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Christmas traditions around the world are diverse, but share key traits that often involve themes of light, evergreens and hope. Probably the most celebrated holiday in the world, our modern Christmas is a product of hundreds of years of both secular and religious traditions from around the globe, many of them centered on the winter solstice. Discover the origins of Christmas traditions from around the world like the Yule log, caroling and candy canes and learn how Christmas is celebrated “Down Under.”
Sweden: ‘God Jul!’
Most people in Scandinavian countries honor St. Lucia (also known as St. Lucy) each year on December 13. The celebration of St. Lucia Day began in Sweden, but had spread to Denmark and Finland by the mid-19th century.
In these countries, the holiday is considered the beginning of the Christmas season and, as such, is sometimes referred to as “little Yule.” Traditionally, the oldest daughter in each family rises early and wakes each of her family members, dressed in a long, white gown with a red sash, and wearing a crown made of twigs with nine lighted candles. For the day, she is called “Lussi” or “Lussibruden” (Lucy bride). The family then eats breakfast in a room lighted with candles.
Any shooting or fishing done on St. Lucia Day was done by torchlight, and people brightly illuminated their homes. At night, men, women and children would carry torches in a parade. The night would end when everyone threw their torches onto a large pile of straw, creating a huge bonfire. In Finland today, one girl is chosen to serve as the national Lucia and she is honored in a parade in which she is surrounded by torchbearers.
Light is a main theme of St. Lucia Day as her name, which is derived from the Latin word lux, means light. Her feast day is celebrated near the shortest day of the year, when the sun’s light again begins to strengthen. Lucia lived in Syracuse during the fourth century when persecution of Christians was common. Unfortunately, most of her story has been lost over the years. According to one common legend, Lucia lost her eyes while being tortured by a Diocletian for her Christian beliefs. Others say she may have plucked her own eyes out to protest the poor treatment of Christians. Lucia is the patron saint of the blind.
Finland: ‘Hyvää Joulua!’
Many Finns visit the sauna on Christmas Eve. Families gather and listen to the national “Peace of Christmas” radio broadcast. It is customary to visit the gravesites of departed family members.
Norway: ‘Gledelig Jul!’
Norway is the birthplace of the Yule log. The ancient Norse used the Yule log in their celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice. “Yule” came from the Norse word hweol, meaning wheel. The Norse believed that the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and then away from the earth. Ever wonder why the family fireplace is such a central part of the typical Christmas scene? This tradition dates back to the Norse Yule log. It is probably also responsible for the popularity of log-shaped cheese, cakes and desserts during the holidays.
Germany: ‘Froehliche Weihnachten!’
The tradition of decorating Christmas trees comes from Germany. Decorating evergreen trees had always been a part of the German winter solstice tradition. The first “Christmas trees” explicitly decorated and named after the Christian holiday appeared in Strasbourg (part of Alsace) in the beginning of the 17th century. After 1750, Christmas trees began showing up in other parts of Germany, and even more so after 1771, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Strasbourg and promptly included a Christmas tree is his novel, The Suffering of Young Werther.
Mexico: ‘Feliz Navidad!’
In 1828, the American minister to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, brought a red-and-green plant from Mexico to America. As its coloring seemed perfect for the new holiday, the plants, which were called poinsettias after Poinsett, began appearing in greenhouses as early as 1830. In 1870, New York stores began to sell them at Christmas. By 1900, they were a universal symbol of the holiday.
In Mexico, papier-mâché sculptures called piñatas are filled with candy and coins and hung from the ceiling. Children then take turns hitting the piñata until it breaks, sending a shower of treats to the floor. Children race to gather as much of the loot as they can.
England: 'Happy Christmas!’
Christmas cards can be traced back to England. An Englishman named John Calcott Horsley helped to popularize the tradition of sending Christmas greeting cards when he began producing small cards featuring festive scenes and a pre-written holiday greeting in the late 1830s. Newly efficient post offices in England and the United States made the cards nearly overnight sensations. At about the same time, similar cards were being made by R.H. Pease, the first American card maker, in Albany, New York, and Louis Prang, a German who immigrated to America in 1850.
Celtic and Teutonic peoples had long considered mistletoe to have magic powers. It was said to have the ability to heal wounds and increase fertility. Celts hung mistletoe in their homes in order to bring themselves good luck and ward off evil spirits. During holidays in the Victorian era, the English would hang sprigs of mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways. If someone was found standing under the mistletoe, they would be kissed by someone else in the room, behavior not usually demonstrated in Victorian society.
Christmas pudding, also known as “figgy pudding” or plum pudding, is an English dish dating back to the Middle Ages. Suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are “plum,” meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. It is then unwrapped, sliced like cake and topped with cream.
Caroling also began in England. Wandering musicians would travel from town to town visiting castles and homes of the rich. In return for their performance, the musicians hoped to receive a hot meal or money.
In the United States and England, children hang stockings on their bedpost or near a fireplace on Christmas Eve, hoping that it will be filled with treats while they sleep. In Scandinavia, similar-minded children leave their shoes on the hearth. This tradition can be traced to legends about Saint Nicholas. One legend tells of three poor sisters who could not marry because they had no money for a dowry. To save them from being sold by their father, St. Nick left each of the three sisters gifts of gold coins. One went down the chimney and landed in a pair of shoes that had been left on the hearth. Another went into a window and into a pair of stockings left hanging by the fire to dry.
France: ‘Joyeux Noël!’
In France, Christmas is called Noel. This comes from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news” and refers to the gospel.
In southern France, some people burn a log in their homes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. This stems from an ancient tradition in which farmers would use part of the log to ensure good luck for the next year’s harvest.
Italy: ‘Buon Natale!’
Italians call Chrismas Il Natale, meaning “the birthday.”
In Australia, the holiday comes in the middle of summer and it’s not unusual for some parts of Australia to hit 100 degrees Farenheit on Christmas day.
During the warm and sunny Australian Christmas season, beach time and outdoor barbecues are common. Traditional Christmas day celebrations include family gatherings, exchanging gifts and either a hot meal with ham, turkey, pork or seafood or barbeques.
Ukraine: ‘Srozhdestvom Kristovym!’
Ukrainians prepare a traditional twelve-course meal. A family’s youngest child watches through the window for the evening star to appear, a signal that the feast can begin.
Most Canadian Christmas traditions are very similar to those practiced in the United States. In the far north of the country, Indigenous Inuits celebrate a winter festival called Sinck Tuck, which features parties with dancing and the exchanging of gifts.
Greece: ‘Kala Christouyenna!’
In Greece, many people believe in kallikantzeri, goblins that appear to cause mischief during the 12 days of Christmas. Gifts are usually exchanged on January 1, St. Basil’s Day.
A manger scene is the primary decoration in most southern European, Central American and South American nations. St. Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity in 1224 to help explain the birth of Jesus to his followers.
According to reports by Captain John Smith, the first eggnog made in the United States was consumed in his 1607 Jamestown settlement. Nog comes from the word grog, which refers to any drink made with rum.
READ MORE: What Was Christmas Like in the Colonies?
Christmas at the White House
Holidays: A Sampler From Around the World
From America to Scandinavia to the Far East, people celebrate holidays with special rituals and festivities. Take a quick tour of some holiday traditions throughout the year.
Holidays are an essential part of any teacher's curriculum. They're an engaging way to introduce your students to diverse cultures, give them a global perspective, and help them make ELA and social studies connections. For a year's worth of hands-on activities, ready-to-go reproducibles, read-aloud fast facts, and more to incorporate seamlessly into your lessons, check out The Scholastic Big Book of Holidays Around the Year, and read on for a quick look at more multicultural celebrations for every season.
For eight days each November or December, Jews light a special candleholder called a menorah. They do it to remember an ancient miracle in which one day's worth of oil burned for eight days in their temple. On Hanukkah, many Jews also eat special potato pancakes called latkes, sing songs, and spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts, or raisins. Your students can use this art project to make their own menorah and learn more about the holiday with these 13 Hannukah books for your classroom.
St. Lucia Day
To honor this third-century saint on December 13, many girls in Sweden dress up as "Lucia brides" in long white gowns with red sashes, and a wreath of burning candles on their heads. They wake up their families by singing songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called "Lucia cats." Your students can learn more about the tradition in this ready-to-print Winter Holidays lesson.
People celebrate this Christian holiday by going to church, giving gifts, and sharing the day with their families. In some parts of Europe, "star singers" go caroling — singing special Christmas songs — as they walk behind a huge star on a pole. Add these books to your classroom library to give your students a chance to learn more about different Christmas traditions can help your students
Kwanzaa, which means "First Fruits," is based on ancient African harvest festivals and celebrates ideals such as family life and unity. During this spiritual holiday, celebrated from December 26 to January 1, millions of African Americans dress in special clothes, decorate their homes with fruits and vegetables, and light a candleholder called a kinara. Help your students delve deeper into the history of the holiday with this ready-to-go Kwanzaa lesson plan and the engaging Kwanzaa books on this list.
In Ecuador, families dress a straw man in old clothes on December 31. The straw man represents the old year. The family members make a will for the straw man that lists all of their faults. At midnight, they burn the straw man, in hopes that their faults will disappear with him. Check out this New Year's Eve: Holiday Ideas printable for more quick activity ideas for your students.
Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year is observed in many countries that follow lunar calendars, including Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, China, Malaysia, and more. Lunar New Year can be celebrated in January, February, March, April, September, or November, depending on the lunar calendar, but February and April are the most common times. Lunar New Year traditions vary from culture to culture. Some examples include exchanging red envelopes or silk pouches containing money, setting off fireworks, playing games, eating traditional dishes, cleaning the house, and holding parades with colorful costumes. These Lunar New Year books are excellent classroom resources to learn more about the Chinese traditions associated with the holiday.
The time of Lent is a solemn one of reflection for Christians, so the Tuesday before Lent begins is a time of merry-making for many people around the world. In New Orleans, people wear costumes and attend huge parades for the festival of Mardi Gras. Brazil's Carnaval also features parades, costumes, and music. This day is also known as Shrove Tuesday. In England, some towns have pancake contests in which women run a race while flipping a pancake at least three times. For a fun way to introduce the holiday to young learners, try these four Mardi Gras activities for PreK-K classrooms.
In Pakistan, boys celebrate the first day of spring in the Muslim calendar with exciting kite-fighting contests. After putting powdered glass on their strings, they use the strings to try to cut off each other's kites. Whoever keeps his kite the longest wins.
For this Hindu spring festival, people dress in green. Children then squirt each other with water pistols filled with yellow- or red-colored liquid. They also blow colored powder on each other through bamboo pipes. Everyone gets soaked — and colorful — to celebrate spring.
In Thailand, a special three-day water festival on April 13–15 marks Songkran, the Buddhists' celebration of the new year. Parades feature huge statues of Buddha that spray water on passersby. In small villages, young people throw water at each other for fun. People also release fish into rivers as an act of kindness.
The Effutu people of Ghana make a special offer to the god Panche Otu each spring with the deer-hunting festival. Two teams of men and boys, dressed in bright costumes, compete to be the first to bring back a live deer to present to the chief. Then they all dance together.
On Easter, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. People attend church and also enjoy different Easter customs. In Germany, people make "egg trees" that are decorated like Christmas trees. In Hungary, boys sprinkle girls with perfumed water — and in return, girls prepare a holiday dinner for them. Share these festive Easter stories with students who are curious to learn more about the history and modern celebrations.
The highlight of this major Jewish holiday is the Passover seder. During these two special dinners, families read from a book called the Haggadah about the ancient Israelites' exodus, or flight, from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. As they honor their ancestors, Jews reaffirm the importance of freedom. Try these quick ideas to introduce students to the history of Passover and add Passover stories to your classroom library to allow students to learn more.
To celebrate the return of spring, children in England dance around tall poles decorated with ribbons, called maypoles. Their dancing wraps the ribbons tightly around the pole. You can even engage your students in their own May Day celebration with this ready-to-go May Day lesson plan.
The sun continues to shine long after midnight in Scandinavia when Midsummer Day is celebrated in late June. To celebrate, Swedish villagers decorate a spruce trunk — called a najstang — like a maypole. In Norway, families light bonfires along the fjords.
Japanese people keep the memory of their ancestors alive with a festival held during the summer called O-Bon. People put lit candles in lanterns and float them on rivers and seas. They also visit and clean the graves of those who have died. In the ancient city of Kyoto, people light giant bonfires.
Arapaho Sun Dance
A religious festival centering on the sun dance takes place during summer in Wyoming. Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone, and members of other Plains Indians tribes dance around a pole topped by a buffalo's head. The buffalo is a symbol of plenty, and dancers wish for good fortune in the year ahead.
During this holy time, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar year, Muslims do not eat, drink, or smoke from sunrise to sunset for an entire month. Instead, they spend their days in worship, praying in mosques. At the end of Ramadan, people celebrate with a festival known as Eid-al-Fitr. Pair this Rookie Read About Ramadan book with a ready-to-go Ramadan lesson to help your students learn more about the history of the holiday
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
In September or October, Jews believe that God opens the Book of Life for ten days, starting with Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and ending with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). During these days, the holiest in the Jewish year, Jews try to atone for any wrongdoing and to forgive others. A ram's horn trumpet, known as the shofar, is blown before and during Rosh Hashanah and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Help your students in grades 2-3 make connections to other New Year's celebrations around the world using this printable nonfiction mini-book.
In 66 countries, the contributions of workers are honored on Labor Day. In New Zealand, Labour Day is marked on the fourth Monday of October and celebrates the campaign for the eight-hour workday. Now, New Zealanders have a extra day of rest from work — and a three-day weekend for picnics and other activities.
Day of the Dead
On November 1 — called Día de los Muertos — Mexicans remember their loved ones who have died by visiting them and having a meal right in the graveyard. Stores sell sugar-candy caskets, breads decorated with "bone" shapes, and toy skeletons. For more books and ideas to help your students understand the traditions, check out this teacher's tips for discussing Día de los Muertos in your classroom.
20 Christmas Traditions Around the World That May Surprise You
There are so many Christmas traditions in the United States: trimming your Christmas tree, baking holiday cookies, and opening Christmas presents, to name a few. But what are Christmas traditions around the world like? You'll soon find that many countries celebrate the holiday differently than the United States does. Not only do some populations eat different Christmas food, but you'll also see that Christmas isn't even observed on December 25 in some places.
Although you may find that some yuletide rituals remain the same, like singing carols, decorating a Christmas tree, making advent calendars, and feasting on a lot of Christmas ham, we think the following Christmas traditions around the world may surprise you. You may even wish we celebrated in similar ways here (who wouldn't want to visit the stunning traditional Christmas market at the historic market square of Goslar, Germany, pictured here?). How about waking to find rotten potatoes left in your shoes by a mischievous Father Christmas? Or Kentucky Fried Chicken for your Christmas dinner? Believe it or not, those are actual Christmas traditions around the world.
From Christmas by the beach with fresh seafood in New Zealand, to hot porridge that keeps families warm during the cold Finland winter, you'll discover just how different these global holiday traditions are. What's more, we think you'll wow your family during your Christmas party with all of the following interesting Christmas trivia.
The Yule Goat has been a Swedish Christmas symbol dating back to ancient pagan festivals. However, in 1966, the tradition got a whole new life after someone came up with the idea to make a giant straw goat, now referred to as the Gävle Goat. According to the official website, the goat is more than 42 feet high, 23 feet wide, and weighs 3.6 tons. Each year, the massive goat is constructed in the same spot. Fans can even watch a livestream from the first Sunday of Advent until after the New Year when it's taken down.
If you thought the United States went all out with Christmas decorations, you should see what the Philippines does. Every year, the city of San Fernando holds Ligligan Parul (or Giant Lantern Festival) featuring dazzling parols (lanterns) that symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. Each parol consists of thousands of spinning lights that illuminate the night sky. The festival has made San Fernando the "Christmas Capital of the Philippines."
Although Christmas isn't a national holiday in Japan (an estimated one percent of the population is Christian, according to Smithsonian Magazine), its citizens still find an interesting and delicious way to celebrate. Rather than gathering around the table for a turkey dinner, families head out to their local Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tradition began in 1974 after a wildly successful marketing campaign called "Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!" or "Kentucky for Christmas!" The fast food chain has maintained its yuletide popularity, causing some people to order their boxes months in advance or stand in two-hour-long lines to get their "finger lickin' good" food.
Similar to the 12 days of Christmas in the U.S., Iceland celebrates 13. Each night before Christmas, Icelandic children are visited by the 13 Yule Lads. After placing their shoes by the window, the little ones will head upstairs to bed. In the morning, they'll either have received candy (if they're good) or be greeted with shoes full of rotten potatoes if they're bad. And you thought coal was a terrible gift!
On Christmas morning, Finish families traditionally eat a porridge made of rice and milk topped with cinnamon, milk, or butter. Whoever finds the almond placed inside one of the puddings "wins"&mdashbut some families cheat and hide a few almonds so the kids don't get upset. At the end of the day, it is customary to warm up in a sauna together.
Because summer falls during Christmastime for Kiwis, a number of their traditions center around a barbie, or grill, where families and friends gather for a casual cookout of fresh seafood, meat, and seasonal vegetables. The New Zealand Christmas tree is the Pohutukawa, a coastal species that blooms a bright-red color in December, providing shade during the sunny days as they sing carols in both English and Maori.
Before Christianity came to the Danes, Christmas Day was a celebration of brighter days, jól, as it occurred just before winter solstice. Today, homes are decorated with superstitious characters called nisser who are believed to provide protection. On the evening of December 24, Danish families place their Christmas tree in the middle of the room and dance around it while singing carols.
In the French Caribbean island of Martinique, la ribote is a longstanding tradition where families visit their neighbors during Advent and on New Year's Day bearing holiday food like yams, boudin créole, pâtés salés, and pork stew. They sing Christmas carols together into the early hours of the morning, adding their own creole verses to traditional lyrics.
In Norway, the Christmas season, called julebord, begins Dec. 3, filling up local bars and restaurants throughout the month . F amilies celebrate Little Christmas on Dec. 23 each have their own ritual for the day that may include decorating the tree, making a gingerbread house, and eating risengrynsgrøt (hot rice pudding).
The Irish leave a tall red candle in a front window overnight, a welcoming symbol of warmth and shelter for the holiday season. Traditional Christmas fare in Ireland often includes homemade roast goose, vegetables, cranberries, and potatoes.
A Christmas table in Barbados isn't complete without a baked ham decorated with pineapple and sorrel glazes, a rum cake, and Jug Jug, a dish inspired by the Scottish influence on the island combining pigeon peas, guinea corn flour, herbs, and salt meat.
On Christmas Eve in Poland, many families share oplatek (an unleavened religious wafer), each person breaking off a piece as they wish each other Merry Christmas. Dinner may not begin until the first star appears in the night sky and, traditionally, an extra setting is left at the table should someone show up uninvited.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, the man recognized by children by his long white beard, red cape, and red miter. Kids put a shoe by the chimney or back door and wake up on Christmas morning to find treats like gingerbread men, marzipan, and chocolate letters inside.
Brazilian and Portuguese families come together on Christmas Eve to eat dinner as late as 10 p.m. Then, at exactly midnight, they exchanges gifts, toasts, and wish each other a Merry Christmas. Midnight mass, Missa Do Galo (Rooster Mass), is a chance to meet up with neighbors and extended family to wish them well for the holiday season. The service is often followed by fireworks in the town square. Pictured: Cathedral Square in Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Alpine countries like Austria have a legend that a devil-like creature called Krampus joins their St. Nicholas festivities on December 6. Children are asked for a list of their good and bad deeds: Good children are rewarded with sweets, apples, and nuts, and bad children worry what Krampus might bring on Christmas morning.
While the traditions around South Africa vary by region and culture, most families come together for a cookout, called braaing on the holiday. Marinated steaks and boerewors sausages serve as the main course, followed by a customary dessert of malva pudding (pictured) served with a custard. Traditional fir Christmas trees are decorated with a variety of baubles included hand-beaded African ornaments.
Orthodox Christians make up nearly 49 percent of Ukraine's population they observe Christmas Day on January 7 by dressing in traditional garments and walking through town singing carols. A dish called kutya, made of cooked wheat mixed with honey, ground poppy seeds, and sometimes nuts, is a popular Christmas Eve treat. Some families throw a spoonful of kutya at the ceiling: If it sticks, there will be a good harvest in the new year .
All across Mexico members of the Church put on Pastorelas (Shepherd's Plays) to retell the Christmas story. The Mexican Christmas season begins early in December with Las Posadas, a religious march that re-enacts the journey of Mary and Joseph. The vibrant red poinsettia flowers are also used in holiday arrangements for decoration throughout the country. Pictured: a traditional Christmas and New Year parade in Chilpancingo, Guerrero state, Mexico.
Swiss families make their own advent calendars for the holiday season. These calendars are either given to children as a surprise or made together as a fun activity. Each day's bag reveals a new surprise or treat, with the biggest gift on Christmas Eve.
Central American countries like El Salvador toast Christmas with fireworks displays on December 24 and 25. Children celebrate with smaller firecrackers called volcancitos (little volcanos) and estrellitas (little stars) while those who are a little older tend to prefer the larger varieties and Roman candles . Pictured: A Christmas tree in front of the National Palace at the historic center of San Salvador, El Salvador.
Christmas Goblins (Greece)
The Kallikantzaros are evil goblins that come up from the Earth’s core, and their job is sawing at the World Tree to terrorize homes during the 12 days of Christmas. No two regions of Greece describe these goblins the same way. Sometimes they’re small, sometimes they’re large but they’re typically black and hairy and have features of animals. On Christmas, they come up to the Earth’s surface and cause mischief during the night throughout the Yuletide. They disappear on January 6, heading back to their home.
Christmas is mostly celebrated on December 24th, when families go to mass in the evening and then have an enormous Christmas dinner with their extended family. Common foods in Mexico City include pavo (turkey), lomo relleno (stuffed pork tenderloin), romeritos (a type of herb in a mole sauce), bacalao (dried cod cooked in a tomato sauce), and the typical hot drink of ponche (tropical fruits boiled with cinnamon, piloncillo, and tamarindo).
At the family party in Noche Buena, kids play with luces de bengala (sparklers!) and break a star shaped piñata that is filled with typical fruit (like guavas, baby jicamas, sugar cane, tejocotes, and peanuts in their shell) and wrapped candies. The family exchanges presents (by this time it could be 3am in the morning!) and in the morning Santa might leave some presents for the kids.
I hope you enjoyed these traditions from Christmas in Mexico! If you’d like to learn more, see this great list of books about Christmas in Mexico. Also check out the traditions in many other countries around the world here on Kid World Citizen, and also the 24 countries at the Multicultural Kid Blogs series.
El Dia De Los Tres Reyes
The holiday season comes to a close on January 6 during El Dia De Los Tres Reyes (Day of the Three Kings), which celebrates when the Three Wise Men arrived bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. In some parts of Mexico, children leave a shoe out on the night before, in hopes that the Wise Men might leave something for them, too! The next day, there are presents and rosco, a sweet round cake with candied fruits that adults and children alike love.
Dates of Christmas Celebrations
Not only to Christmas traditions in France vary from other countries, but they also celebrate differently in each specific region of the country itself.
Some regions even celebrate other Christmas related festivals throughout the entire month of December, not just on the 25th. One example of this comes from the eastern and northern regions, where la fête de Saint Nicolas begins on December 6th and marks the beginning of the Christmas season. This celebration is generally focused on the tour of Saint Nicolas, sometimes substituted with a traditional Santa Clause, who goes from house to house distributing treats and bread to wise and courteous children.
There is another figure, that of the Bogeyman, who accompanies Saint Nicolas and is said to hand out sticks to children who are unwise and generally poorly behaved.
The Lyon region, in the eastern central part of the country, holds a Fête des Lumières (festival of lights) from December 6th to December 9th each year. The tradition dictates that each home in the area place candles outside the windows to show their gratitude for the Virgin Mary. In addition to the townsfolk putting lights in the windows, the Basilica of Fourvière is lit up in many different colors, and the Place des Terreaux hosts a different light show each year.
Christmas trees in Paris are a regular sight during the holidays.
Alex Proimos, CC-BY, via Flickr
Feliz Navidad! The History of Mexican Christmas Traditions
First, a short history lesson: The Spanish conquistadors first arrived in Mexico in 1517 closely followed by Catholic missionaries, who first arrived in 1524. In order to convert the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples to Catholicism, missionaries found ways to incorporate existing native traditions into Catholic customs and holiday celebrations. Missionaries noticed the Aztecs celebrated the birth of the sun god, Huitzlipochtli , in an extended holiday from Dec. 7 through Dec. 26. During this period, people decorated their homes and trees with paper flags, had special processions, dances, and songs, and held human sacrifices. This Aztec holiday called Panquetzaliztli was ultimately subsumed into the Christian celebration of Advent and Christmas.
Because of the interactions between indigenous customs and the Catholic missionaries, the celebration of Christmas in Mexico is totally unique. Here are some of the traditions that make it so special:
The AguinaldoMasses — In Mexico and other Catholic countries with Spanish or Portuguese origins, Christmas isn’t just celebrated on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Instead, the religious ceremonies begin a full nine days before Christmas, when people come to church every morning for additional masses. In Mexico, they’re called the Misa de Aguinaldo (meaning “gift” or “bonus”), because they are extra masses in addition to the Christmas Eve mass, although some say they are called Aguinaldo masses because originally attendees would also receive food.
In other countries, these masses are referred to as the Misa de Gallo (“Rooster’s Mass”) or Misa de los Pastores (“Shepherd’s Mass”) because they are usually held very early in the morning, around 4 a.m., originally as a way of accommodating those who had to get up early to work in the fields.
The first aguinaldo masses are believed to have been held in Mexico in 1586, when Friar Diego de Soria, the prior of the Augustinian friars of San Agustin de Acolman, near Mexico City, petitioned the pope to hold “bonus” masses between Dec. 16 and 24.
According to MexConnect , an online magazine about Mexico, after these masses, people sang villancicos (popular folk songs), broke piñatas and watched pastorelas , dramatic representations of the birth of Christ.
Although aguinaldo masses are still held today in many Catholic countries (especially in the Philippines), they are no longer common in Mexico.
Posadas — Each evening after the Aguinaldo masses, the church would organize posadas , which are recreations of the journey that Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem. Today, posadas are usually done in people’s homes. A procession, led by two people dressed as Mary and Joseph, travel to someone’s house and then they sing a song asking for shelter until the “innkeeper” agrees to let them inside. Once in the home, there is usually a Bible reading and prayer, followed by food and breaking of piñatas.
Pastorelas — Another popular part of the Mexican Christmas tradition are pastorelas , which are plays that recreate the part of the Christmas story where the shepherds follow the Star of Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus. However, in these plays, the shepherds have to confront the Devil on their journey and are defended by the Archangel Michael. According to Inside-Mexico.com , the tradition was started by the Franciscan monks around 1528, who employed professional singers, dancers and actors from the indigenous community to put on elaborately staged productions.
Piñatas — Piñatas had a religious significance, as well . Traditionally, piñatas had seven points on them, signifying the seven deadly sins. Hitting the piñata symbolized fighting off the devil. Instead of candy, piñatas would be filled with seasonal fruits, sugar cane, peanuts and mandarins.
Poinsettias — Instead of evergreen trees, holly, and ivy, the quintessential Mexican Christmas decoration is the bright red poinsettia, which are native to Mexico. During colonial times , the friars in Mexico noticed that these flowers, which bloom in December, resemble the Star of David, and used them to decorate the churches at Christmastime.
To hear the music of the grand 17th-century Mexican convents and beautiful villancicos played by a big band and lots of singers, come to A Mexican Christmas , Dec. 14 to 16. We can’t wait to share this unique program with you!
Contemporary customs in Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy
Eastern Orthodox churches honour Christmas on December 25. However, for those that continue to use the Julian calendar for their liturgical observances, this date corresponds to January 7 on the Gregorian calendar. The churches of the Oriental Orthodox communion celebrate Christmas variously. For example, in Armenia, the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, the church uses its own calendar the Armenian Apostolic Church honours January 6 as Christmas. In Ethiopia, where Christianity has had a home ever since the 4th century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church celebrates Christmas on January 7. Most of the churches of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East celebrate Christmas on December 25 at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, however, the Syriac Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 6 with the Armenian Apostolic Church. Congregations of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria follow the date of December 25 on the Julian calendar, which corresponds to Khiak 29 on the ancient Coptic calendar.
Six French Christmas traditions that might surprise you
Up to this point, French Christmas traditions may seem pretty similar to the ones you have in your own country and culture. But here are some French Christmas traditions that might be completely different from what you’re familiar with.
There’s no holiday color-coding.
In some countries, like the United States, we “color code” holidays. For example, for Americans, Christmas colors are red and green and Hanukkah colors are blue and white/silver. But in France, there’s none of that going on at all. It threw me off at first to see the many Christmas trees in shops that are covered in blue and silver ornaments, but ultimately, it allows for more creativity.
Carols and cards aren’t important.
Christmas carols and greeting cards are two essential parts of Christmas for many of us. Not so for the French!
Although there are a few exceptions, notably “Petit Papa Noël”(most famously sung by Tino Rossi) and “Vive le vent” (the French version of “Jingle Bells”), Christmas carols really aren’t a big deal here in France. In stores that want to play on the Christmas spirit (to open potential customers’ wallets, more than their hearts), you might hear some English-language carols over the radio. But for the most part, music just isn’t a part of Christmas in France the way it is in many other places.
The same goes for Christmas cards. Every year in my Franco-American household, the holiday season brings an onslaught of cards. These pretty much all come from the American side of the family.
While sending cards, especially cards with photos of your family/kid(s)/pet(s) on them, is extremely typical in the US and other places, it is not in France. You might get a holiday card from someone from an older generation who’s not going to see you in person, but receiving a glossy photo of a kid on Santa’s lap with the words Joyeux Noël pasted over it is simply not done here.
French Santa Claus is a little different.
Yes, dear reader, there is a Santa in France: Le Père Noël. For the most part, he’s portrayed exactly the way Santa is in most of the world. But there are a few exceptions.
For one thing, in some parts of France, Le Père Noël – or rather, his real, saintly incarnation, Saint Nicholas, visits France twice in December.
In addition to Christmas, in some parts of France, la Saint-Nicolas, the feast day of Saint Nicholas, is celebrated as a separate holiday. Held on December 6, this holiday is more focused on the traditional representation of St. Nicholas, rather than the red-and-white wearing Santa Claus most of us are familiar with. Saint Nicolas often distributes little gifts and sweets, and is sometimes accompanied by le Père Fouettard (Father Whipper), a hooded, frightening figure who, at worst, whips or kidnaps bad children, and at best gives them things like onions or coal.
That’s another way the French version of Santa Claus (or Saint Nicholas, to be more precise) might differ from the one you know: he has a scary sidekick.
This being said, today, le Père Fouettard isn’t known and feared by most kids in France. In the years I’ve lived in France, I’ve met all kinds of families, from all kinds of backgrounds, and nary a one has ever included le Père Fouettard in its Christmas beliefs.
Still, if the concept of the naughty list ever stops working on my son, I might just tell him about le Père Fouettard one day….
Gifts are typically exchanged on Christmas Eve.
In many countries, families gather and give gifts on Christmas Day. But French people tend to exchange gifts on the night of Christmas Eve (le réveillon (de Noël)), rather than on Christmas Day (Noël/le jour de Noël), although kids do often get their presents from le Pere Noël on Christmas morning.
There’s no connection with Hanukkah
In some countries, very much including the US, the winter holiday period doesn’t just mean Christmas, but Hanukkah as well.
The Jewish community in France does celebrate Hanukkah (la Hanoucca), but it’s actually a relatively minor Jewish holiday — it was amped up in places like the US for commercial and cultural preservation reasons. Because of this, and due to the unfortunate (to put it mildly) history and even current signs of anti-Semitism in France, Hanukkah is much less well-known and popular among the general French population.
That being said, there are Hanukkah celebrations, both in individual homes and in Jewish communities. A few years ago, I even noticed an ad announcing that a menorah (une hanoukkia) lighting would be broadcast live from the Champs-Elysées. But it’s not a big deal or a way to unite Jewish and Christian communities.
Food is the true meaning of French Christmas.
You could say that in France, food is what makes Christmas, Christmas.
Most Christmas-related ads you’ll see here are glittery catalogue pages, billboards, and TV spots for different luxury foods (usually to be washed down with champagne), especially caviar/fish eggs (pro tip: oeufs de lump (lumpfish eggs) are much cheaper but still super-delicious spread on buttered toast), chocolates, oysters (huîtres), scallops (coquilles Saint Jacques), smoked salmon (saumon fumé), and, of course, foie gras.
This last one is la vedette (the star) of Christmas. Not all French people eat foie gras (although that’s usually simply because they don’t like it, rather than animal rights-related issues), but for most of the population, it’s the essential part of a true holiday celebration. Different surveys show between 80% and 60% of the French consider foie gras a holiday “must”. Look at how, even with only 60% of the vote, it outranks other typical French holiday fare.
Another way food is a part of French Christmas is the go-to French Christmas gift: a box of chocolates. If you have to buy a present for a French person and you don’t know what to get them, chocolates are the answer. Even the smallest corner shop will have a display of several different boxes of chocolates, from the upscale, to the affordable, to kid-friendly brands like Kinder and Milka.
The holiday season in France isn’t just about eating food – it’s also talking about it! There aren’t a lot of French Christmas movies (although people do appreciate some dubbed Anglo-Saxon classics, as well as the cult favorite Le Père Noël est une ordure). But special news reports and entire documentaries about holiday foods are everywhere. You’ll find them on just about every mainstream French TV station.
A typical French Christmas meal involves multiple elaborate appetizers, usually including foie gras as one of the courses. Then there’s the main course, which is often some kind of fowl. That’s followed by a cheese course (an essential part of any French multi-course meal) and then a dessert.
The typical French holiday dessert is la bûche de Noël (Yule log), which is a cake or ice cream cake shaped like a log. There are many different flavor options, and in keeping with the aesthetic aspect of decorating here, you’ll find everything from a basic round log with delicious swirled ingredients, to innovative (often very expensive) versions created by famous pâtissiers (pastry chefs).
A few other French holiday desserts or sugary treats that you’re likely to find throughout France include chocolates (of course), dried dates (dattes), often filled with almond paste, as well as other exotic fruit. Marrons glacés (caramelized chestnuts) are also fairly common.
What do you think about these French Christmas traditions? Have you ever celebrated Christmas in France?
However you celebrate Christmas where you currently are, I hope yours is very merry (and, if possible, as filled with chocolate as a typical French Christmas is!). And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope that the spirit of the season still warms you, especially after this difficult year.
Meilleurs vœux (Seasons Greetings)!
Christmas Traditions In France How do these rankings work?
1. Advent Calendars
Like many other countries, France observes Advent, which is the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day. In modern tradition, this festive period is more about receiving little gifts for each door you open than anything else.
And, you’ll find pretty much every type of commercialised Advent calendar, from Kinder and Frozen to beauty calendars with sample-sized gifts behind each door. Regardless of what kind of Advent calendar you use to countdown the days to Christmas, it’s a pretty fun tradition.
2. Midnight Mass
France is still a largely Catholic country , which means that Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is still a fairly popular tradition. The tradition actually dates back to the 400s when Roman Catholics began to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Midnight Mass in France varies from town to town, but generally, there are three masses recited. The first is in honour of the Divine Lord. The second is in honour of the birth of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. And, the third is in remembrance of the event in general.
3. Le Réveillon
Le Réveillon is what the French call the meal they eat on Christmas Eve. In French, the word means to wake up or revive. And, while French Christmas traditions denote that the meal is supposed to be on Christmas Eve, more and more families are beginning to schedule the meal on Christmas Day when it’s easier for everybody to get together.
You’ll find lots of traditional French Christmas food at Le Réveillon. Expect to indulge in foie gras, goose, smoked salmon and oysters, and lots of cooked vegetables. And, of course, you can’t forget about the delicious yule log (la bûche de Noël in French).
4. Le Père Fouettard
Similar to Christmas traditions in Germany, the French have a scary figure like Krampus who goes around with Saint Nicolas to decide who’s been bad or good. And, while Le Père Fouettard isn’t as scary as Krampus, he still goes around dishing out coal or even spankings to the kids who’ve been naughty.
Depending on the region of France you find yourself in, you’ll find different origin stories as to where Father Whipper and the entire tale is from. Regardless of the story, they’re all pretty creepy. So, it’s best just to be good and avoid encountering him altogether.
Image: Le Soir
On the sweeter side of Christmas traditions in France, you’ll find the lovely traditions of papillotes. These little chocolates or candies are wrapped in golden sparkling paper and feature little notes inside.
This French Christmas tradition dates back to 19th-century Lyon when a young worker at a chocolate factory fell in love with a woman. He decided to write her poems and wrap them up in the little chocolates. The owner of the factory loved the idea so much that he kept them and began to sell them commercially.
6. French Christmas Markets
French Christmas markets are some of the most dazzling, enchanting Christmas markets in the world. Christkindelsmärik is perhaps the most famous Christmas market in France and it’s also the oldest. It’s located in the super festive city of Strasbourg.
However, there are hundreds of other quality Christmas markets in France as well. You’ll find that these markets are a huge part of Christmas traditions in France as you can purchase artisanal products, indulge in local foods, and sip on mulled wine as you enjoy the decorations and festivities.
7. Les Treize
Les Treize refers to “the thirteen,” which are 13 different kinds of desserts you’ll find at any standard Christmas dinner in France. While this is more of a Provençal French Christmas tradition than anything else, it’s a huge part of Christmas in that region.
The idea behind Les Treize is religious, as the 13 desserts refer to Jesus Christ and his 12 apostles. However, they’re also delicious, ranging from dried grapes and almonds to a delicious cake called pompe à l’huile.
Elizabeth has lived and worked in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia, all of which have contributed to her passion for travel writing. When she's not writing, you can find her exploring little hideouts in Colombia or watching photography tutorials on YouTube.