A Goat, Thirteen Boys, and a Witch?
You may be surprised to learn that goats, thirteen boys, witches, and more make up Christmastime celebrations from around the world.
Learning about different traditions and customs from other countries and cultures is one of the wonderful things about travel. And the December holidays are the perfect time to explore some of the traditions around the world with your family.
Here are just a handful of interesting traditions your family can explore and learn how to say “Seasons Greetings / Merry Christmas” in several languages.
GERMANY - TANNENBAUM
The Christmas tree Tannenbaum (fir tree) tradition started in Germany. On Heiligabend (Christmas Eve), German parents secretly decorate the Tannenbaum with candies, nuts, ornaments, and lights. A bell is rung, the Tannenbaum is presented, and the children race to open presents and take goodies from the tree. The traditional Advent Calendar also originated in Germany.
Another famous German Christmas tradition is the Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Markets). You can enjoy mulled wine, delicious German food, and traditional German crafts at the festive markets. You can find these markets in almost every city in Germany, taking place from late November until just before Christmas.
Fröhliche Weihnachten! (FROH-lick-uh VINE-ahk-ten)
SWEDEN - JULEBOCKEN
Julebocken (The Yule Goat) is a key feature of Christmas festivities in many parts of Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden. Its most famous representation is the giant 43-foot-tall straw goat in the city of Gävle, known as the Gävlebocken.
Miniature goats made of straw are one of the most popular Christmas decorations.
The Yule Goat's role has evolved over the years. In older Scandinavian tradition, it was sometimes thought to be an invisible spirit that would appear sometime before Christmas to ensure the Yule preparations were done correctly. Over time, it became more of a festive character, with people dressing as the goat to deliver presents, a role now taken mainly by Santa Claus (Jultomten in Sweden).
God Jul! (GOOD Yool)
UNITED KINGDOM - GREETING CARDS & CHRISTMAS CRACKERS
The tradition of sending Christmas cards began in the United Kingdom in 1843.
Overwhelmed by the Victorian custom of sending handwritten holiday letters, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first Christmas card in 1843 to save time. He collaborated with artist John Callcott Horsley to create a ready-made greeting featuring a festive family scene and the message "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You." This innovation leveraged recent advances in printing and the more affordable 'Penny Post' postal rates. The idea quickly gained popularity, laying the foundation for the widespread tradition of exchanging Christmas cards.
A Christmas cracker in the UK is a festive, paper-covered tube that two people pull apart, making a popping sound and revealing small gifts, a joke, and a paper crown inside. The tradition of wearing the festive crown dates back to the Saturnalia celebrations in Roman times.
CHINA - GIFT WRAPPED APPLES
The Dongzhi Festival is a Chinese festival that celebrates the winter solstice. “Dong” means winter, and “zhi” means arrival. Around December 21st, families often gather to eat tangyuan (sweet rice balls), which symbolize reunion, to mark the occasion.
The tradition of giving apples wrapped in colorful paper on Christmas Eve has become popular in China. It's believed the tradition comes from the similarity of the Chinese word for apple, ping guo, to the Chinese word for Christmas Eve, Ping'an Ye (peaceful evening). Children hang up stockings in hopes that Dun Che Lao Ren (China's Santa Clause) will visit and fill them with presents.
Shèng dàn jié kuàilè! (SHUNG DAN jyeh kwai-luh)
PHILIPPINES - PAROL
Christmas in the Philippines is celebrated with great fervor and is known for being one of the longest Christmas seasons in the world, often starting as early as September. The festivities include attending Simbang Gabi (night masses) for nine days leading up to Christmas Day, decorating homes with parols (a Christmas star-shaped lantern made of bamboo and paper), and enjoying Noche Buena, a grand family feast at midnight on Christmas Eve. Traditional foods like lechon (roasted pig), queso de bola (edam cheese), and various sweets are central to the celebration.
The season is characterized by vibrant displays, joyful caroling, and a strong emphasis on family and community gatherings, reflecting the country's deep-rooted Catholic traditions and a blend of Western and local customs.
Maligayang Pasko! (MAH-lee-gahng PAHS-koh)
NETHERLANDS - SINTERKLAAS
Sinterklaas, a traditional festival in the Netherlands, begins with the arrival of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in mid-November, usually on the second Saturday after November 11th, Saint Martin's Day. This event, known as "Sinterklaas' Intocht" (the Entry of Sinterklaas), is marked by a ceremonial arrival by boat from Spain, where he is said to live. After this arrival, Sinterklaas travels throughout the country, visiting towns and cities, leading up to the main celebration on the evening of December 5th, known as "Sinterklaasavond" or "Pakjesavond" (Present Evening), when gifts are exchanged.
Children leave their shoes, or traditional clogs, by the fireplace or door filled with hay or carrots for Sinterklaas’ white horse, Amerigo, hoping that small gifts will be left in return.
Vrolijk Kerstfeest! (VROY-lik KERST-feest)
ITALY - SEVEN FISHES & LA BEFANA
The Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition, known as Vigillia di Natale, comes from Southern Italy. The Christmas Eve dinner consists of seven different seafood dishes.
La Befana, the good-hearted witch, is a folkloric character who delivers gifts to children on the night of January 5th, Epiphany Eve, often portrayed as an old woman riding a broomstick, filling children's stockings with candy and gifts if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. This tradition, rich in folklore, symbolizes the twelfth day of Christmas when the Three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts.
Buon Natale! (BWOHN Nuh-TAHL-ay)
ICELAND - 13 YULE LADS & JOLABOKAFLOD
The tradition of the 13 Yule Lads in Iceland involves mischievous troll-like figures who visit children across the country in the 13 days leading up to Christmas. Each day, a different Yule Lad arrives to leave gifts or play tricks, depending on the child's behavior throughout the year. This unique Icelandic tradition blends folklore and the Christmas spirit, with each Yule Lad having a distinct personality and name, such as 'Door-Slammer' and 'Candle-Stealer.’
One of Iceland's most famous Christmas Eve traditions is Jólabókaflód (Christmas book flood). Most people in Iceland give and receive books on Christmas Eve and then spend the evening reading them.
Gledileg jol! (GLAY-duh-leg yol)
GREECE - CHRISTMAS BOATS
Decorating boats with strings of lights is as popular as decorating Christmas trees in Greece. Saint Nicholas is considered the patron saint of sailors, which is probably why boats are decorated on December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day.
Kalá Christoúyenna! (KUH-lah KRISS-too-YEN-uh)
ISRAEL - HANUKKAH
Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish holiday that dates back thousands of years to Israel. Lasting eight days and nights, a candle is lit each night on the menorah, and special foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts) are enjoyed. There’s also the tradition of playing a game called dreidel, which involves spinning a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on each side, and players can win chocolate gelt (coins).
Chag Sameach! (KHAG sah-MAY-akh)
MEXICO - LAS POSADAS
Mexico’s main celebration is the nine-days preceding Christmas Eve, Las Posadas (The Inns). It’s a celebration of Joseph and Mary's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of the baby Jesus. The celebration commemorates their search for a room at the inn. With nightly candlelight processions full of singing and children dressed like angels, it concludes with breaking the candy-filled piñata.
Feliz Navidad! (FAY-leez Nah-vee-DAHD)
NEW ZEALAND - POHUTUKAWA
In New Zealand, they have their own Christmas Tree -- the Pōhutukawa. The trees grow very tall and full of bright red flowers. They are featured on greeting cards and in songs.
As Christmas is celebrated during the Southern Hemisphere's summer, traditions often include barbecues, beach outings, and outdoor activities, along with the usual festive decorations and family gatherings. The holiday merges typical Northern Hemisphere Christmas customs with local summer festivities, leading to a unique blend of traditions like the Pōhutukawa tree being used as a Christmas tree and Santa Claus in shorts.
Meri Kirihimete! (MEH-ree KEE-ree-hee-MEH-tee)
COLUMBIA - DAY OF LITTLE CANDLES
Día de las Velitas, Little Candles’ Day, on December 7th, honors the Virgin Mary and marks the beginning of Colombia’s Christmas season. People place candles and paper lanterns in their windows and yards, and towns and cities are lit with elaborate displays to celebrate the season. And in early December, children write a Carta al Niños (a letter to baby Jesus) asking for presents they hope will be delivered on Christmas Eve.
Feliz Navidad! (FAY-leez Nah-vee-DAHD)
UNITED STATES - KWANZAA
Kwanzaa (means “first fruits” in Swahili) is an African-American holiday celebrating African culture and values. It is observed from December 26th to January 1st and involves lighting seven candles, each representing a principle such as unity, self-determination, and faith. Another tradition during Kwanzaa is the karamu, a festive feast with traditional African food and music.
Habari Gani! (Hah-BAH-ree GAH-nee)
Christmastime traditions around the world are fascinating and a fun way to explore the richness of the world’s cultural traditions.
Season’s Greetings to you and your family!