Christmas is celebrated across the world with a shared joy and warmth, with gatherings of family and friends, with feasting and giving. But for all the common ground, there are many traditions unique to individual countries and peoples. Some take a second reading to fully digest. It is our pleasure to share them with you.
Hiding a Christmas pickle ornament on the tree was thought to be a German tradition, but that has increasingly been dismissed and attributed instead to 1890s Americans. That was the decade when imported glass tree ornaments, including French-designed vegetables, became popular. Whoever found the green, glass pickle on Christmas morning would be rewarded with an extra gift. Berrien Springs, Michigan is the world’s Christmas pickle capital and holds an annual pickle festival each December.
One of the most glorious sights at Christmastime anywhere in the world is the giant illuminated tree at Rockerfeller Center in New York (as featured in the background of the image at the top of this page). The annual tradition in the Big Apple officially began in 1933 – the year 30 Rockerfeller Plaza opened. But a tree was erected there two years earlier during the depression-era construction of the Center, shortly after the site was cleared. It was Christmas Eve 1931 when workers decorated a more modest 20ft balsam fir with paper garlands, strings of cranberries, tin cans and even the tin foil ends of blasting caps. It was largely a symbol of thanks for their good fortune: that they had work in a time of great unemployment and poverty. The type of tree used predominantly through the decades is a Norway spruce, usually between 69-100ft tall. The Swarovski star that tops the tree has been used since 2004 and was created by German artist Michael Hammers.
Figurines of people defecating are a Christmas tradition in the Spanish regions of Catalonia and Murcia. They are known as Caganers (literal translation ‘the crappers’) and date back to the 18th century. They are hidden in Nativity scenes, with friends encouraged to find them. They represent equality of all people, as well as joy and prosperity. Some are sculpted in the image of well-known people.
There is also the Tio de Nadal. This is more commonly known as Caga Tio (literally the pooping or, more crudely, sh***ing log), which is a log with a hole inside, with small legs attached and a painted face. Children ‘feed’ it through December and cover it with a small blanket each night. Then at Christmas they put it in the fireplace and order it to poo. Children have to leave the room and pray for the Tio to deliver goodies. Parents can thus work their magic so that when the youngsters return and beat the Tio with sticks, out come sweets and nuts for all to share.
Kallikantzaroi are evil goblins from Greek folk tradition. They live underground but surface during the 12 days of Christmas when the “sun stops moving” (in other words its around the time of the winter solstice). The legend says that when underground the Kallikantzaroi saw away at the ‘world tree’ so that it will collapse and take the earth with it. But just as they are about to saw the final part, Christmas arrives and they forget the sawing. Instead they surface to cause impish havoc on land. At Epiphany (January 6th) the sun “starts to move again” and the goblins return to ground. But in their absence, the tree has healed and they must start their sawing all over again. Bright they are not. Some Greeks suspend a cross over a bowl of water. Family members sprinkle the water around the house to keep the Kallikantzaroi at bay.
Fake spider webs decorate Christmas trees in Ukraine to bring good luck. There is a fable about a poor widow and her family, who couldn’t afford to decorate their tree and left it bare as they went to bed on Christmas Eve. House spiders felt their pain and decorated the tree with webs, which turned to gold and silver on Christmas Day – changing the family’s fortunes for the better.
The Holy Supper – or Sviata Vecherya – is the focal point of Christmas Eve celebrations in Ukraine. Christmas Eve is January 6th and celebrations can continue until January 19th. A sweet grain pudding called Kutia is served as one of the twelve-dish meal. A few pieces of hay may be sprinkled around the table as a reminder of the infant Jesus’s manger in Bethlehem.
A wooden block is rolled around the house to drive away any evil spirits from the home. This can even be seen on a larger scale in Riga Old Town. To receive their Christmas gifts, Latvians must recite a short poem while standing next to the tree.
St. Lucia Day falls on December 13th and is a major time of celebration for Swedish families. The eldest daughter of a family dresses in white, wearing a crown of candles and a red sash, handing out coffee and saffron buns (as pictured below) to other family members. She is proclaimed Lussibruden and is the queen of light, bringing hope in a time of darkness. Sweden’s Father Christmas is a small figure known as Jultomte, who delivers gifts on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day in Ethiopia is January 7th. That’s because the country largely uses its own calendar based on the old Alexandrian or Coptic calendar. Ethiopians celebrated the new millennium when our Gregorian calendar read September 12th, 2007. The Christmas celebration in the Ethiopian Orthdox Church is called Ganna. White clothes are worn, but gift giving is not a priority. Twelve days later, they celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ with the three-day celebration of Timkat.
St. Stephen is the Protomartyr – that is the first Christian martyr – who was stoned to death for his beliefs around 34 A.D. St. Stephen’s Day is December 26th, also known as the Feast of Stephen as mentioned in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”. Legend had it that a wren betrayed St. Stephen to his killers. In Ireland, a tradition developed to catch and kill a wren on December 26th. Sometimes it was kept alive, perhaps in a net attached to a pitchfork, and carried from house to house as donations were requested. The money might be used for a village dance – a Wren Ball – in January. These killers or collectors are Wrenboys and December 26th is Wren Day. The tradition nowadays involves “hunting” a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. The tradition of Hunting the Wren has also been seen in Wales and the Isle of Man.
The sapin de Noël first appeared in the French region of Alsace in the 14th century, decorated with apples, paper flowers and ribbons. It is still a central decoration in French homes, shops and workplaces. In the city of Lyon, December 8th is La Fete de Lumieres when locals pay homage to the Virgin Mary by lighting candles in their windows.
The huge Christmas Eve feast in France is called le Réveillon – from the verb “to revive”, pointing to the awakening to the meaning of Christ’s birth. It is the culinary high point of the season. French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace awaiting gifts from Pere Noel (Father Christmas). In some regions there’s also Père Fouettard, who gives out spankings to bad children.
Singing pubs are a 200-year-old Christmas tradition in certain parts of England, especially Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. In these hostelries, patrons pack in and carols ring out from the Sunday after Remembrance Day to the Sunday after Boxing Day. In one Yorkshire pub alone, there are 28 local versions of “While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks”. The tradition stems from the 19th century when the Church of England took a hard line on singing certain songs. Unhappy locals thus took their songs to the pub instead.
Christmas Eve in Poland starts with a period of fasting – then comes the feasting called the Wiglia, which starts at the appearance of the first star. Children eagerly look out of windows in an attempt to spot the Gwiazdka (the little star) and announce the time the feasting can begin. The supper starts with the breaking of the oplatek – the Christmas wafer. Everyone at the table breaks off a piece and eats it as a symbol of their unity with Christ. Fish and not meat is the main focus of the meal. Carp (seen below) is most often served, as is the beetroot broth Borsch or Barszcz (pictured above). Pieces of hay are put underneath the tablecloth as a reminder the infant Jesus was born in a manger. An empty chair is left at many tables – symbolically left for Jesus, a lonely wanderer in need of shelter (in honour of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem) or a deceased relative.
Chichilaki is the name of Georgia’s very own version of a traditional Christmas tree. They are pale in colour and made from dried walnut and hazelnut branches, shaped to form trees that can be as high as eight feet tall or as tiny as eight inches small. They are most common in the Samegrelo and Guria regions of Georgia near the Black Sea, but can be seen elsewhere in the country – especially stores around the capital Tblisi. Folklore suggests Chichilaki resembles the beard of St. Basil the Great, a fourth century Greek bishop known for his care of the poor. In Greek tradition he brings gifts to children on January 1st (St. Basil’s Day). The Church of England celebrates St. Basil’s Feast on January 2nd. Another ancient Greek bishop St. Nicholas of Myra also helped the under-privileged. His legend developed so he became inextricably linked with Christmas: the west’s Santa Claus. Similarly, St. Basil is identified with the Eastern version of Santa.
Beware the Icelandic Yule Cat, who eats lazy people who have not received new clothes before Christmas. The legend goes that if you complete all your chores before Christmas you are rewarded with new clothes. Farmers used the monstrous cat as an incentive to their workers to process the autumn wool before Christmas. People in old clothes clearly have to be on their guard.
Iceland also has the Yule Lads or Jolasveinarnir – thirteen mischievous gift-bringers who come down from the mountains to share delivery duties in the days leading up to Christmas. On each of the thirteen nights, children place one of their shoes on a windowsill. Good boys and girls hope to receive treats (like sweets and trinkets) in their shoes. Naughty children will receive a rotten potato.
Each Yule Lad has his own distinct personality and area of naughtiness and is named accordingly. Centuries ago, they were creepier creatures and somewhat more menacing. But around 1746, Icelandic parents were officially banned from scaring their children with threats of visits from the horrible Yule Lads. Legend had it they were born of Gryla, a particularly wicked woman who would steal away and cook naughty children at Christmastime. Gryla still gets a mention today, but is a figure of folklore rather than a thing of threat.
Over time, the lads became harmless pranksters. Johannes ur Kotlum wrote a poem about the Yule Lads that first appeared in the book “Jolin Koma” (“Christmas is Coming”) in 1932. There were many versions of Yule Lad names until this poem was popularised. Now, the thirteen names most Icelanders use today derive from the well-known verse.
1 Sheep-Cote Clod: He tries to suckle ewes in farmer’s sheep sheds on the night of December 12th; 2 Gully Gawk: He hides in gullies and then steals foam from the top of buckets of cow’s milk on December 13th; 3 Stubby: He’s short and steals food from frying pans. He is sometimes cruelly known as Gimpy. He visits on December 14th; 4 Spoon Licker: He licks the last remnants of food off spoons on December 15th; 5 Pot Scraper: Also known as Pot Licker, he steals unwashed pots and licks them clean. He takes leftovers, too – all on December 16th; 6 Bowl Licker: He steals bowls of food from under the bed. There was a time when Icelanders used to put food in ‘askurs’ (bowls with lids) under their beds. He visits on December 17th; 7 Door Slammer: He bangs around and slams doors, keeping everyone awake on the night of December 18th; 8 Skyr Gobbler: He eats all the Icelandic yogurt named ‘skyr’ on December 19th; 9 Sausage Swiper: He hides in the rafters and steals sausages that are being smoked for Christmas. His visiting date is December 20th; 10 Window Peeper: He likes to creep outside houses and occasionally steal objects he sees through windows – all on December 21st; 11 Door Sniffer: He has a very large nose and sniffs out baked goods to steal on December 22nd, especially Christmas bread; 12 Meat Hook: He is the most menacing Yule Lad in that he carries a meat hook. He especially likes to ‘hook’ and eat smoked lamb on December 23rd; 13 Candle Beggar: He steals candles on Christmas Eve. Candles used to be sought after items in Iceland. When made of tallow, they were edible.
Check out our wonderful story about these festive visitors entitled “Sigrun and the Yule Lads” by clicking here.
Elves figure prominently in the Icelandic festive season. Elves are meant to move to pastures new in Iceland on New Year’s Eve. People leave candles lit to light their way. On Twelfth Night in Iceland you may see Elf bonfires (alfabrennur) and Elfin dancing. Legend has it that elves are usually invisible but can be seen if they feel like it.
The Night of the Radishes – Noche de los Rabanos – began in 1897 and is celebrated in Oaxaca every December 23rd. Stalls at the city’s zocalo, or main plaza, are resplendent with sculpted radishes and other vegetables, some shaped into Nativity scenes. There is a prize for the winning veggie sculptor. Radishes in Mexico are whoppers.
Los Posados is an important Mexican tradition. It is a procession that begins nine days before Christmas and re-enacts Mary and Joseph searching for a place to stay in Bethlehem.
Happy 1st of September everyone! That’s the greeting straight out of the Philippines, a country known for the longest celebration of the Christmas season. It starts on the first day of September and runs until January, a period known as the Ber Months.
Festive posts are evident in their tens of thousands on September 1st in the Philippines, with mentions aplenty of “Happy September 1st”, “Christmas”, “Ber Months” and locally famous carol singer Jose Mari Chan.
Filipinos and Filipino-American communities around the world start making preparations on September 1st for this Christmas, including talk of family parties, food for the big day and gift ideas for loved ones. Some Filipino families put up Christmas decorations on September 1st and in many households there’s a tradition of hanging the main symbol of a Philippines Christmas: the Parol. This decoration is inspired by the Nativity star and can be seen hung inside houses and throughout streets.
The official observance of the season by the Catholic Church in the Philippines is from the Simbang Gabi service on December 16 until the Feast of Epiphany on the first Sunday of the New Year. The early masses before Christmas (Simbang Gabi) are also known as the “Misa de Gallo”.
A traditional winter Inuit dish in Greenland is Kiviak, made of 300 to 500 native birds called auks – beaks, bones, feathers, feet and all – sewn up inside a seal skin and smeared in seal fat. A heavy rock is placed on top to keep the air out and it is left for three to 18 months. When opened up, the auks have fermented and apparently smell and taste like Stilton cheese. Kiviak is usually eaten outside – so as not to smell out the house – and is a celebratory dish for birthdays and Christmas.
La Befana is an old woman with witch-like features who flies on her broom on January 5th, the eve of Epiphany, delivering gifts and sweets to good children. They may also expect to find a lump of candied coal because, the theory goes, all children will have been naughty at least once throughout the year. Like Father Christmas, she enters the house when she can via the chimney so is often seen covered in soot. Lucky Italian children also receive presents from Babbo Natale (Santa Claus). La Befana dolls (seen below) can be purchased at Christmas markets.
Before bedtime, children tie string to one of their big toes and leave the other end of the string outside the bedroom window. In Caracas, streets are closed off to cars early in the morning from December 16th to 24th, allowing people to roller-skate to church mass. En route, the skaters may tug at any strings they see hanging from window-ledges.
Krampus is a terrifying, hairy horned figure – almost demonic in appearance – who steals away naughty children in a sack. These are the children deemed unworthy of gifts from St. Nicholas. Krampus also operates in Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia and Southern Bavaria, usually on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. There has been debate in modern times as to whether or not Krampus is appropriate for children. A major Hollywood movie for Christmas 2015 brought Krampus to a wider audience.
St. Nicholas Day falls on December 6th and is a big Christmas celebration for the Dutch. On December 5th, children leave clogs or shoes by the fireplace or on a windowsill hoping they will be filled with presents from Sinterklaas and his helpers called Zwarte Pieten, which means Black Peters. They are the equivalent of Santa’s elves and keep a record on which children have been good or bad through the year. On St. Nicholas Day, Sinterklaas – with his white hair and long white beard – comes ashore off a boat to visit towns and cities in the Netherlands. He wears red bishop’s robes and leads a procession through the streets, usually riding a white horse. Dutch children believe Sinterklaas travels from Spain and that Santa Claus may still pay them a visit from Lapland on Christmas Eve, but with far fewer presents – in fact maybe just one. Some old songs about Sinterklaas make mention of naughty children being put in a sack and taken back to Spain for a year. Sinterklaas is also a bringer of gifts on December 6th in Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern France.
Christmas Day is not a public holiday in Japan, where Christianity is a minority religion. But cards and presents may be exchanged and it’s considered a time to spread joy. Christmas Eve is thought of as a romantic time and in many ways resembles Valentine’s Day. Booking a restaurant that night can be tricky, but then there’s always fried chicken. Yes, the Japanese have a peculiar penchant for eating lots of KFC at Christmastime. That’s thanks to an old advertising campaign that took hold over the festive period some 40 years ago. Now, KFC sales in Japan during the festive season are up to 10 times more than in any other month of the year.
Norwegians hide all their brooms on Christmas Eve as legend tells them witches and naughty spirits will ride on them if they are kept in sight. Spruce logs are burned in the fireplace and the hot sparks rising up the chimney will also keep the witches at bay.
December 26th was traditionally known as St. Stephen’s Day but became more commonly known as Boxing Day after money collected in church alms boxes was distributed to the poor after Christmas Day. The term ‘Boxing Day’ may also come from Feudal times when serfs had to work on Christmas Day but were given St. Stephen’s Day off. On December 26th they would receive boxes of practical gifts from their Lord (like cloth and tools) as thanks for their year’s work. Some people still refer to giving tips to workmen at Christmas as “giving them their Christmas box”. Boxing Day has been an official holiday since 1871, when Sir John Lubbock introduced the Bank Holidays Act. Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada also observe Boxing Day.
Christmas markets are arguably staged nowhere better than in Germany, with the biggest and most famous held in Nuremberg. The Christkindlesmarkt is steeped in 400 years of tradition. The tempting smells of sweet roasted almonds, gingerbread (as pictured above), mulled wine and sausages fill the air from late November through to Christmas Eve. Cologne stages another of the great markets, in the shadows of the grand cathedral (pictured here).
Christbaum-Loben is a popular tradition emanating from the Bavarian region of Germany. People move from house-to-house, visiting family and friends, praising their Christmas trees as effusively as possible while drinking schnapps. A more ancient custom originating from Bavaria is Klopfelnachte, which means Knocking Night. On the three Thursdays before Christmas, figures in disguise would go from house-to-house knocking on doors and crying out: “The Lord is coming!” More commonly now it is children dressed as shepherds who do the knocking, singing songs for the residents, as well as delivering blessings on them for a happy home and offering sweet treats. Think of it as trick or treating in reverse. In return children may receive a donation for charity.
Early in Advent, St. Nicholas is helped by 12 Buttenmandln. They are young men in masks, wearing straw cloaks and carrying cowbells. Gifts are given before the Buttenmandln become playfully boisterous with the children in attendance and drive them from the room in laughter.
Standing with their backs to the door, single people may throw a shoe over their shoulder on Christmas Day. If the shoe lands with its toe pointing to the door, marriage will soon follow for the happy thrower. No word, however, on how soon is soon.
Finnish graveyards are beautiful sights as night falls at Christmastime because the tradition is for everyone to light a candle at a gravestone for loved ones lost.
On Christmas Eve, the main man of the house throws a spoonful of Loksa pudding (also known as Bobalky) at the ceiling. The more of the mixture that sticks to the ceiling, the better his crops will be next year. In modern times, you can probably read ‘crops’ as good fortune.
Santa Claus has his own very special postcode in Canada where you can write to the big man at Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada, H0H 0H0. This is possible because Canada’s postcodes are alphanumeric in the format A1A 1A1 – where A is a letter and 1 is a digit. Thus the H-zero-H-zero-H-zero combination in effect spells out the real and very useable postcode “Ho Ho Ho”.
Rice pudding is served as part of the Christmas fayre, with a whole peeled almond hidden in the dish. Whoever finds the almond will have good fortune the following year. This is also seen in Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Faroe Islands.
When Father Christmas arrives in Australia delivering gifts, he gives his reindeer a break and employs kangaroos (as the native song refers to them: “Six White Boomers”) to help him on his way. Christmas on the beach is commonplace – sandmen instead of snowmen, barbecued dinner instead of a wintry roast.
Christmas and ghosts are common partners. In South Africa, children are told the story of Danny who ate cookies intended for Santa Claus and was killed by his outraged grandmother. Danny is said to haunt homes at Christmas. The idea behind the story is to prevent children being greedy and selfish. Creepy!
There are two Christmas Days in this Eastern European country: December 25th for the nation’s Catholics and January 7th for Orthodox Christians. One fits with the Gregorian calendar and one with the Julian calendar. The later Christmas Eve is January 6th and celebrations can continue until January 19th. The Holy Supper – or Sviata Vecherya – is the focal point of Christmas Eve celebrations in Belarus, as it is in Ukraine and some areas of Poland. A sweet grain pudding called Kutia is served as the first of a twelve-dish meal. It is rarely eaten the rest of the year.
Hogmanay, a time for Scottish New Year celebrations, holds sway for many Scots over Christmas. Hogmanay refers especially to New Year’s Eve and likely stems from the Norman French hoguine – an alteration of the old French ‘accuiellis l’an neuf’, which is ‘welcome the new year’. First-foot is a New Year tradition and has its origins in Scottish (and Northern English) folklore. Traditionally the first-footer brought gifts such as bread, salt, coal, coins and drink to represent a year to come full of food, warmth, prosperity and good cheer. It is acceptable in many places for the first-footer to be a member of the household – as long as they are outside the house at the stroke of midnight and then enter.
And once upon a time…
The Roman Empire: The first record of Christmas being celebrated in Rome is from 336AD. But long before that, Ancient Romans held Saturnalia: a feast to honour the sun god Saturn that ran from December 17th to 24th. Like so many winter solstice festivals around the world, this was about chasing away darkness and inviting in the light. There was gift giving and misrule (slaves became masters and vice versa). The day after Saturnalia, December 25th, was known as Natalis and had great significance because days would get lighter from thereon in. The English word ‘nativity’ comes from the Latin ‘natalis’. In the later Roman Empire, the sun god Sol Invictus – or Unconquered Sun – grew in importance. The feast day for Sol Invictus, the patron of soldiers, was December 25th.