Holiday Traditions From Around the World to Try With Your Family

Even if you're not in Rome, you can still do as the Romans.

My family hasn't lived in Germany for nearly two centuries. However, we're still celebrating St. Nicholas Day every December 6, with stockings filled with candy and small gifts—the perfect kickoff to the holiday season. And odds are, you may also include a family tradition or two that's been passed down for generations. But if you're looking for a few new traditions to add to your repertoire, consider some of these holiday ideas from around the world to make the season even more festive.

Extra Holidays

Look for more reasons to celebrate in December and January—with a few new holidays from around the world.

  • Hannukkah - Hanukkah changes dates every year, but runs from November 28 through December 6 this year, providing eight days to celebrate with small gifts, candle lighting, and special Hannukkah-inspired treats.
  • St. Nicholas Day - St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6 in many countries, but on December 19 in places that follow the Julian calendar, such as Ukraine. It's usually a day where small gifts or stockings full of candy and treats are given out.
  • St. Lucia Day - Sweden celebrates St. Lucia Day on December 13, when children wear white, carry candles, and provide sweet treats for their family members.
  • Winter Solstice - Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, December 21, and is celebrated in countries around the world. In Japan, it's traditional to enjoy a hot bath laced with yuzu (a citrus fruit) on the solstice, to help ward off colds and flu.
  • Little Christmas Eve - Norway's "little Christmas Eve" takes place on the 23rd, a time to gather with just your immediate family and do something fun like craft gingerbread houses.
  • Kwanzaa - Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration, which stretches from December 26 through the new year, where families light candles each night and exchange handmade gifts.
  • Three Kings Day - And in countries like Venezuela and the Philippines, the day of the Reyes Magos (i.e., Three Kings) on January 6 is a big day of celebration, with gifts and feasting.

Santa Alternatives

It seems like parents worldwide like to use unusual holiday-themed stories to keep their kids in line.

  • Elves - Iceland has 13 mischievous elves who provide treats or rotten potatoes, depending on a child's behavior.
  • Krampus - In Germany, Austria, and Hungary, there's Krampus, a demon-like creature who steals back gifts or even kidnaps kids who misbehave.
  • La Befana - Italian kids don't look for Santa Claus, but La Befana, the old witch who provides goodies to good children.

Decorating Options

Change up how (and when) you decorate your Christmas tree this year. You can also opt for an alternative Christmas tree.

  • Last Minute Christmas Tree - In Austria and Germany, the Christmas tree isn't put up until the morning of Christmas Eve—and then the kids aren't allowed in to be wowed until that evening when they can take in the full, magical event.
  • Ornament Ideas - Some unique adornments you can add to your tree include straw Yule goats (Sweden), woven paper hearts (Denmark), spider-web ornaments (Ukraine), or pickle ornaments (Germany)—the first child to spot the pickle gets a small gift or the honor of getting to open the first Christmas gift.
  • Candle Arrangements - Multi-candle arrangements are the centerpiece of Jewish and African American celebrations, with the eight-candle menorah for Hanukkah and seven-candle kinara for Kwanzaa.

Traditions From Around the World

There are plenty of fun ways to celebrate and get ready for the season.

  • Dreidel - Dreidel, a game played with a top, is an essential part of the Hanukkah festivities (and a great way for kids to earn gelt, or chocolate candy shaped like coins).
  • Books - In Iceland, people exchange gifts of books on Christmas Eve, then everyone snuggles up with their new books and some chocolate to enjoy the day.
  • Light a Candle - The Irish light a candle in their window to welcome guests, night and day.
  • Treat-Filled Shoes - In the Netherlands, Germany, and many other countries, kids put out their shoes to be filled with treats, in lieu of stockings.
  • House Cleaning - The Japanese give their house a good cleaning in the lead-up to New Year's Day to get a fresh start in the new year.

Holiday Menu

Sampling a dish (or a few!) from different cultures could make your holiday celebration a little more exciting.

  • Fried Plantains - In Central and South American countries, Hanukkah festivities often include fried plantains in lieu of the traditional potato pancakes called latkes, while Indian Jews might serve barfi, a dessert of milk and fruit. Fried dough is also a big part of the festivities, whether you opt for the sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) like Israel, Morocco's orange-scented doughnuts, or the balls of fried dough laced with honey that are served in Italy.
  • Dumplings - Dongzhi, a Chinese festival for the Winter Solstice, involves eating dumplings or tangyuan, glutinous rice balls that are served in a sweet or savory soup.
  • Oysters - The French participate in a midnight feast on Christmas Eve called Reveillon, which includes decadent options like foie gras and oysters—though if those aren't your cup of tea, some parts of France opt for 13 desserts, including candied fruit, marzipan, and a Buche de noel (Yule log cake).
  • Fish - In Italy, there's La Vigilia, a meat-free, seafood-heavy meal that's become popularized as the "Feast of the Seven Fishes" here in the U.S.
  • Fried Chicken - A savvy marketer 50 years ago convinced the Japanese that Americans ate Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas—and KFC is popular there for Christmas celebrations.
  • Pudding - In Portugal, people eat a small Christmas Eve meal called Consoada, with dishes like salted codfish with potatoes, and a variety of puddings. The food and dishes are left out overnight to feed the spirits of departed loved ones if they visit that night.
  • Tamales - Tamales are the Christmas dish of choice in Costa Rica and Mexico, and spiced hot chocolate is a Peruvian favorite.
  • Fruit Cake - Sweets are a big favorite, too, with Italians and Peruvians both serving panettone, a fruit-laden cake (not to be confused with the English fruitcake). Sweet rice pudding is popular in Denmark.
  • Curry - Kwanzaa began in the U.S., but the menu usually draws from a family's traditions—whether that means curries from Africa, creole food, or Ethiopian dishes like injera.
  • King Cake - In many parts of South America, a king cake is served on Epiphany (January 6), with a small treat or trinket baked into one piece—and whoever finds it gets good luck (and perhaps an extra gift).
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