International Christmas Traditions

Three major Christian vacations take place in December and early January: Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, the day prior to the birth of Jesus Christ; Christmas, Dec. 25; and Epiphany, Jan. 6, celebrating the coming of the 3 smart males and Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

Across numerous countries, cultures and regions, these holidays are celebrated in diverse ways. Gift-giving customs, signs, tunes and processions can all hold clues to ethnic roots:


While most Australian customs are English in origin, Christmas cards feature native animals such as koalas. Palm leaves, ferns and flowering plants embellish houses during this summertime holiday in the Southern Hemisphere.


On Dec. 26, citizens commemorate Jonkonnu, a festival that integrates English and African aspects and dance movements.

Eastern Europe

Ukranians hang spiders and webs on their trees as part of a folkloric tale about a lady who was too bad to decorate her tree so a spider spun webs for decor throughout the night. In Russia before the 1917 transformation, an old female named Baboushka brought kids deals with. During the Communist age, she was changed to Grandpa Frost. Slovakian children put polished boots in their windows for St. Nicholas to provide presents on Dec. 5. Moravians established Christmas pyramids decorated with a star and racks, one scheduled for a nativity scene. A propeller on top of the structure turns from the heat of the candles on the racks.


English children await Dad Christmas to provide presents. Prince Albert, partner of Queen Victoria, brought the custom of tree decorating from his native Germany. The first Christmas cards debuted here in the 1840s. Christmas crackers, little popping cardboard tubes with surprises within, are popular throughout the vacations.


The Coptic Church commemorates Ganna (Christmas) on Jan. 7. Ganna is named after a popular video game comparable to field hockey, which legend says the shepherds played upon hearing of Jesus’ birth. Everybody wears white to a church service following a day of fasting.


Kids think of Introduction as a calendar with a prize on every day in between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25. Initially, Arrival was a time to think about the future spiritual events of the season. Introduction dates from 490 AD when the Bishop of Tours advocated fasting three days a week for the 40 days prior to Christmas. Extended households congregate after midnight Mass for réveillon, a banquet on Christmas Eve.


The majority of sources credit Germans for beginning the tradition of decorating Christmas trees, eventually bringing that custom-made to America. Elaborate hand-blown glass accessories also initially appeared in Germany. The German city of Lauscha was the production center for glass accessories, although accessory production slowed after it became part of postwar East Germany. Children compose letters and lists and leave them for Christkindel (southern Germany) or Weinnachtsman (northern Germany). Lots of towns hold a Christkindelsmarkt, selling handcrafted gifts and treats during the holidays.


St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and fishermen, offers gifts. Present giving occurs on Jan. 1, St. Basil’s Day, in honor of among the 4 fathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. On Epiphany, known as Greek Cross Day, crucifixes are blessed by dipping them into water.

Latin America

Las Posadas, an everyday procession that re-enacts Joseph and Mary’s look for shelter, is typically carried out in the days prior to Christmas. Kids leave their shoes in the window on Surprise for gifts from the Magi. In Mexico, the holiday season ends with Candlemas, a spiritual event on Feb. 2.

A Mexican folktale states the story of a bad girl who provided the infant Jesus with a branch from an easy plant. As she laid it beside the manger, it turned red. Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and the first US ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant to this country, where it came to be called a poinsettia.


Italian kids leave their shoes or stockings near the fireplace to receive gifts on Surprise from La Befana. They likewise receive presents from Dad Christmas on Christmas Day. Nativity scenes and Christmas pyramids belong to Christmas display screens.


Black Peter disciplines naughty boys and ladies on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), while Sinterklass, or St. Nicholas, rewards excellent kids with candy and gifts.


Since the Philippines is the only Asian nation where the majority of people are Christian, Christmas there is popular commonly. The season starts on Dec. 16 with the Misa de Gallo, or “rooster’s mass.” The majority of households display parols, or star-shaped lanterns, and sing carols.


At midnight on Christmas Eve in Poland, numerous go to pasterka, or Shepherd’s Mass. Afterward, the head of the family breaks an oplatek, a thin wafer made of wheat flour and water with a nativity scene stamped on it. Each family member breaks off a small piece and consumes it. Later, they might delight in fish, sauerkraut, potato pancakes and beet soup.


In Scandinavian nations, trees are strung with straw goats. Danes usage red-and-white hearts and strings of miniature Danish flags. Finnish kids think that their gift giver, our Santa Claus, lives in Korvatunturi, in the northern part of their nation. Swedes honor Santa Lucia on Dec. 13 by picking a child to dress in a white gown with a red sash. The child uses a wreath on the head with lit candles and provides traditional food. The tomte, or Christmas gnome, brings gifts on Christmas Day. In Norway, Christmas, or Juledag, is a quiet start to Dec. 26, when Norwegians start consuming, drinking and commemorating till Jan. 13.

United States

Various areas of the United States also dealt with Christmas in their own special ways that may be shown in your household’s heritage. Conservative Puritans in Massachusetts tried to ban Christmas in the 17th century, while Southern inhabitants brought over carols, yule logs and greenery from England. Christmas in New England was a time of spiritual dedication; the southern nests invited the holiday by making as much sound as possible. Much of these regional distinctions outgrew the variety of individuals in the location. In Alaska, for example, Russian descendants still follow the traditions of the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 with a procession carrying wheels cut with tinsel to look like stars.

Vacation Food

No holiday is total without particular foods. My childhood memories revolve around big household celebrations on Christmas Eve, the tables laden with a meal supper brought by family members reflecting their specific ethnic heritage. My cousin constantly made la tourtière, a meat pie served by French Canadians after midnight Mass, initially part of réveillon.

A typical English meal featured roast goose or turkey, plum pudding and wassail to drink. Waves of immigrants to America have each added their own items to that standard vacation menu. Fruitcake, for instance, has its origins in Ireland, while gingerbread cookies began in the Netherlands and Germany. Spain is noteworthy for its marzipan and Sweden for its lussekatt buns at the festival of Santa Lucia (discover how to prepare traditional Swedish recipes from the book Swedish Cakes and Cookies), while mincemeat is an old English custom. Banquets also belong to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, obviously. And nobody who participates in an Italian Christmas Eve ever forgets the seven courses– with eel as one traditional offering. See the box at right for a list of cookbooks that will help you work up heritage dishes for your holiday banquets.

Pass down your family’s holiday customs, recipes and stories in Family Tree Legacies: Preserving Memories Throughout Time, from the editors of Ancestral tree Magazine.

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