Festive Holiday Traditions From Around The World

Words: Katrina Rose Wind

Christmas is a time where people get together to eat, drink and spend time with one another. Every country has its own holiday traditions that celebrate Christmas in a unique way. Traditions that vary from hiding a broom to leaving out cookies for Santa, to going to midnight mass. Explore how countries around the world spend their festive season.

Holiday Traditions in Europe and Australia


Just like us, Australia celebrates Christmas day with lunch outside and cooking their Christmas meal on the ‘barbie’ (braai). Again, like us, they refer to Santa as ‘Father Christmas’. Australians have a tradition called ‘Carols by Candlelight’, which takes place across Australia; groups of people gather and hold candles while singing Christmas songs. The biggest celebrations are in Sydney and Melbourne, with it even being televised.

Australians usually serve prawns on Christmas. They will also have oysters, a roast, cold meats, and don’t forget about pavlova.


They have a long tradition (since 1966, to be exact) of putting up a 13-metre-tall Yule Goat in the centre of Gävle’s Castle Square at the start of the Advent. It has a large metal structure on the inside and is covered with straw. But, with the start of this tradition, another tradition was born – burning the Yule Goat down. It’s been the target for vandals for the past fifty years and has only survived throughout the Christmas and New Year period about 12 times, which is kind of crazy if you think about it.

When it comes to traditional Christmas food, the Swedish like to eat risgrynsgröt, which is a rice porridge topped with raspberry jam (hallonsylt) and/or sprinkled with cinnamon. It is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve, after people have exchanged their gifts.


During Christmas Eve, the Norwegians have a tradition of hiding their brooms. It dates back centuries to when people believed that evil spirits and witches came out on Christmas looking for brooms to ride on. It’s a tradition that is odd but lives on, in fact, many people still hide their brooms in the safest place in the house to stop them from being stolen.

During the Christmas season, many types of biscuits and cakes are eaten, but one of the most traditional things to eat on Christmas is a bread called ‘Julekake’. This special bread has candied fruit, raisins and cardamom in it.


Most people save their appetite in anticipation of a bountiful Christmas spread – hungry guests could learn a thing or two about patience from the Polish. Apparently, it’s tradition to only eat until the fifth star appears on Christmas Eve in Poland, signifying the star of Bethlehem. It’s also common practice to eat opalek, rectangular shaped Christmas wafers, before dinner.

The United Kingdom

Similar to many countries around the world – towns, villages, and cities are decorated with Christmas lights over the festive season. However, in the UK, there is a tradition of celebrating the ‘turning on’ of the lights; famous people are usually invited to switch them on. The most famous Christmas lights in the UK are on Oxford Street in London; the displays get bigger and better each year. On Christmas Eve, children sometimes leave out mince pies and brandy for Father Christmas to eat and drink when he visits them.

Christmas is more celebrated on actual Christmas Day instead of Christmas Eve. A big lunch is served to celebrate the occasion and usually consists of roast turkey and vegetables, as well as peas, carrots, sausages, and stuffing; bread and cranberry sauce are also enjoyed. For dessert, they often serve trifle, Christmas Pudding, mince pies and lots of chocolate.

North & South American Holiday Traditions

United States

Americans love going over-the-top for Christmas. Whether it’s how big their Christmas tree is or how many lights they’ve put up, Christmas seems to be one of the most important holidays for them. Some Americans decorate Christmas trees with threaded popcorn, or construct lavish gingerbread houses with fancy frosting. Another tradition they have is baking cookies on Christmas Eve for Santa. They leave out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, so when Santa comes, he has a snack before he jets off to the other houses.

A traditional Christmas dinner in the US consists of turkey or ham with cranberry sauce. Sometimes, there will be lasagne, but it’s more traditional to have turkey. Also, you can’t forget about eggnog, a classic Christmas drink in the US.


holiday traditionsIn most Latin American countries, Christmas is actually celebrated on the eve, not Christmas Day. In Peru, this is the same; Christmas Eve celebrations are called ‘Noche Buena’, which means ‘the good night’. Because it is a predominantly Catholic country, many people will go to a special church service called the ‘Misa de Gallo’ (Rooster Mass), which normally starts around later at night on Christmas Eve. Christmas dinner is usually eaten at midnight, after mass, and the presents are often opened around the same time as dinner is eaten. In some regions of the country, there are parades on Christmas Day.

There are many traditional, delicious meals that are eaten during Christmas time, but the most traditional one is drinking hot chocolate and eating some ‘panetón’ which is an Italian Christmas sweet bread. A Peruvian Christmas dinner wouldn’t be complete without some roast turkey, chicken or pork and tamales.


Like Peru, Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country, making nativity scenes (also known as ‘nacimiento’) very popular. They are usually very large and can take up a lot of the living room; some of the figures are even life-sized. The figures are often made of clay and are traditionally passed down through families.

During Christmas, it’s traditional to eat a special cake called ‘Rosca de Reyes’ (Three Kings Cake) on the Epiphany (January 6th). Typically, a small baby Jesus figurine is hidden inside the cake; whoever finds it is the ‘godparent of Jesus’ for that year.

Christmas Traditions in Asia


Filipinos love Christmas; they try to celebrate as long as possible, and even start the celebrations as early as September. One popular tradition they observe is The Giant Lantern Festival (Ligligan Parul Sampernandu). This festival is held every year on the Saturday before Christmas Eve in the city of San Fernando, the supposed ‘Christmas Capital of the Philippines’. Eleven barangays (villages) take part in the festival, all competing to see who has built the most elaborate lantern.

Most households in the Philippines will have a big spread for the whole family, they will serve ‘lechon’ (roasted pig), ‘bibingka’ (baked rice cake), ‘puto bumbong’ purple rice cake steamed in bamboo tubes. Many people will stay awake all night into Christmas Day – if you can’t already tell, Christmas is a big deal for Filipinos.


holiday traditionsBelieve it or not, Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan. However, it is customary to celebrate it, but they do things a little different. Fried chicken is often eaten on Christmas day, more specifically, KFC. The reason for this is because of a marketing strategy that KFC launched in the ‘70s that advertised ‘Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’ (Kentucky for Christmas!), which was very successful and made eating KFC a popular holiday tradition.

Apart from a few small traditions, such as light displays and gift-giving, Christmas is not really celebrated in the country and is still relatively a novelty. They do have a Christmas cake though – a sponge cake decorated with strawberries and whipped cream.

Holiday Traditions in Africa


Heavily influenced by the Germans, Namibians have their main Christmas meal on Christmas Eve. Following the Christmas Eve meal, it’s common for people to go to a midnight mass service. In Northern parts of Namibia, where they speak Oshiwambo, they believe Christmas is more about sharing. So like us, they often have Christmas braais that they share among the community, friends and family. Because of the German influence, they traditionally eat German-style Christmas cookies, made from marzipan and gingerbread.


On Christmas Eve, Nigerian families host parties that last all night long. It’s tradition to go to mass on Christmas morning in Nigeria; they attend after having eaten, to give thanks to God. Church choirs often visit congregation members at their homes and sing Christmas carols to them.

A traditional Nigerian Christmas feast consists of goat, beef, sheep, chicken or ram. They also take pride in their sides and serve jollof rice, stew, pounded yam, fried rice and salads.

South Africa

holiday traditionsSouth Africa is influenced by several UK holiday traditions. Carols by Candlelight, decorating the tree with the family, pulling crackers, and going to church on Christmas morning are all tradition.

In terms of food, gammon is a big part of local celebrations, other roasts like leg of lamb, soutvleis (corned beef) and ox tongue are also enjoyed. Sweets include mince pies and boozy fruit cake; South African Christmas desserts like malva pudding and trifle are firm favourites, usually enjoyed on the day. Because of the weather, you will probably find that a lot of South Africans braai something special over Christmas time. For those at the coast, seafood braais are popular.

Learn all about these Treasured Desserts from Around the World.

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