Many are familiar with time-honored Christmas traditions in the U.S. such as putting up lights and colored decorations, having Christmas trees and nativity scenes, attending religious celebrations such as candlelit services or Midnight Mass, and, of course, making plans for Santa Claus’s visit. By the way, you can even track Santa as he makes his rounds thanks to the annual North American Aerospace Defense Command tracker! But how is Christmas celebrated around the world?
Although some countries have very similar ways of celebrating Christmas, others have traditions that are markedly different than those followed in the U.S.
To find out how Christmas is celebrated in other countries, we first asked TravelAwaits writers who live, grew up, or have visited countries other than the United States to tell us about those countries’ Christmas traditions. Their responses are sure to put everyone in the holiday spirit!
Australia doesn’t have a “white Christmas” because December is the first month of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. While it may be sunny and hot, many Australians still make a point of decorating with Santa, snowflakes, snowmen, and other winter icons, an article on World of Christmas explains. On Christmas Eve, families also often gather in large crowds to sing Christmas carols by candlelight.
“Meals are often outside in the shade or on patios,” TravelAwaits writer Nadine Cresswell-Myatt told us. “Seafood is popular, such as barbecued prawns and fresh oysters, and so are summer fruits, especially cherries. They are often loaded on pavlovas.”
Another tradition is to have post-lunch street cricket games, Cresswell-Myatt says.
“Many families also pack the car for a mass-exodus to beachside caravans left onsite or to holiday houses,” Cresswell-Myatt continued. “Some families have been holidaying in the same spot for generations.”
Canada is a very large country, and its citizens are diverse and have many cultural backgrounds. For example, many Christmas traditions and celebrations have their roots in French, English, Irish, Scottish, German, Norwegian, Ukrainian, and Native/First Nation customs, Why Christmas explains.
Many Canadians put up Christmas trees, lights, and other decorations as well as hanging Christmas stockings by the fireplace, the article notes. Traditions do vary, however, so while some Canadians open their gifts on Christmas Eve, others will only open one present or they may only look in their stocking on Christmas Eve.
“In Canada, Christmas is our biggest holiday of the year,” TravelAwaits writer Jill Browne explains. “In the English-Canadian Christmas tradition I grew up with, the North American turkey dinner is still the star of the show. Plus, we get a white Christmas almost everywhere in Canada. It would just feel odd without snow!”
Visit Denmark explains that in Denmark, families gather on Christmas Eve for “a mouth-watering meal of roast pork and duck, boiled potatoes, red cabbage, and gravy.”
TravelAwaits writer Jeanine Consoli says that after dinner, there traditionally is a special dessert called risalamande.
This dessert is a rice pudding with a lot of chopped almonds mixed in it, and one big almond, Consoli says. The person who gets the big almond in their serving also gets a mandlegave, or a special gift, she explains.
“There’s another lovely tradition that is different in Denmark,” Consoli says. “Danish parents give their children one gift every day from December 1 to 24. They call this pakkekalender.”
Visit Denmark explains that after dinner, families head into the living room to sing Christmas carols around the Christmas tree, which is lit with real candles.
The first Sunday in December marks the beginning of the Finnish Christmas season, and Advent calendars are used to keep a count of the number of days left until Christmas Eve, according to World of Christmas.
In Finland, Christmas Eve is the main highlight, rather than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is declared at 12 noon from the ex-capital of Finland, Turku. Traditionally, the Christmas tree is brought in on Christmas Eve and decorated with candles, lights, glass balls, and ribbons.
Santa Claus (“Joulupukki” in Finnish) lives in the northern part of Finland, called Lapland — above the Arctic Circle. He lives there with his wife, elves, and, of course, the reindeer, Finnish Traditions explains.
In France, nativity scenes are a popular decoration in the home as well as in shops, TravelAwaits writer Robin O’Neal Smith reports.
“Most French nativity scenes are created of clay figures,” O’Neal Smith says. “They not only have the typical shepherd and wise men, but the scene also includes everyday people such as the policeman, butcher, and priest.”
Most nativity scenes are on display in France from November until the second day of February, known as La Chandeleur, O’Neal Smith says.
“That marks 40 days after Christmas and the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem,” O’Neal Smith says. “As part of the La Chandeleur celebration, the French enjoy crepes.”
TravelAwaits writer Richard Nahem adds that “in France, the traditional Christmas Eve feast includes local oysters, foie gras, and smoked salmon.”
The Christmas season in Germany begins at the end of November or early December, coinciding with Advent celebrations, Kids World Travel Guide explains. Many town squares have a tall Christmas tree decorated with lights that is put in front of the townhouse or city hall.
Families typically gather on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts. Then they gather again to celebrate on Christmas Day, and the religious attend Christmas services.
In Hungary, people set up and decorate the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, which is considered the Holy Night, TravelAwaits writer Emese Fromm explains. The adults secretly decorate the tree and tell children that an angel brought it all decorated — along with a few presents, Fromm says.
“Christmas Eve is also the night for a festive traditional Hungarian dinner of fish soup, stuffed cabbage, and sweet bread called beigli filled with walnuts or poppy seeds as dessert.”
Judaism and Islam are the two main religions of Israel. However, in areas with Christian populations such as Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth, the Old City of Jerusalem, and many Russian neighborhoods, symbols of Christmas will be visible, Tourist Israel reports.
One of the most popular places to visit for Christmas is the town of Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Visiting Bethlehem offers not only the opportunity to visit the Church of Nativity where Jesus was born but also to attend Midnight Mass.
In the north of Israel, Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, has a large Christian population, Tourist Israel notes. Its residents decorate Christmas trees, wear Santa hats, and have numerous street festivals, church services, and parties.
As you might expect, Christmas traditions in Italy are based heavily on the Catholic tradition.
For many Italians, the Christmas season begins on December 8, which is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, marking the conception of Mary, Jesus’ mother, The Local explains. It then runs through Epiphany — 12 days after Christmas — on January 6, which is marked by the Feast of the Magi, also known as the Three Kings.
“Attending Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is an experience you don’t want to miss — even if you aren’t Catholic,” says TravelAwaits writer Peggy Cleveland. “The Pope celebrates the mass and because it’s televised, these huge floodlights are turned on. It gives you an incredible look at the ornate artwork in the church which is normally dimly lit.”
TravelAwaits writer Karen Warren also explains that in Italy, presepi (nativity scenes) are the equivalent of Christmas trees.
“Every church has its own presepi, and they also are in private homes and public places,” Warren writes. “They may even be built up day by day, like an advent calendar.”
Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan since only about one percent of Japanese are Christian, but it’s still celebrated, Japan RailPass explains. Indeed, Christmas decorations and lights are quite common.
“In Japan, Christmas is the time for friends and couples to have parties, make plans to meet up for dinner, and celebrate as much as they can,” according to Japan RailPass. “And New Year is the time of the year when all members of the family come together, visit the temple, and usher in January with food and drinks.”
In Mexico, mass is celebrated around 11 p.m. on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, says TravelAwaits writer Louisa Rogers.
“Churchgoers walk up to the sanctuary to kiss the baby Jesus, held in the priest’s arms — which obviously is not happening this year during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rogers writes. “After mass, everyone goes back home for a sumptuous feast cooked by, who else, but mama?”
Christmas Day, Rogers continues, is “a lazy day to sleep in, eat leftovers, and take a paseo [walk] around town.”
As in some other countries, Rogers shared that kids don’t receive presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Instead, kids get their presents on Three Kings Day, January 6.
Decorated Christmas trees are very popular in Panama, as are nativity scenes used to recreate Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, Panama Today explains. Attending mass is important, as are Las Posadas, extended devotional prayers, the article notes.
Since Christmas is a time to share with loved ones, many Panamanians gather at home on Christmas Day with their families. They also celebrate with a large dinner that includes rice with chicken, baked ham, turkey, potato salad, and fruit candy. Often, there are fireworks at night.
“Boquete, Panama, is home to a big expat community,” notes TravelAwaits writer Melody Pittman. “Since most of our families are back in the U.S. or Europe, many of us get together for a potluck meal with much singing, dancing, drinking, and fun. The whole country closes down and observes Christmas.”
In Poland, people celebrate Christmas with a formal, candle-lit Christmas Eve meal called Wigilia, says TravelAwaits writer Chris Moore. The meal, which is meat-free, traditionally consists of 12 courses — one for each apostle, he explains.
“The meal starts with a prayer led by the head of the household, followed by an exchange of wafers. Each person takes a piece of wafer — a bit like a communion wafer– offers a small piece to all other family members, and wishes them a Happy Christmas,” Moore says. “Courses include mushroom soup, various fish dishes (including soused herring rollmops), pierogi, and a fruit kompot. After dinner, we’d retreat to the lounge for presents, then went to Midnight Mass.”
Moore explains that other traditions include having some straw under the tablecloth to remember Jesus’s manger, having an extra place setting at the table for visitors (shepherds), and not starting dinner until the first star appears in the sky.
Christmas in Russia is most widely celebrated on January 7 because the Russian Orthodox Church adheres to the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, Trip Savvy explains. However, it notes that it’s not uncommon for Russians to observe Christmas on December 25 as well.
Some of the Orthodox Christian traditions observed in Russia are similar to Christmas traditions followed in other parts of Eastern Europe. For instance, like in Poland, many Russians put hay on their tables and floors to represent baby Jesus’s manger.
In Russia, Santa Claus is named Ded Moroz, or Father Frost. On New Year’s Eve, he places presents for children under the New Year’s tree.
Christmas lights usually aren’t lit in cities in Spain until the first week of December, and while Christmas trees are common in people’s homes, they usually aren’t put up until the second half of December, according to Spanish Fiestas. Many homes also have Belenes, miniature nativity scenes.
Christmas Eve is the most important family gathering of the year, when people gather for dinner with their families. Although Christmas Day is a national holiday and shops are closed, it isn’t a day of great celebration, the article explains.
“The most important day is Three Kings Day on January 6, when presents are exchanged,” explains TravelAwaits writer Inka Piegsa. “In the evening, there are huge processions of the Kings on horseback, followed by their court. They travel through the streets, throwing sweets at the excited kids.”
16. The Netherlands
In The Netherlands, December 25 is referred to by the Dutch as the 1st Day of Christmas, Dutch Review explains. And while families usually gather and have dinner together that day, it’s a considerably different day than it is in other countries.
“One of the experiences I loved most about celebrating the holidays in The Netherlands is that the Dutch have separate holidays for gift giving and Christmas,” TravelAwaits writer Sage Scott explains.
“Children in the Netherlands receive presents from Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) on Pakjesavond (literally “presents evening’) on December 5,” Scott says. “Then, families transition into Christmas, a holiday fully focused on religious services, family, and food without gifts.”
Many Christmas traditions, including the Christmas card, originated in the UK, explains Learn English. That includes yule logs and Christmas carols, which date back to medieval England, when minstrels — who would today be called carollers — traveled from castle to castle.
“In the UK, Christmas dinner is very similar to the U.S. Thanksgiving dinner — turkey with all the trimmings. That’s followed by Christmas pudding, a steamed, rich fruit cake that in olden times would often have a coin hidden inside — not sure who first thought that was a good idea,” explains TravelAwaits writer Chris Moore. “It was usual to have the meal around 1 p.m., so we could be finished and ready to listen to the Queen’s speech broadcast on TV at 3 p.m. — for those who managed to stay awake!”