What 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. In this look at Christmas around the world, you may recognize more of your holiday favorites—and get ideas for new traditions to start.
Celebrations of Christmas around the world often include some form of charity. 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. Learn about Christmas day activities that will help you with the gift of giving.
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. Learn more about Boxing Day with these facts you didn’t know about the holiday season.
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.
Oleksandr Rybitskiy /Shutterstock 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.
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 sweets for the kids.
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.
Children in Japan receive their Christmas presents on their pillow during Christmas night. And a traditional Christmas meal in Japan is fried chicken.
Akulinina /Shutterstock Here, people hide all the brooms in the house on Christmas Eve to prevent witches from stealing them for a midnight ride. It’s also a Christmas Eve tradition to leave a bowl of porridge in the barn for the gnome who protects the farm.
In Germany, it is traditional for children to decorate their Christmas lists with pictures and then leave them on the windowsill overnight. Then, 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 5, so that Sinterklaas will put small presents in their shoes for the following morning (Saint Nicholas Day). For a laugh, read about the best worst Christmas gifts ever received.
Here, Christmas is celebrated on January 7, 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. Wonder why we celebrate Christmas on December 25 anyway? Here’s where the tradition came from.
Jan Woloszczuk /Shutterstock 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. Make sure you bring some Christmas jokes to the dinner table this year.
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.
It’s traditional for Irish families to leave out mince pies and pint of Guinness as a snack for Santa. As kids get older, this tradition may come to an end and continue to be passed on. Learn about what to say when your child asks, “Is Santa real?”
In Finland, families decorate the holiday tree with geometric mobiles made out of straw. It’s also customary to enjoy a sauna on Christmas Eve before Santa’s visit; according to the ancient custom, this ritual cleanses the body and mind. Read about more fun Christmas traditions with this surprising Christmas trivia.