December 25th is traditionally the time that the birth of Jesus is celebrated by followers of Christianity. At least, it is in most parts of Europe and the United States. But there are many places where the celebration of the birth of Christ happens quite differently. Here you’ll see different foods. Different traditions. And even festivals at different times of the year!
In this article, we’ll take a look at how Christmas is celebrated around the world…
Christmas in Japan
Let’s start off with something a little strange. Just to get a “taste” of how people around the world celebrate Christmas differently, let’s see what they eat while they do!
Christmas Dinner is probably one staple of the tradition which everyone loves and in which everyone in Europe and the US knows roughly what to expect. This will not be the case if you’re in Japan over the Yule period, however! Here, eating takeaway fried chicken – specifically Kentucky Fried Chicken – is the Christmas tradition.
That’s right! Every year, millions of Japanese people flock to KFC to get their Christmas lunch. There are some premium “Christmas barrel” options which include roast chicken and stuffing but the vast majority of meals sold will include fried chicken.
How can this be possible?
In short, smart marketing from KFC in the 1970s. With such a small percentage of the Japanese population being Christian (somewhere around 1-2%) there were very few established Christmas traditions. KFC came in with the message that “at Christmas, you eat chicken.” Then they dressed their mascot Colonel Sanders up in a Santa Claus outfit and the rest, as they say, is history.
Christmas in the Philippines
While a relatively small proportion of the Japanese population is Christian, around 90% of the population of the Philippines is. This means Christmas in the Philippines is a big deal. Celebrations and decorations can appear as early as September and many people will attend nine early morning masses every day from the 16th-24th December.
Look out for the star lanterns – known as paróls – throughout this period. Traditionally made from paper and bamboo, they represent the Star of Bethlehem and hope.
Christmas in China
Does China celebrate Christmas?
Well, not technically. It’s not a holiday and most people will be going to work like normal. However, you will still see Christmas displays in shopping centres throughout the November-December period. Most shops will promote Christmas by having ceremonies for the turning on of lights, you’ll see many a Santa Claus for children to take pictures with, as well as shop staff dressed as elves or wearing Santa hats and so on.
This can all continue well on into February in some places and it’s not impossible to hear Christmas songs appear over a tannoy system during the middle of summer! This could be because while China seems to enjoy the trappings of Christmas, just as in many parts of the world the festival here is more of an exercise in good times and high sales rather than a religious celebration.
Christmas in the UK
The one Christmas tradition which is perhaps the most quintessentially British is the “Queen’s Speech”. On Christmas Day, the Queen gives a televised speech which many people have on – either to actively watch or just to have “in the background” as festivities take place. The Queen talks about events which have defined the year for British people in general and the Royal Family in particular.
Linked to this in the broadest possible sense, another strange little British Christmas tradition is the pulling of crackers and the wearing of the paper crowns which traditionally come out of them.
To the uninitiated, a Christmas cracker in the UK is a small cardboard cylinder decorated to look like a large sweet or candy wrapper. One person pulls on each end of the cracker and – with a little “crack” or “snap” sound – the cracker breaks and the person left holding the largest piece gets to keep what’s inside. These items usually include a deliberately poor joke written on a piece of a paper, a tiny plastic item or toy, and the aforementioned paper crown, which the victor must immediately place upon his or her head.
Christmas in Russia
Because Russia celebrates Christmas after New Year, most Russians will have the entire period between the two dates off of work giving them a decent amount of holiday time – more than any other European country!
It’s also interesting to note that out of the two celebrations, the New Year usually carries a much greater weight here. In Soviet Russia, the celebration of Christmas and other religious holidays was banned so the New Year festivities took on much of the original trappings of the celebration. This means the New Year in Russia often comes with presents and trees.
Christmas itself usually features a 12-course dinner on Christmas Eve to represent the 12 apostles. That’s the sort of tradition it’s easy to get behind!
Christmas in Germany
Many Christmas traditions celebrated around the world actually originally come from Germany. Here are a few which you might recognise:
- Christmas trees
- Holiday wreaths to hang on your door or set with candles
- Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets)
- Glühwein (Mulled wine)
- Christmas Eve
Yep! These all come from German Christmas traditions. Germany also has Christmas Stollen (spiced fruit cake) and an extra celebration on December 6th called Nikolaus Day, which have also taken off in some other parts of the world.Christmas market
Being situated on the opposite side of the world from where Christmas originated, Australia has had to make some accommodations with the local climate in how it celebrates the festive season. You’ll find many European staples present here, including carol singing (although Australia has many unique songs rarely heard elsewhere), Christmas trees, Santa Claus, presents on Christmas Day and traditional Christmas Dinner (although because of the heat this tends to be cold Turkey and ham with various salads).
But, you’ll also find some traditions which sound distinctly odd to a European ear. For example, going camping or to the beach at Christmas is something that many Australians like to do. Bondi Beach near Sydney, in particular, sees tens of thousands of visitors on Christmas Day! There are also two hugely popular sporting events – the Boxing Day Test cricket match and the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, which both start on the day after Christmas.
Amongst the indigenous population of Australia, there are several Christian groups which celebrate Christmas. There are also several groups which happen to have a celebration at this time of year because of the change of seasons. These are only linked to the Christian tradition in that the original Christmas was most likely dated to coincide with pagan celebrations of Yule in order to be more easily assimilated into existing European ways of life. Yule celebrations happened at this time of year because of the already-celebrated solstice, and in several indigenous Australian cultures the change of the seasonal cycle is likewise marked at this time.
North, South and Central America
Christmas in the USA
The United States draws most of its traditions from Germany, the UK, Ireland and other places from which the original and later immigrant groups which founded the country set sail.
There are also much more recent Christmas traditions which originated here, such as the drinking of eggnog. This was once a drink of the British nobility but was changed to include rum when brought to the US because it could be more easily traded from the Caribbean. The origins of the word show some great etymological history:
- Grog: a slang word for rum
- Noggins: the slang word for the small wooden cups which it used to be served in
- Egg n’ grog: the addition of the egg to the grog
- Eggnog: broadly, “egg n’ grog” simplified by time
Americans have also broadly been responsible for popularising the idea of “kissing under the mistletoe” even though it arose from 16th century England, and could possibly date further back to have origins in Norse mythology or druidic worship.
Christmas in Venezuela
Christmas is a major celebration almost universally throughout South America, but Venezuela really loves it. Lasting for almost a month, Christmas in Venezuela is a big community event. A Venezuelan’s morning over Christmas might look like this:
You might be woken early – it’s traditional to set off fireworks and ring bells to start the day! Then, because the roads tend to be closed, you might walk to attend one of the nine major masses which take place over the festive period. The most important of these takes place on Christmas Eve and is known as Nochebuena de Navidad.
Venezuelan Christmas food is also a communal activity as it traditionally involves the entire family coming together to create hallacas (probably better known as tamales). Meat pies with a cornmeal crust which are cooked in banana leaves, these great dishes are both sweet and savoury and only eaten in Venezuela at Christmas time.
Christmas in Ecuador
If you’re in Ecuador over Christmas and you’re a fan of parades, singing and dancing, you’re in for a treat. The Pase del Niño Viajero (“Festival of the Travelling Infant”) takes place in Cuenca on Christmas Eve and involves preparations which have been made throughout the year!
This is a spectacular event featuring a large religious component. Many people are dressed up as key figures from the nativity and many icons and images are carried by priests within the crowd. There’s also a strong and colourful local cultural influence, with Tucumán dancers in the streets and llamas and horses displaying harvest fare. Children play a large role in the celebration and parade.
Christmas in Mexico
Los Posadas – meaning “the lodging” or “the accommodation” in English – is a nine-day religious festival celebrated in Mexico and by many Latino and Spanish communities in the United States. Meant to represent the nativity setting of the inn in which Mary and Joseph lodged in the Christian faith, Los Posadas has been celebrated in Mexico for over 400 years!
Just as in much of the rest of the world, Christian traditions celebrating the birth of Jesus merged with pre-existing local traditional seasonal celebrations to form the modern festival. In the case of Mexico, this meant the Aztec winter solstice festival – which took place during most of the month of December – and the birth of the sun god Huitzilopochtli. The two traditions came together quickly and easily.
Christmas in Ethiopia
Much like Orthodox Europe, Ethiopia follows the Julian calendar so Christmas here takes place on the 7th January. In Ethiopia, the birth of Christ is celebrated in an event called Ganna, the day before which – Christmas Eve – is a day of fasting. At dawn on the day of the festival, celebrants will dress in white – this will most likely a traditional shamma if they’re outside of the capital, while some in Addis Ababa might wear other all-white attire – and then go to Church, usually as a family.
Much as sports and games form part of the Christmas tradition in Australia and many other places, at around the same time as the religious celebration of Christmas is happening many male Ethiopians will enjoy playing a certain traditional sport. This is also called “ganna” and broadly resembles hockey. There are also several traditional seasonal foods served at this time, including the sourdough pancake-like injera and wat, a kind of spicy meat and vegetable stew.
If you’re expecting presents in Ethiopia at Christmas time you’re going to be disappointed though. This isn’t a part of the usual celebrations here.
How Christmas is Celebrated Around the World
It just goes to show that while Christmas is celebrated in all corners of the world these days, there are many differences – both large and small – in how those celebrations happen. It all depends on the particular portion of the globe you hail from.
Do you have a particularly unique tale of how Christmas is celebrated around the world? Either in the place that you live or somewhere you’ve visited?
Comment below and we’ll add the best and most interesting to our article!