top of page

Worldwide Christmas Traditions

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Around the world, Christmas is on many minds and this year we're all looking forward to being with family and friends, making up for time lost due to the pandemic. What stops are you pulling out this year? I was talking to one friend and discovered that they cook twelve different dishes, each honouring one of the twelve apostles. As much I have travelled, I had never heard of this tradition. Some that you might have heard of is book gifting on Christmas Eve in Iceland and a firm favourite is popcorn threading in the U.S.A. Thank you to all my wonderful friends around the world for sharing what Christmas is like where they live. I couldn't have done it without you. I hope you enjoy reading and discovering more about worldwide Christmas traditions, as much as I have.

Christmas Gingerbread House ©MDHarding

Stringing popcorn - U.S.A

Large red bowl of popcorn spilling over and a piece of popcorn being threaded with needle and thread.
Stringing Popcorn ©Sara Hoffman at Major Hoff Takes A Wife

I only recently learned that stringing popcorn was a primarily American tradition. Let's face it, every Hallmark movie has a scene where the characters are doing just that. Maybe it's because I grew up in the midwest with corn fields everywhere but I certainly took it for granted.

Not only was this something you would do as a family while watching Christmas movies and sipping hot cocoa or eggnog, but it was also something we often did at school. It's inexpensive and you only need a sturdy pan to pop a large quantity up. A large stockpot works well because one cup of kernels pops up 32 cups of cooked popcorn!!! Some pieces do collapse and break with the needle. Others will succumb to the hungry mouths who can't resist the smell. Be prepared to make several pots full.

You'll need a medium-sized sharp needle and sturdy string. We try to use fishing line. Dental floss can work in a pinch, but fishing line is really the best. Nothing breaks a little child's heart like a popcorn string breaking and all their efforts on the floor, so take this tip to heart.

You can add in some cranberries for a pop of color, but beware, they do seep liquid and can stain your hands, so wear disposable gloves. I've also seen dried orange slices used in the past as well as cinnamon sticks.

When we were young, we'd place the plain popcorn out for the birds when we were done with it. Nowadays we've learned that it doesn't hurt them, but it also doesn't provide much nutritional value. If you have dyed your popcorn a festive color or put any flavoring on it, it is not recommended to share with your avian friends!

Hallmark movies make it seem like an idyllic scene, but with four boys in my house, it turned into more of a who can toss the popcorn in their mouth contest. Most of the time we just stick to sweet popcorn mixes on movie night. In the fall, popcorn balls are popular. They are simply packed rounds of popcorn that have been made sticky with a glaze and are about the size of a snowball. Most commonly the popcorn is smothered in caramel, molasses, or a sweetened corn syrup mixture.

As the holidays come closer the coatings on the popcorn become more decadent. They are commonly referred to as "Moose Munch" - the name given to the gourmet popcorn mix by retailer Harry & David. They feature flavors like dark chocolate peppermint, iced gingerbread, and chocolate salted caramel.

Since popcorn is inexpensive, we tend to make our own variations around the holidays. We've done everything from 'smores, rocky road, and even cinnamon. Since our kids finish up school with a round of exams right before the holiday break, I often make a sweet popcorn snack for their late-night study sessions.

My movie munch popcorn is one of their favorites because it has a caramel marshmallow topping with m&m's and pretzels swirled in. They love the salty with the sweet! The recipe calls for using plain microwave popcorn but the stovetop works fine!

If you want less of a mess another favorite is this five-minute speculoos cookie butter popcorn. It couldn't be quicker and it's less messy than the other versions! We will be making some up this weekend and seeing which boy can make the longest popcorn strand! Hopefully having a sweet version will leave them less tempted to play with the plain popcorn!

Discover delicious recipes and much more with Sara at Major Hoff Takes A Wife.

Buon Natale Italy

Two champagne glasses filled with silver candles burning bright alongside a cone and berry Christmas decoration.with half the picture in red with white text what is it like to be an Italian at Christmas. Then it goes on to say about never to date or marry an Italian.
What It Is Like To Be An Italian At Christmas ©Chef Chiara

While this is not exactly a spontaneous blog, I have to admit, I was really delighted to be asked to share what is like to be Italian at Christmas. Mainly because I really hope I'll be able to bring a smile to your day. We can be so picturesque and absolutely genuine comedy at times...

Germany is THE place to celebrate a traditional Christmas

There are about 2500 Christmas markets in the country alone, many of which take place on historic marketplaces and some even in medieval castles. If that isn’t romantic and gives you all the warm and fuzzy feelings, then the glühwein surely will. Germans go hard on hearty food when it comes to Christmas time. Anything that will fill you up on those cold winter nights, ranging from classic potato dumplings, soups, big meat-based dishes all the way to sugary treats, such as roasted almonds and lebkuchen. An essential Christmas tradition for Germans is baking homemade Christmas cookies with the family. Weekend nights are often dedicated to rolling out the dough, cutting out various shapes and then decorating everything with sprinkles and chocolates. Those cookies are also given as gifts and new recipes shared with one another. Houses and rooms are decorated to feel cosy and Christmas décor is placed prominently, with decorated pine branches hanging from the ceiling or placed in vases. An essential piece is the advent wreath, typically made of real or fake fir branches that hold four big candles. Each candle is lit successively on each advent Sunday leading up to Christmas. Most notable among the Christmas décor is the Schwibbogen, a candle arch made especially in the Christmas region of the Ore Mountains, called the “Erzgebirge”. It is customary to have one in your home. They aren’t cheap and therefore well treasured. To look for goodies to gift to loved ones, Germans frequent Christmas markets as they sell traditional handcrafted items, such as paper Christmas stars that reflect tiny dots of light onto the walls, or Christmas ornaments made out of glass or straw. Did you know that the first recorded indoor Christmas tree was in Bremen in the 16th century?

In Germany, Christmas is celebrated on the evening of December 24. Commonly, families will visit their local church for the Christmas sermon and to watch the church kids perform the nativity play before returning home and setting everything up for the kids to open their presents. Kids often wait in their room while “Santa” comes over and secretly places the presents. Then, kids may perform a little something they prepared, such as a song or poem, before opening their presents and enjoying them throughout their evening among family. During December, TV stations will play staple Christmas movies such as Home Alone, old school fairy tales and Die Hard. An absolute must-watch is the German-Czech production “Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel”, a beautiful and for its time quite feminist Cinderella version that was shot at Moritzburg, one of the castles around Dresden.

Erfurt Christmas market ©Annemarie Stehl

Christmas traditions in Latvia

Traditional buildings in Old Town Riga and the tall Christmas tree with snow falling.
Old Town Riga ©Egonslacis mobile photography

Christmas is one of the most popular holidays in Latvia. Lovely Christmas markets and outdoor Nativity scenes help get into the festive spirit. So do mulled wine and Christmas music. Lights and decorations in town squares and shop windows make the dark nights more cheerful. The first ever Christmas tree is said to have been put up in Riga, the capital of Latvia in the 16th century.

Most Latvians will decorate a live Christmas tree and often put real candles in the tree rather than electric lights. They would cook lots of food, give and receive presents and sing Christmas carols. The festive meal is usually on Christmas Eve, followed by presents. In order to be able to receive your gift you are supposed to say a poem, sing a song or give some other kind of performance. Sometimes Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is there, but sometimes it’s just the presents left by him or some of his helpers.

People who celebrate the birth of Christ will usually attend a church service either on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, or both. The 25th of December is aka the First Christmas, the 26th is the Second Christmas and the 27th - the Third Christmas accordingly. So, if a Latvian wishes you “Happy second Christmas” you know what they mean now.

Some people refer to Christmas time as just winter solstice and prefer to focus on folklore and the old traditions such as mumming (dressing up as a bear, a crane, death, etc.) Dragging the yule log through a village and then burning it (the log, not the village) is another tradition. There are lots of Latvian folk songs related to these. Some Latvians have kept the tradition of having a sauna at Christmas time as a cleansing ritual. Saunas are brilliant here. They are popular throughout the year, too.

Whatever their beliefs, all Latvians will make sure there is plenty of food and special traditional dishes on the table at Christmas time. It is traditional to have at least 9 dishes. Typical dishes would be gingerbread cookies, grey peas with lard, little pies (pīrāgi), potatoes, stewed sauerkraut and roast pork. Ah, and there’s usually mandarins, clementines or something of the kind. - Not a fruit native to the country, but very popular at Christmas time.

Is it always a white Christmas in Latvia? Sadly, this isn’t always the case. It does often snow at Christmas, but some years the weather has not been that festive. Let’s hope for a white one when YOU come for a visit J.

Christmas in Lithuania is both a beautiful public affair and a quiet at-home celebration.

In public, Lithuania’s biggest cities deck their main squares and streets with decorations and lights. While Vilnius, the capital city, has often had the honor of making the list of cities with the best Christmas tree, cities throughout Lithuania also impress with creative versions of holiday evergreens. Fanciful themes carefully strung illuminated garlands, and reflective ornaments make these fir trees sparkle and glow—they are a welcome sight in the long, dark days of winter of Northern Europe. Christmas trees usually stay up through the New Year and come down at the beginning of January.

Christmas markets begin to pop up around the first of December, with both indoor and outdoor versions giving shoppers plenty to choose from as they browse for gifts, souvenirs, and edible treats. Local design is heavily featured at these markets, making them unique opportunities to find one-of-a-kind presents for family and friends.

At home, Lithuanians focus their festivities on Christmas Eve, the importance of which eclipses that of even Christmas Day. It’s on this day that families gather together for a feast, often of 12 dishes, representing the 12 Apostles. The dishes, while they may contain fish, typically do not contain any meat. Kūčiukai are almost a must at the Lithuanian Christmas table: these hard, poppyseed cookies are soaked in poppyseed milk as a sweet addition to the holiday meal. Often, the Christmas Eve meal is preceded by the sharing of the Christmas wafer between family members.

On Christmas Day, meat returns to the holiday table. Children may also find gifts under the family Christmas tree deposited there by the Christmas Grandfather the night before.

Lithuanians celebrate through the 26th of December, and they fully use this time to rest and relax, visit with friends and relatives, enjoy well-prepared food, exchange gifts, and even get outdoors for a walk in the winter weather. Those who live in cities may visit grandparents and parents in outlying villages, where generational traditions are passed on. Furthermore, Lithuanians living abroad may come back home to celebrate the holidays with family and catch up with friends.

Even if they don’t typically attend church, Lithuanians may make an exception for the Christmas holidays. In the largest and most famous churches in Vilnius, the services are even broadcast on television for those who want to watch from home.

Kerry Kubilius is an American living in Vilnius, Lithuania. She writes about Eastern Europe travel and culture at

The modern sculptural blue and white Vilnius Christmas Tree.
Vilnius Christmas Tree ©The Northern Vox

Christmas in Romania

Just like anywhere else in the Christian world, Christmas in Romania is celebrated on 24th and 25th of December. Year after year, little ones wait for the fair-haired Santa Claus, who comes with a quiver full of presents for good children, and a few days before Christmas, the tree is decorated with red or green ornaments.

In Romania, there are several Christmas traditions and customs, passed down from generation to generation.

St. Nicholas (Mos Nicolae)

The Christmas season in Romania begin by the arrival of St. Nicholas (Mos Nicolae) on the 6th of December. On the evening of the 5th of December every child must clean a pair of shoes and leave it by the door, hoping that St. Nicholas will leave a small gift in their boots. But only if they were good, if not they could get a stick!

The tradition of the Christmas Eve meal and the Christmas fasting

Another important tradition is the Christmas meal itself. The 25th of December marks the end of the Christmas fasting, which lasts about six weeks. On this day, people can feast on traditional Christmas dishes: drums, pork sausages, “sarmale”, coleslaw, “piftie” or pig’s trotters, “cozonaci”, “gogoși”, pita, salads, sausages or roast meat. The meat used to prepare the Christmas dishes is fresh, as on Christmas Eve, 20th of December, another custom takes place: the butchering of pigs (tăierea porcului). The traditional Romanian drink is Țuica.

Popular customs

One of the most beloved Christmas traditions is caroling. On the first day of Christmas, carolers go from house to house with a star in their hands, announcing the birth of Jesus to the people with songs and poems. It is said that anyone who doesn't open the carolers' door to them will have a bad year and bad luck at home, caused by their stinginess.

For example, in the villages of Oltenia, on Christmas Eve, the householders wake up early in the morning, light the fire in the stove with a stick, while they say a Christmas greeting: “Good morning to Christmas Eve / He has come at a good hour / To bring us: fat and greasy pigs / And healthy men, / Cows with calves, sheep with lambs, sows with piglets, hens with eggs. / Next year and Happy New Year!”

Another popular custom is to hang a sprig of mistletoe in houses. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, it is said that he who puts mistletoe in the house will have a rich year, happiness and peace in the family.

Also, on Christmas Eve, those who wanted to find out how their health would be in the coming year cut an apple in half. If the fruit had worms inside, the belief was that the man would be dogged by illness. A rotten apple, however, heralded death.

Christmas market in the heart of Romania, Brasov

The festival is called “Brasov, the city from the Tales”, a Christmas market that is held throughout the month of December until 7th of January of Epiphany and is dominated by a huge, live Christmas tree. The market’s numerous stalls feature food, drink and local crafts.

Crăciun Fericit! – Merry Christmas!

Izabella Miklos

Christmas In France

Living in France, I’ve come to learn that Christmas is all about family time together and gastronomy. The season starts extremely early with the most magnificent window displays in the grand department stores. An enormous Christmas tree soars in Galeries Lafayette towards the stunning art deco dome while carol singers fill the air with familiar tunes.

It’s easy to get into the Christmas spirit in Paris. Magical Christmas light displays are found throughout the city and a stroll up the famous Champs Élysées is unforgettable.

Throughout the Christmas season, oysters are for sale in front of each café and the spiced scent of vin chaud, hot mulled wine, make it impossible not to stop and enjoy! Christmas trees are transported to Parisian apartments on bicycles or strapped to bicycle carriers. Gorgeous bouquets of holly and poinsettias fly off the shelves to decorate homes.

On December 24, the lineups extend from the fishmongers around each corner as Parisians collect their orders of fresh seafood platters, featuring oysters, snails, and mussels. Every Christmas Eve feast will start with oysters and champagne. Course after course arrives featuring foie gras, capon or turkey stuffed with chestnuts, fresh vegetables, a cheese platter including favourite regional French cheeses, and finally the grand entrance of the traditional bûche de Noël. The delicious yule log is a rolled sponge cake filled with chocolate cream. Bûches de Noël fill the pâtisserie windows during the Christmas season.

French Christmas food has many regional variations and one of the most famous is the tradition in the south of France of thirteen desserts - treize desserts! Included in the thirteen desserts are fruits such as dried figs, walnuts, candied melons, marzipan, nougat, and a sweet olive oil brioche called the Pompe à l’Huile. What a tradition!

The Christmas Eve dinner lasts for hours and then towards midnight the young children place a shoe under the Christmas tree hoping that Father Christmas (Papa Noël) will stop by and leave gifts in each shoe.

Many French families will have a nativity scene or crèche in their home. Little clay figures called santons decorate the scene.

On December 25, the celebrations continue focussed around a large Christmas meal at midday. Once again the champagne and wine will flow.

Of course, the festivities recommence to ring in the New Year. Did someone say champagne again? But that is not the end of the celebrations! For Epiphany on January 6, the Galette des Rois, a puff pastry filled with frangipani, make their grand appearance! Another delightful French tradition involves playing a game to see who will be crowned king or queen.

Alison Browne

Inside the centre of Galeries Lafayette shopping centre, Paris is the tall decorated Christmas tree.
Galeries Lafayette Christmas Tree ©Dreamer at Heart

Navidad in Colombia

The population in Colombia is mostly Catholic and therefore Christmas is a big event and we start celebrating the forthcoming birth of Baby Jesus by putting the Christmas tree up as early as mid-November, building the Nativity set in a prominent place, putting up lights and decorations as well as making plans to meet up with friends and family.

Christmas in Colombia officially starts on 7th December with “Noche de las Velitas”, the Evening of the Little Candles. Children and grown-ups gather in the evening and put little candles outside their homes, neighbours come out and everyone enjoys this pretty sight and the official start of the Christmas celebrations.

Novena de Aguinaldos

We get together with our friends and families every one of the 9 days before Christmas and gather in front of the Nativity Set to read the story of the days preceding the birth of Jesus. Families and friends invite each other to their homes, prepare the traditional Christmas foods, sing Villancicos (traditional Christmas songs brought by the Spaniards which we all know by memory and still sing today every year) and take time to spend with everyone we love and remember what Christmas really means if you are Catholic.

It must be said that it is tradition to also celebrate Novena in offices and schools where staff and students build a Nativity set and, as we call it, “pray Novena”. Therefore on any given day you can attend your work or School Novena and a couple more Novenas at friends and relatives. It is a true test of stamina!

I remember getting super excited with every Novena as it meant we were getting closer to Christmas eve.

Christmas Eve

In Colombia, the big day is Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day in the US and UK. On this day every family prepares a large meal.

There is not one specific dish everyone makes; some families have a roast leg of pork, others have turkey, others may have “Tamales” which are a dish made of corn dough with a savoury filling and wrapped in plantain leaf, etc.

In the city, I come from we also may prepare an “Ajiaco”, a delicious traditional slow-cooked potato soup with toppings.

We usually spend the day giving presents to everyone from work colleagues, school friends, neighbours and just about everyone you have a relationship with. We do not give each other Christmas cards but we all give each other small presents.

On Christmas Eve at around 11pm we gather round the Nativity set, “pray” the last day of Novena and sing villancicos and when the clock strikes midnight we all kiss and hug each other and wish each other a “Feliz Navidad” as Jesus is born and then we can open the presents. Although you see Santas decorating shops and houses, children get presents from “Baby Jesus” rather than Santa. As everyone gives each other presents, children and adults stay up very late and there is a bit of drinking, dancing and fireworks and friends and neighbours drop by or you go and see them. It is not uncommon to go to bed when the day is breaking and then sleep quite late on Christmas day and rest from the celebrations.

Christmas traditions in Bulgaria are deeply connected with folklore and the Orthodox religion.

Pickled cabbage (and vine) leaves stuffed with rice (in the middle), that are normally eaten on Christmas Eve in Bulgaria, and there are also rice pie (on the left) and potato pie with grated white cheese (on the right) ©Ipanema Travels

Christmas Eve is the most important holiday throughout the year. The family gathers around the table for the Christmas Eve dinner, which consists of uneven number of vegetarian dishes, 7, 9 or 11. Among the most popular dishes are bean soup or bean stew, pickled cabbage leaves, peppers or capsicums stuffed with rice, dried fruit. The dishes are vegetarian as Christmas Day marks the end of the 40 days of fasting.

The climax of the evening is when the oldest person at the table breaks in pieces the special round bread with a coin in it. Each family member gets a piece of bread handed and the one who gets the coin will be the luckiest person in the year to come. Fortune-telling and whether-forecasting for the new year are a must on Christmas Eve. There are various rituals and traditions, the most popular of which is cracking walnuts and telling what’s gonna be someone’s health in the new year.

After the dinner, the table is never cleaned and all plates are left with the food until the next day, as the souls of the deceased and Mary, mother of Jesus, may visit the house. If there’s a fireplace in the house, a huge log is left to burn the whole night.

On Christmas day the fasting is over and meat can be eaten. This is also the day when the pig, which the family was keeping, is slaughtered. The slaughtering is turned into a feast with red wine and lots of fun. The dinner on Christmas Day consists then predominantly of pork dishes. This tradition is quite alive in the most villages in Bulgaria, but has slowly disappeared in the cities, as people there don’t keep animals anymore.

Another interesting custom for Christmas in Bulgaria is the so-called ‘koledari’. ‘Koledari’ are a group of men who visit the houses in the neighborhood on Christmas day and sing Christmas carols wishing happiness, health and prosperity to the family. The Christmas carols are traditional folklore songs. The family gives them in return bread rings, specially baked for the occasion, dried fruit, and small change.

The Christmas tree, Santa and the presents came to Bulgaria after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Before that, the Christmas tree was put up for New Year’s Eve and Grandfather Frost, aka Santa, was leaving presents for the well-behaved children on New Year’s Eve under the Christmas tree.

Christmas is celebrated in Bulgaria on 25 December, unlike the rest of the Orthodox countries which celebrate Christmas on January 7.

Daniela Koleva

Christmas traditions in the Netherlands

Sinterklass arriving by steam boat ©jihanebiotteau

Christmas in the Netherlands is celebrated for two days. On 25 December there is an extensive family dinner. The 2nd Day of Christmas (26 December) is the day to visit relatives or the interior design shopping malls. Dutch put up a Christmas tree that stays until the Three Kings’ Day and this is more or less the traditional Dutch Christmas.

Wait, what about Santa, then? Are the Low Countries not included on his journey on the night before Christmas? The thing is that the Dutch kids had already got their presents on 5 December from Sinterklaas. Who is Sinterklaas then? Sinterklass, just like Santa, has a long white beard and wears red clothes, and reads from a big book the names of those who deserve a present. Actually, the Dutch Sinterklaas is the prototype of Santa, as we know him today.

Sinterklaas is based on Saint Nicholas who was a bishop of Myra (Demre in today’s Turkey) in the 4th century. In the Christian religion Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors and fishermen. This is perhaps how he ended being pictured in folklore as a saint who gives presents to kids.

Today, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands on a steamboat from Spain and he travels around the country on his white horse Amerigo accompanied by his helpers, the Black Petes. He criss-crosses the country at night and delivers presents to the well-behaved kids through the chimneys. The kids leave their shoes in front of the fire place (or the central heating radiator) with a carrot in it, so that Sinterklaas can drop in the presents. The carrot is meant for the horse of the Saint, of course.

On 5 December the whole family gathers together and they exchange lots of small presents, where the joy comes from unpacking the boxes and packages, rather than from their content. This is why it is called Pakkjesavond, or Packages Eve. Very often there is one present that is disguised as something else, which is called a ‘surprise’. People also write short humorous poems to accompany the gifts.

Daniela Koleva

Would you like to discover more worldwide Christmas traditions in destinations such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines? Read more from Niry @MeWithMySuitcase.

I hope you have enjoyed reading, maybe you might like to try a dish or two and perhaps are inspired to visit one or more of the mentioned countries over the festive holidays.

Until next time. Happy Holidays, Michelle x

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page