14 Amazing Christmas Traditions From Around the World

One of the best things about Oxford Royale Academy is the huge diversity of students who join us for our summer school.

With the winter firmly upon us in the UK now and Christmas fast approaching, we’re wondering what those of our students who celebrate Christmas might be doing at this time of year. We’ve looked around the world and found some of the most fun and interesting Christmas traditions – and please do share your own in the comments as well.

1. Sweden: the Yule Goat

Image shows a huge straw goat, dusted with snow.
The enormous goat in Gävle.

Visit anyone in Sweden who celebrates Christmas and you’ll find Yule Goat decorations: a decoration made of straw in the shape of a goat, wrapped with red ribbon. They might be put on shelves or used as decorations on the tree. Its origin isn’t precisely known, but it connects to several pre-Christian pagan beliefs, that have then been absorbed into Christian celebrations.

But the Yule Goat isn’t always Christmas decoration-sized. The city of Gävle every year builds one or more giant versions – currently the record height stands at just under 15 metres – also made of straw. The straw makes the construction a target for arsonists, and this tradition, since its inception in 1966, has become something of a game of wits between the builders of the goat and the vandals.

2. Japan: a romantic occasion – or time for KFC

Image shows the KFC logo.
People queue for hours for a Christmas KFC.

Just 1.5% of the Japanese population are Christian, so in Japan, Christmas is a secular rather than religious celebration. Thanks to a savvy marketing campaign in the 1970s, Christmas has become associated with a trip to KFC for their special Christmas meal. It’s thought that it’s taken off so well in Japan because there’s an awareness of the holiday, but it doesn’t have sufficient cultural importance for anyone to spend hours in front of the oven to prepare a special meal. Fast food filled the desire to recognise the holiday without requiring too much effort.

On Christmas Eve, there’s another tradition in Japan: romance. It’s seen as a day for couples to spend time with each other, give each other gifts, and go out for a romantic meal (not to KFC). It’s akin to Valentine’s Day, which is also celebrated in Japan.

3. Philippines: Giant Lantern Festival

Image shows three brightly-coloured lanterns.
These are some of the spectacular lanterns.

San Fernando is called the Christmas Capital of the Philippines, in honour of its annual Giant Lantern Festival, which has origins dating back over a hundred years. From mid-December to the New Year, locals and visitors make enormous, intricate lanterns, including one for each distinct of the city. Initially made from bamboo and paper, the lanterns are now typically steel-framed, as large as 6 metres in diameter, and contain thousands of lightbulbs.

Once created, the lanterns are displayed throughout the city until the end of the festival. On the first day, judging takes place for the hotly contested competition to name the Grand Champion district.  

4. Venezuela: roller skating to mass

Image shows a pair of rollerblades.
A speedy way to get to church!

Christmas in Venezuela is a strongly religious celebration, in a country where approximately 90% of the population are Christian and church attendance is high. From the 16th to the 24th December, masses called Misas de Aguinaldo are celebrated daily, and should you be in any danger of forgetting, fireworks are set off and bells rung to wake you up and remind you.

But celebrating a profoundly religious holiday doesn’t stop the people of Caracas, the capital cities, from enjoying themselves at the same time. In the northern hemisphere, Christmas is marked by snow, but in Venezuela, it’s a balmy 20 to 30 degrees at this time of year. So it’s almost logical that the people of Caracas roller skate to church instead of walking. In some places, roads are closed for safety, and the experience of getting to church is an important part of the festivities.

5. Ireland: a Christmas swim

Image shows people running into a cold sea, some of them in fancy dress.
This is a tradition in parts of the UK, too – this photo is from Lowestoft.

The average sea temperature around Dublin in December is 10 degrees; the air temperature is colder still, and in a particularly cold winter, there’ll be snow on the ground. So naturally, there’s a tradition in Ireland of going for a Christmas Day swim in the sea. It’s often used as an occasion for charitable fundraising, with people being sponsored to take a dip in the freezing waters, and lots of people do it in fancy dress (Santa outfits are understandably a popular choice).

Many swims take place at 9am on Christmas Day, and organisers will provide hot drinks to help swimmers warm up after their dip. There are similar events on St Stephen’s Day (26th December) and on New Year’s Day too.

6. Egypt: a fast and a feast

This inscription shows the ancient Coptic language, with Arabic script underneath.

While the Christmas traditions we’re familiar with in the UK are primarily those of the Protestant Church of England, the 15% of the Egyptian population who are Christian are mostly Coptic Orthodox Christians. Their traditions are notably different, not least in that Christmas is celebrated on the 7th January, not the 25th December.

Fasting is very important in the Coptic Church, with Copts fasting as much as half the days of the year. During a fast period, they eat a vegan diet without meat, eggs or dairy, and the 43 days of Advent, before Christmas, is just such a period. Then on Christmas Day, the fast is broken with an indulgent feast that’s heavy on all the foods that are prohibited during the fast period.

7. China: gifts of apples

Image shows an apple decorated with a Christmas tree stamp.
Would you be pleased to receive an apple as a gift?

In rural China, Christmas is barely celebrated at all. But in the cities, which are generally more exposed to Western culture, it’s a lively commercial holiday, with shops decorated with Christmas decorations and gifts exchanged between friends.

But one distinctive Chinese aspect of this celebration is the exchange of apples as gifts. This is because the Chinese word for apple sounds like the Chinese word for Christmas Eve, which means ‘Peaceful Evening’ – so the apple becomes a symbol for peace. Chinese culture frequently uses homophones for this kind of symbolism. The apples given and received have become increasingly elaborate, often wrapped in colourful paper, or with messages of goodwill printed on the skin.

8. South Africa: eating caterpillars

The caterpillar of the Emperor Moth.

In South Africa, Christmas celebrations are a mixture of Western traditions imported by colonialism, and local traditions; so South Africans might have a Christmas tree and a turkey, but also tuck into some traditional local food as well. One such foodstuff is the caterpillar of the Emperor Moth, otherwise known as mopane worms. They can be eaten dried, fried until crispy, grilled or stewed with tomatoes and onions.

So British visitors to South Africa might find some food they’d recognise, they’d also perhaps be surprised to see insects on the table. Yet they are a common source of protein in large parts of the southern hemisphere, potentially representing a healthier and more appealing food choice than might initially be thought.

9. Ukraine: cobwebs as tree decorations

Image shows a cobweb Christmas tree decoration, complete with model spider.
A Ukrainian Christmas tree decoration.

Tinsel, fairy lights (replacing dangerous candles), and baubles are all decorations that are reasonably commonplace to see on Christmas trees around the world. Modern Christmas trees themselves originated in 16th century Germany, and were popularised by royalty and the nobility, especially after the marriage of German Prince Albert to the British Queen Victoria.

But in Ukraine, there’s an unusual twist to the decoration of trees. They’re decorated with artificial spider webs, as well as small spider ornaments. It’s because of a folk tale in which a poor family couldn’t afford to decorate their tree, but awoke to find it covered in cobwebs – which turned to gold and silver once the sunlight touched them. It’s been theorised that it’s from this folktale that we get the tradition of putting tinsel on trees.

10. New Zealand: the pohutukawa tree

Image shows a Pohutukawa tree in bloom.
The pohutukawa tree often grows by the coast.

While across much of the world, a Christmas tree is a fir tree, in New Zealand the tree most associated with Christmas is the pohutukawa tree, a native tree that flowers with fiery red tufts in December. It’s been associated with Christmas in New Zealand since at least 1857, when Ngāpuhi leader Eruera Patuone included it in his table decorations for a Christmas feast. Patuone was approximately 93 at the time; he lived to be at least 108.

The idea caught on, and now the pohutukawa tree features in New Zealand Christmas carols, on cards, and generally as a symbol of celebration in New Zealand.

11. Portugal: place settings for dead family members

Image shows a table laid for Christmas.
Don’t be surprised if you see an empty place setting at a Portuguese Christmas dinner.

Across much of the world, Christmas is a time for family and for remembrance as much as for celebration. In Britain, it’s not unusual to make a donation to charity in memory of a family member who’s passed away, particularly if they died young, in place of the present that they would have been given had they lived.

In Portugal, those who have died are remembered with a more vivid observance: places are set for them at the table when Christmas dinner comes to be served. In some cases they will be served food as well, to feed their souls.

12. Greenland: mattak and kiviak

This is what mattak looks like raw.

In the harsh climate of Greenland, inventiveness is required to stay nourished – something which is evident from their Christmas delicacies of the Inuit people living there. One is mattak, which is most commonly made from the skin and blubber of the bowhead whale, which is usually eaten raw but which can be cooked too; apparently it has a nutty taste. Another is kiviak: a dish made from auks that are packed into a seal skin and fermented over the course of three months, usually so that it’s ready in time for birthdays, weddings and other celebrations over winter.

But while the food might seem unusual, other Christmas traditions such as singing carols and decorating trees will seem more familiar. Only in Greenland, the Christmas trees have to be ordered from Europe; none grow so far north.

13. Norway: scaring away the supernatural

Image shows a broom.
Brooms hold temptation for witches.

In Norwegian tradition, Christmas is a dangerous, supernaturally charged time in which it’s particularly important to guard against trolls, witches and assorted other malevolent beings. Genuine belief in such things might be rare in modern times, but in many cases, the traditions that are used to keep safe from them still persist.

Examples of these traditions include lighting a candle to burn all night, or invoking Christian rituals to drive away the supernatural. In the best-known tradition, brooms will be either placed outdoors (to be taken by witches so that they wouldn’t do any worse harm) or hidden (so as not to be stolen by witches).

14. Wales: the Mari Lwyd

Image shows a Mari Lwyd.
Imagine one of these at your door on a dark night.

Much nearer to home for us at Oxford Royale Academy is the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd. A horse’s skull is mounted on a pole to create a hobby horse, which is decorated with ribbons and carried by someone hidden under a cloth. With a group of people, often in fancy dress, the Mari Lwyd goes from house to house and sings to request to be let in and given food and drink. Householders are expected to refuse them at first – also in song – but ultimately let them in.

This is an interesting example of a tradition that had almost died out in the early twentieth century, but that was revived as part of a growing interest in Welsh folk culture, and which has now become a key part of Welsh winter traditions once more.

Image credits: Yule Goat; KFC; lanterns; roller skates; swimming; Coptic inscription; apple; caterpillar; cobweb ornament; pohutukawa tree; place setting; mattak; broom; bonfire; Mari Lwyd.