Weird and Wonderful: Christmas Traditions Around the World

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The holiday season is here, and trees are being decorated, wreaths hung on doorways, Christmas carols fill the air, and the barbecue is being fired up as shoppers make their way through their holiday gift list. While these are all the typical Australian Christmas traditions, around the world other countries’ Christmas traditions are just as wonderful and sometimes a little wacky. If you’re looking for some unique Christmas Eve traditions, Christmas traditions to start with your family, or simply Christmas traditions for kids to understand more about the world around them, here are few examples of wonderful and weird Christmas traditions from around the world.

Japanese Christmas Traditions

While not a formal holiday in Japan (in fact many go to work and carry on as any normal day), some Japanese families have adopted some of the Western holiday celebrations and have even created some of their own.

Typically, Christmas in Japan isn’t about the giant holiday tree with presents as living quarters here are much smaller. So in some homes you’ll find tiny versions of a Christmas tree and gifts are often left next to sleeping children’s pillows rather than under the tree (a little bit like the tooth fairy.)

Christmas is also more of romantic holiday, much like Valentine’s Day. Typically you’ll see couples walking among romantic holiday lights or going out on fancy date nights to celebrate. And much like in the Western cultures, a Christmas proposal isn’t uncommon.

Wondering what food is traditionally eaten on Christmas in Japan? The answer might surprise you. KFC. Yep, the fast food, fried chicken. In Japan, KFC is considered more of a luxury fast food, and it’s more expensive that its Australian counterparts. Back in the 1970s, KFC marketed their holiday meal buckets as the American way to celebrate Christmas and it took off. Now, it’s not uncommon for families to place their order months in advance. In Japan you’ll also find bakeries serving up Christmas cake, but with their own special spin. Unlike the fruit cake you might be imagining, here they create special holidays cakes that are more in line with elaborately decorated birthday cakes.

German Christmas Traditions

The Germans have far more similar traditions, with holiday wreaths hung on doors, plenty of mulled wine and advent calendars to celebrate the lead up to the big day. In Germany however, locals aren’t shy about getting into the holiday mood early with St Nicholas Day on 5 December. Young children clean and polish their boots, leaving them outside their door before bed. In the morning, they’re greeted to a shoe-full of candies, smalls gifts and treats from St Nicholas. Much more popular than the American Santa Claus, it’s St Nicholas who makes appearances in German shopping centres for photos.

On the flip side to St Nicholas, Krampus is the evil sidekick of sorts who accompanies St Nick to reprimand and punish naughty children. In Southern Bavaria, revellers dress in frightening Krampus costumes and patrol the streets on St Nicholas Night for the annual Krampus festival, where parents (and their naughty children) are often invited to give them a scare into better behaviour. Krampus is also popular in Austria, and there is even a dedicated Krampus parade that takes place in Vienna every year.

Germans also enjoy a good Christmas holiday market. While this tradition has spread to many other countries, we can thank them for the festive Christmas markets where you can shop for gifts and sweets under the stars and twinkling holiday lights.

Italian Christmas Traditions

Italy is an incredible place to visit during the festive ‘Natale’ holiday season. It’s family-centric and packed full of gift giving and delicious foods. While the holiday menu varies from city to city, no matter where you visit, you’ll be certain to be inundated with some incredible traditional fare.

Festivities around Italy tend to kick off on 8 December, deemed to be the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. If you’re doing the maths, this isn’t when Mary conceived for a three-week pregnancy, but is the date celebrated by the Church as the Virgin Mary’s birthdate. From this date, the decorations go up around the city and the Christmas fun starts. It’s also a public holiday.

Novena, or the eight days leading up to Christmas, see the streets full of carollers and music, and if you’re in Rome or Sicily, you’ll often hear the zampognari, or bagpipe players, who travel to cities playing traditional carols.

In Italy, Father Christmas or ‘Babbo Natale‘, typically brings children gifts on Christmas Eve. 

And what is a traditional Italian Christmas dinner? For Christmas Eve, Italians historically go vegetarian or now, a more modern pescatarian meal with large multi-course dinners of seafood. After a ‘light’ evening meal, Christmas Day brings the feast with all-day dining on dishes like pastas, roast meats and Italian desserts such as panettone.

Gifts are then exchanged after the meal or in some regions of Italy, it’s not until the 6 January, or the celebration of the Epiphany, when gifts are swapped.

French Christmas Traditions

In France, an Aussie might be disappointed to discover there’s no Boxing Day, but don’t worry, the French have a festive season that stretches out over a few weeks rather than a few days so there’s plenty of time to celebrate Noël.

Here, letters to Father Christmas are responded to by postcard, by law. Since 1962, French law requires any letter to Santa must be replied to via postcard, a tradition called ‘Postcards from Père Noël’. Special letter boxes for these replies can be found around French cities.

Similar to Krampus, Père Fouettard or Father Slapper, appear in different incarnations around the globe. In France, he accompanies St. Nicholas with his own whip to spank naughty kids. Also similar to Germany, French youngsters sometimes leave their shoes at the fireplace, hoping Père Nöel will fill them with small treats and gifts. A traditional take on the Christmas stocking.

Ever wonder, what is a yule log? In France, families used to burn a log, sprinkled with fragrant spices, in their fireplace from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day to bring good luck for the upcoming year (and it smelled amazing!). Today though, you’re more likely to see families break into a chocolate version or a cake baked to resemble a log to keep the tradition alive.

A traditional French Christmas dinner, otherwise known as ‘Le Reveillon‘ (or the awakening), is eaten late Christmas Eve and the menu often consists of roast turkey filled with chestnuts or oysters and foie gras -and the food doesn’t stop there. The French also mark the 12th day of Christmas by eating a pastry known as the galette des rois or cake of kings to celebrate Ephiphany. Baked inside the cake is a charm and whoever finds it is declared the king or queen, winning the right to wear a crown. While it might sound like a silly game, it’s taken very seriously (like winning the Christmas cracker pull!).

Other Christmas Traditions From Around The World

  • Norwegians hide their brooms before going to bed on Christmas Eve to stop the arrival of evil spirits and witches.
  • Catalonians in Spain spend the two weeks leading up to Christmas filling a hollowed-out log with fruits, nuts and other treats. The log, called the ‘Poop Log’, is then beaten with a stick on Christmas Eve while the family breaks out into the traditional song. Locals even dress up their logs with faces and hats.
  • Forget tinsel and baubles. A Ukrainian tradition used artificial spider webs to decorate the Christmas tree.
  • Single women in the Czech Republic toss a shoe over their shoulder while facing their back to a door on Christmas Eve. A shoe that lands with the toe facing the door is said to signify that they’ll get married within the next year. If the shoe lands with its heel facing the door, it’s another year of singledom.
  • Icelandic families exchange new books on Christmas Eve and then spend the rest of the night curled up with their reads. Iceland is also home to the Yule Cat, a figure who will supposedly eat locals if they’re without new clothes. The solution? Donning a festive Christmas jumper!
  • Don’t expect traditional pine-needled trees dressed up with lights in New Zealand. Instead, the Kiwis embrace the Pokutukawa tree as a symbol of the festive season.
  • An annual competition, dubbed ‘Night of the Radishes’, takes place in Oaxaca in Mexico every year on 23 or 24 December. Local sellers and merchants sculpt figurines out of oversized radishes in a tradition supposed to date back to the 19th century.

Encounter these traditions first-hand for future Christmases, and start making plans to book your flights with Webjet. Tip: don’t leave it until too late in the year to book your December flights – get in early to snap up the best prices on your airfares and accommodation!

Hero: Frankfurt Christmas Market. Credit: Photo by on Unsplash

Gwen Luscombe is a Melbourne-based travel, events and food writer who is always on the lookout for a new restaurant or wine bar, or an exciting new destination to discover. Having been bitten by the travel bug early in life, she’s lived in a variety of cities around the globe before making Australia home.

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