Do people around the world celebrate Christmas the same way? The celebration of Christmas is a worldwide holiday! However, each country creates its own traditions and celebrates the birth of Christ in unique ways. This makes for endlessly creative and diverse manifestations of this one holiday. Here are some examples of world Christmas traditions in just a few of the world’s 195 nations.
Many Germans mark the beginning of the Advent season on December 1 by hanging Advent calendars, first used in Germany, and revealing a picture of candy behind the first of 24 windows. In regions of southern Germany Klopfel or Knopflinsnachte (Knocking Nights) are popular. Children or adults “go from house to house, singing hymns and knocking on the doors with rods or little hammers, or throwing peas, lentils and the like against the windows.”
Saint Nicholas often still visits children on December 6, his feast day, dressed in bishop’s clothing, to examine them regarding their behavior. He is often accompanied by Knect Ruprecht (also known as Hans Muff or Krampus, among other names), a kind of “bad cop,” who threatens naughty children with a switch or the prospect of being taken away in his giant sack.
On Christmas Eve children receive gifts delivered by a Santa Claus like figure, named Weihnachtsmann, or the Christ Child, who has little in common with the baby born in Bethlehem. He is usually depicted as an older child, looking like a mix between a young girl with blond hair and a hovering angel.
The Christmas tree, also of German origin, plays a central role in the German Christmas. It is usually decorated by the adults on Christmas Eve behind closed doors. They place presents under the tree before ringing a bell to alert the children that the gift-bringer has come. Christmas Eve, “nicknamed Dickbauch, or fat stomach,” also includes a feast, plates of goodies, church services, and carol singing.
Beginning in 1516, when Spain took control of the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) was said to dwell in Spain during the year, watching Dutch children from afar. He had a dark-skinned, Moorish assistant named Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. The Christmas season still begins each year in late November when Sinterklass and Zwarte Piet arrive by ship at a Dutch port. Sinterklaas asks children if they have been naughty or nice, and then gives gifts. Zwarte Piet provides “playful comic relief,” helping to distribute gifts, but also threatening to carry bad children back to Spain for the year. On the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day, December 5, Sinterklaas is said to ride his white horse over rooftops, dropping gifts through chimneys and into the clogs of sleeping children.
More gifts are often given on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. “The Dutch enjoy wrapping presents in deceptive ways, such as a gift within a gift or a tiny present in a big box, often accompanied by a humorous rhyme.” Many attend church and read the Nativity story from the Gospels. Christmas in the Netherlands carries over onto December 26 as well, with both First and Second Christmas Days dedicated to “feasting, relaxation, and visiting.” Today the Dutch are fighting to keep their distinctive customs in an age of global marketing. For example, many towns have outlawed Santa Claus costumes.
An English Christmas is characterized by beautiful lights decorating the outside areas and by beautiful music sung both by door-to-door carolers and in elaborate programs on television and in churches. For example, the Festival of the Nine Carols, consisting of songs and readings from the story of Christ’s birth, is broadcast from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge each year.
Christmas Eve is not a major part of English Christmas traditions, although a tradition used to be widespread that on Christmas Eve at midnight “all cattle rise in their stalls or kneel and adore the new-born king.” The main holiday dinner takes place on Christmas Day, usually consisting of Turkey, Brussels sprouts, bread sauce, roast potatoes, and peas, among other things. The English gift-bringer is Father Christmas, who was once more serious and slim than the American Santa, but has recently “put on weight and become jollier.”
The English Christmas celebration carries over onto December 26, Boxing Day. This holiday involves sporting events and a trip to the theatre for a pantomime of a fairytale. The holiday takes its name from the tradition of giving a “Christmas Box,” or tip, to businesspeople one has done business with that year.
In Alsace, France, Hans Trap, an evil-looking man dressed in a bearskin, with a dark, long beard and a rod, follows the girl playing the Christ Child. Many French children send letters to Pere Noel and his elves in Greenland. He is a “tall, rather gaunt gentleman in a red, fur-trimmed, hooded robe … closer in appearance to the English Father Christmas” than Santa Claus. Children leave their shoes by the chimney or window before going to bed, for Pere Noel to fill with gifts.
French homes are usually decorated with a creche (nativity scene) and a Christmas tree. “Remarkable ceremonies” take place on Christmas Eve all over the country. For example, “In Alpine regions, torch-carrying skiers wind their way down the mountains in the dark to go to midnight mass.” Live nativity scenes and reenactments of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem are also common. In Provence, a region in the southeast part of France, a giant post-mass meal is topped off with the famous 13 desserts. The desserts represent Christ and the apostles, and always include “dried figs, raisins, hazelnuts, and almonds.” The most popular French Christmas dessert of all is the Buche de Noel, a chocolate cake in the shape of a Yule log.
In Spain, the midnight mass on December 24, Noche Buena (“the Good Night”), is the main event. Churches are full, and the center of the service occurs when the priest takes from under the altar “the image of the Babe New-born, reverently and slowly.” When he holds the image up, everyone crosses themselves and bows to their knees in silence. Rather than the tree, the Nativity Scene takes center stage among the Christmas decorations in most homes.
Most Spaniards do not make Christmas a big gift-giving time. Instead, the traditional gift-givers in Spain are the Three Kings, who arrive in each town on January 5 on their way to Bethlehem to visit the Christ Child. In some towns they “arrive by sea, in others, they come by helicopter.” Their arrival is accompanied by plays, parades, and celebrations. Children leave their shoes out with food for the kings’ camels, in hopes they will be filled with gifts in the morning.
Brazil’s gift-giver, Papai Noel, arrives by helicopter in cities around the country beginning in mid-December. In Rio, he flies into the giant Maracana Stadium (82,000 capacity) where he sings Christmas songs with thousands of excited children. Papai Noel visits each house on Christmas Eve, wearing the same clothes as the North American Santa Claus, but entering through the door.
The midnight mass is the main religious event in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation. Children then go to sleep while the adults celebrate all night. The Brazilian festival, the Folia de Reis lasts from December 24 to Epiphany on January 6, and celebrates the three Magi “with spectacular door-to-door processions of costumed musicians and dancers, who solicit hospitality and alms for charities.”
After the Communist Revolution in 1917, the Communist government forbid the celebration of Christmas. They moved gift-giving to New Year’s and introduced the “New Year’s Tree,” along with Grandfather Frost (a replacement for Saint Nicholas) and the New Year’s Boy (a replacement for Christ). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, “Christmas observances have returned to millions of Russian homes.” Many go to church on Christmas Eve (January 6 according to the Orthodox calendar) to sing carols and take part in a candle-lit procession called Krestny Khod (“walking the cross”). Many wait until Christmas Eve to open presents, but many of the symbols introduced by Communism remain a significant part of the Russian celebration. For example, Grandfather Frost is used for marketing and appears in malls much like Santa Claus in the United States, and remains “the predominant gift-bringer” in Russia.
During the twentieth century, some non-Christian countries began to celebrate Christmas as well. For example, very few Japanese are Christians but as many as half of Japanese homes have artificial Christmas trees in December. They decorate the trees with lights, origami, and fans. Though many Japanese have some vague knowledge of its association with Jesus, Kurisimasu is a time to exchange gifts. The Japanese celebration of Christmas arose after World War II, as the Japanese observed American soldiers, and as Japanese businesses began making toys for American markets.
For more ways to celebrate and learn about Christmas, visit one of the pages below!
Your family can learn more about the history of Christmas, and how Santa Claus, Christmas Trees and many of our modern holiday traditions point back to Jesus in Phil Vischer’s Buck Denver Asks… Why Do We Call It Christmas? Now streaming!
 Gerald Bowler, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2000), 90.
 Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 77.