It’s the most wonderful time of the year, so hang up your Christmas stockings, put some milk and cookies by the fireplace, and let’s embrace the festive season with 10 Christmas traditions from around the world.
1. Befana (Italian)
Translation: an old woman who delivers gifts on Epiphany Eve
There are many representations of Christmas gift-givers around the world; there’s Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Ded Moroz — and in Italy, the name you’ll hear the most is la Befana. Much like the other characters, she visits children to fill their stockings with candy and presents if they’ve been nice, and coal or dark candy if they’ve been naughty. Unlike the others, she delivers gifts on the eve of Epiphany, which falls on January 5th.
She’s depicted wearing a shawl and riding a broom with her face covered in soot, as she, too, likes entering kids’ houses through the chimney. There’s usually a nice glass of wine and a platter of local food waiting for her.
2. Consoada (Portuguese)
Translation: a traditional Christmas Eve dinner
Consoada is the name of a traditional Portuguese Christmas Eve dinner that’s eaten in the evening. Among the delicacies, you’ll find poached cod fish (bacalhau), broccoli or kale, potatoes, eggs and a garlicky vinaigrette sauce on the side, followed by local traditional sweets.
In times past, it was customary for people to spend Christmas Eve fasting at the Missa do Galo (the Rooster’s Mass); following that, they returned home, usually after midnight, to sample a comforting meal, which is where the name consoada (from the Latin consolata) comes from. According to tradition, dishes remain undone, as a mark of respect to dead relatives who may want to join the feast later. Gifts are also exchanged after the meal.
3. Decemberzegels (Dutch)
Translation: December postage stamps
You’ll never see writing and sending Christmas cards the same way again. In many parts around the world, Decemberzegels, also known as kerstzegels (Christmas stamps), refers to stamps that are only valid from November 4th until January 3rd. What makes this Christmas tradition so special is that you just need one stamp to mail a card of up to 50g anywhere in the Netherlands and only two (yes, two!) to mail it anywhere else in the world. This year’s Decemberzegels are guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart with their colorful, festive parade of humans and animals on their way to a grand Christmas feast.
4. El Gordo (Spanish)
Translation: The fat one
No, that’s not you after a big Christmas meal! El Gordo is the Spanish Christmas Lottery draw also known as Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad or simply Lotería de Navidad. It takes place on December 22nd and is considered to be the biggest and most popular lottery draw of the year worldwide!
This year, the prize money will total €2.38 billion and a whopping €680 million euros — ¡El Gordo! — will be shared among those with the same winning décimos (pre-printed €20 tickets). With 75% of Spain’s 46 million residents participating in the draw, El Gordo has become an unshakeable institution in the lead-up to Christmas.
5. Gui et houx (French)
Translation: mistletoe and holly
Let me pose a question: Without googling this, which berry is red and which berry is white? Mistletoe and holly grow abundantly in France and especially in Brittany and Normandy. Mistletoe, in particular, is seen as a good luck charm (porte-bonheur) in France, and friends often give it to each other as a New Year’s gift for luck.
If you’re still thinking the question from above, the 19th century poet Charles Fremine may have the answer for you in his poem Coupez le gui, coupez le houx (cut the mistletoe, cut the holly):
Du gui dont les fleurs sont des perles,
Du houx dont les fleurs sont du feu !
(Mistletoe, its berries like pearls,
Holly, its berries like fire!)
6. Julkalender (Swedish)
Translation: Christmas TV calendar
We all love our chocolate advent calendars, but in Sweden and the rest of the Nordic countries, they really take advent to another level. They air an entire 24-episode TV calendar series, with the first episode aired on the 1st of December and the last on the 24th. The tradition has had the whole nation gripped every Christmas season since the ’60s, when the first Christmas TV calendar, Titteliture, was aired on Swedish television. In the original, each day a tomte (Swedish mythological creature) opened a new calendar window and revealed a new surprise every time.
7. Kalenderlys (Danish)
Translation: Christmas calendar candle
If this isn’t the perfect embodiment of hygge, I don’t know what is. Kalenderlys are candles with printed numbers from 1 to 24. Each morning, at breakfast time, you burn the candle down just a little bit until the next date is ready to burn. These beautiful, festive candles are perfect for brightening up the darkest of winter mornings and can create a cozy feeling in your home.
8. Marsipangris (Norwegian)
Translation: marzipan pig
Love it or hate it, marzipan is big business in Norway. Norwegians eat as many as 45 million marzipan candies per year and each Christmas, the nation partakes in the much-loved marzipan pig tradition. Families busy themselves with making the ultimate rice pudding (risgrøt) and hiding an almond in it. Whoever finds the almond wins a good-luck marsipangris.
Trondheim’s Nidar chocolate factory has been making marzipan pigs since 1915, and the tradition has been going strong since then. In fact, the demand for pigs is so high over Christmas that Trondheim’s factory has to hire an extra 50 seasonal employees to keep marzipan-hungry Norwegians happy.
9. Szopka (Polish)
Translation: Christmas crib; nativity scene
The Poles are crazy about their Christmas cribs. So much so, in fact, that in December 1937, Krakow municipality announced they were running their first ever Christmas crib competition. A bizarre cross between gaudy dollhouses and miniature architectural masterpieces, these szopki krakowskie (Cracovian cribs) are such an inventive Christmas tradition, and so specific to Kraków that in 2018, they made it onto the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.
Today, the competition is held on the first Thursday of December each year at the main Market Square. The best and most ornate szopki are added to the permanent collection of Krakow’s Historical Museum in Krzysztofory Palace.
10. Zuckerstange (German)
Translation: candy cane
I chose to close this list with a German Christmas tradition because Germany has practically invented Christmas as we know it. The Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) is probably the most recognizable and widely exported tradition around the world.
Let me take you back to 1670, in Cologne, for a minute, during a choir performance at the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral). Folklore has it that the choirmaster had been getting increasingly frustrated with children making noise during the choir performance that he asked a local candy maker to make some sugar sticks to help them keep their mouths busy.
At his instructions, the candy maker made the sticks look like shepherds‘ crooks to help children remember the shepherds who visited baby Jesus. This is how we came to know the candy canes we all love and enjoy every Christmas!