Christmas has become an almost ubiquitous celebration found all around the world. Nearly every country—even those not traditionally steeped in Christianity—acknowledges the holiday in some fashion.
When you travel with Zegrahm Expeditions, there’s often a chance to take part in the unique, eclectic holiday traditions that have come to surround this time of year. Much like each family in North America has their own take on Christmas traditions, each country puts its own cultural spin on what best captures the spirit.
As a visitor, these colorful Christmas traditions can be exciting, enlightening, and sometimes downright bizarre. Then again, most of us travel in search of new experiences and expose ourselves to different lifestyles; a Christmas trip can be a great opportunity for getting an extra dose of just that.
Traditional Christmas Food
For most people, Christmas is not complete without a big, special meal to commemorate the event. However, Christmas dinner takes on a whole new meaning when we look at Christmas traditions around the globe.
Japanese cuisine has the reputation of being healthy, and often centered around rice and seafood; which only makes it all the more surprising when you learn that, in Japan, tradition dictates that American fast food favorite KFC is the customary holiday meal!
Ranking amongst the world’s most unexpected holiday fare is a dish that’s in season in South Africa in December: The deep-fried caterpillars of Emperor moths. This is a rare (if unusual) delicacy that you won’t find in many other places.
In Costa Rica, and many other Central American countries, tamales are what’s for Christmas dinner. The traditional dish is made from masa (corn dough) stuffed with pork, or sometimes other meat, and steamed in banana leaves.
Thanks to traditional holiday carols and Charles Dickens, the United Kingdom feels like a Christmas-y sort of place. The holiday would be incomplete without its signature dessert, Christmas pudding, which is also known as plum pudding or pud. Oddly, there are no plums in the dish, but rather raisins, suet, flour, treacle, and spices.
Winning the award for longest preparation time, Greenland’s traditional Christmas dish, kiviak, takes a full seven months to prepare. It begins with hollowing out a seal skin and stuffing it with 500 auks—seabirds (feathers and all)—to ferment. When the holiday rolls around, it’s served straight from the seal.
Traditional Christmas Figures
Be it Father Christmas, Ol’ Saint Nick, or Jesus, this holiday is full of familiar and beloved figures who are well-known all around the world. It’s also filled with some localized heroes and, sometimes, even villains!
Christmastime in Greece is run amok with goblins called Kallikantzaroi, which arrive on the 25th of December and cause trouble until the Epiphany on January 6th. During that time, they’re known to ruin food, break things, and pee in flowerbeds, among other naughty mischief.
When most people think of animals at Christmas, reindeers come to mind. But that’s not the case in Iceland, where the Yule Cat is on the prowl. Unless a person is donning new clothes, myth holds that the Jólakötturinn will eat you.
Christmas was never really part of the Soviet Union. So the Russian version of Santa Claus is Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), who delivers a present at midnight on New Year’s Eve with the help of his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden.
Though witches are typically relegated to Halloween in the United States, this is not the case in Italy. There, Befana delivers presents via flying broom. The legend goes that she didn’t accompany three passing magi on their journey to take gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a baby in Bethlehem. Filled with regret, ever since she has been bestowing gifts to good children.
Krampus is a frightful creature, half-goat and half-man, with fangs and horns. A counterpart to the kind, benevolent Santa, this Christmas devil comes to punish children for bad behavior. He’s also been spotted in Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia.
Whether it’s decorating the trees, hitting the streets to sing carols, or attending midnight mass, Christmas is always full of bustling activities. That said, these traditions can be vastly different depending on the location.
Below the equator, the weather in December is just reaching its hottest. So Australians generally celebrate Christmas outdoors, with trips to the beach and cookouts. Even Santa changes into swimming attire when he gets to “the land down under.”
In Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, the days leading up to Christmas have an early mass each morning. Traditionally, at least in recent years, people roller skate to it! Many neighborhoods even close their streets to cars until 8am.
There is an interesting Norwegian superstition that accompanies Christmas Eve, when all of the brooms in the house are hidden. It’s believed that witches and misbehaving spirits are out, and will steal people’s brooms to ride around on.
As is the case with many northern European and Scandinavian countries, the winters of Estonia are bitterly cold, which make saunas wildly popular. On Christmas Eve, family members often get sweaty together in the buff before heading off to mass.
Christmas has historically been tied to the winter solstice, which often involves predicting what will happen in the year to come. In the Czech Republic, a fun tradition for single women is standing, facing away from the house, and tossing a shoe over their shoulder on Christmas Day. If it lands with the toe pointing towards the door, it is believed that marriage will be on the next year’s agenda!
Symbolic Christmas Traditions
Christmastime is wrought with symbols, both religious and secular. There are mangers, wreaths, jolly old men in red, trees, stars, and countless other things. Some of these symbols are a little more widely recognized than others.
Whereas most Americans envision fir and evergreens when we think of what a Christmas tree is supposed to be, in New Zealand all bets are off. Instead, the pohutukawa—a native myrtle tree with beautiful red blooms that last from November to January—has been honored as the country’s Christmas tree.
While most of us would image the “Christmas Crapper” as something negative, this is not the case in Catalonia, Spain. There, statues of famous figures “evacuating” are believed to bring hope, prosperity, and fertility in the year to come.
The Yule Goat in Sweden is made of straw at the start of advent. Small, ornamental versions are commonly found under Christmas trees, while huge versions are erected in public squares. Burning down the giant goat—which is technically vandalism—also seems to have become a Swedish Christmas tradition.
The Night of the Radishes is a yearly custom in Oaxaca, Mexico. On December 23rd, competitors carve nativity scenes into large radishes and proudly display them at the Christmas market. The city has even dedicated land to cultivating special vegetables just for this event.
Spider webs and Christmas aren’t typically linked, unless you live in Ukraine. Local folklore tells the story of a poor woman who couldn’t afford to decorate her holiday tree. On Christmas morning, she found the tree was covered in spider webs, which turned into strands of gold and silver when the morning’s first light hit them. So in Ukraine, all the Christmas trees now are covered in cobwebs in hopes of courting similarly good fortune.
The beautiful thing about exploring our great big diverse world is that we get so many unique cultural takes and unexpected Christmas traditions to discover. Surely, a fat man in a red suit coming down the chimney at midnight is every bit as bewildering as anything else on this list. In other words, be merry and enjoy the festivities, whatever that entails wherever you are.
Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.