Christmas Around the World: Traditions and Customs

Santa Claus takes on many different forms, and Christmas traditions vary greatly from continent to continent. But you don’t need to take a trip around the world to check out these international traditions, just read on. And maybe you can incorporate some of these Christmas traditions in your home.

By Reader's Digest Editors

ChristmasDecorWhat does Christmas mean to you? Maybe it’s your whole family gathered by the fireside with a decorated tree glittering in the background or racing down the stairs on Christmas morning to see what Santa Claus left you. But have you ever wondered where your favorite traditions came from? For example, the American term “Santa Claus” is derived from the Dutch word for old St. Nick, Sinterklaas. The Christmas tree only became a European and American sensation after a German prince brought one with him on a trip to England in 1840. Do you recognize any more of your holiday favorites in these Christmas traditions from around the world?

UKRAINE In the Ukraine, it’s traditional to hang spider web-shaped decorations on the tree. This reflects the Ukrainian legend of the poor widow who didn’t have enough money to decorate her tree, but when her children awoke on Christmas day, the tree was covered in webs that glistened gold and silver in the morning light.

JAMAICA Jamaicans dress in elaborate costumes and celebrate Christmas with parades and “Junkanoo” dancers, based on African dance. The festival, which occurs on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, may have started as early as the 16th century.

SPAIN The Spanish dish, turrón, a confection made from honey, egg white, sugar, and toasted almonds, is served during Christmas. Recipes date back to the 16th century.

GREAT BRITAIN Mistletoe was first hung as a Christmas decoration in Great Britain. However, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is most likely of Scandinavian origin.

HOLLAND Children in Holland receive presents from Sinterklaas on December 5, not Christmas Eve or day. And if they leave carrots for Sinterklaas’s horse, he’ll leave the kids sweets.

ICELAND Thirteen jólasveinarnir, or “Christmas Lads,” deliver presents to children in Iceland. Originally, the Christmas Lads were pranksters. Each showed up on a specific day around Christmas and performed a trick or prank.

JAPAN Children in Japan receive their Christmas presents on their pillow during Christmas night. And a traditional Christmas meal in Japan is fried chicken.

NORWAY Here, people hide all the brooms in the house on Christmas Eve to prevent witches from stealing them for a midnight ride. And it’s also a Christmas Eve tradition to leave a bowl of porridge in the barn for the gnome who protects the farm.

GERMANY In Germany, it is traditional for children to decorate their Christmas lists with pictures and then leave them on the windowsill overnight. And the Christkind delivers gifts at Christmas. Also in Germany, it’s a tradition to leave a shoe or boot outside the front door on December 5th.

RUSSIA Here, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, and Babouschka brings gifts to children. Babouschka, meaning old woman or grandmother in Russian, is based on the biblical story of the woman who didn’t give a gift to the baby Jesus. So, to repent, she gives gifts to children.

POLAND The traditional Christmas meal in Poland is called the Wigilia. Held on Christmas Eve, Wigilia is derived from the Latin phrase “to watch.” Families here believe that what happens during Wigilia festivities predicts the coming year.

ITALY Italian families celebrate Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes and eat lentils during the holiday season to ensure luck and wealth for the following year. The children in Italy receive gifts from La Befana during Christmas.

IRELAND It’s traditional for Irish families to leave out mince pies and Guinness Ale as a snack for Santa.

FINLAND In Finland, families decorate the holiday tree with geometric mobiles made out of straw. And it’s customary to enjoy a sauna before Santa’s visit.

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