International Christmas Traditions

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Three major Christian holidays occur in December and early January: Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, the day before the birth of Jesus Christ; Christmas, Dec. 25; and Epiphany, Jan. 6, commemorating the coming of the three wise men and Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.
Across many countries, cultures and regions, these holidays are celebrated in diverse ways. Gift-giving customs, symbols, songs and processions can all hold clues to ethnic roots: 


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


On Dec. 26, residents celebrate Jonkonnu, a festival that combines English and African elements and dance movements.

Eastern Europe

Ukranians hang spiders and webs on their trees as part of a folkloric tale about a woman who was too poor to decorate her tree so a spider spun webs for decoration during the night. In Russia before the 1917 revolution, an old woman named Baboushka brought children treats. During the Communist era, she was changed to Grandfather Frost. Slovakian children put polished boots in their windows for St. Nicholas to deliver gifts on Dec. 5. Moravians set up Christmas pyramids decorated with a star and shelves, one reserved for a nativity scene. A propeller on top of the structure turns from the heat of the candles on the shelves.


English children wait for Father Christmas to deliver presents. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, brought the custom of tree decorating from his native Germany. The first Christmas cards debuted here in the 1840s. Christmas crackers, small popping cardboard tubes with surprises inside, are popular during the holidays.


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


Young children think of Advent as a calendar with a prize on every day between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25. Originally, Advent was a time to think about the future spiritual events of the season. Advent dates from 490 AD when the Bishop of Tours advocated fasting three days a week for the 40 days prior to Christmas. Extended families gather together after midnight Mass for réveillon, a banquet on Christmas Eve.


Most sources credit Germans for starting the tradition of decorating Christmas trees, eventually bringing that custom to America. Elaborate hand-blown glass ornaments also first appeared in Germany. The German city of Lauscha was the manufacturing center for glass ornaments, although ornament production slowed after it became part of postwar East Germany. Children write letters and lists and leave them for Christkindel (southern Germany) or Weinnachtsman (northern Germany). Many towns hold a Christkindelsmarkt, selling handmade gifts and treats during the holidays.


St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and fishermen, gives out gifts. Gift giving takes place on Jan. 1, St. Basil’s Day, in honor of one of the four 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, a daily procession that re-enacts Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter, is traditionally performed in the days before Christmas. Children leave their shoes in the window on Epiphany for gifts from the Magi. In Mexico, the holiday season ends with Candlemas, a religious ceremony on Feb. 2.

A Mexican folktale recounts the story of a poor girl who presented the infant Jesus with a branch from a simple 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 children leave their shoes or stockings near the fireplace to receive gifts on Epiphany from La Befana. They also receive presents from Father Christmas on Christmas Day. Nativity scenes and Christmas pyramids are part of Christmas displays.


Black Peter disciplines naughty boys and girls on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), while Sinterklass, or St. Nicholas, rewards good children with candy and gifts.


Because the Philippines is the only Asian nation where the majority of people are Christian, Christmas there is celebrated widely. The season begins on Dec. 16 with the Misa de Gallo, or “rooster’s mass.” Most families display parols, or star-shaped lanterns, and sing carols.


At midnight on Christmas Eve in Poland, many 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 eats it. Later, they might feast on fish, sauerkraut, potato pancakes and beet soup.


In Scandinavian countries, trees are strung with straw goats. Danes use red-and-white hearts and strings of miniature Danish flags. Finnish children believe that their gift giver, our Santa Claus, lives in Korvatunturi, in the northern part of their country. Swedes honor Santa Lucia on Dec. 13 by selecting a child to dress in a white gown with a red sash. The child wears a wreath on the head with lit candles and delivers traditional food. The tomte, or Christmas gnome, brings gifts on Christmas Day. In Norway, Christmas, or Juledag, is a quiet prelude to Dec. 26, when Norwegians start eating, drinking and celebrating until Jan. 13.

United States

Various regions of the United States also dealt with Christmas in their own unique ways that may be reflected in your family’s heritage. Conservative Puritans in Massachusetts tried to outlaw Christmas in the 17th century, while Southern settlers brought over carols, yule logs and greenery from England. Christmas in New England was a time of religious devotion; the southern colonies welcomed the holiday by making as much noise as possible. Many of these regional differences grew out of the diversity of people in the area. In Alaska, for instance, Russian descendants still follow the traditions of the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 with a procession carrying wheels trimmed with tinsel to resemble stars.

Holiday Food

No holiday is complete without specific foods. My childhood memories revolve around large family parties on Christmas Eve, the tables laden with a potluck supper brought by relatives reflecting their particular ethnic heritage. My cousin always made la tourtière, a meat pie served by French Canadians after midnight Mass, originally 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 traditional holiday menu. Fruitcake, for example, has its origins in Ireland, while gingerbread cookies began in the Netherlands and Germany. Spain is notable for its marzipan and Sweden for its lussekatt buns at the festival of Santa Lucia (learn how to prepare traditional Swedish recipes from the book Swedish Cakes and Cookies), while mincemeat is an old English tradition. Feasts also are part of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, of course. And no one 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 whip up heritage dishes for your holiday feasts.

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