How Christmas Traditions Differ Around The World

While Christians all around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Christmas traditions differ greatly. Christmas day in much of the world is considered to be on December 25th, but in some countries the celebrations take over a longer period of time. And some even celebrate Christmas on a different day.

Furthermore, not all countries celebrate Christmas the same way. Modern day Christmas comes from mixing religious and secular traditions from all across the world over a period of a few hundred years. Therefor Christmas traditions are not uniformly the same everywhere you go. 

Christmas traditions in Scandinavia

People in Scandinavia call the Christmas season Jul or Jol. The modern traditions of Yule log, Yule singing, Yule (Christmas) tree, and others have their origin in the Scandinavian and other Nordic countries.

Yule is a pagan Mid-Winter feast that began with Winter solstice and lasted 12 days. This is where the “Twelve days of Christmas” and also the Christmas ham originated from.

The Yule log

Christmas celebration in Norway

Children in Norway eagerly await the arrival of Julenissen (Santa Claus).  Each day in December leading up to Christmas day (days of Advent) small gifts are given to the children. Carol singing and going house to house dressed up as Shepherds and the wise men is another Norwegian tradition that is also practiced in other Scandinavian countries.  

In Norway as well as in Finland people place a sheaf of Wheat outside for birds to eat over Christmas. And the Nisse (elfs), who deliver the presents, are offered a rice porridge.

The Christmas presents are placed under the tree, which is decorated with Julekurver. Julekurvers, a tradition that might have been invented by Hans Christian Andersen,  are little paper baskets in the shape of a heart. The presents are then opened after dinner on Christmas eve. From there on until New Years Day, the families light a candle every night.

Celebrations in Finland

Santa, or Father Christmas comes to visit Finland’s children. His home is believed to be located in the North of Finland. Many children from other parts of the world send their letters to Santa in Northern Finland. It is also the location of a big theme park called “Christmas Land”.

Families don’t buy the trees until Christmas eve’s day or the day before. The decorating of the tree is done on Christmas eve day, usually before lunch time. It is a widespread tradition to then listen to the National Radio Broadcast “Peace of Christmas”. 

Sometime in the afternoon, families visit the cemeteries and place candles inside hanging lanterns by the graves. Another great tradition is a visit to the sauna. 

After the main meal in the evening, some families have Santa come in person to hand over the presents to the children. For others, they have been left under the tree. Just like in Norway, the presents are opened on Christmas eve.

Santa’s hometown in Lapland, Northern Finland

Christmas traditions in Sweden

Sweden’s Christmas celebrations begins on December 13, St. Lucia Day. The tradition of honoring St. Lucia also spread to Denmark by the 19th century. This holy day is often called “Little Yule”.

On little yule, the oldest daughter of the family traditionally dresses in a white dress with a red sash around her waist. On her head she places a crown made of twigs and nine lit candles. She wakes up the family early in the morning and they all join for breakfast in a lighted room with candles.

All across, Lucias can be seen visiting hospitals and old people’s homes to hand out schnapps and sing carols.

A national Lucia is chosen and honored in a parade where she is surrounded by torch bearers.

Here too, the presents are opened on Christmas eve. But not before a big feast is served. A buffet, called julbord, contains cold fish like salmon and herring prepared in different ways as well as cold meats and cheeses. Warm traditional Christmas dishes are also included.

Lucia surrounded by torch bearers on Lucia Day in Sweden

Christmas in Germany

Advent plays a big role in German households. Children receive special made advent calendars with numbered little “doors”. Beginning on December 1, a door may be opened each day until Christmas. Behind each door are usually small chocolates in the shape of a Christmas figure and the walls behind decorated with a corresponding picture.

A special advent wreath made out of fir branches, decorated with small ornaments and ribbons, and with 4 candles on it is a big part of the tradition. The wreath is placed on the table and every Sunday one of the candles is lit. When finally all 4 candles are burning Christmas has arrived.

The decorating of the evergreen tree has always been an important tradition during the Winter Solstice. It was not until the 17th century that the trees were then renamed “Christmas tree” and not decorated until Christmas eve day.

On Christmas eve, after dinner, the children often sing a Christmas song in front of the tree. Then all the presents, which had been delivered by Christkind (Christ child) are opened. Some families go to church at midnight to attend the religious ceremony of Christmas mass.

December 25 Christmas day is called 1st celebration day. This is when the main Christmas food is served around lunch time. December 26 is the 2nd celebration day.

St. Nicholas Day

December 6 does not fall under Christmas traditions, but it is also another special day in German tradition that falls on December. It is called St. Nicholas Day. Children leave their shoes in front of the door during the night of December 5th to 6th and if they were good throughout the year Nicholas will place a little present for them in there. But if they were bad, they’ll receive only coal from Krampus, St. Nicholas’ companion. Krampus is certainly meant to scare children into being good.

Christmas in France

Like Germany, France also celebrates December 6 as St Nicholas Day. It also marks the beginning of the Christmas celebration in many french regions. Here too, children will receive small gifts on that day.

The greatest tradition in many parts of France is the burning of the Yule log inside the homes. The log is cut from Cherry wood and sprinkled with wine to fill the house with a good scent. A Yule log and candles are left burning from Christmas eve until New Years Day. This tradition goes way back and is supposed to bring good luck to the farmers for a successful harvest the next year.

The children place their shoes in front of the chimney on Christmas eve in hopes that Father Christmas leaves them some sweets. On Christmas day the entire family feasts on the main meal right after they return home from the midnight Christmas mass in the early morning hours.

Italy’s Christmas celebrations

In Italy the nativity scene is the the most important part of Christmas decorations. It can be seen in and around churches and homes across the country. The cribs are set up on December 8, and baby Jesus is placed into the crib on the night of December 24.  

The nativity scenes come in all shapes and sizes.  Naples, Italy has become famous for crib making and holds the world’s largest crib, displaying 600 objects placed on it. Anything from houses, to waterfalls, and human figurines of well-known people in the old and modern world.

Eight days before Christmas the celebrations begin. Children, dressed as shepherds, going out to sing carols and play songs on shepherd pipes. Families hold a series of special prayers and attend church services.

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Italians traditionally don’t consume any meat or dairy on Christmas eve. Depending on the region, different types of fish are being served. On Christmas day Santa might bring the children some small gifts. But the traditional exchanging of gifts does not occur until January on Epiphany night.

January 6 is Epiphany in Italy and Children hang stockings by the fire place in the hope that an old lady named Befana brings them presents. On Epiphany day the 3 wise men bringing gifts are being remembered as well as the baptism of Christ. Christmas traditions are similar in Spain. Just like in Italy, Epiphany is an important celebration and the gifts are exchanged on that night like the wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus.

Neapolitan nativity scene

Christmas time in the UK

In the UK, people put up their decorations early inside and outside of their homes. Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe are always part of the decorations. Mistletoe has not only been considered to bring good luck by the Celtic and Teutonic people, but it is also said to heal wounds, increase fertility, and ward off evil spirits. It became part of the Christmas tradition during the Victorian era to hang Mistletoe on doorways and ceilings. This was also the time when the tradition of kissing anyone standing under the Mistletoe had its beginning.

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Another tradition that began in the UK is caroling. It was when traveling musicians visited castles in the hopes to receive gifts in exchange for their performance.

Families in the UK open their gifts on early Christmas day. The children believe that Santa Claus or Father Christmas brings them presents and hang up stockings or pillow cases on Christmas eve to be filled. They often leave some mince pies and Brandy out for Santa or Father Christmas.

The Christmas meal is served around lunch or other time during the early day. Early evening the family sits down for a Christmas tea. Many people also attend church on Christmas day.

Traditionally, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the Queen gives her Christmas message to the people which is broadcast on television and radio.

Christmas lights at the London Eye

Christmas traditions in the Ukraine

The children in the Ukraine receive their presents from St. Nicholas on December 19, which is Nicholas Day in the Ukraine. But Christmas is not celebrated until January 7. The date of Christmas according to the old Julian calendar.

No food is consumed on Christmas eve day until a family’s youngest child, placed by the window to observe the evening sky, signals that the evening star has appeared. At that moment the main meal can be served. The meal consists out of 12 dishes representing the number of disciples. 

Christmas in the Ukraine

Hot Christmas in Australia

Being located in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia celebrates Christmas on December 25 in the middle of Summer.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas it has become tradition to join Christmas picnics organized by churches and celebrate on the beaches.

Christmas on a hot Summer’s day in Australia

Greece Christmas traditions

In Greece goblins create mischief during the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany. That’s why Greeks keep a fire going during that time to keep the goblins coming through the chimney.

On Christmas eve, the children go out in the streets to play the drums and sing. As a custom they carry a model boat with them. Since small boats were put up in homes when the sailors returned, decorating the boats was a great tradition in Greece. But decorating trees also became very popular over time. So, now both can be seen all across the country.

Their Christmas meal is served after the Midnight Christmas mass. The presents are brought to the children on January 1 by Saint Basil. 

Decorated Christmas boat in in Aristotelous square in Thessaloniki, Greece

Canada and USA

Both countries have very similar traditions for the most part. Houses are decorated inside and out during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Presents are exchanged on the morning of Christmas day, although some families open a small present on Christmas eve.

Children wait for Santa to fill stockings and deliver presents. A big Christmas meal is served on Christmas day for the entire family.

Canada, like most other countries, also celebrates a 2nd Christmas day, called Boxing day on December 26.  

Winter Festival of Lights at Niagara Falls

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