Every culture that celebrates Christmas has their own traditions. Let’s take a look at how different countries around the world celebrate this beloved holiday!
Austria – Creepy Krampus
In Austria, they celebrate the entire month leading up to Christmas as ‘Advent time’. December 6 is the night of the Feast of St. Nicholas. The night before, the evening of December 5th, Krampus comes to see which kids have been naughty that year. He is a devilish creature, half goat, half demon, and is St. Nick’s partner. He helps determine which children get gifts from Santa, usually dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate, and which deserve punishment from Krampus himself. His name comes from the German word Krampen, meaning ‘claw’. Turns out that Christmas can have rather dark traditions for some!
Iceland – Books and the Dreaded Yule Cat
In old Icelandic tradition, children who finish their chores before Christmas are rewarded with new socks. On Christmas Eve, the Yule Cat prowls around, looking through windows to see what the children have received for Christmas presents. If he sees that the children are receiving new socks, he passes by the house, knowing that the children did their chores. But, if he sees that a child is not receiving socks, he eats the negligent child.
On a brighter note, Iceland has become known for its Christmas tradition of gifting each other with books and spending the night reading them by the fire. This dates back to World War II, when paper goods were one of the only items not being rationed. They would give each other books as the only things they could afford, and it was done with much love and respect. Today, the tradition symbolizes love families have for each other. In fact, every September Icelandic households are sent free catalogs of new Icelandic books, and everyone starts their Christmas book shopping early. So many people go to the store to find books for their families that, in English, it’s called the ‘book flood’.
Japan – Feasting on KFC
After World War II, Japan experienced a great period of economic prosperity. Finally experiencing more financial freedom, Japanese citizens were able to splurge on things they couldn’t previously afford. This combined with a growing interest in Western culture led to the spread of many different Western businesses, including Baskin Robbins and KFC. Seeing an opportunity, KFC capitalized on the enthusiasm and marketed itself as an American Christmas tradition.
People in Japan were intrigued and indulged in this perceived Western custom. To this day, KFC experiences a five-to-ten-fold increase in sales during Christmas, bringing in billions of dollars. Japanese consumers have to order their fried chicken buckets weeks in advance. Those who don’t reserve their meals in advance end up waiting for hours in line the day of. Although in reality most Americans might not think of KFC as a fancy Christmas feast, many people in Japan happily indulge!
Kenya – Santa on a Camel
Christmas in Kenya is a very special day! Like in most other places, Christmas is primarily a holiday with which to spend time with family and friends. They decorate their houses and churches with ribbons, balloons, flowers, and leaves. Their Christmas tree is usually a cyprus instead of the Western traditional pines. There is a midnight mass, and then a party all night, with more church in the morning. The Christmas feast usually consists of a barbeque, rice, flatbread, and homemade beer, although different nations will enjoy their own local dishes. Santa is also a very important part of the holiday, but instead of flying in on a sleigh with reindeer, he rides in on a camel, bike, or land rover!
Liberia – Old Man Bayka
After slavery ended in the U.S., 88 former slaves boarded the ship Elizabeth to bring them back to their homeland in Africa. The ship dropped them off in Western Africa, and that’s how the country of Liberia was created. With them came adopted Western spirituality and traditions, such as Christianity and Christmas. Since Liberia is not a wealthy country, gift giving is not very common. Instead, someone dresses as Santa Claus in clean, immaculate clothes, and someone else dresses as Old Man Bayka, or Old Man Beggar, in ugly, mismatched rags and sometimes even stilts. The two compete in skits in front of large crowds.
Although Old Man Beggar is considered a sort of devil and children are frightened of him, he is not thought of as evil, just born of unfortunate circumstances. He goes from door to door at night, saying, “My Christmas is on you”, which is his way of asking for food and drink. With him is a band of drummers and singers, and they will play their music more and more loudly until they are given food and drink. If someone wealthy does not give food, he often is made fun of in Old Man Beggar’s performances. Although Old Man Bayka is derived from a Western holiday, he is 100% African!
Philippines – Extravagant Lights and Parol
If you live in the U.S. and you think we start Christmas too early here, then wait until you hear about the Philippines! There, Christmas is such a beloved holiday that Christmas decorations begin being sold in August. The first holiday carols are played as early as September. Christmas masses begin December 16th and continue to the first Sunday in January, which is when the Epiphany is celebrated. Often, the Christmas season itself doesn’t die down until February.
Since December is one of the months between the wet and dry season, it is cause for even more comfort and celebration. This contribute to making Christmas the biggest, grandest holiday in the Philippines. They do carry over some Western traditions such as card sending and carols, but the most lavish and distinctly Filipino tradition is the Parol decorations – large, brightly lit up stars hung all over the country. It is truly a sight to behold!
Sweden – Love for Donald Duck
In Sweden, they have Santa, they have a gift-delivering goat, and they even have a statue of the Yule Goat erected. But, the most unique tradition is that of Donald Duck. In the 1960s, when televisions were a newly acquired commodity to people in Sweden, there was only one channel. And, every year on Christmas, they would play Donald Duck cartoons. This was the only time of year that these cartoons would be played. Families would crowd around the T.V. so as not to miss a second of this special, once-a-year event. Since then, Donald Duck has become a deeply-rooted tradition. As much as 50% of the Swedish population drops whatever they’re doing and tunes in every year to watch the Donald Duck special. The station does not even play commercials during this programming.
Venezuela – Forget Sledding and Start Roller Skating
In Caracas, they have all the usual Christmas celebrations – feasts, music, church mass, funny Christmas hats, and fireworks. But, the thing that they have that nobody else has is the tradition of roller skating to Christmas mass! At night, parents send their kids to bed with a string tied around their big toe and the other end of the string hanging out the window. In the morning, as the adults come skating by, they tug on the strings hanging out the windows. The kids awaken know that it’s time to put on their skates.
This tradition is thought to have started because it is a fun alternative to sledding. Since it doesn’t snow in Caracas, they had to figure out something else that was just as fun. It’s so popular that the government closes down the streets to allow families to skate safely to mass. After mass, families and friends meet in the streets to eat, dance, and spend the day together.
Wales – Rap Battles with a… Dead Horse?
A Pagan ritual that has survived through the centuries in Wales is that of Mari Lwyd. A hollowed out horse skull is decorated and placed atop a stick, brandished by a person under a sackcloth. He comes knocking on doors, challenging people to a “pwnco” battle, or a rhyming battle of wits. The household member must engage, hurling insults at each other until one is crowned the winner. Needless to say, this undead equestrian is terrifying. Where in times of yore they used the broken bottoms of glass bottles for the eyes, they now use Christmas ornaments. Although the witty poetry spewed at one another has become less insulting in modern times, it is still a raucous event.
Click here to see one of the oldest recorded videos of Mari Lwyd.
It’s amazing how one holiday can have such different traditional celebrations around the world. Does where you live have a special way to celebrate? Leave us a comment and let us know!
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am an actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.