It’s almost Christmas and we’re heading out on an international journey to discover Christmas celebrations around the world! Travel with us to various countries all over the globe to see how each culture celebrates Christmas. You may notice many similarities to the ways we celebrate here in the United States, but you’ll also notice that many countries have their own unique traditions that are rooted deep in their histories and cultures. You may even find a tradition from another country that you’d like to incorporate into your family’s holiday celebrations. So let’s get started with our exploration of Christmas celebrations around the world!
Traditional Christmas trees became popular in Italy after World War II. A giant tree is decorated near the Colosseum and the famous tree at the Vatican is donated from a different region in Italy each Christmas season. Christmas trees in Italy are decorated on December 8th, the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the trees stay up until January 6th, the Epiphany.
While trees are popular, the most important Christmas decoration throughout Italy is the presepe or nativity scene. Nativity scenes are put up in churches, town squares and houses all across Italy. Naples is famous for it’s beautiful nativity scenes, called Presepe Napoletano or “Napoleon Nativities”. The Vatican is also home to a famous life-sized nativity scene on St. Peter’s Square. Nativity scenes are put on display on December 8th, but most families don’t place baby Jesus into the manger until December 24th, or Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve in Italy, the traditional meal is a meat-free meal, often featuring fish and different types of seafood. After the meal, most families go to a midnight mass service. After mass, a traditional Italian Christmas cake called panettone might be shared before bed.
On Christmas Day, ,or Father Christmas, hands out gifts to children. Some families in Italy hold off on sharing gifts until January 6th, which is the Epiphany, or the end of the Christmas season. This day features another feast, and some families choose to share gifts for this celebration!!
The next stop on our journey of Christmas celebrations around the world takes us Down Under, where Christmas is celebrated in the summer! Christmas decorations tend to go up really early in Australia, sometimes as early as the end of October because there aren’t any other major holidays in Australia that are celebrated between October and December. Many schools start their summer break in the middle of December, so most kids are out of school for Christmas and many families choose to spend the holiday season camping or celebrating on the beach.
Houses in Australia are decorated with Christmas lights and Christmas trees, as well as with bunches of “Christmas Bush”. This is a small plant (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) native to Australia, known for it’s green leaves with little creamy white and bold, bright red flowers. It’s also popular to hang a Christmas wreath on the front door of the house.
On Christmas Eve, families in Australia participate in “Carols by Candlelight” celebrations where people get together to sing Christmas carols while lighting and holding candles. Santa brings gifts on Christmas morning, then families gather for a festive lunch or dinner. Because it’s summer time, many Christmas meals are BBQ’s or picnics at the beach! Pavlova is a popular Christmas dessert served throughout Australia. It is a meringue covered in cream and fresh fruits such as passion fruit, mango, kiwi and strawberries.
In France, the Christmas season starts on December 6th with the celebration of St. Nicholas Day. On the night before, children place their shoes by the door and when they awake in the morning, their shoes are filled with chocolates, candies, nuts and fruits.
Advent calendars are popular in France, as are Christmas trees and Christmas lights. Nativity scenes are also popular traditions and in addition to the Christmas story figures, many French nativity scenes also include a butcher, a baker, a priest, and other common people- a tradition that dates back to the French Revolution allowing French families a way to link their own lives, homes, and villages to the life of Jesus. Yule logs made of cherry wood are also popular around Christmas time in France. It is tradition to leave the log and candles burning all night in case Mary comes by wit Baby Jesus.
Christmas Markets are hugely popular in France. Christkindelsmarik in Strasbourg, France is one of the largest Christmas markets in all of Europe. Strasbourg is actually home to nearly a dozen different Christmas markets, making it a popular holiday destination for French families as well as travelers from all over the world.
On Christmas Eve, children once again put their shoes out- this time by the chimney, so that Père Noël can fill them with sweets. Most families go to a Christmas Eve mass, then return home for the traditional Christmas meal called réveillon. It typically starts around 8:00pm and lasts well past midnight! Traditional dishes include smoked salmon, oysters, scallops, lobster, caviar, foie-gras, pheasant and venison. Bûche de Noël, or yule log cake, is a popular dessert. Children will put their shoes in front of the chimney in hopes that Père Noël will fill them wit sweets and bring gifts in the morning!
In Portugal, the heart of all Christmas celebrations takes place on Christmas Eve. Families decorate their homes with a presépio, or a nativity scene. The big holiday meal, called Consoada, is served on Christmas Eve and often features salted cod and shellfish, roast turkey, vegetables, boiled potato, and boiled egg. Bolo Rei, or King Cake, is a traditional Portuguese Christmas cake usually served after dinner. Inside the cake, both a broad bean and a little gift are hidden. If you are served the piece with the gift, it is yours to keep, but if you are served the piece with the beam, you have to pay for next year’s cake!
After dinner, most families go to a Christmas Eve mass at church, often called Missa do Galo or the ‘Mass of the Rooster’ service. Baby Jesus is presented during this mass and placed in the church’s nativity scene. When families return home, they place baby Jesus in their own nativity scenes. Pai Natal, or Father Christmas, delivers gifts on Christmas Eve instead of on Christmas morning. Some families in Portugal believe it is Baby Jesus himself who delivers the gifts!
The Christmas markets that are so popular throughout all of Europe today first originated in Germany, so it’s no wonder that Christmas markets are a large part of Germany’s holiday celebrations. With the first recorded market taking place in 1434, the Dresdner Striezelmarkt in Dresden, Germany is the world’s oldest Christmas market. The Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg is also a festive holiday destination in Germany.
Advent calendars are another a popular Christmas tradition in Germany. In addition to the traditional Advent calendars, there is also a version made out of a wreath with 24 boxes each containing a small gift hung from it, as well as an Advent calendar that consists of a ring of Fir branches with four candles- one that is lit at the beginning of each week of the Advent season.
Christmas trees first made their appearance in Germany during the late Middle Ages. In Germany, Christmas trees usually aren’t put up until Christmas Eve, when families decorate their trees. Reading Bible stories and singing Christmas carols often accompanies the decorating of the tree on Christmas Eve. Houses are also decorated with Christmas lights and other festive decorations.
German children write letters to das Christkind, or Christ Child, to ask for gifts. The letters are often decorated with sugar and left on windowsills during Advent. The original image of das Christkind was a reference to baby Jesus, but modern depictions are of “depicted as a spirit-like child with blond hair and angel wings.” Some German families also believe in Der Weihnachtsmann, or Santa Claus.
Colonized primarily by Catholic Spaniards in the 1500s, Mexico remains predominantly Catholic with over 80% of Mexico celebrating Christmas. The Christmas season is celebrated from December 12th through January 6th, with Posada processions beginning on December 16th and culminating on Christmas Eve. Posada translates to “Inn” and the nine nights of Posada processions represent Joseph and Mary looking for somewhere to stay for the birth of their baby. Children carry paper sacks with shapes cut in them and candles inside, lighting their way as they parade through the streets, stopping at houses to sing a carol that is about Mary and Joseph asking for a room to stay in. Each house will reply that they have no room, and the children will continue their search at the next home. When they do find a room for Mary and Joseph, the children are welcomed in with a party and even fireworks! Pinantas are popular at the Posada celebrations. Each night, a different family hosts the party where Mary and Jesus- and the children- are all welcome.
Nativity scenes are hugely popular in Mexico. Many contain life-size figures, even in homes! In this case, an entire room in a family’s home is dedicated to the nacimiento, or nativity scene. Nativity scene figures are often made of clay. They contain the traditional characters from the Christmas Story as well as traditional Mexican figures. Baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve, after the last Posada where children find a room for Mary and Joseph to have their baby. The Three Kings are traditionally added on January 6th, called the Epiphany, or We Three Kings Day.
Traditionally speaking, Santa Claus is not popular in Mexico. Often children get a gift on the night of each Posada, and more gifts on We Three Kings Day. However, some Mexican families have taken on the tradition of Santa Claus, who brings gifts on Christmas Eve.
As one of two predominately Catholic countries in all of Asia, the Philippines goes BIG for Christmas. Christmas celebrations start early- as in September 1st early- and last through in Epiphany, the first Sunday after New Years Day in January. The Christmas season, called the “Ber months,” is the longest celebrated Christmas season in the world!
Noche Buena parties are celebrated on Christmas Eve. First, families will attend a mass at church- called Misa de Riso– and then return home for their holiday meal and party. Feasts often include queso de bola (cheese ball), lechon (roast pig), noodles, fruit, and ham. Tsokolate, a traditional version of hot chocolate, along with a custard called leche flan and a sweet glutinous rice cake made of coconut cream, sugar and ground rice called Bibingka is served for desert.
Christmas decorations are also huge in the Philippines, with parols, or star lanterns that represent the Star of Bethlehem, being a popular holiday decoration. The City of San Fernando holds a lantern festival called Ligligan Parul. The festival is home to thousands and thousands of spinning lights and lanterns, earning San Fernando the title of the Christmas Capitol of the Philippines.
Children in the Phiippines enjoy the Western idea of Santa Klaus. Another holiday tradition is Santa R-Kayma Klaws , who is an old man who has been dressing up as Santa Klaus in the Philippines for over 50 years and traveling around to hand out gifts in some of the poorer areas of the Philippines.
Like other countries in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas in South Africa falls during the summer months. Kids are out of school for summer break and just like in Australia, many families choose to go camping or spend the holiday on the beach.
Christmas decorations are popular in South Africa. Traditional evergreen Christmas trees are not easy to come by, but artificial trees are popular in homes and stores. There is a huge Christmas tree at the V&A Waterfront Shopping Centre in Cape Town and this holiday display also includes traditional African baskets and other hand made crafts and art pieces. Concerts and craft markets are also popular leading up to Christmas Day in South Africa.
The Christmas meal is called braai, which is a South African type of barbecue. Duck, turkey, roast beef, lamb, crayfish, seafood and glazed gammon, or ham, are popular for the holiday meal. Mince pie, yellow rice with raisins and various vegetables are also popular. For dessert, malva is a traditional South African apricot pudding often served at the braai. Most of these meals take place outside as the sunshine is plentiful!
Some South African families believe in Santa Claus who is known as Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) or Kersvader (Father Christmas), but it’s not an overly popular belief throughout the entire African continent. Gift giving also isn’t as popular as it is in other countries. It’s more common to see families donate gifts such as clothes, books, soaps, and toys to local churches or orphanages. One gift that is common to exchange is clothes- and most people will buy or gift a special new outfit for Christmas services at church.
Many families will attend a Christmas mass both on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day. Caroling is popular on Christmas Eve, with many “Caroling by Candlelight” events throughout the country. After church and the holiday lunch on Christmas Day, many people travel to the countryside or the beach to rest and relax with family!
The Christmas season in Sweden begins on Forsta Advent, or the first Sunday of Advent. On each of the four Advent Sundays leading up to Christmas, a candle is lit to count down to the holiday. Families often enjoy glögg, or mulled wine, and gingerbread cookies with the lighting of the advent candles.
Another big holiday celebration in Sweden takes place on December 13th, which is St. Lucia’s Day. St. Lucia was a young martyr, killed for her Christian faith in the year 304. It was said St. Lucia wore candles on her head so she could carry things in her hands, so her name means “light”. Today, St. Lucia Day is celebrated by girls dressing in a white dress with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head. It is often the eldest girl in the family who will dress up, with a crown made of lingonberry branches and sometimes even real candles. Boys may dress up as Stjärngossar (a star boy) and younger girls dress as tärnor, which looks similar to St. Lucia but without the crown of candles upon their heads. A national St. Lucia is also chosen to dress up each year, visiting hospitals and nursing homes where the children sing carols and serve gingersnap cookies. Lussekatts, or saffron buns with raisins, is a special St. Lucia’s Day treat.
In Sweden, holiday decorations are simple and rustic. Wreaths, hyacinths, candles and straw ornaments are all very natural, understated yet beautiful decorations. Gift wrapping is kept simple as well, with homemade gift tags that often include a little poem that hints at what may be inside the wrapping paper.
The main holiday meal is served on Christmas Eve and is called julbord. Smoked salmon, pickled herring and lye-fish are popular for this mean, as are meatballs, ham, sausage, potatoes, and cabbage dishes. Dessert is often a rice pudding made with milk and topped with cinnamon. Sometimes an almond is hidden in someone’s serving of rice pudding, and the person who finds it is said to get married in the upcoming year! Left over rice pudding is saved for breakfast on Christmas morning. It will be fried in butter and sprinkled with sugar!
On Christmas Eve, Swedish children must wait until after sundown to open gifts- but due to Sweden’s northern location, the skies are usually dark by very early afternoon. Then families across Sweden gather around the television to watch a classic Donald Duck Cartoon from the 1950’s, a Christmas tradition all across the country!
The holiday season in Sweden lasts until St. Knut’s Day on January 13th. This is when decorations are disassembled and families will dance around the Christmas tree before discarding it for the year.
New Zealand is another country that celebrates Christmas in the summertime. Christmas lunch is often a barbecue, sometimes taking place at the beach! Fresh seafood is popular, along with other meats like ham and venison as well as fresh vegetables. Bait fritters and Christmas crackers are also popular with this holiday meal. Hot fruit pudding with custard or ice cream is popular, as are cold desserts such as pavlova, a meringue cake served with whipped cream and berries.
Families in New Zealand put up Christmas trees in their homes, but they also honor their own unique Christmas tree in New Zealand, the pohutukawa, which is a beautiful tree that blooms wit bright red flowers in the month of December and is important in the native Maori culture. Images of these trees are popular on Christmas cards and they appear in other forms of holiday decorations as well.
Santa parades with holiday floats and marching bands are popular in towns across New Zealand. Because it’s summer, Santa is often seen wearing jandals, or sandals, instead of his heavy winter boots! Children leave carrots our for Santa’s reindeer, much like children do in the US. But instead of cookies and milk, Santa often gets pineapple chunks and a beer when he stops in New Zealand! At least the pineapple is healthy!
In Poland, Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season. It is the time for families to prepare, both spiritually and physically, for the coming of Christ. Families often spend this time cleaning their homes in preparation for Christmas festivities. Many people give up something, often a favorite food or drink, in an attempt to remove excess from their lives in order to focus more on the spiritual aspects of Christmas. Church services are also an important part of Advent. Several special masses and communion services are held at Church during the Advent season. Rorarty is an morning mass held by candle light before the sun comes up five day a week during Advent.
In Poland, St. Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on December 6th. Święty Mikołaj, or St. Nicholas brings small gifts to leave in the shoes children have set out by the fireplace. In school, children rehearse and perform Jasełka , or nativity plays.
Christmas Eve is the most important holiday celebration in Poland. In many families, Christmas Eve is a day of fasting until sunset. Prior to the special Christmas Eve dinner, families will break their fast by sharing oplatek, or Christmas wafer. Each person starts with their own wafer, then offers others the chance to break a piece off and take it for themselves. While sharing the wafers, people share their blessings and wishes for their friends and family.
Then it is time for kolacja wigilijna, or Christmas Eve supper. The traditional Polish Christmas Eve supper is meatless in remembrance of the animals who accompanied baby Jesus on the night he was born. The meal often features 12 dishes, one for each month of the coming year. Some also believe the 12 dishes represent the 12 disciples as well. Traditional foods include beetroot soup or mushroom soup, carp or herring, pierogi, sauerkraut and cabbage rolls. It is tradition to set an extra place setting at the table to honor those no longer present, or to signify the welcoming of a traveler or homeless person who might be passing through.
Gifts are often exchanged after dinner on Christmas Eve. Many Polish children believe in St. Nicholas, and St. Nicholas will come and place gifts under the tree for the children to open on Christmas Eve. Many families will sing carols together on Christmas Eve as well!
In Iceland, Christmas is known as Jól , or Yule, which stems from ancient winter solstice celebrations. The Christmas celebration lasts for 16 days in Iceland, starting on December 11th and lasting through January 6th. Celebrations ramp up 13 days before Christmas, when the first of 13 different Yule Lads, or Santa Clauses come to visit. Each Yule Lad has it’s own character and personality. Children and families enjoy sharing stories about each of the different Yule Lads. Children leave shoes by the windowsill in hopes that the Yule Lads will fill them up with treats on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. If children haven’t been good, or if the Yule Lads are feeling a bit feisty, they may leave the children potatoes instead!
On December 23rd, Iceland celebrates St. Thorlakur’s Day. Celebrations include the decorating of the Christmas tree and sharing a meal of skata, a fermented type of fish that is a uniquely Icelandic delicacy! Many stores stay open until midnight on the 23rd for people to finish their holiday shopping.
Christmas Eve is celebrated on December 24th with a truly unique gift giving tradition. On Christmas Eve in Iceland, families give each other books and then spend the evening reading them! They also enjoy hot chocolate or a non-alcoholic Christmas ale called jólabland. What a cozy Christmas Eve tradition!
On Christmas Day, a roast leg of lamb is the traditional holiday meal. Rjúpa, a game bird, and laufabrauð, or leaf bread, is also served. The bread is made from thin sheets of dough that are cut into intricate patterns and fried. It is tradition for families to have their own specific patterns for their laufabrauð.
If you are looking for more holiday content, be sure to check out these festive posts from Wandering Moms:
- The 15 Best Christmas Markets Around the World
- 12 Cheerful Christmas Destinations in the USA
- 8 Family Friendly Ski Resorts in the US