Christmas Traditions Around the World

By Abi King | Make Me Smile

Dec 17

“Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man’s hat. If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do. If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God Bless You.” Traditional Christmas Rhyme – UK.

Christmas in the UK, where I grew up, thrives on tradition. Although conventionally described as a Christian celebration, a British Christmas has roots in ancient pagan festivals, subsequently layered with influences from around the world. In today’s cosmopolitan (and largely secular) Britain, December 25th concerns itself as much with the Eastenders Omnibus as it does the birth of Christ.

After finding Christmas lights in Japan (as a romantic celebration for couples), the Reyes Magos procession in Seville and the oyster, champagne and foie gras extravaganza that constitutes Noel in France, I wanted to know more about Christmas traditions in the rest of the world.

So, I asked a very knowledgeable group of travellers: the Lonely Planet Blogsherpas. Here’s what they told me:

Christmas Traditions Around the World

Christmas Lights - Part of many a traditional christmas

Christmas Traditions in the Netherlands:Zwarte Piet & Sinterklaas

Zwarte Piet - Black Pete - Traditional Dutch Christmas figure in the NetherlandsFirst off the blocks is the Zwarte Piet or Black Peter tradition in the Netherlands.  On December 5th, weeks before I’ve even thought about starting my Christmas shopping list, the Dutch paint their faces black and wait for the arrival of Sinterklaas himself. As Jeff from Big City Blog says “the celebration is simultaneously fun, innocent, and mildly horrifying. Think of it as a plate of holiday goodness, with a dash of racism from yesteryear.” Zwarte Piet, he explains, represents the devil, a slave or a chimney sweep, depending on who you’re talking to…

Christmas Traditions in Germany: Flaming Wine & Stollen Cake

Flaming christmas wine in Dresden, GermanyApparently Britain isn’t the only country to set its food on fire at Christmas! Nellie from Wild Junket explains how festivities in Germany involve “boiling  a huge tub of mulled wine at home, placing a gigantic cone of sugar on top and then drenching it completely with rum before setting it on fire.”

She also talks about my favourite Christmas treat, stollen cake, a loaf-shaped fruitcake littered with nuts, raisins, candied citrus peel, spices, and dusted with icing sugar.” This, apparently, represents baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes…

Add in the gluhwein, the handmade gifts, the Christmas markets and the snowy landscape and I think I’ve worked out where I’d love to spend Christmas next year…

Christmas Traditions in Calabria, Italy: Food, Glorious Seafood

Traditional Christmas Eve Dinner in Calabria, ItalyTrue to stereotype, Italy goes wild about food at Christmas. Against stereotype, they start early. As Cherrye from My Bella Vita explains, Italy gets the party started on 8th December with the Immacolata, a day that commemorates the conception of Mary. They build up momentum by serving up the main meal, the cenone, on Christmas Eve instead of waiting until Christmas Day. In Calabria, expect seafood salad, pasta with clams or mussels, cheese, olives, wine and grilled fish. Also, “no Christmas Eve dinner is complete without sauteed broccoli rape.” After all that, there’s still seasonal fruit and sweet panettone and torrone to come!

On Christmas Day,Babbo Natale brings presents for the children and then everyone bundles on over to Grandma’s for another five or six course meal. Sounds terrible…

Christmas Traditions in Britain:Brussel Sprouts & The Queen

Traditional Christmas Decoration from BritainBritain simply oozes with tradition at Christmas, from the Queen’s Speech to leaving a sherry out for Father Christmas and a carrot somewhere for Rudolph. Heather from Heather on Her Travels talks about the main meal: lunch on 25th December:

“For a British Christmas lunch, the plates are groaning under legs of turkey, stuffing, roasties and mini sausages on the side with the brussel sprouts and a few other veg and then lashings of gravy, bread sauce and cranberry sauce too. We pull the crackers, wear the silly paper crowns and tell the corny jokes. For desert there’s always a boozy Christmas pudding with some lucky sixpences inside, that we attempt to flame with brandy if we remember to buy some, although everyone secretly prefers Nigella’s pomegranate pavlova.”

Christmas Traditions in the United States: “Happy Holidays”

A Tradition: Christmas Lights in ChicagoThe US, with its melting pot of global cultures, throws in and mixes up a bit of everything. Christmas involves turkey, gluhwein and Santa Claus. Shopping can become a “consumer feeding frenzy,” according to Sean Oliver on Pocket Cultures.

“The hectic month-long American Holiday Season” lines up Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year in quick succession, so “it’s great for parents to have the threat of Santa Claus to calm down overly-excited children!”

Christmas Traditions in the Philippines: Roast Pig & Mass at Dawn

Christmas traditions in the Philippines - Brightly Lit ChurchesThe Philippines are “abuzz with celebration as soon as the calendar hits the ‘-ber’ months,” according to Claire from First Time Travels. “There are parties and reunions left and right with gift-giving as the main activity. Highways are filled with Christmas lights and Christmas lanterns, while children go house to house (or car to car) to sing carols.”

The main event, however, doesn’t seem to be Christmas Day. It’s nine days before at Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo, when locals reenact the nativity scene at a dawn mass.

Christmas Traditions in Turkey: Well, there aren’t many

While the chubby guy in red velvet trousers sure travels a lot, he doesn’t make it everywhere. Despite sharing an English name with a prominent Christmas tradition, Turkey passes on the chance to overeat and wear tinsel. “I haven’t seen any Santas, Reindeer, Elves, or icons of anyone other than the founding father of modern Turkey,” says Vago on Vagobond. “And trust me, no one better think about putting a Santa hat on him.”

Yet apparently, the place looks like “Christmas” does elsewhere all year round. “In Manisa, they have these red and green tulip lights that are on all the light poles. In the town square there is a huge thing that is really just a big lit pole but …it sure looks like a Christmas tree.”

Christmas Traditions When You’re Travelling: Make your own

So, you’re miles from home at Christmas and wondering what to do. Get inspired by Benny from Sunset Mood who booked himself onto a boat trip in Vietnam, Julie from A Lady in London who ended up feeling festive at a Christmas Fair in London and Jason from Alpaca Suitcase who found that fellow travellers brought his children a slice of Christmas cheer. As for Barefoot Inked, they built a gingerbread house in Australia.

Christmas Traditions in Catalunya: It’s All About Poo

hello kitty caganer catalunya christmas traditionNo, I haven’t been sipping too much mulled wine. As Jennifer on Orange Polka Dot explains, a traditional nativity scene in Catalunya involves a caganer,a figure at the back, poised mid-poo. I’d seen these for sale around Andalucia but it wasn’t until I’d read Jennifer’s post that I realised the full extent of Christmas defecation in the north of Spain: I hadn’t heard about the caga tió.

“A caga tió has no ordinary poop.. if you treat him well, he will poop candies and turrones. But wait, in order for him to poop properly, he needs to be hit with a big stick while you chant for him to poop chocolate, turrón and plead for no sardines.”

You read it here first.

Christmas Traditions That Live on Forever: Befana Witches in Rome

befana rome christmas tradition italy witchBy now, it’s easy to see that Christmas can span a good six weeks – and I’m not the first to notice this, as this beautiful post on Sophie’s World points out. In Rome, children look out for the befana...

“On their way to Bethlehem, the magi stop by her house, the cleanest in the village, and ask for shelter for the night. When leaving the next morning, they invite her to join their search for a special baby. Befana declines, she’s too busy cleaning. After they leave, she thinks for a bit – and decides to go along after all. She finishes her work and follows the men. But she’s too late. She never finds the baby.

Come 6 January, Epiphany, she’s still flying about on her broom, searching. On that day, Italian children leave a glass of wine and some nibbles for la befana. And she, in turn, leaves a present for the children in every house she looks. After all, anyone of them might be baby Jesus.”

This Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival forms part of a series. Find number #15 on regrettable trips at the Turkish Life and #17 coming up on voluntary work around the world on See Simi.

What about Christmas traditions where you are? Tell us about them in the comments below…


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

Sophie December 18, 2010

Great diversity of Christmas traditions and lots of fun posts. Thanks for putting this together. Also, I like the rhyme at the beginning – I think I’ve heard Sting singing that. Soul Cake, I think was the name of the song.

Sarah Wu December 19, 2010

O wow, I didn’t know that is so different every place. great post!

The Turkish Life December 19, 2010

If you’re looking for Christmas in Turkey, Istanbul’s Eminönü shopping district is the place to be — trees, ornaments, lights, tinsel, and Santa Clauses galore. Yes, most decorations in Turkey are put up as a “Happy New Year” gesture, but I find there’s more and more of the accoutrements of a Western-style Christmas each year.

Kosrae Island December 20, 2010

Christmas on the Micronesian island of Kosrae, located in the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, is a unique holiday experience, unlike any Christmas tradition around the world. Families attend church and see Santa, but both are truly one-of-a-kind island events.

Every year Kosraens participate in Christmas Marching, a blend of Western/Christian Christmas traditions and traditional Kosraen culture. On Christmas Day the Christmas marchers converge on the island’s beautiful 150-year-old congregational church in Lelu to sing and participate in intricate marching routines. The marching competition runs from early morning until evening and is wildly popular.

Santa Claus does not visit homes on Kosrae and gift giving is modest. But very early on Christmas morning Santa and his Kosraen elves will travel around the island throwing candy to anyone in the street. Families line the road to catch the sweet treats.

Vagobond December 20, 2010

I’m in Istanbul now. Much more signs of Christmas here than in Manisa- you’re totally right. Great post Abi – what fun! I’m in love with your blog…it’s wicked.



Abi King December 21, 2010

Thanks @Kosrae Island, @The Turkish Life & @Vago for adding those in. I love seeing how many different ways there are to celebrate around the world!

Thanks for including my post! Christmas is truly alive here in the Philippines.

Lucy December 21, 2010

Thanks for putting this together Abi! It’s an interesting selection of traditions. Happy Christmas!

Barbara Weibel December 22, 2010

What a great collection of Christmas traditions – really enjoyed reading about the different ways the holiday is celebrated around the world.

PNR Status December 23, 2010

Nice post.On Christmas Day the Christmas marchers converge on the island’s beautiful 150-year-old congregational church in Lelu to sing and participate in intricate marching routines.

Helene Mullins December 24, 2010

Thanks for including my post! Christmas is truly alive here in the Philippines.

Alexis December 29, 2010

Thanks for this informative article, this is the first I’ve heard of flaming wine…

Benny December 29, 2010

One occasion, different celebration :D

Merry Christmas everyone, and wish to have another great year ahead

Abi King January 20, 2011

Happy 2011 to everyone – and I’ll certainly try out some of these Christmas traditions next year.

Comments are closed