Celebrating Christmas around the world: 7 global traditions

Where in the world do you celebrate Christmas?

For our family that spans several continents – Europe, Asia and Africa among them – the answers have varied over the years!

If your child is used to thinking of snow, tinsel, and candy canes as essentials for the season, an exploration of Christmas traditions worldwide can help broaden their understanding of this holiday and how different cultures celebrate it.

Ukraine: ‘Holy Supper’

The Feast of the Nativity was being celebrated on December 25 by the year 336 in Rome.

Later in AD 988, Vladimir the Great made Christianity the state religion of Ukraine, and the nation began celebrating Christmas every year. 

One of the biggest family celebrations takes place on Christmas Eve with the Holy Supper, or Sviata Vecheria. The meal features 12 dishes representing the 12 apostles, including kutia (sweet grain pudding with poppy seeds), fish, mushrooms, beet borsch (a type of sour soup) and dumplings. None of the dishes contain meat, eggs, milk or cheese.

At the end of the Sviata Vecheria, families typically sing Christmas carols, including the famous “Shchedryk” folk song (the original “Carol of the Bells”).

Turkey: St. Nicholas of Myra

Your child may know him as Santa Claus or Father Christmas, but the story of St. Nicholas began in Asia Minor – now modern-day Turkey.

According to tradition, this saint was probably bishop of the city of Myra during the fourth century. Legends spoke of his kindness to people living in poverty, including children. For example, when a family of three girls was not able to afford marriage dowries, he dropped gold coins down a chimney into the stockings they had hung by the fireplace to dry. Thus began the practice of hanging Christmas stockings for Santa to fill during the night!

England: ’12 Days of Christmas’ carol

In sixteenth-century England, Catholicism was outlawed and anyone found to be teaching it to children could be killed. However, practicing Catholics used a song called “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a carol to instruct children where each “gift” referred to specific symbols and doctrines of their faith.

The true love in the carol is a symbol for God, and the partridge in the pear tree is a symbol for Jesus Christ. Just as a mother partridge will die to protect its young, the carol implies, so Jesus as the Son of God will die to protect us.

Germany: Tinsel and trees

If you’ve ever hung tinsel from a Christmas tree, you probably have someone in Germany to thank!

Germans had established the tradition of decorating evergreen trees for the winter solstice long before the birth of Christ.

Once the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the winter solstice celebrations diminished in importance. However, the tradition of decorating homes with greenery in the winter continued, eventually morphing into the modern-day Christmas tree. Germany’s Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree tradition to England after he married Queen Victoria in 1840.

As for tinsel, a Germanic legend pinpoints its origins to a very humble source … spiders! 

Long ago, when a poor woman could not afford to decorate her Christmas tree, a helpful spider spun webs for makeshift decorations to cover the tree as a gift. 

After the woman woke up on Christmas morning, she found that the first light of day had transformed the webbing into silver treasure. (Young children may also enjoy reading the book Cobweb Christmas: The Tradition of Tinsel by Shirley Climo.)

New Zealand: Christmas in summer

Because of its location in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand typically enjoys warm, sunny weather on Dec. 25. (From personal experience, the song “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” made no sense to me as a child because there was no way that could happen where I lived!)

Because the winter months are typically June, July and August, the holiday “down under” tends to signal the start of summer for December, January and February. Popular ways to celebrate Christmas include barbecues or family outings at the beach.

Nigeria: Fireworks and jollof rice

Just like Fourth of July celebrations, expect to hear a lot of explosions during the Christmas season in urban Nigeria!

From Christmas Eve throughout New Year’s Day, many families set off sparklers and other fireworks near their homes throughout the day and especially at night. Many people also go to church on Christmas Day and celebrate afterward with a big meal. The menu could feature beef, chicken, turkey, goat or ram’s meat!

Other dishes include pounded yam and rice – jollof rice (cooked with tomatoes, meat, spices and vegetables in one pot to gain a reddish-orange color) or fried rice. In fact, rice is so popular around this time that businesses sometimes give rice to their workers as Christmas gifts.

Mexico: Poinsettias

Americans call them poinsettias, but in Mexico they go by the name “Flores de Noche Buena” or “Flowers of the Holy Night.”

According to legend, a poor girl named Pepita could not afford any present to bring to her family chapel’s Christmas Eve services. She finally decided to make a bouquet out of a small handful of weeds by the roadside and present that as her gift.

After she placed the makeshift bouquet at the chapel’s nativity scene, the weeds were miraculously transformed into the bright red flowers that we know and love today.

The first American ambassador to Mexico, a man named Joel R. Poinsett (sound familiar?), brought back this flower to the United States in 1828. They began appearing in U.S. greenhouses as early as 1830 and were dubbed “poinsettias” after the ambassador. By 1900 they had become a recognizable Christmas symbol.

Thousands of years ago …

Of course, all these Christmas traditions draw their inspiration from one event in the city of Bethlehem – the birth of Jesus Christ!

In countries where Christmas can be (and is) openly celebrated, it can be difficult to imagine why this holiday could spark controversy – or criminal prosecution – in other countries. However, this continues to be true in nations that forbid Christians to practice their faith.

The nonprofit organization Open Doors has profiled five nations where celebrating Christmas is considered a criminal act. During this time, consider learning more about persecuted Christians in these areas and remember them in prayer.

Our worldwide tour of Christmas traditions ends here, but yours may be just beginning! What are some of your favorite family traditions? Can you trace the country from where they came?