It’ll be lockdown this Christmas, but that doesn’t mean we need to feel ‘bah humbug!’ about it. We’ve looked at Christmas traditions around the world to find some fun new things to try at home this year. As things are already going to be different, let’s lean into it and celebrate in a new way. From the weird to the wonderful, get ready to add these customs to your festivities.
1. Upside-down Christmas tree, southern Poland
The upside-down Christmas tree trend took off when Ariana Grande posted hers to Instagram in 2018, with the explanation that “sometimes life just be upside-down.” But this isn’t a new invention by the pop princess; it’s an Eastern European Christmas tradition dating back hundreds of years. Today, in southern Poland, many families still dangle a spruce tree from the rafters and hang some of its boughs on the wall.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to work out how to hang an upside down tree to your ceiling. Upside down Christmas trees on stands are available online from multiple retailers. Aside from looking cool, an upside down tree gives you more floor space for presents and raises your favourite decorations to eye level. If you want to tap into more Polish traditions, decorate your tree with yummy treats like chocolate, gingerbread, nuts and dried fruit. But hold off on the snacking: traditionally these aren’t eaten until Boxing Day.
2. Feast of the Seven Fishes, East Coast USA
Looking for Christmas Eve dinner ideas? The Italian-American tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes takes festive indulgence to a whole new level. This meal consists of multiple courses – sometimes up to 13 – all containing seafood. The tradition came to America with southern Italian immigrants, who would abstain from meat until Christmas Day and hold vigils on the 24th for the midnight birth of Jesus.
For a traditional feast, visit your local Italian deli for some Baccalà (salt cod) and serve it with pasta, fried or in a salad. Because this is an Italian-inspired meal there should be a pasta course, such as linguine with clams. Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, deep fried shrimp and oyster shooters are a few more traditional dishes. For retro Christmas vibes, make sure and add some prawn cocktail in Marie Rose sauce.
3. Jolabokaflod, Iceland
The Jolabokaflod – Christmas book flood – refers to the Icelandic custom of giving people books as a gift on Christmas Eve. After opening their paperbacks, people spend the evening peacefully reading. Fresh pyjamas, a hot cocoa in hand and the fireplace channel on TV. It sounds like a lovely way to wind down this year.
Like many Christmas traditions around the world, this one comes from necessity. It began during WWII, when paper was one of the few things not rationed in Iceland – so everyone gave each other books for Christmas. Since it looks like travel restrictions will be in place for a few more months, why not get lost in a good book instead? Our list of 15 inspiring travel books should give you some idea of what to add to your Jolabokaflod wishlist.
4. Kentucky Fried Christmas Dinner, Japan
If you don’t want to plan a slap-up turkey dinner this year, take a leaf out of Japan’s book and order in instead. Specifically, get some fried chicken: millions of Japanese people eat KFC at Christmas, and the fast food chain has become synonymous with the celebration. It all started in the 70s, when Takeshi Okawara – the manager of Japan’s first KFC restaurant – felt a flash of inspiration after overhearing some expats complain that they missed eating turkey for Christmas dinner. He decided to offer special ‘Party Barrels’, launched a nationwide campaign, and the idea captured the hearts of millions.
Today, families order their Christmas meals from KFC well in advance – and Christmas sales account for a third of annual turnover for Japanese KFC restaurants. As well as fried chicken, the bundles include cake and wine. There’s even a dedicated Christmas KFC microsite where people can pre-order their meal. The majority of British KFC restaurants close on Christmas Day, but will be open with shorter hours on the 24th. Fried chicken for Christmas Eve dinner… why not?
5. Yule Goat, Sweden
Add some Scandi style to your décor this season with a Yule goat. These rustic ornaments are usually made from straw and bound with red ribbons. Lots of Christmas traditions around the world have their roots in pagan mythology and this is another. While some believe it’s a symbol of the harvest ending, some believe it comes from the days when people worshipped the Norse god, Thor, who rode in a chariot pulled by goats.
The yule goat has gone through many incarnations over the years, and in the 19th century he was even responsible for giving out gifts. Today, Santa has taken on that job and the yule goat gets to relax as a Christmas decoration. There are often huge ones erected in Swedish town centres – the most famous is the Gävle goat.
6. Pop another chipolata on the barbecue, Australia
Christmas down under falls right in the middle of summer, so it’s the Aussie tradition to have a festive barbecue on the beach. Obviously it’s not traditional in the UK to barbecue during winter, but this year has already been unconventional. If the weather is mild (and dry), fire up the grill – it’s likely to be a good laugh, and will get you out of the house for a little while.
You might need to pop on your jacket, but standing over the hot coals will help to keep you cosy. It might not be possible to cook the whole feast on a barbecue, but it will be fun to do some sides. Think about all the flavour it’ll add to your pigs in blankets.
Celebrate Christmas traditions around the world – without leaving home
Celebrating these Christmas traditions from around the world will give you an insight into new cultures, and will also add a bit of extra fun to your December. And after the year we’ve had, that’s definitely something we all need.
Christmas traditions around the world: FAQ
One person’s ‘weird’ is another person’s ‘normal’, and we have some pretty odd customs ourselves (anyone set fire to their Christmas pudding?) That said, there are a few Christmas traditions around the world that are a bit unusual…
1. The Krampus, Austria: the demonic looking Krampus wanders the streets looking for naughty children to punish. Way worse than a lump of coal in your stocking.
2. Tió de Nadal, Catalonia: children fill a hollow log with chocolate and sweets, and on Christmas Eve beat it with a pinata so that it ‘poops out’ the gifts.
3. Roller skate mass, Venezuela: during the festive season the roads in Caracas are closed off as people head to mass on roller skates.
Hundreds of countries have some form of celebration for the festive season, but when it comes to Christmas traditions around the world these destinations always spring to mind:
1. Germany: many of Britain’s Christmas customs were brought to the UK from Germany by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert – including decorating trees, sending cards and riding in a one-horse open sleigh. Today Germany is still famous for elaborate markets and festive treats like stollen and gluhwein.
2. Finland: Santa Claus lives in Lapland, in the north of Finland. During the festive season many package holiday companies offer short breaks to Rovaniemi to meet the big man himself. As well as visiting the real grotto and meeting his reindeers, guests get to ride across the Arctic Circle.
3. The USA: Americans take things to the next level, decorating the outside of their homes with lights. In city centres you’ll find incredible shop displays, massive trees and pop-up ice rinks. The USA is also responsible for many of our favourite festive films.
Yes. Christmas is celebrated around the world, and 160 countries have a public holiday on Christmas Day or 7 January. There are a handful of destinations where Christmas isn’t celebrated.
21 countries observe Christmas, but don’t have a day off for it: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cambodia, China, Comoros, Iran, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Thailand, Turkey, Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
Two countries have a day off, but for a different reason. In Taiwan, 25 December is Constitution Day, celebrating the anniversary of the 1947 ROC constitution, and in Pakistan it’s a public holiday in honour of the country’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
There are only 12 countries that don’t acknowledge Christmas at all: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bhutan, Libya, Mauritania, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tajikstan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Yemen.
Discover where you can go
Making plans to get back out there? Find out whose borders are open with our interactive global map, and sign up to receive email updates when your top destinations reopen.
Want to read more?
- Coronavirus travel advice – get the latest restrictions, recommendations and airline cancellation policies in this article (updated daily)
- Top winter sun destinations open for UK travellers – fancy Christmas on the beach? These sun spots are currently on the FCDO’s travel corridor list.
- What are the best Christmas markets in the UK and will they go ahead this year? – find out where to get your mulled wine, bratwurst and quirky handicrafts fix this season