It’s no secret among friends and family that we’re nuts for Christmas traditions, decorating our house from wall to wall and immersing ourselves in local holiday celebrations.
In fact, it’s the one time of year that we simply refuse to travel.
But even we didn’t know much about the various Christmas traditions around the world until we began researching this story. Hope you’ll find these 60 fun Christmas facts as fascinating as we did!
ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS
The origins of Christmas can be traced back to ancient pagan celebrations such as Deus Sol Invictus (observed Dec 25), the Kalends (Jan 1-5), and Saturnalia (Dec 17-23). The Christian Church disapproved of these festivals and co-opted the holidays by declaring Dec 25 as Jesus’ birthday.
Mistletoe was held sacred by the Norse, the Celtic Druids, and Native American Indians, because it remains green and bears fruit during the winter when other plants seem to die. Druids thought the plant had the power to cure infertility and nervous diseases, and to ward off evil.
Long before there were Christmas trees, the pagans revered evergreens as symbols of eternal life and rebirth.
Because of their pagan associations, holly, ivy, and other evergreen boughs conventionally used for holiday home decoration were banned by the sixth-century Christian Council of Braga.
Pope Julius I, the bishop of Rome, originally proclaimed December 25 the official celebration day for Jesus’ birthday back in 350 AD.
The city of Riga, Latvia holds the claim as home to history’s first decorated Christmas tree, back in 1510.
The midwinter festival of Yule has been celebrated by the Germanic peoples since at least the 4th century. Yule, which is also called Winter Solstice, is the longest night of the year and the time of greatest darkness.
Some scholars believe the word yule means “revolution” or “wheel,” symbolizing the cyclical return of the sun. King Haakon I of Norway rescheduled the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time.
According to old English folk tales, the Devil died when Jesus was born. So some towns developed a tradition of ringing the church bells near midnight on Christmas Eve to announce the Devil’s demise. In England this custom was called tolling or ringing “the Devil’s knell.”
FUN CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
In the Marshall Islands, people prepare for Christmas months in advance, stockpiling gifts and dividing into jeptas, or teams, that hold song-and-dance competitions on Christmas Day. They also build a piñata-like wojke containing little presents (matches, money, soap) for God.
In Argentina, Christmas is a blend of American, European, and Hispanic traditions. Their celebrations typically include the boots of Father Christmas, red and white flowers, and putting cotton on Xmas trees to simulate snow. But most family gatherings take place on Christmas Eve, with huge feasts, gifts exchanged at midnight, and children going to sleep to the sound of fireworks.
In Peru, December 24th, which is known as La Noche Buena (“the Good Night”), is the main day for celebrations. After mass, families go home to feast, open gifts, and toast each other at midnight. The most important decorations are pesebre– Nativity scenes intricately carved from wood or stone. Gifts are spread around the manger rather than a tree, and it’s considered lucky to be the one chosen to put the figurine of baby Jesus into the manger on Christmas Eve.
In spite of Ethiopia’s Christian heritage, Christmas is not an important holiday there. Most people actually call the holiday Ganna or Genna after a hockey-like ball game played only once a year, on Christmas afternoon.
People in Iceland will often exchange books on Christmas Eve, then spend the rest of the night reading them and eating chocolate. The tradition is part of a season called Jolabokaflod, or “The Christmas Book Flood.” As a result, Iceland publishes more books per capita then any other country selling most of them between September and November.
Early illustrations of Santa Claus pictured him as a stern, commanding disciplinarian holding a birch rod. The jolly old elf we know and love today was created by artist Haddon Sundblom for a Coca-Cola ad.
Tom Smith invented Christmas Crackers around 1846. He was inspired by the French habit of wrapping sugared almonds in twists of paper as gifts.
On Christmas Day, tradition allows Lebanese children to go up to any adult and say, “Editi ‘aleik!” (“You have a gift for me!”). If the adult has a present to spare, the kids add this to their Christmas morning haul.
Syrian children receive gifts from one of the wise men’s camels, purported to be the youngest and smallest in the caravan, who fell down exhausted at the end of the long journey to Bethlehem.
CHRISTMAS FOOD AROUND THE WORLD
Fruitcake originated in ancient Egypt, where it was considered essential for the afterlife.
Roast turkey didn’t appear consistently on Christmas Day menus until 1851, when it replaced roast swan as the favorite dish of Royal courts.
Winning the award for longest preparation time, Greenland’s traditional Christmas dish, kiviak, takes a full seven months to prepare. It begins with hollowing out a seal skin and stuffing it with 500 auks– a sea bird (feathers and all)– to ferment. When the holiday rolls around, it’s served straight from the seal.
Christmas pudding was originally more than just a tasty treat. Small items such as coins (wealth) and buttons (bachelorhood) were put inside, and supposedly foretold what the New Year would bring.
The candy cane’s origins can be traced back to Europe circa 1670, but it didn’t appear in the U.S. until the 1800s. They were generally all white until the 1900s, when they took on a shape representing Jesus’ hook for shepherding his lambs and colors representing purity (white) and Christ’s sacrifice (red).
There are 12 courses in the traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve supper, each of them dedicated to one of Christ’s apostles.
In Ghana many people observe a traditional folk libation ritual at Christmastime. In it, people drink from a cup and then pour some of its contents on the ground as a symbolic offering to their ancestors.
Christmas traditions in East African countries such as Kenya and Uganda are much more religious and less commercial than our western holiday. The most common gift is a new outfit to wear to church, and many people collect stones, leaves, and other natural items as a birthday present for Jesus. Roasted goats are often the center of the Christmas feast.
How’s this for a weird Christmas food? South Africa is home to some of the world’s most unusual holiday food fare. Every December locals feast on a seasonal delicacy– the deep-fried caterpillars of Emperor Moths!
Most people think of Japanese cuisine, which largely centers around seafood and rice, as being relatively healthy. So it may come as a surprise to know that family Christmas traditions in Japan include eating their big holiday meal at fast food giant KFC!
THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS TREES
According to legend, the first person to decorate a Christmas tree was Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). He was so moved by the beauty of stars shining between branches of a fir tree, he brought one home and decorated it with candles for his children.
Germans made the very first artificial Christmas trees, using dyed goose feathers to look like needles of a pine or fir tree.
Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the U.S., became the first President to put a Christmas tree in the White House. Teddy Roosevelt banned the practice during his presidency, for environmental reasons.
The General Grant Tree in California’s King’s Canyon National Park was proclaimed “the Nation’s Christmas Tree” by U.S President Calvin Coolidge in 1926. The giant sequoia, which stands over 300 feet tall and estimated to be over 1,600 years old, is the third largest tree in the world.
Native to Mexico, the poinsettia was originally cultivated by the Aztecs, who called it Cuetlaxochitl (“flower which wilts”). The plant’s brilliant red color symbolized purity for the Aztecs, and they often used the plant to reduce fever.
TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS
The Christmas tradition of hanging stockings allegedly began with three poor sisters who couldn’t afford a marriage dowry. The wealthy Bishop Saint Nicholas of Smyrna (modern-day Turkey) saved them from a life of prostitution by sneaking down their chimney and filling their stockings with gold coins.
The tradition of tinsel, which was invented in Germany in 1610, is based on a legend about spiders whose web turned into silver when they were spun in a Christmas tree.
Spider webs are common Christmas tree decorations in Poland because, according to legend, a spider wove a blanket for Baby Jesus. Many Polish people consider spiders to be symbols of goodness and prosperity.
Round glass Christmas ornaments were inspired by the shape of apples. Apples were the original Christmas ornaments, put on the tree to symbolize the Garden of Eden.
In Greek culture, kissing under the mistletoe was considered an unspoken promise to marry your mate.
Though only 2% of the nation’s population is Christian, Christmas is a national holiday in India. Even non-Christians observe Christmas traditions such as lighting oil lamps along the perimeter of the home’s courtyard or roof.
The idea for electric Christmas light displays was first introduced by Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, in 1882. But it was American Ralph Morris who invented the type of lights we use today, adapting the from lights used in telephone switchboards in 1895.
WEIRD CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS
Bolivians celebrate Misa del Gallo (“Mass of the Rooster”) on Christmas Eve, with people bringing roosters to midnight mass to symbolize the belief that a rooster was the first animal to announce the birth of Jesus Christ.
In Guatemala’s villages, local men in devil costumes appear on the streets and chase children during rhe first week of Advent. The Devil’s reign ends on December 7 with a folk ritual known as La Quema del Diablo (“The Burning of the Devil”), where people pile objects they no longer want or need in front of their houses, scatter firecrackers on top of the heap, and set fire to it.
Christmas customs don’t come much weirder than in Catalonia, where the “Christmas Crapper” is an annual tradition. Statues of famous figures doing their bathroom business are believed to bring hope, prosperity, and fertility in the year to come.
In Estonia, people believed that the first visitor on Christmas, called the “first-footer,” would determine the household’s luck. Dark-haired men were seen as desirable first-footers, but women and fair-haired or red-headed men were often deemed unlucky
“The Night of the Radishes” is one of the annual Christmas customs in Oaxaca, Mexico. On December 23rd, competitors carve nativity scenes into large radishes, which are proudly displayed at the Christmas market. Oaxaca has land dedicated to cultivating special vegetables just for this event.
The Norwegian tradition of Julbukk, or “Christmas goat,” finds groups of costumed people walking through their neighborhood on Christmas Day, entertaining people with songs in exchange for treats. These groups will bring a goat along or have someone impersonate a goat’s typically unruly behavior. If two costumed goats meet, they’ll often engage in a play fight to entertain the crowd.
According to Italian legend, a kind witch called “La Befana” flies around on her broomstick on the night of January 5th, bringing gifts to worthy children and lumps of coal to the naughty ones.
According to Greek legend, malicious goblins called “Kallikantzari” would come up from their underground homes on December 25th, and would play tricks on humans until the 6th of January. You could get rid of them by burning logs or old shoes, or hanging sausages or sweetmeats in the chimney.
FUN CHRISTMAS FACTS
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was invented by Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert L. May in 1939, as a way to lure customers into the store.
Children in Brazil often receive gifts from the Magi on Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, as well as from Papai Noel on Christmas Eve. With no use for chimneys in the tropical climate, they believe Papai Noel enters via the front door, and travels via helicopter rather than a reindeer-drawn sleigh.
Composed in 1857 by James Pierpont, “Jingle Bells” was actually written for Thanksgiving, and was originally called “One Horse Open Sleigh.”
Puritan Oliver Cromwell made Christmas illegal in England from 1647-1660, claiming it was immoral to hold a celebration on one of the year’s holiest days.
Christmas cards, which originated in England, were first sent in the 1840s.
It takes Christmas trees around 15 years to grow to 6-8 feet. There are approximately 30-35 million Christmas trees grown annually.
In Costa Rica, the Christmas flower is the orchid.
Alabama was the first state to declare Christmas an official holiday, in 1836. It wasn’t declare a national holiday in the United States until 1870.
READ MORE: Thanksgiving Around The World
In Austria, farmers traditionally chalk the initials of the Three Wise Men on the archway above stable doors.
George Frederick Handel’s timeless Christmas classic, “The Messiah”, was first performed in Dublin, Ireland in 1742.
The Canadian province of Nova Scotia leads the world in exporting three things: lobster, wild blueberries, and Christmas trees.
In January of 2003, after a decree of authorization by President Hosni Mubarak, Christmas was observed as a national holiday in Egypt. This marked the first time in the nation’s modern history that a Christian holy day was formally recognized by the Egyptian government.
Russia was never really big on Christmas customs during the Soviet era. Nowadays, their version of Santa Claus is known as Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). He delivers presents to children a midnight on New Year’s Eve with the help of his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden.–Bret Love
If you like reading 60 Christmas Traditions Around the World, you may also like: