Sometimes when we are far from home Christmas can make the distance between us and our family and loved ones can feel even further away. Christmas traditions and rituals that we bring from home are an important way to help us feel more connected. But living abroad also gives us opportunities to embrace new traditions from our adopted homes and create new magical memories.
Here are some Christmas traditions to try from around the world.
Have you taken part in any of these or have adopted any new traditions into your family Christmas celebrations?
From the 16th to the 24th of December The Giant Lantern Festival (Ligligan Parul Sampernandu) is held each year in the city of San Fernando – the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.” Filipinos place much significance on the symbolism of light, the star regarded as a sign of hope in the predominantly Christian country in Asia.
The festival attracts spectators from all over the country and across the globe. Competition is fierce between the 11 barangays (villages) who take part in the festival and as everyone pitches in trying to build the most elaborate lantern. Originally, the lanterns were simple creations around half a metre in diameter, made from ‘papel de hapon’ (Japanese origami paper) and lit by candle. Today, the lanterns are made from a variety of materials and have grown to around six metres in size. They are illuminated by thousands of electric bulbs that sparkle in a kaleidoscope of patterns.
Maybe you could try making your own smaller lantern for your home this Christmas? Here are some instructions to try.
The Yule goat was supposed to help deliver presents, so sometimes Santa Claus would ride a goat instead of reindeers and his sleigh, and small goats made of straw are still one of the most popular Christmas decorations in Sweden. So in 1966 the town of Gävle thought it would be a fun idea to build a 13-metre-tall Yule Goat made out of straw. It proudly stands in the centre of Gävle’s Castle Square for Advent, but unwittingly this Swedish Christmas tradition has led to another “tradition” of people trying to burn it down! Since 1966 the Goat has been successfully burned down 35 times – the most recent destruction was in 2016.
If you want to see how the Goat fares this year when it goes up on December 1st, you can follow its progress on the Visit Gävle website through a live video stream.
Christmas has never been a big deal in Japan. Aside from a few small, secular traditions such as gift-giving and light displays, Christmas remains largely a novelty in the country. However, a new, quirky “tradition” has emerged in recent years – a Christmas Day feast of the Colonel’s very own Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The festive menu will soon be advertised on the KFC Japan website and, even if you don’t understand Japanese, the pictures sure will look delicious with everything from a Christmas-themed standard bucket to a premium roast-bird feast.
So if the oven breaks down and your traditional Christmas Dinner is ruined, you can always head to KFC and say you’re just doing it Japanese style this year!
In the 13 days leading up to Christmas from the 12th to the 23rd of December, 13 troll-like characters come out to play in Iceland. The Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar in Icelandic) Clad in traditional Icelandic costume, these fellas are pretty mischievousand play tricks on people, but now their main role is to give children small gifts. Every child in Iceland puts their best shoe on their bedroom windowsill on December 12th (some try to put their boot, in the hope that they may get more, but so far the Yule Lads haven’t been fooled) and they get a small gift from each lad when he arrives in town. But beware not to be naughty or the lad might just leave a rotten potato in your shoe!
Also people in Iceland will often get new clothes and exchange books on Christmas Eve, then spend the rest of the night reading them and eating chocolate. This is certainly a tradition I could very happily adopt! 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.
This tradition of books as pre-Christmas presents is starting to spread to other countries, with some giving children a small book for each day of December, like a book advent calendar.
For those who think The Nightmare Before Christmas is the best Christmas film ever, this one might be for you.
Not to be confused with Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas), on the night of December 5 (in some places, the evening of Dec. 6), in small communities in Austria and the Catholic regions of Germany, a man dressed as der Heilige Nikolaus (St. Nicholas, who resembles a bishop and carries a staff) and leaves little treats like coins, chocolate, oranges and toys in the shoes of good children all over Germany, and particularly in the Bavarian region, Austria and parts of Switzerland. St. Nicholas also visits children in schools or at home and in exchange for sweets or a small present each child must recite a poem, sing a song or draw a picture.
But it isn’t always fun and games.
Accompanying jolly St Nick are several ragged looking, devil-like Krampusse, who mildly or nor so mildly scare the children. Krampus or Knecht Ruprechtis said to capture the naughtiest children and whisk them away in his sack.
I suppose that’s one way to make sure kids don’t want to end up on the naughty list!
6. Washington, D.C. US
Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and is celebrated for eight nights and days in late November-December. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is observed by lighting candles on the nine-branched menorah, one additional light on each night of the holiday.
Since 1979, a giant nine-metre Menorah has been raised on the White House grounds in Washington D.C. for the eight days and nights of Hanukkah. The ceremony in Washington, D.C. is marked with speeches, music, activities for kids, and, of course, the lighting of the Menorah.
The lighting of the first candle at the White House takes place at 4pm, rain or shine, and an additional candle is lit each successive night. The event is free to attend, but tickets must be booked in advance.
Love Christmas, but think it could be improved by a spot of roller-blading? If the answer is yes, visit Caracas, Venezuela this year. Every Christmas Eve, the city’s residents head to church in the early morning – so far, so normal – but, for reasons known only to them, they do so on roller skates. This unique tradition is so popular that roads across the city are closed to cars so that people can skate to church in safety, before heading home for the less-than-traditional Christmas dinner of ‘tamales’ (a wrap made out of cornmeal dough and stuffed with meat, then steamed).
Little Candles’ Day (Día de las Velitas) marks the start of the Christmas season across Colombia. In honour of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception, people place candles and paper lanterns in their windows, balconies and front yards. The tradition of candles has grown, and now entire towns and cities across the country are lit up with elaborate displays. Some of the best are found in Quimbaya, where neighbourhoods compete to see who can create the most impressive arrangement.
9. Toronto, Canada
In Toronto from the end of November, the annual Cavalcade of Lights marks the official start to the holiday season. The first Cavalcade took place in1967 to show off Toronto’s newly constructed City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. More than 300,000 energy-efficient LED lights that shine from dusk until 11 pm until the New Year illuminate the Square and Christmas tree. On top of that, you’ll get to witness spectacular fireworks shows and engage in some outdoor ice-skating.
Also in Canada there is an actual postal code used where you can send letters to the North Pole: H0H 0H0. Unfortunately, since there is no centralized address, thousand of volunteers help out the Canada Post to respond to the letters received, even in Braille.
If you want to avoid putting on the holiday pounds this Christmas, you might be interested in this tradition from Armenia. The week before Christmas some Armenians choose to fast. On Christmas Eve they break their fast with a light meal called "khetum," which includes rice, fish, chickpeas, yogurt soup, dried nuts and grape jelly desserts.
Sounds healthy, but nope, not for me!
Rather than milk and cookies for Santa, it's mince pies and whisky or brandy or sherry (well it helps him to keep out the cold right?). And Christmas Dinner isn’t complete without Christmas Pudding, made with dried fruits and laced with Guinness and whisky. Before serving, you warm up some brandy or whisky and light it and sing 'We wish you a merry Christmas'. And just in case you thought there isn't enough alcohol involved, the pudding is served with Brandy Butter (not really butter, more like a thick alcoholic cream). This tradition also carries over to the UK, and yes children are allowed it. Our family Christmas Pudding recipe, handed down from my Irish grandmother includes generous helpings of both Guinness and Cherry Brandy which the fruit is soaked in for at least a week before cooking. Shhh don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret!
Back in the day, from Victorian times until about the 1970’s a coin (traditionally a silver sixpence) was hidden inside and it was considered lucky to find it, but people generally don’t do this any more as it was considered more of a health risk.
Thanks to the high alcohol content, the pudding can lasts for months on end, even to next Christmas and tastes even better! So as the recipe makes two puddings I save one for the following year (if we can restrain ourselves from eating both!) And, getting a good buzz from desserts never killed anybody, as far as I'm aware! Just watch out for Nan putting too much sherry in the trifle again!