Christmas is all about spending time with family, enjoying seasonal festivities and of course, experiencing annual traditions that makes this time of the year such a special occasion. But depending on where you are in the world will determine exactly what traditions are common. We have been fortunate to experience Christmas in several countries but we wanted to dive deeper into this and find out the best family Christmas traditions around the world.
Whether you are taking a trip to London to enjoy the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park or perhaps heading to Iceland to learn all about the folklore associated with the Christmas yule lads, there is something magical awaiting wherever you are in the world. We decided to seek some fellow experts in the travel industry to share their thoughts and experiences on the iconic traditions that make Christmas such a special time of the year.
Let’s take a look at the best traditions across the globe and perhaps you will be inspired to visit another country at this time of the year to experience these traditions for yourself.
Best Family Christmas Traditions
Christmas traditions around the world generally involve plenty of festive fun. You may be surprised at some of the unique traditions that many countries celebrate, while others are less unusual yet equally special.
Here is a list of the nations we are going to cover and hopefully inspire a few of you to add these to your Christmas bucket list itineraries in years to come.
- New Zealand
- Czech Republic
With almost 200 nations around the world, this is by no means an exhaustive list of festive traditions but this at least gives an insight into the unique characteristics on offer across the globe.
Whether you are looking to find where the best places to spend Christmas in Europe are or looking for something a little more innocuous, every nation has distinctive characteristics that make them appealing during the Christmas season.
If you spend Christmas in Japan you will soon realize that many things are different here. For example, Christmas is not a family holiday. Rather, couples will go on a romantic date on Christmas Day, have a nice dinner and exchange presents.
You will, however, hear lots of Christmas songs in the stores and see Christmas decorations all around. European-style Christmas markets have also become more and more popular in recent years and you will find one or two in the big cities.
The one thing I love most about Christmas in Japan is the amazing winter illuminations that take place all around the country during Christmas time. Most of them have Christmassy themes but not all of them. The one in the picture was at Tokyo Dome City a few years ago. I visited with my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and it was very romantic riding the Ferris Wheel, sharing a hot drink and admiring the illumination.
The most amazing Christmas illuminations I have visited was in Kobe, where a whole city block is decorated in the most beautiful Christmas designs that come to life after sunset. This event with millions of lights happens every year and is a must if you are in the region around Osaka or Kyoto at Christmas.
The number one place to visit for a winter illumination is Nabana no Sato, just a short trip from Nagoya. This yearly illumination has a different theme every year (usually nothing Christmassy because the event goes on from October to May). But it is still an amazing place to visit during Christmas time with the whole family.
Thanks to Lena Scheidler from Nagoya Foodie for highlighting some of the best reasons with Japan should be on all of our radars to enjoy an upcoming festive season.
As the roasted turkey, savory sides, and whipped cream-topped pumpkin pie is cleared from the Thanksgiving table, Americans seamlessly transition from one family-and- friends-filled holiday to the next. And nothing kicks off Christmas in the US quite like a tree lighting ceremony! From New York to LA, a rainbow of sparkling lights and other decorations brighten the long dark nights of early winter with holiday cheer.
While tree lighting and other family-friendly holiday celebrations can be found in all 50 states, here are some of the most notable tree lighting ceremonies in the US:
- Rockefeller Center in New York City – Standing tall above the iconic outdoor ice rink, a decorated Christmas tree has adorned Rockefeller Center for more than eight decades
- Country Club Plaza Lighting Ceremony in Kansas City – In America’s heartland, 280,000 multi-colored bulbs stretch more than 80 miles to outline every window and tower of the Country Club Plaza in Missouri
- Rodeo Drive Holiday Lighting in Beverly Hills – On the west coast, palm trees and birches are adorned with twinkle lights and decorations instead of evergreens along one of the most famous streets in the nation.
The US will always be a place that celebrates the festivities in grand style…it wouldn’t be America otherwise.
Whether you are enjoying one of the aforementioned iconic locations or you plan to visit a smaller festive party such as the Dickens of a Christmas festival in Franklin, Tennessee (just south of Nashville), you can be sure that during November and December, everything will be all about the Christmas season!
Thanks to Sage Scott from Everyday Wanderer for sharing some of the most iconic Christmas traditions across the United States of America.
Sinterklaas is the biggest Christmas tradition in the Netherlands that is enjoyed by all families throughout the country. For young children, this celebration is more important and prominent than Christmas Day! The traditions that come along with Sinterklaas are quite unique and last for a few weeks.
In mid-November, Sinterklaas – who is a Santa looking Dutch character – arrives in The Netherlands by boat. He has a grand arrival that involves a huge parade in Amsterdam all around the city. After the arrival, children leave their shoes out before bedtime, along with water and carrots for his horse. The shoes are either filled with gifts for good kids or coal for bad kids.
The main gift-giving day of Sinterklaas falls on December 5th, where Sinterklaas himself drops off gifts at your doorstep before heading back to his homeland in Spain. This is when families get together, read poems, eat Dutch treats and spend quality time together.
This Christmas tradition is a Netherlands favorite that families have enjoyed for hundreds of years.
Thanks to Samantha Karen from Sam Sees World for highlighting the unique Dutch tradition that certainly makes us inspired to visit in the near future.
Christmas in Australia is unlike anywhere in the world. Although Australians still implement most Christmas traditions from the cold northern hemisphere, there are still some traditions that are only unique to Australia and our barmy Summer weather.
Besides a hot roast turkey, warm Christmas pudding or building snowmen, Australians have adopted more Summer-friendly traditions. Due to Australia being the largest island in the world, and surrounded by sea, seafood is one of the most popular foods used at Christmas.
For weeks leading up to Christmas day, local fish markets and groceries are stocked with fresh and local prawns (shrimps). Prawns are normally served cooked but cold, and dipped in a cocktail sauce as an entrée before the main meals. In comparison to a warm pudding, dessert is normally cold as well, such as slices, cheesecakes or the local dish of pavlova.
After lunch, families and children normally enjoy the weather with a game of backyard cricket, either on the beach or quiet street. This is a great game for the whole family to get involved, and build excitement to watch the cricket test on TV during Boxing Day the next day!
Thanks to Breanna Smith from Chalkie and The Chippy for highlighting some of the best things to do in Australia for Christmas.
Czech Republic has many Christmas traditions, which may slightly differ region to region. But there’s one that lives on no matter where people live in the country: Fasting on the main Christmas Day. See, for Czechs the main festive activity – the Christmas dinner and the subsequent opening of presents – happens on the evening of December 24th.
It is said that if you don’t eat the whole day, and your first meal is the Christmas dinner, you’ll see a golden piglet. It’s like a fairy tale that we tell children. Of course nobody is left starving, eating little things here and there is fine.
If there are small kids in a family, all members usually stick to the ‘fasting’. Kids and their imagination do the rest. I myself remember ‘seeing’ the golden piglet on our balcony. Nowadays, it’s also very easy to buy chocolate piglets in golden wrapping. Imagine the joy and wonder in children’s eyes when such a ‘golden’ piglet appears on the window sill!
Thanks to Veronika Primm from Travel Geekery for sharing how the Czech locals celebrate the festive season – a unique experience for sure and definitely something we would love to see for ourselves.
Public nativity scenes aren’t a common feature in most Western countries these days, but Portugal continues this tradition with gusto.
During the month of December, you’ll find large life-size nativity scenes everywhere you look – particularly on roundabouts and in town squares.
In some cases, these nativity scenes are live nativity scenes where locals residents take part in the nativity scene and play a character like a wise man or a shepherd. Portugal loves live nativity scenes so much that, in 2012, the town of São Paio de Oleiros entered the Guinness Book of Records for the largest moving nativity scene in the world.
Nativity scenes are also a common feature in people’s homes, and people go a lot further than just putting out the figurines. They collect moss, bark, and stones to make it more authentic, and often add additional and more Portuguese characters, like farmers, to the nativity scene as well.
Although nativity scenes is something many of us will have seen before, it’s interesting to see this tradition continued in Portugal and just how much effort is put into them.
Thanks to James Cave from Portugalist for sharing a local tradition that many Western countries are familiar with, yet unfortunately have failed to continue. It’s great to hear that Portugal has continued this tradition and after spending 24 hours in Lisbon, we definitely look forward to a return trip to experience this historic festivity.
Have you ever wondered what it is like spending Christmas in another country far away from home? How about experiencing an African Christmas in Zimbabwe, one of the safest places to visit in Africa?
Even though Christmas is mostly known to be a European event, Zimbabweans still celebrate it wholeheartedly and enjoy traditions like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and carols. The only real difference is that in Africa, Christmas is in summer, and it is usually hot, so you will need that flip flops.
For people in Zimbabwe, Christmas Day starts with a church service. After this, most families will have a party at their homes and eat a meal of fresh roast ox or goat and cornmeal porridge. Although chicken is very expensive in Zimbabwe, it is often cooked with rice as a special treat for Christmas. They also drink potent homemade beers, which is the highlight of many village celebrations.
After dinner, everyone sits together, relaxes, and sings gospel songs. Some will go from house to house, visiting their family and friends. Others will get their stereo speakers out and put it on the front porch of their home and play loud Christmas carols and popular African hits music.
If you enjoy trying out new cultures, an African Christmas is something you should experience once in your life!
Thanks to Lydia from Africa Wanderlust, a destination resource for travelers to explore the untapped beauty of Africa. Zimbabwe may not be the first place you think about visiting for Christmas but these distinctive traditions certainly make this an appealing location.
While North Americans might have their Christmas turkey, in France we have the Coquilles Saint Jacques (scallops). French dinners are usually a long drawn out affair, and Christmas dinner is even more special.
The Christmas meal can last anywhere from 4-5 hours, with each course carefully brought out by the hosts. Several starters, meat dishes, wine, cheese, and desserts, we usually focus on the food, not the gifts. And one of the stars of the show is inevitably the scallops.
In France, the fishing season for scallops starts in October, so they are peak freshness in December. The tradition also goes back to the pilgrims of Saint Jacques de Compostela (hence the name) who crisscrossed France and Spain with the shells around their neck. Since the scallops tend to be a bit expensive, it is reserved as a treat for Christmas.
There are many ways to prepare the scallops: raw, marinated, fried or grilled. But my favorite has to be au gratin, where it is cooked with a creamy sauce and breadcrumbs, and served with a glass of champagne. Bon appetit!
Thanks to Nassie from Snippets of Paris for highlighting a tradition that is certainly unique to France but definitely an experience everyone should enjoy at least once in their lifetime…you will likely want to return time and time again!
One of the most beautiful Polish traditions is Christmas Eve dinner. For us, this is the most important part of Christmas. The whole family meets at the table and will start eating when the first star shows in the night sky.
This dinner is vegetarian, and comprises twelve dishes following a traditional pattern, one for each month. Everyone will try each dish. There is no excuse for kids: if they don’t eat, they won’t get presents.
But before we start eating, all the guests circulate as we break a communion wafer together with every other guest. As the wafers are broken, we exchange personal good wishes for the coming year. Also by tradition, the table is always prepared with one extra place for the unexpected guest or a hungry person who may turn up. On this day, no one may be turned away from the feast.
All these traditions are so deep and strong for all Polish people that wherever in the world I am, I will always prepare this dinner as my mum and grandma did when I was living in my hometown Lodz. Even if I might fail on the number of dishes there will always be an extra plate at the table.
Thanks to Ania James from The Travelling Twins for highlighting an iconic Polish tradition at Christmas…don’t forget to eat all your food, otherwise no presents for you!
Depending on which part of the world you’re in, the family Christmas traditions can change drastically. Some of the most exciting family Christmas traditions I have seen on my travels across the world are in South America.
One Christmas I spent the month of December in Medellin in Colombia. I was surprised by how many Christmas lights they use. All the lights are part of the event which is called Los Alumbrados. During the whole month of December, you can go to different parts of the city to view the lights.
Statistics show that every year up to 4 million people visit Medellin to see the Alumbrados Navideños Christmas lights. The main even though is at Parque Norte, where the primary light display is open to all the city.
Throughout the evenings of December, thousands of people including many tourists, go to witness the spectacular light show, amusements and festive treats on offer.
Thanks to Daniel James from Layer Culture for highlighting a South American festive tradition in Colombia that will surely inspire you to add this to a future Christmas trip.
The Christmas season in Denmark is full of tradition and merriment. Danes celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Eve meal includes a traditional roasted duck or goose and sometimes roasted pork as well.
The meats are stuffed with apples and prunes and served with potatoes and cabbage. Dessert is usually rice pudding and there are a number of pastries that are popular on Christmas Eve and throughout the Christmas season. The night concludes with candles on the Christmas tree, competitive gift exchanges, and family sing-a-longs.
Most workplaces and clubs will hold a Julefrokost or Christmas luncheon. It’s not as innocent as it sounds and is often an alcohol-fueled party that goes into the next morning. The meal at a Julefrokost is slightly different and includes fried and pickled fish as well as pork and side dishes.
During the Christmas season, families will visit local Christmas Markets. The markets in Copenhagen are fantastic and the best of all is at Tivoli Gardens. The Tivoli Gardens Christmas celebration is a favorite of locals. It includes light shows, concerts, parades, performances, elaborate decorations and a Christmas village inside of Tivoli gardens.
Walking the grounds of Tivoli with a warm cup of Gløgg is exactly what you need to get in the holiday spirit. It’s a warm mulled wine with nuts and raisins that locals love at Christmas. Wherever you celebrate the holiday – Merry Christmas or Glædelig Jul as the Danes say.
Thanks to Derek Hartman from Everything Copenhagen for highlighting the best Christmas traditions in Copenhagen. We have been fortunate to experience Christmas in Tallinn, Estonia and sample the delicious Gløgg, so we are intrigued by the thought of visiting Denmark at this time of the year.
The Christmas Eve in Lithuanian is called Kūčios. Both in the capital city Vilnius and in the rural areas, Christmas is traditionally spent at home with a family with the Christmas Eve dinner as the main event of the evening. The dinner consists of 12 dishes – no more no less. This tradition dates back to the pagan times, but in Christian interpretation, the 12 dishes represent the 12 apostles of Jesus.
No meat is served during the Christmas Eve dinner, but there are some typical traditional dishes, which you will see on almost any table on Christmas in Lithuania. One of them is “kuciukai” – little pieces of baked dough, similar to cookies, just less sweet. They are served with or without poppy-seed milk and can be either homemade or bought in any shop in Lithuania starting from November on.
During the dinner, some hay is normally put underneath the tablecloth. If there was a recent death in the family, a plate for the deceased family member would normally be put on the table, so the soul of the person can join his family for celebration dinner.
Thanks to Ana Rozanova from Merry Go Round Slowly for highlighting a lesser known destination in Europe that has unique Christmas traditions. If you are also looking for the best things to do in Vilnius, check out our visit while exploring the Baltic nations.
Christmas Day waking up to snow on the ground…..not in New Zealand! Christmas Day is in the middle of summer in New Zealand and it is celebrated accordingly. Instead of a large roast meal, we have a BBQ outside and play cricket on the beach.
Christmas is a very relaxed time as most businesses close down for two weeks over Christmas because of all the public holidays. The kids are on their summer holiday as well so it is family time. After a BBQ, most people go to the beach to walk off all of the food or play a friendly game of cricket.
We also have the New Zealand Christmas tree known as the Pohutakawa Tree which has red flowers that bloom each year around Christmas. It really is a perfect day, even if all of the Christmas carols don’t make sense!
Thanks to Nicole LaBarge for highlighting why the Southern Hemisphere, in particular New Zealand, is such a unique experience during the Christmas season.
Icelandic Christmas starts on the 11th of December and lasts all the way till the 6th of January. Iceland doesn’t have a traditional Santa Claus or Father of Christmas. Iceland has 13 Yule lads – something like Santa Clauses, but originally they were supposed to scare kids. However, lately they soften up and they leave gifts for kids in their shoes.
The Christmas Yule lads live in the Icelandic mountains with their parents and their big cat, waiting for the month of December to arrive when they head down to the local towns. Each of the Yule lads have special names like Door Slammer, Window Peeker, Bowl licker and so on, given due to their unique characteristic.
The first one, Gulla Gawker, arrives 12 days before Christmas, which is when the real Christmas in Iceland starts. The last one leaves on the 6th of January and Christmas leaves with him. Visitors to Iceland during the Christmas season may be fortunate to have a Yule lad visit during their stay…the question is, which one will visit?
Thanks to Albina Mrazova from Ginger Around The Globe for highlighting one of our favorite destinations around the world. We have been fortunate to visit Iceland during the Christmas season and we did experience a local Yule lad visit us…we can 100% attest this is definitely worth justifying a visit to Iceland during the winter months!
One of Canada’s greatest family Christmas traditions is writing a letter to Santa Claus. While other countries also have this tradition, Canadians are lucky that Santa actually lives in Canada! Some might say that Santa is a citizen of the world, but our Canadian government has conferred official citizenship on Santa Claus, making him one our very own.
Children in Canada are encouraged to write to Santa, addressing the letter as:
North Pole H0H 0H0
Postage is not required, although Mrs. Claus is known to be fond of stickers. If your letter to Santa is on it’s way by the middle of December, the writer will get a personal response from Santa. I can’t describe how excited my children were each year to write to Santa with their wishes, and to receive their personal letters back in the mail.
Santa’s letter-writing program has been active for more than 35 years, and averages over 1 million letters each year. It is rumored that volunteer elves from Canada Post help Santa with his mail.
Thanks to Lesley from Freedom56Travel for sharing why Canada’s tradition is such a popular experience for all the family to enjoy.
I always loved Christmas movies. The snow, knitted mittens, kids singing Christmas Carols…everything was oh-so North-Pole-style. But then, when I’d look around, all I could see -and feel- was the humid, hot and sweaty Argentinian Christmas Spirit instead!
So how do we Argentinians celebrate a Christmas that is everything but white?
As Argentina has so many European immigrants, many traditions kept going but were reinvented to suit the weather. It’s very likely that if you visit Buenos Aires around the festive season, you’d see grand decorations, huge Christmas trees, and kids lining up at the mall to speak with Santa Claus -we call the ol’ chap Papá Noel.
The major celebrations happen on Christmas Eve when many people go to mass and then gather with family and friends to have a feast. The funny thing though is that in Argentina we dine quite late so it’s very likely to start eating around 10.30 or even 11 pm.
The classic dish is the Vitel Toné. An Italian recipe that’s served cold, and consists of sliced meat covered with a sauce of anchovies and mayonnaise. Some say it’s not Christmas without it! Finally, as shortly after dinner is time for the big toast, we wait for the countdown to midnight. We toast, kiss, hug and go out to see the fireworks. Once back inside, kids start opening presents and after they’ve gone to bed, the real party begins! Many people go out dancing, clubbing or chilling with the family.
On the following day, we all wake up late and gather again to eat all the leftovers! I love it when everyone is half-sleep -not to say hangover- hungry, close to a heat stroke and, of course, as sweaty as a Southern Hemisphere Christmas gets!
Thanks to Martina Grossi from The Global Curious for sharing why Argentina’s Christmas traditions make this such an attractive destination to visit at this time of the year.
In Montenegro, Christmas Eve is on January 6th and Christmas Day is on January 7th because the main Orthodox Church still uses the old ‘Julian’ Calendar. Christmas Eve is called ‘Badnji Dan’ and is considered a holiday where Christianity is interwoven with paganism and medieval traditions with modern realities.
On January 6th, the day before Christmas begins, every man goes to the forest in the early morning to get a log of a fallen young oak which is called ‘Badnjak’. At the same time, the wife and the rest of the family stay at home to cook food for Christmas. Nowadays, since a lot of people live in towns and cities, they can go to a beautifully decorated market to buy a Badnjak from there.
Almost all churches around the country set bonfires where people gather in the early evening on Christmas Eve to watch Christmas plays, performances and throw a log of oak into a bonfire. It is believed that the more sparks the burning log gives – the more successful and happier the following year will be.
Montenegro mountains are one of the best places to be during the Badnji Dan and Christmas. This part of the country sees a lot of snow and with lights and decorations, it looks magical.
Thanks to Anya Kay from Road is Calling for highlighting why Montenegro is a place worth visiting in early January if you are looking to enjoy multiple Christmases each year!
Christmas Pudding is an important Yuletide tradition for families in England. Christmas pudding is a rich, cake type dessert eaten after the traditional Christmas Day dinner of roast turkey and vegetables. Despite eating a filling roast dinner, we complete the meal by eating an even heavier pudding!
A perfect Christmas pudding is cooked 5-6 weeks before Christmas day. Dried fruit and sugar is soaked in alcohol and left overnight. The next day we add spices, nuts and flour and mix to make a cake. The pudding is slow cooked and then wrapped in cloth and left to mature until Christmas. On Christmas Day, the pudding is slow cooked (for approximately six hours) in its bowl in boiling water.
After all this preparation, we soak the pudding in alcohol again and set fire to it! The pudding is served whole onto the dining table awash with the blue flames of burning alcohol. When the flames have burned out, the pudding is divided into portions and served piping hot with fresh double cream or brandy butter.
Making a Christmas pudding is a time consuming process but it is well worth it for the delicious pudding you will enjoy!
Thanks to Sinead Camplin from Map Made Memories for sharing one of my personal favorite Christmas traditions in England. Christmas pudding with brandy sauce is unlike any other festive dessert in the world and combined with a mince pie (another British tradition!), this is the perfect sweet treat during the holiday season.
Although a white Christmas is not possible on the island, Malta offers a varied mix of traditions that appeal to all. It is a festive time with the city’s main streets and squares all lit up and adorned with trees, lights, and garlands. As the air gets slightly colder outside, the people start preparing for the season.
Christmas still retains a strong religious element for the locals. Participation in churches increases around this time and a special attendance on Christmas Day, with Midnight Mass being the main event. One of the oldest traditions would be The Sermon of the Child, believed to have started in 1883. A young boy or girl usually aged between 7 and 10 years old is chosen to replace the priest in delivering the sermon on this special event and is awaited with great anticipation.
After Midnight Mass, it is also a custom for the local parish priest to offer traditional Maltese coffee and imqaret to the members of the community. Taking part in these festive traditions is one of the best things to do in Malta to get a better understanding of the place and its people.
Thanks to Rai from A Rai of Light for sharing this unique tradition associated with the beautiful island of Malta.
Christmas is the most important holiday in the Italian calendar, and this had been the case for centuries. Before Italy became the seat of the Catholic Church, the Romans had a holiday of unknown origins called “Sol Invictus” which was celebrated on December 25th. In Italy, preparation for Christmas starts on December 8th, traditionally, when the families and the municipalities arrange light decorations in the houses and in the streets.
Christmas decorations in private houses aren’t complete without a nativity scene, even if it’s a very simple one. The custom of building nativities is especially felt in the city of Naples, where it also happens the most spectacular New Year’s Eve festival in Italy.
Christmas Eve is the favorite day for Italian children and grandparents. Christmas Eve’s dinner excludes meat products. Italians usually eat seafood and vegetables fried in batter on December 24th.
After dinner, kids open their presents and the family spends a few more hours at the table having panettone and pandoro (we can find those soft cakes only during the Christmas holiday season), and nuts and playing the Tombola. Tombola is a board game that resembles the Bingo but is more colorful and includes more prizes. There are quick card games which are popular during Christmas and use characteristic Italian cards.
Italy is a country where paganism has continued permeating life in the countrysides and small villages. Only a small percentage of Italians go to church on Christmas Eve, while the big majority focuses on having abundant, slow meals and exchanging gifts with family and friends. If you desire to go to church though, you can join hundreds of others in Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome where the Pope is celebrating the Christmas Mass.
Thanks to Annalisa Franceschini from Travel Connect Experience for highlighting some of her favorite traditions in Italy during the Christmas season.
Christmas is a time of the year that every country celebrates in their own unique way. Thanks to an amazing collection of bloggers from across the globe, we hope that there are a few destinations that have sparked your interest because of their distinctive traditions that make them such an awesome place to visit during the Christmas season.
From iconic locations such as the UK, USA, France and more, to lesser known destinations such as Zimbabwe and Montenegro, we have a collection of nations that should be on everyone’s radar. Where are you most intrigued to celebrate the festive fun in the near future?
Thank you to all the travel bloggers that have contributed to this collaboration highlighting the best traditions during the Christmas season around the world.