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Christmas Traditions from Around the World: The Fun & The Strange!

Updated on November 9, 2014
Some strange Christmas traditions in other countries may include other items for decoration rather than a tree!
Some strange Christmas traditions in other countries may include other items for decoration rather than a tree!

Christmas traditions around the world

Christmas is a time for celebration and joy, with the emphasis on families uniting, sharing and giving at this festive time.

The holiday is celebrated everywhere with ample enthusiasm, but many in other countries do not always celebrate Christmas as we do in America. There are many fun, interesting and strange Christmas traditions to be discovered in other countries. If you can lay claim to heritage of one of the countries mentioned in the article, you might discover a few Christmas traditions you weren't aware of, and begin to incorporate them into your own holiday traditions and celebrations.

Valencia Center in Spain at Christmas
Valencia Center in Spain at Christmas

Christmas Traditions in Spain

Referred to as Navidad in Spain, Christmas is a jovial, fun time. On Christmas Eve, families gather around the manger in their home to sing, whilst children dance. Tiny oil lamps are lit in every house, and after Christmas dinner is over, everybody takes to the streets for dancing to the sound of castanets and flamenco guitars. Midnight Mass typically follows.

Every year, in the time leading up to Christmas, it is believed that the Magi travel through Spain re-enacting the famous journey to Bethlehem. The official Christmas season begins on December 8th, with the feast of the Immaculate Conception being held in front of the Gothic cathedral in Seville. The ceremony is called Los Seises, and is highlighted by ten extravagantly dressed boys, dancing in a synchronized manner, exacting movements that are said to be extremely emotional and inspiring.

On the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th, bonfires are lit in towns and villages by young boys. One of the boys is chosen to act as the mayor, giving townspeople various chores to undertake or perform.

On January 6th, shoes are placed upon balconies in the hope that the Wise Men will fill them with gifts. Shoes are also filled with straw to help the camels carry their riders through the night.


Christmas Traditions in France

The Christmas celebrations in most homes in France begin with the showing of the nativity scene or "croche". The scene consists of clay figures called santons, as well as the kings, shepherds and the holy family, together with models of local figureheads, displayed in many colors. The nativity scene is enacted in many of the cathedral squares, by puppets and players. The molds for these santons are passed down through generations, and this French Christmas tradition has been in existence since the seventeenth century.

French children get their presents on December 6th, St Nicholas day, from Pere Noel. These presents are put into the children’s shoes that are left by the fire the night before. All remaining gifts are placed on the tree. Adults exchange presents on New Year’s Day.

When retiring to bed on Christmas Eve, most families practice the French Christmas tradition of leaving the fire glowing and food and drink upon the table, just in case they have a visit from the Virgin Mary.

Food is another one of the many French Christmas traditions, with menus and tastes varying throughout the country. The Christmas meal is known as le reveillon is served after midnight mass. In Burgundy, the choice is turkey with chestnuts, but for the residents of Alsace, the main course is goose. In Paris, oysters are served with foie gras. The preferred cake for the season is the Christmas log, known as a buche de noel, also served at le reveillon.

From Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day, a log is burned in the homes of those living in the South of France. Many years ago, a part of this log was used to make a wedge to fit in the plough, which ensured a fruitful harvest.

Another custom that takes place in France is when a Three Kings Cake, which contains a bean, is served. Whoever has the fortune to find the bean becomes Queen or King for the day. Children venture out to look for the Kings, in the hope of finding the camels and giving them hay. This is also known as the Twelfth Day.

How to make a Buche de Noel

Christmas Traditions in Germany

German Christmas traditions include celebrations that last a whole month, as it begins with advent and carries on from there. At the start of advent, another one of the many German Christmas traditions sees the opening of many Christmas markets known as Weihnachtsmarkte. Here items such as decorations, ornaments and different items of food and drink that is consumed over the holiday period. According to German folk legend, on Christmas Eve, bells can be heard over the mountains, rivers turn to wine and animals speak to one another.

One of the most unique German Christmas traditions is the hanging of a wreath in the home with a candle on each of the four corners. At the start of advent, one candle is lit every Sunday until Christmas Eve. This wreath is known as the Adventskranz. Germany is where the Adventskranz or advent calendar originated, prompting many countries of the world to follow suit.

At the beginning of advent, shoes or socks are put on window sills by children on December 6th, normally accompanied by a note to St Nicholas. This is in anticipation of a visit from Christkind, a messenger with a book of sins. German Christmas traditions indicate that if a child is good, then their stocking will be filled with gifts, but if they have been naughty, the stocking will be filled with twigs.

It was Germany where the traditional Christmas tree and decorations originated. The elders of the family decorate the tree and hide it from the children until Christmas Eve. German Christmas traditions ensure that the tree is decorated with bells, candy and Christmas crafts. Also used for decoration is a popular German pastry known as Christbaumgeback.

On Christmas Eve, when the Christmas tree is revealed, presents are exchanged and families join together in a feast.

A traditional Christmas dinner in Germany would consist of roast rabbit or goose. Another great favorite is sauerkraut with potato and apple dumplings.

Christmas Day is much more sombre and quiet, reflecting on the religious meaning of Christmas. Then on the following day, time is spent helping the needy and spreading good will to all.

On January 6th, King’s day is commemorated with the children dressing up and singing carols.

Preparing traditional German Christmas foods

Christmas Traditions in Ireland

Irish Christmas traditions began with the English monarch, Henry II, who is thought to be responsible for introducing Christmas celebrations to Ireland. In Hogges, an Irish village, a large traditional hall was built by King Henry II. In those times, many festive events took place in this village which also witnessed those who were loyal to the English King participating in traditional plays.

The many customary rituals that take place at Christmas are not all religious, but they are still seen as an essential part of Irish Christmas traditions. However, one of the oldest customs relates to Christmas Eve and is an emblem of when Mary and Joseph were looking for shelter on their journey to Bethlehem. To portray this, every Irish home displays a lighted candle in the window, which has to be lit by the youngest family member and doused by a girl bearing the name of “Mary”.

During the evening of Christmas Eve, once the meal had been eaten, bread made with caraway seeds and raisins was placed on the table together with plentiful milk for anyone traveling by. This reminiscent Irish tradition provided benevolence to travelers in need of sustenance, and one that provides the significance of this festive time of year.

Similarly, in rural Ireland, a pagan custom at Christmas is to paint any outbuildings with white, indicating a sign of purification. This Irish Christmas tradition appears to have originated from the early Mesopotamians. The purification ritual is also depicted by replacing curtains and bedding with new ones.

Another custom which began in Ireland was having a sprig of holly placed on your door. It is thought that this took place prior to the tradition of having a Christmas tree in the house

Although Christmas has taken on a more modern, commercial appearance, the spirit of nostalgia and history are still upheld with the Irish Christmas traditions. This can be noticed by the generosity shown to those in need at this time of the year.

Christmas in Ireland is celebrated from Christmas Eve through to 6th January, the feast of Epiphany, and this is when all the Christmas decorations are taken down.

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