Christmas traditions develop slowly within families, communities and societies. Some are based on religious beliefs and others simply grew over time as people adopted interesting and meaningful customs.
Some customs have deep meaning while others are whimsical and just plain fun. The casino in New Zealand treats us with holiday-themed games and there are those who even take wagers on how many new traditions can be identified every year.
Learn more about worldwide Christmas traditions.
Christmas evolved as a celebration of the birthday of Christ. The date that was chosen is widely thought to have been selected as a result of ancient beliefs — in the early years of the first millennium, it was the time of year that the pagans celebrated their winter solstice. As the pagans converted to Christianity, the Church incorporated the original pagan rituals as part of the observance of Jesus’s birth.
Many Christmas traditions evolved out of the early pagan winter solstice celebrations while others developed as a result of local events, cultural sensitivities and the varied ways that Christians viewed their religion.
For instance, during Reformation and up until the middle of the 1800s, Protestants didn’t celebrate Christmas. They believed that partying and merry making was unbecoming to a sober and solemn Christian life. The celebration of Christmas in Protestant communities became widespread only since the 1840s.
There are also significant differences between the celebration of Christmas in the various Christian sects – Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc. They reflect the varied beliefs of these different Christian sects.
Some of the most interesting Christmas celebrations worldwide include the following:
Basque country in Spain is home to an indigenous people who live around the western end of the Pyrenees in Spain. Their language is not Indo-European which leads anthropologists to the belief that they are an ancient people who descended from early inhabitants of Western Europe thousands of years ago.
Basques are traditionally Roman Catholic and Christmas is a big celebration in the Basque society. One of the unique traditions of the Basque Christmas, which is not celebrated elsewhere, is the tradition of Olentzero. Olentzero is a mythical character that comes to town late on the night of December 24th to visit – sometimes bringing presents and, in some versions of the story, bringing punishments.
Olentzero was, according to legend, a “jentillak” – a member of a mythological race of giants who lived in the mountains. There are many explanations of who Olentzero was – one of which was that he was a giant while another tells that he was an abandoned newborn who was taken under the protection of a fairy and grew up to carve wooden toys for the children in the village. When he died, the story goes, the fairy returned to grant him eternal life so that he could continue to bring joy to children and people.
In each town the tradition of how Olentzero appears is different – in some locales an effigy of Olentzero is hung from a rope while in others, a straw Olentzero puppet is hung from a Church tower. He is depicted alternately as kind and benevolent or as threatening and full of wrath.
In Jamaica, Christmas Eve is also called ‘Grand Market.’ In each town there is, indeed, a grand market. During the day people shop for Christmas food, toys and sweets in a festive atmosphere. In the evening the Grand Market starts and it lasts until morning. People come out and wander around the market area until morning, eating and celebrating amidst decorative lights and food stands.
After a short sleep, Jamaicans start their Christmas Day celebration. They eat fresh fruits, ackee and saltfish, boiled bananas, freshly squeezed fruit juice, breadfruit and fried plantains for breakfast. Later on in the day, after a church service, they have a dinner of curry goat, turkey, chicken, stewed oxtail, peas and rice.
The highlight of the meal is the Jamaican red wine and rum fruitcake which is made of dried fruit that has been soaked in red wine and white rum for months before Christmas
Jamaica was a British colony for hundreds of years. The Christmas Pantomime stems from the British influence in which pantomime theatre is put on for kids and adults on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. Jamaican theatres open their doors to the Jamaican public and the yearly Pantomimes are presented. The shows are full of music and jokes which are delivered in Jamaican Patois dialect.
Most Christians in Lithuania are Catholic. In Lithuania the Christmas season stretches throughout lmost of December, lasting until Epiphany on the 6th of January. Christmas Eve in Lithuania is called Kūčios and it’s the most important part of the Christmas celebration. People clean their house thoroughly, change their sheets and dress in their best clothes to eat a big Christmas Eve.
The Kūčios meal traditionally has 12 dishes – one for each of Jesus’s apostles. The dishes don’t contain meat but there is generally fish, kisielius (a drink made from cranberries), sauerkraut, vegetable salad, mushrooms, dried fruit soup, beet soup (often with mushroom filled dumplings in it), potatoes and a porridge eaten with honey and bread.
Candles are lit during the Kūčios meal to memorialize anyone who has passed away during the year. After the meal presents are exchanged. Popular Christmas Tree decorations in Lithuania are made from white paper straws and molded in the shape of snowflakes, stars and other geometric shapes.
Much of Switzerland’s Christmas traditions center on parades and carol singing. In some regions, the processions, known as ‘Trychle,’ start on Christmas Day and finish on New Year’s Eve. In the Trychle people march in parades carrying drums or wearing a big Trychler (cow bell). Many wear masks. The noise and masks are meant to scare away evil spirits.
‘Urnäsch Silvesterkläuse’ processions take place in the villages around Urnäsch between December 31st and January 13th. People known as “Kläuse” wear costumes, head dresses and masks. They go from house to house, wishing people a good new year and singing.
Many children go carol singing from the last week of Advent until Epiphany, carrying a large star which represents the star that the Wisemen followed when they visited the baby Jesus.
‘Samichlaus’ – St. Nicholas – is said to visit on December 6th. Presents are delivered from Father Christmas, the Three Kings or Jesus on December 25th or on January 6th (Epiphany).