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Christmas Traditions Around the World (and 25 alternative Christmas holidays if you're a rebel)
5 December 2017 - Christmas traditions around the world can be fun, exciting or just plain unusual. Those of us who travel have experienced Christmas around the world so I've asked some great travel bloggers to share different traditions with you - in their own countries, or wherever they might be traveling.
(And if the holidays distress you or if you'd rather be thinking of anything but Santa and celebrations, please click here for some alternative non-Christmassy ways to spend the end of the year.)
Shall we start with Christmas celebrations in Latin America?
One of the most unusual, and fun, Mexican Christmas traditions is the piñata. Piñatas are said to have been introduced to Mexico by Spanish priests who were trying to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Originally designed in the form of a star shape, with seven points on the star to represent the seven deadly sins, piñatas are made with paper maché and stuffed with sweets and treats. At Christmas, the piñata is hung from a tree or the ceiling, and beaten with a big stick to release the treats. Each person takes turns to be blindfolded and tries to break the piñata, representing the person’s willingness to denounce the deadly sins with their faith in God. Nowadays, piñatas are also used at birthday parties and other celebrations, and come in all shapes and sizes, from ponies, to Bart Simpson and Batman! Contributed by Tales of a Backpacker.
The Christmas season kicks off on December 7th, a day known as el Día del Diablo, when people dress as costumed devils, purchase piñatas shaped like devils and attend street parties featuring the torching of effigies of the devil and fireworks. On the streets of the colonial city of La Antigua, Guatemala, at 6 pm an enormous statue of the devil is stuffed with explosives, doused with gasoline and burnt in a unique pyrotechnic event known as La Quema del Diablo. The tradition represents the banishing of bad spirits and "out with the old and in with the new" for the holy season. Contributed by A Taste for Travel.
One interesting New Year’s custom in Cuba originated in Spain, where the ancestors of many Cubans come from. Just before the dawn of the New Year, as the clock is ticking the countdown, Cubans take 12 grapes, one for each month of the year and eat them individually as they count down the new year…12, 11, 10. With each striking of the clock, one grape is eaten…6, 5, 4, by now you should have swallowed the previous grapes…3, 2, 1. By now everyone is laughing trying to eat enough grapes to keep up with the clock. At the stroke of midnight, if you haven’t finished your grapes, nobody cares and the New Year’s congratulations begin. Contributed by Travels With Talek.
Every New Year in Ecuador people look forward to an old tradition. Not only is it a time to celebrate with family and dance all night, it’s also a time to shoot fireworks and, most importantly, burn the Año Viejo (which is Spanish for Old Year). It is either a scarecrow or papier-mâché figure/design/cartoon that symbolizes all of last year’s emotional baggage, bad memories, and events you’d rather forget. People all across the country either buy these Año Viejos in markets or make their own. When midnight finally arrives, folk gather around the Año Viejo and light it ablaze, saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming the new with open hearts and minds. The symbolic purification feels good, like you’re finally letting go of something, and is always a fun event for family and kids. Prospero Año Nuevo! Contributed by International Hot Dish.
Then there's Christmas Down Under
It’s a topsy-turvy kind of Christmas in Australia, with the cold depths of winter replaced by summer heatwaves and visits to the beach. While many families still celebrate with a traditional Christmas feast, whether a turkey or an English roast, a new traditional feast has developed here: seafood. For my family the Christmas centrepiece has always been bowls of juicy fresh prawns, served just before the main course. For others it’s oysters or lobsters or crabs or barbecued fish. Regardless of what you choose, seafood markets do a roaring trade in the lead-up, so much so that the Sydney Seafood Market is open for 36 hour straight until the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Yes, that’s all night long, and there are still traffic jams in the middle of the night! Afterwards, it’s time to relax with a swim in the pool and watching the Boxing Day cricket match. Contributed by Travelnuity
Christmas in New Zealand is less about sleigh bells and snow men and more about sun, beach cricket, jandals and BBQs. It is the summer holidays in New Zealand at Christmas time so the kids are off from school and most businesses close down for two weeks. A typical Kiwi Christmas would be having a BBQ, eating the meal outside, having a pavlova for dessert (Don’t let the Aussies tell you its from Australia, its from New Zealand mate!!) and watching the Queen’s message. A walk along the beach or a game of cricket to help you digest all that food is a great way to end the day. In New Zealand we also have a tree we call the Christmas tree as it blooms right around Christmas time and it has red flowers – the Pohutakawa Tree. Contributed by Travelgal Nicole.
A peek at Christmas in Africa
During colonialization, Christmas celebrations were brought to Kenya by the British. Nowadays, Kenya is home to several religious groups. For most Kenyans, the important day is actually boxing day – the day after Christmas. Back in the days of colonialism, Kenyans couldn’t celebrate on Christmas day since they had to serve their colonial masters. However, they got the following day off and received a box from their masters including items such as maize, flour, oil, butter, sugar, soap and crèmes. It’s interesting that these traditions are still in place nowadays – every year, my Kenyan friend’s maid is looking forward to receiving her box on December 26th! Photo by Luigi Guarino via Flickr CC. Text by GermanBackpacker.com.
First of all, you won’t find any Christmas trees in Ethiopia. But there are other Christmas customs. One of them is Ganna, a pretty brutal and high injury potential ball and stick game. To us it might be similar to field hockey, only with fewer rules. The players, boys and men only, use a curved stick and a round wooden ball with the goal to knock it into a small hole. Don’t expect the game to be peaceful. The story behind the game though is pretty interesting. According to local tradition, the biblical shepherds were playing this game on the night that Jesus was born while tending their flocks. Contributed by Travellers Archive .
Europe: Christmas traditions at their best?
Scotland claims the 31st of December - so much so they even made a new name for it, Hogmanay. For centuries locals have been bringing in the bells with family and friends and then first-footing (visiting) their neighbours with a bottle of whisky in hand and rendition of Burns’ Auld Lang Syne in the air. However, this traditional custom is practiced less as many Scots and holidaymakers alike are on the streets of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, ceilidh dancing and counting down from 10 to an explosion of fireworks. Edinburgh also displays a torchlight procession on the 30th with live bands in Princess Gardens and on the 1st, brave party-goers dive into the cold Firth of Forth waters under the iconic Forth Bridges, taking part in the annual Loony Dook. For more information on Edinburgh’s festivals and things to do, check out this guide by Two Scots Abroad. Photo Chris Watt.
Christmas in Germany usually starts for adults on the 1st Advent (four Sundays from Christmas) when they can light the first candle on their Advent wreath. Every Sunday until Christmas they can light another candle: by Christmas four candles are burning. Children start Christmas on 1 December. For the next 24 days they open the doors of their advent calendars with a small present each day (usually chocolate or candies). Presents are opened on Christmas Eve - no waiting till the morning. On 6 December Germans celebrate St Nikolaus, when children find more goodies but in their shoes (this is the perfect excuse for parents to make their kids clean their shoes by the way). Contributed by Vicki Viaja.
Christmas in Sardinia is celebrated on both the night of 24 December, and on December 25. Celebrations typically involve a large family gathering with a huge meal: there always is a selection of appetisers, a pasta course, a fish or meat course, fruits, a dessert which typically is panettone, dried fruits and nuts, and lots of wine and alcohol. Each family has its own tradition in terms of food, and while on the coast it is more common to eat seafood and fish dishes, in other parts of Sardinia lamb or suckling pig are on the table. Religious people go to church for midnight mass to then stay along and give their Christmas wishes to friends. Though it already is winter when Christmas come, the weather is generally warm so lots of people enjoy the morning or the early afternoon with a walk along one of Sardinia's famous beaches. Contributed by My Adventures Around the World.
It's commonly accepted that the Spanish people know how to throw a good party. New Year's Eve (also called 'Nochevieja') is not an exception. Until midnight, everybody tends to stay at home, have dinner with their relatives or friends and get ready for a big night out. When midnight arrives, it is traditional to eat 12 grapes, one on each stroke of the clock to bring good luck for the New Year and with the 12th and last one, the party kicks off! Throughout the country, there are huge parties in the street, hotels, and clubs everywhere. But, unless you are in Puerta del Sol in Madrid celebrating the event with thousands of people, don't expect anyone in the streets till 12.30 or 1 am. Parties usually go on until at least sunrise… or until lunch. Contributed by A World to Travel.
The Christmas celebration in Portugal takes place on December 24 with a traditional Christmas dinner, or consoada, usually salted codfish with boiled potatoes and cabbage. Portuguese do love their cod! For dessert we have bolo rei (crystallized fruit cake), rabanadas (similar to french toast), filhós (pumpkin cakes), buttery cheese and Port wine. At midnight, children receive presents offered by Baby Jesus or Santa Claus. Gifts are under the Christmas tree and by the Nativity Scene (Presepio), with plenty of animal or shepherd figurines. On Christmas day, the family meets again to eat a roast goat and the leftover codfish, or farrapo Velho, (old rag), and it's one of Portugal’s favorite dishes. After Christmas in January, the Janeiras Christmas choirs begin, with singers going from house to house with a statue of Baby Jesus, although nowadays this is a declining tradition. Contributed by Travel Drafts.
For Slovaks, Christmas is a beautiful four-day celebration that is full of old, and sometimes wacky traditions. It begins on December 23, when families gather together to assemble and decorate their Christmas tree. The tree needs to be ready for the following morning, because on December 24, children wake up to open the presents that were brought by Baby Jesus overnight! There is no Santa in Slovakia. One of the oldest traditions is to buy a live carp and put it in the bathtub until it’s time for Christmas dinner. These days, not many people follow this tradition, for obvious reasons. But, it’s still common practice in the smaller villages. On December 25 and 26, families are meant to spend time together and simply relax before heading back to regular life! Contributed by Maya Maceka.
In Poland the most important day is Christmas Eve, when families get together to celebrate and eat a festive supper. It all starts in the morning by preparing the dishes. Tradition says we should have 12, one for each month of the year or for each apostle. We put a bit of hay under the tablecloth, a symbol of Jesus’s poverty. No one should be alone so we place an additional plate and a chair at the table for an “unexpected visitor”. Traditionally we start supper when we see the first star in the sky, a symbol of the star of Bethlehem. We share a wafer, wish each other all the best for the upcoming year and start supper. After eating, we open the gifts under the Christmas tree. Polish Christmas are special and full of warmth so if you ever have a chance to spend Christmas Eve with a Polish family, don’t miss it. You’re going to love it! Contributed by Born Globals.
Russia with its communist atheistic heritage doesn’t really celebrate Christmas. Moreover, Russian Christmas is two weeks later, on January 7. It is a national holiday but most people don’t celebrate it. Russia’s main holiday of the year is the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, families gather to cook: on a table you will see at least five salads, a main dish or two and of course a huge cake for dessert, and the leftovers will last for 2-4 days. People play games and watch the main channel 1TV - it always has a Christmas show with Russian celebrities. At 11:45 pm the show stops and the country’s TVs all broadcast the same video: Red Square and an announcement by Russia’s President. Afterwards the bell on Moscow’s main clock tower chimes 12 times, people stand up, clink champagne glasses and shout “Hurrah!”. The rest of the night is for fireworks, karaoke, drinking and partying. Contributed by Tripsget.
Catalunya has a unique and quite odd Christmas tradition. While Santa brings the rest of the world gifts, here it is Tió de Nadal (Christmas log), basically a hollow log with legs and a smiley face. Families bring the log in on December 8 and children feed him fruit and nuts and cover him with a blanket to keep warm. On Christmas Eve the children gather around and beat him with a stick singing a special song; he then poops out small gifts for them under the blanket. The tradition has become more commercial as Christmas markets sell a huge variety of little statues of everyone from the Queen to movie stars, each crouching with a little poop beneath them. An interesting tradition… Contributed by Legging It. Photo by Ajuntament Barcelona.
An Asian Christmas: not what you might expect
Christmas in Singapore is interesting because the country is a cultural melting pot with four main languages and different cultures represented, none of them Christian. However, the streets always fill with lights and public buildings and homes all put up a Christmas tree. In fact, if you try to buy one you’ll need to hurry because trees are quickly sold out to locals. No matter where you walk in the Orchard shopping area you’ll hear Christmas carols and find people dressed as Santa Claus. To make it all extra interesting, Singapore is a tropical country located near the Equator so we enjoy summer temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius all year round. Christmas lights are commonly left until Chinese New Year, which usually takes place at the end of January of beginning of February. Contributed by Once In A Lifetime Journey.
In the Philippines, we celebrate New Year as one great way to start a new life. When I was a kid, I was always told to jump as I as I could at midnight to grow taller. Every family also prepares "media noche", a feast with delicious, sweet and fatty food on the table. That includes 12 types of round fruit to attract prosperity. Local delicacies made of sticky rice are also served because we believe eating these brings our family much closer. We open our closets, doors, and windows because they say the heavens shower blessings brought by the year about to start. We want to catch them all! Photo by JM Ibanez via Flickr CC. Text by Travel With Maria.
Sri Lanka is one of those countries where people sleep peacefully on December 31st, because Sinhalese and Tamil New Year comes much later, on April 14. Unlike Western countries where New Year always starts exactly at midnight, in Sri Lanka, every year astrologists calculate the time when New Year begins. It can be in the morning or in the middle of the night, no one ever knows. At the exact time specified by astrologists, every family makes a fireplace and puts a pot of milk on top of it. When the milk overflows, it means the year will be successful and prosperous. Afterwards, the whole family gathers around the table with traditional Awurudu (New Year) treats that include kiribath (rice cooked in coconut milk), butter cake, toffees, kokis (deep fried snacks), and kewums (deep fried sweets). Contributed by The Foodie Miles.
We didn’t know what to expect of Christmas in Vietnam, but we thought that if there were celebrations at all, they would be more secular in nature. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, it was true that in Ho Chi Minh City the “sidewalks were dressed in holiday style” with sparkling tinsel decorations, enormous Christmas trees and giant Santas. People delighted in dressing like ông già Noel (Christmas old man), too. But there were decidedly religious elements as well, a legacy from Catholic French Colonial days. At the Notre-Dame Basilica of Saigon (built in 1880), Christmas Eve mass was crowded. We observed passersby stopped on the steps outside during the day to pray and make the sign of the cross. Other French influences: the Christmas Eve réveillon meal which features a bûche de Noël chocolate dessert. Christmas in Vietnam is one of our fondest memories. Contributed by Passing Thru.
And finally, we'll end with not one but three stories from Japan, where Christmas may not be a traditional event. Still, it has gained a lot of traction and is celebrated by way of a rather unusual tradition: eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve! It all started as a result of a very successful marketing campaign in the 1970s. The idea was sparked when a foreigner went to a store in Tokyo one Christmas and ordered so much chicken that he felt compelled to explain he was having a Christmas party and since he couldn't find any turkey, he'd opted for a stack of KFC chicken instead. In 1974, they launched a campaign called Kentucky for Christmas that went so well it sparked a new tradition. Nowadays, KFCs in busy locations have queues around the block on Christmas Eve, with waiting times of several hours. Despite stocking up, they can and do sell out - so place your order in advance! Contributed by Notes of Nomads.
Japan celebrates the New Year according to the Gregorian calendar unlike most of Asia, which recognises the Lunar New Year. It’s a time to be with family and many people travel home to the countryside making it the least busy time of the year in Tokyo and other major cities. You’ll find a number of restaurants and businesses closed if you are visiting over the first few days of the year. On New Year’s Eve many people eat a special soba noodle dish to ensure a long life and at midnight the temple bells ring out 108 times as part of a cleansing ritual. The first sunrise of the new year is auspicious so people look for a high or attractive vantage point to see the sun make its first appearance and the Shinto Shrines are always busy and full of energy over those first few days as everyone makes their important first visit of the year. Contributed by 2 Aussie Travellers.
Each New Year the Japanese have a series of activities they believe will bring them good luck for the coming year. One of these activities is the rice pounding ceremony. Soaked rice is put into a huge wooden bucket. Then, at least two people take turns pounding and turning the rice until it is supple and easy to manipulate into small rice cakes. The rice takes on a sticky, marshmallow-y texture that is difficult to chew but tastes delicious. The Japanese believe that the mochi will teach them the characteristics of flexibility and endurance, and after trying to pound it for a few minutes and your muscles become sore, you will understand why. The mochi-tsuki takes place in schools, public areas, and special ceremonies. They are not hard to find so if you come upon one, give it try! Contributed by Reflections En Route.
But what if you hate Christmas - if it's not for you at all?
Alternative Christmas holidays - or different ways of spending this time of year - are made for those of you whose emotions go into a tailspin when 25 December rolls around (especially if you come from a culture that celebrates Christmas).
That may happen for many reasons... you don't have family, it's far away, you don't care, or perhaps you hate the commercial side of Christmas.
Christmas has become a time to buy, buy, buy
Whatever the reason, a traditional tree/turkey/prezzies combo simply isn't going to cut it for you.
I have wonderful memories of Christmases spent with my parents, who are no longer alive, and reliving that scene opens up a yearning I don't really want to re-experience. Other than my partner, my remaining family is across an ocean and it's not always possible to get together.
So I turn Christmas into something fun but different. I try to imagine how the non-turkey brigade spends the holidays and ask myself, what would you do for Christmas if you could?
And it often doesn't involve turkey.
25 Less Usual or Alternative Holiday Ideas around Christmas
1. Go to the airport a few days before the holidays. Look at the crowds. Be grateful you're not going anywhere. That woman asleep on her suitcase with her purse gripped in her hand could be YOU.
2. If you're up for travel, why not change hemispheres? If you're from the North, a BBQ on the beach in December should shake your cobwebs. And if you're from the South, head North and discover the real meaning of SNOW. Unless you're from Chile, Argentina or New Zealand...
Even if you're not the snow type...
3. If you're staying home, try cooking something unexpected and unChristmassy. A summer cocktail? Handcrafted fruit salad? Cheese fondue? Go on, run wild.
4. Find a wonderful travel blog you've been meaning to sink yourself into. Read the whole thing from start to finish. Why not check out some of the great contributors to this post above?
5. Update your address book by sending out your own e-greeting cards. Haven't made any before? Check out simple services like Blue Mountain. Going through your address book will make you ask yourself, How badly to I want to keep that person on my contact list?
6. Do something over the top luxurious. Just for yourself. Just for one night. It will cost you but it will be a night to remember. That three-star Michelin restaurant has your name all over it. So does that plush bed at the Ritz, you know, the one with the liveried doorman and wrought iron Art Nouveau elevator? Pssst. You could do something naughty. Or forbidden. Just this once.
7. Find out about your family roots: make this time Genealogy Time. Lock yourself up with your computer and go online. Travel to your ancestral home to research your origins.
8. Catch up with nature. How long has it been since you've spent a bit of time with animals (and I don't mean your pet). Go to an ethical zoo. Visit the botanical gardens or a bird conservatory. Better yet, take a trip and discover wildlife. I did just that in Sabah, on the island of Borneo.
The inimitable sunsets of Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
9. Decide to stay home. I cringe when I even type that horrible word, 'staycation', but exploring your own backyard has a lot going for it. I've been doing that all year here in my own Rhone-Alpes region in Eastern France and I never realized how much there was right on my doorstep.
10. Do something ridiculously banal, like change your Facebook header. Or your Twitter profile. Add a board on Pinterest. It's a sneaky way to get back into social media, where you may well find other women who feel just like you do about the holiday season.
11. Make your New Year's Resolutions. I know, you're a week early, but that's the idea, remember? Turning Christmas on its head. Who knows, by 1 January you may be pining for that turkey.
12. Not that this is for everyone, mind you, but if you're looking for something memorable and different (and happen to be an utter masochist) why not go ice swimming? The faint of heart can try plain old winter swimming - none of this is hard to find in North America or Northern Europe. Enjoy! And then write and tell me about it because I won't be trying it anytime soon.
13. Think of others. Volunteer. This is something you can do anywhere, with a local charity in your town or city, or abroad - there isn't a country out there without some kind of non-governmental organization (well, North Korea perhaps). You even do that on your doorstep and offer a drive home to friends who have had too much to drink.
14. What about a silent retreat for ten days in Thailand? A friend of mine tried the highly-regarded Suan Mok monastery and came back raving (or maybe she was just thrilled at being able to talk again). No matter. Most everyone who has stayed there comes back changed. Yes, for the better. But I don't think it's for the meek.
15. Pick a glorious, amazing, stunning, incredible, magnificent or sublime natural site - and go there. You can start with this list of World Heritage Sites but just because something isn't on the list doesn't mean it isn't worth a bunch of stars.
16. Why don't you rent a villa in Tuscany for the holidays? I mean Tuscany... natural beauty, sunshine, food and wine... You could take a cooking class while you're there. Sigh. Or any class. Spruce up your Italian, and put it to good use when you discuss the price of leather bags.
17. Watch an oldie but goodie: Christmas is a great time for classics and I love the thought of curling up in front of a fire and watching Casablanca, Singing in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz... And if you want your movie Christmassy, then it's a toss-up between Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Carol (and of course, Heidi). More into TV than movies? Time to feel nostalgic and pull out those final episodes of House of Cards (before Kevin Spacey ruined it for all of us).
18. Why not visit the real Santa in Lapland? You could see the Northern Lights while you're at it, go snowshoeing and dogsledding, and do a lot of sitting around with a warm cup in your hand. And while you're in northern Europe, why not drop into some of its fabled Christmas markets? Not to buy anything, mind you, just to feel the buzz.
Did someone say reindeer?
19. While we're on the theme of cold and winter, Iceland and Greenland come to mind. If you're going to do winter, why not go to the extreme? Both countries welcome visitors in December and have plenty of special deals for those who brave the weather. There's always Alaska and Northern Canada if they're closer...
20. Take a winter driving class. Admit it, you're brave and courageous but when that ice gets slick your stomach whips straight to your toes. There's nothing like learning a controlled skid (or learning to avoid one altogether) to give you confidence when hell freezes over.
21. Have a party with new friends if you're away. I've spent many Christmasses on the road and a memorable one involved people I'd met in a hostel lobby, planning to meet up a couple of weeks later, and a party on Zanzibar, all with people I barely knew. And what a party it was!
22. Have a gratitude day. Remember you're lucky enough to have a choice. You can decide not to eat turkey. But you can also change your mind. Millions of people around the world would envy you that choice. I love writing out gratitude lists: they remind me how utterly wonderful life really is, even when it isn't. Top it up with a few philosophical readings from Brain Pickings.
23. Pamper yourself. Spend the week in a spa getting pummelled and taking off the weight while everyone else is putting it on. Or go for an ayurvedic treatment and detoxify. The new you may be just around the corner. Or the same old you, but healthier.
Treatment from my ayurvedic treatment in Sri Lanka
24. Do something with your hands. Be honest - how often do you do that (outside of washing dishes and hitting the keyboard, I mean)? Get the scissors and construction paper out and make your own cards. Strip an antique chair and polish it. Paint an intricate design on an old cupboard. Make a teddy bear. Or make a snow cat if you have snow. Pull out stray bits of Lego, toothpicks, matches, puzzles, knitting, origami - and focus. If you're on the road, go to the market and find a woman who is making things - show interest and she might teach you how it's done. It's better than meditation.
Yep. Snow cat.
25. Delve into Atlas Obscura and enjoy a virtual visit to the 'world's wondrous and curious places'. A little odd, a little different, but always amazing. It'll make you forget all about Christmas.
Oh yes - I'm cheating a little because there is a number 26... but you could face it all head on and Skype home, tell loved ones you, well, love them, and if you just can't do that for whatever reason, then cut your losses, ignore Christmas altogether and just walk away.
Or change your mind and decide that wherever you are, you'll get into the spirit!
What's Christmas like in YOUR country? Do you have any special celebrations? Or ideas for an alternative Christmas? Please say in the Comments below!
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