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Friday, November 28, 2014

Christmas Traditions Around the World

Alisha McDarris

Christmas is a magical time of year. With the lights, trees, gift giving, carolers (well, there aren't so many of those anymore, but they're still out there), and holiday cheer, what's not to love about December? Ok, Ok, there's plenty not to love about December (three inches of ice on your windshield, salt caked on your boots, rising credit card bills...), but we try to ignore all that until at least January 2nd. Most of us are even willing to ignore the irritating eccentricities of our families for a few extra hours just because there are Christmas cookies stacked in inordinately profound piles all over the kitchen. And there's nothing wrong with that. A little extra goodwill toward men (including interrogative mothers, annoying second cousins and overbearing in-laws) is something we could all use at any time of year.

But have you ever stopped to think about where all those traditions came from or how the rest of the world celebrates the holiday? Check out some of the interesting origins of some popular (and not so popular) holiday traditions.


Photo by Christbaumschmuck | CC BY-SA 3.0

First of all, you can thank the Germans for gingerbread houses, nutcrackers (yes, those creepy wooden dolls that your weird Aunt Wilma collects) and the holiday centerpiece, the Christmas tree. These guys did all that first. But maybe the most interesting Christmas tradition to come out of Germany involves a glass pickle. Yes, you read that right. A glass pickle ornament is hung by mom or dad somewhere on the tree after the kids go to bed. On Christmas morning the first one to find it gets to open the first present (and as we all know, this opportunity is prized above all else on Christmas morning) and maybe a special treat, too. Strange, but you better believe this is happening at my house this year.


Photo by Jordiferrer | CC BY-SA 3.0

Religion is the basis for Christmas celebrations in Spain more than many other countries. In fact, you're likely to see prominently displayed nativities just about everywhere. However, we do have Italy to thank for the origin of 3-D nativity scenes, not Spain. And yeah, you've seen a nativity, but I bet you haven't seen one with Catalan's Caganer. Maybe it's sacrilegious, maybe it's just a fun gag, but in a lot of nativity scenes in this region you're likely to find a small gnome-like figure with his pants down (um, defecating) hidden somewhere around the manger. It must be a Spanish thing because some families also have a log that children "feed" and then hope will, um, pass candy and presents instead. Don't ask. I don't know.


Photo by Sandstein | CC BY-SA 3.0

If you ask any child who lives in Finland where Santa lives, they will gladly tell you it's right here on Mount Korvatunturi. Where else would he live with all those reindeer roaming around the country? But one tradition that I personally think we should start in the US is that of the Christmas Eve rice pudding breakfast and afternoon visit to the sauna. Delicious and refreshing!


Christmas, much like just about every other celebration in the country is yet another excuse to shower children with candy. Literally. Any excuse to break out the piñata, right? But really, who doesn't love beating a paper donkey until it's guts break open and scatter candy and cash? But really, this sounds like a great Christmas tradition to implement. Also, Poinsettias originated in Mexico before being brought to the US and made pretty much the official flower of Christmas.


"A Pot of Wassail" by Jeremy Tarling | CC BY-SA 2.0

Strange food is at the heart of many English Christmas traditions. Plum pudding (which has no plums in it, btw), mince pies and wassail are a few, and often enjoyed at tea time (except the wassail...that's a beverage that stands alone). Of course, you can also wassail as a verb, which is also a tradition that started in England. That's caroling, for those of you not well-versed in olde English. We can also thank the English for the first Christmas cards. Mistletoe also became popular in Victorian England, and while I love hanging the stuff in doorways around the holidays, I'm not sure how its place as a holiday staple got cemented since it's basically a plant parasite that latches onto trees and sucks the nutrient right out of the bark.


Photo by ABPend | CC BY-SA 2.5

The French know how to do dessert and Christmas is no exception. While the tradition of the yule log that families used to burn from Christmas Eve to New Year's day has pretty much gone out of style, a cake that looks just like it is still in vogue (and way more delicious). The kids also forgo hanging stockings and instead leave their shoes to be filled with treats and such.


So we're used to hanging glass bulbs, sparkly reindeer and multicolored lights on our Christmas trees, but in the Ukraine you'll also see decorative spiders and spider webs hanging from the branches. It stems from a classic Ukrainian legend, but who really needs an excuse to keep the Halloween decorations pumping?

Oh, there are definitely more, but these are our favorite. Know of some great ones we missed? Add them in the comments below!

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. [Portfolio]


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