The world is made up of many countries, many cultures, and many religions, each with their own belief system, rituals, festivals and holidays. And in many countries, the biggest holiday of all is Christmas. Whether you celebrate it as the birthday of Jesus or just a day to spend time with family, exchange gifts and eat a ham, come the end of December, you can’t ignore that Christmas is all around.
In the US, most of us grew up hearing tales of Santa Claus, Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman, not realizing at that age that Christmas traditions around the world could be quite different from our own. In China, children may have put up a “tree of light”decorated with lanterns, flowers, and red paper chains, while kids in Italy waited until January 6 to receive presents from La Befana, an old witch-like woman on a broom. Some of these traditions may seem odd to us, but hey, we left out a plate of cookies and milk for a jolly fat man who would fly through the air on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and then break into our house via the chimney in order to leave gifts…so who are we to judge?
At BootsnAll, we’re a global team, with writers scattered around the world writing sites about travel to Canada, Italy, Spain, Iceland, Australia and many more destinations. We wanted to take a look at the Christmas traditions in each of those places, so read on below to find out about some of the many ways Christmas is celebrated around the world.
Christmas in Italy
Christmas – or “Natale” - is a very important holiday in Italy and lasts from December 8 through January 6. The main component of the celebration is the nativity scene, called a “presepe” in Italian, which you’ll find everywhere, both indoors and out. In fact, it’s believed the very first nativity scene was constructed in Italy in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi who built a presepe in a cave near Assisi in the town of Greccio. Greccio still assembles its nativity scene on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, with the baby Jesus added on Christmas Eve.
Most people eat a meal of fish and veggies on Christmas Eve and then go to mass, usually at midnight. The most popular Christmas Mass is the one performed by the Pope in St. Peter’s Square at noon. People in Italy exchange gifts on the Epiphany on January 6. On this date, La Befana, not Santa Claus, brings gifts on her broom.
Christmas in Iceland
Christmas festivities start in Iceland around December 12 when the 13 Yule-Lads – who were once like evil trolls but have mellowed to be more like mischievous Santas – come down from the mountains into the town. The arrive one at a time starting 13 days before Christmas, and then begin to leave again the day after, and have names like Bowl-Licker, Pot-Scraper, and and Door-Slammer. Children leave their shoes out on the windowsill for the Yule-Lads, and if they’ve been good, they’ll wake to find a gift. Bad kids get a rotten potato for their trouble.
Icelandic families decorate their houses with Christmas trees, lights, wreaths, and garland and do their main Christmas celebration on December 24 with a family meal and exchange of gifts. On December 26, the Yule-Lads begin to leave, marking the beginning of the end of the Christmas season.
Christmas in Australia
For anyone used to Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere, celebrating Christmas in Australia would be a major shock to the system. Forgot a winter wonderland; there’ll be no Jack Frost nipping at your nose here. Christmas falls during summer in Australia and it can be quite hot on December 25, so hot that many Aussies choose to hit the beach that day.
Because of the heat, the meal served on Christmas tends to be lighter, and colder – cold prawns, salads,and beers are commonly served and most Australians choose to barbecue outdoors rather than spend all day in a hot kitchen. Though you won’t see snow, you will see other traditional holiday decor, like trees, mistletoe and snowflakes. Caroling and holiday markets are also common sights in Australia around Christmas.
Christmas in London
Families in England celebrate much the way we do in the US, with decorations of mistletoe, holly and ivy, the singing of favorite Christmas carols, and stockings hung by the fire. Children in England write a letter t Father Christmas and then hope that he brings them their desired gifts on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day the family shares a special meal at midday, dining on turkey, goose or roast beef and yorkshire pudding.
Christmas is a lovely time to be in England, and in London specifically. Though many shops and services shut down on Christmas Day, there’s so much to do to celebrate the season in the days leading up to the holiday. Check out the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, join the frantic shoppers at Harrod’s or take in a traditional pantomine performance. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, attend a mass service in one of London’s beautiful churches.
Christmas in Las Vegas
Las Vegas is another destination that doesn’t see snow for Christmas, but its absence doesn’t keep Sin City from celebrating in style. The extravagant hotels of the city up the ante on their decor by covering seemingly every square inch of space in lights and ornamentation. The Fountains of Bellagio dance to holiday music, the gardens in both the Bellagio and Palazzo are decorated for the season and special holiday shows take the stage at many hotels. Santa visits the Magical Forest at Opportunity Village and the local ballet company puts on a production of the Nutcracker,.
Vegas is ideal for those who may not embrace the more religious aspects of the holiday. You could find a church in which to celebrate holiday mass with many of the locals, but most visitors will instead take advantage of Sin City’s 24-hour style, hitting the casino, taking in a show, or dining in one of the city’s fantastic restaurants. Of course, you can’t escape Christmas completely. Even in the windowless casinos, you’ll know it’s Christmas when you find cocktail waitresses in Santa hats, ivy strung across the poker tables and holiday music playing in the background.
Christmas in Spain
The dominant religion in Spain is Catholicism, so it’s no surprise that Spain enjoys a very festive Christmas season. The holiday kicks off on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (the best celebration happens in Seville), and runs all the way until the Epiphany on January 6th. As in Italy, you’ll see plenty of nativity scenes – called “Nacimiento” in Spanish – in and around churches and in most homes.
The main events still happen Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is called Nochebuena, or “Good Night,” and is a night when most people dine with their families and then head out for Midnight Mass, returning home for dinner afterwards. Most people go back to church on Christmas Day and then spend the afternoon exchanging gifts and spending more time with family. Some of the foods enjoyed by people in Spain include lobster on Christmas Eve, turron (an almond nougat candy), marzipan, and polvorones, a crumbly cookie made only at Christmas.
Christmas in Canada
Though Canada is a very diverse country (in landscapes, cultures, cuisines and religions), the majority of its citizens celebrate Christmas in some way. From light shows around the country to productions of shows like Messiah and The Nutcracker ballet, there are dozens of holiday activities and events to be found in Canada. On the actual holiday, families celebrate in many different ways; some do their main feast on Christmas Eve while others save the big festivities for Christmas Day. On both days, you’ll find many stores and restaurants are closed. If you’re in need of sustenance on the holiday, your best bet is an ethnic restaurant or hotel bar.
In Canada, you can craft a Christmas experience best suited for you. Wander the empty streets of snowy Montreal, hole up in a luxury hotel in Toronto, or spend your Christmas hitting the slopes at Whistler. Your options are as varied as the landscapes of Canada.
Christmas in France
A traditional French Christmas starts with midnight mass on Christmas Eve. After mass, families enjoy a long meal called the “reveillon.” Kids put out shoes for Pere Noel (or Father Christmas, the French version of Santa) in hopes that they’ll wake to find them filled with candy and other treats. Most shops and businesses in France shut down completely on Christmas Eve.
A French Christmas celebration is largely centered around food and drink. Popular foods enjoyed during the reveillon include foie gras, roasted chestnuts, and a buche de Noel, a traditional French cake, which is made by coating pound cake with butter cream frosting and rolling it into the shape of a log. Holiday drinks include vin chaud (a hot mulled wine) and Beaujolias Nouveau, which is released in late November and, according to tradition, should be drunk by January 1.
Christmas in Thailand
As a mostly Buddhist country, Thailand doesn’t really recognize Christmas. But, Thais do love to celebrate and seem to enjoy adopting another culture’s festivities. Thailand is also home to lots of expats and long term travelers, many of whom will be celebrating the holiday, so if you’re in the country over Christmas, it won’t be too hard to find a bit of holiday cheer.
You may see signs of Christmas in shopping malls in Thailand, but must decorations won’t be related to Christianity. Christmas in Thailand is for consumers and foreigners, so you’ll find most businesses and services are open and running as usual on December 25. If you’re looking for a more traditional (as you know it) Christmas meal, it’s easy to find a Christmas buffet – complete with turkey and mashed potatoes – in major cities like Bangkok. The experience won’t come cheap though. Expect to pay at least 200-300 baht minimum for a full dinner.
Christmas in Hawaii
Christians in Hawaii celebrate much the same way people in other US states do it…only they get to do it in what can easily be described as paradise. Christmases aren’t white here – unless you count the sand – but instead are the lush greens of the land and sparkling blue of the ocean. You’ll still see many of your favorite holiday symbols like Christmas trees (though due to the high cost of importing pines, you’ll see many decorated palm trees), holiday lights and Santa and reindeer.
Even before the Europeans brought Christianity and its customs to the islands, local people considered this time of year one of giving thanks. Today, the Christmas meal still incorporates many of the indigenous traditions, like serving sushi, poke and even a roasted pig for dinner.
If you’re in Hawaii as a tourist for Christmas, you’ll find that many shops and restaurants are closed on December 25, with the exception of those geared towards tourists, like hotel restaurants. Though the ability to lounge on the beach on Christmas Day may be one of your top reasons to visit Hawaii for the holiday, if you do find yourself missing snow, you can always head towards the top of a volcano like Mauna Kea on the Big Island to see some of the white stuff.