All over the world, Christmas is celebrated a little differently. While some countries are blessed with greetings-card-perfect white Christmases, other countries take advantage of the hotter climate by enjoying a barbie on the beach over a traditional roast dinner with all the trimmings. Japan famously has one of the most obscure Christmas traditions, though, as its Christmas dinner can consist of a sharing bucket from KFC!
With such a variety of celebrations going on over the festive period, we thought we would round up some of our favorites. From the mischievous Icelandic tradition of leaving shoes in the window for Yule Lads to fill with something nice (usually sweets) or something nasty (like rotten potatoes), to the hardcore bake-a-thons that Norwegians have in the lead-up to Christmas Eve (the day where all the celebrations and present unwrapping takes place) we've picked traditions that include food to eat, things to make and things to do.
Different families obviously have their own traditions as well, whether that's having oysters and champagne for breakfast, or wearing matching pajamas. If you're my family, it's having Christmas dinner ridiculously late (I'm talking after the Queen's speech – or should I say King's speech this year) and not opening any presents until after dinner, but there are advantages to the late schedule; the fact I'm half Norwegian and often celebrate on Christmas Eve is a big reason.
Christmas is a time for spending with friends and family. It's not all about the gifts you give, it's those traditions you combine with ones you created that add a little magic to the festive season.
While most people across the world prefer to spend hours in the kitchen (or beach) to serve up hearty, home-cooked food for lots of people, the Japanese prefer to let the Colonel do the hard work. Since the Seventies, Japanese people have famously ordered the world's most popular bucket meal instead of turkey with all the trimmings – a clever bit of marketing since Japan had no Christmas tradition, so a canny KFC exec introduced a "party barrel" of chicken in lieu of turkey. Over the festive period, an estimated 3.6 million people enjoy a finger-licking KFC, making it one of the busiest times of the year for the fast food chain.
In the 13 nights leading up to Christmas, Icelandic children place a shoe in their window before bed so that the Yule Lads can fill it with sweets if they've been good or rotten potatoes if they've been naughty! Each of the 14 Yule Lads has its own personality; Pottaskefill (Pot Licker), for example, is known to steal leftover soup while, Stúfur (Stubby) is known for being incredibly short and eating leftover crusts. There is also an Icelandic folklore about a Christmas Cat – a huge, vicious feline who attacks anyone who hasn't received new clothes to wear at Christmas. It's not the most planet-friendly folklore, but any excuse for a new outfit, eh?
Christmas is a particularly magical time in Norway, and Norwegians have a lot of traditions. In the lead-up to the festive period, people will bake seven types of biscuit including krumkake, berlinerkranser, sandkaker and my favorite, kransekake – a tall tower of delicious chewy, almondy rings. It's also common to make red and white heart-shaped baskets to hang on the tree, to fill with sweets or nuts, and handmade nisse make cute decorations for your Christmas table or mantelpiece. Nisse are mythological creatures from Nordic folklore, with long white beards and tall pointy hats that somewhat resemble a gnome – and are often associated with Christmas or the winter solstice.
On Christmas Eve in Ireland, lots of people light a candle in the window as a symbol of hope and hospitality. The tradition dates back to the 17th Century, when Catholicism was being suppressed in Ireland. Although traditionally a red candle was used, today any candle is a sign to friends, family or strangers passing by that they are welcome.
Down under, Christmas takes place in the height of summer. And while a lot of the traditions are the same as in the US and UK, such as opening presents on Christmas Day and singing carols, on Boxing Day people head to the beach for a less traditional barbecue. Boxing day also marks the start of the cricket, which is held at Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Mauritius is an Indian Ocean island nation known best for its luscious white sandy beaches, crystal clear blue waters and abundance of exotic wildlife. Despite only 30% of the population being Christian, Christmas is still celebrated – but rather than having a turkey roast with all the trimmings, Mauritians prefer to eat chicken curry with rice, seafood and turkey. Like the Aussies, though, they sometimes opt for a BBQ instead and make the most of the good weather.
Typically Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve in Poland, leaving people free on Christmas Day to try out their new toys and meet up with friends. Most Polish people try to cook 12 dishes on Christmas Eve to represent the 12 apostles. Most dishes are only cooked at Christmas, and they could include anything such as carp served with hot sauerkraut and dried mushrooms, red borscht with pierogis (a Polish beetroot soup and traditional polish dumplings) and kompot z suszu, a dried fruit compote made with plums, apples, pears and apricots.
Rather than handing out presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day like a lot of other countries, the Greeks have to wait for the feast day of Agios Vasilis on New Year's Day to give and receive goodies. This Greek tradition comes from the Story of Saint Basil, who once had so many valuables belonging to people from Caesarea that he baked them into tasty treats and handed them out to people. Somehow, everyone received their own item back, so now on New Year's Day a Vasilopita is made. It's served in rank order from oldest to youngest, and inside the cake is a hidden gold charm or treasure. So you'd better be careful when eating to avoid any chipped teeth – not a Christmas present that anyone wants! Find the recipe online at My Greek Dish.
Like a lot of European countries, the French's main day for celebration is Christmas Eve with a huge feast known as Le Réveillon de Noël. Alongside turkey with chestnuts, lobster, snails and oysters (because it wouldn't be a french meal without something slimy, eh?), 13 desserts are traditionally served including dates stuffed with marzipan or Pain d’epice – a type of rye bread made with honey and spices. And of course, with the food comes a selection of fine wines and champagnes to wash it all down. The meal usually starts late afternoon on Christmas Eve and lasts well into the night, then Christmas Day is a day of fasting to let all the rich food digest properly. But this is optional – you can still eat the day after if you want to. I know I would!
Just like in the US and many other countries, it's traditional to decorate your home with a Christmas tree covered in colorful ornaments, and shop fronts put on beautiful festive displays complete with snowmen and baubles. On December 12, Mexicans celebrate Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe – the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It's believed that on the same day in 1531, a man named Juan Diego saw the Virgin Mary while in Mexico City. The Catholic holiday celebrates the country's patron saint with colorful processions, prayer and sharing food around tables decorated with pink, green, blue and red flowers.