Christmas traditions from around the world

Christmas is just a few sleeps away and even if it will be a very different experience this year, we still look forward to the Christmas tree, the gifts, the good food and above all – seeing our loved ones. It is the same for many of us around the world (some things remain constant), but there are a few unique variations as to how each country celebrates the Christmas season.

Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi. Image: Getty Images/Roman Babakin

Finland

The real Santa Claus only comes through the chimney once a year. In his office at the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, however, he takes appointments all year round. But how do Finns celebrate Christmas? To prepare for three days of celebration, they clean thoroughly and make room for the Christmas tree. On the morning of Christmas Eve, Turku’s mayor reads out the declaration of Christmas peace. The evening is dominated by a ham (joulukinkku) cooked slowly in the oven, served with a casserole or mashed potatoes. Combined with snow, a crisp, dry cold and with any luck a sighting of the Northern Lights – an unmistakably Finnish Christmas.

Merry Christmas! Hyvää joulua!

New Year’s Market on Red Square, Moscow, Russia. Image: Getty Images

Russia

Christmas in Russia is fairly different from others around the world. The Julian calendar applies and Christmas falls on 7th January and is celebrated comparatively rarely. Religious holidays were forbidden by the communist government for a long time. So, New Year’s Eve became the Russian ‘Christmas’. The family gets together on 31st December, where there is lots of eating and drinking, rich and heavy favourites like Olivier salad, made from boiled potatoes and carrots, peas, sausage and eggs. Ded Moroz (Father Frost), the Russian version of Santa Claus, makes his appearance late at night and distributes presents to the children with his young assistant, the Snegurochka (Snow Maiden).

Happy New! S novym godom! (C новым годом) / Merry Christmas! S roschdestwom! (С рождеством)

Christmas decorations in downtown Athens. Image: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI / AFP via Getty Images

Greece

The sun goes down and opens the door to all sorts of evil spirits according to local beliefs. In Greece, it is the ‘kallikantzaroi’ who wreak havoc in the period between Christmas and Epiphany (6th January). To banish these unholy forces, the Orthodox Greeks have several customs. This includes, for example, lighting a fire (candles or fireplace) or adding basil to bless the rooms of the house. In addition to the classic Christmas trees, illuminated ships also adorn the inner cities of Thessaloniki and Athens and attract many onlookers. Christmas sweets and pastries are ubiquitous, like the ‘kourabiedes’; delicious almond biscuits that are covered with a sugar icing and for the New Year, there is the ‘Vasilopita’ cake. Fortune is said to come to the lucky one who finds the embedded coin in the coming year.

Merry Christmas! Kala Christougenna / Καλά Χριστούγεννα!

People in Santa outfits in Tokyo. Image: KAZUHIRO NOGI / AFP via Getty Images

Japan

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” The land of the rising sun is not known for celebrating the Christmas holidays – at least not how we might expect. While some western customs such as festival lighting and the giving of gifts have been adopted, Christmas is not in the calendar as a national holiday. Since the seventies, however, there has been a crispy tradition that characterises Japanese Christmas: Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fast-food chicken is so popular that it is advisable to pre-order your KFC a few weeks in advance (especially if it is delivered, like this year). That’s good marketing.

Merry Christmas! ‘Meri Kurisumasu’. めりーくりすます / メリークリスマス.

Two children in front of a lantern at the Giant Lantern Festival in San Fernando, Philippines. Image: Dondi Tawatao / Getty Images

Philippines

In the Philippines, dark December shines even brighter. On the Saturday before Christmas, the festival of giant lanterns (parol) takes place in San Fernando, northeast of Manila. The tradition got its brilliant start in the early 20th century and made a quantum leap after 1931 when San Fernando was introduced to electricity. The lanterns got bigger and bigger until they finally reached today’s diameter of some 20 feet. 3,500 to 5,000 multi-coloured light bulbs spread Christmas cheer year after year when the villages (barangays) compete against each other for the biggest and brightest display. As an Asian country with a large population of Christians, it is no wonder that Filipinos embrace other common traditions including Christmas trees and the jolly Santa Claus.

Merry Christmas! Maligayang Pasko! (Tagalog)

Santa Claus in Luna Park, Sydney, Australia. Image: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Australia

Christmas on the beach is the Australian way! In the land down-under, the holidays fall in the summertime, which is why the festive days are often spent on the sand. Partyers take a cool box to the beach and often wear Santa hats with their swimwear as they get into the festive spirit. In New South Wales, houses are decorated with the so-called Christmas Bush; an Australian plant with small pink flowers. The hot weather means the offerings are slightly different, with cold cuts, seafood and barbeques on the menu, especially on Boxing Day (26th December), Australians take to the beach for the infamous barbecue.

Merry Christmas!

Rockefeller Centre, New York City. Image: iStock/cmart7327

United States

What this list be without the home of commercial Christmas? The land of Santa Claus, the land of Home Alone and Die Hard, the lavishly lit mansions and eggnogs. However, Christmas is not always traditional in many senses here either. While on the east coast at the Rockefeller Center with the giant tree and the ice rink it is more classic, the southwestern states near Mexico are inspired and celebrate the season with tamales; and in French-influenced Louisiana, Santa comes in the form of Papa Noel.

However you celebrate, the Secret Escapes team wishes you a Merry Christmas!