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A Look at Popular Christmas Traditions Around the World

Looking to start a new Christmas tradition? Learn about some of the classic—and unusual—holiday celebrations from around the world.

Christmas traditions come in various forms—devoutly religious, entirely secular, sweet and fun, and downright menacing, in some cases. Whether you’re looking to eat, drink, and be merry or to motivate your kids to behave with the threat of a Christmas demon, there’s a tradition on this list for you.

Let’s explore some of the most interesting and unique Christmas traditions from around the globe.

Person dressed as Krampus with his horns on fire performs during the Krampus parade in Reutte, Austria
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In Austria, St. Nicholas is accompanied by an evil counterpart, Krampus. According to the lore, they visit children on December 5th for a reckoning of each child’s behavior. St. Nicholas awards tasty treats to good children, while Krampus punishes badly behaved children.

The exact details of Krampus vary based on who’s telling the story, although the general consensus is that the demonic creature is half-human, half-goat with cloven hooves, horns, and a long pointed tongue. He carries a large basket or bag (for stealing away badly behaved children to eat later), chains and bells (to thrash and jangle menacingly), and/or birch branches (to whip badly behaved children).

However, it’s not all demons and punishment in the Alps. Children submit their Christmas wish lists to Christkind (Baby Jesus, who is responsible for delivering presents in Austrian tradition rather than Santa or Father Christmas) by burning them in the fireplace.

Many Austrians decorate Christmas trees, sing carols, bake cookies, and visit picturesque Christmas markets, as well.

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Colorful lanterns in a Christmas market in Manila
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San Fernando is known as the Christmas Capital of the Philippines, and it lives up to the name both with its year-round Christmas-themed park and its Giant Lantern Festival (Ligligan Parul Sampernandu).

The festival has become incredibly popular, with members of 11 villages competing to create the most impressive star-shaped lanterns. 

When the festival officially started in 1931, lanterns were made with paper glued to bamboo frames with rice paste, but today’s technicolor lanterns feature enormous welded steel frames, plastic rather than paper, and thousands of tiny lights.

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Saint Lucy's Day choir celebrates the coming of Christmas
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In Sweden, the 43-ft.-tall Gävle Goat has been constructed out of straw each year since 1966 at the beginning of Advent, serving as a decorative centerpiece for the city’s Castle Square.

The Yule goat is said to be Santa’s preferred transportation method for delivering presents and/or is in charge of supervising festive preparations for the holiday.

Unfortunately, the Gävle Goat has been a target for arsonists since the tradition began, and has been destroyed or damaged by fire in 38 of the last 56 years, despite increased security, as well as fines and even jail time for perpetrators.

On a more delicious note, Swedes also celebrate Christmas with lussebulle, a traditional s-shaped sweet wheat bun flavored with saffron and raisins.

On St. Lucia’s Day (December 13th), young girls dress in white with one girl, playing the role of Lucia herself, wearing a crown of lit candles. They often sing carols in the community to spread some cheer.

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Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas specials advertised in Tokyo
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With a strategic 1974 ad campaign, KFC Japan cemented its fried chicken as the “perfect Christmas meal.” Strangely enough, this tradition has stuck around, and many families still eat KFC for Christmas dinner to this day.

In fact, the meal must be ordered well ahead of time due to high demand—a poor planner may have to stand in line for hours on Christmas Day to secure a bucket of boneless wings!

While Christmas is largely a secular novelty holiday in Japan, there are still dazzling displays of Christmas lights in Tokyo and many families exchange gifts.

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Illuminated Christmas Cat in Iceland
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Iceland has a full gamut of Christmas traditions and characters beginning with the Yule Lads, 13 troll-like characters who visit the homes of children each night of the 13 days leading up to Christmas.

Children leave their best shoes by a window, and based on their behavior that day, either receive candy or a rotten potato.

Next up is the Yule Cat, which is an enormous and vicious feline that eats alive those who have not received new clothing by Christmas Day.

The Yule Cat is meant as a good behavior enforcer, since Icelandic children are traditionally rewarded with new clothing for completing their chores and behaving nicely.

Assuming that they’ve survived the Yule Cat and haven’t had their shoes filled with rotten potatoes, on Christmas Eve, Icelanders open their gifts—many are traditionally books—and then spend the rest of the day reading them and drinking hot chocolate.

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Old wooden cuckoo clocks in a Christmas shop, Berlin, Germany
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In Germany, St. Nicholas travels the entire country via donkey to deliver small treats to children on Nikolaus Tag (December 6th). Similar to the Yule Lads, St. Nicholas leaves these goodies in kids’ shoes.

However, St. Nicholas sometimes brings along his devilish counterpart, Farmhand Rupert. While not quite as terrifying as Krampus, Rupert wears dark clothing covered in bells and brandishes a stick or whip meant for badly behaved children.

Germany also boasts some of the most stunning and popular Christmas markets in the world, with billions of Christmas lights, gift shopping opportunities galore, live entertainment, and copious glühwein (a delicious hot mulled wine) for the adults.

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Christmas Market in Oslo, Norway selling traditional food and crafts
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Norway is home to some stunning Christmas markets as well, but the country has a couple of unique traditions besides.

First is risalamande, which is a creamy rice pudding dessert often served with a delicious fruit sauce after the Christmas Eve dinner feast.

Sounds yummy, but here’s the fun part: The cook hides a single whole almond in the pudding and whoever discovers that almond wins a prize!

Then, after dessert, Norwegians hide all the brooms in their homes in the safest possible location, to prevent the witches who are said to come out on Christmas Eve night from scoring a new flying ride.

License these images via Malin_82, Alex Cimbal, and Lutic.

With so many different delicious, comforting, and sometimes terrifying customs surrounding Christmas, spice up your holiday season with a new tradition this year.

Personally, I’d go for some tasty treats rather than a giant, murderous cat!

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