that are under the tree. In addition to the fireworks, paper decorations much like Chinese lanterns fill up the night sky. The bulk of the celebrating and socializing happens overnight on Christmas Eve, and many people spend Christmas Day sleeping.
Mexico: Mexico has many traditions that are unique to them. Like some other countries, Mexico doesn’t just celebrate Christmas on the holiday itself, but they also celebrate everything leading up to the day. In fact, the celebrations in Mexico start on December 12th with the feast of La Guadalupano and end on January 6th with Epiphany.
One of the holiday traditions include people going door-to-door over nine days, acting out the story of Mary and Joseph looking for shelter leading up to Jesus’ birth. They’re sometimes asked to come into homes to break a candy-filled piñata. Children are given gifts on Christmas Eve as well as on Epiphany.
On Christmas, it’s Santa Claus that brings the gifts, but on the 6th of January, they celebrate the day the Three Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus, and it’s them that are filling the kid’s shoes with candy, nuts, sugar cane, fruit, and sometimes even money.
Norway: In Norway, they used to believe evil spirits would emerge on Christmas Eve, so all broomsticks were hidden, so that witches and other spirits couldn’t fly away with them.
South Africa: There is a tradition of deep frying caterpillars of the Emperor Moth and eating them (luckily I missed out on this tradition since I moved here).
Catalonia: In this country, they tend to put up the nativity scene with an extra figure added – that of a man taking a dump.
Japan: Christmas in Japan is mostly secular and is encouraged by the commerce of the country. It’s not a national holiday, but still popular and often a day where couples spend time together and exchange gifts.
In the 1970s, a successful ad campaign from KFC started the tradition of Japanese families eating KFC for Christmas. In fact, their chicken meals are said to be so popular, that many stores require reservations months in advance. Besides fried chicken, there’s also the Japanese Christmas cake which sounds far more delightful than the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices – it’s a white sponge cake covered with cream and strawberries.
The Philippines: Most Filipinos are Catholic, and they celebrate the holidays with a mixture of western traditions and native ones as well. They have Christmas trees and Christmas carols like in the United States, but they also have their own traditions like the parol.
The parol is a bamboo pole with a star lantern on it, and it’s meant to represent the star that guides the Wise Men. Many people stay up all night on Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day – going to Christmas Eve mass followed by a midnight feast that includes roasted pig, ham, fruit salad, rice cakes, sweets, rice and more.
Germany: Germans hide a pickle in the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and the first child to discover it on Christmas Day gets a present.
Ghana: In Ghana, people start celebrating Christmas early, and they continue celebrating into January. But the real celebrations begin on Christmas Eve, where people attend Church services.
If you’re imagining people sitting in pews listening to sermons, well, you’re wrong. People in Ghana truly know how to celebrate, and their Christmas Eve service includes drumming and dancing, while children put on the traditional Nativity play. Choirs sing, and people don’t sit down to listen to them, they get up and dance.
It’s not uncommon for these festive celebrations to go on all night long. For those who don’t attend church, they typically celebrate with fireworks and parties. The traditional meal is served on Christmas day after the Church services, and the meals often include okra soup, porridge, meats and a yam paste called “fufu”.
Nigeria: Nigeria has unfortunately gotten a bad reputation thanks to a host of internet scammers over the last few years, but their Christmas traditions are something worth talking about. After all, while many people like to talk about giving back during the holiday season, Nigerians take this idea very seriously.
Most of the gifts that are given out during the holiday season involve money or gifts handed down from the very well off to those who are not as fortunate. The financial donations and lavish gifts are wrapped and handed out at parties, weddings and ceremonies. Sometimes they even throw the money into the air to be grabbed by others.
During the holidays, cities empty out as everyone returns back to their ancestral homes. Traditional Christmas meals include Jollof rice (served with stews of various meats, beans and fried plantains), Tuwon Shinkafa (a rice pudding served with meat stews), pepper soup with fish, goat or beef and yam paste.
Pakistan: Christians are a minority group in Pakistan, but those who identify as such still celebrate Christmas. Christians will go caroling, and many families will often give offerings to the choir. The money is often collected for charity work or given to the church itself. They decorate their homes with crafts as well as a star on the roof that represents the Star of Bethlehem.
Ukraine: Christmas in the Ukraine is celebrated on January 7th as opposed to December 25th, which is fairly common in Eastern Europe due to the difference between the Roman calendar and the Julian calendar. Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on the old date that would have, at one time, been observed by all Christians before the calendars were changed.
The Holy Supper is the central tradition of Christmas Eve for Ukrainians. It’s a meal that consists of 12 dishes starting with Kutia (a sweet grain pudding). Along with the food, the table will sometimes have wisps of hay on the table cloth to represent the manger in Bethlehem. After the dinner, the family often sings what is known as Kolyadky, Ukrainian Christmas Carols.
There are some communities that still celebrate the old tradition of caroling with groups of young people going door-to-door, singing for donations. Many of the songs they sing are ancient pagan songs that are thousands of years old, which have been converted to Christmas carols. But perhaps the most unusual custom is that of covering their Christmas trees in fake spider webs to usher in good luck and fortune for the coming year.
Estonia: Like a lot of people around the world, Estonians attend Mass on Christmas Eve. But what they do before Mass is a little unique, for sure. One tradition is that before heading to church, they bathe in a sauna or steam bath (They do it in Finland too). Also, children were given special clothes beforehand so they could get dressed up for the service.
The family returns home to a large table full of food and a few extra place settings for relatives no longer with them. Presents would also appear under the tree, delivered by St. Nicholas, and they’re opened immediately after dinner. Everyone, kids and adults alike, are required to sing a song, dance, or recite a poem in order to get their gift. And like many countries around the world, fireworks light up the nighttime sky on Christmas Eve.
And every year on Christmas day, the president of Estonia declares Christmas a time of peace, a custom that’s been going on for over 350 years. From Christmas Eve until the Feast of the Three Kings, kids dress up in sheepskins turned inside-out and wish families the best. In return, they are given small gifts.
Sweden: Marriage also comes into play in Christmas traditions – in Sweden you finish the Christmas dinner with rice porridge and there is an almond hidden in the porridge. Whoever finds it will get married in the coming year (or, alternatively, will get a present for finding the almond). In the Czech Republic on the other hand, unmarried women stand by the door and throw a shoe behind them. If the toe is pointing to the door, then they will get married in the coming year.
Christmas can be a truly magical time of year, where you celebrate whatever it is that your heart holds true. You can celebrate the birth of the sun, look forward to longer days in the northern hemisphere, or you can celebrate the birth of Jesus, which some see as synonymous with the birth of love and peace. You can celebrate the goodness of Saint Nicholas, Befana or the spirit of Saint Lucia.
Whatever you are celebrating doesn’t matter as much as what you put into the celebration – the intent behind the celebration itself. See it as a time to celebrate what matters.