Eclectic Holiday Spirit: Ten Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

When one thinks of Christmas, visions of decorated pine trees, falling snow, striped candy canes, and stockings hanging above a roaring fireplace immediately come to mind. But there is more to Christmas than the widely American view of the holiday. Everywhere around the world, people celebrate the birth of Christ in many different ways, and in varying cultural adaptations. From Europe to Africa to Asia and Oceania, the spirit of Christmas is celebrated by different people in rather unusual but festive ways to commemorate a joyous occasion.

Christmas in… China

With a small percentage of the Chinese population being Catholics nowadays, it’s not surprising they have adopted Christmas as part of their holiday calendar. But in their native language, they refer to it as Sheng Dan Jieh which translates to “Holy Birth Festival”. It’s also quite fitting that one of the key holiday colors happens to be red, which is considered a very lucky color in Chinese culture. As such, red decorations (accented with gold) tend to dominate homes all over China when Christmas comes around. Christmas trees are dubbed as “trees of light” adorned with plenty of intricate paper lanterns, silk flowers, and red paper chains to represent prosperity and happiness.

Christmas in… Ethiopia

Catholic countries in Africa—such as Ethiopia—have their own version on how they celebrate Christmas. Being mainly a dry and arid nation, Ethiopia certainly doesn’t adhere to the common scenario of Santa Claus driving his reindeer-powered sled across a snowy landscape. But the locals still have an affinity for the color white; as this is the color of the garments Ethiopians wear when the holidays begin with Ganna on January 7 (which is known as the birth of Christ in their holiday schedule). Twelve days after Ganna has passed, Ethiopians then celebrate the baptism of Christ—an event known as Timkat which lasts for three whole days.

Christmas in… Australia

Down under where there’s virtually no snow, Australia makes do with their holidays by mixing winter imagery with arid-to-tropical settings. Most Australians—particularly those who live in the coastal cities like Sydney and Perth—flock to the warm beaches gamely wearing Santa hats which curiously clashes with their beachwear of board shorts and bikinis. In place of snowmen, Aussies have adapted with holiday sandmen which definitely won’t melt under the heat of the sun (though wind and water is still a formidable weakness). When darkness falls, people usually converge in groups at night with lit candles and sing Christmas carols—an event known in Australia as Carols by Candlelight.

Christmas in… Italy

Don’t expect Santa Claus to visit Italy as part of his holiday itinerary. Instead, this vigorous European nation that is home to the seat of Christianity is visited by a benevolent old witch with a broomstick! Known to many Italians as La Befana, she is Italy’s version of a gift-giving entity for children who look forward to receiving presents for the holidays. But rather than arriving on the eve of December 24, La Befana comes to Italian households on January 5. And rather than leaving milk and cookies for her, Italian children leave wine and savory food instead as thanks for gracing her presence in their homes and providing them with gifts.

Christmas in… Iceland

An overabundance of powdery snow aside, Iceland certainly celebrates Christmas quite differently from other countries. For one thing, Icelandic people have not one but thirteen Santa-like figures as part of their holiday folklore! Dubbed as the Yule Lads, each Santa-esque figure arrives every night for thirteen consecutive nights to knock on the windows of homes around Iceland and give kids presents. And there’s even a holiday figure for bad kids, too! Known as Grýla, she is the mother of the Yule Lads who happens to be half-animal and half-troll. Grýla accompanies her sons on their yuletide visits to teach naughty children good life lessons. Completing this eccentric Icelandic family is the Yule Cat, who joins Grýla and the Yule Lads, and is known to eat the food of any home unless every Icelander receives a piece of clothing as a holiday gift.

Christmas in… Mexico

Mexico’s warm climate allows for cultural variations on Christmas décor and other holiday trappings once the holidays arrive. Because of the rather agreeable weather, Mexicans take to the streets where families shop for food, gifts, and other Christmas purchases in outdoor market stalls known as puestos. Instead of poinsettias, locals adorn their homes with lilies and evergreens. And evoking a certain Halloween aura to their festivities, Mexicans traditionally cut out very intricate designs in large brown paper bags and stick a lit candle inside the finished lantern. These creations—known as farolitos—are then placed outside their homes, on windowsills, along sidewalks, and even on rooftops as a way to light up the community with the spirit of Christmas.

Christmas in… the Philippines

As the predominantly Catholic country in Asia, the Philippines certainly take Christmas very seriously, to the point where the holiday season actually begins as early as September and lasts as long as late January! This rather extended holiday schedule allows for much flexibility for most Filipinos as they have plenty of time to do their Christmas shopping and home decorations before the actual holidays begin. Traditionally, Christmas in the Philippines is highlighted by a midnight feast called “Noche Buena” where Filipinos prepare a veritable feast of dishes which commonly feature classic fare seen in Filipino parties such as rice, rotisserie chicken, spaghetti, fruit salad, native desserts, and a whole roasted pig called lechon.

Christmas in… Venezuela

Roller skating during Christmas? That’s certainly a long-standing tradition you’ll find when you’ll celebrate Christmas in Venezuela! As one of the well-known Latin American countries, Venezuela also has a particular flair when it comes to celebrating the holidays. Aside from closing their roads to allow locals to freely roller skate between December 16 to 24, Venezuelans traditionally paint their houses two to four weeks in advance before Christmas as a way to welcome the arrival of baby Jesus and Santa Claus (known to locals as San Nicolas). Venezuelan folk music and lively fireworks augment the holidays in the country as people feast on delicious Christmas dishes made from beef, pork, chicken, and other delicacies.

Christmas in… Sweden

A Swedish Christmas places importance on a religious figure known as Saint Lucia as the Swedes celebrate an event known as “St. Lucia’s Day” as part of their annual Christmas festivities. For this occasion, the eldest daughter of a typical Swedish household wakes up before the rest of her family at the early hours of dawn during December 13 and acts as Saint Lucia herself—the Queen of Light—by wearing a long white dress and a crown of leaves. The eldest daughter then sings the traditional hymn, “Santa Lucia”, as she goes to every bedroom in the house to serve her family members a hot cup of coffee and other treats. Many other Lucias around Sweden are also dispatched to hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes to bring joy to the people. This tradition is also celebrated in other Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Norway, and Finland.

Christmas in… South Korea

Just like China and the Philippines, South Korea has a rather sizable Christian population compared to other Asian countries, which means South Koreans definitely celebrate Christmas! Considered as an official national holiday, Koreans don’t have work and school on December 25 but return to business the next day (December 26,, Boxing Day). Even those Koreans who aren’t Christian or Catholic simply adore the holidays as South Korea simply lights up during Christmas since homes and buildings everywhere—especially in the capital city of Seoul—are festooned with amazing light displays. While in other cultures it is quite gauche to give money as a present, Koreans don’t have a problem with it at all and some actually prefer to receive a large amount of money as an ideal Christmas gift. And even South Korea’s version of Santa Claus is different: where he is commonly clad in white and red, a typical Korean Santa is typically dressed in red and blue!

Christmas around the world may differ from country to country, but one thing is for certain: the spirit of the holidays remain intact as people everywhere celebrate the auspicious birth of Jesus Christ, who is the central figure of Christianity for millions of people on Earth that adhere to that faith.

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