What do Christmas traditions look like across the world?
There are many wonderful celebrations that are held around this time of year, whether that’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or something else - there’s lots of joy to be had! This blog looks specifically at Christmas and what that means and looks like in many different countries. Whether you love the exciting build up to the day filled with Christmas parties and advent chocolates, the food is what you look forward to most or you’re a sucker for giving and receiving gifts - there’s usually a little bit of fun to be had by everyone.
We are a global agency network of over a dozen agencies, active in over 25 different countries, from Spain and Germany to the US and Japan. We asked the teams we work with about their Christmas traditions. Here is our summary of some of the key differences and similarities between markets that we’ve found particularly interesting.
For most markets, there will be a ‘fantastical figure’, typically known as Santa but other markets have figures called:
- Christkind for Southern and Western Germany
- Santa Lucia for some areas of Italy
- Ded Moroz for Russia
- Jule Nisser in Denmark
The premise of a fantastical figure is largely the same however - they exist to bring gifts to the children. For many countries there is a buildup of excitement around what presents they are going to receive which results in children running around the house frantically to open them very early in the morning.
Gift giving days
Gift exchange days vary depending on the country, whilst it typically falls around 24th/25th December for many, including the UK, Spain and Italy. Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany celebrate Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) on December 5th and usually exchange gifts at this time. Sometimes, more gifts will be shared on Christmas day but in Belgium and the Netherlands particularly, fantasy stories about a ‘Santa’ on the 25th aren’t that common!
On the night of the 5th December in Germany, children clean and polish their shoes / boots and leave them outside their door before going to sleep. The next morning they find their shoes filled with sweets, nuts, oranges and other small gifts from St Nicholas. For Russia the celebration around this time of year is less around the 25th and more around New Years as they follow the Orthodox calendar - so this is when gift exchange would occur for them. Some Spanish families also celebrate the Three Kings with gift giving over 5th/6th January although this is less commonplace than a Christmas celebration in December.
In Japan, Christmas could be described as being more similar to an American Valentine's Day movie from the 80s crossed with a birthday party rather than anything we’ve already spoken about. They eat birthday cake in celebration of Jesus’ birthday and couples go on a date on the 24th. Whilst Christmas is not their usual tradition, they like to enjoy the day by hosting parties, eating good food, meeting up with family and going shopping - so when you break it down like this, not too dissimilar after all!
Some differences appear in the market's eating habits around the holiday. For example, Germany, who on Christmas Eve, have a simple dinner to represent the end of lent (in ancient Christian tradition, lent runs from November 11th - December 24th) such as carp, because fish is the symbolic Lent food. (The most popular modern dish in Germany is now potato salad with sausages). Italy also tends to have a big Christmas Eve meal which is fish based, but for both Italy and Germany, Christmas day dinner will usually revolve around the meat! In the UK, Christmas day revolves around a Christmas lunch that is typically a warm turkey roast dinner. On Boxing Day in the UK, many people eat cold ‘leftovers’ from the day before - lots of cold meat in baguette rolls, sausage rolls and other party food!
As the USA celebrates Thanksgiving with a large turkey meal only a few weeks before Christmas, they typically eat ham and goose for their Christmas dinner, with apple pie and ice cream as one of the most common desserts!
There are also some differences and very market specific traditions around activities done, games played and things watched around the holiday period. In very Canadian style, a lot of families will watch ice hockey as they gather on Boxing day. In Russia, most families will watch The Irony of Fate - a 1976 Soviet romantic comedy film - on New Year’s Eve.
Whilst there are similarities across countries regarding Christmas celebrations - when and how certain activities occur are where the key differences lie but all like to get together with family, have a nice meal and exchange gifts. I particularly enjoy the focus that all markets put on eating lots of amazing food!